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June 13, 2010

Toronto's Luminato Festival serves up provocative music-theater

Two things have impressed me each time I've visited Toronto -- how cool and inviting a city it is, and how the locals seem to delight in putting it down.

It still impresses me as a great place, what with the excellent Canadian Opera Company in its subtly splendid Four Seasons Centre (the 2006 opening of that house, with an imaginative production of Wagner's "Ring," is one among my fondest cultural memories of the past decade); the fine Toronto Symphony and its breath-of-fresh-air music director, city native Peter Oundjian; great museums designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and David Liebeskind; and the Luminato Festival, which drew me here this weekend.

This is the fourth annual festival, a 10-day adventure into creative ideas, encompassing world music, theater, visual art, dance, pop and classical. I confess the big Luminato draw for me this year is the chance to experience Rufus Wainwright's first and much-dismissed opera, "Prima Donna," which I'll see Monday night. I just couldn't resist.

Meanwhile, I've caught a couple of other music-theater pieces in the festival, both of them with

provocative content, both of them powerfully performed, and both of them problematic.

"Dark Star Requiem" is an ambitious work with a noble aim -- a theatrical oratorio recounting the awful chapter in the history of the human condition caused by the spread of AIDS. The work, with a libretto by Jill Battson and music by Andrew Staniland, traces the history of the disease through cultures and continents, referring along the way to specific persons and events, attitudes and controversies. The score calls for solo singers, chorus, percussion and three instruments -- a spare, but colorful, combination.

I expected to -- wanted to, even -- respond more deeply to the material. The subject matter is so important and so personal for so many of us who have lost friends or family to the disease over the decades. And given how little attention has been paid lately to the continued threat of the HIV infection, how much it seems to have faded from the public consciousness, the oratorio provides a valuable jolt out of complacency. But much of the text seems self-conscious, with attempts at humor thrown in awkwardly along the way. Much of the music struck me as rather remote, and some of it as a little too predictable (lots of percussive underlining of sung or spoken lines). It's all very deftly written, to be sure, just a little short on personality. 

There certainly were exceptional passages during Friday night's preformance, however. I especially admired the ironically lyrical movement titled "Beauty Mark," where a soprano (silvery-voiced Neema Bickersteth), trailing a long red fabric and slowly encircling another singer, symbolized advancing lesions on the body. And the writing for the string instruments got very colorful at times, with particularly telling wisps of sound for the cello that suggested vanishing lives and hopes.

The Gryphon Trio -- violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys, pianist Jamie Parker -- offered superb playing throughout, as did percussionists Ryan Scott and Mark Duggan. The vocal soloists, notably baritone Peter McGillivray, did admirable work. The Elmer Isler Singers handled the choral side of things with remarkable technical and expressive skill. Conductor Wayne Strongman held the preformance together masterfully.

The visual presentation of "Dark Star Requiem" was a bit heavy-handed here and there. but ultimately effective, from the sobering sight of the ensemble dressed in medical lab coats to the use of projections on long, thin scrolls at either side of the stage. The venue was a star of the evening it itself -- the Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall, a recent addition to Toronto's performance sites created by KPMB Architects, Sound Space Design and Anne Minors Performance Consultants. This oaken beauty, seating 1,100, boasts excellent site-lines and acoustics. It's a class act from all directions.

I headed to one of the city's old theaters the next night for a curious work about a serial killer starring John Malkovich. More on that anon.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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