HL_colgrass_hiresAdventures of an American Composer:

An Autobiography

by Michael Colgrass

edited by Neal and Ulla Colgrass

Meredith Music Publications

231 pages, photos; US $19.95

Toronto-based composer Michael  Colgrass is a natural story-teller - and he has some terrific stories to tell. So the unusual format of this memoir,  a series of vignettes ranging in length from a single page to four pages, works  well here. Without disturbing the narrative flow, he can switch moods, locations, and time frames. And with eighty-nine chapters, he has lots of opportunities  to come up with colourful title like Tormenting My Band Teacher, Romancing a Spy in Bucharest, and Post-Humorous Works.

Colgrass describes his childhood, his education (mostly acquired out of school), his career as a percussionist, and his meetings with remarkable people like Gene Krupa, Louis Prima, Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Partch, and Elliott Carter. He pinpoints crucial experiences, showing how they changed his life. It was after hearing Charles Munch conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program of Brahms, he tells us,  that he realized he was going to be a composer. And it was after getting involved with theatre and the  techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming that he decided to give up his career as a percussionist and devote himself full-time to composing .

For me, the best anecdotes deal with Colgrass’s experiences performing and writing music. There’s his description of  an all-night emergency session to create a score for the Joffrey Ballet. He had to use exactly the same tempo and counts as the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, in order to make it fit  pre-existing choreography.  Then there’s the recording session  for what ironically became a legendary recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The conductor, Stravinsky himself, was ailing, distracted, and slightly drunk. Colgrass describes how the remarkably skilled musicans in the studio orchestra, “hurtling forward like a Mack truck,” pulled him through.

Colgrass’s wife Ulla Colgrass, along with their son Neal, did the editing on this book. My own experience with Ulla Colgrass goes back to the 1980’s when I wrote for the magazine Ulla founded and edited, Music Magazine.  Her skills as an editor and writer leaves me unsurprised that this delightful memoir reads so well.

In his title, Colgrass calls himself “an American composer”. Colgrass has lived in Toronto for the past thirty-six  years, almost half his life-time. The Toronto Symphony is playing one of his best-known pieces, As Quiet As, next season. Yet he says nothing here about why he has stayed in Toronto all these years, and what impact living in Canada has had on him. Why the reticence in such an open-hearted and eloquent memoir?

Bravo_high resBRAVO: The History of Opera in

British Columbia

by  Rosemary Cunningham

Harbour Publishing

208 pages, photos; $39.95

“Opera is on a roll in British Columbia,” writes Rosemary Cunningham in this rich historical survey of opera performance in British Columbia. It has been published to celebrate the anniversaries of the two most prominent opera companies in British Columbia. Vancouver Opera turns fifty years old, and Pacific Opera Victoria turns thirty.

To her credit, Cunningham manages to do justice to all the organizations that produces opera in British Columbia, from Modern Baroque Opera to Vancouver New Music. At the same time, she focuses on the individuals who have made opera happen there. These include the first artistic director of Vancouver Opera, Irving Guttman, and his equally visionary counterpart at Pacific Opera Victoria,  Timothy Vernon. There’s the controversial Richard Bonynge, who played fast and loose with budgets.
He is nonetheless fondly remembered by many for raising the international standing of Vancouver Opera, forming the Vancouver Opera Orchestra,  and bringing in his wife Joan Sutherland to sing. Cunningham also discusses other international singers  who visited, like  Plácido Domingo and  Marilyn Horne, as well as the Canadian singers nurtured by these companies, like Richard Margison and Judith Forst.

Cunningham has examined archives and  board minutes. These prove to be more revealing than the old newspaper reviews and box-office records she frequently relies on. Fortunately, she has, as well,  interviewed a number of people involved. These documents make interesting reading, but her reluctance to offer a critical response diminishes the impact of her descriptions. About the tenure of Robert Hallam as general director at Vancouver Oprera in the 1990’s, she comments, “Understandably, nobody wants to revisit this discordant period”.  Her conclusion? “It is best left in the past.”

Cunningham is at her best in her sympathetic descriptions of the more adventurous productions these companies have mounted in the face of the “conservative taste” of their audiences, like the First Nations-themed The Magic Flute at Vancouver Opera in 2004.

Bravo has been produced with care, beautifully laid-out,  with a reliable index and documentation,  lists of productions,  and lots of high-quality photos. It offers convincing evidence that opera has an important presence in the cultural life of British Columbia.

TheTorontoMusicGarden cover loThe Toronto Music Garden:

Inspired by Bach

by Julie Moir Messervy

Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio

61 pages, illustrated; $15.00

(available from: www.torontoparksandtrees.org, tel. 416-397-5178, the Toronto Botanical Garden bookstore or Bounty at Harbourfront Centre.)

Another celebration, the tenth anniversary of the Toronto Music Garden, provides the impetus for this book. Like the garden itself, this book is compact, clearly laid out, readily accessible – and lovely.

The Toronto Music Garden began to take shape  when cellist Yo-Yo Ma approached landscape architect Julie Messervy about creating a garden inspired by one of Bach’s cello suites. The garden was to be the subject of a film in the series Inspired by Bach, based on Ma’s performances of the six suites. The original plan was to build the garden in Boston, where both Ma and Messervy live. When that didn’t work out,  a group of local donors helped to get built in Toronto. Ma and Messervy were given a forlorn 2.5 acre plot wedged in between the Lake Ontario shoreline and Queens Quay West, and they turned it into a veritable jewel.   

In her text, Messervy describes the intricacies of  basing a garden design on a piece of music. She offers an interesting discussion of  the relationship between landscape architecture and music, although she misattributes the comparison of architecture to frozen music. It  was first made not by the late twentieth-century American philosopher Susanne Langer, as Messervy writes, but by the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling (although Goethe often gets credit for it).

Photos reveal the garden in full bloom, but no fall or winter views are included.  Maps show the overall scheme of the garden as well as details of the six sections. Plant lists for each section identify some of the nearly 10,000 perennials,  1380 grasses, 40 varieties of trees and shrubs, and 420 butterfly bushes.   

Various contributors add their own perspectives. Ma describes how  Bach’s music has been “joyously and meticulously brought to life” in this garden. Tamara Bernstein, artistic director of Summer Music in the Garden,  shows how the park is put to good use by events like the series of concerts that she organizes. David Miller, soon-to-be-former mayor of Toronto, points out that the garden “has set the precedent for what is possible.” Yet Miller doesn’t mention how little has been done on the Toronto waterfront to build upon that precedent. During the past ten years the neighbouring forest of sky-scraping condos that blocks the lakeshore from the city has grown even faster than the plantings in the garden.  Nonetheless, as this book shows, the Music Garden succeeds in providing the place of “pleasure, sanctuary and delight” that Messervy and Ma envisioned.

Pamela Margles Bookshelf will return in March 2010

MoisalaS09Kaija Saariaho

by Pirkko Moisala

University of Illinois Press

144 pages, photos; $40.00 US

In a recent blog, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef revealed that the COC is planning a production of L’amour du loin by Kaija Saariaho. This is exciting news, since this is a beautiful opera by an important composer. So this excellent study of Saariaho is especially welcome.

Musicologist Pirkko Moisala offers a knowledgeable description of L’amour du loin, along with Saariaho’s other compositions to date. Moisala appreciates Saariaho’s work, and has interviewed the composer at length. In fact, Saariaho approved the manuscript for this book, meaning on the one hand that it is thoroughly reliable, while on the other that there is nothing written here that Saariaho herself does not want to see in print.

Moisala charts Saariaho’s course from her childhood in Finland, through her years working in the electronic music studios at IRCAM in Paris, to her present work with both acoustic instruments and electronics.

This biography is the first in a projected series on women composers. Yet Saariaho’s attitude towards her position as one of the few women – though not, as Moisala claims, the first – to reach the top eschelon of composers working today seems to be conflicted. Not wanting  her music to be considered feminine, Saariaho resists being classified as a woman composer.

Saariaho’s music stands out today for the adventurous way that it expands conventional techniques without moving away from traditional sounds and structures. It sounds new yet familiar. But what really resonates is the emotional impact of her music. “The task of today’s artist,”  Moisala quotes Saariaho as saying, “is to nurture with spiritually rich art.”

One of the most striking aspects of Saariaho’s output is how different each work is. Moisala clearly describes her method of composing, showing how the shape of each work develops from the material. I was interested to learn that Saariaho, like Messiaen, Sibelius, and Scriabin, experiences the kind of multisensory perception known as synesthesia, where all the senses are blended. For her, sounds are connected to colours, shapes, scents and textures, so they all provide sources for her to draw on for her rich palette.

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