Art of Song
- Written by Lydia Perović
- Category: Art of Song
The Canadian Art Song Project is going big for the 150th birthday of the federation and Toronto’s biggest contemporary music festival 21C will host the party: 12 poets in a song cycle world premiere with four singers and a piano, alongside two song cycles for baritone and piano both performed for the first time in Ontario. And when I say party, I am not exaggerating. All three composers will be in attendance on May 25 at the Temerty Theatre at the RCM, as will most of the poets (Lucy Maud Montgomery and E.J Pratt have good excuses), and will stay after the concert together with the singers and pianists for an open panel conversation with the audience and to answer questions.
Marilyn Dumont’s lower-case titled poem dawn always begins in the bones is where composer Ana Sokolović got the title for the largest work on the program, a cycle commissioned by the CASP’s two artistic directors, Steven Philcox and Lawrence Wiliford. “We wanted something quite substantial to celebrate the sesquicentennial,” explained Philcox when we caught up with him in late April. “Both of us wanted to find a piece that would be a bit larger in scope, and that would possibly be breaking some of the established traditions of the song cycle.” They asked Sokolović, a composer known for her flair for incorporating the dramatic and the visual into her music as well as for the keenness to experiment, to create a cycle for four voices (SMTB) rather than one. She used texts by a wide range of poets; they hail from all the provinces, ethnic backgrounds, ages and poetic philosophies. There are poets from the past (E.J. Pratt and L.M. Montgomery) but most of the poems are by our contemporaries: Marilyn Dumont, George Elliott Clarke, Lorna Crozier, Christian Bök, Herménégilde Chiasson, Rienzi Crusz, Roo Borson, haiku writer Nick Avis, Ariel Gordon and the late Quebec Automatist Claude Gauvreau. Musically too, says Philcox, “Sokolović managed to capture the vivid and varied landscape of Canada.”
Sometimes a song may start as a solo and proceed as a duo or start as a duo that progresses into a trio. Everything will be in flux over the 40 minutes of the duration of the piece. There are times in the cycle when singers are tasked with playing ukulele and percussion instruments, and playing on the exposed piano strings with mallets. The young director and frequent collaborator with MYOpera, Anna Theodosakis, was hired as the “directorial eye” in putting this piece with a strong visual component together.
By the time of the two workshop performances they already knew, Philcox says, that the work would have the alchemy of that rare perfect combination between the creators and performers. It was clear to them from the beginning that “It’s Canada’s youngest talent who should be presenting it – those who will carry us into the bicentennial.” Four of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio members sing the songs, soprano Danika Lorèn, mezzo Emily D’Angelo, tenor Aaron Sheppard and baritone Bruno Roy, and will be accompanied on the piano by the head of the Ensemble Studio, Liz Upchurch. Their enthusiasm for the project and their youthful energy further fuelled the cycle. Sokolović has gotten to know the singers over time and has occasionally made adjustments to play to their specific strengths. Lorèn and D’Angelo went to meet with her in Montreal and after hearing them sing the composer was so inspired by their companionship in timbre and their joint beauty of sound that she wrote a song for them literally overnight: she rushed to find the suitable poem immediately after the meeting and worked on it, sleep be damned, until it was done.
For those of us impatient to hear it, Dawn Always Begins in the Bones will have its ante-premiere in the COC’s noon-hour vocal series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre on May 17. On May 25 at the RCM, however, it will be presented in a full-sized concert (plus the post-performance discussion) with two other vocal works, by Andrew Staniland and by Lloyd Burritt.
Staniland’s Peter Quince at the Clavier for baritone and piano was originally composed for American Opera Projects: Composers and the Voice in 2008 and had its world premiere in Santa Fe with an American cast of musicians. The poem by Wallace Stevens is very distantly based on the character Peter Quince, the director of the tradesmen-players ensemble in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The text actually dwells more on the story from the biblical Apocrypha about Susanna and the voyeur elders – and the unnamed woman who brought the story to the narrator’s mind. Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk / Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna and on and on; perhaps it is a Peter Quince-like figure attempting art song composition with no music other than Wallace Stevens’ poetic sense. On the music inherent in the poem itself a lot has been written (there’s a compilation of key excerpts from a number of studies on the University of Illinois’ English Department poetry pages) so adding actual music to it must have been an intriguing kind of a challenge. You can find out how Staniland solved this puzzle by heading to YouTube, where the composer generously uploaded the entire piece with the visuals closely following the score. “Writing is often sparse and rhythmically fraught and quite ferocious,” Philcox says about the music. “The baritone gets to do a lot of interesting things, including sing in the falsetto range.” Iain MacNeil will be accompanied by Mélisande Sinsoulier from the piano.
Sinsoulier and MacNeil will also perform the final song cycle in the program, the BC-based composer Lloyd Burritt’s Moth Poem set to the serial poem of that name by Robin Blaser (1925-2009). “It’s a piece that harkens back to the more traditional musical landscape and complements the rest of the program,” says Philcox. “It’s very evocative, lush at times, very melodic and tonal.”
Natalie Dessay returns to Toronto for a recital at Koerner Hall May 2 with the always brilliant Philippe Cassard at the piano. (Search for his name in the French public radio stations France Musique and France Culture websites; he unfailingly gives enlightening and entertaining interviews.) The program, conceived under the very broad umbrella of “Women’s Portraits,” includes Mozart, Gounod, Schubert, Pfitzner, Debussy, Bizet and Chausson, plus possible encores. Dessay is not best known for her Lieder singing, but after her soft retirement from the stage she is now moving into the art song territory – her latest CD is an all-Schubert recording with Cassard at the piano.
The COC’s lunch-hour Vocal Series is particularly rich this month. On May 9, mezzo Allyson McHardy will sing Schumann’s Poèmes de la reine Marie d’Écosse, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck. Rachel Andrist is at the piano. May 10, COC’s Ensemble Studio tenor Aaron Sheppard sings Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and May 11 one of Ensemble Studio’s mezzos Lauren Eberwein and the members of the COC orchestra present a program of two Bach cantantas, Ich habe genug, BWV82, and Vergnügte Ruh, BWV 170. Tenor Charles Sy and pianist Hyejin Kwon will perform Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin in their final Ensemble Studio graduation concert on May 18. All concerts are free and start at noon in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
The very last two concerts to be played by Talisker Players as a presenting ensemble are their May 16 and 17 performances of “A Mixture of Madness.” Soprano Ilana Zarankin will sing Purcell’s Mad Songs for soprano, strings and continuo, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of William Blake for soprano and oboe and Marina Tsvetaeva’s Insomnia set to music by John Plant (with saxophone and piano). Baritone Bruce Kelly will sing a song from Mitch Leigh’s musical Man of La Mancha, “The Impossible Dream,” in the chamber ensemble arrangement by Laura Jones. He will also interpret Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. The Talisker Players-commissioned Alice Ping Ye Ho’s The Madness of Queen Charlotte (text by Phoebe Tsang) for flute, viola, cello and piano will have its world premiere on the same night. Actor Andrew Moodie will read from select letters, diaries and memoirs. Concerts start at 8pm but there will be pre-concert chats starting at 7:15pm on both nights; at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.
Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to email@example.com.
- Written by Lydia Perović
- Category: Art of Song
Much of Brahms stays well apart from pop culture, but one piece is a colossal exception: the third movement of his Third Symphony has had a prolific afterlife no other piece by any Romantic composer can match. Serge Gainsbourg uses the melody for the song Baby Alone in Babylone written for Jane Birkin, and Carlos Santana lifts it for Love of My Life. John Cleese as Basil Fawlty plays it loudly to irritate his wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers (“Brahms’ Third Racket”). In the 1961 romantic drama Goodbye Again, based on Françoise Sagan’s novel Aimez-vous Brahms?, it appears in the score alongside other Brahms and reappears as a jazz song Say No More, It’s Goodbye sung by Diahann Carroll. Both the film and the novel are about an obstacle-ridden love affair between an older woman and a younger man, perhaps a nod to Brahms’ own love life (Clara Schumann was 13 years his senior).
Few have dared tackle the Brahms lieder in pop and singer-songwriter register. The only one who did it in Canada in recent years is pianist and composer Lewis Furey. The Lewis Furey Brahms Lieder project is the result of years of translating, adapting, transposing and arranging lieder, a selection of which he performed last year in concert in Montreal. The only one that made YouTube, Forget You, after Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen, is an intriguing piece of musical (re-)creation, but it’s probably too complex to be anywhere in the vicinity of pop.
For readers quick off the mark this month, Art of Time Ensemble’s March 31/April 1 “Johannes Brahms: Portrait of a Musical Genius” program bodes well on this score. The always innovative ensemble under artistic director Andrew Burashko may yet turn Brahms into a contemporary pop star, since all the elements seem to be there: an actual pop singer – Sarah Slean – lending her distinct and recognizable voice; Burashko at the piano; and four Brahms’ lieder adapted in English and arranged, fingers crossed, to keep the intricacy of Brahms’ originals while also achieving the easy communicability and immediacy of pop songs. Benjamin Bowman (violin), Jethro Marks (viola) and Rachel Mercer (cello) make up the rest of the performing ensemble. Piano Quartet No.1 Op.25, Violin Sonata No 2 in A Major Op.100 and a selection of piano Intermezzi are also on this all-Brahms program. Will the strings be employed for the lieder too? It remains to be seen.
Slean will sing four reinvented Brahms songs for the occasion. Sommerabend (Summer Evening) Op.85 No.1, to the poem by Heinrich Heine, tells of a quiet walk through the woods and meadows that ends with a secretive glimpse of a wood fairy bathing under the moonlight. Bei dir sind meine Gedanken (My Thoughts Are with You) Op.95 No.2, poem by Friedrich Halm, is a tad more lively: the piano flutters as do the excited and confused thoughts around the beloved, unwilling to leave her side, even if it means their wings will be burned “in the flame of your eyes.” Feldeinsamkeit (Solitude in the Fields) Op.86 No.2, poem by Hermann Allmers, sounds least amenable to pop treatment, but I hope to be proven wrong. It’s a resigned, deceptively brightly coloured, slow-paced meditation on mortality—through a description of nature, of course; a frequent Romantic device. Finally, Wie Melodien zieht es (Like Melodies It Passes) Op.105 No.1, to the poem by Klaus Groth, is a witty yet still melancholy take on writing poetry and putting the elusive to words. Among the many recorded versions of the song, the ohne Worte arrangement for cello and piano by Mischa Maisky and Pavel Gililov is probably the most unusual one around.
These are the four challenges then. Art of Time, Slean and Burashko will take them on at Harbourfront Centre Theatre March 31 and April 1 at 8pm.
Mezzos: There’s more Brahms of the traditional kind coming up later in April and early May. Torontonians will be able to hear two mezzos in the same Brahms piece, Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano on different occasions: Allyson McHardy with the Montrose Trio (April 28 at Koerner Hall) and Maria Soulis with Canadian Sinfonietta (May 6 at Heliconian Hall). Brahms wrote the two songs published as Zwei Gesange Op.91 for two of his friends, mezzo Amalie Schneeweiss and her husband, violinist Joseph Joachim. Gestillte Sehnsucht (Longing at Rest) is a sort of a secular lullaby for grownups, to words by poet Friedrich Rückert, full of rustling tree leaves and restless desires quieting down. Geistliches Wiegenlied or Cradle Song of the Virgin (Emanuel Geibel, translating Lope de Vega) borrows from Christian folklore. It opens and closes with a musical citation from a carol, it’s the palms of Bethlehem that swish, and it is Mary who rocks her child and hints at what is to come for him. Good things didn’t befall the real couple in the composing story either: they divorced in acrimony, after Joachim unjustifiably accused Schneeweiss of an affair with an acquaintance. Brahms took her side, and Joachim severed ties with both.
In Two Songs, there is a lot of room for the mezzo to show off her spectrum of inflections and her subtle mastery over text (of which there’s a considerable amount) while steering clear of the pitfalls of the saccharine that come with Wiegenlied. The Canadian Sinfonietta concert with Soulis will feature two other vocal pieces, Jake Heggie’s Some Times of Day for mezzo and piano trio and a selection of Mikis Theodorakis’ Greek songs.
Agostino Steffani: Chiefly thanks to Cecilia Bartoli’s tireless work in favour of his revival – Donna Leon’s mystery The Jewels of Paradise might have played a part in his popularization – Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) is gaining a foothold in the operatic repertoire. On April 28, at Heliconian Hall, as part of their new chamber series Close Encounters, Tafelmusik will make the case for his return to the concert repertoire too.
Diplomat and bishop as well as a composer, Steffani left behind a great many vocal pieces and operas, but only six secular cantatas, considerably fewer than Vivaldi or Scarlatti. Hai finito di lusingarmi (lyricist anonymous) is written for high voice, two oboes and continuo. Italian secular cantatas of the era are structured into aria and recitative components, and Hai finito unfolds in the A R A R A scheme. Arcadian characters recur in cantatas – Fileno, Tirsi, Dorilla, Elvira – with verse metered at 11 or 7 syllables, the dominant metres of Italian poetry since Petrarch. The lines in arias tend to rhyme in some form, but in what form and how consistently is up to the poet (there are rime baciate, alternate, intrecciate and incatenate – words for the types of rhymes themselves sound like poetry). Digging deep into the cantata as a poetic and musical form can lead to some fascinating places. The chapter on the cantata genre in Michael Talbot’s The Chamber Cantatas of Antonio Vivaldi is an excellent general introduction to the form.
You will never again lure me, Steffani’s title in English, is a monologue by a certain Clorindo addressed to Filli by the end of which, alas, he is lured by Filli again. Antonio Lotti’s aria,Vieni pur ferisci impiago (Come then wound again) will also be performed in Close Encounters. It is from his cantata Ti sento, o Dio bendato (I Feel Thee, Oh Blind God), and belongs in the same general category of wrestling with Cupid. Its structure is A R A A and the oboe returns as the melody instrument atop the continuo.
Amid some instrumental Zelenka, Telemann and Fasch, the sampling of cantatas concludes somewhat incongruously with a highly religious aria Ich hab mich ihm ergeben (I have given myself over to Him) from Bach’s Cantata 97 In allen meinen Taten. Musically, however, it’s a playful number with woodwinds dialoguing and stealing the show.
Said woodwinds will be manned by John Abberger and Marco Cera (oboes) and Dominic Teresi (bassoon). Charlotte Nediger will be continuo-ing from the harpsichord. Soprano Ellen McAteer sings the three cantatas.
Fête: Toronto vocal ensemble Collectìf, co-founded by COC Ensemble Studio soprano Danika Lorèn, presents staged vignettes of art songs based on Verlaine’s poetry cycle, Fêtes galantes (various composers) and Reynaldo Hahn’s Douze Rondelles. Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe, Tom King, Adam Harris and Matthew Dalen perform in the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium on April 18 at noon.
Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky returns to the Koerner Hall in a program of Handel arias from operas Flavio, Siroe, Imeneo, Radamisto and Tolomeo with Les Violons du Roy conducted by the ensemble’s associate conductor Mathieu Lussier. Also on the April program: Fux and Graun.
Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Written by Lydia Perović
- Category: Art of Song
The French Revolution is an inexhaustible source of fascinating characters, but I would bet my culottes that most of us would draw a blank before the name of Théroigne de Méricourt. This goes even for those of us who seek out female characters in history and for whom Olympe de Gouges, Charlotte Corday or Madame de Staël do ring a bell or two. Yet de Méricourt was a figure of immense notoriety in her own era, both veiled and amplified by myth, royalist propaganda and gossip by her contemporaries and the 19th-century historians alike.
She was a demimondaine who moved from job to job and region to region, and before 1789 mostly worked on trying to build a singing career. She moved to Paris when the Revolution called, attended the debates at the National Assembly, joined revolutionary clubs, argued for inclusion of women in them, and founded her own short-lived one before joining the Cordeliers. (During this time, her alter-ego concocted by the royalist pamphlets lived a life of insatiable promiscuity and fighting at the barricades. Plus ça change for women in public life.) Austrians arrested her as a “revolutionary spy” during a visit to her home region, then under Austrian occupation. She spent several months in a fortress and in between interrogations wrote her biography which would have to wait 100 years to be published.
Freed thanks to the intervention of the Austrian emperor, she returned to Paris to find the tenor of the Revolution radically changed. She sympathized with the Girondins, but the Jacobins were ascending, and during the Terror she was captured and publicly whipped by a group of sans-culottes women for her politics. This brought about a breakdown from which she never recovered. Soon after, de Méricourt was committed to an insane asylum and spent the remaining years of her life locked in cells, increasingly demented, occasionally under the watch of a conservative pioneer of clinical psychiatry Dr. Esquirol who, like a great number of historians since, argued that her life was proof that a revolutionary shakeup of the hierarchies can clearly only have one outcome: madness. (In 1989, Élisabeth Roudinesco made a better argument in her Théroigne de Méricourt biography: a woman who found her voice during the Revolution lost it – together with her reason and liberty – when the Revolution betrayed its own ideals.)
It’s the Théroigne (her name brings to mind the word témoigne, the French word for bearing witness) in Austrian captivity that we will hear as one of the three voices in Magnus Lindberg’s Accused: Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra on March 22 and 23 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Finnish soprano Anu Komsi. The TSO co-commissioned the piece with Radio France, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and NYC’s Carnegie Hall. This will be its North American premiere. To quote the composer’s publisher Boosey & Hawkes, “ Accused explores three documented cases of the individual under attack from the state, from three countries and three different centuries.”The world premiere took place in London in 2015. For the occasion the soprano (Barbara Hannigan) was placed within the orchestra, vocal line at times intentionally submerged by the orchestral forces. The text in the middle part is from a 1960s Stasi interrogation in East Germany, while the final one is adapted from the trial of Chelsea Manning, the US army whistleblower sentenced by a military court to 35 years of imprisonment for leaking 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, including the infamous 2007 US Apache gunsight video that shows the killing in a public square in East Baghdad of a handful of Iraqi civilians suspected of insurgency, a Reuters journalist holding a camera and his driver. In one of the last acts of his presidency, U.S. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence (the 29-year-old is expected to head home to Maryland in May this year). There is a final twist to the story of Accused. The course of time has cast a shadow over WikiLeaks itself, which was potentially enlisted by subterranean actors with connections to the Russian government in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. But that’s material for another composer.
There are few reviews around and no recording of Accused just yet. The available accounts from concertgoers suggest that Lindberg did not compose the vocal line in concertante with the orchestra, but in an often losing struggle of contrast and friction against the orchestral power. In interviews Lindberg cites Luciano Berio’s 1965 Epifanie as a model. Epifanie is a better-documented work, with a recording on the Orfeo label available, and a couple of streaming captures on YouTube, all with Cathy Berberian in the vocal role, and a good page on IRCAM online archives, should the fancy strike. The text for the Epifanie was built up by none other than Umberto Eco from quotes from Proust, Joyce, Brecht, Antonio Machado, Edoardo Sanguinetti and Claude Simon.
How to introduce oneself to Lindberg, one of the busiest and most productive European composers around, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmoniker and the Concergebouw, past composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic and London Philharmonic? Here are his own words from the liner notes of a recent recording: “Though my creative personality and early works were formed from the music of Zimmermann and Xenakis, and a certain anarchy related to rock music of that period, I eventually realized that everything goes back to the foundations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky – how could music ever have taken another road? I see my music now as a synthesis of these elements, combined with what I learned from Grisey and the spectralists, and I detect from Kraft to my latest pieces the same underlying tastes and sense of drama.” Kraft is one of Lindberg’s earliest breakthroughs, a dramatic noise piece for electronics, a large orchestra and an ensemble of soloists which includes clarinet, two percussionists, piano, cello, a sound master and a conductor, each of whom is expected to leave their respective station and perform extended techniques on a set of makeshift instruments. There’s a solid online record of Kraft performances and history, including backstage and instructional videos, all of which is a hoot to explore. If you prefer an intimate listening of a piece for which you don’t have to do anything but let it wash over you, go for Lindberg’s Second Cello Concerto (commissioned by the LAPhil in 2013), which is a marvel.
Kurtag’s Fragments: A performance of Kafka Fragments is never to be missed if opportunity presents itself. Last heard in Toronto in 2014, the György Kurtág work for soprano and violin is an intense, technically demanding set of short pieces with bits of text taken from Kafka’s diaries and letters. Two of the world’s best known interpreters of the work, soprano Tony Arnold (of International Contemporary Ensemble) and violinist Movses Pogassian, will perform it in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo on March 26 and 27, respectively. Both musicians rehearsed the Fragments with Kurtág himself in 2008 and preserved a video document of the collaboration on their Kafka Fragments DVD+CD from 2009. The two have performed the work in over 30 venues since. The Toronto concert is a fundraiser for New Music Concerts at Gallery 345 and it’ll include a screening of the Kurtág collaboration, gourmet comestibles and socializing with other new music lovers. The ticket for the whole event is $100 ($150 for two), with charitable receipts issued for the CRA allowable portion. For a regularly priced performance ($35) at an even cosier venue, head to Kitchener-Waterloo where the K-W Chamber Music Society will be hosting the same concert the day after. KWCMS is a chamber music series privately run by Jan and Jean Narveson and hosted in the Music Room, a concert hall in his own house, professionally equipped for recitals and seating 85. Kafka Fragments in such a setting will be quite an experience.
Royal Canadian College of Organists is throwing a movable Bach concert with walking, organ showcasing and quite a lot of singing: soprano Jennifer Krabbe, tenor Matthew Dalen and baritone Daniel Thielmann are all listed as soloists. (Wo)manning the organ in each of the churches will be Michelle Cheung, with Mel Hurst accompanying. The program has not been made available as of print time, but the three church locations have – the organ and the acoustics will be put to test in Kingsway Baptist, All Saints Kingsway Anglican and Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic. Rain or shine (or March sleet), March 18, 1pm to 3pm. starting at Kingsway Baptist. Free, though donations are welcome.
Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to email@example.com.
- Written by Lydia Perović
- Category: Art of Song
There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s true: that time is the latter half of the 19th century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.
Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems Lesbos and Delpine et Hippolyte. (Femmes damnées somehow got away, in spite of its cries of solidarity: “Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains”). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women, Les amies, is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His Ariette oubliée IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the carefree female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks the poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. “Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées,” says the poem to the reader of either sex.
Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.
Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’ 1894 Les Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an “ancient Greek” Sappho-like figure, Bilitis–in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing of old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with 12 of Louÿs’ poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times-there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant-this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.
The three-song cycle with piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. February 9, at the noontime Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include baritone Bruno Roy with Stéphane Mayer at the piano in Poulenc’s cycle La fraîcheur et le feu set to poems by Paul Éluard, as well as Ravel’s last completed work, the colourful and energetic Don Quichotte à Dulcinée set to Paul Morand’s poems. D’Angelo rounds out the event with Messiaen’s Trois Mélodies, one of which is based on a poem written by the composer’s mother, poet Cécile Sauvage; the remaining two are Messiaen’s homage to her words.
The Lieder are another cultural domain where the poetic “I” wanders across the sexes and rewrites the lover and the beloved, primarily thanks to the performers who interpret them. While traditionally the poetic subject has always been male and the object of his interest female, many composers would bestow the same cycle to a variety of voices, and singers and pianists themselves would adopt song cycles however they saw fit. But performing traditions get established and listening habits settle in, and today Berlioz’s Nuits d’été is sung primarily by mezzos and sopranos, while Schubert’s Die Winterreise primarily by baritones or tenors. Only a handful of mezzos have dared record the Schubert cycle: Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender, Nathalie Stutzmann and Alice Coote. Fassbaender’s 1988 recording (with Aribert Reimann at the piano) in particular ruffled misogynist feathers. “Can a Woman Do a Man’s Job in Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’?” pearl-clutched a New York Times critic in 1990 and proceeded to explain all the reasons the answer is no. Even fewer sopranos have recorded or performed it; one notable recent recording is by Christine Schaefer with Eric Schneider.
Lyric soprano Adrianne Pieczonka will be adding her unique voice and approach to the small but valiant contingent of Winterreise women this month, in the Mazzoleni Masters Concert Series at the RCM on February 12. Each singer brings a different personality to the narrator, and Pieczonka is likely to bring her deep knowledge of German language, her Vienna savvy and her impeccable Straussian pedigree-including her Marschallins-to the fore. A bright female voice will sing the dark poems to the ghostly presence of the beloved woman, and in this case it will be the voice of a singer who is indeed married to another woman. An important cultural first.
The cycle itself is ink black and non-negotiably so. “I came a stranger, I depart a stranger.” The first of Wilhelm Müller’s 24 poems, Gute Nacht, sets the tone. The narrator is leaving the house and his beloved, never to return. There was even talk of marriage, but all came to naught. He could have been a music teacher or a tutor there. We are never told; or why he is leaving, by choice or by somebody’s demand. “We are drawn in by an obsessively confessional soul…who won’t give us the facts,” as Ian Bostridge writes in his recent book Schubert’s Winter Journey.
He walks through the snow-covered wood, but equally through the landscape of his memory. Objects and trees appear that are heavy with meaning and pain, a postman rings but brings no mail, a graveyard is called an inn, and the snow and the ice remain constant. The final song takes us before the barefoot hurdy-gurdy busker: “Wunderlicher Alter!” Strange old man! Will his be the music to accompany the poet? Should the poet, in this apparent but not a little sinister break from the solitude, now follow him?
Stage directors have been taking interest in Winterreise’s scenic potential at least since the 90s. The 2014 semi-staging by William Kentridge with elaborate video projections behind baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser will be available on DVD later this month, and it’s easy to predict more and more directors having a look at the piece. With Adrianne Pieczonka, and Rachel Andrist at the piano, we will finally have a chance to hear an all-female edition of the cycle which is to this day chiefly performed as an all-male enterprise.
Feb 1 and 2: Two solos (Karina Gauvin in Pie Jesu and Russell Braun in Libera me) in Fauré’s Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra might on their own be worth going to the concert for, but of course the entire Requiem will be played, with the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers; Stéphane Denève conducts.
Feb 3 and 4: Jeremy Dutcher – whom you might have noticed in Soundstream’s Electric Messiah – is a young singer/songwriter/composer to watch. He combines a training in Western classical music with the musical traditions of his Wolastoq Nation and a gusto for contemporary creations. “Shapeshifting between classical, contemporary, traditional and jazz” is how he describes his approach and once you hear him live, you get what he means. He will be one of the soloists at Toronto Consort’s “Kanatha/Canada” program at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, the mainstay of which will be the choral piece Wendake/Huronia by John Beckwith, a reflection on Samuel de Champlain’s first and only passage four centuries ago through what is now known as Ontario and his encounters with Ontario’s First Nations. Alongside the instrumental and vocal core ensemble of the Toronto Consort, including Laura Pudwell as the alto soloist, and singers of the Toronto Chamber Choir, the program will feature Huron-Wendat poet and historian Georges Sioui as the narrator and First Nations singer-drummers Shirley Hay and Marilyn George. The Consort will also perform a selection of early French-Canadian folksongs, including Le Prince Eugène, Renaud and Dans les prisons de Nantes.
Mar 3: The Cecilia String Quartet, with the always subtle Lawrence Wiliford, perform Amoretti for Tenor and String Quartet: five of Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser’s sonnets set to music by British composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986). The rest of the program at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, is also of interest: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet and the Britten-arranged Purcell Chacony for strings in G Minor.
- Written by Hans de Groot
- Category: Art of Song
Many years ago, in the mid-90s, I sang in the Toronto Classical Singers. When an orchestra was needed, the choir as often as not engaged a newly formed group, the Talisker Players Chamber Music Orchestra, to accompany us. Talisker was set up under the leadership of the violist Mary McGeer and violinist Valerie Sylvester to provide amateur choirs with needed instrumental accompaniment. Within ten years, the Players were accompanying between 20 and 30 choirs a year and they maintain an active schedule to this day, with McGeer still active in the ensemble. Important as the orchestra is on the choral scene, within five years of its founding, the Talisker Players Chamber Ensemble had also come into being, and it is for the latter that the group is now best known, particularly for their ongoing series of chamber concerts (four or five a year) at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, which almost always offer carefully curated thematic explorations of the relationship between poetry/spoken word and a widely eclectic and challenging range of music.
Their concert on January 29 is their second for this season and is a bit of a departure from the norm, in that the words and music are not separate. Titled “’S Wonderful,” it presents the music of George and Ira Gershwin, who gave us some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century. The soloists are Erin Bardua, soprano, and Aaron Durand, baritone.
The Talisker Players’ two remaining concerts this season are “Land of the Silver Birch” and “A Mixture of Madness.” Both are more reflective of the Players’ trademark style.
“Land of the Silver Birch” on March 28 and 29 is an exploration of folk song reflective of British and French settlement in Canada over time, with music ranging from Ludwig von Beethoven’s Scottish Folk Songs to Four Canadian Folk Songs for flute, viola, cello and piano, a new work by Alexander Rapoport. Whitney O’Hearn, soprano, and John Allison, baritone, will be the soloists, and John Fraser is the reader.
“A Mixture of Madness” on May 16 and 17 is trademark Talisker. Featuring rising soprano Ilana Zarankin, and Bruce Kelly, baritone, as soloists, and with Andrew Moodie as actor/reader, it promises to be an erudite and yet entertaining romp from Aristotle to Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, by way of Purcell, Vaughan Williams and (a new commission) Alice Ping Yee Ho’s The Madness of Queen Charlotte (for flute, violin cello and piano).
Looking back (and looking forward): The Canadian Opera Company has announced the winners in its annual vocal competition. Top prize went to the mezzo Simone McIntosh, while Samuel Chan and Gregory Schellenberg (both baritones) received the second and third prizes respectively. The audience prize went to the soprano Myriam Leblanc (and that marks the first occasion, as far as I can recall, that the first prize awarded by the jury and the audience prize did not coincide). Winning a prize does not automatically guarantee entrance to the COC Ensemble Studio but most prizewinners are offered a place there and I look forward to hearing them in opera or in concert.
Anyone who has ever sung in a Canadian church choir will be familiar with Healey Willan’s anthems, but the November 18 concert presented by the Canadian Art Song Project presented us with a much less familiar part of his compositions. Willan composed over 100 art songs, most of them now out of print. They were beautifully sung by Martha Guth, soprano, Allyson McHardy, mezzo, and Peter Barrett, baritone. A particular pleasure was to hear Guth sing O Littlest Hands, a song composed in 1920 for Willan’s baby daughter Mary. Mary, now Mary Mason and in her mid-90s, was in the audience and the concert provided the first occasion for her to hear the song. The Canadian Art Song Project intends to make a new volume of Willan’s art songs available. Will there eventually also be a CD? I certainly hope so. I recommend the Project’s next concert: on May 17 you will be able to hear Dawn Always Begins in the Bones, a newly commissioned work by Ana Sokolović.
Canadian Opera Company Free Vocal Concerts:
Dec 1: Chelsea Rus, soprano, the winner of the Schulich School of Music’s Wirth Vocal Prize, performs.
Jan 5: Marion Newman, mezzo, sings in Echo/Sap’a by Dustin Peters among other works.
Jan 24: Goran Jurić, bass, sings works by Tchaikovsky and Sviridov.
Jan 26: Jacqueline Woodley, soprano, sings Baroque music with members of the COC Orchestra Academy.
Jan 31: Philip Addis, baritone, and Emily Hamper, piano, perform works by Ross, Ravel and others.
Feb 2: The soprano Elizabeth Polese sings Debussy and Stravinsky.
U of T Faculty of Music Free Concerts:
Jan 19: Colin Ainsworth, tenor, and William Aide, piano, perform works by Duparc, Schumann and Liszt.
Jan 25: Singers from the faculty of music will perform as part of the Singer and the Songs Series.
Dec 1: Music Toronto presents a recital by Suzie LeBlanc, soprano, and Robert Kortgaard, piano, with recently commissioned settings of poems by Elizabeth Bishop. The program, at the St. Lawrence Centre, will also include works by Schumann and Villa Lobos.
Dec 2: Toronto Early Music Centre presents Emily Klassen, soprano, and Meagan Zantingh, mezzo, in “Stella di Natale: A Journey from Advent to Christmas,” in a concert featuring a cantata by Scarlatti and other works, at St. David’s Anglican Church.
Dec 3: Kelsey Taylor, soprano, and Eugenia Dermentzis, mezzo, will be the soloists in an Oakham House Choir Society concert. The main works to be performed are Vivaldi’s Gloria and Mendelssohn’s Christmas cantata From Heaven on High, at Calvin Presbyterian Church.
Dec 10: Soulpepper presents “What the World Needs Now (Songs of Love and Hate),” a musical journey through the Mad Men era. The singers are Wendy Lands and Jim Gillard, at theYoung Centre for the Performing Arts.
Dec 11: OriginL Concert Series presents Brenda Enns and Susan Suchard, sopranos, and Hubert Razack, countertenor, in “Celebrate Life!” at Lawrence Park Community Church.
Dec 11: The Aga Khan Museum presents Maryem Tollar in “Arabica Coffee House Concert” featuring traditional songs from Syria’s Arabic classical and popular repertoire.
Dec 12: Andrea Ludwig, alto, and Bud Roach, tenor, will sing in “O Tannenbaum: The Tree of Life,” presented by the Toronto Masque Theatre at The Atrium at 21 Shaftsbury Avenue.
Dec 13 to Dec. 23: Coal Mine Theatre presents Louise Pitre singing in A Coal Mine Christmas which includes Dylan Thomas’ story A Child’s Christmas in Wales read by Kenneth Welsh.
Dec 31: Attila Glatz Concert Productions and Roy Thomson Hall present “Bravissimo! Opera’s Greatest Hits.” The soloists are Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi, soprano, Diletta Rizzo Marin, mezzo, Leonardo Caimi, tenor, and Lucio Gallo, baritone (Roy Thomson Hall).
Dec 31: Free Times Cafe presents Sue and Dwight, Michelle Rumball and Tony Laviola in a concert celebrating the folk songs of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Woody Guthrie.
Jan 19 to 22: The baritone Peter Harvey will perform with Tafelmusik, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, in a concert of German Baroque music that will include the lament Wie bist du denn, o Gott? by Johann Christoph Bach and the cantata Ich habe genug by J. S. Bach. Jan 21: Harvey will give a free masterclass beginning at 1pm in the same location.
Jan 20: John Greer will give a free vocal masterclass at York University’s Tribute Communities Recital Hall.
Jan 20: Lorna McDonald, soprano, will sing songs from New France at the Alliance Française, as well as selections from the opera The Bells of Baddeck (libretto by Macdonald, music by Dean Burry). Jan 29: Alliance Française presents Judith Cohen leading a concert of medieval songs of courtly love, with Michael Franklin, Andrea Gerhardt and others.
Feb 1 and 2: Karina Gauvin, soprano, and Russell Braun, baritone, are the soloists with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Fauré’s Requiem by and Detlev Glnert’s orchestration of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs by Brahms.
Hans de Groot is a concertgoer and active listener who also sings and plays the recorder. He can be contacted at artofsong@the wholenote.com.