The Toronto Music Garden: Inspired by Bach by Julie Moir Messervy

TheTorontoMusicGarden cover loThe Toronto Music Garden:

Inspired by Bach

by Julie Moir Messervy

Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio

61 pages, illustrated; $15.00

(available from: www.torontoparksandtrees.org, tel. 416-397-5178, the Toronto Botanical Garden bookstore or Bounty at Harbourfront Centre.)

Another celebration, the tenth anniversary of the Toronto Music Garden, provides the impetus for this book. Like the garden itself, this book is compact, clearly laid out, readily accessible – and lovely.

The Toronto Music Garden began to take shape  when cellist Yo-Yo Ma approached landscape architect Julie Messervy about creating a garden inspired by one of Bach’s cello suites. The garden was to be the subject of a film in the series Inspired by Bach, based on Ma’s performances of the six suites. The original plan was to build the garden in Boston, where both Ma and Messervy live. When that didn’t work out,  a group of local donors helped to get built in Toronto. Ma and Messervy were given a forlorn 2.5 acre plot wedged in between the Lake Ontario shoreline and Queens Quay West, and they turned it into a veritable jewel.   

In her text, Messervy describes the intricacies of  basing a garden design on a piece of music. She offers an interesting discussion of  the relationship between landscape architecture and music, although she misattributes the comparison of architecture to frozen music. It  was first made not by the late twentieth-century American philosopher Susanne Langer, as Messervy writes, but by the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling (although Goethe often gets credit for it).

Photos reveal the garden in full bloom, but no fall or winter views are included.  Maps show the overall scheme of the garden as well as details of the six sections. Plant lists for each section identify some of the nearly 10,000 perennials,  1380 grasses, 40 varieties of trees and shrubs, and 420 butterfly bushes.   

Various contributors add their own perspectives. Ma describes how  Bach’s music has been “joyously and meticulously brought to life” in this garden. Tamara Bernstein, artistic director of Summer Music in the Garden,  shows how the park is put to good use by events like the series of concerts that she organizes. David Miller, soon-to-be-former mayor of Toronto, points out that the garden “has set the precedent for what is possible.” Yet Miller doesn’t mention how little has been done on the Toronto waterfront to build upon that precedent. During the past ten years the neighbouring forest of sky-scraping condos that blocks the lakeshore from the city has grown even faster than the plantings in the garden.  Nonetheless, as this book shows, the Music Garden succeeds in providing the place of “pleasure, sanctuary and delight” that Messervy and Ma envisioned.


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?

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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