A light and fog pre-Apocalypsis vision of mid-20th-century industrial detritus, the bones of the Hearn Generating Plant – its worn steel girders exposed along with its upper floors towering over pools of muddied water that were like giant stepping stones to be avoided – welcomed 82-year-old electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick to its environs June 20 at the Luminato Festival for a historic performance of his seminal 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon.
It was late in the day on what had been a long Saturday a few weeks ago. The multiple choirs, percussion, brass, winds, solo performers and dancers had just completed a run-through of Part One of Murray Schafer’s epic piece Apocalypsis which the Luminato Festival is presenting June 26, 27 and 28. Schafer himself was there, his first chance to hear what we had all been up to in the weeks prior.
The music came to its close. The brilliant conductor David Fallis lowered his hands. A silent hush fell over everyone. Just for a moment. It was as if we all had to take a collective in-and-out breath to honour what had just transpired. We were witness to something much bigger than each of us individually: the collective whole creating and bringing to life this masterpiece. Yes, I will say that, a masterpiece. It needs to be said, to be recognized, here in Canada. To respect the breadth of the visionary force that propelled Schafer back in the late 1970s to pen this work. Like a modern-day John the Divine, the author of the original biblical book of Revelations. Yet instead of the crashing doom and destruction we often associate with the apocalypse, this transcendent moment that occurred as the music came to its close was serene and sublime, creating a deep quiet within. A moment for revelation – which is in fact the true meaning of the word apocalypse.
I myself have been in one of the choirs, the Speech Chorus, in which we get to yell, chant, call out warnings and even scream. So lest you get the impression it’s all peaceful and calm… No, definitely not. There is plenty of cacophony and sturm und drang going on – of course. But it was this flicker of silence that occurred that day at the end of the first half that remains so strong in my memory. This inward space that prepares us for “what is yet to come” in Part Two. Using an entirely different set of choirs, Part Two, as I recall from having witnessed the original performance in 1980, continues and builds upon this moment.
It’s quite remarkable that for the past month, hundreds of performers, conductors, production staff and stage crew have been dedicating their June weekends to the rehearsals for Apocalypsis under the brilliant vision of director Lemi Ponifasio and members from his Company MAU based in New Zealand. I remember well the first rehearsal when we all met Lemi, who told us that in essence, what we were creating was a ritual by bringing this piece to life: a ceremony to which the audience is being invited. And as I’ve witnessed and participated in the final rehearsals with lighting and staging this past week, it is indeed just that. A meditation in sound and movement, light and image.
I could on about details and specifics and the appearance of star performers, but that’s not really what this is about. Ultimately it’s about creating a vision for a new kind of world. It’s as if we are opening up a crack through which a different collective story can find its voice. This old one we are desperately clinging to that has lead to untold human suffering is no longer sustainable. It has run its course. And just as John the Divine of old received his vision from a large crack in the wall of a cave on the island of Patmos, this performance is a collective moment to stop and pause, reflect, cleanse and consider another possibility. This is the power of what the sound of silence can create. As we say in the speech chorus: “Tell the people of what is now, and what is yet to come.”
If the jazz purists who grumble about how there's no jazz during the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (and there are some every year) had been at the Kurt Elling show on Tuesday evening June 23 they'd have to eat their words. Elling is an uber hep cat with serious jazz cred and he and his quartet gave us a lesson on how it's done. The adorers at Koerner Hall got treated to vintage Elling – scatting and swooping his way through standards such as Come Fly With Me and Nature Boy – but also treating us to songs from his newly released album Passion World which included an absolutely killer cover of the U2 hit Where the Streets Have No Name, beautifully arranged by his guitarist John McLean. (More on that to come in the September issue of WholeNote.) To add jazz icing to the cake, that same night Christian McBride's big band was blowing the roof off the tent in Nathan Phillips Square.
That said, the no-jazz grumblers had fodder for their complaints as George Clinton headlined the big, funky opening concert on Friday night June 19. With Dumpstaphunk and Morris Day & The Time opening up the free evening of music, it was a massive dance party on Nathan Phillips Square. Boo hoo.
The iconic 70s horn band, Tower of Power, controlled the mainstage on Saturday night and an argument could be made as to whether they're jazzy or not; but the packed house of paying customers didn't care as they ate out of the hands of these soul masters. Veterans of the touring circuit, the musicians of ToP were energetic and tuneful and gracious as they nailed hits like You're Still a Young Man and What is Hip? (Answer: they are.)
The festival is only half over and there's plenty of MUSIC to come all over the city – Wednesday June 24 Michael Occhipinti reinvents Bruce Cockburn with his band at The Rex and legend Branford Marsalis plays the Jane Mallett Theare; Thursday brings the “Elegant Gyspy” Al Dimeola and on Friday it's family jam time June 26 with Snarky Puppy on the mainstage. Full lineup is at torontojazz.com.
“You never know where you're going to meet a composer.”
Jacques Israelievitch was introducing Duo for Violin and Piano by Oscar Morawetz at the Canadian Music Centre on June 11. The occasion was the launch of the Centrediscos CD Fancies and Interludes, a collection of four 20th-century works by established Canadian composers recorded live at York University where both performers, Israelievitch and Christina Petrowska Quilico, are members of the faculty.
“On the subway or even ringing your doorbell.”
He was remembering the moment in 1988 shortly after he and his family moved to Toronto from St. Louis. He was about to begin his 20-year record run as TSO concertmaster when Morawetz appeared on his doorstep, music in hand. The composer presented the concertmaster with his Duo.
Later, Israelievitch took the score to his music room with its 90-odd boxes of carefully catalogued scores. Under “M” he found it, the same Duo, but autographed by Morawetz to Josef Gingold, the legendary concertmaster under George Szell in Cleveland and influential pedagogue at Indiana University. Israelievitch studied with Gingold, later becoming his teaching assistant. Duo (1951) was one of many scores Gingold did not have time to learn, scores which he passed on to his student.
Israelievitch played the piece with elegance and strength, bringing out the music's eloquence. He was aided by Petrowska Quilico's considerable support on the piano.
Earlier the violinist talked about passing the time while riding the subway in Chicago by studying the full score for Hindemith's Octet. A seatmate peered over his shoulder and asked if the score was by Hindemith. Surprised, Israelievitch engaged him in conversation, discovered he was a composer and within four stops had commissioned a piece from him. Three weeks later, Israelievitch's apartment bell rang and over the intercom he heard the words: “I'm the composer you met on the subway. I have your commission.”
After the Morawetz, Israelievitch and Petrowska Quilico played James Rolfe's Drop (1998) which combined percussive and repetitive keyboard writing with tentative, quasi-lyrical violin passages. Filled with referential phrases that often seemed familiar, the work ended with Israelievitch alone, a few quiet touches of the bow tenderly playing on the strings, the sound dropping reluctantly on the ears of the audience that crowded the CMC's first floor.
A heartfelt standing ovation followed. The violinist said simply: “I hope you enjoy the CD.”
Against the Grain Theatre is dedicated to experimentation. One of their experiments consists of an attempt to break down the traditional barrier between song recital and music drama. A clear example was their combination two years ago of Kurtág's Kafka Fragmente and Janácek's Diary of One Who Disappeared. Although the Kurtág is a performance piece, the Janácek would normally be done as a recital. Yet having the Diary staged and acted out (by the wonderful Colin Ainsworth and Lauren Segal) added a great deal to the musical experience.
In their most recent production, "Death & Desire," the directors, Joel Ivany and Topher Mokrzewski, have been careful not to simply repeat the earlier experiment. Whereas the Kurtág and the Janácek had been performed as two discrete halves of the evening, the works in their latest offering, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen's Harawi, were intertwined. That certainly set up an interesting relationship between the two works, though I was unconvinced by the way the protagonist in the Messiaen became Schubert's Fair Maid of the Mill (as we used to refer to her; this production preferred The Miller's Lovely Daughter). On the other hand, the manner in which the mezzo-soprano became the voice of the brook in the penultimate song of the Schubert cycle was magical.
There was an interesting suggestion in the program that the Messiaen was composed at a time when the composer's first wife first descended into madness. The significance of that certainly came across in the song Doundou tchil, which constituted the end of the first half of the evening and in which the French text disintegrated into something completely incomprehensible.
The performers were Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in Harawi and Stephen Hegedus as the wanderer in Die schöne Müllerin. Szabó was superb throughout. I thought that, in the first half of the evening, Hegedus was better in the lyrical songs than in the more assertive parts, but in the second half he was very fine throughout. The works were interestingly staged by Ivany; and Mokrzewski played the piano with the excellence which we have come to expect from him.
There is always a threat that productions of opera come to resemble a kind of museum. Companies see the productions of new works as a risk, while Carmen and La Traviata will always fill the house. Fortunately Tapestry Opera is one of several companies that focus on the production of new work.
Christian Petzold's Phoenix (currently at TIFF Bell Lightbox), a haunting tale of obsessive love set in Berlin just as WWII has ended, is a kind of inverted Vertigo with subtle twists of character that undulate to a score based on Kurt Weill's Speak Low (“Love is pure gold and time a thief”). Nelly (Nina Hoss, masterful), a concentration camp survivor, her face badly disfigured by gunshot wounds, has been rescued by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. She's anxious to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a piano player she sang with before she was apprehended in the fall of 1944. Despite strong indications that Johnny's character resembles his namesake in Weill's Surabaya Johnny, Nelly seeks him out after reconstructive surgery on her face. He's working in a bar called Phoenix, convinced his wife is dead, when she discovers him. To underscore his nature even more, two cabaret performers sing Holger Hiller's Johnny du Lump (Johnny You Scoundrel). Johnny's struck by the resemblance Nelly (she calls herself Esther, after her sister who did not survive the war) bears to his wife and concocts a scheme whereby she will pretend to be his wife in order for him to collect her inheritance in return for a lump sum payment.
Music was pivotal and the primary focus of eight films in this year's Hot Docs, the 22nd edition of that essential Toronto institution.
In her captivating documentary celebrating the Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element. Despite its title, the movie concentrates on three of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist and bassoonist and concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg. Each of her subjects talks about what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentine taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing a youth orchestra provides self worth and the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play and now leads that orchestra; to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play Symphony No. 8, we see his tears. Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And with the orchestra she gets inside by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's First and Second, among others.
A highly charged, fully packed Koerner Hall audience greeted the appearance of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain for their Toronto debut April 24. In a brief introduction to the concert's first half, Nézet-Séguin spoke of his 15-year relationship with the orchestra and the “French colour” they would bring to the evening of English music he had programmed.
Elgar's Enigma Variations had an intensity that revealed the architectural solidity of the piece. Wonderfully balanced full chords proceeded via a series of crescendos. There was sentiment without sentimentality (swells were swell) and a jocularity that foreshadowed the Edwardian Age about to dawn. (The work was composed just at the end of the 19th century.) With each variation dedicated to a friend or loved one (the first lovingly portrays the composer's wife), Elgar's creation is filled with tenderness and nostalgia. Its pastoral qualities (for King and Countryside you might say) were epitomized by a wind choir supported by strings. The famous Variation IX, “Nimrod” was dedicated to the memory of Paul Desmarais, a great supporter of the orchestra. The slow build begun by the flute and oboe duet buttressed by low strings reached great and stately heights before suddenly disappearing into the air, like fluttering insects in the wind.
Evgeny Kissin held an appreciative audience in his thrall May 1. Roy Thomson Hall was filled from top to bottom including the choir loft and dozens of stage seats for the Russian-born pianist's first solo recital in Toronto in 15 years. Three rows of seats on either side of the stage marked the outer edge of an umbrella of light that illuminated Kissin as he put his inimitable stamp on Beethoven's “Waldstein” Sonata, Prokofiev's Sonata No.4, three nocturnes and six mazurkas of Chopin as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.15 “Rákóczi March.” The Prokofiev, which ended the concert's first half, elicited a spontaneous standing ovation. The final notes of the Liszt at program's conclusion generated even more response, four standing ovations, three of which resulted in encores, culminating in Prokofiev's March from the Love for Three Oranges. It was an adoration complete with whoops, cheers and even a spate of unified rhythmic clapping.