Patrick Jang, Carla Huhtanen and Phillip Addis in Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro (2010). OA’s revival of Figaro runs from October 26 to November 4.This October offers opera lovers a wide range of choices. The COC is presenting a new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from October 11 to November 4. Opera Atelier is reviving its much-loved production of The Marriage of Figaro with American Douglas Williams making his OA debut in the title role from October 26 to November 4. And Toronto Masque Theatre begins its final season with a pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1687) and James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido (2007) on October 20 and 21. Besides these, there are two 20th-century works that have never before been staged in Toronto. One is Richard Strauss’ Arabella, running at the COC for seven performances from October 5 to 28. The other is Musik für das Ende by Québécois composer Claude Vivier, given ten performances by Soundstreams from October 27 to November 4.

Arabella

Arabella (1933) was Strauss’ sixth and final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss asked Hofmannsthal for a “second Rosenkavalier” and Hofmannsthal was happy to oblige. Unfortunately, Hofmannsthal died in 1929 before he could revise the final two acts of the opera. Strauss, as a tribute to his friend, set the remaining libretto as it was.

The opera is a comedy set in Vienna in the 1860s, about a once-wealthy family who hopes an auspicious marriage for Arabella will restore the family fortunes. Erin Wall sings the title role and Jane Archibald the role of her younger sister Zdenka, a girl brought up as a boy to save money. Tomasz Konieczny is Mandryka, the wealthy man Arabella’s father hopes she will marry. And Michael Brandenburg is Matteo, the poor soldier who also loves Arabella but is secretly loved by Zdenka. Patrick Lange conducts.

I spoke with Tim Albery, who directed Arabella for Santa Fé Opera in 2012 in the same production we will see in Toronto.

Albery’s view toward directing a comedy like Arabella is that “there might be a tradition of playing it quite broad and that everyone should be aware of being in a comedy, but if that is a traditional approach, it’s not a very helpful one. I feel that the way to make a piece like this work is to play it as seriously as you can and if people laugh then it is because of the situation itself and not our intent to make it into a comedy.”

Albery finds an enjoyable paradox in Arabella: “Arabella is more concerned to reveal something of the human heart within a plot that, at one look, might seem inconsequential but at another strangely has a lot to say about how we want to live our lives; what love is and how what you think love is can change. In the case of Arabella, we see how one person can love parties and playing Beatrice-and-Benedick with men, and yet can meet someone who makes her realize that that’s utterly not what she wants at all. I find all of that within the neatness of the plot quite enticing because it’s a process we all go through in our lives. Over the course of our lives we often discover through meeting other people or being thrown into different circumstances that the life to live isn’t the one we thought ours would be.”

Erin Wall as Arabella and Zach Borichevsky as MaŠeo in the Santa Fe Opera production of Arabella, 2012Some see a dark side to Arabella, what with a family basically prostituting one daughter to raise money, and raising the other against her will as a boy. Albery agrees that there is such darkness, “but that to emphasize it is contrary to what the music is doing. And besides that, the libretto makes quite clear that both Arabella and Zdenka are bright, intelligent women who are totally aware of what their parents have done to them.” What he finds most interesting is that “the relationship between Arabella and Mandryka is really quite modern in the sense that they commit themselves to each other as equal partners.”

Some critics have felt that while it was noble of Strauss to honour Hofmannsthal by setting the unrevised last two acts as they were, this has led to Arabella being marked as “flawed.” Albery says that “there’s no doubt, especially in the third act, that we go over ground we’ve already gone over and we have conversations between characters we’ve already heard before. So there is a tradition of many cuts in the third act to remove sections that Hofmannsthal would likely have removed himself. It’s the kind of editing that Strauss didn’t like to do but which people of the future have done on his behalf. If it is not absolutely clear who knows what when, those are the kinds of decisions we have to make in the rehearsal room and as long as we know exactly what is happening so will the audience.”

Has Albery’s view of the opera changed since his production in 2012? Albery says, “What changes there are come from the different interactions of the performers, because different performers bring different things to the piece and I try really hard in my role to respond to what they offer.”

Vivier

The other major work of music theatre this month in no way fits the traditional operatic mould. It is Musik für das Ende written in 1971 by Claude Vivier (1948-83), now regarded as one of Canada’s greatest composers. The work Vivier described as a “grande cérémonie funèbre” was originally written for 20 performers divided into three groups, two of which are visible with one offstage. All the singers play instruments and are given specific physical tasks to perform. These instructions written into the score demonstrate that Vivier intended the work to be staged.

The piece was first performed in concert in 2012; Soundstreams will have the honour of presenting the world premiere staging of the work. Vivier, a devout Catholic, writes in his preamble to the score that the work was the product of his meditation that we are all surrounded by human beings destined to die: “I experienced the increasingly strange ceremony of beings disappearing forever and becoming ‘an infinite moment’ in eternal silence. This became ... a Ceremony of the End, infused with the hope that humanity would understand the real meaning of its earthly experience and ultimately purify itself.”

Chris Abraham has been chosen as the director and he explained to me in an interview the makeup of the evening, of which Musik für das Ende is both the overall title and one of the three segments.

“The evening begins with a 20-minute-long play by Zachary Russell, which is a fictional imagining of a night with Vivier (played by Alex Ivanovici) in Paris shortly after a violent encounter with a male prostitute who assaulted him. We meet Vivier just in the process of finishing what would be his final work, Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul? Vivier is trying to write the text for the piece which, as it turns out, prefigures his own death.” (On March 8, 1983, Vivier was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute.)

“That play is followed by a staged performance of Immortality, an eight-minute piece for tenor and soprano and 12 singers intended as the final section in an immense opéra fleuve that Vivier imagined as his magnum opus. And then we finish with Musik für das Ende.

“The reason why we approached Musik this way is that we wanted to open a door into the piece for the public who don’t know his work. We wanted to investigate the biographical mythology around his music. We wanted to demonstrate the continuity of his thought across his works. And we wanted to theatricalize what would otherwise be presented most likely in program notes, [so as to] …provide some kind of toolbox for the listener to enter into a deeper relationship with the music. Musik für das Ende has a narrative within it but it is also extremely experiential and intuitive, so we wanted to create a context where both registers would be part of the listening and viewing experience.

Musik für das Ende has a number of textual sources – the Catholic Good Friday liturgy along with mantras, some which come from Eastern traditions and some which are invented. There are also passages that require individual performers to express fragments of text about their own lives.

“We have very freely interpreted the notations Vivier has made in the score about staging. Since individuality is central to understanding the piece, we have made some changes to allow the audience to engage with the ten celebrants as individuals first before the celebrants become a group.

“…The staging is ever evolving and what guides it are the rules that are set down in the score. The score requires the passing of melodic lines from one singer to another so that the positioning of bodies onstage in relation to each other dictates itself. I have been closely observing the group’s movements, so my staging is really a kind of attempt to preserve those organic features of what happens to the group when they try to perform the score from memory.”

As someone who is primarily a theatre director, Abraham says, “It has been interesting to think of the task-based nature of music performance. The effort of the singers actually constitutes the dramatic spine of the piece and my role is to create a dramatic environment that allows the audience to come as close as they can to that effort and those tasks.”

As Abraham notes, “Much as Vivier was obsessed with death, he was also obsessed with reunion with an eternal beyond this world, and music for him was a kind of tool that he worked with to try to understand that eternal presence.”

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.

Narek HakhnazaryanJoshua Bell began taking violin lessons when he was four years old after his mother discovered that he had stretched rubber bands across the handles of his dresser drawer to pluck out music he had heard her play on the piano. Several decades later in January 2007, Bell performed incognito as a busker at a public transit station in Washington DC. More than 1,000 people passed by but only seven stopped to listen. He collected $52.17 from 27 people (including $20 from the one person who recognized him). Now in his 50th year, the celebrated American virtuoso returns to Toronto for a recital in Koerner Hall on November 4. The program, with the gifted Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, includes sonatas by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Brahms, as well as additional works to be announced from the stage. But the concert is sold out (one of several in that category this season) so unless you’re already a ticketholder (or one of the fortunate few able to secure rush seats on the day of the recital), you’ll miss the chance to hear the musician who has become only the second music director (after Neville Marriner) of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.

There is consolation the following afternoon, however. After winning the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 at the age of 22, Narek Hakhnazaryan was named a BBC New Generation Artist in 2014 and welcomed by the world’s most prestigious venues. His concert (75 minutes with no intermission) on November 5 in Mazzoleni Hall at 2pm is FREE (ticket required). Mentored by Mstislav Rostropovich, this is Hakhnazaryan’s Toronto recital debut after several orchestral performances, including the TSO in 2015. “I try to be honest with the composer’s music,” he told an interviewer last year. “I don’t really show off or do anything for the audience. The scores don’t need any changing because they are genius already. The musician is just the narrator, and the script is already written. It’s all about how you read it. It’s like Shakespeare: there’s millions of actors doing different things with his original works.”

Still on the subject of the Royal Conservatory’s new season, making their Canadian debut October 20 at Koerner Hall, the Khachaturian Trio (pianist Armine Grigoryan, violinist Karen Shahgaldyan and founding member, cellist Karen Kocharyan) has been active since 1999, taking the name of their Armenian countryman Aram Khachaturian in 2008. Their handful of recordings focus on the music of Armenian modern composers as well as Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Babadjanian and Shostakovich. The program for their Toronto recital includes Tchaikovsky’s intense, demanding, symphonic Piano Trio in A Minor, op. 50, “In Memory of a Great Artist”; Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, the composer’s personal memorial to Tchaikovsky whom he called the most enchanting of all the people and artists he had ever met (“His delicacy of spirit was unique.”); Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Spartacus Suite No. 2, Op.82b (the music for the Spartacus ballet from which this suite was taken is among Khachaturian’s most acclaimed works); and Babadjanian’s richly romantic, melancholic Trio in F-sharp Minor.

Music in the Afternoon

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz open the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto’s 120th season on October 5. What began in 1899 when a group of women musicians and music lovers met to share their passion has become Music in the Afternoon, a five-concert series on Thursdays in Walter Hall. After performing Franck’s justly celebrated Sonata in A Major for violin and piano, written as a wedding present for famed Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886, St. John and Herskowitz will play selections from her Shiksa CD (2015). Its 14 tracks feature traditional folk tunes from the Jewish diaspora, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, reimagined for the concert stage by contemporary composers. When St. John does a similar program two weeks later, at Wolf Trap outside of Washington DC, the program will include John Kameel Farah’s Ah Ya Zayn (Levant), Matt Herskowitz’s mashup of Hava Nagila, Nagilara (lsrael), Serouj Kradjian’s Sari Siroun Yar (Armenia), St. John/Herskowitz’s Adanáco and Martin Kennedy’s Czardashian Rhapsody (Hungary). That’s the kind of music the Toronto audience can expect, followed perhaps by an encore like the rambunctious Oltenian Hora, which St. John calls  “improvised Romanian violin tricks, twists and turns.”  

St. John told Laurie Niles on violinist.com (November 5, 2015) that the idea for Shiksa had been percolating for a long time – since her first trip to Hungary when she was 11 years old. “I was astonished by all the music everywhere and thought that maybe I had been kidnapped by some Canadian family, because I felt like I belonged there. Since that time, and especially since my year of living in the Soviet Union when I was 17, I’ve been fascinated with songs and music from many cultures in, shall we say, that general area. The borders are always changing, but the music is the one thing that folks always respond to and recognize.”

U of T Faculty of Music/TSO

As Toronto audiences have come to recognize from the many appearances in the recent Toronto Summer Music Festival by the concertmasters of Canada’s two major symphony orchestras, Jonathan Crow of the TSO and Andrew Wan of the OSM, the two are consummate, generous musicians dedicated to conveying their joy in the music they play. And despite their considerable commitments to their principal orchestral roles, they still find time to come together for several concerts each season with the New Orford String Quartet, where they alternate in the first and second violin positions. Such is the case when the U of T Faculty of Music presents the New Orford on October 5 in Walter Hall. Ravel’s wistful, melancholic String Quartet in F Major, arguably the most performed string quartet of the 20th century, shares the stage with Tchaikovsky’s moving String Quartet No.3 in E-flat Minor and Steven Gellman’s Musica Aeterna (1994).

Faculty of Music free noontime concerts continue on October 19 with Crow joining his colleague Joseph Johnson, TSO principal cellist, to play music of Ravel and Kodály. Johnson’s TSM Shuffle Concert last August was enlightening and entertaining, with the personable cellist’s onstage patter illuminating his impeccable playing of selections from Bach’s solo cello suites mixed in with works for two, three and four cellos! Brooding, intense and sedate Bach contrasted with showpieces featuring Viennese musical twirls and swoops and Lisztian Hungarian rhapsodies, all smoothly led by Johnson at his collaborative best.

On October 30 Johnson teams up with the Gryphon Trio’s pianist, James Parker, in a U of T recital at Walter Hall with a substantial program comprising Debussy’s rapturous Sonata in D Minor, Beethoven’s densely packed, forward-looking Sonata No.2 in G Minor, Op.5 and Brahms’ bold and passionate Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99.

Marc-André Hamelin 

Juanjo MenaCrow and Johnson’s day jobs with the TSO find them supporting Marc-André Hamelin in Ravel’s ingenious one-movement Concerto for the Left Hand on October 25 and 26. It was the most successful of the works commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm during World War I. When Wittgenstein first saw the long solo cadenza that opens the piece he said: “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto.” But Ravel refused to change a note. When I spoke to Hamelin last winter he confirmed my suspicion that Ravel’s one-movement concerto in D Major was a piece he really enjoyed playing. “Very much so,” he told me. “Although I’ve also for the first time recently played the G Major [in Montreal with the OSM and Kent Nagano]. Can you believe? And that’s worked out well. I would like to offer a program in which I play both in a single evening. Which is perfectly fine.” Indeed, that would be quite a program.

This time, however, under the baton of visiting Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena (principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic), the TSO program is augmented by the Canadian premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s expressionist, dance-driven Ollantay, inspired by a pre-Columbian Inca poem and sounding like Aaron Copland’s music transposed to the Argentine landscape. Mena’s Chandos recording of this and other Ginastera works is considered by its publisher Boosey & Hawkes to be definitive. The major work of the evening is Schubert’s Symphony No.9 “Great,” an extensive melodic and rhythmic quilt that deserves its apt nickname. Schubert began writing the symphony in the year after he heard Beethoven’s Ninth and inserted a quote from the Ode to Joy melody into the middle of the last movement of it. See if you recognize it when you hear it.

"Classical music is dying!" Charlie Albright reported for CNN back in May 2016, and its death is not a quick and abrupt one but rather slow and painful, like a cancer that kills from the inside out. “With [its] stifling atmosphere of rules and ‘appropriateness,’ it is no wonder that people (especially youth) are apprehensive and often uninterested in the whole idea of classical music. Somehow, classical music has become inaccessible and unwelcoming."

October is here and based on the above we can anticipate a wave of the same old junk, identical to what came before, and identical to what will come next, a musical merry-go-round of the first degree: obsessive etiquettal xenophobia, predictable programming falling into pretty, compartmentalized categories (like a mother cutting up a pork chop for her child – easy to eat and it just tastes better this way) with attention-grabbing headlines that ensure that the conductor’s circle donors (who give more in a year than you’ll make in five) will remain happy, contentedly perennial boons to the budget.

Wanna hear something German? Here’s some Bach…

Wanna hear something French? Here’s some Lully and Rameau…

Wanna hear something English? Here’s a Handel oratorio…

Wanna be up to your eyeballs in gentrified groupies spewing vapid pleasantries? Here’s a post-concert reception…

Want something different?

Regeneration

In recent years there have been some interesting and original performances built around rather conventional repertoire, combining standard tunes with new visual and environmental stimulation. Alison Mackay’s multi-disciplinary Tafelmusik presentations of The Galileo Project and House of Dreams, among others, have broadened the horizons of many stiff-necked concertgoers in a way that is both familiar yet new, good for business but also for the regeneration of old music through new art forms. (“Thank Wotan for multimedia!” Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk ideals are whispering somewhere in the celestial ether.)

Multimedia collaboration is just one way that we can use old music in new incarnations. Last month I wrote about the fresh, modern movement that gets the cobwebs out of the canon by bringing classical music to bars, clubs and taverns. (You can read my review of the ClassyAF performance at Dakota Tavern on The WholeNote website.) These stripped-down yet high-quality performances declassify art music, removing the frills and snobbish attitude, making it less like a liturgical rite and more like the pop music it was when it was written. If you’re the guy who cringes when someone claps between movements at a concert or a member of the conductor’s circle, stay far, far away (and get your snotty nose out of my column!). If, however, you long for a way to take in the music you love without all the extra chi-chi superfluities, get out there and explore. Toronto is a wonderfully diverse city with dozens of concerts and events taking place every night, hundreds each month, thousands every year. I encourage you to go to as many as you can and step outside your comfort zone. Explore the different sections of this magazine, not just the ones you always do, and support the artists that bring this city to life!

(As a side note, if you own a bar and want to host a mean set of Bach and Brubeck, give me a shout…)

Aeneas and Dido?

Larry Beckwith conducting Toronto Masque Theatre's 'A Soldier's Tale'Henry Purcell, particularly his opera Dido and Aeneas, has become something of a fixture the last few years – Google “Dido and Aeneas Toronto” and watch the 275,000 hits pop up. Musically, the relative simplicity of Dido’s score has long permitted conductors, producers, choreographers and directors free reign over the dramatic and visual components of the theatrical production, resulting in a wide spectrum of aesthetics. The beauty of Purcell’s opera, from a programming perspective, is its brevity; the 40-minute-or-so runtime allows another work, similar or contrasting, to be placed cheek to jowl with it, thereby creating a more dynamic performance than the Purcell does as a freestanding piece of music.

Larry Beckwith’s Toronto Masque Theatre is doing just that – pairing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido to form a uniquely expressive concert. Far from being just a convenient inversion of the title, Rolfe’s Aeneas (commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2007, with a libretto by 2015 Giller Prize-winning novelist André Alexis), “tries to imagine Aeneas’s interior life. What drives Aeneas to choose an uncertain quest for a new homeland over Dido’s offer of love and country?” (from jamesrolfe.ca) This performance takes place on October 20 and 21 and features soloists Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley, as well as orchestra and chorus.

It will be fascinating to see and hear how the Purcell and Rolfe complement, juxtapose and intertwine with each other, being separated in time by so many centuries. Choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière will add another dimension to the performance, perhaps paving the way for even more adventurous interdisciplinary collaborations in the future as the Toronto Masque Theatre disbands after this season, and its creative minds seek stimulation elsewhere.

The Holy Gospel According to Gould

Art of Time Ensemble's Andrew BurashkoTaking a leap well beyond the usual scope of this column, from November 2 to 4 the Art of Time Ensemble will present “…Hosted by Glenn Gould: Gould’s Perspectives on Beethoven and Shostakovich,” via screenings from CBC’s Glenn Gould on Television as introductions to live performances of music by Beethoven and Shostakovich.

In addition to being an interesting and exciting concert idea, a voice-from-the-grave presentation similar to holographic posthumous appearances by Frank Sinatra and Elvis, it will be fascinating to hear Gould’s perspectives on Beethoven, whose music has been comfortably and successfully interpreted by a great number of historically informed performing groups. Gould was equal parts genius and eccentric, certainly not at all a traditional performer in the historical sense, and those of us indoctrinated with the idea of fidelity to the score above all else should look forward to this concert as an opportunity to broaden our horizons, especially those of us (myself included) who were not fortunate enough to experience Gould in person during his lifetime.

Speaking of Beethoven…

This month is a good one for fans of Beethoven and his symphonic music. In addition to the release of Tafelmusik’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle featuring Bruno Weil directing the Tafelmusik orchestra and chorus (look for the CD review in this issue of The WholeNote), on November 4 and 5 former Tafel violinist Aisslinn Nosky leads the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Hearing a modern orchestra tackle historic repertoire while led by an expert in historically-informed performance practice is a stimulating and thought-provoking experience. For those who have been trained to play a certain type of music a certain way, it is often difficult to reorient yourself around a different style and method of interpretation. I often spoke with Ivars Taurins on this topic while at the University of Toronto, and it was enlightening to hear his ideas on approaching Baroque and Classical symphonic repertoire with a modern orchestra such as the Calgary Philharmonic, where Taurins is a frequent guest conductor, versus a more specialized group such as Tafelmusik.

So take a trip down to wine country, partake in a tasting or two, and enjoy an evening of one of Beethoven’s greatest symphonies. (And if someone wants to clap between movements, for chrissakes, let them!)

I said at the beginning of this article that classical music as we know it is dying – that’s a good thing, for it is also being reborn under our noses.

Back to CNN’s Charlie Albright for the final word:

Breaking down ‘classical’ rules will kill ‘classical’ music – and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting, allowing for all of us to share more emotion and passion through the music. It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert. It will encourage more young people to have fun with the performing arts instead of viewing them as a necessary evil that requires a boring practice each day after school. And it is this death of “classical” music that will bring true classical music more life than ever.”

If you want to drop me a line, email me at earlymusic@thewholenote.com or talk to me in person at one of this month’s concerts – I’ll be at the bar.

Perhaps more than any other subset of collective music-making, the choral scene is subject to the dictates of the average working individual’s personal calendar, weekly and monthly. A case in point: of the 25 to 30 upcoming choral concert listings I perused in preparing to write this column, all but one fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And none dare intrude on the sanctity of the October 7 to 9 Thanksgiving weekend!

CCOC at 50

Karina Gauvin, former CCOC chorister graces the CCOC Gala - photo by Michael SlobodianThat one, by the way, is a bit of an exception to the rule in terms of the nature of the event as well as the weekday on which it falls. The event in question, October 26 (a Thursday) is a gala concert at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company (formerly known as the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus). And while the company’s several choirs will doubtless shine, there will be solo star turns by some of Canada’s opera elite, either former members of the CCOC themselves, or parents of past or present choristers. (Regular choral scene columnist, Brian Chang spoke of this event and other highlights of the CCOC’s upcoming season in the previous iteration of this column, so I won’t go into more detail here.)

As for Mr. Chang, he is on brief hiatus from this column while, as all good tenors should, once in a while, he throws himself into supporting a candidate in one of the political leadership races that are as predictable a feature of the fall landscape as homecoming choral concerts featuring alumni as soloists, and occasionally even en masse, as will be the case with the CCOC gala October 26.)

Those of you who like your choral columns less prone to meandering will be relieved to know he is scheduled to return in November!  

Alumni

While on the topic of alumni, though, one might be tempted to argue that the number of alumni who can free themselves up to participate in a youth and/or children’s choir’s fall homecoming concert is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of them who have kept up their music. But this is to undervalue the strength of the ties that bind individuals to the ensembles in which they discovered for the first time the particular power of lending one’s voice to a common musical cause.

Two such concerts come to mind. Saturday October 21, the Toronto Children’s Chorus (Training Choirs, Choral Scholars, staff and a fistful of distinguished alumni will foray from home base at Calvin Presbyterian Church on Delisle Avenue to the visually and acoustically radiant environs of St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue for a 3pm concert titled “Autumn Radiance,” featuring Ryan Downey, tenor, Giles Tomkins, bass-baritone and Stan Klebanoff, trumpet. The choir is heading into its 40th season in 2018/19, so one would imagine that this will be the start of a concerted campaign to reach out to the thousands of individuals who honed their appetite for music-making under their auspices.

And a week earlier, on Friday October 13, a throng of St. Michael’s Choir School alumni will make pilgrimage (if it isn’t too strong a description) for a 7pm Founder’s Day Concert at the newly restored St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Bond Street. Note the placement of the apostrophe in “Founder’s” by the way. The event still honours the singular memory of Monsignor John Edward Ronan, who founded the Choir School in 1937.

According to the SMCS website, tradition has it that the day after the Founder’s Day concert, the SMCS Alumni Association comes together to “sing Mass as part of an alumni homecoming, followed by a reception and open mic night at which the alumni share their talents, and catch up with friends old and new.” With alumni like Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, opera stars Robert Pomakov and Michael Schade, and Kevin Hearn of the Bare Naked Ladies among their ranks, one would think that the mic would hardly be necessary!

Period Ensembles

All kind of patterns emerge when you use the Just Ask! search function in our online listings to look for music of a particular type instead of ploughing through acres of print. One pattern, among many that caught my eye going through this date range just for choral music, was the number of period choral ensembles among them.  

Oct 14 at 3pm Melos Choir and Period Instruments in Kingston presents “A Tea and Recital: Virtuosic Vocals 12th-18th Centuries” covering the evolution of western bel canto singing from the monastery to the Baroque opera house. And if I really hurry back I can boot it back to Toronto by 7.30pm in time to hear the Tallis Choir, under the direction of the ubiquitous Peter Mahon perform “Six Bach Motets” to kick off their 40th anniversary concert season. Or if I am running late, take in Opus 8’s “A Musical Bestiary” at 8pm, offering works from Monteverdi to Stockhausen. Moving on, Oct 28 and 29, U of T early music vocal ensemble, Schola Cantorum, with Baroque orchestra offers up a period treatment of Handel’s Messiah under the expert direction of Jeanne Lamon and Daniel Taylor, at Trinity College Chapel. Also on Oct 29 at 10:30am Royal York Road United Church celebrates the “500th Anniversary of the Reformation” with Bach’s Cantata No.79 “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” BWV79. And the same day at 3pm Toronto Chamber Choir offers up a program titledThe Architecture of Music (Kaffeemusik),” with works by Dufay, A. Gabrieli, Charpentier, Purcell, Telemann and others. Finally, Cor Unum Ensemble on November 4 and 5, also at Trinity College Chapel offers up polyphonic madrigals and “a string band of 16th-century Italy.”

The Big Choirs

And that, dear reader is no more than a flag on the tip of a choral iceberg growling its way towards us. Because, make no mistake, we are at the point when all of the region’s large choirs, professional and community alike, are gearing up for at least one serious undertaking before December’s seasonal frivolity sets in. October 21 Grand Philharmonic Choir offers “Big Choruses: From Brahms to Broadway.” Oct 29 Pax Christi Chorale’s new music director gets a first chance to show off the fruits of his new labours in a program titled “Romantic Masters” featuring Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, and a stellar array of soloists. Chorus Niagara (on November 4) and Orpheus Choir (on November 5), both under Robert Cooper’s direction, offer up “Last Light Above the World: A War Litany” featuring the premiere of a searing new work by that name. And the list goes on. (As I mentioned at the outset, perusing the listings I found myself with a good 25 to 30 concerts worth writing about, or better still, attending.) Check them out for yourself.

In my column last month I introduced two new Toronto initiatives, both barely launched in September, and both in their way aiming to address issues of interest to students, performers, presenters and audiences of globally sensitive music. So I’ll begin this month’s column by following up on these.

Polyphonic Ground

Polyphonic Ground, an umbrella organization of 12 live music presenters “committed to building and sustaining Toronto as a global music city” kicked off its first monthly concert at the Revival Bar on September 14.

On October 12 the series continues at the same venue, this time presented by two well-established local organizations. Batuki Music Society promotes African music and art, while Uma Nota Culture is a “cultural production house focusing on Brazilian, Latin, Caribbean, Funk and Soul music.” As in the first concert, these two organizations collaborate to present a program geared to spark transcultural musical discovery.

Three groups are featured in the concert. Matatu Express performs a highly dance-friendly blend of pan-African music genres including Ghanaian highlife and palm wine, Malagasy salegy and blues, and East African benga and rumba. West-African dancer Mabinty Sylla demonstrates how it is done back home.

Beny Esguerra & New Tradition serves up live hip hop, R&B and soul with Afro-Colombian percussion, a blend they evocatively dub “Afro-Native Colombian music from an inner city perspective via Jane-Finch, Tkaronto.” The third group, Future Primitive, presents what they have dubbed “tropical soul” with elements of Latin American and Caribbean, along with catchy bespoke songwriting.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario Launch

I was on hand for the September 15 Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario launch and fundraiser held at the 918 Bathurst Centre. The concert and reception had a warm, mixed-community feel. The buzzy excitement of the launch of a new venture hung in the air and was reflected in the music: there were four ample sets by various groups and individual musicians. They covered aspects of Persian, Southeastern European, Turkish/Kurdish and Middle Eastern musical ground.

The most unusual single item was the joint group performance of the tender lilting Kurdish wedding song Dar Hejiroke, bringing all the performers together onstage. For me this performance perhaps most clearly reflected LMWO’s mission, which includes the fostering of “detailed study of particular modal musical traditions and encounters between different traditions, encouraging intercultural understanding, artistic development and an appreciation of music as embracing all aspects of life.”

LMWO is a significant development on the Toronto music scene, one which not only connects with the transnational movement Ross Daley instituted in Greece, but also animates regional musical threads here in the GTA. LMWO’s website, www.labyrinthontario.com, is now fully operational. It’s worth a visit to see what workshops by leading modal music practitioners are planned for next May.

Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA)

Canadian Arabic OrchestraThe Festival of Arabic Music and Arts launches October 28 at Koerner Hall, then moves to various locations in the GTA and in Montréal until November 12. Its presenting organization is the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO) based in Toronto, co-founded by the husband-and-wife team of qanun expert and CAO president Wafa Al Zaghal, and pianist Lamees Audeh, its music director.

Not only is this the festival’s inaugural year, but it’s my first encounter with the CAO. Audeh filled me in on the backstory in a phone interview.

“Wafa and I formed our duo in 2009,” Audeh recounted. “Then in 2014 we formed an ensemble of five musicians: piano, Arabic violin, oud, qanun and tabla [aka. darabuka]. This group initially performed a repertoire of well-known classical songs drawn from across the Arabic world, both instrumental and vocal.”

Today the orchestra boasts a much larger complement including ney, oud, piano, clarinet, a string section of violins, viola, cello, bass and three percussionists. This instrumentation reflects the mission of the CAO to combine Western and Arabic classical musics.

“Our repertoire is evolving, along with the makeup of the orchestra,” noted Audeh. “The arrangements for our upcoming festival were prepared by me, Wafa, and composers and arrangers drawn from the orchestra and across the Arabic diaspora. Our approach puts less emphasis on [Arab] ethnicity and rather more on the [Arabic] music itself.

The first FAMA concert on October 28 at Koerner Hall brings Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai together with the Toronto instrumental group Sultans of String. Al-Madfai formed The Twisters, Iraq’s first rock and roll band, in 1961. His subsequent synthesis of Western guitar, popular song and Iraqi music has kept his popularity as a performer alive in his native country and throughout the Middle East. Led by Canadian violinist and music producer Chris McKhool, the multiple award-winning Sultans of String quintet presents audiences with a “genre-hopping passport.” Celtic reels, Manouche jazz, flamenco, South Asian ragas, and Cuban and Arabic folk music mix onstage, “all presented with pop sensibilities, forms and lengths,” notes McKhool.

October 29 FAMA presents “Jazzy Arabia” at the Maja Prentice Library, Mississauga. Five members of the Canadian Arabic Orchestra perform jazz standards reinterpreted through an Arabic musical lens, as well as Arabic songs rendered in a jazz idiom. The common ground here may well turn out to be the spirit of melodic improvisation and taqsim, which animates both jazz and Middle Eastern performance practices.

November 1 the festival takes a deeper, more mystical turn, when Syrian oud virtuosa and singer Waed Bouhassoun performs solo at the Revue Cinema, Toronto. In 2008 Bouhassoun – who has been performing onstage since she was 10 – received star billing at the inaugural concert of “Damascus, Cultural Capital of the Arab World” held at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, receiving extensive international media coverage. In 2010 she was awarded the Coup de Coeur by the Académie Charles-Cros for her first solo album.

Six more concerts in the first half of November round out FAMA’s first iteration. Please return to these pages next month to find out more about them.

Autorickshaw’s 15th Anniversary Season

Autorickshaw's Ed HanleyI’ve followed the Toronto band Autorickshaw’s career through its release of award-winning albums, concerts and international tours. This season marks its 15th anniversary, a good time to take stock and reflect on the changing landscape of global music and how it has developed for musicians and audiences alike.

By the time you read this, Autorickshaw will have already officially released its fifth studio album Meter on September 28 and 29 at Small World Music Centre. They will tour the album this fall in Southern Ontario and then in India, with a follow-up concert back in Toronto. I’ve had a quick listen to Meter’s 12 tracks. The music moves confidently between commissioned compositions, covers and many overt as well as covert references to the music of the subcontinent.

I spoke to founding band member Ed Hanley about Autorickshaw’s evolution, first asking about changes in the scene since the early 2000s.

“The music industry’s completely changed, of course,” he says. “For instance, our first CD wasn’t even on iTunes (though it was on Bandcamp). Our new release will be available on a number of online stores.”

Hanley directed the video of one of the songs on Meter, the polished Hare Shiva, recently published on YouTube. I was struck by the presence of the personal, the trans-musical genre references, the easy musicality of the Autorickshaw trio, as well as by the prominence of Odissi dance.

“That’s certainly another change from 15 years ago,” commented Hanley. “YouTube has become the main discovery platform for music, and you really need to have a music video now – though it is of course a major extra expense. I feel you need two types of videos now: live videos to show presenters and audiences what the music looks and sounds like in concert, and an ‘art video’ to serve as a companion piece to the album.”

Presenting music with roots on several continents often means having to explain the various constituent elements. “I feel we have to explain less about our music today,” said Hanley. “Speaking for myself, more people seem to know what a tabla is than during Autorickshaw’s early days. I get much less ‘is that bongos?’”

“When we started out we were aware of the world music category, specifically the Indo-Jazz sub-category we felt our music fit. Since then we’ve moved in many different musical directions, and the industry has also evolved. Musically speaking, today we don’t feel the need to be concerned with genre. We’re more comfortable in our musical skins now.”

I’ll be keeping tabs on Autorickshaw as they roll out their season and embark on their cross-India tour.

The fall theatre season in Toronto is usually overshadowed by TIFF, so most seasons launch after the end of that festival. One company that did start during the film festival in mid-September was Red Sky Performance, launching their 2017/18 slate of shows with the magical Miigis transforming the military colonial setting of Fort York into a site of myth and reconciliation. Red Sky is all over the city this year, it seems (as well as touring internationally), and, as such, is a perfect exemplar of two themes emerging from season announcements: the increased presence of Indigenous artists and companies on the Toronto scene on their own and in collaboration with other companies; and collaboration itself, which can be seen across the board in the arts scene.

On October 7, Red Sky partners with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to present, as part of Canada 150, the world premiere of Adizokan, a new genre-bending creation that explores an image-rich experience of Indigenous dance, video, music, electroacoustic and orchestral music. Next they collaborate with Canadian Stage to present the Toronto debut of Backbone (November 2 to 12), a cutting edge Indigenous dance creation noted for its masculine ferocity, inspired by the spine of the continents (originally co-commissioned with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity).

Canadian Stage

BackboneCollaboration is at the heart of the Canadian Stage season, a theme chosen to celebrate their 35th year and featuring a plethora of genre-bending creations from around the country, most involving music, and many choreographed movement, as integral ingredients. Their first production (before Backbone), as previewed in our September issue, is a collaboration with the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals: Life After, a newly expanded and developed version of the Toronto Fringe Festival musical hit by Britta Johnson, directed by Robert McQueen. Opening on September 29 and running until October 22, Life After is already generating a lot of buzz. Along with theatrical productions at the Bluma Appel and Berkeley Street Theatres there is also an intriguing wide-ranging music series which includes (in March) a bringing together of multi-award-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq with trailblazing Greenlandic mask dancer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in a concert event combining tour-de-force vocals, kinetic movement and powerful spoken word.

Buddies in Bad Times

Bathory also collaborates with Canadian poet, composer and performance artist Evalyn Parry for Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (October 24 to November 5) at Buddies in Bad Times, in a co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille as part of a new initiative between those two companies to share resources and introduce audiences to the work being done on other stages in Toronto. Both powerful storytellers, Parry and Bathory, who met on an Arctic expedition from Iqaluit to Greenland, will use music, movement and video as well as spoken word to map new territory together in a work that gives voice and body to the histories, culture and climate we’ve inherited, and asks how we reckon with “these sharp tools.”

Tarragon

Across the city, Tarragon Theatre has two musicals as part of its mainstage season: in January Richard Rose directs a new version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, reimagined through the powerful lens of rock ‘n’ roll with a score and music direction by Thomas Ryder Payne. Earlier, in November, Tarragon presents the Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic/Point View Art Association Production of Mr. Shi and His Lover, another show that began life at a festival, in this case the 2016 SummerWorks festival where it was an award-winning hit. Performed in English and Mandarin and with performers from Toronto and Macau, Mr. Shi and His Lover, written by Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie with music and music direction by Kie, tells the real-life story of a French diplomat in China who falls in love with a mysterious opera singer. With music inspired by Chinese opera and vintage pop from both East and West, the show will be performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.

(Kie, who is also the long-serving music director of Montreal’s La La La Human Steps, also collaborates with Canadian Stage toward the end of their season [April 26 to May 6], introducing the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project in their Toronto debut with the hybrid musical performance Picnic in the Cemetery.)

Soulpepper

Almost cheek by jowl with Canadian Stage downtown, Soulpepper presents a more traditional season but again, music plays an important part, with the blues-infused Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the spring. Soulpepper’s expanded concert series also begins in October with Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene (October 6 to 14), bringing to life the 1964 launching pad of Canadian singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Murray McLauchlan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Mike Ross will music-direct a lineup of multi-disciplinary artists as they celebrate the stories and songs that made Yorkville the place to be in the free-loving 60s. The series also includes A Very Soulpepper Christmas (December 15), Prohibition, the Concert (February 9, 10, 14) and A Moveable Feast; Paris in the 20s (March 30 to April 2). Created by Albert Schultz, with overall music direction by Mike Ross, the scripted concert series has a lively energy marked by its collaborative nature and its bringing together of different Toronto artists and musicians for each event.

Soundstreams

Michael Greyeyes - photo by Jeremy MimnaghDowntown and uptown, venue depending on the type of event, is Toronto’s eclectic and experimental yet classical Soundstreams, where music combines with dance and theatre in ever-evolving combinations.

Soundstreams’ 35th season opens very strongly with two productions in October. On October 16 at Koerner Hall, Northern Encounters celebrates Canada 150 and Finland at 100 with Europe’s northernmost professional orchestra, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, performing music by Jean Sibelius, Harry Somers and Claude Vivier and, most interestingly for me, includes a new dance piece by powerhouse Canadian choreographer Michael Greyeyes to Vivier’s Zipangu exploring the idea of “the city of gold.”

A bit later in the month (October 26 to November 4) at Crows Theatre’s new permanent space (at 345 Carlaw) Soundstreams collaborates with Crows’ artistic director Chris Abraham (whose production of Moliere’s Tartuffe is currently electrifying and delighting audiences at the Stratford Festival) on the world premiere of the first staged production of Claude Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

The wonderful Soundstreams Salon 21 series has also begun and continues throughout the season, offering audiences the opportunity to meet artists involved in upcoming events and to explore the inspiration behind those events, usually in the intimate setting of the Gardiner Museum. The Salon on October 19 (at Crows Theatre), “Endings: Lieke van der Voort and Jumblies Theatre,” will feature a special rapid-creation performance inspired by Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

Quick Picks

Sept 22 to Oct 7: Hart House Theatre pushes the boundaries with what should be a strong production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s rock ‘n’ roll Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (WARNING: Coarse language, mature themes and sexually explicit scenes.)

Oct 24 to Dec 24: For fans of Meatloaf, David Mirvish presents the North American premiere of Brian Steinman’s Bat out of Hell The Musical at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. A critical and popular hit already in England, the run here has quickly been extended to December 24.

October 20 and 21: Catch one of Toronto Masque Theatre’s iconic double bills in TMT’s final year: Dido and Aeneas/Aeneas and Dido, pairing Purcell’s classic with James Rolfe’s contemporary take on the same tale, starring Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley. At Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

October 28 and 29: Gilbert and Sullivan fans might want to catch TrypTych’s production H.M.S. Parliament  at Trinity Presbyterian Church West Hall, 2737 Bayview Ave. With a script by Canadian William Henry Miller and music by Arthur Sullivan, it’s an intriguing music-theatre piece featuring eminent Canadian figures Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

My calendar says that fall has begun, but the weatherman tells me that he has declared a “weather alert.” Whichever it is doesn’t make much difference for the community band scene. The summer events have passed and the events scheduled for this time of year will go ahead as planned unless our weather deteriorates to the kind we have seen in the Caribbean recently.

The Summer Scene

The Shimoda Family Consort - In the left hand of the performer at far right is a recorder even smaller than a piccolo.In some ways, from my perspective, the local community music scene has been a bit benign, with most groups emphasizing Canada 150 and the works of Canadian composers. Over the official summer period I heard many of the same works many times over with only minor variations. The one musical event which stood out for me was not by a community band, but by an excellent Baroque recorder consort. In the June issue I mentioned that I was looking forward to hearing the Shimoda Family Consort at the Foster Memorial. Well, on August 25 I was not disappointed. This is truly a family ensemble. Mother, father and two sons all move around playing an amazing array of recorders, from one somewhat smaller than a piccolo to the largest, which is taller than a contrabassoon. In this concert, in addition to playing a couple of different recorders, the mother also accompanied the others on harpsichord and played one harpsichord solo.

While I used the term “Baroque” to describe this group, most of their repertoire was from a period earlier than that usually referred to as Baroque. From such well-known names as Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann backward in time to such unknowns as Ludwig Senfl (1486-1543) and Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), the music was all very enjoyable. Newest works on the program were two pieces from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Such music on a beautiful summer evening in this architecturally stunning venue has left its mark in my memory.

Coming soon

The most notable event on the community band horizon this fall – that we are aware of – is a “50th Anniversary Concert” and banquet for the Northdale Concert Band. Having played in this band for some years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, under the direction of conductors Carl Hammond and James McKay, this event is of particular personal interest.

The Northdale Concert Band had its beginnings in 1967, with a group of students who had originally met and first played instrumental music together at Willowdale Junior High School and later played together at Northview Heights Secondary School in Toronto. There, along with other interested music students, they formed the band. The name Northdale came from the names of these two schools. Music teachers Ted Graham and Wayne Moss took on the band, held rehearsals once a week, and gave concerts open to the public. As time passed, the band became an adult group.  None of its original members remain in the band today. However, the band has its roots in the community, and has developed into a skilled group of dedicated amateurs and many music professionals, with a number of the members having been with the group for several decades. Many members play and teach music professionally; others teach music in the elementary and secondary schools; and others are students in the music faculties of York University or the University of Toronto. Other members are in varied careers, but all turn out reliably to rehearse and perform in various community venues.

Through the years, there have been many fine Northdale conductors, too numerous to mention here. Stephen Chenette, professor emeritus, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, was the conductor from 1996 until 2010 when the present conductor, Joseph Resendes, took over the baton. Born in Toronto, Resendes has extensive professional credits as an active conductor, composer, performer and educator, and is currently in the process of completing his PhD in the field of musicology, ethnomusicology focusing on wind studies, conducting and the development of community music in Canada. As well as being the musical director and conductor of the Northdale Concert Band, he also currently holds positions as the music director of East York Concert Band, St. Mary’s Church Choir, VL Sax Quartet and as assistant music director of Ecos of Portugal.

A feature of this anniversary concert will be the world premiere of a newly commissioned piece, Dance Suite, by renowned Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, composer advisor to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 1995. Although principally a composer, Kulesha is active as both a pianist and conductor, and as a teacher. In 1986, he represented Canada at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris, and has twice been nominated for JUNO awards, for his Third Chamber Concerto (in 1990) and again in 2000 for The Book of Mirrors.

Another feature of this Northdale anniversary program will be guest soloist Vanessa Fralick, associate principal trombone of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joining the TSO, she played three seasons as acting associate principal trombone of the St. Louis Symphony, after winning her first orchestral position with the San Antonio Symphony in 2009 while pursuing her master’s degree at The Juilliard School with Joseph Alessi of the New York Philharmonic. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, and is an alumna of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra and the National Academy Orchestra of Canada. She occasionally plays alongside her brass-playing parents in the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in her hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario.

The concert and banquet take place on Saturday, November 4 at 3pm, at the Salvation Army Citadel, Lawrence and Warden Ave. (2021 Lawrence Ave. E.) in Toronto.

A unique aspect of Northdale Concert Band is their music publishing venture known as Northdale Music Press Limited. The project of issuing new works by Canadian composers for concert band began with Ontario Arts Council funding in 1985, when six new works were commissioned by Northdale Concert Band. The band travelled to Expo 86 in Vancouver and performed the world premiere of these compositions at the Canada and Ontario Pavilions. The scope of publication has increased, and today, Northdale Music Press publishes compositions for other ensembles, including brass band, stage band, and wind octet.

CBA Community Band Weekend

As if they didn’t have enough to plan for with their anniversary concert and banquet, the Northdale Concert Band is hosting the Canadian Band Association’s Fall Community Band Weekend, Friday October 13 to Sunday October 15 at the Church of St. Jude’s Wexford, 10 Howarth Avenue in Toronto. Visit either Northdale or CBA websites for details.

New Horizons Bands

As in past years the news from New Horizons Bands is great. The Toronto group’s annual “Instrument Exploration Night” was a huge success, with 22 participants and six instrument coaches honking, tooting and banging on all the instruments. Many signed up for beginner classes. With 45 new members this year, total membership now stands at well over 260, spread out over eight bands and two jazz groups. And it’s still not too late to join for this year.

Their annual Remembrance Day concert, “A Night to Remember,” is scheduled for November 10 at 7:30pm at Church of the Holy Trinity, 85 Livingston Rd., Scarborough; their annual band festival is set for January 27, 2018.

With this kind of growth it was decided that the organizational structure should be updated. So, New Horizons Toronto incorporated last year to facilitate adding stability to the group should Dan Kapp and his wife Lisa decide to move on to new challenges. The board is working to figure out how to cover all of the activities that need to be done to run such a large group.

Meanwhile, the York Region New Horizons group, which just started last year, held an event which they called “Test Drive a Band Instrument,” and will have started classes by now at Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill. Their classes are all on Mondays with morning, afternoon and evening sessions. For information contact Doug Robertson at 416-457-6316 or nhbyrdirector@gmail.com.

Hannaford Street Silver Band

As they enter their 34th season, the Hannaford Street Silver Band is adding even more colour and variety to their annual concert programming. Over the years they have gradually added other musical artists to broaden the taste and colour from the traditional all brass band repertoire. This year it is even broader. Every concert will have a unique flavour. Their opening concert “Tango!” will feature, as guests, the Payadora Tango Ensemble. This quartet of violin, accordion, piano and double bass with their traditional Argentine Tango music will certainly be a departure from what we have come to expect at an all brass band concert. That’s Sunday, October 22 at 3pm in the Jane Mallett Theatre.

 

On September 25, 2017, Glenn Gould would have been 85. To mark the occasion, the TSO is presenting a tribute concert to him on September 22 and 23 with two works of great significance to his biographical and musical legacy. 

Siegfried Idyll

Mark Skazinetsky in 1981In July 1982, just weeks before suffering the stroke that led to his premature death on October 4, 1982, Gould began recording Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in its chamber version for 13 instruments. It was released by Sony on a CD that also included Gould’s own piano transcriptions of other Wagner works, but it was Gould’s role as conductor (of Siegfried Idyll) that caught people’s attention. The recording was stunning in its transparency, rigorous in its controlled Romanticism and finely balanced as a large chamber work. The orchestral version of this piece is one of the programmatic keys to the TSO tribute this month. Remarkably, four members of the current TSO participated in the Gould recording, among them associate concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky. He graciously took the time to fill WholeNote readers in on the nuts and bolts of that historic occasion.

WN: What are your memories of the recording sessions of Siegfried Idyll?

MS: First of all was the fact that I was going to work with GLENN GOULD himself! It was a hot summer day and he came dressed in a heavy coat, wearing gloves, kind of looking a little strange, but when he started to talk he struck me as being a very kind and friendly, respectful person.

WN: How much rehearsal time was there?

MS: We didn’t have much rehearsal time but everyone could sense something very special and unique was happening and that made the rehearsal more effective.

WN: Do you recall Glenn Gould’s approach? Any specific instructions?

MS: Glenn Gould’s approach was very unique. At first we thought that all the tempi were very slow, or slower than we expected. But as we were getting deeper into the music it started to make more and more sense. His interpretation of this piece was so sincere and deeply felt that it “infected” us very much. He was asking for very long lines and phrases and that made the whole piece like one big painting. The end result was amazing!!!

Brahms Concerto No.1

Glenn Gould was 22 when he first recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Columbia Masterworks in 1955. Jan Lisiecki is now 22 and a graduate of the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory. His fourth recording for Deutsche Grammophon, Chopin Works for Piano and Orchestra, was released last March. For his part in the TSO Gould tribute, Lisiecki will play Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor, Op.15, the same work that prompted Leonard Bernstein to address the audience in Carnegie Hall on the evening of April 6, 1962, when Gould played it with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein said that he could not agree with Gould’s “remarkably broad tempi and frequent dynamic departures” but that “Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith.”

I asked Lisiecki about his relationship with Gould and what he thought about Bernstein’s pre-performance words.

WN: When did you first become aware of Glenn Gould?

JL: I cannot even describe a particular moment when I became aware of Glenn Gould. He seems to have been a part of my musical life from the very start, and is inseparable from it in my view.

WN: How has he been important to you?

JL: There are many inspirational aspects about Mr. Gould. For one, I love his answers to interviews. They were different, insightful and fun. I also like his approach to making music, and adhering to the principle that if there’s nothing new to say, then there’s no point in performing or recording it. He was also never afraid to break with the tradition, and as a result, completely changed the way the entire world sees and experiences some music.

WN: What do you think of Bernstein’s famous words to the audience before Gould and the New York Philharmonic performed Brahms’ First Piano Concerto?

JL: I actually think these words could have been spoken at many other concerts, and that it is frankly not a surprise that a conductor and soloist don’t get along. After all, each musician is very individual, and when you add in someone’s personality (their amenability and openness, or lack thereof), musical disagreements do occur.

WN: How long have you been playing the concerto?

JL: This concerto is actually very new to me, and I performed it for the first time in Warsaw only on August 12. My “debut” with this work was a full immersion, too, with live broadcast on radio, YouTube and TV recording.

WN: What is your approach to it?

JL: I’m not sure how I can answer this question in words. I invite the audience to listen and assess for themselves. :-)

WN: Have you played much Brahms in concert?

JL: I have included Brahms in my recitals before, but my closer association is with Schumann. In fact, I recorded one of Schumann’s last works for the piano, his Introduction and Concerto Allegro Op.134 for Piano and Orchestra, which inspired Brahms when writing this concerto.

I’m reasonably certain that TSO conductor Peter Oundjian will address the Roy Thomson Hall audience before the Brahms concerto is performed. And I’m also confident that Lisiecki will have a few words to say at its conclusion. The prospect fills me with great anticipation.

Mooredale Concerts Season Opener

Again this summer my musical life in Toronto was bound up in the Toronto Summer Music Festival, the first under artistic director Jonathan Crow. This year – the festival’s 12th edition – was primarily a celebration of chamber music performed almost entirely by Canadian-born or Canadian-resident musicians. It was a roster driven by the notion of celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial. The overwhelming artistic success of TSM was an affirmation of the high level of talent our country has produced. The total audience of 15,000 was a 20-percent increase over last year and included several sellouts and many near sellouts in both Koerner and Walter Halls. I was fortunate to take in 15 concerts, three masterclasses, two open rehearsals, two “Conversations” and two “Kids Concerts,” less than half of what the extensive program offered. Visit www.thewholenote.com for my TSM concert reports.

Two of the sold-out programs, “The TSO Chamber Soloists” and the “Tribute to Anton Kuerti,” had a direct connection to Mooredale Concerts (of which Kuerti is artistic director emeritus). The TSO players, under the leadership of TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow, will open Mooredale’s new season on September 24 at Walter Hall.

Violist Teng Li and cellist Joe Johnson riding Via Rail to Brockville on the TSO BMO tour, November 17, 2012. They will join Jonathan Crow to perform Francaix’s String Trio, the most straightforward (in terms of instrumentation) of the TSOCS’ intriguing program.Crow will be joined by Teng Li, principal viola; Joseph Johnson, principal cello; Jeffrey Beecher, principal bass; Michael Sweeney, principal bassoon; Neil Deland, principal horn; and Miles Jaques, clarinet.

Their diverse program features the Françaix String Trio, Nielsen’s Serenata in vano, CNW69Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28, by Richard Strauss and Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The Nielsen is a quintet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass; the quintet arrangement of the Strauss uses similar instrumentation with the violin replacing the cello.  

Crow was gracious enough to answer several questions about the TSO Chamber Soloists (TSOCS) and the program of the Mooredale recital.

WN: What was the impetus behind the origin of the TSO Chamber Soloists?

JC: There are a couple of different reasons behind the TSOCS, but foremost for us is a chance to present TSO players in a more intimate setting, as we generally only get to interact with our audiences in a very large space. There is something very special about a chamber music setting that allows audiences to get to know their favourite musicians more as individuals, and also allows us to have a little more creativity in our own interpretations. There is also so much great chamber music repertoire that we want to play, and having the chance to do it with a regular group of TSO players only helps us to feel more connected when we get back to the orchestra!

WN: How many concerts do you do over the course of the year?

JC: Personally? Too many to count! The TSOCS does four concerts a year at RTH before TSO shows, and perhaps three or four more touring concerts every season. The schedules of all the players are too complicated to allow for much more than this unfortunately.

WN: How was the upcoming Mooredale recital conceived? Did it begin with the Beethoven Septet and move outward from there?

JC: We like to mix well-known chamber works with other wonderful but lesser known works, and one of the goals of the TSOCS is to feature all the parts of the orchestra, not just the string section! The Beethoven Septet is one of the great works of all time for strings and winds and was an obvious choice for this show, after which we looked at other works that would complement the Beethoven to fill out the program. For this concert we focused on works that would be composed in the same style as the Septet – fun, upbeat music that doesn’t take itself too seriously!

WN: How would you characterize the Francaix String Trio?

JC: This piece always makes me think of a champagne cork popping out – it’s such a light and bubbly piece! Extremely fun to play, and very enjoyable for audiences.

WN: The Serenata in vano, CNW69 by Carl Nielsen is new to me. Can you tell us something about it?

JC: The TSOCS did this work a few years back at RTH – Nielsen himself referred to it as “a humorous trifle.” In his words: “First the gentlemen play in a somewhat chivalric and showy manner to lure the fair one out onto the balcony, but she does not appear. Then they play in a slightly languorous strain (Poco adagio), but that hasn’t any effect either. Since they have played in vain (in vano), they don’t care a straw and shuffle off home to the strains of the little final march, which they play for their own amusement.”

WN: Are you playing the quintet version of Till Eulenspiegel? Such a joyful piece. Do you recall the first time you ever heard it? Or played it?

JC: Yes! This is an amazing arrangement of one of the great orchestra pieces of all time! I first did it at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival probably about 15 years ago. It’s a virtuosic showpiece for the five players and has all the excitement of the orchestral version, but the intimacy of a chamber ensemble – everything we aim for with the TSOCS!

WN: What is your approach to Beethoven’s Septet?

JC: We tend to think of Beethoven as a very serious composer, but sometimes I think we miss some of the humour and lightness in his compositions. This piece is truly a serenade, and we like to think of it as something perhaps a little lighter than many of the Beethoven symphonies that we play so much. In a way I think it presents a different side of Beethoven – a side of a composer who wasn’t yet deaf and didn’t yet have any idea about the loss that would inflect so many of his later works.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Welcome back to another season of auditory excavation and resistance. For isn’t that what diving deep and creating new expressions using sound is all about? During the upcoming X Avant Festival produced by the Music Gallery – which takes resistance as its theme – this is definitely what will be occurring. Using this theme as a lens for this month’s column, I will be taking an overall survey of what you can expect both in the upcoming season and also during the month of September.

The Music Gallery

The big news at this hotbed place of sonic experimentation this fall is their change of venue. Due to renovations both at their usual home at St. George the Martyr church and in the neighbouring church lot, the Music Gallery’s programming will be happening at a variety of different venues for the foreseeable future. In my conversation with artistic director David Dacks about what sort of impact this change in venue will have, he noted that the Gallery’s Departure Series has already been creating programming in different venues for the last few years. The goal of this series is to make sure that the MG isn’t just identified with one place and to highlight their role as a presenter.

Man Forever aka Kid Millions - photo by Lisa CorsonFor the fall of 2017, the Gallery’s programming will be happening at 918 Bathurst, a not-for-profit arts and culture centre located in the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. Dacks mentioned that this location is actually closer to where many of the gallery’s patrons live, and this new location will provide opportunities for audience outreach in a more residential area of the city. And so it is fitting that the first show of the season on October 11 at 918 Bathurst will be a concert in the Departures Series with a performance by Man Forever aka Kid Millions touring a new album, Play What They Want. Joining the bill on that night will be Toronto-based percussionist, performer and composer Germaine Liu and her ensemble, along with Luyos MC/Reila. Expect an evening of indie rock, water-based music, electronic soundscapes, traditional chant and frequency art.

While changing location could pose a potential hazard for audience attendance, Dacks isn’t too worried. Last year was the MG’s biggest year to date where attendance was up by 40 percent, with seven sold-out concerts within the year. Each of those seven events was a partnership, thereby boosting audience numbers and reaching out to new communities. As I mentioned above, “Resistance” is the theme of this year’s X Avant Festival running from October 11 to 15. “It’s the thing to do right now, for obvious reasons, and more artists are exploring ideas that fit into this theme,” Dacks said.

One of the festival concerts will feature the music of composer James Tenney, who lived and taught in Toronto from 1976 to 2000 and had an important influence on many local composers during his time here. The program will include Pika-Don, which Tenney composed in 1991, a piece that features the voices of many local artists, including my own, which was a surprise to me when Dacks mentioned it. Rusty memory! Preceding the concert will be a panel discussion on questions such as what it means to be a socially conscious composer now as opposed to 20 to 30 years ago, and what audiences expect from socially conscious music in the concert hall.  The festival is also hosting another Deep Listening workshop led by Anne Bourne, taking place at the Tranzac Main Hall. In last year’s festival, Deep Listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros was a featured guest, and her sold-out concert was the last time she appeared in Toronto shortly before her passing in November.

Meitar EnsembleAnd of course the Music Gallery will continue its tradition of co-presenting with various partners. One such concert to note coming up on October 22 is the New Music Concerts’ season opener. It will be an opportunity to hear Tel Aviv’s Meitar Ensemble, whose membership comprises quite an array of virtuoso performers specializing in contemporary music.

Indie Opera

Tapestry Opera: Bandits in the ValleyToronto is becoming known as a major centre for contemporary indie opera. In the recent summer issue, I wrote about one such opera, Sweat, performed by the Bicycle Opera Project. I had an opportunity to experience the performance of this work of “resistance” this past summer and one of the highlights for me was the ensemble singing, which composer Juliet Palmer spoke about in our interview. The stage dynamics between the a cappella singers intermixed with their interlocking rhythms made for a stunning and compelling performance. The mere fact of giving such a prominent role to an ensemble of singers breaks operatic traditions while laying new ground for a different approach to this older art form.

Sweat was originally workshopped by Tapestry Opera, a major player in the current indie-opera scene, who are starting their season early this year with a performance of Bandits in the Valley. This opera is set in 1860s Toronto, and will be performed at Todmorden Mills, located, appropriately enough, in the Don River Valley. The story brings together a local bandit group with a troupe of travelling Gilbert and Sullivan singers who conspire to steal a mysterious object from a wealthy home situated in the valley. This story is reviving part of Toronto’s history by highlighting the fact that the valley was a haven for smugglers and bandits during the late 1800s. The work was composed by Benton Roark with libretto by Julie Tepperman, and features six performers moving throughout the various locations at the Todmorden site while singing and playing a variety of instruments. It will be an intimate setting with limited space, so audiences must reserve tickets. The good news is that the performances are free and run throughout the month of September.

Gallery 345 with Arraymusic

Quatuor BozziniGallery 345, located at 345 Sorauren Avenue, is another hotspot of performances spanning many genres. This month sees them partnering with Arraymusic on September 19 to present Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini performing Cassandra Miller’s Jules Léger Prize-winning piece About Bach. Miller began this work as a solo piece for viola specifically for violist Pemi Paull. She focused in on Paull’s musicality, first creating a transcription of his performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2. She then added her own harmonies to create something akin to a chorale, while setting up a process that takes the musical materials through a meandering journey. This version for string quartet is the result of many years of working with Quatuor Bozzini. The evening will also include a performance of Bryn Harrison’s new Piano Quintet by English piano virtuoso and experimental music champion Philip Thomas.

Toronto Symphony

Later in September, the TSO will be performing two newly commissioned works by Canadian composers. First of all, on September 22 and 23, their “Tribute to Glenn Gould” concert will include the world premiere of Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark, a work that the composer wrote based on the impact that Gould had on her creative life. The evening will begin with a performance of Wīhtikōw, composed by Yannick Plamondon, another in the series of "Sesquies" that have been occurring all year. A few days later, Alexina Louie’s Triple Concerto will have its world premiere. This piece was co-commissioned by the TSO, the Montreal Symphony and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and will feature the concertmasters of all three orchestras. The Sesquie for that evening is Hyacinth, by composer Rolf Boon. I will be writing more about Murphy and Louie in upcoming issues this season, so stay tuned to hear more about these pieces as well as what is currently, and coming up, on the composing plates of these two dynamic and innovative creators.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

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.

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