Maureen Forrester - photo by Frank Lennon GrayDer Abschied (The Farewell), the longest movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), is among the greatest achievements of humankind. I can already hear some readers objecting, why not the entire Song of the Earth – yes, the cycle is a superb creation, but other songs are overshadowed by the final chapter. I’ve always found the preceding short songs that Mahler gave to the tenor something of a prank, especially The Drunkard in Spring. Is this a sly comment on the silliness of tenor characters in the history of opera, one wonders? The tenor song that opens the cycle, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, cuts to the chase a little too quickly. His third song, Youth, sounds comparatively simple-minded, bordering on folksy, even though the lyrics are more ambivalent. The contralto or mezzo, the second voice in the cycle, is on the other hand immediately given gravitas and complex sonic tapestry in both of her shorter songs, The Solitary One in Autumn and Beauty. But I rush to any live performance of The Song of the Earth that I can find for the 30-minute mezzo-sung Der Abschied. I worship it impatiently, that I will concede. It is this song cycle’s summit; more precisely, it is its realization.

Susan PlattsOn October 19 and 20, it will be the TSO’s turn. Das Lied von der Erde will conclude the two concerts in honour of Maureen Forrester, Canada’s best known contralto of the previous generation, who has sung Mahler under the baton of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer and was in fact a crucial part of the postwar revival of interest in Mahler. While the hour-long cycle could warrant a concert all on its own, two shorter pieces are also on the program: the 15-minute-long TSO-commissioned L’Aube for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra by Howard Shore and a two-minute sesquie by John Abram titled Start. Mezzo Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade will sing; Peter Oundjian conducts; Ben Heppner hosts.

The poetry of The Song of the Earth has roots in classical Chinese poetry, but only loosely and by way of multiple mediations. It can be tracked down to the 1867 Le Livre de jade, a collection of adapted (read: rewritten) Chinese poetry by a 22-year-old amateur translator, Théophile Gautier’s daughter, Judith Gautier. Gautier was in her late teens when her father hired a tutor of Chinese origin, Ding Dunling, for the benefit of her and her sister’s education. Judith Gautier was an eager apprentice; so eager that a few years later, still not quite fluent in Chinese, she started copying Chinese poems from the French national library archives and took it upon herself to translate them. Very little Chinese poetry had been translated to any European language at the time, but there was clearly demand for it: The Book of Jade has since accrued many reprints and editions (latest French reprint was in 2004) and translations to several other European languages, including German. The version that reached Mahler and affected him so was the book’s third German adaption, Die chinesische Flöte by the poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), sent to him by a friend in 1907.

Mahler was recently bereaved (he had lost a daughter at the time) and had just learned of his own heart condition, a diagnosis that did not leave much reason for optimism (in fact, he died soon after, in 1911). For Der Abschied, he used two of Bethge’s poems attributed to Mong Kao-Jen and Wan Wei, to which Mahler liberally adds his own verses. The end result is beautiful, undemonstrative text – devastating yet somehow unsentimental, like the music Mahler set to it. A first person narrator awaits a friend for their final farewell, while observing nature’s quieting of a sunset. The friend finally arrives, goodbyes are said, departure takes place, but the final verses are given to the life that goes on, the cyclical regeneration of the natural world, the Earth that will continue even if we are not around to see it. Structurally, interludes, recitatives and arias alternate, orchestration ebbs and flows until the Funeral March gives rise to its own song within the song. The melodic material moves between the woodwinds, horns and violins, in physical, almost tactile ripples, twirls, sweeps and risings. When thoughts of the beauty of life appear among the verses, the music swells. Sometimes, the sound recalls familiar voices of nature, and at other times things get complicated; we are there to give in, not understand. Pauses are important. Each part gets extinguished before we move on to the next one. Morendo appears among Mahler’s markings in the score. Structurally, too, there is dying in Der Abschied.

Then, a change of voice mid-way. After the Funeral March, the first person narration turns to the descriptive third person – from an “I” that shares its impressions and feelings (“I stand and wait for my friend …where are you?”) to a “he” as if narrated by an observer. (Bethge’s version maintains the first person address; this change is entirely Mahler’s.)

So what is happening here? Interpretations vary greatly, but I was struck by the one I found in musicologist Andrew Deruchie’s paper in a 2009 volume of the journal Austrian Studies (‘Mahler’s Farewell or The Earth’s Song? Death, Orientalism and Der Abschied,’ Austrian Studies, Vol. 17, Words and Music), discovered while I was trawling the TPL article databases looking for new writing on Das Lied von der Erde. Death does not take place at the end of Das Lied, Deruchie argues; the first-person narrator dies before the Funeral March and the Funeral March is precisely for him/her, not in anticipation of departure. “In Part I the protagonist is the speaking (singing) subject, but in Part II his voice has vanished, and his words are merely quoted by the narrator. The music, one might say, no longer emanates from him,” writes Deruchie, connecting this to the Taoist tradition, “where in death individual subjectivity is folded into nature’s eternal cyclicism: just as spring follows winter, the narrator tells us, the earth blossoms anew after the protagonist’s death.”

I don’t know that it is exclusively about Taoism. Buddhists among my readers will interrupt with “But that’s us, too” and so could the atheists and the scientists. What’s certain is that Das Lied steps away from and leaves behind the Christian paradigm, not a small gesture by a composer who has used that same paradigm without moderation in many of his other works. (I cannot stand the Resurrection Symphony. It offers a coy, calculating consolation, as opposed to the radical, uneasy one of Das Lied.)

What the final part of the final part of Das Lied von der Erde, the ultimate song on finality, always brings to my mind is the pages near the end of the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s book The Following Story. It too is a unique and extraordinary work of art on trying to accept the fact of dying. Its protagonist goes to bed alone in his Amsterdam apartment one night, only to wake up in Lisbon next to the love of his life, except many years earlier than the present day. What is he doing there? The journey goes back in time (protagonist’s) and deep time (through antiquity, as the narrator is a classics professor) and we gradually gather that he has crossed the Lethe, and that time and space are not anymore how he’s known them to be. He is perhaps still lingering, for the duration of the novel, in the in-between before the final farewell, just like the spirits of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo tarry and refuse to understand their condition and really pass on. But in due course, Nooteboom’s professor too is ready to go (in translation by Ina Rilke):

It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined; it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings, never to be ousted from the universe, and so it would take part in the most fantastic metamorphoses, about which it would tell me nothing because it would long since have forgotten all about me. At one time the matter it had consisted of had housed a soul that resembled me, but now my matter would have other duties.

There are several song events worth your time this month, but the one that stands out will require a trip to upper Parkdale and Gallery 345, an unusually shaped space that’s becoming the recital hub of West Toronto. On the program for “The Imperfect Art Song Recital” (September 23 at 6pm), conceived by the soprano Lindsay Lalla, there is music by two living composers – Toronto’s Cecilia Livingston and Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone – as well as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, an Anne Trulove recitative and aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a brief musical theatre set with Carousel and Showboat songs.

Lindsay Lalla - photo by Marc BetsworthThe imperfect as a recital theme may sound unusual, but it’s a question as old as the arts. It’s also a personal notion that kept Lalla focused on teaching and the vocal health of her students and at a distance from performing and concert stage. “My strong technical focus in my teaching carried over to my singing and I felt almost paralyzed trying to find perfection,” she explained when I asked what the story was behind the title. After years of working on other singers’ voices, the minutiae of their development, health and rehabilitation, the goal of perfection struck Lalla as a little overbearing. What if she created a whole program around the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect singing, a perfect lover, a perfect human?

The theme of imperfection runs loosely – er, imperfectly – through the texts of the pieces on the program. “The Strauss songs compare women to flowers and to me represent ‘old school’ classical music where perfection is an appreciated aesthetic,” she says. Livingston’s songs “explore the theme of an absent lover, and I find it really interesting that absent lovers are always perfect.” The character of Penelope, that mythical perfect wife of antiquity, appears in a Livingston song as well as Lalla’s own drawings (she admits to something of an obsession about Penelope) which will be on display at the gallery along with art by clarinetist Sue Farrow created during rehearsals.

Then there’s the Cerrone song cycle on the poetry of Tao Lin. The 18-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, percussion and piano, I Will Learn to Love a Person, can be found in its entirety on the composer’s website; on first listening it sounded to me like plainchant meets American minimalism, with shades of Ann Southam. Its engagement with text is fascinating – and I don’t use this word lightly. Lin is now primarily known as a novelist – Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei, Eeeee eee eeee – but he had published poetry as a young writer and Cerrone made a selection of poems that rang particularly true to his experience. The composer’s own statement highlights Lin’s accuracy about “millennial lives” and Lalla agrees, but this Gen X-er can tell you that Cerrone’s piece, like any good music, speaks to all cohorts. (Some of Lin’s fiction, Shoplifting for example, a novella of young impecunious lives in NYC’s emerging ‘creative classes’ flowing on vegan smoothies, band following, brand savvyness, internet, psychological opaqueness of characters and overall scarcity of explicit feeling will remind of Douglas Coupland, who’s probably an ancient writer to the millennials.) Lin made a selection of his poems available online, and I’d recommend listening to I Will Learn to Love a Person alongside the poem i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know to appreciate fully how they enhance one another.

The first piece by Cerrone that Lalla ever heard was this song cycle, and it impressed immediately. To wit: “It hit me hard!” She decided to do the chamber music version and invited two of her best friends, husband and wife Brian Farrow (percussion) and Sue Farrow (clarinet). The pianist and Lalla’s accompanist in other songs on the program, Tanya Paradowski, happens to be their niece. “We’ve been rehearsing up at their cottage, with the sounds of vibraphone over the lake… I can’t imagine what the neighbours must think.

“Because there is so much repetition on just a few notes, the focus goes to the text,” she says of the inner mechanism of the cycle. “Just like in the recitative of an opera, it’s now about the words, and the emotion behind the words. And the accompanying instrumental part is very repetitive, so you instinctively listen to the words to find out what’s going on. So, over top of this unconventionally textured background (quite an unusual mix of instruments!), you get just words. And they happen to be on notes. I think this is a brilliant way that Cerrone is highlighting the directness of Tao Lin’s text.”

Cecilia Livingston - photo by Kaitlin MorenoIt was actually composer Cecilia Livingston who first recommended Cerrone among a few other composers to Lalla (the two women have known each other from high school). Livingston’s own songs, too, Penelope, Kalypso and Parting, are going to be in the recital. Livingston’s website lists an impressive number of commissions, collaborations and fellowships – including a recent research fellowship at King’s College in London with one of the most interesting Verdian thinkers today, Roger Parker – but also an array of publications and papers both academic and journalistic, including her U of T PhD thesis on “the musical sublime in 20th-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism and musical silence.” There are also audio files of her work, including a good number of songs. I was eager to ask this vast and curious creative mind about her work.

In which art song features prominently, it turns out. “I just finished a commission for the Canadian Art Song Project, which reminded me that art song is one of my favourite things to write, period! It calls for this very strange close reading: scrutiny of a text combined with a huge, bird’s-eye view of its emotional terrain,” Livingston says. “Northrop Frye wrote about this, and he titled his book from Blake: The Double Vision – seeing a text both for what it is, and for what it can be in the imagination. And then also – for a composer – in the musical imagination, in the ear.”

Her three songs in the Imperfect recital explore a style that she describes as “somewhere between art song and torch song. Penelope and Kalypso are both portraits of Homer’s characters, of women who are waiting; both songs have weird, dark middle sections: one is sort-of-aleatoric and one isn’t, and I can see I was working out different solutions.” With Kalypso, Livingston was looking for a new way to write for coloratura soprano and ended up thinking about scat singing and the Harold Arlen songs she loves, like Stormy Weather. “I think Duncan [McFarlane]’s lyrics for Kalypso are one of the most extraordinary texts I’ve ever worked with: beautiful, intricate layers of language; so much that the music can shade and shadow and shape.”

A pianist by training, Livingston composes by singing as she writes: “It helps me build on the natural prosody of the language and makes sure the vocal line is comfortable: that there’s time for breath, that it’s well supported musically, that it sits comfortably in the tessitura, etc. – even when it’s challenging.” The process of finding a text that will lead to a song is more intuitive, harder to pin down. “I’m looking for something that catches my inner ear: an image, mood, the sound of a phrase. When I come across that, I can sort of hear the music for it, and then I know I can work with it. I don’t hear actual music yet, but I can hear the intensification that music can bring. Which sounds slightly bizarre; it’s probably easier to say I get a particular feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

She doesn’t entirely buy the argument that simple, unambitious or bad poetry makes better (because easier) text to set to music. “Look at the riches of Alice Goodman’s libretti, or the ways that Britten illuminated all sorts of texts. If a writer savours language – its sounds and its meanings – then I’m interested.”

Among the larger projects on Livingston’s agenda, there’s a full-length opera in the works for TorQ Percussion Quartet and Opera 5, with the world premiere in Toronto scheduled for the 2018/19 season and a European premiere in 2020. “I’ve admired TorQ Percussion Quartet’s musicianship since we met in 2008, and I wanted to write an opera with them the moment I saw their incredible performance of John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise,” says Livingston. “They have a dramatic physicality to their performances that is perfect for contemporary opera.” And Opera 5 produced her first chamber opera: “We built the kind of really supportive friendship that I wish all young composers could have.”

And what does her music feel like to a singer? Let’s let Lindsay Lalla have the last word: “I adore how lyrical and melodic Cecilia’s songs are. I feel that they were written like mini operas, with so much emotion to explore in once piece… One of her musical instructions in the Kalypso (over the introductory coloratura) says: “Ella-Fitzgerald-meets-Chopin, vocalise-meets-scat.” As a singer, I fell in love with her just from that.”

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

2209 art 1While Toronto’s concert scene is winding down for the summer, it’s still possible to work out a solid, if lighter and necessarily more travel-filled, art song schedule for the next three months.

June kicks off close to home, with the Music Gallery and Off Centre Music Salon/DÉRANGÉ co-presenting #IMWITHHER, a June 8 concert that puts women composers and soloists centre stage. An evening of electro-pop, modern jazz and contemporary art music is an intriguing enough mix; the contemporary segment with the mezzo Lucy Dhegrae and Lara Dodds-Eden at the piano, which includes so many composers that never get heard in Toronto, makes it a must.

One of Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations, “Heart Meditation,” is on the program. Oliveros was a fascinating twentieth-century avant-gardist – she passed away last year at the age of 84 – whose creative life spanned all the way from deep experimental electronics to an almost total withdrawal from performing and to sound creation as personal practice for staying sane and capable of listening in a disintegrating world. She also studied movement, kinetic awareness and the effect of social conditioning on the human body, and gradually merged her kinetic awareness and sonic practices into one. A group of women formed around these musical practices at the same time that the Second Wave of feminism began creating consciousness-raising groups. This new performing ensemble formed and reformed each time it would meet at Oliveros’ home. “They had been held down, musically, so long,” Oliveros said, explaining the reason behind the women-only group in an interview in late 1970s.

That composing is a whole-body activity, that it can be done by a collective, and that it can effect social and psychological change are notions that will sound foreign to our ears, but that just shows how far back our own era has retreated from the questions on the philosophy and politics of music that the musicians of the avant-garde have left us with.

Since there is no such thing as the definitive edition of Sonic Meditations, and since they tend to be textual (one recommends walking in absolute silence; another teaching oneself how to fly), what Lucy Dhegrae will do in this “Heart Meditation,” we can only guess. Actually, we probably can’t even guess. But to give you an idea of the Oliveros magic, I would recommend her Sound Patterns and Tropes, recorded on the 25 Years of New York New Music CD set, and her early Four Electronic Pieces 1959-1966 (both recordings are available in the Naxos free online music library via your library card).

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s song Hvolf, Sky Macklay’s Glossolalia and Tonia Ko’s Smoke and Distance are also on the program. Each has already been performed and digitally preserved and can easily be found on Vimeo and SoundCloud. The art song section completes with an as-yet untitled world premiere by NYC-based composer Leaha Villarreal. And that is just one third of #IMWITHHER: Toronto-based electro-pop band Bernice will perform a selection of old and new songs (their new EP Puff is out in June) and FOG Brass Band, headed by the trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, will complete the program. June 8 at 8pm at Heliconian Hall; tickets via Off Centre Music Salon and the Music Gallery websites and at the door.

Later in June, and quite out of town, there’s the Montreal Baroque Festival with some promising vocal offerings. On June 23, “Le Cracheur de feu,” with soprano Andréanne Brisson-Paquin and the ensemble Pallade Musica, is a program consisting of Purcell, John Eccles, Angelo Berardi, Alessandro Stradella and a world premiere by the young Quebec composer Jonathan Goulet. On June 24, Suzie LeBlanc and the musicians of the ensemble Constantinople will perform “improvisations on Italian masterpieces” (that is all the festival is willing to give away). Equally cryptic is the description of the concert by the ensemble Sonate 1704 with soprano Jacinthe Thibault scheduled for June 25, but we do know that that it will be a battle of sorts between Catholic and Protestant cantatas and sonatas that were written or published in France around the time of the early Reformation.

2209 art 2July: My suggested art song trip is to Ottawa for the Chamberfest (July 22 to August 4). July 24 is going to be particularly packed. A free daytime concert at the National Gallery led by accordionist Alexander Sevastian, titled The Mighty Accordion: A Brief History, will include operatic bass Robert Pomakov singing a selection of Russian folk-songs to accompaniment by Sevastian. At 7pm on the same day, the Toronto Consort is reprising the Catherine de Medici concert originally performed last November in Toronto, this time at Ottawa’s Dominion-Chalmers United Church. The Consort’s Laura Pudwell, Michele DeBoer, Katherine Hill, music director David Fallis, Paul Jenkins and John Pepper sang back in November, and I expect that the lineup of voices will remain similar for Ottawa. Most of the composers on the program, with the exception of Orlande de Lassus, are little known today, though some of the poets will score better (Ariosto and Pierre de Ronsard are still being read today). For those among us who regret having missed The Italian Queen of France in November, this second chance will be travel-worthy.

On that same night at 10pm at La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, the Bicycle Opera Project presents a new production of Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton’s garment workers opera, Sweat. I remember seeing its precursor, Stitch, on the night of its world premiere at the old and decrepit Theatre Centre almost ten years ago, and am curious to see how the musical ideas in that similarly themed opera have evolved into Sweat in the intervening years. Sweat was commissioned by Soundstreams and premiered at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last year. It’s still a cappella with five soloists, but with an added chorus, about 15 minutes longer and, in addition to English, includes lyrics in Cantonese, Ukrainian and Hungarian.

Think of August as the month for classical music in unusual venues. Classical Unbound Festival opens on August 18 in Prince Edward County, with a concert in a privately owned restored barn that doubles as a wine-tasting hall: the Grange of Prince Edward Estate Winery, which seats an audience of 80. There are two “libation-intermissions” which can also be used for the consumption of comestibles, given that picnic baskets will be on hand too. Prince Edward wine country meets Glyndebourne? Why not: Canadian land- and mansion-owners, take note, and consider starting your own festival or concert series.

Krisztina Szabó headlines the event, which opens with Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet Op. 76 No. 4 with Yosuke Kawasaki (violin I), Jessica Linnebach (violin II), Yehonatan Berick (viola) and Racher Mercer (cello). Berick and Mercer will return for John Burge’s Pas de deux for violin and cello (2011) and the entire quartet will accompany Szabó in Respighi’s Il Tramonto (1914) at the end. In the first two vocal pieces, however, the mezzo will be paired with Joanna G’froerer on flute. Szabó will sing John Corigliano’s Three Irish Folk Songs Settings for Voice and Flute (1988) and after the second intermission, Harry Freedman’s Toccata for Soprano and Flute (1968).

I asked Szabó how unusual the voice and flute pairing is in art song. “I have performed with flute before – with the Talisker Players, André Caplet’s piece Écoute, mon coeur – but I haven’t experienced this pairing more than a couple of times prior to this,” she emails back. “I think there is a fair amount of repertoire for voice and flute out there, though probably more for soprano.” Does the timbre react to the brightness of the flute, I wondered? Brightness is not the first image she associates with flute, Szabó tells me. “Of course, brightness is an aspect of its tone, but what strikes me about the flute is its warmth and roundness of tone, particularly in the middle register. I think that warmth will lend itself well to Corigliano’s Songs.” 

Freedman’s vocal piece uses phonemes for their sound rather than meaning and comes with its own set of demands and pleasures. “Because the voice and flute are equal partners and there is interplay and no words, I will be focusing on being more of an ‘instrument’ in duet with the flute. Freedom from words in art song really frees the singer up, I think, to play with colours more, and this piece has an improvisational, almost jazz-like feel.”  

Respighi’s Il Tramonto Szabó has sung before – in 2010 with Thirteen Strings – and knows it well. What should we be listening for? “It’s a beautifully expressive piece and I think audiences will be struck by the intimacy of the sound world created by the voice and ensemble, and the poetry and the drama of the storytelling. The dramatic arc makes the piece almost operatic: there is a real climax and dénouement to the story, a real scena. The music is lush and yet intensely intimate.”

Perfect for bringing summer to a close.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

2208 Art of SongThe 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.

2208 Art of Song 2

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.”

Quick Picks

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 artofsong@thewholenote.com.

2207-ArtOfSongBanner.jpg2207 Art of Song 1Much 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.

2207 Art of Song 2Mezzos: 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.

2207 Art of Song 3In 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 artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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