Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Credit: Dale Robinette.

A bittersweet love story, a song-and-dance musical and an aspirational fable of dreamers pursuing their ambitions, Damien Chazelle’s ebullient La La Land jumps off the screen from its breathtaking first scene and never lets up. Embracing an aesthetic that unites the Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort with the lush Technicolor Gene Kelly films of the 1950s, Chazelle and his musical soulmate Justin Hurwitz (they met at Harvard as teenagers) plunge us into an alternate universe that is part retro and part contemporary, where the fantasy is grounded by the reality of the showbiz life.

Mia (Emma Stone) is pursuing an acting career; Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, rooted in his love of classic mid-20th-century music, “pure jazz.” They meet briefly in that first scene, a surreal six-minute song-and-dance number on an LA freeway during a traffic jam. Over the next two hours their relationship with their art and each other develops with the help of a half dozen tunes, two of which, Audition and City of Stars, are particularly memorable. In fact, six weeks after I first saw the film at TIFF, I still remembered the understated, sinuously melancholic melody of City of Stars.

Emma Stone. Credit: Dale Robinette.Last summer Hurwitz spoke to Variety about his process and how some of the best songs in the movie happened the most effortlessly: “City of Stars started at the piano with me just working on demos for Damien, sending him ideas until something really sparked…We went through a lot of ideas, but I can’t really think of any music I was listening to at the time that I was thinking of when I was writing it. I was just composing it from an emotional place and thinking about the tone. I would say the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time. And it kind of goes back and forth between cadencing in major and cadencing in minor, because I think that’s kind of what the song is about. You have these great moments and then you have these less great moments in life and in Los Angeles and we see it happen in the story. I was thinking about that idea a little bit and just trying to compose a melody that I thought was shapely and beautiful.”

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Credit: Dale Robinette.Just as La La Land is Chazelle and Hurwitz’s third feature together (after their brilliant debut, the black and white Nouvelle Vague-inspired musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and their breakthrough hit Whiplash), it’s also Gosling’s and Stone’s third collaboration (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), unusual these days. While they’re not exactly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their naturalism and star power more than make up for it. If you’re keeping score, Gosling’s a little surer of foot than Stone but her singing skills surpass his. The fact that both Audition (Stone’s career-making plaintive showstopper: “Here’s to the ones who dream, Foolish as they may seem”) and City of Stars were recorded live as they were filmed is telling, if not extraordinary.

Ultimately, it’s Chazelle’s and Hurwitz’s vision that makes it all work. Mia and Seb even have their own theme; it begins inauspiciously and simply on the piano, grows and recurs as the narrative demands, and changes like the four seasons in which the film is set. You may even be humming it as you leave the theatre walking on a cloud.

La La Land is currently playing at a number of Cineplex Cinemas.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The Exultate Chamber Singers at their holiday concert.Carols are unique to the holiday season. At this time of year, they’re on the radio, humming in the back of our heads, in the malls as we shop, and often on the street being sung or played by musicians across the city. These ubiquitous songs cover every emotion possible: sad, happy, joyful, peaceful, funny, odd, and so much more. And it’s a challenging thing to program carols; people want to sing, people want to participate. Many choirs do just that and invite you to sing along!

In the smattering of concerts I’ve attended and performed in the last few days, communal singing has featured quite heavily. And why not! It’s fun, joyous—and how often can you find a venue with 1000 people singing?

On Wednesday, December 7, I sang in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s performance of Festival of Carols under the baton of Noel Edison. Audience participation always features quite heavily in these productions and it’s good fun. Already a large choir of 130, the choristers were joined by the Salvation Army staff band and organist David Briggs. For anyone who has been to Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, it has one of the largest organs in the city, with a huge sound. Participating in these carols is fun and pleasing—especially if you’re lucky and can hear yourself over all the instruments.

This year’s communal offerings featured Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and The First Nowell. Perennial favorite, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, also made an appearance. This is one of my favourite carols, and the version most people know was written by the choir’s namesake himself, Felix Mendelssohn. This is the place to go if you want earth-shaking bass from the organ vibrating through your soul. Unfortunately, though, these concerts end up being a bit of a screamfest, trying to articulate and be heard over insurmountable noise from the organ and brass band. Sadly, choirs will always lose against a brass band.

On December 9, I caught Exultate Chamber Singers under Hilary Apfelstadt, which presented A Time for Celebration: A Canadian Christmas. Hilary programmed Stephen Chatman’s Christmas Joy, a medley of several traditional carols of British origin. With over 15 years of choral singing under my belt (half of my lifetime), I’m not often surprised by a new carol. In the medley, however, Noel Nouvelet and Lo! How a Rose, e’er Blooming were new to me. Accompanied by a brass quintet and organ, this was not a screamfest; it was so pleasant. The choir also presented a rare sing-along version of Timothy Corlis’ O Magnum Mysterium, and finished the concert with a new arrangement of Silent Night by chorister and composer J. Scott Brubacher—a beautiful treat, with a haunting bridge set to a rolling melody throughout the choir on the word “sleep”.

Apfelstadt has done an exemplary job featuring Canadian choral writers both old and new in her programming. Exultate is one of those choirs in which the artistic strength of the organization is met with equal talent amongst the musicians. The blend is formidable, and most of all, there is restraint. These choristers are always effective at singing with a wide dynamic range without losing intensity and intentionality, and—with the exception of one stray tenor from time to time—are balanced at every volume.

Exultate performs in a small church on the University of Toronto campus that I did not know existed: St. Thomas Anglican Church. This gem of a building features minimal soft fabrics, no carpet, and lots of wood. The vaulted ceiling carries the sound upwards where it rings. The resulting effect was a warm, present, resonant sound, where even with an organ and small brass quintet nothing was overpowering. Such a difference from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with the 30-person brass band and giant organ deafening everyone. A community affair, Exultate’s boisterous intermission of food and camaraderie and post-concert drinks at the Duke of York—the traditional post-show pub for anything at the U of T Faculty of Music—were a delight.

Moving on to Kitchener, on December 11 the Grand Philharmonic Choir provided another new addition to my ear at their Christmas Homecoming concert: the carol See Amid the Winter Snow. The adult choir was joined by the other three choirs in the organization: Viva (ages 7-9), Voce (ages 10-14); and the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir (ages 14-23)—all together, over 200 choristers. The youngest choir’s performance of Chatter of the Angels was incredibly charming.

The feature was Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child, a collection of poems set to music and selected to commemorate the death of a young man of 19. Here, the choir was accompanied by the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, soprano Jacqueline Woodley, and tenor Andrew Haji.

The children’s choirs provided a jovial, playful sound through some of the poems, highlighted by melodies in the bassoon and clarinet, while the adult choir provided the meat of the choral work. Unfortunately, even with a book of lyrics in hand, the choir was mostly inaudible throughout the entire performance. The choir was set back about ten metres from the edge of the enormous stage; no voices could’ve cut through that much distance over an orchestra, not even 200 of them. I also felt that the placement of percussion adjacent to the audience was inappropriate: the bass drum was overwhelming, the cymbals startling, and even the triangle felt intrusive throughout this performance.

After the concert there was a lovely spread of baked goods, coffee, juices, and tea. Baking, good music, and happy people are a good mix. There was so much to eat, I imagine that there are some avid bakers among the 200+ performers. The strength of this family of choirs continues to provide a model for effective arts administration and synergy.

All of these concerts demonstrate that carols—perennial though they may be—can be refreshing, fun, and joyous. Effective conductors will program music that invigorates and excites both their audiences and their choristers. This is certainly no easy task, to take some of the most overperformed music ever written and make it seem new and exciting, but a good artistic director sees merit in carols, old and new. After all, we only get to sing them once a year.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The Grand Philharmonic Choir in concert on Sunday, December 11. Credit: Catherine Unrau Woelk.Kitchener, ON – The biennial Leslie Bell Prize was awarded to Mark Vuorinen, artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir, at the choir’s Christmas Homecoming concert on Sunday December 11, 2016. Granted by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), the award is a $10,000 prize that recognizes exemplary emerging choral conductors.

Vuorinen has long been part of the arts in Kitchener-Waterloo. As the artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir and assistant professor at Conrad Grebel University (the home of the music program at the University of Waterloo), Vuorinen contributes to a robust arts environment in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Before completing his master’s degree from Yale in conducting and a doctorate in music from the University of Toronto, Vuorinen also studied at Wilfrid Laurier University as an undergrad.

“I think that Kitchener-Waterloo punches above its weight as far as arts and culture is concerned,” says Vuorinen. “It allows for a large organization like [the Grand Philharmonic Choir] to perform not only the staples of the literature, like Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, but also to take risks with beautiful new works.” The choir continues to provide high-calibre premieres of stellar choral works, including the Canadian premiere of Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child on this concert, and a premiere last month of James Whitbourn’s Annelies.

The concert saw over 200 choristers perform, accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. These two arts organizations continue to have a synergistic relationship. Vuorinen highlights Britten’s War Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the upcoming Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, all three of which are combined performances of the choir and orchestra.

Jessica Deljouravesh from the OAC presented the award at the concert, where the OAC jury described Vuorinen as “an impressive musical communicator…a strong leader…[who] has enhanced the presence of choral repertoire in Kitchener-Waterloo, both inside and outside of the concert hall.” Luisa D’Amato, executive director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir and family of choirs, seconded this sentiment while introducing Vuorinen, citing a “sensitive musicality, enormous work ethic, relentless insistence on high standards, and the deep humanity [that]  informs everything he does.”

In his acceptance of the award, Vuorinen said that “conducting is by no means a solitary effort. While there is a lot of time spent alone in preparation and learning, the act of making music is a shared one.” His speech came after the newest and youngest voices in the Grand Philharmonic Choir family, Viva and Voce, finished their performance. With a robust community of singers and talented leaders, Vuorinen’s place at the helm of these organizations exemplifies his commitment to sharing music.

The Grand Philharmonic's concert "Christmas Homecoming," where Mark Vuorinen was presented with the Leslie Bell Prize, took place on Sunday, December 11. For more information about the choir, visit www.grandphilchoir.com.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Electric Messiah BannerElectric Messiah's soloists (L-R: Jeremy Dutcher, Christine Duncan, Carla Huhtanen, Gabriel Dharmoo). Photo credit: Claire Harvie.I enter the Drake Underground with some friends. We’re here for Electric Messiah, and none of us have any idea what is in store for us. The room is lit red, chairs askew with a few centered in the room. The instrumentalists are around the perimeter of the space facing inwards. The buzz isn’t just from the Cab-Merlot I’m sipping: there’s a hum from a track playing on the speakers and an energy in the room. All the performers are wandering around the space talking to people. There are about 50 people altogether, the space full but not cramped.

The performance begins with the turning on of a lightbulb. Nature sounds, live scratching, a funk organ and guitar come together to start off the adventure. Jeremy Dutcher begins with Comfort Ye. It is loud and aggressive, and is literally in your face. The abrasiveness of the performance and the power of his voice demands attention. Shortly, the rest of the vocalists join in one by one, in various languages. Gabriel Dharmoo, a Quebecer, stands out; his raga-inspired, French-improv chant is evocative.

You’ll have to forgive me, I don’t usually pay attention to the words that soloists sing in Handel’s Messiah. I have an inkling of what the emotion is and some of the words pop through, but in Roy Thomson Hall, the choir cannot hear very much from soloists facing the audience. This performance gave me a chance to experience the solos in a way I am not normally able to.

Jeremy Dutcher’s sensual rendition of Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted made me recognize the innuendo of the lyrics. The sexual connotations of making the rough places plain and “exalting” ev’ry valley are indelible in my mind. Much later, Christine Duncan and Gabriel Dharmoo began the songs Why do the nations so furiously rage together and Thou shalt break them. Conventional performance of these two often removes their urgency, their invocation of war and their evocation of terror. Duncan and Dharmoo started the songs but ended up yelling violently at each other. The invocation and evocation were chillingly clear.

Insistency frames this work, gives it its engine, and drives its power. The artistic choices are strong and effective; the work felt urgent and flowing. Pieces felt like a cup under a running faucet, waiting for a moment to overflow before reaching equilibrium. I think of Carla Huhtanen’s interpretation of How Beautiful Are the Feet. Normally performed in G minor, the piece was moved down into a solid mezzo register (C minor?). Half the song was performed at this lower range, which intrigued me, leading me to want more and more. Finally, Huhtanen returned to the written key and finished beautifully.

Electric Messiah. Photo by the author.Effective performances, for me, leave me with a sense of yearning. I believe that a good performance should never give you everything you want. This Messiah left me wanting to explore and know more. The minimalist instrumental accompaniment – organ, guitar and turntables – never felt lacking; the organ inhabited a much-valued presence in the music and paired well with the similarly funk-inspired guitar. The scratching and spinning added a new depth and presence, and contributed to the insistency and urgency of the performance.

Movement artist Lybido provided a dance interpretation of Jesus Christ that was particularly thought-provoking because it could have almost passed unnoticed. Inscrutable and esoteric, moving around the fringes of the room, one had to look for him, to work at seeing him. Point being, in our day and age we wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he were right in front of us. There is a great metaphor in making the actual Messiah peripheral, dancing around the room. In this case, we can only make the connection if we choose to. Recognizing the Messiah isn’t the dancer’s responsibility; it’s ours.

Hearing a work that I know so well, performed in a different way – in snippets, in pieces, with modifications, with edits – kept me engaged and excited. If you are fan of Handel’s Messiah, I recommend that you catch Electric Messiah. Pay attention to the way it makes you feel, and then see your typical Messiah, and pay attention to how that makes you feel. I believe you’ll find yourself enlightened by both, and possibly renewed. There is much to love about Messiah; let it continue.

Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, based on Handel’s Messiah, is at the Drake Hotel Underground December 5 to 7. For details on the performers and the show, visit https://www.soundstreams.ca/performances/ear-candy/electric-messiah/.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The Lord of the Rings at Roy Thomson Hall.The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in Canada on December 19, 2001. That year I started high school and it was the first time I took a music class in a real music program. That Christmas, one of my friends gave me the soundtrack for the movie. I fell in love with it and have loved it ever since. For me, my entire musical history has been inspired and shaped by this soundtrack. With “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert” at Roy Thomson Hall, December 1 to 3 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I’ve been able to perform the film’s music onstage as a chorister. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life as a musician.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s scores arrived early in the season and we rehearsed the choral portions from early October. As prepared as we can try to be with entries at this stage, once we join the maestro and the orchestra during the week of the show, the whole game changes. This is when the real work begins.

This Monday through Wednesday were our rehearsals at Roy Thomson Hall. The instrumentalists and choir rehearsed separately until we combined on Wednesday evening. Our dress rehearsal, Thursday afternoon, was the first time the entire production was put together. The Thursday performance was only the second time we’ve ever completed the full production. At time of writing, two more performances are ahead.

This is not easy music. Entries are sudden and challenging. Often, the choir comes in after a long pause or break with no reference for the starting note or chord, and the texture gets thick in the writing, with cluster chords of three or four notes per section. And as choristers, we are working diligently, even if we’re sitting and waiting – paying attention to cues for standing up to sing. The Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus is also part of this production, and they spend a good chunk of the movie just waiting. Those talented kids are patient.

For productions like this one, the chorister sheet music doesn’t have a full score of what is going on among the instruments or on the film. Our scores contain the vocal parts and an orchestral reduction, and we rely mostly on aural cues – this trombone part, or that sound, or this entry from the violins – to know when specific things are meant to happen, like when to stand. Making a road map of sounds and cues is an important part of being a good chorister. (One of my cues is Frodo gasping!)

There are big pieces in the soundtrack that require stamina, concentration, listening and excellent technique. The male voices have the hardest and longest section of choral singing in the entire score – Khazad-dûm. Onscreen, there are Orcs, Balrogs, crumbling staircases, pulling of beards, Gandalf falling, all sorts of things. Chances are likely you’ll hear the taiko drums, the bass drum, brass chords, and most of all – the anvil. Used together, these instruments give an effect of military precision, danger, heartbeats, unsettling fear and heroism, sometimes all at the same time. Cutting through all this noise are the voices of the men. “Articulation is the way through the orchestra,” says Ludwig Wicki, the conductor. So we articulate our Orcish “Hu” and “Lu”.

Ludwig Wicki.

Wicki, from Lucerne, Switzerland, is a wonderful maestro. His ear for the music and for specificity is unlike any other I have ever worked with. He is precise and consistent and incredibly good at getting what he needs. Where most would hear a massive dissonant cluster chord, he hears an A-flat that is under pitch. Where most would hear a beautiful horn line, he hears a missing D. He’s quite amazing. 

I appreciate a conductor who values film music. Wicki demands accurate pitch, correct vowel placement, dynamic range and expressivity – everything you’d expect from a choral masterwork and more. Because the languages Tolkien invented in The Lord of the Rings – Quenya, Dark Language, Dwarvish, and more – are unknown to us, choristers are not quite sure how to sing them. Wicki tidies this up as he rehearses, changing sounds to match what is needed. He is demanding because this is not music that one coasts through; this is challenging work that keeps even experienced choristers on their toes.

Wicki specializes in contemporary film scores, especially live film concerts. He was the first to conduct The Lord of the Rings trilogy in this format. Wicki also understands what composer Howard Shore has created. “He has created a special language. Two composers have done this, [Ennio] Morricone and [Howard] Shore,” says Wicki. There's also a Canadian connection; Howard Shore is Canadian.

With three sold-out performances, there are several thousand people who will have been able to say they experienced the Lord of the Rings film concert experience. For any live film concert series you see, buy tickets early; they often sell out. Stay tuned to www.thewholenote.com and we’ll keep you apprised.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert” is in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall from December 1 to 3, in three sold-out performances featuring the TSO and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. For more information on this and other film music shows in Toronto this season, check out Brian Chang’s November choral column for the magazine.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, in Manchester by the Sea. Credit: Claire Folger, courtesy Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

One of the year’s best films, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea follows Lee (Casey Affleck) as he copes with his late brother’s request that he serve as his 16-year-old nephew Patrick’s guardian. Lonergan jumps back and forth in time to paint a fully formed picture of this emotionally scarred handyman/janitor, who has been living in Quincy, a working-class neighbourhood of Boston, since he moved down the road from the fishing village of Manchester after a personal tragedy.

The utter naturalism of the characters as they interact is characteristic Lonergan – real characters, real situations, real interactions – but now we’re in the orbit of a mature filmmaker at ease with a world where tragedy doesn’t preclude humour (and with the technical skills to convey it). Lucas Hedges as Patrick is one fount of situational comedy; the extraordinary Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, is another.

Mirroring the action (and the evocative cinematography – especially of Manchester’s rows of small hillside houses lit up in the flickering night) is an original score by Toronto-born Lesley Barber (who worked with Lonergan on You Can Count on Me). Uncannily, her score can suggest an element of uncertainty or trepidation at the same time as it expresses calm or warmth; as Affleck’s emotions are reined in, unleashed or in a holding pattern, as the case may be. It’s an award-worthy performance.

Barber, who began writing the music at the script stage, was inspired in part by 17th-century New England Puritan hymns and threnodies. One element she uses is a haunting, ethereal, soprano a cappella tune (sung by Barber’s daughter Jacoba, a third-year music student at McGill who sings in Opera McGill). Another is a minimalist piece for piano and strings with repetitive broken chords reminiscent of Philip Glass, suddenly interrupted by painful sonic dagger thrusts that reflect what Lee is going through in the film.

Lonergan likes to use music as counterpoint. “It always feels right to have the music help you step back a little and look at the whole environment, not just the characters’ experience,” he told Variety. In that vein, Lonergan supplemented Barber’s score with excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and Oboe Sonata and a resonant cover of I’m Beginning to See the Light by the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald.

Members of The National Theatre in London Road.

Rufus Norris’ London Road is a film adaptation of The National Theatre’s groundbreaking musical by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork about the “Suffolk Strangler” murders in Ipswich in 2006. London Road uses the townspeople’s own words describing the events they lived through as the basis for the show’s lyrics, creating a fresh and arresting re-imagining of the form. The emotionally empathetic Tom Hardy is one of the townspeople. Watching London Road was an exhilarating experience to the point of walking out of the theatre humming the catchy tunes. This mesmerizing musical hybrid, as satisfying as it was innovative, is at its core a hymn to humanity.

Manchester by the Sea is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP. London Road can be seen at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas & VIP.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Photo credit: Miklos Legrady.New music isn’t exactly known for its accessibility. It gets a bad rap—sometimes unfairly—for being esoteric and exclusive. Circus, on the other hand, is the opposite—often stereotyped as empty, mindless spectacle.

Balancing on the Edge, a local music-and-circus collaboration at the Harbourfront Centre last weekend, showed audiences just how wrong both of those assumptions can be.

A co-production from Thin Edge New Music Collective and A Girl in the Sky Productions, Balancing on the Edge (November 18-19) combined six contemporary compositions with six contemporary circus acts. At the closing night show on November 19, the artistic directors of both companies introduced the production by bringing up their own definitions of new music, and the analogous “new circus.” Thin Edge directors Cheryl Duvall and Ilana Waniuk spoke about their focus on performing music that reflected all aspects of modern life. Rebecca Devi Leonard identified her circus company as part of a “post-Cirque-de-Soleil” tradition, and spoke about reinventing the spectacle of circus to find something imaginative and honest. The result: a performance where emotive storytelling is put front and centre—and an example of contemporary multimedia at its very best.

Photo credit: Miklos Legrady.

Each half of the two-part program comprised three main acts, as well as a transitional clowning interlude. The show featured the circus performers on aerial silks, ladder and other suspended apparatus, as well as juggling, clowning, and dancing with flaming torches. Thin Edge musicians supplied the musical component, performing works by Nicole Lizée, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and David Lang, as well as premieres by composers Scott Rubin and Nick Storring.

Music and circus alike proved technically impressive and emotionally potent. The show opened with Magma, a double choreography with fire, stones and aerial ropework set to Nicole Lizée’s Phonographenlieder for string quartet, piano, percussion, voice and turntables. Here, circus artists Diana Lopez and Rebecca Carney performed with seamless fluidity, while DJ Paulo Kapunan and vocalist Andrea Ludwig in particular brought Lizée’s pop-like, polystylistic music to life. Other standout acts included Excavating Meaning, where aerialist Brandy Leary and composer Nick Storring took the bossa nova ballad as a starting point for a profound meditation on sadness, stillness and grief; and Ghost Bicycle, an aerial choreography on a suspended bicycle frame that followed the death and afterlife ascension of a young cyclist, set to David Lang’s 1993 piece Cheating, Lying, Stealing. Throughout, the musicians of Thin Edge were a tight ensemble, playing with conviction and settling into their new role as circus accompanists with ease.

The only moment in the night that I found wanting was Ascension, a trio act for soprano and two circus performers on a ladder apparatus, using John Cage’s Aria & Fontana Mix (1958/59). For me, Cage's repetitive glissandi in the soprano line and the act's back-and-forth ladder work lacked some of the immediate clarity of emotion and narrative that seemed so evident in the other pieces, as well as some of the internal structure necessary to generate non-programmatic interest. Having said that, soprano Stacie Dunlop’s use of extended techniques (including a visceral, amplified vocal fry-like growling effect) meshed well with the backing electronics, and the circus artists’ ladder work evoked a playful spirit of spontaneity—but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that some structural or narrative element was missing. Neither wholly abstract nor explicitly descriptive, the act seemed at first viewing to lose its bearings in a vague, unfruitful middle ground.

Taken as a whole, Balancing on the Edge deserves the highest of praise. Skillfully combining new music with new circus, the two companies together found a combined means of expression that worked. They demonstrated a profound depth of emotion, and captured a musical-dramatic clarity that should serve as a high-water mark for what multimedial storytelling can do.

The performers and crews of both companies shone Saturday night, in a production that showed the modern spirit at its best. If their goal was to redefine what contemporary music, or contemporary circus, could be, they succeeded. If it was to tell modern stories in a visceral and relevant way, I was left in awe.

TENMC and AGITS Productions’ Balancing on the Edge was presented November 18-19 at The Harbourfront Centre. For details on the show, visit www.balancingontheedge.com. Photo credits: Miklos Legrady.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at editorial@thewholenote.com.

 

Updated: November 23, 11:15am.

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In November’s Choralscene I previewed the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers' performance of James Whitbourn’s Annelies, a setting of the Diary of Anne Frank. I stopped by Waterloo to catch the performance. Under the artistic direction of Mark Vuorinen, each time I’ve seen the choir in action I find them warm, balanced and talented. Soprano Natasha Campbell provided a strong and proficient solo voice for the evening.

There is nothing musically wrong with the GPCS performance of Annelies. I enjoyed their interpretation and performance. However, I find the work lacklustre and confusing. I understand using text and stories to inform choral writing. I understand that there are deliberate choices that help shape and define what a composer chooses for instrumentation and compositional tools. I just can’t actually figure out or explain the choices that James Whitbourn has made. Repetition is a core theme, both in the text and in instrumental motifs, and Vuorinen is insightful and manages to make these different and fresh every time with the ensemble. This is not an easy feat and the choir provided a superior interpretation of what the work intends to convey.

But the story falls flat because Whitbourn either forgot or chose to ignore one key thing – that Anne Frank was a child. The Diary of Anne Frank is a collection of deeply personal and remarkable thoughts from a child enduring inhumane conditions. This is my discomfort with the piece: it is devoid of references to childhood and child performers. The only overt attempt at bringing this in with the “Military marching dance” section in the middle of Number 5 Life in Hiding just came across as odd. I believe Whitbourn managed to compose this entire work about and for Anne Frank and forgot her childhood in the process.

This disconnect continues in a few other parts of note. For one, the use of a Kyrie Sinfonia was odd because Anne Frank was Jewish, not Christian. And towards the end as the diary entries end and the choir takes on a narrative tone, it is done in plainchant – again, invoking a distinctly Christian compositional tool. In the middle of the work, Whitbourn chose to set two German traditional songs. This section was the messiest by the choir and it is unfortunate because their German diction was on point.

In works like this, a strong director is a key point of reference. My conversation with Vuorinen last month showed an understanding of the work, despite its flaws. Vuorinen’s addition of Srul Irving Glick’s Radiant is the World Soul (part of the larger Triumph of the Spirit collection) to the program showed thoughtfulness, and this fit into the overall presentation of the evening very neatly. It provided a superior addition to the lacklustre finish of Annelies.

Throughout this performance, I kept thinking about the profound impact of war and conflict on the lives of children. I think of our contemporary conflicts, of which there are plenty: the hate-filled warful Daesh, the Syrian civil war, the state-sponsored eradication of the Rohingya, the US-Mexican border drug wars, and too many others to name. There is an Anne Frank somewhere in those conflicts, hiding, terrified, and awaiting death. This is my takeaway message from this performance – stories like this should never have to be told. Sadly, this isn’t the world we live in. We have far too many stories like these to tell. And there is no end in sight.

James Whitbourn's Annelies was performed at Maureen Forrester Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University on November 19, by the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers under Mark Vuorinen.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Photo by Dahlia KatzI’ve been looking forward to seeing Tapestry Opera’s opening 2016/17 production, Naomi’s Road, ever since I heard about it months ago. Running November 16 to 20 at St. David’s Anglican Church by Donlands station, the opera comes to Toronto from Vancouver Opera, and is an Ontario premiere.

Written in 2005 and based on an autobiographical children’s novel of the same name by Canadian author Joy Kogawa, Naomi’s Road presents an hour-long look at the trauma of the Japanese Canadian internment during the second World War, through the eyes of a young girl who is sent away with her aunt and brother to a camp in the BC interior. It’s a story that’s close to my own family history—and as Tapestry director Michael Mori mentioned on opening night, one that, with its themes of cultural conflict and fear politics, feels as relevant now as ever.

On opening night, that relevance was urgently heard and felt onstage. Much of the opera stayed true to the original material of Kogawa’s novel; though streamlined for the stage, the show nonetheless captured the essence of Kogawa’s story, and the polarities of hope and despair felt by the Japanese Canadian community during the war. Though technically a children’s opera, Ann Hodges’ libretto is equally engaging for an adult audience—given that the story is told from the point of view of a child protagonist, the simple language and storyline make powerful narrative sense.

Ramona Luengen’s score proved a powerful complement to the story. Ranging from narratively poignant dissonances to more structured songs bordering on the pop-music sound of musical theatre, the music felt like a natural addition to the narrative. Diegetic music in the show—children’s songs, folk tunes sung in Japanese, and even a cameo by the Canadian national anthem—provided memorable musical anchors for an audience of first-time listeners. Lyric soprano Hiather Karnel-Kadonaga shone in the title role, singing with impeccable clarity, and tenor Sam Chung, in the role of Naomi’s brother Stephen, matched her well, with a powerful emotive range. Baritone Sung Taek Chung and mezzo Erica Iris, both singing multiple roles, are to be applauded for their quick vocal and dramatic switches of character. The sets, taken from the original Vancouver production, added clever visual interest.

I wrote in the October issue of The WholeNote that I hoped this production would bring together a new type of community, during a time when community-building—especially across cultures—has felt especially urgent. The production, thus far, has succeeded. The church venue, which is home to St. Andrew’s, Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Anglican congregation, surprised opening night audiences with its beautiful acoustic—and the opera stage, built with the support of Tapestry’s production sponsor The Frank H. Hori Charitable Foundation, will remain at the venue for the church’s use, so that it can continue to build up its performing arts programming. The crowd—members of the congregation, and friends and colleagues of Kogawa’s who were first-time Tapestry audience members side-by-side with opera fans who had never before heard Japanese Canadian stories told live—was itself an encouraging sight.

In her book reading at the post-show reception on opening night, Joy Kogawa spoke about how this production grew out of her own involvement with her church community in Toronto. Kogawa already runs a monthly series at the church called We Should Know Each Other, about bringing together Japanese Canadian figures from across a still-dispersed community. “There were about 1100 Anglican Japanese Canadians in Vancouver,” Kogawa said. “They ordered us to disappear, and we did...and this church is the tail end of that story. It’s a miracle that this community exists at all. I asked them, who would you like to see? And they said, ‘we’d like to see other Japanese Canadians.’ I thought that if this opera comes, then [Japanese Canadians] will come too. So that’s why it’s here.”

Get to know this story, and the people behind it. It’s a socially and politically urgent production, with music that does it justice—and with a sense of community-building that embodies the hope Kogawa has tried to bring into the world.

Tapestry Opera’s production of Naomi’s Road opened on November 16 (with preview performances at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Momiji Health Care Society), and runs until Sunday, November 20. For details on the show, visit our listings or www.tapestryopera.com.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at editorial@thewholenote.com.

BPO BannerSir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler’s Symphony No.7 at Roy Thomson Hall, November 15. CREDIT Jag Gundu for the Roy Thomson Hall Archive.The renowned Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO) stopped by Roy Thomson Hall November 15 and 16 for two concerts as part of a seven-city North American tour under Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle is leaving his post in September 2017 after 15 years as principal conductor and this tour is his last in that capacity. We in Toronto are indeed fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience his wondrous instrument comprised of more than 130 players. Their unsurpassed individual skills notwithstanding, it is their collective whole and how it is shepherded by Rattle, how he kneads it, shapes it and inspires it that we hear and see. It’s a question of unerring balance, where the brass doesn’t outshine the strings; and of transparency, where individual players make a strong contribution to the overall sound.

The two programs were brilliantly conceived; in fact, they could be read as one, centred around the music of Vienna in the first decade of the 20th century. Tuesday’s concert was devoted to Mahler’s 80-minute Symphony No.7 (1904/1905) with a brief but crucial opening work, Éclat for 15 instruments (1964-65) by Boulez. Wednesday’s consisted of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op.16 (1909); Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6b (1909 -- reduced version 1928); Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6 (1913-15 -- revised version 1929); and Brahms’ Symphony No.2 (1877).

Rattle addressed the audience (RTH was at capacity including a fully occupied choir loft) before Wednesday’s concert providing some perspective while telling us that the 14 movements of the three works we were about to hear before intermission would be played without a break and requesting no applause. He asked us to imagine those three young composers in Vienna having heard, as many of us had done just the night before, the vast Mahler symphony, that harbinger of modernity. “What are we supposed to do after that?” he supposed they might be thinking. “The first half of tonight’s program is the answer -- a 14-movement suite or Mahler’s 11th symphony.”

The link between Mahler and the Second Viennese School trio is clear. As for Brahms, Schoenberg regarded him highly and analyzed his music when he taught composition, calling him “the progressive” who paved the way for the future of music.

There was an ever-present chronological push/pull in the Toronto concerts beginning with Boulez’s Éclat, Tuesday’s opening work, a clear outgrowth of the 14-movement suite that opened Wednesday’s. Boulez said that Éclat meant “splinter” or “fragment” and the piece begins with an “explosion” on the piano forcefully played by Majella Stockhausen, daughter of Karlheinz Stockhausen (who wrote his Klavierstück XII and Klavierstück XIII for her). The ten-minute piece is a showcase for live sound: sounds emerge and dissipate into silence then rebuild into a tonal roar mainly using keyboards, harp and percussion before winds, brass and strings reach a climactic tutti that diffuses at the finish. It’s a focus on tone colour, timbre and dynamics that reflects back on the Second Viennese School. That’s what made Rattle’s choice of it to precede Mahler’s Symphony No.7 so apt.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler’s Symphony No.7 at Roy Thomson Hall, November 15. CREDIT Jag Gundu for the Roy Thomson Hall Archive.The Mahler under Rattle (he conducted without a score) became a showcase for the marvellous musicianship of his orchestra. From the depth of trumpet pianissimos to the way the flutes floated above the strings in the opening movement; from the French horn duo and pointed English horn dialogue in the second, the way the “Night Music’s” mysteries were unveiled by the violins and woodwinds and the exposed flute and harp; the way the unhinged waltz crackled and cackled in the third movement as Rattle dug into Mahler’s sardonic side; the fourth (a second “Night Music”) was beautiful music beautifully played; while the fifth delivered over-the-top joy cloaked in martial underpinnings.

Schoenberg described his Op.16 as “merely a bright uninterrupted interchange of colours, rhythms and moods,” a thought the Berliners actualized with aplomb. The first piece growled with excitement and fluttering colours while in the second the BPO’s diaphanous sound was exposed to brilliant effect.The third played up the atmospherics lurking below the surface while the scattershot fifth felt like listening to wild sound dialogue from a Robert Altman film (a good thing).

Rattle illuminated the Webern insightfully, its deconstructed brilliance served up on a platter by the orchestra’s brilliant ensemble work, all leading to a breathtaking conclusion. Berg’s Op.6 showcased the orchestra’s full resources, big and small, with emotional phrases long and short, culminating in the third piece’s Romantic tinges and Mahlerian trombones.

After the massive forces that preceded it, the concluding Brahms’ symphony felt like it was being performed by a chamber orchestra. It was masterful playing that brought a staple of the concert hall to life, its sumptuous lyricism an organic outgrowth of developmental pushes and pulls. It was a demonstration of how to build music architecturally with Rattle teasing the melody out of the second violins or bringing out the whispers, hints and glimmers that Brahms put in the score.

And at the end of each concert, Rattle walked through the orchestra to shake hands with the principal players, asking each to stand, and then inviting the supporting players to do so as well. It seemed so warm, convivial and civilized. After a final bow, the conductor left the stage, the orchestra members stood up, shook each other’s hands and walked off, leaving a standing ovation behind, suddenly truncated.

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