Review: London Symphonia renders a smouldering 19th-century love story

If the word “love” denotes deep affection, yearning and commitment, and if the word “story” means a series of events connected to a each other over a period of time, then the relationship between pianist Clara Schumann and composer Johannes Brahms was a love story indeed — one which may or may not have been consummated.

That was the mystery teased out by London Symphonia and its guest performers last night at Metropolitan United Church, under the baton of Saskatoon-based conductor Eric Paetkau.

Marion Adler
Marion Adler

The program, conceived by actor and singer Marion Adler (currently playing Grandma Elliot in the Stratford Festival’s extended run of Billy Elliot The Musical), stitches together the music of Schumann, her husband Robert Schumann, and Brahms in a way that tells a story of deep friendship, longing and undying commitment. Adler played the part of Clara Schumann; her husband, Stratford-based actor and director Scott Wentworth, read the lines penned by Brahms.

Only a handful of the dozens of letters exchanged between Schumann and Brahms survive. But the careful interspersing of text and music is an inspired way of relaying, to today’s audiences, a complex relationship more than century in the past. The extracts harken back to a time when desire, yearning and longing were essential elements of love and being in love; when instant gratification was uncouth and digital connectedness unimaginable.

Among the excerpts from Schumann were hints of satisfaction over the applause that greeted and stirred her in Vienna, but also the tedium that awaited her among the musically unwashed masses of Belgium. There were flashes of jealousy over “your new lady pupils.” She wrote of her deep appreciation for the music of her husband, Robert, and the depths of her sadness over his death, especially when “they bore him away.” She repeatedly yearned to see Brahms again, expressing ecstasy over his most recent compositions and, more practically, hoping that each of her seven children would, by the time they are 20, be able to earn their own livings.

From the pen of Brahms flowed frustration over his vocation (“It is really no fun to teach children”), the distance between himself and Clara (“Your portrait is looking kindly down upon me . . . I am thinking too much of you”) and the “kisses too intangible” between them. And as the concert drew to a close, Brahms’ declarations became ever more plain and direct: “I love you more than myself, more than anyone else.”

Orchestra and piano tied the letters together. London Symphonia played beautifully through all four movements of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90(though they were separated by the actors’ recitations), Variation I and Variation IV from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 9, and four sections from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a.

Augmenting those performances was the brilliance of pianist Stéphan Sylvestre, an associate professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University, who punctuated the Schumann-Brahms story with four of Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op. 99, as well as four selections from Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 20. Sylvestre’s performance of Variation V was a statement in itself about his virtuosity — absolutely thrilling.

The concert demonstrated — and validated — what London Symphonia sees as an important goal this season: the use of music, drama and spoken word to tell stories and explore contemporary themes, not in a didactic way, but through a playfulness and accomplished musicianship that stirs listeners’ spirits, engages their minds and prods their imaginations.

The evening’s printed program also included a prominent tribute to London Symphonia’s founding board chair, Paul Weaver, who passed away in May. Members of his family were in attendance. An online obituary is here.

London Symphonia’s next concert, Take Me to the Cabaret, is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Talbot Street Church.

Review: Titanic The Musical, the 2019 High School Project

Titanic The Musical
The 2019 High School Project
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Sept. 17-Sept. 28, 2019
Story and book by Peter Stone
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Andrew Tribe
Musical director Andrew Petrasiunas

Cast shot at media call on Sept. 17, 2019
The cast of Titanic The Musical in the Grand Theatre’s 2019 High School Project. Photo by Whitney South

In a 1998 interview with Contemporary Musicians writer Mary Kalfatovic, composer Maury Yeston explained that it was the positive aspects of what the Titanic represented that moved him to embark on writing the musical about the fated ship. Among those were: “1) humankind’s striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and 2) the dreams of the passengers on board: 3rd Class, to immigrate to America for a better life; 2nd Class, to live a leisured lifestyle in imitation of the upper classes; 1st Class, to maintain their privileged positions forever.

“The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character of the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage.”

To successfully portray such poignancy and tragedy would be a challenge for the most skilled stage actors, let alone high school students with limited lived experience: By the show’s intermission, the Titanic’s hull has already been breached. Act 2 is the extended process by which the ship’s captain, crew and passengers face their unsinkable ship’s demise and reckon with their imminent fates.

The London-area teens who bring this production to life are at their best when they’re imagining, dreaming, yearning, wishing — emotions with which they are well acquainted. The more subtle and complex demands of Act 2 — hubris, separation, regret, unfulfilled lives and the prospect of a death so near its saltiness can already be tasted — are less familiar to them and, consequently, less convincing.

There are occasional missed notes and dropped lines. But there are also standout performances and flashes of promise. Among them: Mikéla Marcellin as second-class passenger Caroline Neville, Max Webb Comor as first officer William Murdoch, Sarah Dennison as Titanic designer Thomas Andrews, Leyla Boyacigil as White Star Line chairperson J. Bruce Ismay, Clare Scanlon as first-class passenger Ida Straus, Carter Keane as first-class steward Henry Etches, Matthew deKort as stoker Frederick Barrett and Lauren Gillis as second-class passenger Alice Beane.

Bradley Amesse is sturdily measured and authoritative in his role as Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith, while Tanner Hamlin puts every ounce of energy he possesses into his role as bandmaster Wallace Hartley. And Daniel McKinnon, consigned to the more minor role of Harold Bride, the ship’s radio operator, telegraphs a firm command of his talents.

From media call on Sept. 17
Jack Crim and Lauren Gillis, both Grade 12 students at H.B. Beal Secondary School, portray second-class passengers Edgar and Alice Beane. Photo by Whitney South

This High School Project is ambitious and daring. It was a bold choice. Unlike many previous HSPs, this one has no signature tune, no song that patrons will walk out humming, and no ending that satisfyingly resolves any of the sub-plots within. The iceberg ends all. But this cast and crew meet those challenges without blinking. These students are ambitious, zealous and in firm possession of a story that is both inspiring and tragic — a success for director Andrew Tribe.

There is another layer to this production too. With the show’s run coinciding (inadvertently) with the global climate strike, the comparisons between the Titanic and the fate of Planet Earth are easily apparent. The students on stage will be forced to live through whatever climate legacy the rest of us leave them. Questions about the course we’ve set for the planet; the impacts of our carelessness, negligence and even recklessness; the impending collisions between our dreams and natural science; and whether there’s still time to change course, avoiding a cataclysm ahead — all of these come into focus. They are questions begging for answers, raised by a hard-working cast for whom some future consequence is already inescapable.

For another take on this show, see London Free Press journalist Dan Brown’s review here.

Belonging, revisited

On the eve of its new season, London Symphonia has posted a superb video from its concert titled Belonging: A Journey of Longing and Discovery, performed at Talbot Street Church in London, Ont., on Feb. 2. The segment runs a generous one hour and 11 minutes.

The concert featured London poet Najwa Zebian, with songstress Maryem Tollar and London Symphonia players, in a performance that blended Najwa’s poetry and texts with music by Léo Delibes, Astor Piazolla, original Arabic-influence songs by Tollar and Yalla Tnam Rima, a traditional Lebanese lullaby. Zebian and Tollar collaborated with London Symphonia composer-in-residence Scott Good to create a new song, titled Phoenix Rising, as part of the larger piece.

Conducted by pianist Good, the ensemble consisted of violinists Joseph Lanza and Andrew Chung, violist Marie-Eve Lessard, cellist Christine Newland, bassist Fil Stasiak, flutist Liesel Deppe, clarinetist Marie Johnson and percussionist Graham Hargrove.

Titanic The Musical prepares to set sail

In the spring of 2016, as Grand Theatre artistic director Susan Ferley was concluding her tenure, I asked Ottawa-based theatre writer Patrick Langston about the yardsticks by which ADs should be measured. What makes theatre ADs successful and how should we evaluate their contributions to their theatres and communities?

The resulting column listed a number of Langston’s criteria; among them, whether the AD had managed to develop “local theatre makers” (actors, designers, technicians, playwrights), especially young people, who could reinvigorate the local theatre community.

Over the course of 34 productions spanning 21 years, the Grand Theatre’s primary tool for achieving that goal has been the High School Project. Launched by Michael Shamata and nurtured by successive ADs Kelly Handarek, Ferley and Dennis Garnhum, the HSP has grown steadily in popularity and reach.

Like many previous productions, this year’s HSP is a formidable challenge. Titanic: The Musical premiered on Broadway in 1997, winning all five Tony Awards for which it was nominated, and has since toured worldwide. Like its namesake, it is a monumental piece of work that will pose a significant challenge to the 50 students in the cast, supported by another 20 students in production positions. The students come from 12 different schools within the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board. One student is home-schooled. By far the largest plurality of students (30!) hails from H.B. Beal Secondary School.

Illustrates blog post
Cast members of the 2019 High School Project appear at a media call for Titanic The Musical, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Whitney South

Titanic: The Musical officially opens at the Grand Theatre on Sept. 20 and runs through Sept. 28. It’s directed by Londoner Andrew Tribe, best known for his work as artistic director at Original Kids Theatre. Check back later for a brief review. A link to The London Free Press’s advancer on the show is here.

Previous HSP productions:
1998: West Side Story (May 7-16; Michael Shamata, director)
1999: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (May 14-22; Michael Shamata, director)
2000: Guys and Dolls (April 28-May 6; Kelly Handarek, director)
2001: Hello, Dolly! (April 10-22; Kelly Handarek, director)
2002: Oliver! (April 3-14; Susan Ferley, director)
2003: The Music Man (April 8-20; Susan Ferley, director)
2004: Fiddler on the Roof (April 14-25; Susan Ferley, director)
2005: Oklahoma! (April 5-17; Campbell Smith, director); The Sound of Music (Sept. 27-Oct. 9; Susan Ferley, director)
2006: Twelfth Night (April 4-8; Susan Ferley, director); West Side Story (Sept. 13-30; Susan Ferley, director)
2007: Romeo and Juliet (April 17-21; Susan Ferley, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 25-Oct. 6; Susan Ferley, director)
2008: Listen to the Wind (April 15-19; Andrea Boys, director); The Pirates of Penzance (Sept. 23-Oct. 4; Susan Ferley, director)
2009: As You Like It (May 5-9; Lee Wilson, director); Grease (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2010: Macbeth (April 6-10; Heather Davies, director); Anything Goes (Sept. 21-Oct. 2; Heather Davies, director)
2011: The Odyssey (April 5-9; Jeremy Smith, director); Footloose (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Heather Davies, director)
2012: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (April 24-28; Jeremy Smith, director); My Fair Lady (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2013: The Taming of the Shrew (April 23-27; Jack Grinhaus, director); Legally Blonde (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2014: The Importance of Being Earnest (April 22-26; Jamie Dunsdon, director); The Addams Family: A New Musical (Sept. 16-27; Susan Ferley, director)
2015: Much Ado About Nothing (April 21-25; Krista Jackson, director); Hello, Dolly! (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2016: Julius Caesar (April 12-16; Megan Watson, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Susan Ferley, director)
2017: Shakespeare: The Mixtape (April 6-8; Megan Watson, director); Evita (Sept. 19-30; Jan Alexandra Smith, director)
2018: Prom Queen: The Musical (Sept. 18-29; Dennis Garnhum, director)