58_kaija_saariahocmyk_cmykKaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues
edited by Tim Howell with Jon Hargreaves and Michael Rofe
Ashgate Publishing Company
238 pages, score samples; $99.95 US

Like István Anhalt, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has spent most of her career outside her homeland. But unlike Anhalt, she left under no duress, having benefited from Finland’s supportive culture and enlightened political values.

This collection of essays charts the development of Saariaho’s distinctive voice as a composer, with its unusual sensual beauty, expressive power and emotional directness. “Harmony, texture and timbre: those three things were then, and still are, at the heart of my musical thinking,” Saariaho says in the interview with Tom Service included here. In her stage works — three operas and an oratorio so far — she creates something new and challenging, with inventive, unclichéd storytelling and innovative use of painting, mime, lighting, electronic sounds and pre-recorded materials. Yet traditional musical devices are also part of her operatic language. As Liisamaija Hautsalo writes, “The musical topics within Saariaho’s works, often modified into the musical language of our time, could be described as whispers from the past: a link between tradition and the composer’s individual expression.”

A number of writers discuss how dreams play an essential part in Saariaho’s work. While L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar) features a dream scene, the whole opera can be seen, as Anni Iskala describes it, as “an opera about dreaming of, and loving, the unattainable.” In fact, dreams have been a direct source of inspiration right from Saariaho’s earliest works like From the Grammar of Dreams, and, starting with Im Traume, she has used her own dream diaries to provide material.

While these eight essays and the interview with the composer provide an invaluable perspective on Saariaho’s music, they do not attempt to situate her music in today’s contemporary music scene. The contributors are all from either Finland or England — oddly there are none from France, where she has lived since coming to Paris as a student in 1982.

It’s certainly noteworthy that when the Canadian Opera Company produces L’Amour de loin in February, it will be the first opera by that company written in the 21st century. Even more noteworthy, this will be the first opera written by a woman to be produced on their main stage. Even though Saariaho resists being defined as a woman composer — or as any type of composer, for that matter — she has never stepped back from breaking down barriers, as this book shows.

Concert Notes: On Monday January 30, Soundstreams presents soprano Carla Huhtanen performing music by Kaija Saariaho at 7:30pm in the Gardiner Museum.

On Tuesday January 31 at 12pm, Soundstreams presents the Elmer Iseler Singers performing Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs and soprano Carla Huhtanen performing the Leino Songs, as well as chamber works by the composer in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

On Thursday February 2 at 12pm in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, artists of the COC Ensemble studio perform vocal works by Saariaho, including From the Grammar of Dreams and Lohn (From Afar). These performances will be introduced by Saariaho.

On Thursday February 2 and Friday February 3 at 8pm in Koerner Hall, Soundstreams presents Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs, performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers under Lydia Adams.

73_piecesinmyhands007_1Pieces in My Hands
by William Aide
Oberon Press
87 pages, score reproductions, CD enclosed; $38.95 cloth,  $18.95 paper

Canadian pianist William Aide has spent most of his illustrious career as a performer and teacher. Yet during the past 15 years he has published a memoir and two books of poetry. In this new collection of poetry he continues to confront the “habitable pain and pleasure” of life through the prism of music. While beguiling us with his distinctive poetic voice, he creates resonant images that deepen our relationship with the music itself.

At the heart of this collection are two sets of poems based on large-scale pieces by Liszt and Schumann. B Minor Sonata probes Liszt’s fascination with the Faust legend and its various implications. Aide’s cycle closes with a moving Coda, which begins:

Who’ve lasted through the days and nights

are shriven:

The theme of peace bestowed on humankind

Restores benignity, the pact re-signed,

With one D sharp, all sinners are forgiven.

Mephisto murmurs low his final warning,

memorial tremors, epic myths recede;

each pianist plays out of his human need

for abstract music’s deep abyss of meaning.

The poems based on Schumann’s Carnaval offer pithy evocations of the characters the composer created in these short pieces. They zoom, leap, waltz and laugh, reminding us that “suffering seems unreal once it has passed.” Each poem in these two cycles is printed facing a page from the piano score on which Aide has scribbled comments such as, “Love these stentorian BLASTS!”, “This page wearies with age …” and “Hard to bear this note.”

Composers like Chopin (as always) and William Byrd, pianists like Janina Fialkowska and Claudio Arrau, painters like Delacroix and Uccello, and writers like George Eliot and Günther Grass, along with specific events from Aide’s own life, are woven into the fabric of the remaining poems.

The CD included with this book is truly a bonus, since it offers the opportunity to hear the music that means so much to Aide as interpreted by the poet himself. Yet these poems do stand on their own, able to provoke, amuse, teach and move us quite apart from the music that inspires them.

73_my_nine_livesMy Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music
by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette
Anchor Books
334 pages, photos; $18.00 paper

It has been almost 50 years since pianist Leon Fleisher started losing the use of his right hand. This candid memoir takes us through all the ways his world fell apart while he struggled to find a cure for what was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. He kept performing by playing works written for the left hand alone, many newly commissioned by him. He taught, and took up conducting. But the emotional impact was devastating. Yet, after untold experimental procedures and false hopes, Fleisher, finally found a treatment that worked. Now 83, he has been performing with two hands for a number of years.

Fleisher offers colourful portraits of some of the remarkable “individuals of strong character” he has worked with over the years, like Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, who conducted Fleisher’s legendary recordings of the Beethoven concertos. The most memorable figure to emerge here is his beloved teacher, the great pianist Artur Schnabel. But it’s a shame there’s no index to be able to track down references to all these musicians, among other things.

Over the years, Fleisher has been regularly giving masterclasses in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In five separate chapters he describes how he teaches specific works that have meant most to him, including Brahms’ Concerto in D Minor and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major. He offers insights on what the music is about, and how to communicate that without sounding “as if feeling were being injected into the music, as through a syringe. You hear that kind of thing a lot, and it’s ghastly.”

There are plenty of funny moments here. But the issues Fleisher is dealing with are serious — physically, emotionally and musically. “At my lowest point,” he confides, “I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn’t kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music.” This memoir is inspiring and brave, though at times I found the breezy tone Fleisher and his co-author, journalist Anne Midgette, invariably assume at odds with the gravity of what’s going on.

Concert Notes: January 11 and 12 at 8pm in Roy Thomson Hall, Leon Fleisher conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and performs Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos K242 with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and former student, Stewart Goodyear.

Fleisher also conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and performs Prokofiev’s Concerto No.4 with Uri Mayer conducting, at 8pm February 17, 2012, at Koerner Hall.

Gustav Mahler
by Jens Malte Fischer
translated by Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press
758 pages, photos; $50.00

In Gustav Mahler’s own mind, his life and his music were “inexhaustibly” bound up together. By filtering his biography of Mahler through the direct relationship between the two, Jens Malte Fischer is able to shed light on what makes Mahler’s music so utterly his own. “Using a vocabulary that seems familiar and sometimes even intimately colloquial,” he writes, “Mahler expresses all that is unheard of and uncanny, all that is unsettling and upsetting. What was alien sounds familiar, and what is familiar now seems alien.”

Mahler’s life was as complex as his music, mostly because, as Fischer shows, he was such an intense, complicated and brilliant character. Admiring though he is, Fischer doesn’t shrink from describing how condescendingly insensitive Mahler could be with colleagues, friends and, especially, his much younger wife Alma. But Fischer, like most Mahler biographers, is equally tough on Alma. Even from her own diaries she emerges as narcissistic, humourless and willful. But, as she wrote, Mahler “lived a life of torment and inflicted torments a thousand times worse on me.” She even gave up her own dreams of being a composer at his insistence, though Fischer seems unnecessarily harsh when he disparages her talent on the evidence of her surviving compositions.

In 1910, just months before he died, Mahler finally realized how unhappy Alma was. When he discovered she was having an affair with Walter Gropius, he contacted Sigmund Freud for help. No notes from the session, which took place as they wandered the picturesque streets of Leiden, Holland, have survived. But among Freud’s writings Fischer found interesting references to a patient who could only be Mahler. Fischer even managed to track down the bill Freud sent to Alma after Mahler’s death.

As a theatre historian, Fischer is able to offer fascinating perspectives on various aspects of Mahler’s work, such as the detailed and often idiosyncratic performance instructions Mahler wrote in his scores (which Fischer compares to playwrights’ stage directions). He is especially good at describing the literary, artistic, political and religious currents of his day, above all the prevailing climate of anti-Semitism that drove Mahler, who was Jewish, to convert to Catholicism. But there are occasional lapses in musical judgment. Explaining Mahler’s famous remark, “My time will come,” he inexplicably downplays the popularity of the works of Mahler’s supposed rival, Richard Strauss.

The translation by noted scholar Stewart Spencer flows well, especially when dealing with such vivid descriptions of Mahler’s works as, “His First Symphony is a tempestuous, urgent, rebellious work, the composer’s first contribution to the medium and without doubt the boldest symphonic visiting card in the whole history of western music.”

Concert Notes: The University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra under David Briskin performs Mahler’s First Symphony on Thursday, February 2, at 7:30pm in the MacMillan Theatre.

73_levine_9781574671964James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera
edited by Ellen Keel
Amadeus Press
230 pages, photos; $35.00 US paper

This attractive book marks conductor James Levine’s 40 years working with the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a celebration, but there’s a poignant undercurrent, since, after this book went to press, lingering health problems forced Levine to give up his position as music director of the Met and withdraw from conducting assignments.

Singers and orchestra musicians talk about working with Levine, and he, in turn, offers comments on his experiences conducting them. We begin to understand what makes a great opera conductor. But all that mutual admiration stifles discussion of the controversial issues — and inevitably there have been plenty during his tenure — that would make these comments more incisive. Levine himself remains elusive.

We get an inkling of the power Levine wields at the Met when he says that for the revival of director Robert Wilson’s polarizing Lohengrin in 1998, “I insisted on a few changes.” But by all reports here, Levine exercises his power with sensitivity, support and inspiring passion. So it’s hardly surprising that singers love working with him. Sherrill Milnes says, “For me, Jim was the first ‘love conductor,’ versus the old-time ‘fear conductors’” …

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