Sunday, October 26, 2008

Georgetown Bach Chorale : Violin & Piano : October 24, 2008

On Friday night, I went to see the opening concert of the Georgetown Bach Chorale's 2008/09 season; a selection of pieces from the baroque, classical, and romantic periods arranged for solo violin and piano. It was one of the best live music experiences I've had to date.

The venue : Knox Presbyterian Church
First of all, I'm glad I looked up the address of the church before I left. I had somehow planted it in my head that this church was just north of Mill St. on Hwy. 7, but it's actually right by the library on Main St. I now know the Hwy. 7 church to be a United Church. These two locations are pretty close to each other, so it's not a big problem, but... still, it's nice to know where you're going. I go past this church so often that I can't believe I didn't know what it was called!

This church is very impressive. It's quite a small church, but the interior was notable. I haven't sat in a more comfortable building in a very long time. By comfortable, I'm not talking about the chairs, which were just wooden benches as you normally see in churches. I mean that the interior was just so perfectly proportioned to human scale and acoustically-treated that I was sitting in the middle of the room without much around me and it felt more comfortable than my own house! This is clearly a church that was built when buildings were built for people and not architects.

During the concert, the excellence of the acoustics was even more apparent. I haven't been in many different churches for comparison, but it had perhaps some of the best acoustics I've ever heard. On the other hand, the audience and hall were so small that no amplification was needed -- it was the instruments alone. Amplification adds its own set of challenges to good acoustics.

An audience make-up always interests me, as some of my previous concert notes probably show. In this case, the audience was mostly older people; more seniors than even middle-aged people. Except for a couple of children at the front, I think I was the youngest person in there. The pub down the road was more attractive entertainment for younger people, it seems. This is kind of sad, but I'm not really surprised, though given the choice between pretending that I've got the ornate culture of 18th and 19th century Europe and pretending that I've got the culture of an English/Irish mucker who doesn't know what to do with himself at the end of the day, I'd rather pretend about the former. It was nice to see that a couple of parents took their young children to something like this, though.

The music
The music was performed entirely on a single baby grand piano and a single violin and came from a variety of composers, including Mozart, Liszt, and Brahms. The complete programme is shown above. The guest violinist, Conrad Chow, was incredibly good, as was Ron Greidanus on piano and they complemented each other very well. I've never seen anything like it live -- in such a small venue while also a venue of high acoustical quality. I've heard plenty on well-recorded baroque and classical CDs and this recital was evidence that recordings will never come close to the live experience for this type of music. I don't really feel qualified to comment further on the specifics, but I'll just leave it by saying that I've never been as engaged at a concert before, and I was not expecting to have a reaction like this.

I had only bought a ticket for one of the shows in the 2008/09 series, but after what I saw that night, I went and got tickets for three more of the shows*, held at various area churches over the coming months. I can't wait to see more from this great ensemble!

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* wow, I am going to be busy. On top of this, I have tickets for flamenco shows in November and January!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Ray LaMontagne : October 7, 2008 : Danforth Music Hall, Toronto : concert review

Last night, I went to the Ray LaMontagne concert at Danforth Music Hall. After a bit of a preamble, I'll write a bit about the concert!

When getting lost is a good thing
With the show at 8pm, I thought I could take the bus from Georgetown to arrive at Toronto Union at 7:35pm and take the subway over to Broadview, which is right by the music hall. I'd never taken the bus from the GO station to Toronto before (although I've taken the return trip). I thought it would be pretty straightforward, so I memorized a few times and that I had to change buses at Brampton station, and left it at that. So, I got on the bus that looked it was going in the right direction to Brampton's bus terminal and got off to go and have a look for the one that was meant to go to Union. Didn't see it, so I asked inside the station and he said that it should be right around the corner. Going back around the corner, I saw the bus I'd just got off of and a sign on the platform saying that the buses that stop there go to York Mills and to Union. So, I got back on the same bus. A long uninterrupted trip later, I ended up at the end of the route -- at York Mills, rather than Union! I think the bus to Union must have been arriving right behind the one I got on, and I'd got on the wrong one. Anyway, panic was short because I saw the subway sign at York Mills. I ended up taking the subway south on the Yonge line and got to the music hall 20 minutes before I would have if I'd taken the GO to Union and the subway back up!

Aggression at the TTC
I don't normally take the subway, but it's cheaper to buy tokens than cash and they're handy to have around for those occasional quick trips around the city once in awhile, so I bought tokens. After exchanging money and getting three different types of change and my tokens back, I absent-mindedly started to wander through the gate toward the subway when the guy behind the glass started screaming at me because I was clearly about to not put one of my new tokens in the fare box. I suppose he thought I was trying to scam a free ride. The outburst from the guy behind the glass was the kind of outburst you normally get from homeless people on the street, accusing me of all kinds of unrelated things! I'd heard about the bad manners of these incredibly well-paid TTC attendants ($20+ per hour to dispense tokens and change) before, but this was beyond my expectations!

Yes, yes... but what about the concert?
I am just getting to that.

Opening act: Leona Naess
I hadn't heard of Leona Naess before, but apparently she is already reasonably well-known. Although she was well received by much of the audience, a significant piece of the audience-to-be was also passively quite rude, which I've explained in an "Etiquette" section near the end of my post.

She played a very downtempo set which occasionally sprung to life, and was cut through with some sharp acoustic guitar at times. I was reminded of a number of other artists at various points throughout the songs -- sometimes within a single song. Jewel's early folk style came to mind occasionally, as did Natalie Merchant (more frequently), Kate Walsh, and Camera Obscura. I was even reminded of what I like to call the "power bleat" used by Coldplay's Chris Martin at times.

Another one of the impressive things about the opening set was the amount of mileage that the drummer got from his very minimal set of drums. In fact, the entire band managed to squeeze out a rich sound, despite the relatively meagre resources.

When I saw Sarah Slean at the very same hall a few months ago, I came away liking the opening act (Royal Wood) more than the main event herself, but it wasn't the case this time (and the audience reaction, though positive for both, clearly agreed). But, I found enough to like that I may go looking for a CD.

The main event
Ray LaMontagne came on stage and began the show quite quickly, entering straight into his first song -- a new one from his forthcoming album, "Gossip In The Grain". What an amazing sound this new song had! It was incredibly tight, instantly hit you with some of the more powerful aspects of his rather unique voice, and was just an incredible way to open the show.

The concert was mostly made up of new material, which I was happy about, but he did play some of the best of his older repertoire -- "Trouble", "Three More Days", "Empty", among many others. I'm very enthusiastic about the new material and am anxiously awaiting the release of the album next week. I think he must have great creative control with his material, because every time he grows, it's genuine growth that takes everything that was good about his prior work and pushes it forward with improvements from the same category that made you appreciate his older work to begin with.

Ray stood off to the side of the stage, not really facing the audience. Much of the time, he was in silhouette or low-light from the side. Actually, I rather liked this configuration because you were able to see a lot more movement than you would have seen head-on (and he did move a lot within a confined space, and more vertically than horizontally -- in fact, his movement contributed a lot to the sound because of the effect it had on the vocal styling and dynamics). The entire band formed a semi-circle, with him at one end. An interesting effect here is that the music was the main event and not the performer. It was a comfortable type of modesty -- the type that allows you to come to your own conclusion about the material without being influenced by the theatrics of the performer.

The contrast between his shy and quiet demeanour and the incredible passion and feeling in the way he performs is quite striking. It's hard to reconcile the two images, but you don't need to. Just leave it alone. The fact that he reserved outside of the music allows the music to come straight to the front and be received on its own terms. Isn't that what it's all about? In the end, you're left thoroughly impressed by the talent without being led in any way by anything other than the music itself.

After a couple of encores that he really made people wait for (this isn't a complaint!), he concluded the show with a very good version of "Jolene", which was shouted as a request a number of times from the audience throughout the show, and he seemed to leave the stage unable to express how he felt about the response he received. Actually, the response he received was the most genuinely positive I have ever seen at a live concert. Everyone was on their feet to applaud him at the end, and it wasn't one of those standing ovations where the crowd pops up like a faulty chain of dominoes falls down -- stilted and interrupted with stragglers in the chain that are begrudgingly stand up because they don't want to feel anti-social. Everyone meant it this time.

It was an excellent show that everyone involved put a lot of heart and soul into.

Concert etiquette
A few comments on etiquette in general at the show, though... mostly to do with pre-show etiquette during the opening act. Ray received the utmost respect when he was on-stage.

What is going on with concert-goers these days? The pre-show etiquette at this show was terrible! First of all, it was a sold-out show that ultimately filled all of its seats but only half (if that) of the seats were occupied when the opening act came on stage. About 75% of the remaining chairs were filled in during the opening act. In the interim, there was constant loud chattering coming from the foyer during most of the opening act -- plenty of people had arrived on-time but decided to have a drink and a chat outside of the hall while they waited for the opening act to get it out of the way! Some of them did come and have a gander, causing all kinds of disruption in seating as they tried to find their way in the dark. This is manageable when one or two stragglers come in, but not when half of the audience hasn't yet made it! In my aisle seat, I had three different people interrupt me to come up and ask me what row I was in during the opening act so that they could, in the dark, better find where they were meant to be seated.

When the opening act was over and the lights came on while they reconfigured the stage for Ray, all kinds of people found out they were actually in the wrong seat. Lots of them were heard blaming the seating configuration, despite the fact that nobody who came in on time had problems finding their seat.

I've seen this type of behaviour before, but always in stadiums, usually with teenagers, and never in a medium-sized concert hall filled mostly with grown adults. Actually, what it reminded me of precisely was the laissez-faire attitude that people have toward trailers at the movie theatre, wandering in and out during the trailers as they realize they didn't buy enough popcorn, playing video games outside for an extra few minutes because the movie didn't start yet, anyway; or just milling about as if they're not sure they want to sit down yet. A pre-recorded movie is one thing, but when a live performer with a receptive audience is on stage, it's something else to cause such an interruption.

Another thing: cameras. I was searched coming into the building because I had a small backpack with me, and I was asked if I had a camera, which I didn't. During the concert, all kinds of cameras were going off. A lot of times you got a flash right in your face because people were taking pictures of themselves with the flash pointed backwards toward themselves. Rather than searching people for cameras and confiscating them, and especially now that cell phones have cameras (I did have a cell phone with a camera on me, but the bag-searcher was looking for something bulky), how about simply asking people not to use cameras? This worked at Carnivale Lune Bleue, although I suppose people realized that a flash going off during a sword swallowing might be gravely distracting. But it worked in the main bigtop event, too. I didn't see a single camera flash go off, and no bags were searched.

Overall, though, this was one of the best concerts I've ever been to!

Here's a clip (not of this show):

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Beetroot talk (me about them, not me to them or vice versa)

You can't live on beetroot. I'm sure many vegetarians have died trying, though you'd probably get sick of life and kill yourself before malnutrition did it for you, but beetroot do have a necessary place in life.

One thing that beetroot needs to be partnered with in marriage in order to be somewhat pleasant is something that holds its shape, and is something that's acidic or something sweet (preferably both). An apple fits this description but isn't quite acidic enough. So, I've found that judicious use of vinegar makes up for this. And, to this, adding olive oil, goat's cheese (to be vegetarian is one thing, but I don't tolerate vegans), salt, and pepper can hold hands with the beetroot quite handsomely.

The last time I tried something with beetroot this past weekend, I inadvertently smoked my beetroot when the amount of water I used to steam the rather large roots was judged insufficient by the smoke coming from the residue burning on the bottom of the pan when the pan ran dry right near the end of the steaming time. The smoke added a new and positive dimension of flavour (the beetroot didn't burn, they were simply submersed in mild smoke for about a minute), but I also added some Jerusalem artichokes since they are the only vegetable that tastes anywhere near as earthy as beetroot while complementing the taste and having a slightly different texture.

Cleaning a burned stainless steel pan is quite easy: boil vinegar in it for a few minutes and the crust pretty much flakes or falls off. The underside of the base of the pan didn't clean so well, but these aren't decorations -- they're for cooking!

The beetroot salad turned out well: beetroot, Jerusalem artichokes, olive oil, goat's cheese, a Gala apple, salt, pepper, fennel, and malt vinegar. I'm not going to type out a recipe because this is the kind of thing you do by ear and tongue (mostly the latter). I added different ingredients and varied and adjusted until it tasted right. It gave me three lunches this week and, each time, I seasoned it with a few splashes of malt vinegar to put some sharp edges on it.

What does it taste like? It tastes like a used bookshop. If you could eat a used bookshop, this is what it would taste like. And when you bite a piece of the apple, it's like wandering into the corner of the shop where sunlight still shines through the cloudy, weathered window.

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