Lois Marshall: A Biography by James Neufeld

lois_marshall_-_wholenote_resizeLois Marshall: A Biography
by James Neufeld
Dundurn Press
352 pages, photos; $28.99

When Canadian soprano Lois Marshall first showed up at Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera Group to sing Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, Caldwell took one look at her and blurted out, “This is wonderful. I’ve always wanted to have a Mimi who was really sick.” Caldwell was not known for tact. But her comment, as related in James Neufeld’s eloquent and moving biography of Marshall, suggests how much Marshall could have done in opera if more directors had been willing to work with her impairment.

Childhood polio left Marshall with a limp. But it certainly did not stop her from a busy career in recitals and oratorios, as a particular favourite of Ernest MacMillan, Beecham and Toscanini. Nor did it stop her from frequently touring Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union, where she was adored.

But Marshall’s disability did prevent her from having an operatic career. Neufeld presents her as not just a great singer, but a convincing actress as well, who could interpret an operatic role as convincingly as a Strauss lied or a Bach aria. Neufeld makes a convincing case that, with her powerful voice, dramatic temperament, phenomenal memory and lovely stage presence, Marshall would have been a great opera singer, had she been given the opportunities.

Instead, starting from Arnold Walter’s refusal to admit her into the Royal Conservatory’s Opera School, “Canadian opera producers simply missed the boat.” If today Joyce DiDonato can give a convincing performance of Rosina in a wheelchair at Covent Garden, as she did last summer after she broke her leg on stage during the opening night of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then surely opera directors could have accommodated Marshall’s disability.

Using his extensive interviews with Marshall’s family members, friends and fellow musicians, as well as his own experiences hearing Marshall live and on recordings, Neufeld conveys both the communicative power of Marshall’s singing and the “warmth and sunshine” of her personality. But Neufeld’s most revealing source is the unpublished memoir Marshall drafted at the end of her career.

Neufeld, who teaches English at Trent University, writes insightfully about Marshall’s accomplishments. With a novelist’s flair, he delves into Marshall’s complicated relationship with her long-time teacher and accompanist, Weldon Kilburn. Soon after they finally married in 1968 their relationship unravelled. As her musical partner, Kilburn had been supportive and sensitive, but as a lover he proved to be inconstant and heartless. “Though Lois seldom performed opera,” Neufeld comments, “her romantic life seemed to be caught up in one.”

Click Here to Read an Excerpt from this book


Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G Kelley

theloniousThelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D.G Kelley
Free Press

608 pages, photos; $39.00

Herbie Nichols was the first to champion Thelonious Monk in print. Monk was two years older than Nichols, and like him, born in San Juan Hill in Manhattan. Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Nichols, who wrote in 1944, “Thelonious Monk is an oddity among piano players. This particular fellow is the author of the weirdest rhythmical melodies I’ve ever heard. They are very great, too.” Monk, of course, went on to become a giant influence in the history of jazz. His compositions like Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Ruby, My Dear and Straight, No Chaser are classics.

Kelley, who teaches history at the University of Southern California, is faced with a life so rich, a personality so complex, a body of recordings so important, and a character so legendary that his book is bursting at the seams with fascinating details about Monk’s life and music.

Kelley managed to gain unprecedented access to family members and their collections of long-forgotten documents. But even Kelley, for all his meticulous research, is unable to fully unravel Monk’s relationship with the intriguing Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who Kelley calls “the most significant relationship in Monk’s life outside his family.” She took care of Monk – and his wife Nellie – at her home (just as she had provided brief sanctuary for Herbie Nichols in 1961) from 1973, when he had almost given up playing altogether, until his death in 1982.

He portrays an engaging and witty, though moody and difficult, personality. But despite Monk’s success, things were never easy. He had problems with alcohol and drugs. Even more devastating were his episodes of manic depression, which account for some of his bizarre antics both on stage and off. Reading about his stony silences and vacant stares, especially late in his performing career, I now know why the performance I heard in Toronto at the Colonial Tavern in 1972 was so disappointing.

Enhancing our appreciation of the music, Kelley makes a point of underlining the influence of classical music on Monk’s playing and composing. He presents him as both a traditionalist and an innovator. “From the beginning of his musical life,” writes Kelley, “Monk had always epitomized the Janus-faced musician, looking simultaneously at the future and the past.”

Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life by Mark Miller

herbie_nichols_coverHerbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life
by Mark Miller
The Mercury Press
224 pages, photos; $19.95


For all his brilliance as a pianist, composer and critic, Herbie Nichols spent his life in obscurity. Toronto-based jazz historian Mark Miller has produced an incisive and heartbreaking portrait of a deeply compelling musician. Today, Nichol’s few recordings are unavailable, and his writings remain uncollected and unpublished. But his song Lady Sings the Blues, written with Billie Holiday, has attained iconic status, and many of his other compositions, like House Party Starting, 2300 Skidoo, The Third World, and Love, Gloom, Cash, Love have become standards.

Miller has combed through the available documents on Nichols, which include autobiographical notes Nichols prepared for the day (which never came) when he would need material for publicity purposes. Miller has talked to musicians still alive who knew him, like trombonist Roswell Rudd, who along with pianist Frank Kimbrough has spearheaded a project to track down and record many of Nichols’ previously unknown compositions. By placing Nichols’music in the context of his relationship to what was happening musically around him, Miller shows how imaginative, original and advanced it was.

Miller portrays a gentle, self-effacing, introspective, and – understandably – fatalistic man. But while he constructs a coherent narrative for Nichols’ life, Nichols himself keeps slipping in and out of the story. It’s as though Nichols is as baffled by the events of his own life as everyone else.

Why was Nichols so utterly neglected? He told A.B Spellman, in the first, and up to now only profile of him in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “It seems like you’ve got to be an Uncle Tom or a drug addict to make it in jazz, and I’m not either one.” He was rarely able to get jobs or recordings where he could play his own music in his own style. In 1956 Nichols had told the poet George Moorse, “Sometimes I may seem low...but really, I’m laughing like hell inside.” Yet, as pianist Don Coates told Miller, shortly before Nichols’ early death from leukemia in 1963 he said, “Music is a curse.” Miller has succeeded in rediscovering a visionary musical voice, and convincing us that it demands to be heard.

Brunhilda and the Ring - by Jorge Lujan

BrunhildaBrunhilda and the Ring
by Jorge Lujan
Groundwood Books
96 pages illustrated; $24.95

This month Toronto-area audiences have an opportunity to experience the world of Wagner once again when the Canadian Opera Company presents The Flying Dutchman. Like The Flying Dutchman Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, which opened the COC’s new hall four years ago, is based on ancient myths and legends. But it involves many more characters. Jorge Luján focuses his retelling of Wagner’s libretto on Brunhilda, interpreting it as the betrayal of a loving, loyal woman. He even switches the final sequence of events in the last opera of the cycle, The Twilight of the Gods, so that the ending belongs to Brunhilda instead of the triumphant Rhinemaidens.

Brunhilda’s father Wotan, king of the gods, sets off the endless cycle of betrayal by refusing to pay the giants for building his dream home, Valhalla. Her stepmother Fricka, the goddess of marriage, badgers her husband Wotan into abandoning his son, Siegmund. Brunhilda’s mother Erda, the earth goddess, tells Wotan, “Once more your wishes do not match your acts and are sure to bring catastrophe.”

 

Some acts are more excusable than others. Siegfried, for instance, is fed a potion that makes him forget all about his love for Brunhilda. Even Brunhilda, who disobeys her father and ultimately betrays Siegfried, though not without cause.

 

Luján’s text, given here in Canadian translator Hugh Hazleton’s smooth translation, is concise and clear in its story-line, and poetic in its telling. There are a few unfortunate phrases such as, “I am Siegfried! You are Brunhilda!”, which occurs during one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera. But Luján does remind us of the missing music when Brunhilda “intones a deep, sad funeral song.”

 

The illustrations by Austrian artist Linda Wolfsgruber create a vivid atmosphere, with muted colours set off by a subtle use of reds. Her detailed textures evoke moods like Brunhilda’s sense of vulnerability when Siegfried wakes her. I can imagine her settings and costumes working effectively on stage.

 

Whom this book is intended for is not stated. With illustrations covering each page, it could be seen as a children’s book. Yet the details of the story are sophisticated, and both text and illustrations will delight adults. For any audience this lovely makes a terrific introduction to a complex and important work.

 

 

 

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page

parallel play_tim page_aspergers book (1)Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages, photos; $32.00

When music critic Tim Page was forty-five years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Suddenly, problems that had plagued him since childhood became understandable. “My pervasive childhood memory is an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness,” he writes in this memoir. Page is an elegant writer, with a delightfully sardonic sense of humour. But it’s his probing honesty that makes Parallel Play so affecting.

At the same time, his memoirs provide insight into the relationship between talent and mental illness. As well as being difficult as a kid, Page had been precociously talented. He excelled as a pianist, composer, film-maker and writer, with a phenomenal memory and a disconcerting wit. Role-models like his grand-mother’s tenant, the music critic Alan M. Kriegsman, steered him into writing about music.

Some of the most interesting passages here deal with Page’s relationship with Glenn Gould, whose writings he collected after Gould’s death. He talks about their friendship. But he doesn’t discuss Gould’s own posthumous diagnosis of Asperger’s. I wonder whether Page and Gould ever recognized each other as suffering from the same condition.

Page, who now teaches journalism, is an uncommonly sensitive music critic, and his two volumes of criticism, Music from the Road (Oxford) from 1992 and Tim Page on Music (Amadeus) from 2002 are still worth reading. In sharing his experiences with Asperger’s, however retroactively, he opens the question of how much this syndrome affected his reviews. Discussing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, he writes, “Today, I find myself wondering if I would have responded so profoundly to this starkly reiterative, rigidly patterned music had I not had Asperger’s syndrome.”

In any case, the role of Asperger’s in making him who he is simply cannot be determined. He writes, “I wouldn’t wish the condition on anybody - I’ve spent too much of my life isolated, unhappy and conflicted – yet I am also convinced that many of the things I’ve done were accomplished not despite my Asperger’s syndrome but because of it.” This is a brave book. I am looking forward to its sequel.


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