When Tanya Tagaq Won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize

In my October World Music Beat column I offered a “Polaris Music Prize Trailer,” luring readers with the promise of “a backstage pass to the avant-garde Inuk vocalist Tany Tagaq’s jaw-dropping ten-minute performance…” I’m here to deliver on that promise. I will also weighing in on the ramifications of the thrice JUNO-nominated Tagaq’s win on September 22, 2014 for her CD Animism. It’s the “best Canadian album regardless of genre and sales” according to Polaris, and her win this year certainly marks a significant milestone. For the first time it was awarded to an indigenous musician.


When Tagaq, drummer Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot lit into their Polaris spot, it was as if an intensee Arctic wind had blown into downtown Toronto's The Carlu, howling. They played sections of their superb Animism with improvised throat singing upfront in the mix. I'd seen the trio on two other occasions. But when Christine Duncan cued her 40-voice improvising choir behind Tagaq, sounding like Xenakis or Ligeti's atonal chord clusters had just entered the hall, the concert achieved liftoff, moving onto another plane entirely. The multiple musical textures and traditions blended powerfully, the Inuit with the Euro-American-Canadian (featuring rock, free improv, soundscape, classical avant-garde and yet more genres).

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Canadian Music for Gamelan Turns 30: Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan Explores the Music of its First Decade

eccg - june 15  2014  3500x1908 Where to start with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan? Perhaps it’d be best to mention that I was there at the group’s genesis, invited by its composer/founder Jon Siddall. Over three decades later I’m still a proud member of its roster of musicians with 30 concerts seasons, international tours, over 200 new works and ten albums under its collective belt. While my bias here is clear, my tenure with ECCG as musician, composer, arranger and past artistic director also ought to qualify me to speak about its past and present projects with passion.

The ECCG has the distinction of being Canada’s first group playing music on an Indonesian gamelan (orchestra). Recently it has been digging into its first decade of commissions of foundational Canadian and American music for gamelan, some not heard this century.

ECCG artistic director Blair Mackay makes a case for these early works. “There are a handful of works from the 1983-1993 era that formed the basis of the ECCG sound as well as our overall approach to playing the actual instruments.” The eight-member group presents these foundational compositions in two intimate June concerts at the Arraymusic Studio, 155 Walnut Ave., Toronto. The first was staged on June 15 and the second will happen on June 22 at 8pm.

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Interview with Michael Patrick Albano


In March the Opera Division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its move to the Edward Johnson Building.  From March 20 to 23 the Opera Division will present Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring (1947), which was the first opera to be presented in the building’s MacMillan Theatre back on March 4,1964.  

This event provides an excellent occasion to look back on the past 50 years of the Opera Division.  Michael Patrick Albano has a fine perspective to offer since he came to Toronto in 1974 to study with Herman Geiger-Torel, who had been the Opera Division’s stage director since 1946 and was still the artistic director of  the Canadian Opera Company he had co-founded in 1950.  Albano is currently a senior lecturer and the resident stage director at the Opera Division, having directed over 40 operas for it including the Canadian premieres of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue, Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Kulesha’s The Last Duel.

The Edward Johnson Building was built because the Faculty of Music’s old premises could no longer accommodate the expansion of music programs in the 1950s.  In a recent interview, Albano explained the importance of the MacMillan Theatre to the opera division: “It is essentially a fully equipped opera house.  It has its present design because Geiger-Torel was associated with both the school and the COC.  At the time the COC had nowhere to rehearse, so Geiger-Torel urged the construction of such a large stage to give the COC somewhere to rehearse.  It is due to the foresight of Geiger-Torel and the other founders of opera in Toronto that the school has such a unique space.  Its stage is comparable in size to that of the current Sony Centre with a pit for up to 60 musicians, but it has an intimate auditorium with only 815 seats.”  This is ideal for students, as Albano notes, because: “With developing voices it’s great that they’re in a space where they don’t feel that have to over produce.  In the current economic climate the MacMillan Theatre simply could not be built today.”     

The MacMillan Theatre and the opera programming at the opera division are the two chief areas of study at the Division.  Albano has asked former students, as he did recently with John Fanning, what that they found most beneficial at the Opera Division and all of them agree that it is “being able to sing a full-length role in costume in a real theatre with an orchestra in the pit.”  He adds: “Just giving them the experience of singing in a real opera house, which is rare in North American opera schools, is something you don’t want forced upon you when you first have a professional job.”

Changes have occurred over the past 50 years.  The Opera Division introduced the use of surtitles in its 1999 production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, and, as Albano says, “has never looked back.”  Audience members have said they like surtitles even with English-language productions, and this will be the case with Albert Herring.  A partial effect of surtitles has been the gradual move away from the double and triple bills that the opera division used to perform to a concentration on full-length works. “The attraction for the students is doing a full-length role from beginning to end,” Albano says. The attraction for the Opera Division is the chance to present works on the edge of standard repertory like Chabrier’s L’Étoile or Britten’s Paul Bunyan that both complement the offerings of the COC and are ideal vehicles for developing voices.


As Albano notes, the Opera Division does its programming from the opposite point of view from a company like the COC.  “Unlike a professional opera company where they decide on the repertory and then engage the singers they want, we have to look at the roster of singers in our two-year program and decide what will work best for them.” 

Another change, begun in 1987, was the institution of programs for operatic répétiteurs and for student stage directors.  For Albano, this reflects the changing times since when he arrived and said he wanted to direct opera, no one knew what to do with him.  Now he is encouraged that the Division has so many applications for the stage direction program they can’t accept them all.  To him this is just a sign of how excited younger people are in opera as an art form.  Maria Lamont, the first graduate of the stage direction program, now has a career working for De Vlaamse Opera and is Robert Carsen’s choice for staging remounts of his work.  

In 1997 a student collective formed that was interested in writing operas.  Now opera writing has become a course.  Unique among other North American opera schools, the students at the Opera Division are able to see their work through from composition to a full staging.  The student-written Rob Ford the Opera was such a runaway success in 2012 that it proved there was a hunger among audiences for new opera in Toronto and a hunger for young singers to perform it.

The Opera Division has always offered acting classes for singers but over the years, as Albano notes: “They have become more codified and structured to give modern performers what they need to know.  The classes involve both practical instruction such as stage fighting and movement to role interpretation and the awareness of opera as theatre.  Gone is the era of ‘park and bark.’  Instruction has evolved with what the public now demands.”   

In summarizing what has changed, Albano says: “The huge difference to me in the evolution of the program is an effort at versatility, versatility, versatility.”  This means the introduction of works outside the 19th-century core repertoire to include the baroque as well as brand new operas.  This means training singers to be more versatile as performers.  This means offering the possibility of connecting with opera not just as a performer but as a composer and a stage director.  And this means exposing students to as many outside influences as possible through guest directors like Joel Ivany, who will direct Albert Herring, or guest conductors like Les Dala, who will conduct it.  As Albano says, “Versatility is important because the more versatile you are the more likely you are to be employed.”  All in all, Albano concludes, “I am very optimistic about the future.  The art form itself is in a healthy place.”

Albert Herring plays March 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30pm and March 23 at 2:30pm at the MacMillan Theatre.  For tickets call 416-408-0208 or visit performance.rcmusic.ca.

Quartetski Does Stravinsky

The opening concert of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music festival began with a huge explosion of energy Friday, October 11. The high-octane sounds coming from the Gordon Grdina Trio set the stage for the Montreal-based Quartetski and their retake of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  As I mentioned in my October WholeNote column, this work caused a riot when it premiered 100 years ago in Paris.  As I was sitting listening to the brilliance of this reworking of the original, I couldn’t help but wonder how those audiences of 1913 would respond.  I imagined Stravinsky himself with a huge wide grin dazzled by the eclectic palette of sounds, many of which would have been unheard of in his day. As for the audiences?  Perhaps so shocked and stunned they wouldn't be able to move, let alone begin a riot.   

quartetskiblogBut back to the music and its brilliance.  For starters, there was the instrumentation:  viola da gamba, violin, drums and eclectic percussion, various sound/noise objects, electric guitar with effect pedals, bass clarinet and soprano sax. But it was the seamless movement between scored sections and improvisation that captured my attention. The referencing of the original music was unmistakable -- the familiar melodies and the driving rhythms.  But with the addition of improvisation, the individual virtuosic skills of each player shone; they approached their instruments as full-on sound generators including saxophone multiphonics, the bowing of the tailpiece of the gamba and a scratchy LP recording.  One of my favourites was a DIY noise machine made by putting a stick in a styrofoam ball and placing it on a moving potter’s wheel, with the styrofoam ball acting as the sound resonator. You can see this white ball on the left in the photo. 

After the concert, I asked the group’s founder and viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel about how this piece came together.  He told me that after listening to various orchestral versions, he studied  the two-piano reduction created by Stravinsky. He proceeded from there to make an arrangement based on each player’s skills and unique talents.  One of his fascinating ideas was to use various lines from the orchestral score that would not normally be heard so distinctively -- such as the tuba and flute parts.  His creation was then brought to the group and honed into its final form through a collective process of improvisation and revisions. 

To give you a taste of the imaginative melding of score and improvisation, here's a clip of the opening four minutes, thanks to  Joe at Mechanical Forest Sound. It begins almost imperceptively with static-like sounds before we hear the familiar haunting opening melody. Then hold onto your hat as the sonic roller coaster kicks in.

To read more about Quartetski and listen to other audio clips go to quartetski.com.

From the Height of Romanticism to the Birth of Modernism: Valery Gergiev Conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra

Please click on photos for larger images.

In a historic concert at Roy Thomson Hall on October 6, Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s first three ballet scores. It is unlikely these three masterpieces of early 20th century music had ever been heard before in Toronto on the same program. According to the Carnegie Hall notes for a similar concert in New York several days later, Stravinsky himself conducted all three there in 1940 but used a suite version of The Firebird rather than the complete work that Gergiev programmed. By performing all three scores as they were first heard in 1910 (The Firebird), 1911 (Petrushka) and 1913 (The Rite of Spring) and in chronological order, Gergiev gave us the rare gift of the rakish composer’s progress from the height of romanticism to the birth of modernism.

valery gergiev foto stina gullander sr

Gergiev conducted without a baton but each of the fingers on his right hand, seemingly independent, directed the tempo and entrances, while his fluttering left hand occasionally rose to sweep his thinning hair back into place. The result was faultless, precise tuttis contrasted with transparency when appropriate, whether in woodwind interplay or solo strings. (In a New York Times Magazine profile from 2009, the principal clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra [Gergiev’s other musical child], revealed that it is the conductor’s expressive face, from the eyes to the mouth, that is the real source of his power).

The Firebird is a rich, colouristic playground of narrative that demands impeccable playing from every corner of the orchestra. From the early solo viola to the violin that announces the first trumpet solo, followed by the muted French horn’s entrance and the full horn section’s dialogue with the strings, to the oboe-clarinet-bassoon tune that leads into the strings’ mournful lament, the first half of the piece was a shining example of the conductor’s controlled reading of the score.

And so it continued, with the strings’ extraordinary precision from tremulousness to sudden stops, abrupt mood swings and consistent ensemble runs, in the face of the brass’ yattering exclamations and the soulful bassoon and beautiful final French horn solo, the string playing was never overblown or sentimental. Gergiev built the climax slowly; it was steady and heady until the tempo picked up and the brass triumphed leading to an immediate standing ovation.

 gergiev and orchestra of the mariinsky theatre 1

After the first of two intermissions, Petrushka began with an impetuous rush before moving into the bucolic hemisphere of the country fair and the iconic dance-like flute solo that seemed to announce Stravinsky’s move from the 19th to the 20th century even as the cornucopia of folk rhythms and melodies confirmed it. A bonus of the 1911 version of the piece was the extensive use of the piano, both solo and in dialogue with the flute in particular. Apart from a brief trumpet solo that lacked the control that was so evident throughout this momentous concert -- which began at 2:15pm and finished at 5:05 -- the orchestra shone in the composer’s generous solo writing.

And as the snare drum motif led into a sumptuous conflation of tune and tutti followed by a de facto oboe and string quintet that moved into unbridled lyricism, Gergiev made sure to emphasize the bass notes in advance of the pure joy that ends in the proverbial whimper, always allowing the interior voices to be heard.

The Rite of Spring, arguably the most rhythmic orchestral music since Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, followed the second intermission. Here the wonderful transparency of the orchestra brought out the cacaphony of the score, the sinuous viola solo (from a violist who, charmingly, couldn’t stop smiling whenever he soloed) and the languor transformed into rancour. Two exquisite moments of silence held by Gergiev’s outstretched right hand caught an audience so attentive that not one cough was heard. The clarity of the whole orchestra was remarkable as Gergiev made the pagans dance.

Toronto was fortunate to be one of only four cities (Chicago, New York and Washington were the others) to hear the Stravinsky program on the orchestra’s two-week tour of North America. During the tour, Gergiev also conducted two operas at the Met, Shostakovitch’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. After a concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Montreal on October 4, Gergiev conducted a matinee of Onegin in New York on October 5, before the concert at Roy Thomson Hall the following afternoon. Whew.


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