An unusual event that bodes well for opera in Toronto takes place in November. Canadian Stage and Soundstreams have combined forces to produce the chamber opera Julie by Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans. This will not only be the North American premiere of Julie, but, amazingly, the North American premiere of any opera by Boesmans, one of the most highly regarded contemporary composers of opera. This will also mark the first time that an opera has been included in Canadian Stage’s subscription series.
The moment my new CBC Radio Two network program Two New Hours hit the airwaves in January of 1978, composers, and especially Canadian composers, suddenly had a new way to connect with audiences across Canada. The simple act of broadcasting concerts of new works from all the major production centres of Canada each week immediately allowed a growing number of people to become aware of all the diverse sorts of newly created music. And naturally, the musicians who performed in these concerts of new works quickly realized there were paying gigs for them if they were willing to learn new compositions. Musicians began networking with other musicians, often with the result that they created ensembles to play all this new repertoire.
Benjamin Grosvenor returned to the Jane Mallett stage October 13 and exceeded all expectations. In a program that, for the most part, looked back to the Baroque from a Romantic sensibility, the 23-year-old British pianist displayed his unique voice in a field crowded with talented performers.
Grosvenor memorably took the fugue from Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue Op.35, No.1 from evanescence through emboldenment and back. The prelude from Op.33, No.3 was spellbinding, its quiet lyricism a hushed beauty; the fugue a capricious romp. Bach’s Chaconne, from the Partita in D Minor for Violin BWV1004, as transcribed by Busoni, doubled down on the evening’s backward glance by evoking its twin spirits with haunting results, the pianist’s attention to dynamics never overdone. Franck’s Prélude, chorale et fugue continued to build sound worlds with compelling pianissimo passages and a well-structured approach. The chorale harkened back to the Mendelssohn and the Bach-Busoni.
Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin moved the program into the 20th century even as it retained the baroque rearview-mirror quality of the evening. Grosvenor, characteristically hunched over the keyboard, brought clarity and dreaminess to the Prélude; a great delicacy to the sonic marvel that is the Fugue, with its notes seemingly bursting into air; a prismatic elegance, lovely bent notes and well-defined rhythm, with a hint of mystery, to the Forlane; a touch of frenzy in the Rigaudon, a touch of melancholy within the polished framework of the Menuet and a raciness to the raucous Toccata.
With Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli the tenor shifted to the romantic embellishment of the Italian popular song. Embellishing the opening Gondoliera also meant capturing its essence; the Tarantella was wild with its repeating notes, tone clusters and arpeggiated runs. Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Love Walked In brought the evening to a sublime and logical close, as it echoed the popular song motif of the Liszt. Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced. A riveting experience.
As things turn out, Eve Egoyan’s latest recording, Thought and Desire (Earwitness Editions EE2015, eveegoyan.com), is reviewed elsewhere in this issue, so I will dwell less on the specifics of it in this story than I otherwise might. But with post-production on the disc, minimal as it was, only recently wrapped when Egoyan and I chatted last May, it was very much in mind, so perhaps unavoidably, our conversation started there.
“It’s interesting when you hear a disc in its entirety how satisfying that is, because before then it’s only imagined. It’s a very important disc for me. Beyond that it’s by one composer [Linda Catlin Smith] who is a woman, which is important to me, it’s just gorgeous. And it was recorded at the Banff Centre which is my first time recording there and it was an exquisite experience ... between the location and the pianos and the people we were working with ... just the focus of time there. So the clarity, the fluidity of the experience – everything just fell into place and I think you can hear that ease in the sound of the recording because we were all very happy there.”
Facing the darkness, whether metaphorical or real, is not an activity most of us are drawn toward; human struggle and tragedy is, in fact, often what we seek most to avoid in our pursuit of a happy life. Opera is renowned for its dramatic portrayal of the bigger emotions at play in these difficult aspects of human experience, letting the characters and music take us deeper into a more visceral encounter with life’s complex moments. In her opera Pyramus and Thisbe, which runs at the COC from October 20 to November 7, Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman takes a unique approach to the existential reality of having to face the darkness, both within and without.
I recently sat down with her in a local park for a conversation about the nature of the opera and how it came into being. Often an opera is created through a collaboration between a writer and a composer with the promise of a production at the end of a long and complex road. Not so with Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. First of all, the opera was written through a process of following her own creative instincts. A few years after it was completed in 2010, a colleague who plays in the COC orchestra encouraged her to send it to COC general director, Alexander Neef. She got a quick reply – a request to see the score – and from that point on, the production was underway.
Jennifer Taylor has a knack for programming. Music Toronto’s artistic producer and general manager admitted in a recent chat that while she has “a tiny reputation for piano recital debuts, just say that I am lucky.” We met in her office in an older building high above the city’s downtown core. Glancing at the list of pianists who have made their local debuts under Taylor’s watch over the last 25 years, many of the names jump out: Pascal Rogé, Misha Dichter, Nikolai Lugansky, Markus Groh, Andreas Haefliger, Simon Trpčeski, Piotr Anderszewski, Steven Osborne, Arnaldo Cohen, Alexandre Tharaud, Till Fellner, Peter Jablonski and Benjamin Grosvenor, who returns to the stage of the Jane Mallett Theatre on October 13, a mere 19 months after his memorable debut there in 2014. Conceding that she doesn’t usually gamble on pianists as young as Grosvenor, she said: “He was the real thing.”
Grosvenor’s exceptional talent was widely revealed at 11 when he won the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. At 19, shortly after becoming the first British pianist since the legendary Clifford Curzon to be signed by Decca, he became the youngest soloist to perform at the First Night of the Proms. The venerable magazine Gramophone bestowed its “Young Artist of the Year” on him in 2012.