Forty years ago, in late 1975, John Peter Lee Roberts, who had been in charge of CBC Radio Music since 1964, left that position, leaving behind an impressive legacy of programming leadership. In his 11 years as Radio Music head, Roberts had commissioned 160 new works by Canadian composers. Among these was R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis, now well known from its revival in this year’s Luminato Festival. Originally commissioned as a 60-minute choral work for the Elmer Iseler Singers, the work that Schafer delivered was twice that length and much more complex and ambitious, incorporating 12 choirs, soloists, sound poets, orchestra, electronics and even mime artists.
On the last Thursday afternoon of July in a warm St. Andrew's Church (hand-held fans were provided) as part of Stratford Summer Music, British pianist Paul Lewis introduced what he called “true peaks of the piano repertoire,” Beethoven's last three piano sonatas. He spoke to his congregation as it were, those of us privileged to hear this supreme interpreter of Beethoven and Schubert, describing how he saw the pieces he was about to play.
The concert turned out to be the highlight of the summer.
The movie concentrates on four of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist, bassoonist and double bassist, as well as concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg. Each of Honigmann's subjects describes what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentinian taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing in a youth orchestra provides self-worth and to the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play, and now leads that orchestra (the Soweto Youth Orchestra); to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play the Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky's The Firebird, we see his tears.
Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And she gets inside the orchestra by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. You really get a sense of what it means to be a symphonic musician on tour.
Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons, the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto, Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's First, Second and Eighth, among others. The emotional connection is intensified by Honigmann's subjects' evident joy in music.
Honigmann's direction can take on a musical life of its own. For example, there is a section that begins with a dinner conversation between the flutist and the bassoonist. The flute player reveals that he is easily moved by folk music, that the melancholy nature of the tango makes him feel warm; he finds folk music in The Rite of Spring, Mahler and Dvořák. Suddenly it's the next day and the film has taken us into the bassoonist's hotel room where he's calling home. As we hear the famous minor key funereal version of the Frère Jacques folk song in Mahler's First Symphony, the camera seamlessly pans through the streets of Buenos Aires ending up in the concert hall where the orchestra is playing the Mahler – it's a very musical montage that grows organically out of the material.
The power of music to elevate, soothe and communicate is at the core of this moving documentary.
Around the World in 50 Concerts plays August 14 through August 21 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
The tenth anniversary season of Toronto Summer Music reached a significant climax August 6 with two concerts late in the afternoon and into the evening. Robi Botos and Béla Bartók, two Hungarian-born émigrés to the New World, were appropriate poster boys for the well-conceived and multi-layered 2015 TSM festival just concluded.
Right from the opening concert concentrating on the music of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two children of immigrants to the United States, who fused elements of the old and new worlds in their compositions, to the Botos Shuffle Concert tribute to Oscar Peterson and the Borromeo String Quartet's traversal of the complete Bartók string quartets (in the course of one transformational evening), TSM more than met their conceptual theme of “The New World.”
The American Avant-Garde concert July 28 at Walter Hall marked the midpoint of Toronto Summer Music's tenth anniversary season. It's been a diverse, well-planned festival so far with the promise of even more treasures to be unearthed before it ends August 9.
The numerous open rehearsals, lectures and masterclasses, all free and open to the public, are a welcome addition to the wide variety of concerts by mentors, fellows and special guests that have become the hallmark of this musical oasis where formerly not much bloomed here in past Julys and Augusts.