03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tantalizing Tunes: A Fall Handful of Hit Performances

From Tchaikovsky to Broadway, Butterfly to Frankie Valli and Shalom, Toronto is truly alive with The Sound of Music!

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall

Ever since the grand opening of Koerner Hall my ears have been eager for the sounds of the symphony. On October 7th I enjoyed a night of Tchaikovsky at the impressive Roy Thomson Hall, where famed Russian conductor Maxim Vengrave led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 and Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique." I love arriving early and listening to the cacophony of warm up collide with the rising hum of voices and chit-chat in the audience. As I gazed around the room I was very pleasantly surprised to see a spattering of young adults in attendance, many on dates for the evening. Roy Thomson and the TSO have made significant strides as of late in attracting a younger, more varied audience and it certainly showed. For the first half of the program, Alexander Toradze mastered the piano with lightening fast fingers that barely had a chance to rest. While his playing was certainly impressive, I found the piano too loud at times and felt it detracted from the orchestra's fantastic performance. Despite this, the audience appeared to have adored it as they stood clapping long enough to command Vengrave and Toradze back out on stage twice, the two men appearing holding hands and smiling wildly with the obvious warmth of mutual respect and friendship emanating from them. After intermission my heart was immediately captured by Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" -- the performance was nothing short of exquisite. Vengrave, so clearly in his element, conducted the orchestra entirely from memory and in the absence of the piano, the sounds from the stage came together powerfully and seamlessly. "Pathetique" is one of Tchaikovsky's best known works, premiering only nine days before his death, and some say that this symphony reflects Tchaikovsky's own conviction that his death was surely imminent. Indeed, I really felt a sense of encroaching darkness at times, especially when long, sorrowful notes ran up against quick, furious bursts of sound, as if the notes themselves were attempting to fight off death. The third movement, Allegro molto vivace, ended with such impressive force that the audience couldn't help but clap, unable to contain themselves until after the fourth and final movement of the symphony. Vengrave immediately thrust his hand out behind him to silence the audience clapping in awe, and I felt saddened that the final applause didn't measure up. "Pathetique" doesn't end in a traditionally forceful way, instead ebbing and flowing into softer, quieter notes until nothing but silence is heard. Despite an applause that I personally felt didn't reflect the superb talent of both the conductor and orchestra, the entire night was unarguably a great success and enjoyed immensely by all.

For those who think an orchestra only plays classical music, think again! On Tuesday, October 13th I enjoyed a fun, lively and engaging night of songs from famous Broadway musicals such as Camelot and Oklahoma!, including a selection from my favorite movie of all time (which is based on the original musical), The Sound of Music. The performance was dedicated to Erich Kunzel (1935-2009), an American orchestra conductor whose relationship with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began nearly 35 years ago, and whose favorite song -- "Climb Every Mountain," came from The Sound of Music. The night's conductor was cheeky and charismatic Steven Reineke, who gave the audience a short little vignette about each musical before the orchestra played, accompanied by baritone Daniel Narducci, Toronto-bred tenor Colin Ainsworth and soprano Kathleen Brett. The performance was fun, animated and funny. Reineke told us that My Fair Lady was originally going to be called Lady Liza but that there was too much trepidation over the marquee announcing "Rex Herrington in Lady Liza," Brett playfully sat on the lap of one violinist during a sexy song she sung, and the handsome Narducci came running out on the stage mid-song in a grass skirt and mop on his head to plant a big kiss on the conductor's cheek and to dance around in his haphazard Hawaiian-inspired getup. While all the musical selections were great, the Sound of Music songs obviously stole my heart and were a perfect ending to this effervescent Pops concert.

Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

The clamor over Jersey Boys has been almost deafening, with The Toronto Star, National Post and The Globe and Mail nearly falling over themselves to praise this smash-hit production that's been extended again and again due to popular demand. Playing on the outskirts of town at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, a trek for regular theater-goers, Jersey Boys tells the story of "how a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks became one of the biggest American pop music sensations of all time." Filled to the brim with songs -- 34 different tunes in total -- Jersey Boys takes care not to lose the story amidst the music, after all, they're inextricably linked, and does a good job of showcasing the singing and acting talents of lead Jeff Madden (Frankie Valli), wise-guy Daniel Robert Sullivan (Tommy DeVito), maybe-I-should-start-my-own-band Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) and song-writer extraordinaire Quinn VanAntwerp (Bob Gaudio). As good as the show was, I can't say I loved it and I'm having a hard time understanding the level of acclaim this show was been bestowed with. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had grown up with the songs? Or perhaps the hype was so great that my expectations were simply too high. Jersey Boys makes for an undeniably enjoyable evening but for me, it's no must-see.

Shalom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears

Superbly talented Theodore Bikel is the sole star of Shalom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, a one-man show that tells the story of the Yiddish writer's remarkable life (1859-1916). Bikel, most famously known for his role in Fiddler on the Roof (which he's performed more than 2,000 times), must be admired for his courage to carry this performance that is, at times, somewhat slow-paced. Despite this, Bikel's songs in both Yiddish and English are delightful and it's hard not to be charmed, especially when he slips into the role of Tevye. I couldn't agree more with writer Celia Wren who said "he glides effortlessly from mood to mood." My favorite scene in the performance, and I think the funniest, is Aleichem's satire of American funerals and the correlation of wealth and weather. While I was unfamiliar with the original Shalom Aleichem stories I still immensely enjoyed this performance, which the Washington Jewish Review called Bikel's "love letter to his lost culture."

Madama Butterfly

A stunningly simple set was the perfect foil for the powerful voices of Madama Butterfly, playing now at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts until November 3rd. The Canadian Opera Company (C0C) celebrated its 60th season with this tragic tale of a teenage geisha who weds an American naval officer, only to be left abandoned, betrayed and heartbroken. On the night I saw Madama, Wednesday, October 14th, Adina Nitescu sang as the naive and love-struck Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), David Pomeroy sang as the despicable U.S. Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Allyson McHardy sang as Cio-Cio-San's servant, Suzuki. While they all sang tremendously, I felt there was a complete lack of passion between Nitescu and Pomeroy; I thought McHardy communicated the most compelling performance of all. In the absence of this passion I was unable to get lost in what should have been a more tragic and moving Madama but I wholeheartedly applaud the magnificent voices of this classic opera.