01 Die schone Mullerin guitarAs a folk singer of sorts I was intrigued to read somewhere that Franz Schubert sometimes accompanied his songs on guitar. For several issues now I’ve meant to write about a new version of Die schöne Müllerin but each time I’ve run out of space, or it just didn’t seem appropriate to the theme of the column. Guitarist David Leisner has adapted the original piano score for guitar and is joined by baritone Michael Kelly in a compelling performance (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0175 brightshiny.ninja). I wrote back in December that the lack of texts for Victoria Bond’s song settings on the album Blue and Green Music was not an issue due to Kelly’s clear diction. I’m sure if I were conversant in German the same would be true in the case of the current recording, but as I’m not I’m glad that there is a QR code linking to full lyrics and translations. Leisner’s clever adaptation of the accompaniment and his clear and fluent playing provide a transparent, yet supportive framework for Kelly’s nuanced interpretation. The sparser textures produced by the guitar allow Kelly to really shine, especially in the tender, quieter moments, without compromising the effect of the more dramatic sturm und drang aspects of the song cycle.

02 Leisner Letter to the WorldIt seems that, like me, David Leisner got his start singing folk and pop songs, accompanying himself on guitar as a teenager. As his horizons expanded through choral singing and composition studies, he established himself as an accomplished classical guitarist and composer, with a focus on art song. On Letters to the World (Azica ACD-71353 davidleisner.com/composition-recordings) we are presented with four examples of this spanning the 1980s to 2011. The disc opens with Confiding, a cycle of ten songs for soprano and piano, featuring Katherine Whyte and Lenore Fishman Davis, with texts by Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, four each, and single offerings from Elissa Ely and Gene Scaramellino. The disc’s title is taken from the final song of the cycle, Dickinson’s This is my letter to the World (That never wrote to Me). Dickinson is also the source of the texts of Simple Songs from 1982, for baritone and guitar featuring Michael Kelly and the composer. Leisner chose (and rendered into English for the programme booklet) five selections from Richard Wilhelm’s German translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching for the cycle Das Wunderbare Wesen (The Miraculous Essence) for baritone and cello. Leisner says, “The songs emerged less out of deference to the melodic line and more in response to a structure established in the cello part, e.g., a repeated alternating metric pattern or a melodic theme that is repeated in the fashion of passacaglia throughout a movement.” Once again Kelly shines, in equal partnership with cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. The final track is the powerful Of Darkness and Light, written in response to the 9/11 tragedy. Leisner says, “To ‘know the light’ and ‘know the dark’ is essential, especially in times of trouble.” Of Darkness and Light uses five poems by Wendell Berry written between 1968 and 1970 which the composer found to “have special resonance in 2002 as well.” Set for tenor, violin, oboe and piano, this moving performance features Andrew Fuchs, Sarah Whitney, Scott Bartucca and Dimitri Dover respectively, drawing this intimate composer-portrait disc to a successful close. 

03 Eine WinterreiseSchubert’s songs have been subjected to many diverse interpretations and adaptations over the past two centuries. One of the most effective that I have had the pleasure to witness was Chimera Project’s Winterreise featuring bass baritone Philippe Sly as staged during the 21C festival at Koerner Hall just a couple of months before the COVID lockdown in 2020. I have just encountered another intriguing evening-long production conceived and staged by Christof Loy for Theater Basel. Eine Winterreise (A Winter Journey) features soprano Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and a sparse cast of silent characters representing various aspects of the drama (Naxos DVD 2.110751 naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=Eine%20Winterreise). Loy writes, “Anne Sofie plays the soul of Schubert in a kind of fictionalized account of the composer if he had lived to grow old rather than dying so young. Other characters gather round her, played by non-speaking actors and dancers. Like shadows from the past, inspired by Schubert’s biography. There is a double who is kind of a younger mirror image of the ‘mature Schubert’ – a melancholy soul for whom life is complex in its beauty but also in its difficulty. The other man, Schober, is based on Schubert’s friend, a reckless young man with a freewheeling lifestyle who […] a number of biographers even accuse of having taken Schubert to the prostitute who gave him the syphilis infection that killed him. In this sense, the courtesan in A Winter Journey is associated with death though conversely she’s also full of vitality. The other female character, whom we christened Viola, imparts a gentle, hopeful strength to the whole production.” Stand alone songs – the play opens with Die Sommernacht – and selections from the cycles Schwanengesang and Winterreise, are interspersed with solo piano works and text fragments taken from Schubert’s Mein Traum, often with dramatically choreographed accompaniment. The evening ends quietly and mournfully with the beautiful Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby) from Die schöne Müllerin as snow falls on the darkened set and the cast slowly disperses into the night. There is a momentary respite from the gloom as von Otter steps out of character and recites Wilhelm Müller’s sardonic epilogue from that cycle of poems arresting the audience’s suspension of disbelief and bidding them a safe journey home. A stunning performance.

04 The Wanderer Brooklyn RiderOne of the most striking usages of Schubert’s music in another medium is Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden which he later adapted for Roman Polanski’s 1994 mystery-drama film. But it was Schubert himself who first reinterpreted his 1817 song Death and the Maiden and used it as the theme for a set of variations in the slow movement of his 1826 String Quartet No.14 in D Minor. It is this work which is the cornerstone of a new (digital only) release by Brooklyn Rider, a New York-based string quartet, titled The Wanderer (In A Circle Records ICR025 brooklynrider.com). The title refers to another Schubert lied that the composer incorporated into a late work, the devilishly difficult Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano. The album is “bound together by the dualities of memory and remembrance, melancholy and bliss, old and new, and life and death” made all the more poignant by the fact that the disc is a recording of a live performance in eastern Lithuania shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It opens with Aroma a Distancia, a work composed for the quartet by Gonzalo Grau. The composer lived the first 20 years of his life in Venezuela before moving to the United States. He says, “the aroma, the remembrance of my past, is what makes me who I am today. After all, it often happens when I am in Venezuela, I miss Madrid or New York, or if I’m in Boston I miss Caracas.” The brief work incorporates flavours from these various influences. Another South American transplant, Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s Um Dia Bom (A Good Day) “depicts the story of a life from morning to midnight and beyond, but as told to a child” with movements titled Hovering in the Cradle, While the Rain, Around the Fire, Riding with Death and Feather. Acknowledged influences include a traditional Yiddish song, a sparse painting by Basquiat of a horse carrying the Death Rider, Blind Willie Johnson’s song Dark was the Night and the spirit of the late Chick Corea. The crowning glory is a stunning performance of Schubert’s masterpiece, his penultimate contribution to the string quartet genre, especially nuanced during the variations on the tune that gives the work its name and the flamboyance of the breakneck galloping horse-like finale.

Banjo is the glue that binds the remaining discs in this column. When I was preparing for retirement from my day job at New Music Concerts four years ago, I began to collect instruments I thought I would enjoy getting to know better, including mountain dulcimer, accordion and banjo. Although I did gather some instruction books, took a few lessons and even learned a few banjo songs, I must admit that when COVID hit and my work at The WholeNote expanded into a near-fulltime job organizing CD reviews to fill the void left by the empty concert halls, my best laid plans fell by the wayside. 

05 Kate WeekesAll that is to say that I’m envious of guitarist and singer Kate Weekes who took advantage of her isolation in the Gatineau Hills during the pandemic to learn how to play clawhammer (old-timey, rather than bluegrass style) banjo and pursue new directions in song writing. The result is a new CD, Better Days Ahead (kateweekes.com), featuring ten original songs all penned by Weekes. Although not flashy, there is nothing about Weekes’ banjo playing to indicate her neophyte status; the banjo provides rhythmic and harmonic structure to the quirky songs and supports her simple soprano voice lines. She is accompanied by a trio of accomplished musicians who play nearly two dozen instruments, primarily sousaphone and other brass (Brian Sanderson), fiddles, bass and mandolin (James Stephens, who also produced and engineered the disc) and various exotic percussion instruments (Rob Graves). The arrangements are simple and straightforward, always complementing Weekes’ singing and not interfering with the clarity of the lyrics. I particularly enjoy the use of sousaphone (marching tuba) for the bass line on most songs. Highlights for me include Liminal Space about sheltering in place; the haunting title work co-written with Brenda Berezan; Floating Face Down, a cryptic and surprisingly upbeat, quasi-English ballad about the narrator’s drowning in the Thames “wearing my mother’s dress”; and Time by the Moon, a song written during a month-long banjo tune writing workshop hosted by Chris Coole during the late fall of 2021. Videos for these last two can be seen at youtube.com/results?search_query=kate+weekes. It’s well worth the visit. 

Listen to 'Better Days Ahead' Now in the Listening Room

One of my problems with the traditional five-string banjo is trying to get my head around the counterintuitive fact the highest sounding string is on top, whereas on every other stringed instrument I’ve played it’s on the bottom. One day about five years ago I found myself at the corner of Danforth and Broadview where I was met by the intriguing sight of a young man playing a banjo with six strings. I asked if it was tuned like a guitar, and he said yes. Well, I thought to myself, that’s cheating! I’d also like to think that I’m not too old to learn a new trick or two, so it was a five-string banjo I eventually bought. I’m still stymied though because when my ear knows a high note is called for, I instinctively pluck the first string instead of the fifth… 

06 Eric Bibb RidinMy mother is a big fan of the late Leon Bibb, folksinger, actor and civil rights activist – he marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and through her interest I became familiar with his son, renowned bluesman Eric Bibb. Eric’s youth was spent immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger were visitors to his home, and he was deeply influenced by Odetta, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal. Mom and I had the pleasure of seeing him perform at Hugh’s Room some years ago and my biggest takeaway from that evening was his statement “I just need one guitar… more!” Imagine my surprise when I watched a video from his new album Ridin’ (Stony Plain SPCD1472 stonyplainrecords.com) and saw him playing a six-string banjo (aka banjitar). Bibb plays it more like a blues guitar than a traditional banjo, but the snare drum-like membrane of the banjo head and the hollow round body give it a very distinctive sound. 

It this sound that opens the disc in a paeon to kith and kin, aptly titled Family, the lyrics of which nicely sum up the overall message of the album: “I am like you – born of a woman | I am like you – a child of God | You are like me – here to learn from History | You are like me – Family.” Bibb says, “As a songwriter, studying African American history has always been a deep well of inspiration. The true stories of my ancestors and their communities are at the heart of many of the songs on my new album. Together with co-writer/producer Glen[vin Anthony] Scott, we’ve created a concept album focusing on the ongoing task of understanding systemic racism and purging it from our world.” The history lessons include songs about the 14-year-old Emmett Till, kidnapped, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 (the title track); another about the white author who underwent skin pigment transformation to write Black Like Me, and the persecution he faced from his own community as a result in The Ballad of John Howard Griffin; and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” by white mobs in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma in Tulsa Town, among others. These are interspersed with traditional folk songs like 500 Miles and Sinner Man. I cannot find credits for the backup band, but there are a number of identified cameos throughout the album including star turns by Taj Mahal and Jontavious Willis on Blues Funky Like Dat. Bookending the disc is People You Love (People you love pass on, but they’re not gone | the ones who love you, stay by your side…) bringing a bittersweet but hopeful portrait of a troubled land to a gentle close. 

07 Lynn MilesI see I have not left myself much space for the final disc, TumbleWeedyWorld, the latest from Canadian country icon Lynn Miles (True North Records TND802 lynnmiles.ca). On this, her 16th studio album, the Juno Award-winning and three-time Canadian Folk Music Awards Songwriter of the Year is accompanied by an outstanding band featuring Michael Ball (bass), Joey Wright (mandolin/acoustic guitar), Stuart Rutherford (dobro), Rob McLaren (banjo) and James Stephens (violin). Wright’s mandolin is front and centre on one of my favourite tracks Cold, Cold Moon which features Miles’ signature octave breaks in the moving melody line. Although at times during the disc I felt that this vocal effect was a little overused, it is particularly moving and effective on Moody, where it borders on yodelling. Julie Corrigan and Dave Draves contribute harmonies on the upbeat Sorry’s Just Not Good Enough This Time and dobro and banjo come to the fore in All Bitter Never Sweet with Rebecca Campbell providing duet vocals. This traditional country-flavoured disc comes to a poignant conclusion with Miles in fine voice on the ballad Gold in the Middle

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

John Beckwith photo by Andre LeducI received the sad news shortly before Christmas that my friend, iconic Canadian composer John Beckwith, had died at the age of 95 from complications of a fall. I had seen him some ten days earlier when I dropped by to have him autograph my copy of his latest book – his 17th! – MUSIC ANNALS: Research and Critical Writings by a Canadian Composer 1974-2014 (Institute for Music in Canada 2022) which you likely read about in last September’s issue of The WholeNote. You may also have read the many insightful CD reviews John contributed to this magazine between 2001 and 2016, running the gamut from early Canadiana (1753 – Livre de Montreal) and period performance practices (Haydn – Five Sonatas on Fortepiano performed by Malcolm Bilson), through Beethoven Late String Quartets (Takács Quartet), Schubert’s Winterreise (Russell Braun) and Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus (Angela Hewitt) to 20th-century American composers (Toch, Persichetti, Bolcom) and his Canadian contemporaries Harry Somers, Henry Brant and Eldon Rathburn to name but a few. These can all be found on thewholenote.com website. Of course, numerous recordings of his own music were also reviewed in these pages. 

John’s career was many faceted, encompassing a range of fields from music critic, composer, teacher, writer, historian, administrator – he served as Dean of the Faculty of Music at U of T and Director of the Institute for Music in Canada – and performer, but he preferred to refer to himself simply as a musician. His knowledge and breadth of interest was vast, and his own compositions tended to incorporate and synthesize several of these at a time. John’s oeuvre spanned virtually all genres of art music from folk-song arrangements to art songs, choral works and operas, symphonic works, chamber music, duets and solo pieces. Although his stage works are strikingly underrepresented, recordings of a good cross section of his other works can be found at the Canadian Music Centre (cmccanada.org). Also available from the CMC is his moving personal autobiography, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, which I highly recommend.

01b optional BeckwithOne work that I have particularly enjoyed revisiting in recent days is Quartet as recorded by the Orford String Quartet (John Beckwith Centrediscs CMC-CD 5897). Back in 1986 I had the pleasure of interviewing John on my radio program, Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM. When speaking about Quartet John mentioned that, like Bartók, who had drawn on his Hungarian heritage and had the string instruments mimic the sounds of cimbaloms and hurdy-gurdies, he wanted to reflect the traditional music of Canada in his string quartet. Although John was not particularly well versed in popular music, his father had played the mandolin and his oldest son played guitar, so he had a bit of a head start and as usual was willing to do some homework. He began researching fiddling styles and attended the finals of the Canadian Open Fiddle Championship in Shelburne, Ontario. The resulting work, while not sounding like fiddle music per se, draws on gestures and nuances of fiddle technique and adds a surprising innovation. The two violinists share a third instrument in an alternate tuning enabling different open string chords and unexpected harmonics and producing a “distorted fiddle tune at the same time as the real one” towards the end of the piece. It’s quite a stunning effect. 

Hear! Hear! Remembering John Beckwith takes place at 7:30 on February 28 at Walter Hall, U of T. Performers include Choir 21, Monica Whicher, New Music Concerts Ensemble, Opus 8, Robert Aitken, Peter Stoll and others.

02 Fiddle TunesAs mentioned, Beckwith’s Quartet doesn’t sound like traditional fiddle music, but I had no shortage of the “real” (or should that be “reel”) thing over the past month or so. I was inundated with folk recordings by local artists in a variety of styles and from a variety of traditions. First up, a disc simply called Fiddle Music by Elise Boeur and Adam Iredale-Gray (Fiddlehead Recordings FHR013 eliseandadam.ca). Boeur plays both fiddle and hardingfele (Norwegian hardanger fiddle) while Iredale-Gray alternates on fiddle and guitar. They are accompanied by upright bassist Robert Alan Mackie, who also provides lyrical solos on some of the numbers. The personal liner notes give the authors and origins of each of the tunes and how they came to be in the group’s repertoire. The disc begins with a medley of lively traditional Irish tunes featuring fiddle and guitar. This is followed by La Coccinelle (ladybug), a bourrée by French fiddler Jean Blanchard combined with a tune by Norwegian accordionist Kristoffer Kleiveland, performed on two fiddles with added bass. The lyrical valse à cinq Evening Glory, penned by Belgian Toon Van Mierlo, is arranged here for fiddle, guitar and bass. Other eclectic offerings include more traditional Irish, American and Swedish tunes and several for hardingfele – a rull and a Setesdal Gangar – that Boeur learned while studying folk music in Norway. The disc concludes with a stark tune by the Icelandic jazz band ADHD, followed by another medley that starts slowly with the melancholic Frank Thornton, gets moving with Cock and the Hen and finishes with a rousing rendition of Cottage in the Grove. All in all, a feast for the ears, with fine playing from all concerned.

03 VintaBassist Robert Alan Mackie reappears as a member of Vinta on the next disc, Beacons (vintamusic.com). Other members include Emilyn Stam (fiddle and piano accordion), John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion, bass clarinet) and Nathan Smith (fiddle and viola). One might expect hints of Klezmer from the ensemble’s instrumentation, but Vinta is based in the folk-dance traditions of Europe, especially those of France and Sweden. Growing out of Balfolk gatherings in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto, the enforced isolation of the COVID lockdown also provided an aspect of the group’s inspiration. “At a time when joy and celebration were far away, the four of us came together and shared everything we could. First came the old tunes, hot meals and loud laughter – sure enough, then came the new tunes.” The result is an album of original music in traditional style(s), and one cover – Seduction, a 1929 waltz by Frenchman Mario Cazes, which is combined with Mario and Everest by Stam, “a wedding waltz written for dear friends.” A highlight for me is another waltz, Rosedale Valley by Mackie, once again paired with a composition by Stam, Regent Street Parade. Other pieces of note include High Park by Williams, and the group composition Le réveil des coccinelles, yes, those ladybugs again. Producer (and mandolinist extraordinaire) Andrew Collins praises Vinta’s “unique aesthetic driven by their original composing, arranging and virtuosic playing. […] one certainty is that you will have a smile on your face.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

04 Emilyn and JohnThe next disc features half the members of Vinta, Emilyn Stam and John David Williams performing as a duo. I thought Stam was a familiar name and searching back a few years I found a disc by a local group called The Shoeless – a “cross-cultural stew, combining the sounds of Klezmer, French, Celtic, Appalachian and English music” in a trio with fiddle (Stam), banjo and cello – so obviously her roots spread far afield. The current album focuses on her Dutch heritage and draws on a collection of tunes published in the early 1700s, the title of which translates as Old and New Farmer Songs and Contradances from Holland. On The Farmer Who Lost His Cow and other old Dutch tunes (emilynandjohn.com) Stam plays five-string fiddle, piano and piano accordion, while Williams adds harmonica to his arsenal of clarinet and diatonic accordion. To 21st-century ears there is a certain sameness to the melodies, but differing tempos and the way the duo switches up the accompaniments makes for an entertaining listen that kept my attention. I’m not sure if it is just the novelty of the titles, but highlights included The Pig Scratches His Hole, The Mullet Fish and, of course, the title track, along with the almost minimalistic The Friction Drum and the haunting Farewell My Love with its harmonica lead. As well as songs, there are numerous Gaillardes interspersed throughout this compelling disc. And I feel I must mention, the graphic art includes… ladybugs!

05a David GreenbergDavid Greenberg’s Multiple voices for One (Leaf Music DG2022A davidgreenbergviolinist.bandcamp.com/album/multiple-voices-for-one) is another disc that combines traditional fiddling styles with dance forms, contemporary arrangements and compositions. For over three decades, Greenberg has enjoyed a double career as a Baroque violinist and Cape Breton fiddler. His international career spans continents and his Toronto connections have included performing as a member of Tafelmusik and Toronto Consort among others. This disc features movements from Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin and other classical movements intercut with a variety of jigs, reels and marches from various sources and original tunes by Greenberg and his son Owen, as well Toronto’s late legendary fiddler Oliver Schroer’s Enthralled. Greenberg plays both Baroque and octave violins on the album, both tuned in period style at A414. There is no overdubbing involved, he just plays one or the other on each track, but the booklet includes a clever picture in which he appears to be playing both at once with the smaller one tucked under his chin, the other on his shoulder and the bow spanning both instruments. Greenberg is an acknowledged master of violin and fiddle techniques and, as this recording attests, possesses a consummate musicality that spans genres and styles. An accomplished clinician, he offers a variety of online tuition opportunities, that latest of which is “Making Tunes with Intention,” a three-week course exploring the composition and arrangement of traditional style tunes – Celtic, Baroque, and classical – beginning February 26. You will find details and registration at davidgreenbergviolinist.com/mti-home.

Listen to 'Multiple Voices for One' Now in the Listening Room

06 David JaegerSticking with the violin family, but moving away from the fiddle tradition, the next disc features music for solo viola by longtime CBC producer and frequent contributor to The WholeNote, David Jaeger. In the spirit of full disclosure I will say that I have had a lengthy professional relationship with Jaeger over the years as the administrator of New Music Concerts but of course almost everyone in the contemporary music community could say the same. Since retiring from the CBC, Jaeger, when not busy producing independent recordings for some of Toronto’s finest musicians, has expanded his activities as a composer and there has been a wealth of new work in recent years. Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger (Redshift Records TK524 redshiftrecords.org) spans four decades. The soloist is Hamilton native, now Vermont resident, Elizabeth Reid who rises to the various challenges the works present with aplomb and conviction. She is accompanied by Alison Bruce Cerutti in Sonata, Tristan and Isolde, written in 1992 in honour of the 70th birthday of the composer’s mother (and her dog and cat), and Sonata No.1 for viola and piano written just four years ago. The Six Miniatures for unaccompanied viola are based on verses by Scottish poet David Cameron, the texts of which are included in the booklet, with the violist “in effect, playing the role of the reciter.” As befitting a founding member of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, Jaeger’s three remaining works involve the use of technology in one form or another. Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds is an adaption of a work originally for solo cello. At the suggestion of Reid, Jaeger reworked the cello score for viola and added an electronic track “composed using a similar process,” i.e., examples of linear variation observed in the work of English Romantic artist John Constable. The result is intriguing. The final two works were written for the internationally renowned Israeli violist Rivka Golani who made her home in Toronto for some years. Favour for viola and live digital delay controlled by the performer was composed in 1980. Sarabande was composed to address the issue of the complicated set-up required for the live electronics aspect of Favour, here replaced by a single playback track for the performer to play against. Favour was originally released on Golani’s Viola Nouveau (Centrediscs CMCCD 0883), still available from the Canadian Music Centre, providing a rare opportunity to compare two interpretations of a contemporary Canadian piece. By pairing these two works we are presented with Jaeger’s “second take” on the same material and also a second performer’s take on them both. It’s great to see a new generation of musicians taking up the mantle and championing existing works along with the new. 

Listen to 'Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger' Now in the Listening Room

07 Missy MazzoliMid-career American super-star composer Missy Mazzoli "inhabits an exquisite and mysterious sound-world that melds indie-rock sensibilities with classical traditions… [equally at home in] concert halls, opera houses and rock clubs." Dark with Excessive Bright (BIS-2572 missymazzoli.com) is a portrait disc spanning 15 years of Mazzoli’s international career, featuring Norwegian violinist Peter Herresthal. Once again, we are presented with a composer’s alternate takes on several works. The title piece was originally a concerto for double bass and string orchestra that at Herresthal’s request Mazzoli reworked for violin, “essentially flipping the work upside down.” Dark with excessive bright is a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a surreal and evocative description of God’s robes, written by a blind man. Mazzoli says: “I love the impossibility of this phrase and how perfectly it describes the ghostly, heart-rending sound of strings.” It appears here twice, bookending the disc, opening with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan and closing with a reduced version for solo violin, string quartet and double bass performed by members of Norway’s Arctic Philharmonic under the direction of Tim Weiss. Both versions are extremely powerful, with a sound palette that belies the all-string instrumentation, and it’s hard to comprehend that in the latter all that sound is being created by just six players. Vespers for Violin is a reimagining of the earlier Vespers for a New Dark Age, in which “sampled keyboards, vintage organs, voices and strings from that composition, drenched in delay and distortion,” are used to create an effective work for a solo violinist. Full orchestral resources are utilized in Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) with music “in the shape of a solar system.” The title draws on two meanings of the word sinfonia: a Baroque work for chamber orchestra and the old Italian term for a hurdy-gurdy. Mazzoli describes it as “a piece that churns and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed, in the process transforming the ensemble into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy, flung recklessly into space.” There’s a Toronto connection in Orpheus Undone. It’s an orchestral suite, fragments of which have their origins in Orpheus Alive, a work composed for the National Ballet of Canada back in 2019. In its present form, it depicts “a single instant in Orpheus’s life, in the immediate aftermath of his wife Eurydice’s death. I have used the Orpheus myth… to explore the ways traumatic events disrupt the linearity and unity of our experience of time.” It was composed in 2021, no doubt in response to the trauma of COVID-19. Concert Note: Speaking of Toronto, Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright will be performed in its original double bass version by the Toronto Symphony and guest conductor Kerem Hasan, with TSO principal Jeffrey Beecher as soloist on March 1 and 2 at Roy Thomson Hall. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 SHHHYou may have read Max Christie’s article “John Beckwith Musician” two issues ago (The WholeNote Volume 28/1) about the launch of Beckwith’s latest book Music Annals: Research and Critical Writings by a Canada Composer 1973-2014, and Christie’s sequel “Meanwhile back at Chalmers House” in the following issue. The evening of the launch at the Canadian Music Centre included a live performance by SHHH!! Ensemble and provided my first exposure to this duo from Ottawa: Zac Pulak (percussion) and Edana Higham (piano). Dedicated to performing and commissioning new works, their debut CD Meanwhile has recently been released by Analekta (AN 2 9139 analekta.com/en). Comprising works by five mid-career Canadian composers including Monica Pearce (whose leather was also included on that composer’s portrait disc Textile Fantasies reviewed in this column last month), Jocelyn Morlock, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Micheline Roi and John Gordon Armstrong, plus one relative newcomer on the scene, Iranian-Canadian Noora Nakhaie, and the current grand old man of Canadian music, Beckwith himself. All of the works were written for the pair, with the exception of Murphy’s Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine which was Pulak’s first commission back in 2016 “fresh out of school and out of my depth.” Murphy, who had never written for solo percussion, eagerly took on the project and created a dynamic and almost relentless work for unpitched drums with only a brief respite in metal and bell sounds. This is followed by Roi’s Grieving the Doubts of Angels, a motoric, minimal and mostly melodic work which ends dramatically with a pounding pulse. 

A highlight for me is Nakhaie’s Echoes of the Past, inspired by Sister Language, a moving book by Martha and Christina Baillie. This testament to the triumphs and struggles experienced by a family dealing with profound mental illness and to the bond between siblings is sensitively interpreted by the composer. Meanwhile concludes with the title piece, the duo’s first commission, a 2018 work for marimba and piano (both inside and out) by Beckwith in which the then 91-year-old shows no signs of compromise in his approach. There are echoes of earlier works – Keyboard Practice comes to mind – yet we are left with the impression that the composer is looking forward as much as back. Forward is definitely the direction of SHHH!! Ensemble and we’re glad to be along for the ride. 

02 Andara QuartetKelly-Marie Murphy reappears on the next disc, de mille feux (a million lights) featuring the Andara Quartet (leaf music LM262 leaf-music.ca). Murphy’s Dark Energy was commissioned by the Banff Centre and the CBC as the required work in the 2007 Banff International String Quartet Competition, won that year by Australia’s Tinalley String Quartet although the prize for best performance of the Canadian commission was awarded to the Koryo String Quartet (USA). The Andara Quartet would not be formed until seven years later when the members met at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. They have subsequently gone on to residencies at the Banff Centre, the Ottawa Chamberfest and the University of Montreal. The quartet’s debut disc opens with Benjamin Britten’s all too rarely heard String Quartet No.1 with its angelic opening high-string chorale over pizzicato cello before transitioning into a caccia-like Allegro vivo. The extended Andante calmo third movement eventually leads to a playful finale in which the strings seem to be playing tag. This is contrasted with Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Molto Adagio extracted from his String Quartet in B Minor Op.11. Of course we are familiar with this “Adagio for Strings” in its standalone string orchestra and a cappella choral versions, but I must admit to have mixed feelings about having it cherry-picked in the context of a string quartet recording. Generous as the disc’s 65-minute duration is, there was ample space available to have included the quartet’s outer movements as well (less than ten minutes between them), but that is a minor quibble. Murphy’s single-movement work is next up, opening forebodingly, as many of her works do, before changing mood abruptly to a rhythmic and roiling second half featuring abrasive chordal passages and Doppler-like effects. The final work, producer James K. Wright’s String Quartet No.1 “Ellen at Scattergood” is in four somewhat anachronistic movements. It could have been written a century ago, but is none the worse for that. A pastoral depiction of life at the cottage of a couple of friends, it was commissioned by the husband as a gift for wife Ellen. 

This maiden voyage for the Andara Quartet with its warm and convincing performances bodes well for their future, and for chamber music in this country. I also note that the triennial Banff Competition is still going strong 30 years after its inauguration – the first prize winner in 2022 was the Isidore Quartet (USA) and the Canadian Commission Prize went to Quatuor Agate (France). This year’s required work was by Dinuk Wijeratne and it’s great to realize that all nine of the competing quartets from around the world have taken that new Canadian work into their repertoires. Even more exciting is when a young quartet like the Andara takes on an earlier competition’s work and gives it new life as they have done with Dark Energy. 

Listen to 'de mille feux' Now in the Listening Room

03 Blue and GreenBlue and Green Music features two string quartets by American composer Victoria Bond performed by the Cassatt String Quartet along with the song cycle From an Antique Land and the standalone song Art and Science, both featuring baritone Michael Kelly with Bradley Moore, piano (Albany Music TROY1905 albanyrecords.com). The title work takes its inspiration from a painting of the same name by Georgia O’Keeffe, in the words of the composer an “abstract study in motion, color and form, with the interplay of those two colors that dance with each other in graceful, sensuous patterns.” The four movements endeavour to represent that interplay, and to these ears succeed gracefully and gleefully in the final movement Dancing Colors. Art and Science takes its text from a letter which Albert Einstein wrote to the editor of a German magazine that the composer says “even though it was written as a letter, the organization of thoughts was startling. There was such logic […] and such a sense of form that it was as though Einstein had composed a poem….” More traditionally, From an Antique Land does use poetry, with Recuerdo and On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven by Edna St. Vincent Millay bookending poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The accompaniment in the final song cleverly incorporates echoes of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Although texts are not provided in the booklet, there are synopses, and frankly, Kelly’s lyric baritone voicing is so well articulated that the words are clearly understandable. 

Dreams of Flying was commissioned by the Audubon Quartet and Bond took the name of the ensemble as inspiration to create a piece about birds. The opening movements, Resisting Gravity and Floating are as their titles describe and set the stage for the playful and boisterous The Caged Bird Dreams of the Jungle, which, after a gentle opening becomes truly joyous, replete with chirps, whistles and cries as the birds of the jungle awake. The work and the CD end exuberantly with Flight, featuring rising motifs, high glissandi and repeating rhythmic patterns. Here, as throughout this entertaining disc, all the performers shine. 

Listen to 'Blue and Green Music' Now in the Listening Room

04 Jennifer GrimAfter 20 years working alongside Robert Aitken you might be forgiven for thinking I’d have heard enough flute music to last a lifetime and indeed there are times when I have said that a little flute goes a long way. That sentiment notwithstanding I encountered a lovely disc this month that put the lie to that. Through Broken Time features Jennifer Grim in contemporary works for solo and multiple flutes, some with piano accompaniment provided by Michael Sheppard (New Focus Recordings FCR346 newfocusrecordings.com). I had put the disc on while cataloguing recent arrivals without paying undo attention until the bird-like sounds and Latin rhythms of Tania León’s Alma leapt out at me. I had just finished listening to Victoria Bond’s disc, and it was as if I were back in the jungle dreamed of by the caged bird mentioned above.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would find Julia Wolfe’s Oxygen for 12 flutes (2021) reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint for flute and tape or 11 flutes, which I first heard in Ransom Wilson’s multi-tracked recording some four decades ago I don’t mean to say that Wolfe’s work is derivative of that classic, but that the orchestra of flutes, in this case involving all the regular members of the flute family rather than Reich’s piccolos, C and alto flutes, and especially the consistency of sound from part to part as a result of them all being played by one flutist, has a familiarity, especially in the context of Wolfe’s post-minimalist style. The addition of bass flute to the mix fills out the wall of sound, the density of which can at times be mistaken for a pipe organ. The liner notes also liken the piece to Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments but whatever the forebears, Wolfe has made this flute choir her own and Grim rises to the occasion in spades. 

David Sanford is represented by two jazz inspired works, Klatka Still from 2007, and Offertory (2021), the first a homage to trumpeters Tony Klatka and Tomasz Stanko, and the second inspired by the extended improvisations of John Coltrane and Dave Liebman. The disc also includes solo works by Alvin Singleton and Allison Loggins-Hull – this latter a haunting work that meditates on the devastation wreaked by hurricane Maria, social, political and racial turmoil in the United States, and the Syrian civil war – and Wish Sonatine by Valerie Coleman, a dramatic work that conveys brutality and resistance and which incorporates djembe rhythms symbolizing enslaved Africans. Grim proves herself not only comfortable but fluent in all the diverse idioms and the result is a very satisfying disc. 

Listen to 'Through Broken Time' Now in the Listening Room

05 Lucie HorschIf Jennifer Grim’s CD can be considered diverse within the context of contemporary composition, Origins, featuring rising super-star recorder virtuoso Lucie Horsch, takes musical diversity to a whole ‘nother level (Decca 485 3192 luciehorsch.com). Most of the works are arrangements, opening with Coltrane’s classic Ornithology followed by Piazzolla’s Libertango. The accompaniments vary, ranging from orchestra and chamber ensemble to bandoneon, guitar, kora and, in Horsch’s own arrangement of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances Sz.56, cimbalom (Dani Luca). There is an effective interpretation of Debussy’s solo flute masterpiece Syrinx and more Horsch arrangements of works by Stravinsky. Traditional material includes Simple Gifts and the Irish tunes She Moved Through the Fair and Londonderry Air. Like Grim with flutes, Horsch plays all the members of the recorder family and although I don’t see a bass there, she is pictured with five different instruments in the extensive booklet. At home in seemingly all forms of music, including such unexpected treats as improvisations on traditional Senegalese songs (with kora master Bao Sissoko) and one of contemporary composer Isang Yun’s demanding unaccompanied works, Horsch is definitely a young artist to watch. 

06 Water Hollows StoneThe final disc I will mention is the EP Water Hollows Stone, a compelling work for two pianos by American composer Alex Weiser (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0176 brightshiny.ninja), which takes its title from a quotation by Ovid that the composer saw inscribed in Latin on the wall of a subway station in NYC. Performed by Hocket (pianists Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff) the three movements are Waves, a quietly roiling texture from which “phrase, melody and harmony” eventually emerge, Cascade, a series of rising and falling arpeggios based on “a misquotation” of one of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Mist, which uses “an evocative keyboard technique borrowed from Helmut Lachenmann “where the notes of a chord are released individually so that the decay is as important as the initial sounds.” It is a very effective technique, a kind of juxtaposition of positive and negative space, and it is further developed in Fade, a standalone piece for solo piano conceived as a postlude to the 18-minute Water Hollows Stone, performed here by Gibson. A very immersive disc. 

07 Claude GauvreauI began this article with a mention of John Beckwith’s Music Annals and I’d like to turn now to another book that documents an important moment in the cultural annals of Quebec. When Paul-Émile Borduas published his manifesto Refus Global in 1948 it was a harbinger of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and the changes that would come in the following decades. The 16 signatories included artists, dancers and actors who were associated with the Automatiste movement, previously known as the Montreal Surrealists. Among them was the writer Claude Gauvreau (1925-1971) whose arcane and often invented language used “[s]craps of known abstract words, shaped into a bold unconscious jumble.” 

Toronto’s One Little Goat theatre company, in association with Nouvelles Éditions de Feu-Antonin, has just published the libretto of Gauvreau’s 1949 opera Le vampire et la nymphomane/The Vampire and the Nymphomaniac in a bilingual edition brilliantly translated by Automatiste scholar Ray Ellenwood (onelittlegoat.org/publications). Although Gauvreau originally planned to work with Pierre Mercure on the opera, that composer withdrew from the project and it was never realized during Gauvreau’s lifetime. The absurdist libretto – “A new concrete reality where music and meaning meet” – makes for difficult comprehension – “Gauvreau is marshalling his creative powers to explode the profundities of human consciousness…”  – but simply put, in the words of the translator, it is “[a] love story. Star-crossed lovers kept apart by the forces of patriarchy: church, husband, police, psychiatry.” 

“Gauvreau’s opera opens the possibility of a renewed push towards the purely sonic dimension of language.” In his own words “This work is vocal, purely auditory. […] It’s an opera exclusively for the ear […] not conceived with anything else in mind but music.” It was only after Serge Provost became interested in Le vampire et la nymphomane two decades after Gauvreau’s death – he first composed L’adorable verrotière using fragments from it in 1992 – that the opera began to take shape. In 1996 Montreal’s Chantes Libres presented the first production with baritone Doug MacNaughton and soprano Pauline Vaillancourt in the title roles and a supporting cast that included, among others, mezzo Fides Krucker and actors Albert Millaire and Monique Mercure, under the stage direction of Lorraine Pintal. Provost’s score was performed by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne with founder Lorraine Vaillancourt at the helm. It is a striking production and thankfully it is available in its two-hour entirety on the Chants Libres website (chantslibres.org/en/videos). It is a perfect complement to this important new testament to the creative powers of Gauvreau, his unique voice in both the cultural history of Quebec and Canadian literature.

[Quotations are taken from the informative essays by Ray Ellenwood, Adam Seelig and Thierry Bissonnette which provide useful contextual information for Gauvreau’s opera in the One Little Goat publication.]

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