tmconducts - group shot with noelAt one point during the week, Noel Edison, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir conductor and artistic director, encouraged one of the conducting symposium participants with the comment “everyone is looking for someone to follow.” I don’t think Noel meant that the choir members are lacking spiritual leadership, or even that they couldn’t follow that particular conductor and were looking for someone to better lead them through the music. I think he was saying that the choir was there, eager and willing to be engaged, and here is an opportunity to lead them. He is right. We are a dedicated, mostly volunteer chorus, and we love to be led to create beautiful music.

A consistent theme in the comments that Noel has been making to the conductors is the importance of establishing rhythmic security. “If the rhythm is there, the notes will follow” says Noel. The right hand is the metronome and the left hand provides the character of the piece (are all conductors right-handed?).

We have had a couple of rehearsals of almost three hours each with the five conductors. There are 8 pieces that the large choir has been rehearsing (they have also been working with the 20-voice Elora Festival singers), each conductor having a 15 to 20 minute segment, in rotation with pieces assigned by Noel on the spot. I don’t mean to suggest that a regular rehearsal with Noel at the helm feels particularly long, but the 3 hours with the symposium conductors seem to fly by. It is delightful and inspiring to be part of the passion and joy that they bring to the music.

Most of the participating conductors are either in, or have completed, a master's degree in choral conducting.  They are all highly trained excellent musicians. The benefit that they feel they are getting from this week’s symposium is the opportunity to work intensively with a highly respected choral conductor and with both a professional small choir and an excellent large choir. Having attended intensive master classes myself, I believe that they can provide a unique and crucial learning experience.

The week will end with a free concert at 3PM on Saturday, January 26 at Yorkminster Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. It will also be streamed live on the internet. For internet coordinates and concert information, visit www.tmchoir.org.  We will be performing some very beautiful choral pieces including the Kyrie section of Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem”, which is one of my all-time favorites. We will perform a couple of modern pieces as well. “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre has some chords dear to a jazz lover’s (like mine) heart like major sevenths and minor ninths (I haven’t noticed any flat 5’s yet).  After Wednesday’s rehearsal I was so inspired by those jazzy chords that I just had to indulge in another passion – jazz singing. I headed up to Chalkers Pub on Marlee St. for Lisa Particelli’s weekly vocal jazz jam  “Girls Night Out,” where gentlemen are welcome too (www.gnojazz.com), to sing in the last set.

conductorsymposiumSinging is an almost involuntary action for most people. Having been a singer all my life, I firmly believe that. Parents sing to children to comfort and amuse them and children sing to themselves while playing. People singing together is also almost instinctive behaviour, whether it is singing at a religious gathering or on a bus heading to camp, singing the national anthem at a memorial or sports event, celebrating a birthday or the stroke of midnight on new year’s eve. Noel Edison, conductor and artistic director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC), believes that all people are “innately artistic” and that singing provides a most natural personal, emotional and artistic release.

It is a belief in the importance of the centuries old choral music tradition that inspired Noel to create the TMC Choral Conductors’ Symposium. This provides an annual intensive week of hands-on training to five talented young conductors while giving them a chance to work with Canada’s pre-eminent large choir as well as Edison’s Grammy-nominated professional chorus, the Elora Festival singers (which he founded in 1980). This year’s symposium begins Monday January 21. An intensive week of rehearsals will culminate in a free concert at 3PM on Saturday, January 26 at Yorkminster Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge Street. The concert will also be streamed live on the internet. 

The TMC is Canada’s oldest continually operating arts organization. Founded in 1894, it will soon celebrate its 120th anniversary (I am a proud chorister in my 30th season). Among the highlights in its illustrious history is the 1986 Juno award for the recording of Handel’s “Messiah” with the Toronto Symphony, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The choir has been performing Messiahs with the TSO since 1932.

The high standards of the choir are maintained by annual re-auditions of all choristers. In addition, the choir is anchored by the 20-voice professional Elora Festival Singers.

A popular monthly choir outreach event is “Singsation Saturdays”. The public is invited to join TMC choristers to sing great classic choral works led by an experienced guest conductor.  Singsations takes place from 10:30AM to 1PM in the choir’s rehearsal hall at Yorkminster Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. This is an opportunity each month to get that personal, emotional artistic release Noel talked about.

For information about the choir’s performances, the Conductor Symposium, Singsation Saturdays, and much more, visit www.tmchoir.org .

I’ll be reporting on the symposium’s progress and the participant conductors in my Thursday blog in this space.

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“This is not a retirement home -- this is a madhouse,” the inimitable Maggie Smith announces in the ebullient new film Quartet. But what’s to be done when the diva refuses to sing?  The show must go on, of course.

Each October 10, Beecham House, a fictional home for retired opera singers and other musicians, celebrates Verdi’s birthday with a fundraiser for the residence. When Jean, an operatic grande dame (played by the equally grand, Dame Smith) and ex-wife of Reggie (Tom Courtenay) unexpectedly moves in, Wilf (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Reggie see their plans for the latest bash unravel. The titular quartet of concert performers is thus inadvertently reunited, unleashing all manner of grudges and glories.

Quartet (just now in theatres) is a rarity. Ronald Harwood’s highly enjoyable screen adaptation of his 1999 play manages to fuse the acting talents of some of the UK’s finest (Michael Gambon is also featured) and the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman with a cornucopia of musical excerpts. Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Puccini’s Tosca, G&S’s The Mikado, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and “Military” symphony, a Boccherini string quintet and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach are all fodder for the cast. Harwood was inspired by Tosca’s Kiss, Daniel Schmid’s loving documentary depiction of the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi founded in Milan as lodgings for elderly singers who needed material help.

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Music percolates everywhere in Beecham House (named after Sir Thomas) with the residents exuberantly playing out Bette Davis’ maxim “Old age is not for sissies.” As they prepare for the house fundraiser, their love of life is infectious. And with many of them portrayed by musicians, from soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (unforgettable performing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca) to former BBC Symphony principal clarinetist Colin Bradbury and versatile trumpet player Ronnie Hughes (his resume even includes the Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear”), the quality of the musical content is assured. Be sure to stay through the beginning of the credits where many of the musicians are pictured in their younger days.

Quartet seems poised to appeal to the same audiences that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the sleeper hit of last summer.

Among the biggest surprises in the recently announced eye-opening Oscar nominations were five for Michael Haneke’s Amour, just now on screen in Toronto. Amour is the fifth film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. The others were Z, The Emigrants, Life is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. None of those swept both categories. As well, Haneke was nominated for Original Screenplay and Director. Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva, who turns 86 on the day of the Academy Awards ceremony (February 24), became the oldest actress to be nominated in that category.

In Amour, the lives of two retired piano teachers in their 80s take a profound new turn as the wife suffers a series of small strokes that prevent her from performing music. At the same time, the husband’s unbridled love plays itself out in unexpected ways. Elegantly acted by two French legends, the manner in which their refined characters deal with this life change is difficult and provocative yet sublimely conveyed. In career-capping performances are Jean-Louis Trintignant at 81 (Z, My Night at Maud’s and The Conformist are among his more than 100 films) and Emmanuelle Riva at 85 (among her more than 40 films, Hiroshima mon amour is the most famous).

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud makes a memorable cameo appearance as the couple’s star pupil. The film begins with Tharaud in recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Later he visits their apartment and plays some of Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126, No. 2. His performances of Schubert Impromptus Op. 90, No. 1 & 3 add emotional and musical depth and underscore a particularly poignant moment. Tharaud’s version of Bach/Busoni’s Prélude Choral “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” is heard the one and only time Trintignant plays in the couple’s stylish Paris apartment.

Michael Haneke’s eagerly anticipated, critically acclaimed film won the top prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was the choice of the Toronto Film Critics Association for Best Foreign Film, as well as that of numerous other critical bodies.

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Amour opened January 11 at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Cineplex’s Varsity. Bell Lightbox is offering a retrospective on Trintignant’s and Riva’s luminous careers including, on Trintignant’s side, Bertolucci’s classic The Conformist, Eric Rohmer’s exquisite moral tale My Night at Maud’s, Costa-Gavras’ hyper-suspenseful Z, Krzysztof Kieslowki’s ineffable fatalistic parable Three Colours: Red, the obscure but delightful Dino Risi/Vittorio Gassman comedy The Easy Life, FranVois Truffaut’s last film Confidentially Yours and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s sui generis thrillerTrans-Europ-Express.

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The Riva lineup of must-see performances contains Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (with Jean-Paul Belmondo), Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (with Juliette Binoche) and two by the legendary Georges Franju, Thérèse Desqueroux (with Philippe Noiret) and Thomas the Imposter (co-scripted by Jean Cocteau, from his novel).

 

duoconcertante croppedThis was not just another Thursday afternoon in Toronto. The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto’s 115th season, which had begun with Paul Lewis’ remarkable traversal of Schubert’s last three piano sonatas six weeks earlier had prepared us for that. The 40-year-old Englishman, widely considered without peer as a contemporary interpreter of Schubert and Beethoven, brought out the melodic concupiscence of those massive pieces without rendering them shapeless. Indeed, the sinews of the penultimate sonata (D959) have rarely if ever been exposed with any greater clarity.

For the second “Music in the Afternoon” concert of the current season, the WMCT presented the Duo Concertante to a sold-out Walter Hall November 28. Based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Nancy Dahn, violin, and Timothy Steeves, piano, have been performing together for 15 years, all but one of which as husband and wife. It’s a union that has produced a son and daughter as well as five CDs among countless hours of music making.  The name “Duo Concertante” denotes two solo parts and implies equality and balance, qualities that would be most evident in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, the concluding work of their well-founded program.

Right from the opening largo of one of Mozart’s most tuneful sonatas, K454, Dahn’s delicacy on the violin was matched by Steeves’ on the piano, as they set us up for the onrushing allegro, conveying a sense of intimacy while reminding us that this sonata was one of the first to elevate the piano to the level of equal partner with the violin. As the second movement’s wistful sadness turned into steely strength the violin took priority, while the playful third movement was a well-balanced conversation between the two, bringing the duo concertante character to the fore.

duo concertante 9R. Murray Schafer’s Wild Bird, written for the 50th birthday of the flamboyant former concertmaster of the TSO, Jacques Israelievich (“He had just dyed his hair flaming red at the time,” Dahn said in her introduction to the piece.), programmatically lends itself to bird imagery with large swoops and arcs, chirps and plaintive cries in harmonics modifying Bartokian descending phrases on the violin. Here Dahn’s playing was convincing and passionate as it ranged from subtle, quiet glissandi to soaring melodies.

In Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1, the romantic melodic warmth of the violin was wonderfully matched by swells on the piano, another example of the togetherness of the duo. Melody upon melody characterized the Allegretto middle movement, with each new phrase bringing out Steeves’ judicious sense of tone quality. The finale featured the intricate passagework of the violin answered by the dense harmonies of the piano. If the violin occasionally seemed more prominent, it was the composer’s doing, not the performers’.

The sublime introduction to the Beethoven sonata illustrated just how well balanced the Duo Concertante truly is. As they continued playing with grace and fire, one of the monuments of the violin-piano repertoire breathed anew. Having just completed recording all ten Beethoven sonatas, their familiarity with the material was evident in this superb performance of the “Kreutzer,” unquestionably the highlight of the recital. The two played up the rich contrasts between fury and repose in the first movement, traded off Beethoven’s idiosyncratic melody splits in the wondrous second and finished with a triumphant mass of non-stop energy in the third.

November 30, 2012 marks the final performance by the Canadian Jazz Quartet at Quotes Bar & Grill. The venue has been home to the group’s successful “Fridays at Five” series since 2006. Leader of the group, guitarist Gary Benson sums up the experience:

canadian jazz quartet photo“QUOTES”: A cozy jazz venue across from Roy Thompson Hall, below street level, under Barootes Restaurant. It would be impossible to not feel at home here with its padded booths, tiny lamps hanging over them, suspended from a wooden raftered ceiling, wooden tables throughout the room and a long bar running half the length of the room. All this made it reminiscent of a ‘40’s New York jazz club.

The people came early to secure seating; there was no cover, no reservations. The jazz took place on Fridays from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The Canadian Jazz Quartet along with a guest performer played to a full house every week. The guests were the elite of the Canadian jazz scene.

All this ceased, not because of waning interest, but because the building was sold. The old adage “all good things must come to an end” somehow doesn’t fit here. Not yet. I find it hard to believe that all this life and vitality won’t find another home for “Fridays at Five”.

I asked Fay Olson, project and event manager, a few questions about the past, present and future of “Fridays at Five.”

Quotes has been the home of the "Fridays at Five" series for 7 seasons now.  What have been some of the musical highlights?

We're actually into our 7th year, just breaking over the Christmas holidays and a couple of months after the Toronto Jazz Festival each summer so when it's all over November 30, we'll really have completed 13 seasons since Don Vickery and I first launched the "Fridays at Five" feature in September of 2006.  It was in the wake of our beloved Montreal Bistro having closed, so as much as anything else, I was looking for a place that had the potential to provide some of the same aura so many of us had experienced for so long, as a new downtown setting for the presentation and enjoyment of great jazz.

For me, it's been a lifetime musical highlight since day one.  As Musical Director, Don decided early on that rather than presenting different ensembles every week, he'd make the Canadian Jazz Quartet a kind of high-end "house band" to host a different leading jazz instrumentalist each week.  As a member of the CJQ, Don knew, more than anyone, how capable they were of working with absolutely anyone, without rehearsal, while allowing the guest performers to play whatever they wanted.  It was an ideal arrangement, that just by nature of the varied headliners, and the CJQ's innate ability to adapt to whatever they required, resulted in a new sound every week.

Of the hundreds of "Fridays at Five" performances we've presented over the years, I honestly don't remember a single one that wasn't successful.  The Toronto jazz scene is populated by some of the best jazz musicians in the world, and over the years, we made it our policy to present dozens of the best of them at Quotes.

Over the past couple of years, when Quotes has been an "official venue" of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, we've been able to add some big international names to the roster, so there's no question they all delivered highlight musical performances with the CJQ unfailingly rising to whatever was demanded for a memorable concert by the likes of Houston Person, Harry Allen, Scott Hamilton, Ian McDougall, Randy Sandke, Guido Basso, Byron Stripling, or Ken Peplowski.

Anyone who was there when legendary saxophonist Scott Hamilton appeared in 2011 will agree that that was a highlight performance, as much for the star's professionalism as his playing.  His flight (from Germany, where he'd played the night before) was scheduled to arrive in Toronto just a couple of hours before his scheduled Quotes performance.  As Murphy's Law dictated, his flight was delayed, so while a TDJ driver waited for him at the airport, the CJQ went on alone.  They were well into a second hour of performance when we got the word he was nearly there.  The CJQ was still playing for an increasingly agitated audience, when Hamilton raced through the door, and without even removing his jacket, opened his sax case, listened for about 30 seconds to what the band was playing, and walked up to the mic to join them. He later kept the concert going for a full extra hour after it was scheduled to finish...and not a person left. 

What will you miss about Quotes the most?

Everything!  There's no single element of "Fridays at Five" more important than anything else (other than the music itself, of course).  I've always loved the "New York" feel of walking down just a few steps below street level, in the heart of downtown Toronto, into the lovely dark wood and long bar decor, the open kitchen, and the "Cheers" kind of atmosphere we've built where everyone who comes there -- regulars or first-timers -- feels the love.

Will the series have a new incarnation in the foreseeable future? If so, what do you look for when seeking out a venue?

We fondly hope so, as do the hundreds of patrons who love "Fridays at Five".  We've attracted full houses from the very beginning, and our crowds keep increasing from year to year, so there's no question that in another "right" location, the concept still has a long life span, and a devoted following.

Needless to say, I've been quietly on the hunt since I learned Barootes had sold the building, as there's no question, the "Fridays at Five" concept offers a surefire turn-key success with the right venue components in place, but it's a tall order.   As a lifelong career event manager/marketer, I know that the "right" formula involves much more than just putting "background" music into a room.   Ideally, we would like to settle into a downtown venue, with easy TTC access, a warm and cozy ambience, a bar, a good (and reasonably priced) kitchen, and above all, a room that's large enough to allow for 80 to 100 people to have good site-lines to the area of the room where we can set up a five-piece band.  

In addition is that we need a venue that needs us!!   A couple of possibilities I've been very interested in are already jam-packed after work on Fridays, so obviously, there's no point in their making an investment in us.   Other venues who have been interested in us just wouldn't work as a "listening" room.  Even though we definitely don't adhere to a strict "quiet policy", we do want to encourage an atmosphere that respects the performers and the patrons who are there to listen, and a pool-table in full operation while the performance is taking place won't do that!!  :-)

I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to announce a venue early in the new year, but whenever we re-launch the concept, it will be at a time when I'm convinced that it has every chance of carrying on for another several years.

Stay tuned!

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Wide Messiah Choir Chorus Niagara 2This season, for the first time, I ordered a Christmas gift for a family member online and I have since become obsessed with the convenience of online browsing when shopping around for everything from dog food to winter boots. So, I figure, why not use our online Messiah listings this year to shop around for the perfect performance of Handel’s great work? Although first performed in April of 1742, the Messiah now occupies a full season in the month before Christmas. This year, Ontario’s Messiah season lasts 24 days – precisely the time it took Handel to complete the original score’s 259 pages – and our listings include 26 ensembles presenting more than 50 performances in all manner of styles, in venues from Kingston to Waterford.

From the long-standing traditions of Tafelmusik's “Sing-Along Messiah” and the TSO's large-scale performance of the work to Pax Christie’s condensed and family-friendly “Children’s Messiah,” the choices are vast. As Handel authority Winton Dean wrote, “There is still plenty for scholars to fight over, and more than ever for conductors to decide for themselves…This applies not only to the choice of versions, but to every aspect of baroque practice, and of course there are often no final answers.”

So there are many variables to consider when searching for a version of the Messiah that inspires. Larger scale productions with a bigger chorus, such as the Toronto Symphony with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (December 18, 19, 21–23) the Kingston Symphony with the Kingston Choral Society (December 13) and the Ontario Philharmonic with the Amadeus Choir(December 18,19 and 21), promise exhilarating moments of grandeur and a spine-tingling “Hallelujah Chorus.” Certainly groups such as the Royal Choral Society and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have created a tradition of mammoth productions of the piece and composers following Handel have re-orchestrated the Messiah to include a larger orchestra and beefier choir. Perhaps the most extravagant example of this tradition was the performance of the Messiah held at the former Crystal Palace in London, featuring a choir of 2,000 and an orchestra of 500! And why not? Handel himself stated “he saw all heaven before him” while composing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

It is important to point out, however, that the Messiah was first performed under more modest circumstances. The first performance employed a choir of only 32 men and boys from two church choirs in Dublin. In the past few decades, there has been increased interest in smaller, more authentic productions of the work. The perfect example is the “Dublin Messiah,” the Aradia ensemble’s presentation of Handel’s original score (December 22) with a chamber choir and period instrument orchestra. Tafelmusik (December 19 to 22, with its “Sing-Along Messiah” December 23), Guelph Chamber Choir (December 22) and Arcady (various dates and locations) also employ a much smaller ensemble and period instruments for their Messiah performances, and more intimate Messiahs will also be presented by the Oakville Ensemble, Elora Festival Singers and Bach Elgar Choir.

Whether performed by mammoth choirs and orchestras or chamber choirs and small ensembles, the Messiah is a massive work in length. For those listeners hoping to experience the thrill of the Messiah’s greater moments without sitting through all 53 movements, there are many Christmas concerts featuring choice sections of the work alongside other holiday favourites. If that’s more your cup of eggnog, be sure to consider December’s concerts by the York Chamber Ensemble, Grace Church on-the-Hill, Blessed Trinity Choir, Cathedral Church of St. James, Orillia Wind Ensemble and Guelph Symphony Orchestra.

Finally, there are ensembles bringing the Messiah closer to their audiences and into the 21st century. Pax Christi Chorale presents its “Children’s Messiah,” a shorter, reworked, family-friendly version on December 8 and Tafelmusik and Orchestra Kingston give their audience a chance roll up their sleeves and participate in their sing-along Messiahs (December 23 and December 1 respectively). For those searching for a complete change of pace this season, Ballet Creole is celebrating its 11thseason of the “Soulful Messiah,” a dance piece merging tap, African-Caribbean, ballet, jazz and modern dance styles, set to the R&B Messiah by Quincy Jones, with performances in Toronto, North Bay and St. Catharines throughout the first part of the month.

With this many options, why not branch out and listen to the unique interpretations bestowed on the Messiah by so many of Ontario’s conductors? As an oboist I have, egocentrically, sometimes felt lukewarm toward the Messiah for its unusual lack of significant oboe lines (the oboe is usually favoured by Handel). However, when I do play the Messiah, the scant oboe part turns out to be a blessing; sitting tacitly for the majority of the piece, listening to the divine music around me, I am always reminded why this work is so widely performed by orchestras and choirs big and small, in communities far and wide.

So here's our list of the Messiahs to choose from this season – happy shopping, happy listening and happy holidays!

Messiah Listings

GTA:

Nov 30 8:00: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. Tap, African-Caribbean, ballet, jazz and modern dance, performed to Quincy Jones’ R&B rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W. 416-973-4000. $35–$45; $20–$25(sr/st). Also Dec 1, 2(mat). 7 (St. Catharines), 11 (North Bay), 13 (Markham), 15 (Mississauga).

Dec 01 7:30: York Chamber Ensemble.Handel in the Snow. Handel: Messiah (sing-along); Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite; Courtney: A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Trinity Festival Chorus, Tony Browning, conductor. Trinity Anglican Church, 79 Victoria St., Aurora. 905-?? $20; $15(sr/st).

Dec 01 8:00: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. Tap, African-Caribbean, ballet, jazz and modern dance, performed to Quincy Jones’ R&B rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W. 416-973-4000. $35–$45; $20–$25(sr/st). Also Nov 30, Dec 2(mat).

Dec 02 3:00: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. See Dec 1.

Dec 08 4:00: Pax Christi Chorale.The Children’s Messiah. Abridged version of Handel’s oratorio featuring child-friendly narration and audience carols. Megan Harris, soprano; Vicky St. Pierre, mezzo; Lenard Whiting, tenor; Michael Robert-Broder, baritone; Pax Christi Chorale; St. Mary Magdalene Gallery choir; and others. Church of St. Mary Magdalene,477 Manning Ave. 416-491-8542. PWYC; free(child).

Dec 08 7:30: Oakville Ensemble.Messiah. Handel. Mary Mother of God Church, 2745 Ridge Trail N., Oakville. 905-825-9740. $30; $25(sr); $15(st); $60(family). Non-perishable food items collected for Salvation Army. Also Dec 9(mat, St. John’s United Church, Oakville).

Dec 09 3:00: Oakville Ensemble.Messiah Sing-Along. Handel. St. John’s United Church, 262 Randall St., Oakville. 905-825-9740. $30; $25(sr); $15(st); $60(family). Non-perishable food items collected for Salvation Army. Also Dec 8(eve, Mary Mother of God Church, Oakville).

Dec 13 8:00: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. Tap, African-Caribbean, ballet, jazz and modern dance, performed to Quincy Jones’ R&B rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Flato Markham Theatre171 Town Centre Blvd., Markham. 905-305-7469. $49–$54. Also Nov 30, Dec 1, 2 (Toronto), 7 (St. Catharines), 11 (North Bay), 15 (Mississauga)

Dec 14 7:30: Oakville Choral Society. Messiah. Handel. With guest soloists and orchestra. Anne Marie Leonard, accompanist; David Bowser, conductor. ClearView Christian Reformed Church, 2300 Sheridan Garden Dr., Oakville. 905-827-6129. $30; $25(adv); $15(st); free(under 12). Also Dec 15.

Dec 14 7:30: Cathedral Church of St. James. Handel’s Messiah and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Handel: Messiah, part 1; Vivaldi: Gloria. 106 King St. E. 416-364-7865. $40; $35(sr/st).

Dec 15 7:30: Grace Church on-the-Hill. Messiah at Grace Church on-the-Hill. Excerpts from Messiah. Guests: Cantabile Chamber Singers. 300 Lonsdale Rd. 416-488-7884. $20; $15(sr/st).

Dec 15 7:30: Kindred Spirits Orchestra. Handel’s Glorious Messiah. With full symphony orchestra orchestration by Mozart. Rebeca Whelan-Martin, soprano; Claudia Lemcky, mezzo; Stephan Harland, tenor; Andrew Tees, baritone; Village Voices, Joan Andrews, conductor; Kristian Alexander, conductor. Flato Markham Theatre, 171 Town Centre Blvd., Markham. 905-305-7469. $28; $18(sr/st). 6:45: Pre-concert chat.

Dec 15 7:30: Oakville Choral Society. Handel’s Messiah. See Dec 14.

Dec 15 8:00: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. Tap, African-Caribbean, ballet, jazz and modern dance, performed to Quincy Jones’ R&B rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Meadowvale Theatre, 300 City Centre Dr., Mississauga. 905-615-4720. $31.50; $26.50(sr/st). 7:00: Pre-show reception. Also Nov 30, Dec 1, 2 (Toronto), 7(St. Catharines) 11 (North Bay), 13 (Markham).

Dec 16 3:00: Blessed Trinity Choir. Gaudete! Family Christmas concert. Holst: Christmas Day; Handel: Messiah (excerpts). Blessed Trinity Church, 3220 Bayview Ave. 416-733-0210. $15; $10(st under 21).

Dec 16 3:00: Humber Valley United Church. Handel’s Messiah. Humber Valley United Church Concert Choir with guest soloists and members of the Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestra; Paul Chant, conductor. 76 Anglesey Boulevard. 416-231-2263. $25; $20(sr); free(under 12).

Dec 18 7:30: Ontario Philharmonic. Messiah. Handel. Jennifer Taverner, soprano; Leigh-Anne Martin, alto; Zach Finkelstein, tenor; Justin Welsh, baritone; Amadeus Choir, Lydia Adams, director. Regent Theatre, 50 King St. E., Oshawa. 416-443-9737. $45–$56; $34–$45(st/youth). Also Dec 19; Dec 21 (Toronto).

Dec 18 8:00: Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toronto’s Favourite Messiah. Handel: Messiah. Yulia Van Doren, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Michael Schade, tenor; Russell Braun, baritone; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St. 416-593-4828 or 416-593-0688(Chinese). $38–$105. Also Dec 19, 21, 22, 23(mat).

Dec 19 7:30: Ontario Philharmonic. Messiah. See Dec 18.

Dec 19 7:30: Tafelmusik. Messiah. Handel. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo; Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Douglas Williams, baritone; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins, director. Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. 416-408-0208. $47–$112; $37–$99(sr); $29–$99(35 and under). Also Dec 20–22; sing-along Messiah Dec 23(mat, Massey Hall).

Dec 19 8:00: Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toronto’s Favourite Messiah. See Dec 18.

Dec 20 7:30: Tafelmusik. Messiah. See Dec 19.

Dec 21 7:30: Tafelmusik. Messiah. See Dec 19.

Dec 21 8:00: Ontario Philharmonic. Messiah. Handel. Jennifer Taverner, soprano; Leigh-Anne Martin, alto; Zach Finkelstein, tenor; Justin Welsh, baritone; Amadeus Choir, Lydia Adams, director. Christ Church Deer Park, 1570 Yonge St. 416-443-9737. $35–$45; $25–$35(st/youth). Also Dec 18, 19 (Oshawa).

Dec 21 8:00: Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toronto’s Favourite Messiah. See Dec 18.

Dec 22 7:30: Tafelmusik. Messiah. See Dec 19.

Dec 22 8:00: Aradia Ensemble. The Dublin Messiah. Handel. Claire de Sévigné, soprano; Marion Newman, mezzo; David Menzies, tenor; Peter McGillivray, baritone; Michael Fedyshyn, trumpet. Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St. W. 647-960-6650. $35; $20(sr/st).

Dec 22 8:00: Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toronto’s Favourite Messiah. See Dec 18.

Dec 23 2:00: Tafelmusik. Sing-Along Messiah. Handel. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo; Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Douglas Williams, baritone; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins, director. Massey Hall, 178 Victoria St. 416-872-4255. $29–$45.

Dec 23 3:00: Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toronto’s Favourite Messiah. See Dec 18.

BEYOND GTA

Dec 01 7:30: Orchestra Kingston. Sing-Along Messiah. Handel. Salvation Army Citadel, 816 Centennial Dr., Kingston. 613-533-6000 x79302. $15; $10(sr/st). Non-perishable food donations welcome.

Dec 02 3:00: Guelph Chamber Choir. Carols for Christmas. Rutter: Dancing Day; Telfer: Noel; Handel: Hallelujah from Messiah. Lori Gemmell, harp; Susan Stephenson, flute; Gerald Neufeld, conductor. St. George’s Anglican Church, 99 Woolwich St., Guelph. 519-763-3000. $25; $10(st); $5(youth).

Dec 07 7:30: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. David S. Howes Theatre, Brock University, 500 Glenridge Ave., St Catharines. 905-688-5550 x3257. $16-$46. Also Nov 30, Dec 1, 2 (Toronto), 11 (North Bay), 13 (Markham), 15 (Mississauga).

Dec 08 7:30: Arcady. A Baroque Messiah. Ronald Beckett, conductor. Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church, 2900 4 Ave., Jordan. 905-892-9160. $25. Fundraiser for EDUDEO Ministries.

Dec 08 7:30: Chorus Niagara. Messiah. Handel. With the Talisker Players on period instruments. Jacqueline Woodley, soprano; David Trudgen, countertenor; Isaiah Bell, tenor; Anthony Cleverton, baritone. Mountainview Christain Reformed Church, 290 Main St. E., Grimsby. 905-688-5550. $35; $33(sr); $15(st). 6:45: Pre-concert chat. Also Dec 9 (St. Catharines).

Dec 08 7:30: Menno Singers. Messiah. Handel. Bethany Hörst, soprano; Jennifer Enns Modolo, mezzo; Christopher Enns, tenor; Adrian Kramber, baritone; Mennonite Mass Choir; Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra; Peter Nikiforuk, director. Centre in the Square, 101 Queen St. N., Kitchener. 519-578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977. $20–$50.

Dec 08 7:30: Orillia Wind Ensemble. Christmas Prelude. Handel: Excerpts from Messiah; other works. Guests: Orillia Vocal Ensemble; Alyson Spina, soprano. St. Paul’s United Church, 62 Peter St. N., Orillia. $20; $17(sr); $5(st).

Dec 09 2:30: Chorus Niagara Messiah. Handel. With the Talisker Players on period instruments. Jacqueline Woodley, soprano; David Trudgen, countertenor; Isaiah Bell, tenor; Anthony Cleverton, baritone. Cavalry Church, 89 Scott St., St. Catharines. 905-688-5550. $35; $33(sr); $15(st). 1:45: Pre-concert chat. Also Dec 8 (Grimsby). 

Dec 09 2:30: Orchestra Kingston. Sing-Along Messiah. Handel. Salvation Army Citadel, 816 Centennial Dr., Kingston. 613-389-3525. $15/$10(sr/st).

Dec 09 3:00: Elora Festival. Messiah. Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra; Noel Edison, conductor. St. Joseph’s Church, 760 St. David St., Fergus. 519-846-0331. $40HST.

Dec 09 3:00: Guelph Symphony Orchestra. Holiday Classics. Vivaldi: Winter from the Four Seasons; Handel: Messiah (selections); and other seasonal music. Jacques Israelievitch, violin and conductor; guests: Guelph Chamber Choir; Suzuki String School of Guelph. River Run Centre, 35 Woolwich St., Guelph. 519-763-3000. $35; $17(under 30); $10(child); $5(high school).

Dec 09 3:00: Guelph Symphony Orchestra. Holiday Classics. Vivaldi: Winter from the Four Seasons; Handel: Messiah (selections); and other seasonal music. Jacques Israelievitch, violin and conductor; guests: Guelph Chamber Choir; Suzuki String School of Guelph. River Run Centre, 35 Woolwich St., Guelph. 519-763-3000. $35; $17(under 30); $10(child); $5(high school).

Dec 10 7:30: Arcady. Messiah. Handel. Janet Obermeyer, soprano; Lauren Segal, mezzo; David Curry, tenor; Jason Howard, baritone; guest: National Academy Orchestra of Canada, Boris Brott, conductor. St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, 440 King St. E., Hamilton. 1-888-475-9377. $27, $22(sr), $10(st).Also Dec 11 (Burlington).

Dec 11 7:30: Arcady. Messiah. Handel. Janet Obermeyer, soprano; Lauren Segal, mezzo; David Curry, tenor; Jason Howard, baritone; guest: National Academy Orchestra of Canada, Boris Brott, conductor. Burlington Performing Arts Centre, 440 Locust St., Burlington. 1-888-475-9377. $29; $24(sr); $10(st). Also Dec 10 (Hamilton).

Dec 11 7:30: Ballet Creole. Soulful Messiah. Capitol Centre, 150 Main St. E., North Bay. 705-474-4747. $30–$35; $20(st/under 12). Also Nov 30, Dec 1, 2 (Toronto), 7 (St. Catharines), 13 (Markham), 15 (Mississauga).

Dec 13 7:30: Kingston Symphony. Hallelujah! Handel: Messiah. Monica, Whicher, soprano; Erinn Roberts, mezzo; Nils Brown, tenor; Benjamin Covey, baritone; Kingston Choral Society Kingston Gospel Temple, 2295 Princess St., Kingston. 613-530-2050. $20–$30.

Dec 14 7:30: Arcady. A Baroque Messiah. See Dec.8. Old Town Hall, 76 Main St.S. Waterford. 519-443-0113. $25. Also Dec 15 (Cayuga).

Dec 14 7:30: Bach Elgar Choir. Messiah. Handel: Messiah. Jennifer Taverner, soprano; Mia Lennox Williams, alto; Thomas Macleay, tenor; Jesse Clark, bass; Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra; Alex Cann, conductor. Melrose United Church, 86 Homewood Ave., Hamilton. 905-527-5995. $35.

Dec 15 7:30: Arcady. A Baroque Messiah. St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church, 15 Ottawa St. S., Cayuga. 905-772-5314. $30. Also Dec 14 (Waterford).

Dec 16 3:00: Peterborough Singers. Messiah. Handel. Vicki St. Pierre, mezzo; Graham Thomson, tenor; Curtis Sullivan, baritone; Ian Sadler, organ. George Street United Church, 534 George St. N., Peterborough. 705-745-1820. $30; $10(st). Also Dec 17(eve).

Dec 17 7:30: Peterborough Singers. Messiah. See Dec 16 (mat).

Dec 22 8:00: Guelph Chamber Choir. Handel’s Messiah. Meredith Hall, soprano; Erica Iris Huang, mezzo; Graham Thomson, tenor; Matthew Pauls, baritone; Gerald Neufeld, conductor; guest: Musica Viva Orchestra. River Run Centre, 35 Woolwich St., Guelph. 519-763-3000. $33; $10(st); $5(eyeGO). 7:00: Pre-concert talk with Christopher Dawes.

Dec 23 3:00: Grand River Chorus. Messiah. Handel. With baroque orchestra. Leslie Bouza, soprano; Daniel Cabena, countertenor; Andrew Haji, tenor; Andrew Tees, bass. St. Pius Roman Catholic Church, 9 Waverly St., Brantford. 519-753-3405. $25; $20(st); $5(under 18).

alexander neefIt was an enticing invitation that TIFF proposed: “Prior to the screening of The Death of Maria Malibran, Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, offers a perspective on the use of opera in [Werner] Schroeter’s work, the filmmaker’s relationship to the opera world and the idea of the ‘operatic’ gesture in cinema.” The event at Bell Lightbox on November 25 was part of a retrospective on the late German director known for his über-romantic body of work. The evening began promisingly as Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan spun the conversation in the direction of Schroeter’s operatic career with the telling observation that Neef (a year before coming to the COC) had been a part of the Paris Opera in 2007 when that company staged Schroeter’s production of Tosca

“Schroeter was more of a presence [than a director],” Neef recalled. “He seemed quite far removed from earthly proceedings.” Most of the staging was done by his assistants, although Neef added that Schroeter was a little less abstract than in his films because he had to follow the narrative structure Puccini had put in place. Neef observed: “It’s really fascinating how Schroeter uses music,” specifically the Brahms Alto Rhapsody that supports the first 15 minutes of the 1972 film we were about to see.


“I’ve never seen any director find such compelling imagery,” he continued. “He really succeeds in translating music into images. The fascination really comes from the emotional content of music.” He went on to point out that Schroeter’s focus was not to make the narration the focus of his operas, resulting in “what North Americans call Euro trash.”

When Cowan credited TIFF Cinematheque guru James Quandt for noting that when the characters in Maria Malibran weren’t lip-synching but rather engaging in “staring contests,” Neef  jumped right in, calling Quandt’s observation quite perceptive, “as if they were thinking the music.”  Neef then added some context to the film’s erstwhile subject, pointing out that Maria Malibran “is one of the great myths of the opera world who died at 28 in 1836 after a short ten-year career” – from a fall from a horse, not singing herself to death on stage as the film would have us believe. She was one of the first superstars and portrayed one of the first female heroes in 19th century operas, Norma. She also famously sang the tenor part in Rossini’s Otello.

“I’m a big Brahms fan,” Neef said. “Schroeter was a big fan of Maria Callas.” He pointed out that Schroeter’s use of  Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” by Callas “in bad voice” in Maria Malibran is “really heartbreaking.” Then, all too quickly it seemed after less than 15 minutes, Cowan brought the conversation to a close and the movie began. As one of the large crowd of spectators said at the end of the film: “I would have liked to have known who sang the arias.”

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Still, it was a rare opportunity to see this rhapsodic pastiche of scenes influenced by 1960s underground cinema, German romanticism and expressionist silent movies aglow on the big screen. The cast, led by Schroeter muse, Magdalena Montezuma, consists entirely of women (Warhol superstar Candy Darling notwithstanding) serves the spectacle with an exultant emotionalism that becomes addictive the longer we watch.

Other music included, in part, excerpts from Tosca, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Largo from Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto, Marty Robbins’ version of “Tonight Carmen,” and Julie Rogers performing “The Love of a Boy” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Even more exquisite was Maria Maliban dying to the strains of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, in Schroeter’s words: “blood flowing softly from her mouth.” Two highlights that reinforced the high order of camp that the film defines are Candy Darling in blackface (an Otello reference) singing “St. Louis Woman” in the style of Billie Holiday and the magnificent Ingrid Caven bringing “Ramona” out of its 1928 obscurity with a delicious insouciance. Caven’s own incipient diva-hood would bloom a few years later thanks to her films with Daniel Schmid and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the music of Peer Raben.

 

 

marika bournakiDistilled from 140 hours that included the family archives, I Am Not a Rock Star is a revealing portrait of a talented young pianist committed to serving her mistress, which just happens to be music.

A remarkable chronicle of a young woman as she matures both personally and professionally, I Am Not a Rock Star premiered at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 16 followed by a short Q & A with the director, Bobbi Jo Hart, and her subject, 21-year-old pianist Marika Bournaki. The high-energy event concluded with a brief three-piece recital, excerpts from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Ravel’s Sonatine and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 23, No. 7, all performed with a deceptively easy self-assurance and captured on the Bloor’s big screen by a live camera, just as if she were a rock star.

Rich in musical and personal detail, I Am Not a Rock Star is no melodrama, even though there are many tempestuous moments including one of two snippets that recur later – a Skype conversation with her father over what repertoire to include in a 15-minute audition for Young Concert Artists. (The other is a sublime piece of editing that brings back footage of Bournaki at five bowing at the end of a recital immediately juxtaposed after her 20-year-old self bows to conclude the last performance we see in the film.)

Ever since childhood she’s been noticed. In fact, it was a newspaper article about her off to pre-college studies at Juilliard at age 12 that caught the eye of director Hart. In Hart’s previous film She Got Game the filmmaker trailed Canadian Sonya Jeyaseelan around the women’s pro tennis circuit and became “fascinated by women who started at four or five and followed their passion.”

Bournaki has a big personality and her ease with the film’s director allows the documentary’s naturalism to flourish. It’s rare for a film to capture this kind of personal and artistic growth over such an extended period of time (from 12 to 20). In his 7 Upseries, Michael Apted gave us snapshots of a group of British children, following them every seven years for decades. But I Am Not a Rock Star is quite different, with its dozen or so significant telescopic scenes from Montreal to Juilliard, London and Wigmore Hall to Seoul and Moscow, finishing off in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Bournaki is a confident musician growing more polished each year, grounded principally by a fervent belief in a Platonic ideal of music. She calls it her religion. “I love music,” she says near the end of the film.  “I’m serving something higher, I really believe it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” Her ongoing relationship with her father is another constant, even though his “stage mother” monitoring over the years contributed to the breakup of his marriage by the time his daughter was 18. (Both parents were people whose early dreams of a performing life never bore fruit and her mother felt too much was sacrificed for the piano.) A third anchor is the support of her New York City companion, fellow Juilliard piano student and boyfriend of four years, David Aladashvili.

I Am Not a Rock Star will be shown on the Documentary Channel sometime in February.

Please click on photos for a larger image.

quartet-pauline-collins-and-maggie-smithNow that a few weeks have passed since the final screening of the 2012 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), TIFF’s impact is really just beginning.  Several of its almost 300 feature films have already opened in theatres with many more to follow in the months ahead. It’s the gift that keeps on giving with a half-life of at least a year. With a number of pre-screenings in addition to the festival itself and post-TIFF openings, I’ve managed to see more than 75 of TIFF’s offerings. What follows is a snapshot of a score of movies in which music plays an intriguing role.

Quartet (set to open January 11, 2013 and sure to be a crowd pleaser) is a rarity. Ronald Harwood’s screen adaptation of his 1997 play manages to fuse the acting talents of some of the UK’s finest (and the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman) with a cornucopia of musical excerpts from Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Puccini’s  Tosca, G&S’s The Mikado, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and “Military” symphony, a Boccherini string quintet and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach. Harwood was inspired by Tosca’s Kiss, Daniel Schmid’s loving documentary depiction of the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi founded in Milan as a residence for elderly singers who needed material help.

Music percolates everywhere in Beecham House (named after Sir Thomas) with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon playing out Bette Davis’ maxim “Old age is not for sissies.” As a group of opera singers preparing for a house fundraiser, their love of life is infectious. And with many of the home’s residents played by musicians, from soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (unforgettable in “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca) to former BBC Symphony principal clarinetist Colin Bradbury and versatile trumpet player Ronnie Hughes (his resume even includes the Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear”), the quality of the musical content is guaranteed. Be sure to stay through the beginning of the credits where many of the musicians are pictured in their youth.

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Even though none of the characters in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (his follow-up to the Palme D’Or-winning Tree of Life) are musicians, the film’s musical component rivals that of Quartet. This exploration of love (both sacred and profane) by the masterful collagist of image and sound revolves around a taciturn strong male played by Ben Affleck and two women he loves. One (Olga Kurylenko, whose occasional voiceover chronicles the course of her passion), a foreigner, is drawn to him while holidaying at Mont Saint-Michel (“The Wonder”) in Normandy. The other (Rachel McAdams), an old flame whose prime animus is religion, reconnects with him when he moves back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

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But to the soundtrack: It’s not only the extraordinary use of Wagner’s “Prelude to Act One” from Parsifal which elevates the Mont Saint-Michel episode – in fact, only Lars von Trier’s alchemy with the prelude from Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia can compare among recent Wagnerian film moments – it’s the way Malick piles on phrase upon phrase with (often) unrecognizable bits of many works, from Haydn’s The Seasons to Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 2, from the second and third movements of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 to the third movement of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. The music gives what we see onscreen depth and purpose.  

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How music can keep one’s spirit alive is the subject of the delicately told Serbian film When Day Breaks (Serbia’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award), in which the Holocaust unexpectedly enters the life of a retired music professor, warmly played by Mustafa Nadarevic. “As long as this music exists, so shall we,” his father wrote in his last message to his son. The letter was found along with a family photograph and some sheet music in a box in the ruins of the Belgrade fairgrounds more than 60 years after they were buried. The site had been a concentration camp for Jews and Gypsies. As the professor unearths his biological roots he also works on finishing the sheet music, playing it first on the piano, then with his violin student. It’s a bittersweet tune in a minor key with an indelible Hasidic hook. As he investigates his origins on the banks of the Danube where his father had been an exceptional musician who played several instruments, it becomes the film’s theme, literally and figuratively; music not only expresses our deepest feelings, it enables us to overcome suffering.

Recently in Toronto we were fortunate to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter’s vigorous performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus presens (“For the present time”) with the TSO. The program notes contained this fascinating quote from the 81-year-old composer: “Just like many 20th century creators, the problem of time concerns me to the greatest extent possible. I am concerned with how time changes in connection with the changing psychological conditions of man, how it elapses in nature, in the world, in society, in dreams, in art.”

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In The End of Time (opening December 12), Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler shifts from concepts of time to an experience of it, which he likens to listening to music. In his mesmerizing documentary he uses images and sound -- the tools he’s most comfortable with – to observe time and make our experience of it palpable (in a good way). Moving from the CERN particle accelerator which creates subatomic particles that haven’t existed since seconds after the Big Bang to filming lava flowing on the Big Island of Hawaii and nature reclaiming the city of Detroit, Mettler fills the screen with thoughts that set us pondering: “In the beginning there was no time, or, time was all there was;” ”In many languages ‘time’ and ‘weather’ are the same word;” “Does Nature have a consciousness or is it a set of circumstances?;” “Technologies don’t save time, they spend it.”

As an ice cream truck ambles the urban ruins of Detroit, Nichols Electronics’ version of Turkey in the Straw turns the image into a yo-yo of time future and past. Mettler uses music by Autechre, Robert Henke and Thomas Koner to animate his images while techno DJ Richie Hawtin (“Plastikman”) distills time down to its basic rhythm. Christos Hatzis’ and Bruno DeGazio’s audio-visual immersive sound and light show, Harmonia, their beautiful Mandala-like depiction of harmonic overtones, concludes the proceedings before Mettler brings his investigation back home on Mother’s Day with an unexpected but timely personal moment.

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One of the many things Beethoven did was distill time down to its basic rhythm. In A Late Quartet (opening November 23) writer-director Yaron Zilberman wanted to combine his feelings about family with his love of string quartet music. He thought a string quartet would provide the ideal vehicle to explore the rhythms of parental relationships with those of siblings and married couples. And he also incorporated many aspects of the Guarneri, the Italian and the Emerson quartets into his script. The musical elements of A Late Quartet work well, the melodrama of the metaphorical relationships less so.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 dominates the film from beginning to end, in performance and as a teaching aid. The Brentano Quartet supplies the soundtrack and the Attacca Quartet appears as Juilliard students. The actors are led by an avuncular Christopher Walken as the cellist who founded the group but whose Parkinson’s diagnosis puts their future in doubt. Philip Seymour Hoffman (2nd violin) and Catherine Keener (viola) have a talented Curtis-trained violinist of their own as a product of their marriage. Mark Ivanir plays the driven 1st violinist who teaches their daughter to get into the mind of Beethoven and buy the proper horsehair to get the right timbre out of a bow, but finds it hard to resist her ardour. Philip Seymour Hoffman talks about Schubert’s last request (to hear the Op. 131 quartet) and how he imagines their quartet playing the last music Schubert would hear on earth. But he has issues of his own that threaten the quartet’s existence.

Curiously, the Brentano Quartet visited Toronto during TIFF for a Music Toronto concert. Two weeks later the youthful Attacca Quartet performed in the same series.

Professionals for only five years, they gave us an upfront insight into the formative years of what may become a lifelong commitment. (In this instance, their enthusiasm occasionally outshone their balance.) Ironically, their name “attacca” refers to the practice of playing musical movements without a break, as Beethoven himself called for in his Op. 131 quartet.

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Imagine my surprise when, early in Night Across the Street, the last completed film of the great surrealist filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, his protagonist, Don Celso, looks back on his life and Ludwig van Beethoven appears as a child saying, “I’d like to be a musician. We musicians were put on earth to suffer.” Next we see him conducting his 5th symphony. He goes to the cinema (a Western is showing) with the now youthful Celso while the third movement of his 7th symphony is heard on the soundtrack. Beethoven was Don Celso’s favourite hero so naturally he would be a major part of his life experience.

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Christopher Walken convincingly plays against type in A Late Quartet, but in Seven Psychopaths (now in theatres), he pushes his own familiar envelope clear out of its zip code. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame, Seven Psychopaths is an entertaining meta-movie where the fourth wall is made of sawdust and much of the action is boosted by a smartly chosen soundtrack by the likes of Townes van Zandt, Hank Williams and Joe Strummer. The plot about scriptwriting, dog-napping and insouciant murder will undoubtedly bring pleasure to many.  I would just add this curious note: There are two scenes with a particularly high body count; during the first, in addition to gunshots, the air is filled with Berlioz’s sublime “Strophes” from Romeo et Juliette; the second is muted by a choral excerpt from Orff’s Der Mond (The Moon).

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Alexandre Tharaud makes a cameo appearance and plays Schubert and Bach in Michael Haneke’s Amour (opening January 11), which won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Tharaud plays the star pupil of a pair of now-retired piano teachers whose lives are transformed when the wife suffers a series of small strokes. Elegantly acted by French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (81 and 85, respectively), the way their characters deal with this change in their lives is difficult and provocative yet sublimely conveyed.

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In his comedy that centres on a rocky father-son relationship, Mika Kaurismaki’s Road North begins with a performance of Sibelius’ Piano Quintet and ends with one of Schubert’s Sonata for Piano, D894. Finland’s leading film and music icons, Vesa-Matti Loir and Samuli Edelmann play the estranged father and son, the former an old rock ‘n roller, the latter a proper concert pianist. When Loir sings “Autumn Leaves” (in Finnish, while driving), his commanding physical presence totally given over to his sensitive musicality and rich baritone, it’s clear why he’s a star.

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Little did I know when I took my son Simon Ennis to the Kennedy Space Center during a trip to Florida to take in some MLB spring training games that 20 years later he would make a zany and poignant documentary, Lunarcy! (opening February 2013), about people obsessed with the moon. It includes a fully realized portrait of one of the most eccentric, driven characters you will ever see on screen -- Christopher Carson, who wants to be the first person to leave the earth to live on the moon without ever coming back. It also includes an inventive score by Toronto-based composer Christopher Sandes, inspired in part by the early 70s synthesizer stylings of Wendy Carlos.

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Lovers of the analog process and Italian horror films of the 1970s known as “giallo” will be pleasantly transfixed by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (opening February 2013). Toby Jones plays a mild-mannered sound engineer whose mind starts playing tricks on him as he edits shrieks and the blood-curdling sounds of vegetables being chopped for a low budget Italian movie studio. All to a spooky soundtrack composed by James Cargill of Broadcast which captures the tone(s) of that bygone era.  “I’ve been listening to giallo soundtracks for years and it only just hit me how beautiful and ethereal and spacey they are,” says Strickland. “The composers were involved in musique concrete, free jazz, avant-garde music, so in their work they had this weird parallel between this kind of academia high art and this completely sleazy, b-grade exploitation low art. They did some of their most advanced work for these ?lms.”

Unfortunately, neither Paul Andrew Williams’ Song for Marion nor Ben Drew’s iLL Manors lived up to expectations. Even with the presence of the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave, the former’s conceit of having a group of rowdy seniors sing Sex Pistols’ songs and the like whenever the treacly script flagged was not enough to keep me glued to my seat. And despite the inventive use of Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals in the opening montage that sets up this rap tale of a drug centric world, the latter film rarely rose to that level again.

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And now to a handful of films where familiar music was pointedly used to place the action or in the case of Noah Baumbach’s emotional moving Frances Ha subliminally work in its favour. Frances, which Baumbach co-wrote with his paramour and star, the luminous Greta Gerwig, is a modern fable of a young woman pursuing her artistic dreams in New York City. The soundtrack, filled with snippets of Georges Delerue music from such films as Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows, Godard’s Le Mepris (“Contempt”) and Philippe de Broca’s arthouse cult classic King of Hearts enhanced the film’s black and white palette while Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” and David Bowie’s “Modern Love” as well as music by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson enhanced what was a delightful moviegoing experience.

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Two very fine period pieces, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, the story of two 17-year-olds, best girlfriends, set in the London of 1962 when Britain was rife with “Ban the Bomb” fervor and Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, set in the Paris of 1971, which paints a vivid picture of Parisian youth in the afterglow of May 68, are both set off by telling musical choices.

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You can hear Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonius Monk punctuating Ginger and Rosa. Syd Barrett, Booker T, Dr. Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Nick Drake, Captain Beefheart, the Incredible String Band, Tangerine Dream and Soft Machine help to vividly recreate an era of politics and love that opened the horizons of a generation.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman may once again hear Oscar knocking on his door next year after his expansive, wide-ranging portrait of a fun-loving, booze-guzzling huckster, a cult leader with a gigantic appetite for life and a mysterious bond with a rough hewn WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic but spellbinding The Master (now in theatres). Jonny Greenwood’s score rises to the occasion but it’s Jo Stafford singing “No Other Love” and Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” that incisively evoke the early postwar period.

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Ella Fitzgerald (clearly a touchstone) sings the title song in Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, as well as “Sophisticated Lady”, two subtle touches that buoy this inscrutable tale of an elderly Japanese literary translator (Tadashi Okuno) whose surprising encounter with a beautiful, young student/prostitute (Rin Takanashi) takes us into unexpected but profoundly enigmatic directions. Kiarostami, a true master, navigates human relationships like no one else.

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Finally, two movies in which the performance of music is integral to the plot. The Sapphires is based on the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group who entertained the American troops in Viet Nam in 1968. Their Irish manager had to teach the three sisters and their cousin the soul music they sang, but for a few months they all rode the exhilarating entertainment highway. There are huge sociological implications to their feel good story but as we discover as the credits roll, it’s the love of singing that has sustained the lead singer for all the years that elapsed since, a gift that she shared with her own extensive family.

kinshasakids

Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s Kinshasa Kids contains many uplifting moments as it chronicles a group of children, abandoned by their parents as witches, who find joy in the performance of music using whatever makeshift instruments they can find to accompany their voices. The euphoria they convey when they chance upon a local performance of Mozart’s Requiem is priceless, as is their excitement over the chance to perform with the legendary Papa Wemba. It’s all about respect for the music, something the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, who contribute to the soundtrack, definitely has.

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