In 1998, 14-year-old Amy Winehouse was already a confident, talented performer who considered herself a jazz singer. In a video at a friend's birthday party she revealed her admiration for Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett and Thelonious Monk. She would die 13 years later, a victim of alcohol poisoning, her body ravaged by bulimia, crack cocaine and heroin, her principal personal relationships with her self-serving father, her drug-addled husband and her exploitative manager all stacked against her profound creative life.
The Portland-based trans-genre 10-piece band (plus vocalist) Pink Martini turned the Roy Thomson Hall stage into a sophisticated nightclub/dancehall/cabaret venue as it entertained a capacity crowd with 18 songs spread over two hours including intermission. Led by two former Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, Pink Martini has been acting as the unofficial house band of the United Nations since its first independent album Sympathique broke out in the late 1990s.
That album is still the bedrock of their appeal. Half a dozen tunes from it (from Bolero to Brazil) anchored the show June 30. Bolero's opening iconic rhythmic figure played by four percussionists backed the sweet violin of Nicholas Crosa which started the stately progression of the melody from violin to piano to trombone.
A light and fog pre-Apocalypsis vision of mid-20th-century industrial detritus, the bones of the Hearn Generating Plant – its worn steel girders exposed along with its upper floors towering over pools of muddied water that were like giant stepping stones to be avoided – welcomed 82-year-old electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick to its environs June 20 at the Luminato Festival for a historic performance of his seminal 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon.
It was late in the day on what had been a long Saturday a few weeks ago. The multiple choirs, percussion, brass, winds, solo performers and dancers had just completed a run-through of Part One of Murray Schafer’s epic piece Apocalypsis which the Luminato Festival is presenting June 26, 27 and 28. Schafer himself was there, his first chance to hear what we had all been up to in the weeks prior.
The music came to its close. The brilliant conductor David Fallis lowered his hands. A silent hush fell over everyone. Just for a moment. It was as if we all had to take a collective in-and-out breath to honour what had just transpired. We were witness to something much bigger than each of us individually: the collective whole creating and bringing to life this masterpiece. Yes, I will say that, a masterpiece. It needs to be said, to be recognized, here in Canada. To respect the breadth of the visionary force that propelled Schafer back in the late 1970s to pen this work. Like a modern-day John the Divine, the author of the original biblical book of Revelations. Yet instead of the crashing doom and destruction we often associate with the apocalypse, this transcendent moment that occurred as the music came to its close was serene and sublime, creating a deep quiet within. A moment for revelation – which is in fact the true meaning of the word apocalypse.
I myself have been in one of the choirs, the Speech Chorus, in which we get to yell, chant, call out warnings and even scream. So lest you get the impression it’s all peaceful and calm… No, definitely not. There is plenty of cacophony and sturm und drang going on – of course. But it was this flicker of silence that occurred that day at the end of the first half that remains so strong in my memory. This inward space that prepares us for “what is yet to come” in Part Two. Using an entirely different set of choirs, Part Two, as I recall from having witnessed the original performance in 1980, continues and builds upon this moment.
It’s quite remarkable that for the past month, hundreds of performers, conductors, production staff and stage crew have been dedicating their June weekends to the rehearsals for Apocalypsis under the brilliant vision of director Lemi Ponifasio and members from his Company MAU based in New Zealand. I remember well the first rehearsal when we all met Lemi, who told us that in essence, what we were creating was a ritual by bringing this piece to life: a ceremony to which the audience is being invited. And as I’ve witnessed and participated in the final rehearsals with lighting and staging this past week, it is indeed just that. A meditation in sound and movement, light and image.
I could on about details and specifics and the appearance of star performers, but that’s not really what this is about. Ultimately it’s about creating a vision for a new kind of world. It’s as if we are opening up a crack through which a different collective story can find its voice. This old one we are desperately clinging to that has lead to untold human suffering is no longer sustainable. It has run its course. And just as John the Divine of old received his vision from a large crack in the wall of a cave on the island of Patmos, this performance is a collective moment to stop and pause, reflect, cleanse and consider another possibility. This is the power of what the sound of silence can create. As we say in the speech chorus: “Tell the people of what is now, and what is yet to come.”
If the jazz purists who grumble about how there's no jazz during the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (and there are some every year) had been at the Kurt Elling show on Tuesday evening June 23 they'd have to eat their words. Elling is an uber hep cat with serious jazz cred and he and his quartet gave us a lesson on how it's done. The adorers at Koerner Hall got treated to vintage Elling – scatting and swooping his way through standards such as Come Fly With Me and Nature Boy – but also treating us to songs from his newly released album Passion World which included an absolutely killer cover of the U2 hit Where the Streets Have No Name, beautifully arranged by his guitarist John McLean. (More on that to come in the September issue of WholeNote.) To add jazz icing to the cake, that same night Christian McBride's big band was blowing the roof off the tent in Nathan Phillips Square.
That said, the no-jazz grumblers had fodder for their complaints as George Clinton headlined the big, funky opening concert on Friday night June 19. With Dumpstaphunk and Morris Day & The Time opening up the free evening of music, it was a massive dance party on Nathan Phillips Square. Boo hoo.
The iconic 70s horn band, Tower of Power, controlled the mainstage on Saturday night and an argument could be made as to whether they're jazzy or not; but the packed house of paying customers didn't care as they ate out of the hands of these soul masters. Veterans of the touring circuit, the musicians of ToP were energetic and tuneful and gracious as they nailed hits like You're Still a Young Man and What is Hip? (Answer: they are.)
The festival is only half over and there's plenty of MUSIC to come all over the city – Wednesday June 24 Michael Occhipinti reinvents Bruce Cockburn with his band at The Rex and legend Branford Marsalis plays the Jane Mallett Theare; Thursday brings the “Elegant Gyspy” Al Dimeola and on Friday it's family jam time June 26 with Snarky Puppy on the mainstage. Full lineup is at torontojazz.com.
“You never know where you're going to meet a composer.”
Jacques Israelievitch was introducing Duo for Violin and Piano by Oscar Morawetz at the Canadian Music Centre on June 11. The occasion was the launch of the Centrediscos CD Fancies and Interludes, a collection of four 20th-century works by established Canadian composers recorded live at York University where both performers, Israelievitch and Christina Petrowska Quilico, are members of the faculty.
“On the subway or even ringing your doorbell.”
He was remembering the moment in 1988 shortly after he and his family moved to Toronto from St. Louis. He was about to begin his 20-year record run as TSO concertmaster when Morawetz appeared on his doorstep, music in hand. The composer presented the concertmaster with his Duo.
Later, Israelievitch took the score to his music room with its 90-odd boxes of carefully catalogued scores. Under “M” he found it, the same Duo, but autographed by Morawetz to Josef Gingold, the legendary concertmaster under George Szell in Cleveland and influential pedagogue at Indiana University. Israelievitch studied with Gingold, later becoming his teaching assistant. Duo (1951) was one of many scores Gingold did not have time to learn, scores which he passed on to his student.
Israelievitch played the piece with elegance and strength, bringing out the music's eloquence. He was aided by Petrowska Quilico's considerable support on the piano.
Earlier the violinist talked about passing the time while riding the subway in Chicago by studying the full score for Hindemith's Octet. A seatmate peered over his shoulder and asked if the score was by Hindemith. Surprised, Israelievitch engaged him in conversation, discovered he was a composer and within four stops had commissioned a piece from him. Three weeks later, Israelievitch's apartment bell rang and over the intercom he heard the words: “I'm the composer you met on the subway. I have your commission.”
After the Morawetz, Israelievitch and Petrowska Quilico played James Rolfe's Drop (1998) which combined percussive and repetitive keyboard writing with tentative, quasi-lyrical violin passages. Filled with referential phrases that often seemed familiar, the work ended with Israelievitch alone, a few quiet touches of the bow tenderly playing on the strings, the sound dropping reluctantly on the ears of the audience that crowded the CMC's first floor.
A heartfelt standing ovation followed. The violinist said simply: “I hope you enjoy the CD.”