Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey by Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur

61aLotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey
by Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur
Northeastern University Press
344 pages, photos; $44.95

• While Lotfi Mansouri was general director of the Canadian Opera Company, he wrote a sunny memoir called An Operatic Life. Now, almost thirty years later he has followed up with this far more detailed, but decidedly bittersweet, chronicle of his life. It’s a candid and probing look at the world of opera. And it’s especially compelling because, right from his lonely, privileged early years in his native Tehran, Mansouri has led a thoroughly fascinating life.

Mansouri certainly left his mark on the COC, as he proudly points out, calling the chapter on his twelve years in Toronto “From Provincialism to World-Class.” Under his leadership, the COC Orchestra and the COC Ensemble were established, a splendid home for offices and rehearsal spaces was built, and the CBC began broadcasting COC performances on radio and television. But his most far-reaching legacy – he credits his wife Midge with the original idea – is the invention of Surtitles, which have revolutionized the way opera is presented throughout the world.

Mansouri set up a Canadian Composer’s Program, though it was cancelled by his successor, Brian Dickie. He produced R. Murray Schafer’s Patria 1 (misidentified as Patria II, quite a different opera altogether), and commissioned Harry Somers’ Mario and the Magician. So it’s not just discouraging, but downright perplexing to read what he has to say about his attempts while in Toronto to find a composer for A Streetcar Named Desire (André Previn’s score was a great success for him later in San Francisco). After Stephen Sondheim(!) turned it down, “I checked out Canadian composers, of course, but most of them were academic navel-gazers … My composer had to understand smoky jazz and genteel decay. With all respect, Toronto could never inspire that kind of music – Canadians are too hygienic.”

Though his time in Toronto was “exciting, joyous and highly collaborative,” his frustrations over trying to get a new opera house built here drove him to the San Francisco Opera in 1988. Although he had spent a good deal of his directing career there, he had no inkling of the far more insidious frustrations that awaited him. The earthquake that wreaked havoc on his early seasons was nothing compared to the betrayals that eventually forced him out.

The issues weren’t merely personal. It was his traditional approach to presenting opera, which for Mansouri meant “to read between the lines without neglecting to read the lines,” that was attacked by those who wanted to see a director’s personal stamp on a production. Mansouri, who started as a singer, felt his own work as a director was being written off as not just old-fashioned, but, even more disturbingly, as lightweight. So at the heart of this book lies a plea for staging operas by using the score as the starting point, not the director’s vision.

Mansouri is a born storyteller. Among his many delightful anecdotes, my favourite tells how the irascible conductor Otto Klemperer, who had been hideously rude to Mansouri, fell asleep with his head on Mansouri’s shoulder during a dress rehearsal. “No amount of training can prepare anyone for a situation like that.” At least he keeps laughing – and making us laugh – in this wonderful memoir.

The Secret Life of Musical Notation by Roberto Poli

59_secretlife_1The Secret Life of Musical Notation
by Roberto Poli
Amadeus Press
264 pages, illustrations; $24.99 US

• At first, pianist Roberto Poli was simply questioning certain performance directions which he found confusing. How, he wondered, had composers actually intended performers to interpret markings that seemed to either contradict each other, like a hairpin < to pianissimo, or repeat each other, like a hairpin > with decrescendo written underneath.

Poli began to suspect that in the past the hairpins hadn’t been used just to indicate dynamics, as is usually assumed today. In fact, he realized that they could be indicating flexibility in the timing, or the shaping of a melody. With this, he was inspired to re-examine traditional ways of interpreting a number of musical signs, including stretti, pedalling, and sforzandi markings, though for reasons he doesn’t explain he doesn’t look at tempo markings, which, especially in the case of Beethoven, can be equally baffling.

At every step of this fascinating study, Poli has consulted original scores and documents. He has also looked at the instrument the composer wrote for, and the size of the room where the work would have been performed. This is all familiar territory to period instrument players. Yet Poli expresses no inclination to give up his modern piano in favour of an historical instrument. Instead, he advocates more freedom, suggesting that interpretations of composers’ markings have become too rigid during the past century. “Decades of traditions,” he writes, “have been instilling a sense of overexactness in our reading habits – a way of evaluating notation that is remote from how a composer probably imagined it.”

Poli looks at works by composers from Haydn to Prokofiev. But his main focus is on Chopin. As it happens, there’s an exhibit of original scores and letters from Chopin’s time on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. To celebrate Chopin’s 200th birthday, the ROM has pulled out some precious items from its rarely displayed collection of scores and instruments, including a splendid piano made by Pleyel, whose instruments Chopin favoured because of their clear bass register, transparent tone and sensitive action.

Poli’s quest for greater interpretive insight unfolds like the plot of a captivating mystery story. His ideas about what lies behind the notes on the printed page are made all the more persuasive by the many musical examples included in this book. n


Fryderyk Chopin & the Romantic Piano is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in the Samuel European Galleries until March 27.

Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music

59_weinzweig_book_scanWeinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music
John Beckwith and Brian Cherney, editors
Wilfred Laurier University Press
416 pages plus CD, photos; $50.00

• The many facets of Canadian composer John Weinzweig’s life and work revealed in this collection of essays reflects the breadth of his impact on Canadian music. He created a lasting body of adventurous works, promoted Canadian music with untiring ferocity and taught many generations of composers.

Sixty years ago, as co-editor Brian Cherney points out in a discussion of Weinzweig’s irrepressible activism, Weinzweig declared that Canada’s composers “have a special distinction. We are the most unpublished, unheard, unperformed and unpaid composers in the Western world.” He devoted his life to changing that situation.

Weinzweig, who died in 2006 at the age of 93, was a rebel. But even though his pioneering use of serial techniques pushed Canadian music into the modernist ethos, he didn’t impose his own style on his students. His strongest influence was in the way he approached composing as a process of creative thinking. Throughout this book we read how he would tell his students “We don’t do it this way anymore,” when he felt the music they were writing was not daring enough. Especially in his later years, he would complain about how conservative the younger generation of composers was. Nonetheless, as John Rea observes, even when Weinzweig didn’t accept the ideas being put forward by his younger students, “he would teach others to be as eager and enthusiastic as him and, yes, teach them also to be and to become just as impatient.”

Weinzweig referred to himself as a “radical romantic.” In an essay about how to play his music, Robert Aitken writes about “his spry wit, intense irony, twinkling eyes yet steadfast seriousness of purpose.” By the end of the final essay, co-editor John Beckwith’s affectionate Weinzweig As I Knew Him, a vivid portrait has emerged from the various perspectives explored in this superb book.

This book has been produced with uncommon care, right from the cover art, through the documentation on Weinzweig’s compositions and recordings, to the enclosed CD of his music. Throughout the text there are photos of items such as a page from his first piano teacher Gertrude Anderson’s hand-written account of his early years, and a portrait by Harold Town, whose rejection of realism, as Robin Elliott shows, parallels Weinzweig’s own unswerving rejection of tonality.

Leonard Bernstein At Work: His Final Years, 1984 – 1990 photographs by Steve J. Sherman

58_l_bernstein_at_workLeonard Bernstein At Work: His Final Years, 1984 – 1990

photographs by Steve J. Sherman

Amadeus Press

192 pages, photos; $34.99 US

• Leonard Bernstein was a trail-blazing conductor, a superb pianist, a composer of both Broadway hits and classical masterworks, a communicative writer, and an innovative educator. As his assistant Craig Urqhart says in this splendid book, “He was living five lives at a time.” Bernstein’s life and work have been well-documented. But Steve Sherman’s ability to capture Bernstein’s remarkable charisma, both on and off stage, makes this collection of photos taken during the six years before his death in 1990 especially powerful.

Bernstein was strikingly photogenic. The toll that his years of intense living took on him is evident here, especially in the casual shots. But the photos of him conducting reveal the spontaneity, intelligence, joyfulness, wit and intensity that made his performances so thrilling. They show how Bernstein became a conduit for the music, with his balletic body language and expressive facial gestures. “I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself,” he is quoted as saying. “I want it to sound like the composer.”

Sherman’s photos tell stories that words can’t. In the stunning wide-angle two-page shot of Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1988, almost every member of the orchestra is watching the conductor intently. There’s a poignant shot of Bernstein with violinist Isaac Stern, taken backstage after a concert with the Israel Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall in 1985, each with his arm around the other’s shoulder. There’s an amusing photo of Bernstein showing up for a rehearsal for Irving Berlin’s 100th birthday gala at Carnegie Hall in 1988 wearing a purple feather boa and sunglasses. The most dramatic photo here is of Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1988, arms reaching out to the camera.

The texts include an eloquent remembrance from Bernstein’s daughter Jamie which makes clear just what his energetic commitment to whatever he was doing cost him. Comments from a number of associates of Bernstein, culled from interviews done over the years by the photographer’s father, writer and broadcaster Robert Sherman, complement this beautifully produced and well-priced volume.

The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel by John Canarina

58_ny_philharmonicThe New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel

by John Canarina

Amadeus Press

495 pages, photos; $29.99 US

• In this engaging history of the New York Philharmonic, John Canarina relates how someone at a public forum in 1991 suggested that the orchestra should install a giant mirror at the rear of the stage so audiences could watch the conductor’s facial expressions. The orchestra’s music director at the time, Kurt Masur, responded, “When I conduct Beethoven, I wouldn’t like to replace Beethoven. He should be in your mind, not me.” Masur’s attitude is similar to that of another of the orchestra’s long-time conductors, Leonard Bernstein. In fact, the orchestra has consistently attracted principal conductors who, like Masur and Bernstein, are more concerned with letting the composers’ voices be heard than stamping their own personalities on the orchestra. This has allowed the distinctive sound of the orchestra – which Canarina characterizes by its openness and immediacy – to develop under a succession of conductors.

Canarina, who was an assistant conductor with the orchestra under Leonard Bernstein, starts his history with Bernstein, who took over from Dmitri Mitropoulos in 1958 amid concerns that he was just a “personality boy.” At 39 he was considered too young to lead a major orchestra, though today that doesn’t sound so young, with 29-year-old Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 35-year-old Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In any case, the choice of Pierre Boulez sparked even more controversy, though it turned out to be just as visionary.

The conductors are quite properly Canarina’s main focus. But he certainly gives the orchestra players their due. He quotes his own interviews with orchestra members and highlights the work of legendary principal players like cellist Lorne Munroe, flutist Jeanne Baxtresser, (who came to the orchestra from the Toronto Symphony), clarinettist Stanley Drucker, and current concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.

Canarina also pursues his particular interest in how the orchestra has been treated by the press throughout the years, which leads to numerous quotations from past reviews. But far more interesting are the quotes from performers, composers and conductors, and especially his own insightful comments, which enhance this lively portrait of a great orchestra.

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald

58_a_biographical_guide_to_the_great_jazz_and_pop_singersA Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

by Will Friedwald


829 pages; $53.00

• This hefty volume certainly lives up to its title, with detailed biographies of more than three hundred of the twentieth century’s best jazz and popular singers. But it offers much more. In fact, this book contains some of the most astute, witty and stylish critical writing on singers since Whitney Balliett wrote for the New Yorker.

Instead of trying to define who is and who isn’t a jazz singer, Will Friedwald , a jazz critic for the Wall Street Journal, has based his choices on those who sing the standards of the so-called Great American Songbook. Though most of the singers he profiles were active during the last century, he does cover a number of contemporary singers, including Canadians Diana Krall and Michael Bublé.

Friedwald comes up with some surprising – and interesting – historical connections. “If you take [Dean] Martin’s usual singing,” he suggests, “and apply a little more vibrato to it, you end up with something that sounds suspiciously like Elvis.” For him, even an obscure singer like Rose Murphy is not just “one of the most distinctive, not to mention delightful, performers in popular music,” but also an important influence on Ella Fitzgerald.

One of the many things that sets this encyclopedia apart is the generous length of the entries, long enough to do justice to what these singers accomplished, and detailed enough to include discussions of their recordings. He sheds fresh light on well-documented singers like Frank Sinatra (the subject of one of Friedwald’s previous books), Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Alberta Hunter, Anita O’Day, and Mel Tormé. But he also re-evaluates lesser-known singers like Al Hibbler, Ernestine Anderson, Mose Allison, and Helen Humes. He admits to failing to be moved by Cleo Laine, yet still manages an appreciative portrait. And some of his most interesting comments are about those who are well-known, but not so much as singers, like Dean Martin, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, and Jimmy Durante.

Though there is a detailed list of contents, there is, unfortunately, no index. So unless you read this book from cover to cover, you are bound to miss some terrific writing, like the extra comments on Louis Armstrong which are found in Friedwald’s discussion of Durante. It’s especially frustrating because Friedwalds’s writing is so good that I wouldn’t want to have missed anything he had to say about a singer I was interested in.

Address inquiries to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .



Here are some terrific books from this year that would be of special interest to music lovers, even if they are not directly about music

Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter by Robert Storr (Tate Publishing)

The catalogue of a show at London’s Tate Modern that featured a suite of massive paintings by one of the greatest painters of our time, Gerhard Richter. They were directly inspired by the music of John Cage. This hefty catalogue includes essays along with splendid reproductions of the paintings themselves.

Diaghilev and the The Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909 – 1929 (V&A Publishing)

A collection of extraordinary historic photos and essays cataloguing a recent show at the Victoria & Albert Museum about  impresario (and so much more) Sergei Diaghilev, along with the composers, like Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev and Debussy, painters like Picasso, and dancers like Nijinsky he worked with to create ballets for his company, Les Ballets Russes.

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (faber and faber)

A new play by Alan Bennett (Beyond the Fringe, The Madness of George III) featuring a discussion between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden about life, sex and basing an opera on the novella Death In Venice by Thomas Mann (who happened to be Auden’s father-in-law). Although such a conversation never actually took place, Auden did write the libretto for Britten’s earlier opera Paul Bunyan. This ranks with the very best plays about music  like David Pownall’s  The Composer Plays (Music to Murder By, Elgar’s Rondo, Elgar’s Third, and especially Master Class) and Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (which has a part for symphony orchestra, written by André Previn).

The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson (Knopf)

A selection of photos and transcripts of conversations taken from the 40,000 photos and 4,000 hours of audiotapes of conversations and jam sessions made by photographer W.Eugene Smith between 1957 and 1965 in his New York loft. They were discovered eleven years ago by Sam Stephenson, who has put together this remarkable volume. Along with musicians like Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, and Paul Bley, a young Steve Reich was a regular for a few years.

Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians by Janet Horvath (Hal Leonard)

Wise and detailed advice for performers who have been injured or want to avoid being injured, as well as musicians and music-lovers who want to investigate the physical demands of playing an instrument. Horvath is  a Toronto-born cellist who plays in the Minnesota Orchestra.

Safe Passage by Ida Cook (Harlequin)

The extraordinary memoir written by the younger of two intrepid British sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who managed to turn their passion for opera, and numerous friendships with opera singers, into a means of rescuing dozens of Jews from persecution and death by the Nazis. This memoir is published by Harlequin because Ida was a successful writer of romance novels.

Sketches from Here and There by A.J. (Jack) Diamond (Douglas & McIntyre)

A collection of vibrant watercolours, featuring buildings and other man-made structures, by architect Jack Diamond, who designed the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre. Diamond is currently working on the new Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats by  Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Abrams)

The quirky vision of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the British branch of the Rothchilds, who abandoned her life as a baroness to move to New York and become friend, muse and supporter of  jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.  In two leather-bound Hermès notebooks she recorded the answers she received to the question, “If you were given three wishes, to be instantly granted, what would they be?”. This fascinating book includes responses from the most notable jazz musicians of the time, as well as photos.

Back to top