sweetwater 1SweetWater Music Festival launched its 18th season on May 28 with a special spring musical event, “Up Close & Personal with Edwin Huizinga and Philip Chiu.”

Violinist Edwin Huizinga, SweetWater artistic director, and pianist Philip Chiu played works by Brahms and American composer William Bolcom together as part of the online show. They were joined by CBC Radio personality Tom Allen, who introduced the event and moderated a virtual post-concert green room chat on Zoom with the two musicians.

Over the last decade, it’s become de rigueur for performers to talk about the music they’re about to play and this they did with charm, introducing themselves and the program to come.

Read more: Concert Report: At season launch, SweetWater Music Festival gives chamber music a personal...

Violinist Shane Kim (above) and AGO educator Lauren Spring (below) demonstrate the difference between key signatures for a young online audience.Lauren Spring, Art Gallery of Ontario educator, shares a painting on her Zoom screen. It is a tense scene. An old man, fuming, rises from his throne and points threateningly at a young woman draped in white fabric. She reaches towards several male figures to the left, but cannot resist craning her neck to face her accuser. The room is crowded and heavily shadowed, with light falling on a few furrowed brows. Some are staring at the old man, others at the young woman.

“What do you see going on here?” Spring asks the invisible audience of early elementary school students. “What grabs your attention, where does your eye go first?” The chat box explodes with observations. “There are lots of angry faces.” “There’s a royal character.” “A woman is being held captive.” “People are ashamed of the girl.”

Not bad: the subject is revealed to be a scene from King Lear, in which the aging ruler asks his three daughters how much they love him. While two are rewarded for showering their father with over-the-top praise, Cordelia, the most sincere, is disinherited for her modest response. Painted by the London-based Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, Lear Banishing Cordelia (1784-90) is, as Spring explains, “a good example of Romantic art, because it isn’t afraid of big emotions and big contrasts between light and dark.” Fuseli is famous for his melodramatic oil paintings, inspiring artists such as filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and, as we discover, co-presenter and violinist Shane Kim, from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Over the next 30 minutes, students will compare storytelling techniques across painting, drama and music, and produce their own artwork in response to a live violin performance.

Read more: Concert report: AGO Virtual School Programs bring together visual and performing arts – for all ages

Still from Art of Time Ensemble’s ‘A Singer Must Die’. Singer: Sarah Harmer.What would Leonard Cohen make of the moment we are in? I found myself asking that question while watching an all-star group of Canadian artists perform a selection of songs from his vast catalogue in A Singer Must Die, Art of Time Ensemble's virtual concert celebrating the life of the musical titan.

Over the course of his six-decade long literary and musical career, Cohen’s enigmatic works probed deep into isolation, loss and death – themes which many of us have become intimately familiar with. I guess the next best thing to hearing Cohen’s reflections on this period in history is seeing his old works being reimagined by an eclectic mix of Canadian singers and musicians breathing new life into his songs.

There is former Barenaked Ladies front man Steven Page crooning his way through “A Singer Must Die” with his mellow tenor voice. Then there is singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, who puts a classical twist on “Anthem,” a solemn hymn of optimism and redemption that has been belted on the frontlines of social justice movements around the world. “Ring the bells that still can ring,” she sings with a warm mellifluous vibrato that floats above the string accompaniment.

Still from Art of Time Ensemble’s ‘A Singer Must Die’. Singer: Sarah Slean.The power of Cohen’s lyrics is in their stinging precision that, paradoxically, makes them hauntingly universal at the same time. Sarah Harmer’s silvery jazz-imbued rendition of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” struck deep as she sang the lyric “dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in.”

No matter the genre or manner in which Cohen’s song are performed here – be it Tom Wilson’s brooding soft rock interpretation of “Who By Fire” on acoustic guitar or Gregory Hoskins’ folk rock take on “Treaty” – there are always new contours to be discovered in Cohen’s melodies, fresh messages to be mined in his lyrics, in a craftily diverse program that places Cohen’s biggest hits – “Hallelujah” and “Anthem” – alongside some of the lesser known works from his back catalogue, like “Treaty” and “Boogie Street.” It’s all packaged in a 70-minute recording, filmed in the intimate Harbourfront Centre Theatre in 2018 with a live audience.

The videography by Q Media Solutions, Steven Field and Mike Fiore is superb, with wide-angle shots of the stage paired with close-ups of each singer and instrumentalist. But the real winner in this recording is Earl McCluskie’s impeccable sound mixing, which crisply captures each singer’s voice and makes the six-piece backing band sound like a full jazz ensemble.

Otherwise, the setup is simple. The singers step up to a mic at the lip of the stage to perform each number, surrounded by the musicians. Interspersed between the musical numbers are short readings by four Canadian authors who reflect on Cohen’s legacy and his impact on their lives. Madeleine Thien describes the makeshift memorial that formed outside the Cohen’s former Montreal home after his death; Ian Brown comically tries to decipher his enigmatic lyrics; Steven Heighton recites “You Have the Lovers,” one of Cohen’s early poems that is a meditation on the sensuality of love and intimacy; and Marni Jackson talks about how his poetry and novels guided her through adolescence.

The most moving moment of the evening, however, came in the encore. Basking in Kevin Lamotte’s atmospheric lighting design, Page and Hoskins deliver a stirring rendition of “Hallelujah” – their voices melding into blissful harmony above Robert Carli’s soothing saxophone accompaniment.

Before the last chorus, the pair slowly step away from their microphones, their voices fading off into the distance. Page mouths the lyrics to the audience, indicating for them to join in. And in one collective breath, they do.

A Singer Must Die was originally presented by Art of Time Ensemble at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto from February 22 to 24, 2018, and was streamed online by Art of Time Ensemble from May 6 to 9, 2021. For full production credits and more information about the show, please visit their website at https://artoftimeensemble.com/a-singer-must-die-virtually-live.

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based freelance performing arts critic and journalist whose work has been featured in The Globe and Mail, The Dance Current and Intermission Magazine.

Pianist Nate Ben-Horin (L) and soprano Jaclyn Grossman.On Sunday, April 4, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presented a new series by Likht Ensemble involving five installments of rarely-performed music by Jewish artists, composed during the Holocaust. The Shoah Songbook online performances launched on the eve of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, with Part One: Terezín.

Theresienstadt was a concentration camp located in the city of Terezín, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In dire circumstances, imprisoned artists occupied their minds writing and performing music to keep joy and hope alive, long beyond the time they themselves were murdered.

Likht Ensemble’s 35-minute streamed concert included the music of multifaceted musician Gideon Klein, famed pre-war composer Viktor Ullmann, as well as the joyous tunes of cabaret artist Karel Švenk and the haunting lullabies of Ilse Weber, who all found themselves in Terezín over the course of the Second World War.

In the concert’s introduction, Jaclyn Grossman, soprano and co-creator of The Shoah Songbook, said she found a recording of Ilse Weber’s music and it opened the gates to a “goldmine of extraordinary music.” Grossman said she was “disappointed that as a classical artist and as a Jewish person,” she had never heard any of these composers before.

When Ilse Weber—a poet and musician—was forced into a concentration camp, she worked as a nurse in the children’s infirmary and sang songs to the children there. When children in her care were ordered to a death camp, Weber volunteered to go with them. Legend goes she sang her lullaby “Weigela” in the gas chamber to soothe the children in their final moments, taking comfort in soothing others. Grossman sang “Weigela” gracefully and woefully, conjuring images of pastoral breezes and bright moonlight—a performance suggesting that “Weigela” is overdue to take its rightful place in the lullaby canon alongside the best-loved classics.

After the war, what remained of Weber’s music were fragments of melodies she would have accompanied herself on the guitar. Many had never been arranged for the piano by a Jewish composer until these thoughtful arrangements by pianist and co-creator Nate Ben-Horin, such as “Und der Regen rinnt” (And the rain falls)—an arrangement replete with tinkling notes in the upper register of the piano, like drops of rain hitting a tin roof. 

During the presentation, Ben-Horin recalled that the first thing he and Grossman had ever performed together was a set of songs by Wagner—an infamous anti-Semite. “There’s actually a long-standing tradition of anti-Semitism in classical music, not just Wagner,” Ben-Horin explained in the stream. “It’s really powerful to find music by Jewish composers because it gives us a point of identification within this tradition that we felt like we’d been missing.”

Grossman had command over a powerful range of expressive emotion throughout the concert. She sang Weber’s “Ade kamerad” with particular awe-inspiring exuberance and masterful rolled r’s, capturing the power of this music to bring light to the darkest places. She also recited gut-wrenching verses of Weber’s original poetry. As for the recording itself, video quality was crystalline and professional but the piano sounded distant, making Ben-Horin’s beautiful arrangements sound too quiet at times.

The jubilant music of Švenk, who continued to produce cabarets in the ghetto, ended the concert on a powerful and victorious note for those that survived to pass on his message: “And on the ruins of the ghetto shall we laugh!”

The next concert will be in November 2021, in time for the sombre anniversary of Kristallnacht. Grossman says the repertoire will focus on music from the Kovno ghetto, specifically the music of Edwin Geist, a German composer and librettist banned from creating music in Nazi Germany. Geist created music including symphonic works, chamber music and opera before he was killed in the ghetto in 1942. After World War II, much of his music was lost in Germany but some survived in Lithuania.

“To our knowledge, his music has never been recorded and it has rarely—if ever—been performed,” Grossman wrote in an email to The WholeNote. “Bret Werb from the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum shared his archived manuscript music with us, and [Ben-Horin] and I are working to decipher the music and re-notate it now.”

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presented The Shoah Songbook Part One: Terezín online on April 4, 2021, featuring soprano/co-creator Jacyln Grossman, pianist/co-creator Nate Ben-Horin, creative directors Ilan Waldman and Madison Matthews, and audio engineer Jonathan Colalillo.

Leah Borts-Kuperman is a Toronto-based journalist whose arts reporting has also been featured in The Dance Current, Opera Canada and The Hoser. She has a Master's of Journalism from Ryerson University and a Bachelor's in Political Science and Art History from the University of Toronto. 

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