Back in the day, I remember a particular WholeNote cover, of maple leafs floating downstream – them autumn leaves of red and gold, you might say – and floating among them four or five standard black and white artist headshots of established and rising singers, Canadians all!
“Something in the Water?” the headline asked, as Jean Stilwell, Stephanie Piercey, Richard Margison, Russell Braun and Measha Brueggergosman sailed gently down the stream.
It was October 2000, and the cover story, by WholeNote founding publisher, Allan Pulker, was about the seemingly neverending stream of Canadian singers on the world stage. Among his prescient examples: Brueggergosman, Isabel Bayrakdarian, James Westman, Barbara Hannigan … “Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka,” he says at some moment, “recently made her La Scala debut, drawing not a ripple of attention here.”
“I could go on and on,” he concludes, “but the point is clear: this country has produced in recent years a significant number of singers who are among the best in the world. As someone said (from the Met and therefore definitely an expert, eh?) ‘Why are so many great singers coming from Canada these days? Is it something in the water?’”
That was then. This story is about something in the air!
I sensed it at a Toronto Consort concert, “Love Remixed,” in early February listening to James Rolfe’s spellbinding 2011 composition Breathe which sets words by 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen and accomplished contemporary Canadian librettist Anna Chatterton to music for period instruments.
“Medieval music in the right hands,” Rolfe says in his program note, “comes alive, as fresh and relevant to our modern ears as the day it was created … with its clarity of expression and purity of line … a living and breathing organism.” He goes on to say that his “great fortune” in getting to work with ensembles such as Toronto Consort has been “to experience just how much early musicians love their music … they have access to many shades of just intonation, with its pure intervals which resonate in our bodies and souls.”
I sensed the same thing again a couple of nights ago, in the bizarrely appropriate setting of the atrium, at the Royal Ontario Museum, that links the ROM’s old and new buildings. Surrounded by dinosaur skeletons, Opera Atelier showcased the latest iteration, titled The Angel Speaks, of a work by violinist Edwin Huizinga and dancer Tyler Gledhill which marries the vocabulary of Baroque music and ballet with a compelling contemporary syntax and sensibility. Commissioned originally by the Royal Chapel at Versailles, where Opera Atelier is now a regular visitor, the work is evolving, literally and figuratively, by leaps and bounds. Let’s see, with fresh wind in its sails, where it travels next.
And, once again, the topic of old meeting new so that each can inform the other hung in the air when I sat recently to talk to Tafelmusik’s Elisa Citterio a couple of weeks ago about her vision for the ensemble, a season-and-a-half into her appointment as the orchestra’s artistic director. That story comes next in this issue (if you’re reading this in print, that is).
Jessye Norman’s Visit Revisited
Highlight of the gala concert, Wednesday February 20 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, to celebrate Jessye Norman’s acceptance of the 12th Glenn Gould Prize was when Norman herself, at the close of it all, supported vocally by her chosen protégé, jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, sang the Bernstein/Sondheim song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, with a quiet flame, even more so in contrast to the star-studded operatic highlight reel that preceded it. The words “There’s a place for us” as hard-won manifesto took on a meaning richer and deeper than the song’s creators could ever have imagined. As to whether there was a dry eye in the house, I couldn’t really see at that moment, for some reason.
It was, however, Norman’s presence at an exhausting range of other activities during the ten-day visit that will resonate most deeply; none more so than the three-hour masterclass she gave to young singers at the U of T’s Walter Hall, in front of a packed audience. (You can read Paul Ennis’ blog account of the event on our website.) And the moment that summed it up, for WholeNote reader Carol Ann Davidson was when Norman, “in response to a question about singers being vocally categorized, swiftly responded: ‘Do not allow someone else to place your voice. Know your voice and where it is most comfortable. You are a singer, not a category.’”
Even “singer,” as a category, does not do justice to Norman’s life and work.
Unpicking the “seamstress” story
Speaking of categorization, I must thank another reader, Peter Feldman, for calling me to account in regard to something I wrote last issue in my Jessye Norman story where I described Norman’s participation in the White House ceremony awarding “Alabama seamstress
Rosa Parks” the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Re: Rosa Parks,” Feldman wrote, “ I think you’ll find that Rosa Parks was much, much more than just a ‘seamstress’. [She] was a seasoned freedom fighter who had grown up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey, and who married an activist for the Scottsboro boys. She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, becoming branch secretary. She spent the next decade pushing for voter registration, seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, supporting wrongfully accused black men, and pressing for desegregation of schools and public spaces. Committed to both the power of organized nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self defence, she called Malcolm X her personal hero.”
A healthy reminder.