Mavis Staples

Mavis! Is Jessica Edwards' inspirational film on the life of Mavis Staples, whose unique voice brought joy and happiness to millions as the most prominent member of the Staples Singers, a family act led by and directed with great foresight by Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Roebuck Staples grew up on a Mississippi plantation that also fostered the great bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton; Staples learned blues guitar from Patton, later incorporating it into his gospel music, thereby crossing a line that had never been crossed before.

The Staples Singers had a vast influence on people from Bob Dylan to Martin Luther King Jr. Dylan recalls hearing them as a 12-year-old: “Sit Down Servant made me stay up for a week,” he said. Why Am I Treated So Bad, which Pops wrote after he attended King's Montgomery Alabama church, was the Civil Rights leader's favourite song.

Informative talking heads (Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Levon Helm, Prince and more), a strong working relationship with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who revived her career after her father's death in 2000) and historical perspective from biographer Greg Kot combine with priceless archival footage to present a vivid picture of a musical force of nature.

Mavis Staples

Kot pointed out that her life touched on seven musical eras beginning in Chicago with Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Mahalia Jackson as neighbours. Raitt described her as “sensual without being salacious.” The Staples Singers were among the most popular gospel music acts (when gospel music was hugely popular in the post-WWII years). They had a style that harked back to the 1920s plus a deep tremolo that was electric when combined with reverb guitar.

Footage from a 1963 Westinghouse TV show, Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs, amusingly quaint, featured Dylan and the Staples; later appearances on television with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton are no less culturally rich. Mavis appeared with The Band in The Last Waltz and recorded with Levon Helm and Steve Cropper. And brought her own gravitas to Prince's music (“Prince called – can you imagine?”).

Mavis! Plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 13-19 and December 7, 10, 14 and 17.

Director Jessica Edwards will participate in Q&As on November 13 at 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on November 14 at 4:00 p.m.

 

heart of a dog

The most musical film I saw at TIFF 2015, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, is a visual and aural poem filled with truths and lies, imaginatively linked by the writer/director/narrator’s familiar persona.

Her Rat Terrier Lolabelle’s death sparks a lighthearted yet serious reminiscence that mirrors Kierkegaard’s maxim, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” as it pertains to her wondrously talented pooch. The lovable and talented animal doesn’t mind hearing her owner’s hypnotic cello figure for the 70th time.

Anderson learns to feel sad without actually being sad as she deals not only with Lolabelle’s death but that of her mother and husband (Lou Reed) as well. Reed is never mentioned but appears at frame’s edge in a home movie taken in Central Park and briefly as a doctor in a hospital scene. His song Turning Time Around ends the monologue after nearly 75 minutes and carries on through the final credits (which finish with a dedication to his “magnificent spirit”). It’s a touching acknowledgement of a significant part of her life the loss of which she obviously is unwilling to fully confront. Meanwhile her dry sense of humour carries the narrative as she showcases Lolabelle’s talent at the piano and “a pretty good Christmas record” that she and her pet produced.

Her whimsy masks a serious undercurrent. Humour is apt to appear in unlikely places that gently jar the viewer’s mind but always crack a smile; she uses 8mm home movies, dollar-store animation and her own drawings to further layer her artistic mien.

The soundtrack’s major instrument is Anderson’s voice. However filtered it may be, it’s always ultra-present, the perfect elastic vehicle for her insights, bemused observations and grains of Buddhist teachings (which reminded me of John Cage’s Indeterminacy).

Heart of a Dog includes musical excerpts from several of her pieces—The Lake and Flow from Homeland (2010), Beautiful Pea Green Boat from Bright Red (1994), Rhumba Club from Life on a String (2001) and excerpts from Landfall (2011) with the Kronos Quartet. The music interrupts, comments on, bumps up against and fuses with the narration; it’s an essential component of this fanciful, uplifting film.

Heart of a Dog is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Benjamin Grosvenor - credit operaomnia.co.uk Benjamin Grosvenor returned to the Jane Mallett stage October 13 and exceeded all expectations. In a program that, for the most part, looked back to the Baroque from a Romantic sensibility, the 23-year-old British pianist displayed his unique voice in a field crowded with talented performers.

Grosvenor memorably took the fugue from Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue Op.35, No.1 from evanescence through emboldenment and back. The prelude from Op.33, No.3 was spellbinding, its quiet lyricism a hushed beauty; the fugue a capricious romp. Bach’s Chaconne, from the Partita in D Minor for Violin BWV1004, as transcribed by Busoni, doubled down on the evening’s backward glance by evoking its twin spirits with haunting results, the pianist’s attention to dynamics never overdone. Franck’s Prélude, chorale et fugue continued to build sound worlds with compelling pianissimo passages and a well-structured approach. The chorale harkened back to the Mendelssohn and the Bach-Busoni.

Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin moved the program into the 20th century even as it retained the baroque rearview-mirror quality of the evening. Grosvenor, characteristically hunched over the keyboard, brought clarity and dreaminess to the Prélude; a great delicacy to the sonic marvel that is the Fugue, with its notes seemingly bursting into air; a prismatic elegance, lovely bent notes and well-defined rhythm, with a hint of mystery, to the Forlane; a touch of frenzy in the Rigaudon, a touch of melancholy within the polished framework of the Menuet and a raciness to the raucous Toccata.

With Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli the tenor shifted to the romantic embellishment of the Italian popular song. Embellishing the opening Gondoliera also meant capturing its essence; the Tarantella was wild with its repeating notes, tone clusters and arpeggiated runs. Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Love Walked In brought the evening to a sublime and logical close, as it echoed the popular song motif of the Liszt. Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced. A riveting experience.

David Perlman goes on the road to talk with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.

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Stewart Goodyear returns for more Conversations <at>.

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Paul Lewis CREDIT MolinaVisualsOn the last Thursday afternoon of July in a warm St. Andrew's Church (hand-held fans were provided) as part of Stratford Summer Music, British pianist Paul Lewis introduced what he called “true peaks of the piano repertoire,” Beethoven's last three piano sonatas. He spoke to his congregation as it were, those of us privileged to hear this supreme interpreter of Beethoven and Schubert, describing how he saw the pieces he was about to play.

The concert turned out to be the highlight of the summer.

Read more: Concert Report: Paul Lewis at Stratford Summer Music

Heddy Honigmann

As she prepared for her next film, Heddy Honigmann graciously took the time to answer several email questions prompted by her superb documentary about the Royal Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary season, Around the World in 50 Concerts (now on view at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until August 21).

Read more: Music and the Movies: Director Heddy Honigmann on Around the World in 50 Concerts

Double bassist Dominic Seldis of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra In her captivating documentary celebrating the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element.

The movie concentrates on four of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist, bassoonist and double bassist, as well as concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg.  Each of Honigmann's subjects describes what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentinian taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing in a youth orchestra provides self-worth and to the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play, and now leads that orchestra (the Soweto Youth Orchestra); to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play the Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky's The Firebird, we see his tears.

Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And she gets inside the orchestra by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. You really get a sense of what it means to be a symphonic musician on tour.

Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons, the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto, Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's First, Second and Eighth, among others. The emotional connection is intensified by Honigmann's subjects' evident joy in music.

Honigmann's direction can take on a musical life of its own. For example, there is a section that begins with a dinner conversation between the flutist and the bassoonist. The flute player reveals that he is easily moved by folk music, that the melancholy nature of the tango makes him feel warm; he finds folk music in The Rite of Spring, Mahler and Dvořák. Suddenly it's the next day and the film has taken us into the bassoonist's hotel room where he's calling home. As we hear the famous minor key funereal version of the Frère Jacques folk song in Mahler's First Symphony, the camera seamlessly pans through the streets of Buenos Aires ending up in the concert hall where the orchestra is playing the Mahler – it's a very musical montage that grows organically out of the material.

The power of music to elevate, soothe and communicate is at the core of this moving documentary.

Around the World in 50 Concerts plays August 14 through August 21 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

 

The Borromeo String Quartet: (from left) Nicholas Kitchen, Yeesun Kim, Mai Motobuchi, Kristopher Tong

The tenth anniversary season of Toronto Summer Music reached a significant climax August 6 with two concerts late in the afternoon and into the evening. Robi Botos and Béla Bartók, two Hungarian-born émigrés to the New World, were appropriate poster boys for the well-conceived and multi-layered 2015 TSM festival just concluded.

Right from the opening concert concentrating on the music of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two children of immigrants to the United States, who fused elements of the old and new worlds in their compositions, to the Botos Shuffle Concert tribute to Oscar Peterson and the Borromeo String Quartet's traversal of the complete Bartók string quartets (in the course of one transformational evening), TSM more than met their conceptual theme of “The New World.”

Read more: Concert Report: Toronto Summer Music Wrap-Up

Pedja MuzijevicThe American Avant-Garde concert July 28 at Walter Hall marked the midpoint of Toronto Summer Music's tenth anniversary season. It's been a diverse, well-planned festival so far with the promise of even more treasures to be unearthed before it ends August 9.

The numerous open rehearsals, lectures and masterclasses, all free and open to the public, are a welcome addition to the wide variety of concerts by mentors, fellows and special guests that have become the hallmark of this musical oasis where formerly not much bloomed here in past Julys and Augusts.

Read more: Concert Report: Toronto Summer Music Midpoint

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