It seemed only yesterday (though it was probably 18 years ago) that I travelled up to North York to hear Elly Ameling's farewell recital in the George Weston Recital Hall. A fabulous concert it was. Well, Ameling is back – this time as a mentor to the eight singers and four collaborative pianists who have been selected as fellows in this festival. Other mentors will be baritone Sanford Sylvan and pianist Julius Drake. Sylvan will also perform Le bal masqué by Poulenc in Walter Hall, July 19 at 7:30pm.
Toronto’s cultural and architectural landmark turns 30 this year, and is celebrating its birthday with the launch of William Littler and John Terauds’ new book Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait. The authors use the iconic building, once known as the “New Massey Hall,” as a backdrop for the stories of the myriad people who have contributed to its development through the years. From Arthur Erickson’s initial architectural plans, to the 2002 acoustical renovations, to the countless outreach and community programs that the hall hosts today, Littler and Terauds have provided readers with a comprehensive story of the building’s first three decades while maintaining interest amidst the telling of administrative anecdotes – a testament both to the writers’ skill and to the colourful history of the hall itself. Well-researched and beautifully illustrated, the book supplies the community with a refreshing perspective of a much-loved musical landmark.
Fuelled by innovation rather than nostalgia, composers and arrangers continue to utilize the sonic parameters of larger ensembles to help tell their stories in the most expansive way possible. Whether it’s exposing individual original compositions or organizing the sessions into a thematic whole, these vital CDs demonstrate why a big band is still favoured as an expressive vehicle for both free-form improvisation and tightly plotted compositions.
For an example of the latter you don’t have to go much further than Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam Records NWAM 048 newamsterdamrecords.com), a mythical and cinematic narrative created by Vancouver-born Darcy James Argue as part of a multi-media presentation by Croatian-born visual artist Danijel Zezelj. Argue, who also lived in Montreal and received his degree in composition in Boston, has been in Brooklyn since 2003 and composed the multi-part Brooklyn Babylon as a fable, reflecting his adopted hometown’s storied past, cultural multiplicity and ambitious future. Conducted by the composer, Argue’s 18-piece Secret Society band performs the suite’s eight interlocking themes and seven brief interludes. Calling on the talents of a band featuring the interlocked groove of drummer Jon Wikan and bassist Matt Clohesy, the storytelling understatement of several reed soloists, and the alternately plunger excitement and mellow narratives of fellow Canuck trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, Argue directs a sound picture with enough expansive exposition to make the CD the equivalent of aural Technicolor. Reflecting present-day currents of New York`s second borough, the sequences in Argue’s suite blend and contrast vamping big-band section work; heavily rhythmic rock-music-like grooves; gentle folkloric and impressionistic sound pastels from flute, soprano sax and flugelhorn soloists; plus interludes that replicate brass band marches, Balkan ballads, a touch of electronic processing and the pre-recorded sounds of the borough’s streets. One standout is Missing Parts when the rest of the band members play hand percussion backing Josh Stinson’s free-form baritone sax lines and a mellow trombone interlude from James Hirschfield. Another is The Tallest Tower in the World, which reaches its heights through brassy trumpet triplets and soprano sax squeals. Keyboardist Gordon Webster holds components together not only with sharp piano cadenzas but also with near-vocalized melodic sweeps. If the program does have a weakness it probably lies in its movie soundtrack-like surround sound expressiveness. With piccolo peeps and French horn lowing heard more often than tuba burps or guitar note shredding, the selections often retreat to overly pleasant background sounds lacking the authoritative ingredients that would define them as completely individual. But Argue is still developing. Maybe he’ll soon compose a piece to reflect his homeland.
Bruno Heinen Sextet
Babel Label BDV 13119 (babellabel.co.uk)
Perfect sounds for those who think Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music is difficult is Tierkreis (1974-75), initially composed for 12 music boxes reflecting the signs of the zodiac, and then adapted for any number of instruments. With the sanction of the composer’s son, British pianist Bruno Heinen, whose parents were Stockhausen associates, has created a jazz-improv variant of the suite for bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet, double bass, drums, his own piano and, on certain tracks, five music boxes, bookending the performance as the composer demands, with an identical melody reflecting the session date’s star sign.