01_Eve_Egoyan.jpgIf ever there were two artists more suited to each other’s aesthetic than composer Linda Catlin Smith and pianist Eve Egoyan I’m sure I don’t know who they are. Their latest project, THOUGHT and DESIRE (Earwitness Editions EE2015, eveegoyan.com) was realized at the Banff Centre in December 2014. The CD contains first recordings of three works by Smith written at six year intervals beginning in 2001. The most recent, Nocturnes and Chorales, will receive its Toronto premiere performance October 16 to 18 at the Small World Music Centre. It consists of nine movements which the composer says “seemed to be either nocturne-like or chorale-like in nature. At the heart of the music is the voice of the piano, its resonance and character, the way inner voices work in a chorale for instance, or the way melody and arpeggiation can create a landscape.” She goes on to say that Chopin and Satie were in the back of mind during the creation of the work which was the result of a residency through ArtSpring on Salt Spring Island. The overall sense of the pieces is quiet and contemplative, but in the hybrid Nocturne Chorale there are moments when the repetition of strangely sonorous note clusters brings to mind an anecdote about New England composer Carl Ruggles back in the early part of the 20th century. One day, drawn by the seemingly tireless banging of a single complex tone cluster on the piano over and over again, a neighbouring farmer dropped by to ask what the infernal noise was. Ruggles reportedly told him he was given the chord the “test of time.” Admittedly Smith and Egoyan’s “banging” is gentle by comparison, but there is a certain relentless quality at times. The overall impression however is one of timelessness.

Thought and Desire (2007) is quiet and introspective. The pianist is called upon to realize a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 45 “to be sung quietly as though to oneself or someone close by.” Egoyan’s fragile, barely audible voice brings to mind another Shakespeare reference, mad Ophelia’s songs.

In an extended essay that accompanies the disc, Doina Popescu discusses the final, and earliest composed, work presented. “The Underfolding is a composition that digs into a multi-layered reservoir of sounds while moving elegantly through the musical fabric of the piece. The title evokes a well-known oil-painting technique called ‘underpainting,’ developed by the masters of the Renaissance. The hidden under-layer was used to sketch the basic design of each work, its tonal values and shadings of light and dark.” Smith says, “I became interested in working in a layered way, to create a more ambiguous or diffuse sense of harmony […] This was my way of creating a subtle complexity, which comes not from an attempt at virtuosity, but from a desire to create a hovering atmosphere.” I think this well describes not only the piece in question but Smith’s oeuvre in general – a hovering atmosphere where the nature of sound itself becomes the subject. It takes a good deal of patience to fully appreciate this slowly unfolding music, but the effort is well-rewarded.

Concert notes: As mentioned above, Eve Egoyan has performances at the Small World Music Centre in the Artscape Youngplace facility on Shaw St. on October 16, 17 and 18 at which she will perform Linda Catlin Smith’s Nocturnes and Chorales and new works by Nick Storring and John Mark Sherlock. Smith’s Gold Leaf will be performed by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble at Betty Oliphant Theatre on October 17 under the auspices of New Music Concerts.

02_Dive.jpgOne of the most striking theatrical experiences I had over the summer was the production DIVE at the Arraymusic Studio, based on Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s short story The Professor and the Siren. The play was developed by Richard Sanger, Alex Fallis and Fides Krucker, and Krucker also had a major hand in the development of the music, composing and improvising most of her multi-character role and working with sound designer Nik Beeson. When the CD DIVE: Odes for Lighea (nikbeeson.com/dive/) arrived on my desk I wondered how well the “soundtrack” would work when taken out of the theatre. Beeson, who provided the incidental music for the play, has expanded and developed it for the purposes of this stand-alone product. Fortunately, the short synopsis provided with the disc does give most of the story’s premise, explaining the context, the characters and the slowly revealed tale of the mermaid with whom the professor fell in love one fateful summer in his youth. This is juxtaposed with the political climate in Italy at the time of the story’s telling, when Mussolini is rising to power and totalitarianism is the ultimate result.

The sound design is mostly electroacoustic but includes some instrumental sounds such as bass (Rob Clutton), vibes (Rick Sacks) and piano (Neil Gardiner). Beeson himself adds a number of percussion textures including cloud bowls and mbira. The more unpleasant moments include archival snippets from Mussolini’s speeches and Krucker performing a particularly growly rendition of the fascist hymn Giovinezza, drawing on her signature extended vocal techniques. But we also hear her in clear and attractive voice in her portrayal of the various female characters. I should point out that although there are two male characters in the play – a young reporter and the now-aged professor – they only have speaking parts, not singing.

I will never know how I might have felt about the CD had I not had the benefit of seeing the stage production, but my impression is that it does indeed work as an independent entity. You can sample it yourself at the website mentioned above.

03_Alicia_Hansen.jpgThe things that initially drew me to Companion, the new CD from Alicia Hansen and Ben Brown (AHBB001.5 aliciahansenbenbrown.com), were the cover art by Mi’kmaq artist Jay White (draworbedrawn.com) and the fact that cellist Peggy Lee was part of the ensemble. I did not previously know White’s art but was immediately drawn in (no pun intended) to his strange hybrid of representation and abstraction. Lee is a cellist I’ve been aware of in the contemporary music context through her work with Standing Wave and other Vancouver ensembles. Although I was aware of her activity as an improviser, I was surprised to see her appear in a jazz context twice in this month’s offerings (see also Stuart Broomer’s Waxwing review in Jazz, eh?). That being said, it turns out that her role in the Hansen/Brown project is peripheral, with cello almost exclusively used as part of the overall texture and not in a solo role. Be that as it may, I’m glad I was drawn to this disc. I find Hansen’s writing (in some cases co-written with Brown) intriguing and her vocal work distinctive and enticing, at times reminiscent of Björk, especially in the haunting Outside my Window, but individual nonetheless.

Hansen’s piano and keyboard work is complemented by Brown’s drumming – he’s not a timekeeper in the traditional sense but rather is heard in counterpoint with and as punctuation to Hansen’s lines. Bassist Russell Sholberg is present but unobtrusive throughout, and he adds the eeriness of a bowed saw to Little Veins. Although not a guitar-centric disc, it is guitarist David Sikula who provides the sparse, yet surprisingly rich, arrangements. The quirky In Petra adds the convincing sound of a recorder to the mix, but searching the credits I am left to conclude this is simply one of Alicia’s “keys.”

Falling somewhere between (gentle) avant pop and experimental jazz, this disc is highly recommended.

04_Respighi.jpgIt has been a while since I spent any time listening to the neo-classic/baroque music of Ottorino Respighi so it was with pleasure that I found the new disc Il Tramonto featuring Isabel Bayrakdarian and Orchestre symphonique de Laval under Alain Trudel’s direction (ATMA ACD2 2732). The performances of Gli Uccelli (The Birds) with its aural aviary based on earlier renderings by 17th century composers, Trittico Botticelliano depicting paintings of the renowned artist and Antiche Arie e Danze (Ancient Airs and Dances) based on works of the Baroque are all that could be asked for, with Trudel drawing clarity and balance from his fine ensemble.

My only disappointment came in the title track, and not from any flaw in the performances. Bayrakdarian is in fine voice, enunciating the Italian words translated from the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley with warmth and passion. And the orchestra rises to the challenges of this work which is distinctly romantic in its approach and orchestration. At times hinting at the music of Wagner – Siegfried Idyll comes to mind – the story lends itself to this lush treatment. But here is where my concern lies. The otherwise informative notes (for the instrumental pieces) are here inadequate. At first I thought it was just an awkward translation into English, but checking the original French it seemed as if the writer had not actually read the poem (which is included in Shelley’s English, Respighi’s Italian and in French). We are told that the poem “embodies the purest Romantic tradition, with its depiction of a sunset symbolizing the death of two lovers.” But Shelley clearly states “That night the youth and lady mingled/lay in love and sleep – but when the morning came/the lady found her lover dead and cold.” The remainder of the poem makes clear that she went on to live a long life mourning his loss. That notwithstanding, I have no qualms in endorsing this fine recording.

05_Fanfarai.jpgOne quick note in closing. September 17 saw the kick-off of the annual Small World Music Festival with a pre-festival launch party featuring the Toronto debut of the big band Fanfaraï. Somewhat bombastically billed as “French/Algerian/Moroccan jazz musicians with a passion for the Maghrebian 6/8 who begin to sing in Arabic, Berber and Turkish, dancing like the Gnawa ... Fanfaraï is a Rai UFO matured in the copper sun of North Africa breathing intercultural harmony and sensory journey into Great Happiness!”

I recently received their 2013 release Tani (tournsol.net) and am sad to say that if this disc is any indication, I missed what must have been a fabulous party that night – I’m dancing in my seat as I write this!

Concert Note: The Small World Music Festival continues through October 4.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

Author: David Olds
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

With the late Labour Day this year at times it has seemed happily like an endless summer. Unfortunately, with the opening of the CNE I am reminded it’s time to get my nose back to the grindstone and tell you about some of the most interesting discs to come my way over the past three months.

01_Barbara_Hannigan.jpgFirst up is a first-class documentary about Canada’s contemporary diva Barbara Hannigan, last seen in these parts as the featured soloist in works by George Benjamin and Hans Abrahamsen at last spring’s New Creations Festival hosted by the TSO. Barbara Hannigan – Concert & Documentary (Accentus Music ACC 20327) was filmed in August 2014 at the Lucerne Festival where Hannigan was artiste étoile, singing, conducting and giving masterclasses. The DVD includes concert footage with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra featuring an overture by Rossini, three Mozart arias, Ligeti’s surprisingly traditional Concert Românesc, Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Hannigan’s signature piece, Mysteries of the Macabre also by Ligeti.

Hannigan is certainly not the first singer to turn to conducting, but I’m not aware of any in the modern era that have undertaken to do both at once. We get insights into the development of this dual career and the particular challenges it offers in the candid documentary I’m a creative animal – Barbara Hannigan directed by Barbara Seiler. We get intimate glimpses of the artist as an accomplished chef (she travels with her own kitchen knives), going for daily runs with pop music in her ear buds, on horseback and in yoga class, but first and foremost as a diligent and dedicated musician with an incredible breadth of vision and accomplishment.

We hear Hannigan in her own words discussing growing up in rural Nova Scotia, her studies at the University of Toronto where her mentor (Mary Morrison, although unnamed in the documentary) opened her eyes and ears to the world of contemporary music, the trials and tribulations of living out of suitcases, the dangers of being revered as a “superhuman” and her aspirations for the future. We also hear from members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra about working under her direction and from her vocal coach about fine tuning and maintenance of Hannigan’s superb vocal instrument. This 45-minute portrait is a stunning look at a stunning artist and consummate musician. Not to be missed. Concert note: Barbara Hannigan returns to the stage at Roy Thomson Hall in the dual role of soloist and conductor in music of Nono, Haydn, Mozart, Ligeti and Stravinsky with the TSO on October 7 and 8.



In the tradition of full disclosure I will say that Canadian pianist and musicologist Dr. Réa Beaumont is a colleague whom I often encounter through the activities of the Toronto New Music Alliance (with which I am affiliated in my position as general manager of New Music Concerts) and who is an occasional contributor to WholeNote’s DISCoveries section. As a matter of fact you can find her impressions of the new Gryphon Trio compact disc further on in these pages.

That being said I want to tell you about A Conversation Piece, a CD that was released late last year by Beaumont’s Shrinking Planet Productions (reabeaumont.com) featuring works by R. Murray Schafer, Jean Coulthard, John Weinzweig and Maurice Ravel. Of particular interest to me is the first track, Beaumont’s own Shattered Ice, which combines compositional prowess with her concern for the environment in an ominous work depicting the fragile ecosystem of the Canadian Arctic and the dangers posed by human intrusion.

The first movement of John Weinzweig’s 1950 Suite for Piano No.2 gives the disc its title. This dialogue between the two hands is followed by a sombre lullaby and a brief, lively and angular toccata. Coulthard’s contemplative Threnody is followed by Polytonality, Schafer’s first published work, a sort of homage to Poulenc. Netscapes (2000) is one of Weinzweig’s very last works, evidently inspired by the experience of browsing the Internet and discovering a number of melodic fragments, which are juxtaposed in the composer’s distinctive wry style.

The second half of the disc is devoted to Ravel’s five-movement Miroirs from 1905, an extended work which heralded the French Impressionist movement. It is a perfect companion piece for the selected Canadian repertoire, with its poetic and visual images transferred to the keyboard. Beaumont’s touch is well suited to the delicate textures and the intricate passages as well as the quirky rhythms that surface in the Ravel and Weinzweig selections. The program is well balanced and the sound is immaculate thanks to the production by David Jaeger and the team at Glenn Gould Studio.

03_Matthews_String_Quartets.jpgIt is always a treat to discover a new Canadian ensemble and this summer I was introduced to the Clearwater String Quartet through its recording of music by Michael Matthews (Ravello Records RR7910 ravellorecords.com). This is not to say that Clearwater is recently formed, but simply that I had not been exposed to their accomplished playing before. Comprised of the principal string players of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra they have been performing as a quartet for more than a decade and have a busy schedule as the in-house ensemble for the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society. Matthews is also an integral part of the Winnipeg music scene, having been a founding director of Groundswell, the contemporary music organization which resulted from an amalgamation of the city’s new music groups back in 1991. He recently retired Professor Emeritus from the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba and also served as Composer-In-Residence with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra from 2002 to 2004.

In the extended (six-page) essay by Max Fleischman in the accompanying booklet we are told that Matthews is a voracious reader and a listener whose compositions reflect this. He goes on to say that “Judged against the prevailing 21st-century aesthetic this literateness tars Matthews as deeply conservative in his ethos and art. In particular, his music finds itself at odds both with the rancorous anti-intellectual streak in North American culture and with its sense of ‘cool.’ This music is serious. It is complicated. It is human, and speaks in the miraculous and improbable language that Europe has been working on since Gregorian times…. This music is earnest: it demands (and deserves!) multiple hearings. And it is sober, speaking the language of Holocaust, totalitarianism and uncertainty, and speaking it like a native, or at least like the literate child of witnesses and survivors.” With this emphasis on conservatism and heritage we might expect to hear liturgical-based melodies along the lines of those “Jewish” compositions of Srul Irving Glick, but make no mistake, it is the intellectual rigour of Western art and philosophy that is the focus, and the music is more reminiscent of the Second Viennese School and Shostakovich. That is to say “good old-fashioned new music.”

Matthews, who was born in Gander in 1950, seems to have come to the string quartet fairly late in his career. Although his earliest acknowledged compositions date back to the early 1970s, he didn’t write his first quartet until 1999, since which time there have been three more, plus a set of miniatures for the medium. The disc includes String Quartet No.3 (2008, revised 2013), a work in four contrasting movements lasting more than half an hour, the eleven Miniatures (2000) and String Quartet No.2 (2003) with its brooding, extended last movement and echoes of Bartók’s night music. These are all very strong works immaculately played by some of Canada’s finest string players, Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe (violins), Daniel Scholz (viola) and Yuri Hooker (cello). I hope we hear more from them soon.

04_Double_Triple_concertos.jpgtab Review|blue}I almost gave the next disc to Toronto’s star recorder player Alison Melville to review, but upon listening I found I could not bear to give it up. Never fear though, Alison will be on duty next month to tell us about two more concerto recordings featuring the extraordinary Michala Petri. On Double Triple Koppel – Concertos by Anders Koppel (Dacapo 6.220633) Petri is joined by the composer’s son Benjamin Koppel in the Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone and Orchestra (2010) and Koppel teams up with Eugene Hye-Knudsen and Tine Rehling for the Triple Concerto for Mezzo Saxophone, Cello, Harp and Orchestra (2009). I was immediately drawn to the unusual instrumentation of both works, and especially the use of saxophone.

The first time I am aware of having heard saxophone in an orchestral context goes back to a recording of Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No.2 featuring Daniel Shafran almost four decades ago. About halfway through the piece there is an incredible moment when, seemingly out of nowhere, a saxophone takes over the solo cello line in a cadenza-like flourish. It takes a moment to realize that the new texture is in fact no longer the cello, but rather an alto sax. It was a minor epiphany for me.

Likewise the first time I heard the recorder in a contemporary orchestral context. The occasion was coming across an RCA disc, Moon Child’s Dream, in the CJRT library back in 1992. That featured Michala Petri in the title work by Thomas Koppel, brother and uncle of the Koppels mentioned above, plus pieces by Holmboe, Christiansen and Toronto’s own Gary Kulesha. I was hooked by the juxtaposition and integration of the shrill timbre of the baroque wind instrument into the texture of a modern chamber orchestra, but, as I am wont to say, enough about me!

The two concertos presented here are dramatic, lyrical works with plenty of rhythmic drive juxtaposed with extended passages of dreamlike calm, especially in the Triple Concerto. Not to be confused with the mezzo saxophone in F produced in the late 1920s by the CG Conn company which rapidly fell into disuse, the instrument employed here is a modern one manufactured by Danish maker Peter Jessen, tuned in G, placing it midway between the E-flat alto and B-flat soprano saxophone. Jazzer Joe Lovano has made extensive use of the mezzo, but this is evidently its orchestral debut. The range and timbre of this saxophone make it a well-matched partner for the cello but from the very first notes there are surprises in store. The cello enters with strident notes in its highest register sounding more like a Chinese erhu than the mellow baritone we normally expect. The harp adds a busy pointillist texture over which the sax and cello soar during the extended cadenza of the Moderato that concludes the work.

Koppel’s music, which falls firmly into the neo-Romantic camp with extended melodies and tonal harmonies but always with a modern sensibility, is more innovative in its instrumentation than in its compositional form. The way he combines instruments is truly unusual and extremely well handled. Even after repeated listening I am surprised to realize which instruments are creating the sounds and how well he blurs the lines between even such disparate voices as the recorder and the saxophone. Well worth investigating for yourself.

05_Matt_Haimovitz.jpgIn Brief: Over the long summer there was of course a plethora of other offerings that held my attention. Orbit – Music for Solo Cello (Pentatone PTC 1586) is a 3-CD compilation comprising material originally released over the past decade by Montreal-based Matt Haimovitz on his own Oxingale label. Even for an aficionado such as myself nearly four hours of nothing but the sound of a single cello in repertoire drawn from a single time period (1945-2014) might get to be a bit “much of a muchness,” but I must say that my attention did not wane. From the opening title track, not to my ear sounding anything like other compositions by Philip Glass that I have heard, through such diverse composers as Berio, Golijov, Sokolovic, Ligeti, Carter, Sciarrino, Tremblay, Machover and Rorem the contrasts made for very effective programming and a compelling listening experience. The uncompromising but varied voices of these composers was juxtaposed occasionally with more popular fare – Haimowitz’s own transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version of the Star Spangled Banner and Luna Pearl Woolf’s take on Lennon-McCartney’s Helter Skelter – but even within the “serious” repertoire there was an amazing breadth of style and genre. Haimowitz proved himself up to all the challenges. This is an incredible testament to the accomplishment of a great musician, and an outstanding compendium of music of our time.

06_Brett_Higgins_Atlas.jpgBrett Higgins’ Atlas Revolt provided much-needed respite during a stop-and-go drive up Highway 400 on the long August weekend. Double bassist Higgins has been active on the Toronto scene in a variety of genres, as a founding member of the eclectic Beyond the Pale among many other credits. His latest project is an instrumental combo with Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Robbie Grunwald (keyboards), Tom Juhas (guitar) and Joshua Van Tassel (percussion) which encompasses world, Latin and pop influences in a mostly jazz context. The disc, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label (TZ 7813 tzadik.com), is comprised of ten Higgins original tracks in a variety of styles. I was enjoying it so much that I didn’t notice it was on repeat play until the third time through the disc. It made sitting in traffic almost worthwhile.

07_Dalannah__Owen.jpgAnother bass-centric disc in rotation on my player this summer is Been Around a While featuring Vancouver-based blues duo Dalannah and Owen (Quest QST-009 questrecords.com). This sparse offering consists solely of Dalannah Gail Bowen’s smoky, bluesy vocals and the electric bass playing of Owen Veber and except for occasional overdubbing of additional bass lines (or more likely “looping” in this day and age) that’s all we hear. And it’s enough. There’s nothing fancy here, just the blues stripped down to its essentials. About half of the songs are originals, including the title track, plus effective covers of Billy Eckstine, Marvin Gaye, Son House and the duo’s reworking of Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen.

08_Slocan_Ramblers.jpgCoffee Creek is the first full-length release by the young Toronto bluegrass band Slocan Ramblers (slocanramblers.com). Mentored by Chris Coole of Foggy Hogtown Boys fame who also produced this disc, the group shows a virtuosity and command of the genre that belies their youth (and geography). The formation is fairly standard – banjo (Frank Evans), mandolin (Adrian Gross), guitar (Darryl Poulson) and double bass (Alistair Whitehead) – with the vocal duties shared and the balance about equal between original instrumentals and traditional bluegrass songs. The band’s website testifies to a busy touring schedule, both across the country and south of the border, but unfortunately it seems we won’t get to hear them live in Toronto in the immediate future. Readers in Ottawa can catch them on October 24 at Spirit of Rasputin’s Folk Club at Westboro Masonic Hall.

Of course my summer was not spent entirely in front of loudspeakers attached to mechanical (or electronic) reproduction devices. There was a generous share of backyard music-making with friends and I attended a number of live music shows. The one that had the most impact on me was at the Summerworks festival, a “musical” unlike any other I’ve seen. Written and created by Adam Paolozza and Gregory Oh, Melancholia: The Music of Scott Walker drew on five decades of music recorded, and for the most part written, by the former Walker Brother, best known to members of my generation for the 60s hit The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. I must confess that I was unaware of Walker’s creative development in the intervening years. I was actually surprised to hear that there even was such a person as my understanding was that no member of the Walker Brothers was actually named Walker. But it seems that the baritone “brother,” born Noel Scott Engel, adopted the name when he went out on his own in the 1970s. The music that followed was a far cry from the pop ballads that had brought the boy band fame, which for a time rivaled that of the Beatles. Evidently he was profoundly influenced by the music of Jacques Brel and some of his earlier solo work reflects this, including an album of covers of Brel’s work. Walker is also well versed in classical music and has given producers such instructions as “I hear Sibelius here” and “I’m thinking of Delius for this.” His own songs became darker and darker over the years and although his distinctive, low plaintive voice would not change much, the music behind and at times over top of the lyrics, did profoundly.

09_Scott_Walker_Sunn.jpgSince experiencing the live local production I have continued to explore the world of this troubled, solitary artist. Although he has not performed live in many years, he did allow cameras into the studio when he was recording the album The Drift. The resulting documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man produced by Stephen Kijak (with executive producer credits to David Bowie who professes to have been deeply influenced by Walker), was released in 2006 and is viewable on YouTube. I highly recommend it. And then skip ahead to his latest release from 2014, Soused (4AD CAD 3428CD) which features five extended Scott Walker “songs” on which the now familiar melancholy voice is accompanied by the Seattle drone metal band Sunn O))). Not for the faint of heart!

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website
thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

Author: David Olds
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Summer Pop

I’ve spoken before in these pages about artistic epiphanies I’ve had in this life – rounding a corner in the National Gallery in Washington and beholding Dali’s The Last Supper, hearing Paul Dolden’s The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running at the CBC Young Composers’ Competition – and a disc that came my way this month has brought to mind another such enlightening experience. When I was a teenager my ears were opened wide to the alternative music scene by a late-night AM radio show on CKFH called The Open Lid. There were several hosts over the years, but it was during Keith Elshaw’s tenure that I really got hooked and it was then that I first heard the music of Fraser and Debolt, a Canadian folk duo who would have a lasting influence on me. Their first album Fraser and Debolt with Ian Guenther was totally acoustic with just two guitars, two intense voices and Guenther’s violin. When I heard Pure Spring Water and its atonal “breakdown” segue to their version of the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down I was intrigued and captivated. I didn’t sleep much that night and the next day right after school I headed down to the local Sam the Record Man in search of the disc. Of course it turned out that Elshaw was playing an advance copy of the album and I would have to wait for the official release. I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that week either.

01_Fraser__Girard.jpgAllan Fraser and Daisy Debolt worked together for five years, parting ways in 1974, but their songs – two albums’ worth – have been an integral part of my own repertoire for the past four decades. Debolt fronted a number of projects over the years – I remember one show at Harbourfront in particular where her band included three or four accordions – and was active until her death from cancer in 2011. As far as I know Fraser kept a lower profile, although I confess I have not been following the folk scene much in recent years. That being said, when I received the press release for an upcoming disc by Fraser & Girard (FG001 fraserandgirard.com) my heart raced a bit. Thank goodness I’m now in the position to receive advance copies of things!

It seems that Allan Fraser has found a new kindred musical spirit in Marianne Girard, and although comparisons to the original pairing are inevitable this new duo has developed a voice of its own. Girard’s husky contralto doesn’t have the shrill edginess of Debolt’s high range, but it blends well with Fraser’s sometimes gravelly low tenor and I love it when their harmonies are reversed as he takes the high line. The instrumentation is fairly sparse, with the duo’s guitars mostly supplemented by acoustic bass and drums with occasional additional guitar, fiddle and pedal steel. The eponymous release is shared about equally between songs by each partner, including Fraser (and Debolt)’s classic Dance Hall Girls and Girard’s particularly moving My Name is Carol. Concert note: I know where I’ll be on Sunday June 14 – at Hugh’s Room for the launch of Fraser & Girard.

02_Foo_Fighters.jpgSome months ago I stumbled on the HBO presentation of Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, an eight-part documentary directed by Foo front man Dave Grohl, and I have spent countless hours over the past few weeks revisiting the series on four RCA DVDs recently released by Sony Music (8887506014-9). Each time I go back to one of the episodes I am enthralled once again; it’s surprising how compelling they are. The premise is that the rock band travels to different American cities to explore the musical history of each place, meet some of the legends who have contributed to this history and then record a song written by Grohl, inspired by the time spent there in one of its iconic studios.

The odyssey begins in Chicago where we meet blues icon Buddy Guy and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson as Grohl explores the various genres that have flourished in the Windy City over the past half-century. Washington D.C. is the next stop where the early punk scene (Bad Brains, Black Flag) is juxtaposed with the Go-Go scene (Trouble Funk). In Nashville we visit the Grand Ole Opry and meet Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White and Zac Brown and learn about the songwriting industry before heading off to Austin for an in-depth look at the 40-year history of the seminal TV show Austin City Limits with its vast range of musical styles and a visit with Willie Nelson. Joe Walsh gives us the lowdown on Hotel California in the L.A. edition, which also features Joan Jett, and we spend some quality time in the desert around Joshua Tree at the Rancho de la Luna studio. Each of the episodes focuses on a historically significant recording venue and in New Orleans the Foo Fighters set up in Preservation Hall and meet Doctor John, Alain Toussaint and one of the Neville Brothers, among a host of others. The Seattle segment is particularly poignant with its focus on the grunge scene epitomized by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana (although lead singer and guitarist for the Foo Fighters, Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana), the Sub Pop label and Heart. The final episode takes place in America’s musical Mecca, New York City, with its myriad cultures and histories. We meet Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Gene Simmons and Chuck D to name just a few, visit the Brill Building, CBGB – did you know that stood for Country, Blue-Grass and Blues? Quite a misnomer for the breeding ground of punk and new wave! – Electric Lady studio and the Magic Shop on a whirlwind tour that has left my head spinning. The above-mentioned names are just a sampling of the dozens of luminaries who appear throughout the series, with special mention going to Steve Earle who turns up time and again with a plethora of insights. A wealth of archival footage is seamlessly blended into the production, adding historical credence to the documentary.

One of the press quotes from the DVD package states “Skillfully directed and packed with decades-spanning trivia” (Entertainment Weekly). I find this to be almost a travesty in the way it trivializes the concept and content of the series. The history of American popular music (in some of its edgiest forms) is so well presented in such depth here that I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone curious about life in the U.S.A. in the past half century. My wife says I can quote her, but I will paraphrase: Even if you’re not interested in the music per se, the series is compelling and illuminating.

The only regret I have is that Grohl and company did not make it to Detroit for a taste of Motown Soul. I hope that if there is a sequel the sonic highway will lead to the Motor City.

This Just In

As this issue of The WholeNote spans the three summer months I want to devote the rest of this column to a few titles that fell through the cracks over the past year and a number of very worthy new releases that arrived too late to receive full reviews but which I think you should know about sooner rather than later (i.e. September). First the new ones…

03_Spiin_Cycle.jpgAt time of writing, the second annual 21C Festival is about to get underway at the Royal Conservatory and as an example of the growing interest generated by the festival – in part sparked by last month’s WholeNote cover art – comes the surprising news that the Spin Cycle event, originally slated for Mazzoleni Hall, has been moved into the much larger Koerner Hall due to the high demand for tickets. This project brings together the Afiara Quartet, DJ Skratch Bastid and four young Toronto composers, Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau. Each of the composers has written short, multi-movement acoustic string quartets which have been recorded by Afiara and are then subjected to the multi-layered treatments for which the award-winning DJ is renowned. One could be forgiven for thinking the experiment might end there, but not so, gentle reader. The composers were offered the opportunity to respond by creating yet a third iteration with new material added to the mix. Although the composers are all relatively conservative in their approach and the original works are quite tonal, by the time the re-mix and responses have been added there is an intriguing depth and complexity to the final creations which cross a variety of cultural and aesthetic borders. For those of you who missed the May 23 event, the concert also served as the launch for a double CD of the works (Centrediscs CMCCD 21215 musiccentre.ca) that is also available on iTunes.

04_Grieg_Fialkowska.jpgGrieg – Lyric Pieces (ATMA ACD2 2696) is the latest from Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska and it seems a bit of a departure from her usual Austro-Hungarian repertoire (from Mozart to Liszt) and the Polish music of her own heritage (Chopin, Moszkowski, Padereski and Szymanowski). Fialkowska seems very much at home on this northern excursion however, her deft touch perfectly suited to bringing these idiomatic Norwegian sketches to life. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote his Lyric Pieces, ten books of them over the span of his career, beginning in 1867 upon his return to Norway after studies in Germany. The first book proved so successful that his publisher requested more and more, so many in fact that in 1901 Grieg finished the last set with Remembrances, which took him full circle back to the first Arietta and he called a halt saying that “they are surrounding me like lice and fleas…”

Fialkowska has made an effective selection of 25 of the pieces, charming vignettes such as Berceuse, Butterfly, Sylph and of course the familiar Wedding Day at Troldhaugen with each of the volumes represented. There is very little virtuosity on display here, with most of the selections pastoral, but the selection is varied enough to keep our attention throughout – a quiet day in the country, with moments of exuberance such as the Norwegian Dance with its suggestion of Hardanger-style fiddling and hints of dread such as March of the Trolls and Evening in the Mountains. Fialkowska will get to experience all of this first-hand in mid-June when she is off to Tromsö, Norway as a jury member for the Top of the World International Piano Competition.

05_Bashaw_Piano.jpg15 for Piano (Centrediscs CMCCD 21115) features music by Alberta-based composer Howard Bashaw performed by Roger Admiral and it has the distinction of being the first CD recorded in the Canadian Music Centre’s concert space at 20 St. Joseph St. on their Steingraeber & Söhne piano. Both the instrument and recording engineer John S. Gray, not to mention the pianist himself, have their mettle tested by the vast dynamic range and physicality of the music, and all pass with flying colours. I sometimes kid that to me piano recitals are ultimately “just so much banging” but in this instance I cannot get enough. Admiral can bang with the best of them and Bashaw has a way of making relentless percussive density extremely exciting and musical. This is not to say that the 40-minute-plus 2012 title piece is without respite. There are beautiful moments when the tension relaxes and we are drawn into a very different world where time is suspended and we are able to catch a breath. And even some of the ostinato passages are quiet and gentle, belying the furious activity happening in miniature.

Admiral is also featured in a 2010 reworking of Bashaw’s Form Archimage, an older work originally performed and recorded by Marc Couroux. Once again the piece is a study in contrasts, with manic extended movements – Toccata, Counterpoint: where fractals meet Alberti, Celestarium II, Reverbatory and Barn Burner with Jacob’s Ladder – interspersed without pause among brief quiet sections. This latter was recorded in Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta, where both pianist and composer teach. As with the CMC recording, the sound here is immaculate. Future concert note: Howard Bashaw is currently writing an extended work for quadruple quartet, piano and percussion for New Music Concerts which will be performed in the spring of 2016.

06_Reich_18_Musicians.jpgAlso coming next spring, Soundstreams is celebrating Steve Reich’s 80th birthday with a concert featuring three of his seminal works. Clapping Music, Tehillim and the iconic Music for 18 Musicians will be performed at Massey Hall on April 14, 2016. There is a new recording of Music for 18 Musicians featuring New York’s Ensemble Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman (Harmonia Mundi 907608) and if you are not familiar with this classic minimalist work for four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone, two clarinets, violin, cello and four voices, I would recommend this recording. As Steve Reich himself says, “Signal has made an extraordinary recording of Music for 18 Musicians. Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged.” With top rank Toronto musicians engaged for the Massey Hall performance I am sure we can expect nothing less from Soundstreams.

07_Messiaen_Canyons.jpgSpeaking of iconic works of contemporary music, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just released Des Canyons Aux Étoiles by Olivier Messiaen under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach (LPO – 0083). At 100 minutes in length, From the Canyons to the Stars (1971-74) draws extensively on Messiaen’s signature birdsong transcriptions for much of its musical material. As always it is also a paean to the glory of God, this time in the context of the natural beauty of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which Messiaen visited in 1972 in conjunction with this commission from an American philanthropist. The full forces of the modern symphony orchestra are supplemented with four soloists: Tzimon Barto (piano), John Ryan (horn), Andrew Barclay (xylorimba) and Erika Öhman (glockenspiel), all of whom rise to the occasion. Highly recommended.

08_Dvorak_Triple_Forte.jpgCanada’s triple threat Triple Forte – Jasper Wood, violin; Yegor Dyachov, cello; David Jalbert, piano – have a new recording of Dvořák Piano Trios (ATMA ACD2 2691) and as one would expect it is a treasure. Founded in 2003 this trio comprises three top soloists who work together as a finely oiled machine. Their debut disc in 2012 of music by Ravel, Shostakovich and Ives showed them to be at home in 20th-century idioms. This proves no less true of the preceding century with these captivating performances of two of the pinnacles of Romantic chamber repertoire, the Trio in F Minor, Op.65 and the “Dumky” Trio in E Minor, Op.90, Dvořák’s third and fourth ventures into this genre. Although the opus numbers suggest a larger gap, the two works were written within a span of seven years, in 1883 and 1890. The first is set in the usual four-movement form, opening with a majestic and expansive Allegro ma non troppo replete with melodies reminiscent of Schumann and Mendelssohn. The “Dumky,” dating from the height of the composer’s Slavic period, is a set of six contrasting movements all based on the Ukrainian Dumka folksong form. In both works the strength (i.e. forte) of each of the players is allowed to shine while goading the others on to new heights in performances that exemplify the group’s name.

09_Berlin_sonatas.jpgBerlin Sonatas (Passacaille 1006 passacaille.be) features 18th-century works by Abel, J.C.F. and C.P.E. Bach, Benda, Kirnberger and Graun performed by Elinor Frey on five-string cello and Lorenzo Ghielmi on a Silbermann fortepiano (known at the time as a “Cembalo con il forte e piano” due to its ability to produce sounds both loudly and softly, unlike the harpsichord with its limited dynamic range). Frey provides an extended essay to explain why she feels a five-string cello is appropriate, and likely originally intended, for this repertoire. She makes a strong case for the instrument, not only in her writing but more particularly in her performance, especially in two violin solo works by Benda, here heard one octave below their intended pitch. One intriguing aspect of the keyboard used here is a “stop” heard in the final movement of Carl Friedrich Abel’s Sonata in G Major which makes it sound like a hackbrett (hammered-dulcimer). I had understood that the prepared piano had been invented by American Henry Cowell in the early 20th century and further developed by John Cage in the 40s, but it seems that piano-maker Gottfried Silbermann (1783-1853) beat them to the punch a century earlier. He developed a technique for replicating the sound on his keyboard instruments with a device he called the pantaleone in honour of the hackbrett virtuoso Pantaleone Hebenstreit.

Catching up

10_Bad_Plus_Rite.jpgThe first of the discs overlooked at the time of their release that I want to bring to your attention is a 2014 realization of The Rite of Spring in a surprising orchestration for piano, string bass and drum kit by the jazz combo The Bad Plus (Sony Masterworks 88843 02405 2), primarily known for their avant-garde approach to jazz, tinged with hints of rock and pop. I was particularly impressed with their convincing recreation of Stravinsky’s score using only the minimal tools of their trio. Comprised of Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass and electronics, mostly involving treatments and layerings of the piano part in the introductory section of the piece) and David King (drums), the group developed this project during a year-long residency at Duke University in 2010-2011. The result has to be heard to be believed. With the exception of the addition of a brief and unnecessary percussive coda following Stravinsky’s final chord, the trio stays true to the original score and gives a remarkable performance using only limited resources. Highly recommended!

11_Zodiac_Trio.jpgStreamlined Stravinsky is also a feature of a disc by the Zodiac Trio (Blue Griffin BGR257 bluegriffin.com) although in this instance the reduction is the work of the composer himself. L’Histoire du Soldat was originally written as a theatrical piece for three speakers – soldier, devil and narrator – dancer and seven instruments based on a Russian folk tale. The sponsor of the piece, Werner Reinhart, was an excellent amateur clarinetist and the year after its 1918 theatrical debut in Lausanne Stravinsky made a suite of five movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Stripped to the bare bones, this already skeletal work – said to be a reflection of the depleted supply of musicians as a result of the Great War – is still very effective, as Zodiac’s dedicated performance proves.

The group – Kliment Krylovsky (clarinet), Vanessa Mollard (violin) and Riko Higuma (piano) – was formed at the Manhattan School of Music in 2006 and its goal is “to etch this instrumentation into the ranks of chamber music’s dominant combinations.” To this end they commission works and tour extensively. Their 2010 debut recording featured original works but this latest draws on existing repertoire. The Stravinsky Suite notwithstanding it is Bartók’s Contrasts, written for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti, which is generally considered to have launched this genre. Zodiac gives Contrasts an exuberant and idiomatic performance, confirming its place at the head of the table. The disc also includes the world premiere recording of the somewhat anachronistic A Smiling Suite by French composer Nicolas Bacri, and a moving (and haunting) early work by Shostakovich protégé Galina Ustvolskaya.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

Back to top