hannigan.jpgThe Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival is turning out to be a remarkable blend between premieres of works not heard in Canada before, including two newly commissioned pieces and an experience of breaktaking performances by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan who was featured in the February issue of The WholeNote. With one show of the festival remaining on Saturday March 7 and the entire night devoted to a concert version of guest composer George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, all I can say is if you’re reading this before Saturday, you need not even think twice. It’s going to be spellbinding.

But before jumping ahead into the future, a look back at what has already transpired is in order. The two works that stood out for me at the February 28 concert were both devoted to studies of “a mind of winter,” which just happens to be the title of the work composed by Benjamin and performed by Hannigan that evening. As soon as the conductor’s baton was raised, from my close vantage point I could see Hannigan immediately begin to breathe into and with the sounds coming from the orchestra. I remembered what she had said in the interview we had for the February cover story – that when she sings she becomes fully a part of a large body making sound and breathing. She went on to say “that’s what makes singers so unique – because the voice is the most vulnerable of instruments, when you are connected with your whole body, your whole being is on display.” She so fully took the audience into this mind of winter state, that listening to the music lifted the listener far beyond the drudgery of winter into a place of stillness and exquisite beauty.

Marc-André Hamelin CREDIT Fran Kaufman

Not since Glenn Gould has a Canadian pianist had such a global impact as Marc-André Hamelin. Just as Gould’s interpretation of Bach revolutionized the way we heard his music, Hamelin made musical sense of late 19th and early 20th century pianist-composer romantic music so fiendishly difficult it had seemed lost until he unearthed it. As the years passed, Hamelin’s repertoire broadened to embrace more traditional repertoire and his March 1 Koerner Hall recital included Debussy’s Images Book II from his recently released Hyperion Debussy CD.

Looking back on the history of the early-music movement over the last 50 years, we can say that one accomplishment it made was to shift the focus of the musical canon away from Germany and Austria to other countries. It's understandable that this would happen -- German-speaking countries had a virtual monopoly on great composers from Haydn's day, but the cultural landscape in the preceding centuries was considerably more multipolar -- yet there's still a bias in early music for a few Western European countries. French, Italian and maybe a bit of English music is now de rigueur in early music circles, still there's no push to expand the canon any further, at the expense of more than a few great composers who have been lost to the ages.

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When someone goes to a concert of so-called serious music, they generally have one of two kinds of concert experience.

The first is a chance to hear an artistic masterpiece: an immortal work of art created by a genius and performed by an equally brilliant maestro who can interpret the work exactly as the master intended. Think of the TSO playing the entire cycle of Mahler symphonies and you have a pretty good idea of what that's supposed to look and sound like.

The other type is the concert-hall-as-museum approach. Instead of great art handed down through the ages, you experience the music as something kind of alien: coming from another time and place, it doesn't relate to your own experience, and in some ways it has nothing it wants to say to you. It was music to which other people danced, prayed and sang to one another. Like an artifact in a museum, it was left behind by its original owners when they decided they didn't need it any more.

Nobody listens to Jean-Philippe Rameau. This is particularly unfortunate because without him, we'd still be writing music as a series of interwoven melodies instead of as chords and melodies. Most developments in music from the late 18th century on depend on Rameau's contribution to music, namely that music is made up of chords, rather than individual notes that happen to harmonize together. Mozart and Beethoven needed Rameau to develop the capital “C” Classical style. Charlie Parker inventing bebop? He needed Rameau's concept of chords to conceive of harmonic improvisation. Guitar tab in rock and pop music? Rameau again. You get the idea.

I learned the following things from Daniel Taylor and Suzie Leblanc about how to put on a classical music concert last Friday, October 24:

  1. Be a famous and talented artist. Taylor and Leblanc are without a doubt the most well-recognized names in early music in Canada. They have been blessed with phenomenal voices and have been performing for decades. They are fantastic and are 50 times the musican I will ever be. If there was something less than flawless that they did last Friday, I never heard it and neither did anyone else in attendance.
  2. Find a university-affiliated venue and get on the tenure track. Trinity College Chapel at U of T is a beautiful place to hear a concert, not least because it has excellent acoustics for vocal music. I can't say it projects bass instruments all that well, but given the star power of the two soloists, it's not as if anyone was there to hear great feats of continuo being performed.

When Marshall Pynkoski boasted that Opera Atelier's performance of Alcina would be both the Canadian premiere of the opera and the first major Handel opera ever performed by the company, it was clear his expectations were high. Since the group's recent successes at Salzburg, La Scala and Versailles, I've felt a barely perceptible anxiety creeping in among the audience at Atelier's performances, almost as if we can't enjoy Opera Atelier without wondering how well they're going to represent Canada on the world stage. I mean, what if the Toronto premiere gets a standing ovation and the same show flops in San Francisco? What does that say about Torontonians as a concert-going public? Are our standards high enough? Our artists good enough? What if we're rubes?

Before the existence of public museums, gentlemen of a certain social standing would compile what they called a “cabinet of curiosities.” Like a museum in that it was a room, or rooms of artifacts devoted to culture in natural history, it differed in that the collection depended entirely on the whim of the gentleman collector and could include anything at all related to history, archaeology, geology, religious relics, antiquities and works of art. It was an approach to culture that depended on the collector’s freewheeling sense of enthusiasm.

One could feel it in the air at the annual Toronto Early Music Fair, where the wide-ranging talents of a diverse group of musicians were on display at Montgomery's Inn, along with a pile of antiques, musical scores and musical instruments, all curated as a labour of love by Early Music Toronto (EMT) and Frank Nakashima.

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