feature 1 - visitors 2“You are the subject of this film.” – Godfrey Reggio

First came Koyaanisqatsi, on which filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass began working in the late 1970s. (It was released in 1983; its “life out of balance” theme resonated with an audience eager for anything not Reagan or Thatcher). Glass’ idiosyncratic variegated arpeggios and rhythmic repetitions riveted a public for whom the musician was mostly unknown.

Two more qatsi films followed over the next two decades, neither reaching the popular heights of the first. Reggio stuck to his unique vision and Glass extended his reach beyond the opera house and the concert hall into the mainstream by scoring commercials and Hollywood movies.

Read more: Visitors: A Collaborative Effort

Charles I of England, finding himself strapped for cash and having no way of raising funds, decided to prorogue Parliament for eleven years and rule England by divine right. This proved to be something of a bad idea, as an increasingly outraged aristocracy rebelled against the Crown, plunged the country into civil war for nine years, and had Charles beheaded.

Against this violent and chaotic background, England's cultural life should have ground to a halt, and although the period can hardly be described as a Golden Age (the artists of the time were more worried about staying alive than their own artistic development) it is nevertheless one of the most exotic periods in English music history. The English of the early mid-17th Century developed the rules of Renaissance composition so far as to be barely recognizable as Renaissance music, and while in (say) Italy, the new Baroque style featured new musical genres like opera and new techniques of composition like monody, and an independent bassline, the English had an eccentric and completely unique style of music quite unlike anything else in Europe.

It's repertoire that I would argue deserves to be performed more often, and I was glad to have the chance to hear Scaramella introduce Toronto audiences to the music of the English 17th Century last Saturday night at Victoria College Chapel. The program featured some excellent, hitherto-unknown composers that ought to be performed more often, including John Hingeston, Simon Ives, John Walsh, and Godfrey Finger.

Also on display were some eccentric English forms of the period. Lyra viol, a style of viola da gamba where the instrument plays full chords and is tuned in scordatura, was particular to England, and Ives's compositions for solo lyra viol were a much-appreciated part of the program. Theme and Variations (“Divisions on a Ground”) were also a favourite of the English, as were trio sonatas with continuo. Other strange beasts on display were the sonata by Henry Butler, with solo violin and viola da gamba parts, and the Jenkins fantasia, which had a lyra viol part as part of a chamber ensemble playing chords along with the organ. I'm happy to hear a Toronto-based taking a chance on some repertoire that's not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and shedding some light on a turbulent period in history.

Scaramella's next concert is Saturday February 1 at 8pm in Victoria College Chapel, and features music composed for Viennese double bass and natural horns.

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AKA Doc Pomus, which opened November 29 at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, is a befitting memorial for its subject, the legendary songwriter and genuine mensch, Doc Pomus. On braces and crutches after being stricken by polio at six in 1931, Jerome Felder (his birth name) loved listening to African-American music on the radio growing up in Brooklyn. His epiphany came around the age of 15, with Joe Turner’s record of “Piney Brown Blues.” Two years later he talked his way onto the stage of George’s in Greenwich Village. As he put it, “I was a white boy hooked on the blues – it was a midnight lady with a love lock on my soul.” After a handful of years, his recording career ended but by then Joe Turner himself had heard him and told Ahmet Ertegun to hire Pomus. Doc became a songwriter, one of the cornerstones of the legendary Brill Building writing for Turner and many more.


AKA Doc Pomus is a straightforward biography told by ex-wives and lovers, sons and a daughter, musicians and writers (Peter Guralnick and Dave Marsh, most notably) and adding even more to the many candid moments of archival footage of the man, there is Lou Reed on the soundtrack reading from Doc’s journals.

The songs speak for themselves: “Lonely Avenue” (for Ray Charles); “Save the Last Dance for Me” (inspired by Pomus’ own wedding and immortalized by Ben. E. King); “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” a piece of South Bronx blues encapsulated by Dion and the Belmonts (Bob Dylan said that everything you need to know is in that song). He wrote with Phil Spector and Mort Shuman, wrote big hits for Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas” and a host of movie vocals – when the King was under contract with MGM to make four musicals a year, each with ten songs) and Andy Williams (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You” taken from his own marriage breakdown). He worked with Dr. John, championed Lou Reed and little Jimmy Scott and taught Shawn Colvin and Joan Osbourne in his songwriting course. Dylan asked to write with him; John Lennon was a fan who became a friend. He was a denizen of midtown Manhattan hotels, the centre of revolving, seemingly never-ending musical evenings.

doc pomus 1980s

Doc Pomus’ song ended in 1991; AKA Doc Pomus reminds us that the memory lingers on. His life was a work of art of his own creation.

Narco Cultura 3

When you’re lost in Juarez these days, you’re in the murder capital of the world (3622 in 2010, for example – El Paso, Texas across the Rio Grande had five that year). Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is a cinéma vérité look at the Mexican drug cartels’ pop culture influence on a narco corrido singer, Edgar Quintero, with stars in his eyes and bullets in his belt, set against a crime scene investigator who must mask his identity to protect his life in Juarez. The singer makes the brutal life of a cartel member glamorous; fans on both sides of the border eat this stuff up. One journalist puts it in perspective: “Narcos represent limitless power but they are a symptom of a dead society; 92 per cent of murders have not been investigated.” Quintero takes a trip to Culiacán, in the heart of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Schwarz follows him into a beautiful cemetery with big tombs filled with young dead men. Schwarz’s camera indicts without prejudice making for compelling viewing.  Narco Cultura, which premiered in May at Hot Docs, returns to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for a brief run, November 29, 30, December 1 and 5.



The Broken Circle Breakdown, a bluegrass musical and Belgium’s nominee for consideration as Best Foreign Language Academy Award, recently finished its brief engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This lovely film tells the story of Didier, a banjo-playing farmer, Elise, his tattoo parlour worker wife, their six-year-old daughter Maybelle and her battle with cancer. The narrative begins by flashing back seven years to the couple’s first meeting and their intense love for each other, which never ebbs.

Didier is enamoured of the settlers of the Appalachian Mountains, the dirt-poor fortune hunters who lived there mining the slate that was so difficult to crack. To combat their hunger and misery -- he seduces Elise with this story actually – they sang about their dreams of a promised land, about their sorrow and their hunger and their misery, their fear of dying and their hope for a better life. As Didier tells it, each immigrant group brought a specific instrument to the mix: the Spaniard, a guitar; the Jew, a violin; the African, a banjo; and the Italian, a mandolin. It’s the essence of folk music according to Didier and Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, is the greatest musician in the world.


As the movie moves forward (and backward with its many flashbacks) we realized that it’s a country song come to life. Several country songs, in fact, in which love, joy, grief and blame play major parts, but the music is always tunefully sweet. Didier plays banjo in a classic bluegrass quintet; Elise becomes the lead singer and their performances punctuate and comment on the narrative, none more appropriate than Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Watch for The Broken Circle Breakdown at a rep theatre or  on video. It will take you to “the glory land.”


Two other films now playing are worthy of attention. Philomena, the runner-up to 12 Years a Slave for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF 2013, benefits from an Oscar-worthy performance from Judy Dench, a rich screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who co-stars), a sensitive score by Alexandre Desplats and the remarkable Stephen Frears, who directs without show or artifice but always in the service of the humanism of the film’s riveting, true story.

Dench plays the title character, a retired Irish Catholic nurse whose pangs of regret, guilt and curiosity well up on what would have been her son’s 50th birthday to push her to find the child who was taken from her when she was under the care of the Abbey Sisters of Sacred Heart in Roscrea, Ireland as a teenager in the 1950s. Her companion in this search is a high-profile Oxford-educated ex-BBC television journalist and political scapegoat (played to acerbic perfection by Coogan). As the plot thickens, Desplats’ music (performed with subtlety and warmth by the London Symphony Orchestra) intensifies but never oversteps its bounds. The late John Tavener’s “Mother of God Here I Stand” makes a moving appearance near the end of this first-rate film that sensitively explores the bonds of maternal love, and the many facets of faith. Philomena opened November 29 at the Varsity and other theatres.


Short Term 12 follows foster children in a treatment facility being cared for by former foster children who have overcome the kind of problems that have led their patients into the bungalow they now call home. These are teenagers, mostly, who have been abused or who could not find comfort in their previous domestic life. Thoughtful and compassionate, it’s no docudrama, but a powerful story of parallel lives, propelled by a tour de force of realistic acting (Brie Larson, Best Actress, Locarno Film Festival 2013).

Larson plays Grace, a counsellor whose memories of an abusive childhood experience are unlocked by a new patient, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The staff’s regular modus operandi is to use empathy as a major tool of therapy, so it’s doubly intense when Grace makes it so personal with Jayden.

The movie begins and ends with anecdotes by Mason, Grace’s fellow counsellor and boyfriend, the second of which sends you walking out of the theatre on a high since it reveals a crucial piece of information about another patient who we’ve come to root for.

Joel P West’s instrumental soundtrack is minimal and serviceable but his songs and especially those rapped by Keith Stanfield (who has a key supporting role in the film) deepen the authenticity portrayed onscreen. Short Term 12 is playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Carlton.

You can view a video of this entire conversation, or listen to a podcast of it by clicking here.

pockets of time 1I got a sense of how far ahead Suzie LeBlanc dreams and plans very early in my conversation with her the morning of October 22, 2013. We were sitting in a book-lined seminar room at Massey College in the University of Toronto, talking about the reason for her 24-hour in-and-out flying visit — an event at Massey College that same evening to celebrate the launch of I Am in Need of Music, songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop, a CentreDiscs CD that not only showcases LeBlanc’s soaring soprano but also testifies to her tenacity and vision as a questing collaborative artist with considerable staying power.

The poet Elizabeth Bishop of the CD’s title was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1911; so 2011, her centenary, was the raison d’être for this particular project. But as LeBlanc explains, “It started even sooner than that with me finding out about Elizabeth Bishop in 2007 ... In 2007 I found this leaflet [about Bishop] in Great Village, and soon after I met Sandra Barry, an independent scholar who knows everything there is to know about Bishop ... She’d had a dream. Elizabeth Bishop was born in Massachusetts so she was American by birth. She spent a lot of time in Great Village, Nova Scotia as a child, and three of her grandparents were Canadian — were actually Maritimers — and she always wanted to be Canadian. She wrote, ‘I’m three quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander.’ And she stuck to that story. She was very attached to this land, which was like her motherland.”

Read more: Pockets of Time Suzie LeBlanc

tariq kieran-brieflives-1g9a2957-b compressedQueen Elizabeth the First thought farts were hilarious. I learned this, and many other scatalogical facts about England in the 17th century, from “Brief Lives: songs and stories of old London,” a co-production between Toronto Masque theatre and Soulpepper currently playing as part of the Global Cabaret Festival at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. William Webster, himself a founding member of Soulpepper, stars in Patrick Garland's one-man cabaret staging of John Aubrey's manuscript Schediasmata: Brief Lives. Aubrey is credited with founding the biography as a literary form, and should probably be lauded as the true father of the celebrity tell-all as well. Although he delights in lurid anecdotes involving famous people -- his text was never intended for publication, one should point out-- “Brief Lives” is a fascinating look at life in England from the Golden Age of Elizabeth I through the Civil War and Restoration, brought vividly to life by director Derek Boyes and featuring songs from the period by musicians Katherine Hill, Terry McKenna, and Larry Beckwith.

Read more: Brief Lives

Conversations <at> goes on the road as David Perlman talks with early music specialist and soprano Suzie LeBlanc.

To hear the full conversation with Suzie LeBlanc click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

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bax chung 3Walter Hall was filled October 17 for the first concert of the 116th season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. The husband-and-wife team of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung brought the enthusiastic audience to its feet with the centrepiece of their varied recital, Stravinsky’s original transcription for piano four hands of his second ballet, Petrushka. Bax spoke to the audience mentioning the work’s origins as a rehearsal piece for Diaghilev’s dancers and then added an anecdote about his own obsession with it since he was eight years old.

Bax had been studying and thinking about this version for several years when the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival suggested he and Chung team up for a two piano/four hands concert in 2004. The two weren’t yet married but had known each other since meeting at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 1997. Bax had finally found a partner for a piece of music he had literally been carrying around for almost two decades. A more elaborate version of the story can be found in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post earlier this year.

Onstage at Walter Hall, each pianist sat on the edge of a piano bench turned 180 degrees and placed side by side. Chung, sitting closer to the audience, played the primo part, while Bax manned the pedals and reached in between Chung’s hands on several occasions. Even turning the pages of this cravenly complicated score was a feat of legerdemain.

Without the colours of the orchestra in play, the rhythm comes much more to the fore in this version. Chung’s prodigious accuracy was uncanny. And the two players’ cohesion in maintaining their togetherness in the face of enormous technical challenges was remarkable as they conveyed Stravinsky’s ingenious emphasis on the beat in his transcription. Whether capturing the full orchestra feeling in Scene IV (“The Shrovetide Fair [Towards Evening]”), the captivating depiction of dancing puppets or the otherworldly ending, Bax & Chung’s performance was brilliant --even as Chung played right on top of Bax’s fingers or Bax reached far into the upper register over Chung’s hands.

bax chung 1After intermission, each pianist revealed a solo side before reuniting for their arrangement of a group of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Bax delivered clear-eyed melodic lines in Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 and his own arrangement of the composer’s Vocalise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 34, No. 14, perhaps most familiar as a violin encore. No chickens were harmed in these non-schmaltzy performances.

Chung then took to the piano in two Scriabin preludes and two etudes by Ligeti. She brought out the lines of Op. 16, No.1 in B impressively and made the dreamy evanescence of Op. 11, No. 21 in B-flat memorable. The Ligeti pieces, Nos. 11 and 10 from Book II, were conveyed with great clarity, the pianist skillfully singling out the melodic line above the African-based rhythms of No. 10, which, curiously enough, resembled those of Petrushka.

The Piazzolla tangos – on the basic score of which, as Chung put it in her introduction, the duo improvises -- found Bax playing the primo part with Chung doing the pedalling. The melody carried the first, “Lo Que Vendra,” while the couple’s understated romanticism literally and figuratively – Chung looks knowingly at Bax before he moves into a slow elaboration of the tune -- shone through in “Milonga del Angel.” One of the composer’s major works, “Libertango," brought the printed program to a satisfying conclusion. Here the arrangement was more complex and the duo’s interplay more back and forth and intricate, though no less intimate. The encore, Piazzolla’s Tango No. 2, proved to be a bittersweet farewell to two new musical friends.

On November 19, Signum Classics will release Bax & Chung’s new CD with music by Stravinsky, Brahms and Piazzolla.

It is not everyday that you have the opportunity to sit and listen for five and one half hours to one slowing unfolding piece of music.  But that’s exactly what was happening at the Music Gallery in Toronto on October 14 as part of their X Avant VIII New Music festival.  The piece is called String Quartet #2, quite a nondescript title for something so epic, written by American composer Morton Feldman in 1983.

Undertaking this discipline of mind and body was the FLUX quartet from New York, who perform this ritual about once a year.  And what I heard via the grapevine after the show was that the players noted how attentive the Toronto’s audience was, with much less moving around than in other performances they’ve given. 

Read more: A Slow-Motion Rave - The FLUX quartet performs Morton Feldman’s String Quartet #2

The opening concert of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music festival began with a huge explosion of energy Friday, October 11. The high-octane sounds coming from the Gordon Grdina Trio set the stage for the Montreal-based Quartetski and their retake of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  As I mentioned in my October WholeNote column, this work caused a riot when it premiered 100 years ago in Paris.  As I was sitting listening to the brilliance of this reworking of the original, I couldn’t help but wonder how those audiences of 1913 would respond.  I imagined Stravinsky himself with a huge wide grin dazzled by the eclectic palette of sounds, many of which would have been unheard of in his day. As for the audiences?  Perhaps so shocked and stunned they wouldn't be able to move, let alone begin a riot.   

quartetskiblogBut back to the music and its brilliance.  For starters, there was the instrumentation:  viola da gamba, violin, drums and eclectic percussion, various sound/noise objects, electric guitar with effect pedals, bass clarinet and soprano sax. But it was the seamless movement between scored sections and improvisation that captured my attention. The referencing of the original music was unmistakable -- the familiar melodies and the driving rhythms.  But with the addition of improvisation, the individual virtuosic skills of each player shone; they approached their instruments as full-on sound generators including saxophone multiphonics, the bowing of the tailpiece of the gamba and a scratchy LP recording.  One of my favourites was a DIY noise machine made by putting a stick in a styrofoam ball and placing it on a moving potter’s wheel, with the styrofoam ball acting as the sound resonator. You can see this white ball on the left in the photo. 

After the concert, I asked the group’s founder and viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel about how this piece came together.  He told me that after listening to various orchestral versions, he studied  the two-piano reduction created by Stravinsky. He proceeded from there to make an arrangement based on each player’s skills and unique talents.  One of his fascinating ideas was to use various lines from the orchestral score that would not normally be heard so distinctively -- such as the tuba and flute parts.  His creation was then brought to the group and honed into its final form through a collective process of improvisation and revisions. 

To give you a taste of the imaginative melding of score and improvisation, here's a clip of the opening four minutes, thanks to  Joe at Mechanical Forest Sound. It begins almost imperceptively with static-like sounds before we hear the familiar haunting opening melody. Then hold onto your hat as the sonic roller coaster kicks in.

To read more about Quartetski and listen to other audio clips go to quartetski.com.

Please click on photos for larger images.

In a historic concert at Roy Thomson Hall on October 6, Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s first three ballet scores. It is unlikely these three masterpieces of early 20th century music had ever been heard before in Toronto on the same program. According to the Carnegie Hall notes for a similar concert in New York several days later, Stravinsky himself conducted all three there in 1940 but used a suite version of The Firebird rather than the complete work that Gergiev programmed. By performing all three scores as they were first heard in 1910 (The Firebird), 1911 (Petrushka) and 1913 (The Rite of Spring) and in chronological order, Gergiev gave us the rare gift of the rakish composer’s progress from the height of romanticism to the birth of modernism.

valery gergiev foto stina gullander sr

Gergiev conducted without a baton but each of the fingers on his right hand, seemingly independent, directed the tempo and entrances, while his fluttering left hand occasionally rose to sweep his thinning hair back into place. The result was faultless, precise tuttis contrasted with transparency when appropriate, whether in woodwind interplay or solo strings. (In a New York Times Magazine profile from 2009, the principal clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra [Gergiev’s other musical child], revealed that it is the conductor’s expressive face, from the eyes to the mouth, that is the real source of his power).

The Firebird is a rich, colouristic playground of narrative that demands impeccable playing from every corner of the orchestra. From the early solo viola to the violin that announces the first trumpet solo, followed by the muted French horn’s entrance and the full horn section’s dialogue with the strings, to the oboe-clarinet-bassoon tune that leads into the strings’ mournful lament, the first half of the piece was a shining example of the conductor’s controlled reading of the score.

And so it continued, with the strings’ extraordinary precision from tremulousness to sudden stops, abrupt mood swings and consistent ensemble runs, in the face of the brass’ yattering exclamations and the soulful bassoon and beautiful final French horn solo, the string playing was never overblown or sentimental. Gergiev built the climax slowly; it was steady and heady until the tempo picked up and the brass triumphed leading to an immediate standing ovation.

 gergiev and orchestra of the mariinsky theatre 1

After the first of two intermissions, Petrushka began with an impetuous rush before moving into the bucolic hemisphere of the country fair and the iconic dance-like flute solo that seemed to announce Stravinsky’s move from the 19th to the 20th century even as the cornucopia of folk rhythms and melodies confirmed it. A bonus of the 1911 version of the piece was the extensive use of the piano, both solo and in dialogue with the flute in particular. Apart from a brief trumpet solo that lacked the control that was so evident throughout this momentous concert -- which began at 2:15pm and finished at 5:05 -- the orchestra shone in the composer’s generous solo writing.

And as the snare drum motif led into a sumptuous conflation of tune and tutti followed by a de facto oboe and string quintet that moved into unbridled lyricism, Gergiev made sure to emphasize the bass notes in advance of the pure joy that ends in the proverbial whimper, always allowing the interior voices to be heard.

The Rite of Spring, arguably the most rhythmic orchestral music since Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, followed the second intermission. Here the wonderful transparency of the orchestra brought out the cacaphony of the score, the sinuous viola solo (from a violist who, charmingly, couldn’t stop smiling whenever he soloed) and the languor transformed into rancour. Two exquisite moments of silence held by Gergiev’s outstretched right hand caught an audience so attentive that not one cough was heard. The clarity of the whole orchestra was remarkable as Gergiev made the pagans dance.

Toronto was fortunate to be one of only four cities (Chicago, New York and Washington were the others) to hear the Stravinsky program on the orchestra’s two-week tour of North America. During the tour, Gergiev also conducted two operas at the Met, Shostakovitch’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. After a concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Montreal on October 4, Gergiev conducted a matinee of Onegin in New York on October 5, before the concert at Roy Thomson Hall the following afternoon. Whew.


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