BRAVO: The History of Opera in British Columbia by Rosemary Cunningham

Bravo_high resBRAVO: The History of Opera in

British Columbia

by  Rosemary Cunningham

Harbour Publishing

208 pages, photos; $39.95

“Opera is on a roll in British Columbia,” writes Rosemary Cunningham in this rich historical survey of opera performance in British Columbia. It has been published to celebrate the anniversaries of the two most prominent opera companies in British Columbia. Vancouver Opera turns fifty years old, and Pacific Opera Victoria turns thirty.

To her credit, Cunningham manages to do justice to all the organizations that produces opera in British Columbia, from Modern Baroque Opera to Vancouver New Music. At the same time, she focuses on the individuals who have made opera happen there. These include the first artistic director of Vancouver Opera, Irving Guttman, and his equally visionary counterpart at Pacific Opera Victoria,  Timothy Vernon. There’s the controversial Richard Bonynge, who played fast and loose with budgets.
He is nonetheless fondly remembered by many for raising the international standing of Vancouver Opera, forming the Vancouver Opera Orchestra,  and bringing in his wife Joan Sutherland to sing. Cunningham also discusses other international singers  who visited, like  Plácido Domingo and  Marilyn Horne, as well as the Canadian singers nurtured by these companies, like Richard Margison and Judith Forst.

Cunningham has examined archives and  board minutes. These prove to be more revealing than the old newspaper reviews and box-office records she frequently relies on. Fortunately, she has, as well,  interviewed a number of people involved. These documents make interesting reading, but her reluctance to offer a critical response diminishes the impact of her descriptions. About the tenure of Robert Hallam as general director at Vancouver Oprera in the 1990’s, she comments, “Understandably, nobody wants to revisit this discordant period”.  Her conclusion? “It is best left in the past.”

Cunningham is at her best in her sympathetic descriptions of the more adventurous productions these companies have mounted in the face of the “conservative taste” of their audiences, like the First Nations-themed The Magic Flute at Vancouver Opera in 2004.

Bravo has been produced with care, beautifully laid-out,  with a reliable index and documentation,  lists of productions,  and lots of high-quality photos. It offers convincing evidence that opera has an important presence in the cultural life of British Columbia.


Adventures of an American Composer: An Autobiography by Michael Colgrass

HL_colgrass_hiresAdventures of an American Composer:

An Autobiography

by Michael Colgrass

edited by Neal and Ulla Colgrass

Meredith Music Publications

231 pages, photos; US $19.95

Toronto-based composer Michael  Colgrass is a natural story-teller - and he has some terrific stories to tell. So the unusual format of this memoir,  a series of vignettes ranging in length from a single page to four pages, works  well here. Without disturbing the narrative flow, he can switch moods, locations, and time frames. And with eighty-nine chapters, he has lots of opportunities  to come up with colourful title like Tormenting My Band Teacher, Romancing a Spy in Bucharest, and Post-Humorous Works.

Colgrass describes his childhood, his education (mostly acquired out of school), his career as a percussionist, and his meetings with remarkable people like Gene Krupa, Louis Prima, Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Partch, and Elliott Carter. He pinpoints crucial experiences, showing how they changed his life. It was after hearing Charles Munch conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program of Brahms, he tells us,  that he realized he was going to be a composer. And it was after getting involved with theatre and the  techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming that he decided to give up his career as a percussionist and devote himself full-time to composing .

For me, the best anecdotes deal with Colgrass’s experiences performing and writing music. There’s his description of  an all-night emergency session to create a score for the Joffrey Ballet. He had to use exactly the same tempo and counts as the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, in order to make it fit  pre-existing choreography.  Then there’s the recording session  for what ironically became a legendary recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The conductor, Stravinsky himself, was ailing, distracted, and slightly drunk. Colgrass describes how the remarkably skilled musicans in the studio orchestra, “hurtling forward like a Mack truck,” pulled him through.

Colgrass’s wife Ulla Colgrass, along with their son Neal, did the editing on this book. My own experience with Ulla Colgrass goes back to the 1980’s when I wrote for the magazine Ulla founded and edited, Music Magazine.  Her skills as an editor and writer leaves me unsurprised that this delightful memoir reads so well.

In his title, Colgrass calls himself “an American composer”. Colgrass has lived in Toronto for the past thirty-six  years, almost half his life-time. The Toronto Symphony is playing one of his best-known pieces, As Quiet As, next season. Yet he says nothing here about why he has stayed in Toronto all these years, and what impact living in Canada has had on him. Why the reticence in such an open-hearted and eloquent memoir?

Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer

60_NotationsNotations 21
by Theresa Sauer

Mark Batty Publisher

318 pages; $78.00

“We live in an incredible time in music history,” writes Teresa Sauer in her preface to this beautiful book. Sauer has collected scores from a broad range of contemporary composers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of John Cage’s own collection, Notations. These scores are all remarkably eloquent – even for those who don’t read music. In any case, most of these works do not use traditional notation at all.

 

Some, like Canadian composer Hope Lee’s Tangram are more readily playable than works like Steve Roden’s Pavilion Score, in which the performers are “mapping the space in sound” and “the audience would be listening to a drawing in sound of the space that they were sitting inside of.” Peter Hölscher’s Das Licht im Dunkel der Wolke and Douglas Wadle’s Amphiboly, work as pieces of visual art. Some made me laugh, like John Stump’s Love Theme from Prelude and the Last Hope in C and C-Sharp Minor. Teresa Sauer’s Parthenogenesis features a picture of a Komodo dragon, whose genetic code forms the basis of her piece. Canadian composer Chiyoko Szlavnics uses the evocative untitled drawings reproduced here as inspiration for her traditionally notated compositions. The notation of A Rose is a Rose is a Round by the influential American composer James Tenney, who taught at York University for many years, reflects back on the form of the piece itself. Two works by Canadian R. Murray Schafer, Epitaph for Moonlight and Snowforms, like many of his scores, show his graphic skills.

 

Like Cage, Sauer has arranged the scores in handy alphabetical order. But she adds an index and biographical sketches. Whereas Cage’s collection was in black and while, many of the scores in this volume, like Cage’s own Aria, make use of vivid colours.

Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell; introduction by John Ralston Saul

60_GouldGlenn Gould

by Mark Kingwell; introduction by John Ralston Saul

Penguin Canada

251 pages; $26.00

It has been 45 years since Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gave his last concert, and twenty-seven years since he died suddenly at the age of fifty. Mark Kingwell is the latest writer to bring his own perspective to Gould’s story, in a series called Extraordinary Canadians. Kingwell is a philosopher who teaches at the University of Toronto and writes frequently on cultural matters.  And like any good philosopher he raises more questions than he answers.

Kingwell offers numerous insights into how Gould “achieved a status of almost mythic dimensions.” Yet by treating Gould’s genius as “something larger than Gould himself,” Kingwell contributes to that myth of Gould as an eccentric, socially dysfunctional genius who “broke all the rules” in order to put his personal stamp on whatever he played.

According to Kingwell, Gould became “stranded on a beachhead of his own thinking between past and future,” unable to “fashion a bridge between them.” But Gould never created a philosophical system of thought. The recordings, interviews and writings do reveal “tensions and paradoxes in Gould’s thought.” But his writings, interviews and spoken commentaries need to be understood in the context of his music-making.

Gould’s pivotal decision to stop giving concerts and play only for recordings was psychological rather than philosophical, as Kingwell readily acknowledges. But he nonetheless treats it as a definitive philosophical stance, and relates it to the “then-fashionable notion of dropping out and going electronic.” Improbably, he links Gould with James Dean and Elvis Presley as “one of the first clear casualties of postmodern life, shattered remains of the cult of celebrity hastened by the very technology that made his success possible.”

The format of short, unlinked chapters allows Kingwell a variety of different “takes” on Gould. He uncovers some interesting connections in philosophy, fiction and poetry. But there is no bibliography or index to allow readers to make their own connections and investigate his many philosophical and literary references. And some of his sources are odd indeed. He writes that Gould’s interpretations “were sometimes disparaged as ‘loose,” but in a footnote he reveals that the source of that observation is a fictional character from a novel.

There are numerous errors. Kingwell writes that William Byrd wrote “few” pieces for keyboard. But Davitt Moroney’s recordings fill up seven CDs. Gould himself mentions Byrd’s “prolific output for the keyboard” in the liner notes to his recording of Byrd and Gibbons. Kingwell describes how Gould would soak his hands in icewater before a concert. Gould’s well-documented warm-up ritual did involve hand-soaking, but the water was hot.

Kingwell’s take on Gould is both thought-provoking and illuminating. But the best passages result when Kingwell steps beyond Gould and considers the nature of music itself. By treating Gould as a cultural icon, Kingwell leaves me looking for the musician.


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