Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire
by Walter Pitman
432 pages, photos; $40.00
Canadian conductor Victor Feldbrill has lead so many premieres of Canadian compositions and promoted so many Canadian works around the world that his impact on music in Canadian has been immeasurable, as Walter Pitman shows in this thorough biography. Pitman, who has chronicled the lives of Canadian musicians, takes a close look at what motivated Feldbrill to support Canadian composers and performers so unreservedly, even when it created difficulties for him. “His position”, writes Pitman, “was that if the music itself had integrity and was skilfully written, it must be played.”
By all accounts, Feldbrill was an accomplished conductor in all kinds of repertoire. “Why then”, asks Pitman, “weren’t orchestras from around the world clamouring for his services?” Placing value on “competence, reliability and collegiality”, Feldbrill avoided the “wildly entertaining, shocking and melodramatic” styles of conductors who stamp their personalities on their interpretations. But because he was reluctant to impose a personal vision, he didn’t generate the kind of charisma that makes a conductor get noticed.
What’s more, Feldbrill stayed in Canada. There’s a crop of younger Canadian conductors today, like Yves Abel, Kwame Ryan, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Julian Kuerti, who have achieved remarkable success. But they are all pursuing their careers outside Canada.
Pitman has done extensive interviews with Feldbrill, who was born in Toronto in 1924, as well as with musicians who worked with him. He has also made full use of letters and archival documents. He is, however, more concerned with how Feldbrill was able to accomplish what he did than with matters of musical interpretation. A discography and a list of his premieres would have been useful to document the “incredible history of composition” that Feldbrill’s performances and recordings of Canadian music represent, especially since many of the recordings are unavailable today. Even what Pitman calls Feldbrill’s “crowning achievement”, his recording of Harry Somers’ seminal opera, Louis Riel, is difficult to come by. But Pitman’s engaging, detailed biography goes a long way to illuminate the history of Canadian composition that they represent. And it has a particularly lovely back cover – a lovely portrait of Feldbrill, baton in hand, painted by his grandson, Benjamin Koffman.
Listen to This
by Alec Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
381 pages; $31.00
In his first book, The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross took an ambitiously sweeping approach to the whole history of 20th century classical music. His new book, Listen to This, is just as ambitious, as the title makes clear. But this time, happy to leave loose ends and open questions, he offers a collection of articles about specific musicians. Most of these pieces first appeared in Ross’s column in The New Yorker magazine. They seem to have been chosen not because they are his best, but because they offer a sampling of the broad range of music and musicians that Ross feels passionate about, from Brahms to Björk.
Ross’s goal here is to knock down the walls separating different types of music. Discussing Björk, he depicts a musical utopia where ‘the ideologies, teleologies, style wars, and subdivisions that have so defined music in the past hundred years slip away”. So he focuses on the musicians and music that inspire him. There’s the ‘free-wheeling spirit’ of early music performers like Richard Egarr, and the joy that the St Lawrence Quartet takes in ‘the act of connection” . There’s the rock group Radiohead, who practices “a new kind of classical music for the masses”. Then there’s Brahms, whose Intermezzo op 117 no 1 is, he writes, “the music that you will hear when you die”.
“I approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world", writes Ross. There is something infectious about his enthusiasm for such a broad range of genres when, in a discussion of the history of the chaconne, he moves effortlessly from classical music into the realms of blues, jazz, and pop. As an attempt to show how these various genres are all related, Listen to This was not thoroughly convincing. But as a compilation of terrific pieces on various musicians by the best music critic in North America, it’s a stand-out – especially once the headache-inducing dust-jacket is removed.
Fortepianist Richard Egarr is performing a program of Mozart and Haydn with Tafelmusik at Trinity-St. Paul’s from Dec. 1 to Dec. 5.
Finishing the Hat
by Stephen Sondheim
478 pages, photos; 46.00
When songwriter Steven Sondheim turned seventy, he made a list of his favourite songs written by other song-writers. He called it Songs I Wish I’d Written (At Least In Part). This year, for his eightieth birthday, he has put together this collection of his own songs, or at least the lyrics. This includes lyrics for his own shows like A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as well as shows from earlier in his career when when he worked with composers like Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story, and Jule Styne for Gypsy.
Between the lyrics for each song he has written, including drafts and alternates, Sondheim adds choice comments about the songs and the shows they’re from, as well as the actors, directors and producers who worked on them. Along the way, he discusses – not uncritically - song-writers of the past. These include his two favourites, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern, as well as his beloved mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a surrogate father to him.
Sondheim’s witty and poignant lyrics make terrific reading. Without the music to share the attention, you really notice how much the expressiveness of his songs is due to his brilliant use of language, especially his intricate and unusual rhymes. Even though songs like Send in the Clowns and I’m Still Here have become standards on their own today, Sondheim emphasizes how important it is for him that his lyrics enhance the dramatic action of the shows they’re in. So even one of his favourites songs, Multitudes of Amys, ended up being cut from Company when the story-line was changed.
It’s tempting to see Sondheim himself in his characters, with their longings, regrets, and cynicism. But, as Sondheim reminds us, he does not create the characters in his shows – that’s for the book-writer. “The only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience is Finishing the Hat,” from Sunday in the Park with George. It’s a song about artistic expression. But even though he used it as the title of this volume, it’s not included here since it’s from a show written in 1984, three years after the cut-off date for this collection.
Sondheim’s life and work have been extensively documented in books and recordings. His own recorded commentaries featured in the recent revue Sondheim on Sondheim cover some of the same material as Finishing the Hat. But so far, this wonderful book is the closest thing to an autobiography Sondheim has written. Fortunately he promises a second volume.
Stephen Sondheim will be introduced by Des McAnuff and interviewed by Robert Cushman on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre on December 6 at 8.00
McAnuff’s production of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens there on Dec. 15
Sondheim’s song-list has been published in the new edition of Mark Eden Horowitz’s Sondheim on Music (The Scarecrow Press)
By Paul Helmer
McGill-Queen’s University Press
400 pages; $29.95
• Between 1933 and 1948 a number of musicians came to Canada to escape persecution in their homelands. Most were fleeing the Nazis in Europe, but some were escaping the Communists within the constantly changing borders of the Soviet Union. Paul Helmer has identified 121 musicians among the 4000 to 5000 who came to this country seeking refuge during that period. Many, though by no means all, were Jewish. But Helmer’s investigation focuses less on why they escaped than how they got out, and what they achieved after they arrived in Canada.
Most landed in Canada with little more than their talent and whatever contacts they could come up with. None had willingly chosen to abandon their families, homelands, cultures, careers or schools to endure the dangers and humiliations that they endured. But Helmer, who taught musicology for many years at McGill, shows how these émigrés retained some control over their destinies.
The core of Helmer’s book is a series of interviews he did with some thirty of these émigrés or their surviving family members. Though it would be interesting to read these interviews in full, Helmer has put them to good use here, effectively building up a multi-layered picture.
The impact of these émigrés on the Canadian music scene was so profound, Helmer argues, that they managed to overturn the prevailing dominance of English musical culture and introduce their central European values and standards – not just in composition but also in music education and the then-developing field of musicology. Although Helmer himself is a pianist as well as a musicologist, he doesn’t devote as much attention to the influence on performance styles, although he does note how musicians like Greta Kraus and Mario Duschenes pioneered baroque performance practice in Canada. In any case, the result was the beginnings of musical independence, what could be termed a Canadian style, and international prestige.
“Once the émigrés had decided to emigrate to Canada,” writes Helmer, “they faced no real impediments because of race, religion or nationality.” Yet even if we accept Helmer’s controversial conclusion that the Canadian immigration department did as much as it could have to save lives threatened by the Nazis and the Soviets, we feel the loss of the millions who didn’t make it out, and what they would have further contributed to Canadian music.
This is a fascinating, provocative and important book (though it does deserve a more thorough index). Helmer’s celebration of the contributions of these émigrés to Canadian music resonates deeply when he writes, “We can only pay tribute to their accomplishments by continuing to welcome musicians who come to Canada from around the world to contribute to our unique musical tapestry.”
By Patti Lupone with Digby Diehl
336 pages, photos; $29.99
• During a show Patti Lupone gave in Toronto last year with Mandy Patinkin, she asked the audience to suggest a title for her upcoming memoirs. The title she ended up with, Patti Lupone: A Memoir, sounds decidedly low-key. That’s surprising, because there is nothing low-key about Lupone.
In her memoir Lupone is feisty, funny and daring – just as she is on stage. Notoriously combative, she is at the same time willing to expose vast layers of vulnerability. More than once while reading this, I wondered why she was sharing a particularly uncomfortable bit of information.
As she details her struggles for good parts, favourable contracts, and positive reviews, she writes, “I truly believe you learn more from failure than you do from success.” I found her descriptions of the never-ending struggles to get into a character especially interesting. But the one thing she has never had to struggle for is appreciation from audiences. In fact, her main battles seems to be with herself.
Lupone’s initial big-time success came with the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. But after premiering Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in London in 1992, she was dumped from the Broadway opening in favour of Glenn Close. Lupone was devastated – and evidently still is. It’s a messy story, with Webber as the duplicitous villain. But her career thrived with hit shows like Les Misérables, Sweeny Todd, and, most recently, Gypsy. Along the way there were small but special shows like her now-legendary Saturday midnight cabaret at a New York nightclub called Les Mouches while she was doing Evita on Broadway in 1980 (Ghostlight Records recently issued a live recording).
Webber gets top billing on her list of despised colleagues, but there’s also Bill Smitrovich, her co-star on a tv show she appeared in for four years, Life Goes On, and Chaim Topol, who was briefly – though none too briefly for her - her co-star in one of the many flops she was involved in, The Baker’s Wife. Her list of those she loves is much longer. It includes fellow Juilliard student and former boyfriend Kevin Kline, frequent co-star Patinkin, playwright David Mamet, teacher John Houseman, director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for Gypsy and directed her in it, and her husband Matt Johnston, who sounds like a remarkably balanced, supportive guy.
Lupone can sound either self-deprecating or self-serving – or both, even in the same sentence. But what always saves her here is her ability to find something wonderful in every experience, good or bad. That’s one of the many delights of this revealing and thoroughly enjoyable memoir. Conversational in style, it reads like an extended interview. In fact, Lupone has recorded it for an audio CD. I haven’t heard it, but I imagine it would be terrific to experience this memoir with Lupone’s spoken voice.
Evita is completing its run at the Stratford Festival with final performances on
November 1, 2, 4, and 5 at 2:00pm, and
November 6 at 8:00pm.