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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 14, No. 1, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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music reviews by




Andrew Hlavacek is a film reviewer, arts and culture critic, and blogger.


MAR. 4 -- MIXED MESSAGES, Betty Bonifassi’s Chansons d’esclaves, chansons d’espoir, at L’Astral
Once you hear the voice, you cannot forget it; you cannot mistake it for another. That one’s voice becomes a trademark, a stamp of authenticity, is perhaps one of the greatest compliments to be paid a vocalist. Betty Bonifassi has such a voice. Filled with unbridled power, raw emotion and great range, the singer has long been recognized for her voice and for her creative collaborations at home and abroad. Last Saturday’s performance at L’Astral on closing night of Montréal en Lumière -- La Nuit Blanche -- showcased Bonifassi’s latest solo endeavour, Chansons d’esclaves, chansons d’espoir, which seeks to reinterpret early slave songs.

The album is inspired by the pioneering work of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who amassed a seminal archive of American, European and Caribbean folk music. Alan followed in his folklorist and musicologist father, John A. Lomax’s footsteps, who spent much of his academic career in the early 1910s travelling across the Deep South recording folk music of marginalized communities, black and white alike. His recording of the chants of black prison chain gangs -- as yet unaffected by jazz and blues due to their isolation -- seemed most closely to resemble early slave songs, and forms an important contribution to modern understandings of the roots of blues, gospel and soul.

Backed by a trio of musicians -- a power bassist, rock drummer and keyboardist/DJ -- Bonifassi aimed to perform a breakout show that marked a departure from her earlier projects. While the acoustics of L’Astral should have been perfect for her propos, the venue proved entirely insufficient for the powerful sound the band unleashed. Though well played, the over-amplified, distorted lead bass along with the heavy percussion ensured that any other instrumentation except Bonifassi’s strong vocals would be lost in the wall of sound.

Subject matter and delivery therefore made odd bedfellows. While Bonifassi’s album purports to pay homage to the power and endurance of songs of suffering, her reinterpretation took 'power' as her main cue. The music itself delved into elements of funk, hip hop and even punk creating an angry edge that drowned out the truly primal, stoic, power of her vocals. Many numbers began with solo vocals and very simple, almost mantra like rhythms, which were then overlaid by a variety of genres, seemingly applied without much reflection.

In her introductions, Bonifassi demonstrated deep understanding and appreciation of her subject matter. She mentioned texts she had read and source material she had listened to that formed the basis of her project. In her vocals, also, she demonstrated the slow steady rhythm punctuated by the deep suffering and resilience of what could have been Negro voices singing in the fields. The essence of these songs was there in the voice and expression, vividly evoked and boldly presented. This made the performance all the more confusing, as though she had lost her direction, perhaps slipping into more familiar patterns that define her past work. The show became, in essence, a master class on the difference between theory and practice. Unperturbed by the contradictions displayed in the performance, the audience mostly seemed to get what they paid for: a powerful, energetic rock show of a Betty Bonifassi they know and love.

Ultimately, Betty Bonifassi’s most recent work is one of reinterpretation not paraphrasing. As such, she is free to interpret as she pleases and, obviously, she pleased a great deal. There were many factors that contributed to the problems with the performance, not least of which were, the venue and sound engineering. Distilled down to core elements, Saturday’s performance amply demonstrated Bonifassi’s ability to tap deeply into her source material and vocalize its power and rhythms. Unfortunately, many other factors then diluted and diffused this essence so that only a very tenuous link remained. Sometimes -- very often indeed -- less is ever so much more.


MAR. 4 -- BEING HARRY MANX, Harry Manx Solo at Le Gèsu
Le Gèsu is a funny place. It feels like a church basement, because it actually is one. With the severe mass of the imposing Jesuit church above, perpetually present through its massive supporting stone pillars planted in the amphitheatre and flanking the stage, it is definitely a unique venue. It also could not have been a better venue for the ineffable Harry Manx who visited this year’s Montréal en Lumière for a solo performance.

Manx took the stage with unassuming humility and took up his favoured Mohan veena without much fanfare. This modified 20-string Archtop guitar was invented by his teacher, Indian slide guitar legend, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. It is Manx’s core instrument and speaks to a lifetime of experience and learning. Manx is, above all, a widely renowned slide guitarist and blues artist whose work is informed by years spent living in India and studying its classical music.

This blend of traditions may, at first, seem unlikely. However, both express at once, deeply personal and universal, lived experiences of the beauty and ugliness of the world. Anchored jointly by the blues and Indian raga -- a core form of classical Indian music -- his music intertwines these to create poignant, contemplative and sincere music.

Manx has the stage presence of a master yogi. Though not in any way verbose, he does enter into short monologues about himself and his music. He lovingly introduced his guitars over the course of the first few numbers as if the artist was merely a conduit for the potential of the instrument. In between numbers, he also read out questions sent to him by fans and answered with witty humorous anecdotes, which often touched on the philosophical.

This solo show was obviously an event Montréal fans had been waiting for and Manx did not disappoint a mostly middle aged audience perfectly tuned to his musings and dry wit. Choosing crowd pleasers from a variety of albums with only a few instrumentals, Manx made sure to pay homage to heroes J.J. Cale, with his excellent rendition of “Tijuana,” and an absolutely mesmerising “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane.

Though relatively short, spanning some 90 minutes including a reasonably lengthy intermission and two encore songs, the evening felt like a communion between Manx and his audience. While nominally touring in support of his new work, 20 Strings and the Truth, the performance seemed anything but promotional. Manx honoured his audience by taking them on a musical journey of his oeuvre with a respect and reverence for the music and the life experience that informs it.


Molière, like Shakespeare, is perfectly suited to reinterpretation. Though systems change along with ideologies, human nature remains, often working to confound and explode our more 'refined' pretensions. And so Molière, like the Bard, mercilessly satirizes our essential humanity, drawing out the eternal paradoxes that resonate across the ages, whether at a royal court, a parliament house or a dinner party at the in-laws’.

Enter one of Molière’s great anti-heroes: Alceste (François Papineau). Sickened by the moral failings of the French aristocracy, he lashes out against politesse, insisting on utter frankness as a salve for the hypocrisy of others. He longs for a nobler world where truth, genuine affection and honesty reign. In short, he drives himself to distraction by the faults of others without necessarily examining his own too closely.

The core of Molière’s comedy lies in the complex courtship of Célimène (Bénédicte Décary) who is the object of Alceste’s affection. Though he worships and adores her, Célimène’s tacit acceptance of, and participation in, élite Parisian society is as distasteful to him as is the presence of his rivals, Oronte (Stéphane Jacques), Acaste (Luc Bourgeois) and Clitandre (Frédéric Pierre). While he demonizes them for their vacuous hypocrisy and ulterior motives, his own are not so pure; he means to get rid of them out of jealousy and possessiveness. Hypocrisy becomes the white elephant in the room, which everyone but Alceste seems to accept.

The cast is very good indeed, with frequent flashes of brilliance. Nuanced delivery beautifully animates Molière’s verse and succeeds in imbuing the poetry with a conversational quality that is a joy to experience. Papineau and Décary are great in their lovers’ duels, with Décary often coming out on top with her range of expression. Regrettably, Papineau’s over-focus on Alceste’s anger tends to flatten his character in contrast with other cast members, who better evoke the more sinister dimensions of their characters. Stéphane Jacques’ Oronte shows glimmers of menacing malevolence that are a pleasure to behold. Likewise, Isabelle Vincent is very good as self-righteous Arsinoé and even better when she bears her fangs of envy and ill will. Luc Bourgeois plays the marquis Acaste with a deliciously self-assured petulance. It is understandable then, that David Savard’s overly subdued Philinte, and Frédéric Pierre’s all-too-phlegmatic Clitandre appear somewhat flat alongside other performances.

The Parisian salon is transposed to a luxurious loft in Montréal’s Old Port, whose inspired interior beautifully mixes styles to reference Louis XIV opulence within a sleek modernity. Consequently, set design and costumes make hilariously ironic statements that otherwise would have been lost in a period production. Finally, while pushing the comic aspects of Molière’s characters to the forefront, director Michel Monty never allows the comedy to devolve into farce thus creating razor-sharp satire that is ever so poignant. Together, Théatre du Rideau Vert and Michel Monty do Molière great justice. Do not
miss Le Misanthrope, which finishes its run on February 28th, 2015.


Emmanuel Ax, piano
Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15

Emmanuel Ax returns to Montréal to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor -- a work he first performed here in 1997 under the baton of Charles Dutoit. Thursday’s concert at La Maison symphonique was the third of a trio of concerts featuring Ax on solo piano, and also marked the inaugural evening of the Montréal en Lumière festival. The orchestra opened with an homage to Switzerland -- the featured country for the 2015 edition -- performing a bombastic Overture to Rossini’s William Tell, and following up with a beautiful interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Reformation” Symphony No. 5 in D minor. With no intermission separating the three pieces on the programme, the orchestra should be admired for their 60 minutes of near continuous performance.

Brahms’ veneration of Bach and Beethoven, in particular, is evident in the structure of his compositions especially in his virtuoso use of counterpoint. Though he is known as an innovator in the Romantic tradition of experiment with melodic and harmonic styles, his insistence on highly disciplined musical structures was often criticized by his contemporaries. Considered by many as one of the late 20th century’s eminent interpreters of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, Emmanuel Ax is recognized as having popularized the concerto in North America.

The 1st movement, Maestoso, seemed apprehensive at first, as if Maestro Nagano was wilfully holding the orchestra back. While the strings beautifully set out the brooding theme ahead of the piano’s entry, the early part of the movement seemed to trudge along like an impatient horse being bridled too hard. Surely the usually excellent solo horn and trumpet are not thrilled with themselves for faltering ever so slightly in their first meetings with Ax. These unfortunate details aside, it was at once evident that Ax is master of this concerto. His deft touch, almost too light in some places, was utterly confident, anticipating the orchestra with near impatience through the movement’s early sections. Ax’s sense of gravity and drama gave a slower, more contemplative note to the tumultuous opening. By mid-movement, however, pianist and orchestra appeared to have worked out whatever misgivings each had about the other and the thunderous finale was harmonious, and its dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble, captivating.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, the 2nd movement, Adagio, was an absolute triumph. Here the orchestra truly settled into its excellent form, matching note for note the virtuosity, subtlety and pacing of Ax’s piano. While the winds and horns had plenty of work all evening long, the strings were truly breathtaking in their interplay with the piano. Although tempo is often a matter of interpretation (within limits) the Adagio in Brahms’ No.1 lends itself towards over-interpretation with heavy-handed acceleration and deceleration at the end of phrases where piano and orchestra trade places of dominance. Ax and Nagano, on the other hand, held a disciplined tempo that carried the melodic themes over the breaks and changes, ultimately creating a sublime expressive arc from beginning to end.

For those unfamiliar with Brahms’ No.1, the Rondo: Allegro non troppo may be (in this reviewer’s opinion), one of the most interesting and powerful movements in all of Romantic music. It is in the last movement that Ax’s relation to the concerto as a whole became evident, at once resolving and putting into context the questionable tempo of the 1st movement. For Ax, it seems, the tempestuous nature of the 1st and 3rd movements needs tempering lest the music overwhelm both soloist and orchestra alike. The slower pacing of the Maestoso is therefore intended and helps establish a logic that preserves the integrity of the concerto as a whole. Ax and Nagano’s allegro continued the restrained dynamics of the inspired 2nd movement into the 3rd. This magnificently articulated tension was finally allowed to break in a spectacular and thrilling climax so richly deserving of the thunderous applause that exploded the instant the final notes died.



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