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.

Kaija Saariaho by Pirkko Moisala

MoisalaS09Kaija Saariaho

by Pirkko Moisala

University of Illinois Press

144 pages, photos; $40.00 US

In a recent blog, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef revealed that the COC is planning a production of L’amour du loin by Kaija Saariaho. This is exciting news, since this is a beautiful opera by an important composer. So this excellent study of Saariaho is especially welcome.

Musicologist Pirkko Moisala offers a knowledgeable description of L’amour du loin, along with Saariaho’s other compositions to date. Moisala appreciates Saariaho’s work, and has interviewed the composer at length. In fact, Saariaho approved the manuscript for this book, meaning on the one hand that it is thoroughly reliable, while on the other that there is nothing written here that Saariaho herself does not want to see in print.

Moisala charts Saariaho’s course from her childhood in Finland, through her years working in the electronic music studios at IRCAM in Paris, to her present work with both acoustic instruments and electronics.

This biography is the first in a projected series on women composers. Yet Saariaho’s attitude towards her position as one of the few women – though not, as Moisala claims, the first – to reach the top eschelon of composers working today seems to be conflicted. Not wanting  her music to be considered feminine, Saariaho resists being classified as a woman composer.

Saariaho’s music stands out today for the adventurous way that it expands conventional techniques without moving away from traditional sounds and structures. It sounds new yet familiar. But what really resonates is the emotional impact of her music. “The task of today’s artist,”  Moisala quotes Saariaho as saying, “is to nurture with spiritually rich art.”

One of the most striking aspects of Saariaho’s output is how different each work is. Moisala clearly describes her method of composing, showing how the shape of each work develops from the material. I was interested to learn that Saariaho, like Messiaen, Sibelius, and Scriabin, experiences the kind of multisensory perception known as synesthesia, where all the senses are blended. For her, sounds are connected to colours, shapes, scents and textures, so they all provide sources for her to draw on for her rich palette.

Opera: The Great Composers and their Masterworks

60c_operaOpera: The Great Composers and their Masterworks
by Joyce Bourne
Mitchell Beazley/ Octopus Books
224 pages, photos; $27.95 US

Joyce Bourne, who wrote the delightful Who’s Who in Opera (recently updated as Who Married Figaro?: A Book of Opera Characters), has packed a remarkable amount of material into this attractive, intelligent survey of opera from Monteverdi to John Adams.

She doesn’t find much space for the operas of Lully, Vivaldi, or Haydn, whose operas are all being rediscovered today. The operas of Martín y Soler, Halévy and Ambroise Thomas, all hugely successful in their time, and presently finding their way back into the repertoire, are completely shut out. But I enjoyed her broad-ranging approach. Along with discussions of the operas themselves, she looks at the composers, librettists, performers, theatrical venues, stage sets, directors, the artistic milieus and political context. As well, she offers an excellent discussion of voice types and vocal production, along with a glossary of musical terms.

The best thing about this book is that one quarter is devoted to opera of the past century, right up to the present. Only Verdi and Wagner get more coverage than Britten.

What does not work, however, is the practical information. The list of “major” opera houses includes the State Opera of South Australia, but omits Rome Opera and the Teatro Real in Madrid. Virginia Opera is mentioned, but not Vancouver Opera, an older, more ambitious company. Sloppy captions on photos – Time Square for Times Square, and singers like Juan Diego Florez left unidentified – detract only marginally from the superb photos. The index is reliable, and the layout is extremely attractive, with an effective use of a variety of typefaces.

In her final chapter, called “The Future of Opera,” Bourne makes the simple but often overlooked point that “if the music is not good enough, the work will not survive for long, no matter how good the story.” Like Schwarzkopf, Bourne objects to director thrusting their own concepts of an opera down the throats of audiences, particularly when they contradict what the composer and librettist wanted. But this is not a desire for directors to honour tradition by avoiding innovation altogether, but rather for them to work with “respect for the work they are directing, consideration for the singers, and the knowledge that many people in this audience are seeing this opera for the first time.”


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