As part of Luminato and of Canadian commemorations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus is presenting the world premiere of Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord. The 70-minute opera with music by Errol Gay to a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano is a charming work written to include all levels of the 200-voice CCOC from oldest to youngest plus three professional singers.  Told with abundant humour and imagination, this is an opera destined to last beyond its specific occasion to become a permanent part of the CCOC repertoire.

As with other historical characters who have become the stuff of legend, there is some disagreement about what Laura Secord actually did and how.  Albano sticks to the most accepted facts that Laura, née Ingersoll, (1775-1868) moved with her loyalist family from Massachusetts to Upper Canada.  In 1797 Laura married James Secord and settles in Queenston.  James, a sergeant in the 1st Militia, was wounded in during the Battle of Queenston Heights.  The Americans sequestered property, including the Secord farm, to billet their soldiers.  On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura overheard the Americans planning a surprise attack on British troops led by Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams that would lead to American control of the Niagara Peninsula.  Her husband still incapacitated from his wound, she set out alone to walk the 32 kilometres through enemy territory to warn FitzGibbon herself.  She took a cow along with her so she could claim she was taking it to sell at market.  She collapsed a short distance from Decew House, FitzGibbon’s headquarters, but was able give her warning in time, leading to a British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Albano’s begins the opera in the present with a school class preparing a play to celebrate Laura Secord during their study of the War of 1812.  Suddenly Laura herself (Emily Brown Gibson) appears to tell the children and their surprised teacher what really happened.  It transpires that what “really happened” actually involves quite a lot of fantasy but those fantastic elements are what will attract children to the story and help enliven the history.  A Balladeer (Andrew Love) becomes the narrator to set scenes and jump from one episode to the next.  He first appears as a square dance caller to lead into the scene of James Secord (Ivan Yordanov) courting Laura.

We shift from the human world to the animal world of the Ingersoll farm with its choruses of goats, sheep, chickens and pigs that introduces in grand style Laura’s Cow (Marta Herman).  A life-sized Trojan cow is pulled in out of which Herman pops to deliver a humorously bluesy number consisting entirely of the word “Moo”, after which she leads the barnyard animals in a boisterous charleston.  The scene is so much fun it is really beside the point to ask why Errol Gay has identified the animals with music one hundred years in their future, except that one sub-theme of the opera is that animals are more advance than we are because they are much more aware of their environment.

The most fascinating scene of the opera is also the most dramatically and musically advanced.  Laura, who feels helpless after James is wounded, goes to a church service where the congregation – men on one side women on the other – are singing a hymn.  In between verses, the chorus sings directly to Laura to be prepared to do something important when the time comes.  The effect is psychologically astute since Laura wonders whether it is God or her conscience speaking to her.

As we know, the occasion does arrive and urged on by her cow, Laura does take action.  Albano dramatizes her 32-kilometre trek by having her journey overseen by Ojibwe-speaking Native Guides and by her encountering various animals along the way – a bear, a colony of industrious beavers, a pack of untrustworthy coyotes and a herd of trustworthy deer.  At Decew House, Albano brings out the detail that the British soldiers won’t at first take Laura seriously until she defiantly insists on seeing FitzGibbon (also Andrew Love).  His praise of her gradually builds into a massive chorus encompassing the entire cast in praise of Laura, of Canada and of ordinary people having the power to do extraordinary things.  It is a wonderfully uplifting sequence and beautifully sung.

The overall nature of the opera is most reminiscent of Benjamin Britten first opera Paul Bunyan (1941), with its singing animals and eclectic mix of mood music and period-inspired tunes.  Gay draws a wide range of effects from the 14-member orchestra.  Its orchestral interludes sometimes sound Debussyan, sometimes like that of the great European exiles who scored so many films in the 1940s.  Gay is keenly aware that music for a children’s chorus must be clearly rhythmic and melodic.  His arias grow out of the atmospheric music but the textures are perfectly judged to suit the voices they are meant to accompany.  Besides the remarkable church scene and the rousing finale, perhaps the single loveliest song is the one about the wedding veil that he writes for Laura’s maid-of-honour Emma (Jacoba Barber-Rozema) that is filled with both the joy and sadness of a friend seeing another move on to another stage in life.

Emily Brown Gibson, who has been a member of the CCOC for six years, has a strong, clear voice that will surely acquire more fullness when it matures.  She gives a very winning portrait of Laura, not as an overblown figure, but as a good, seemingly unexceptional person who sees what is the right thing to do and does it.  All the flamboyance of heroism Albano and Gay give to Laura’s Cow.  Marta Herman is a delight throughout.  Her mezzo-soprano combines brightness and depth and her acting has the panache to make her character the most memorable in the opera.  Andrew Love has a heroic baritone and fine acting abilities which help explain the long list of opera engagements he has lined up in the future.

Special praise must be given to costume designer Lisa Magill who has found ingenious solutions to the many challenges the opera poses.  Her cow outfit for Herman is exceedingly witty.  She has pants and a blouse with a black-and-white splotch design, white rubber boots with black toes and a pink shoulder bag decorated with a row what look like pink basting bulbs.  The beavers are also wonderful with their brown mining hats, brown overalls with dependent quilted tails and wooden sticks, sandpaper and trowels for dam-building.  Her designs along with Fred Peruzza’s specialty props make the show a visual as well as musical pleasure.

CCOC Artistic Director Ann Cooper Gay conducts the orchestra and the singers with verve and precision.  Especially notable is how clear the diction is across the board – something that is hard to find even in all adult companies.  If you’re looking for a Luminato event for you and your family, this is an ideal one to choose.

©Christopher Hoile

Laura’s Cow runs at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre, 231 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto, June 7-10.  An alternate cast to the one discussed sings on June 8, June 9 evening and June 10 afternoon.  For tickets or more information visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, May 26 2012

It came as no surprise that Casual Saturday concert at Thompson Hall last Saturday evening was an outstanding event by any standards!

On the podium was guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, a familiar figure with the Toronto Symphony under whom they performed a hugely successful complete Sibelius Symphonies cycle in 2010. The programme, played without intermission, was a repeat of two of the works played earlier in the week, the First Cello Concerto by Shostakovich and the Brahms Second Symphony. The soloist was Alisa Weilerstein, the 30 year old cellist whose fame had preceded her and whom I was looking forward to hearing in concert.

Dausgaard greeted the audience with a friendly and informative chat about Brahms and the composer’s skill as an orchestrator. He introduced Alisa Weilerstein to the audience and invited her to talk about the character of the concerto, what to listen for and its inherent difficulties and rewards. She is an extraordinary cellist who displayed a superb technique, flawless intonation and intimate understanding of this tour-de-force for soloist and orchestra. I doubt that we’ll ever hear a more exciting and searching rendition.

The Brahms Second enjoyed an inspired, incandescent performance, with the conductor’s unusually animated and energetic body language shaping the playing. The hoped for accelerando in the closing pages of last movement brought the evening to a breathless conclusion.

Following the concert there was an open invitation to a party in the North Lobby.

The applause between movements was an encouraging sign that in this virtually full house were many newcomers having an enjoyable evening and who would, hopefully, be back.

Last month, our roaving reporter Ori Dagan went down to Toronto's Harbourfront Centre to visit the Metis Fiddler Quartet before their debut CD release party.  Below is the resulting video with a small clip of their performance.

Check out our new Conversations@TheWholeNote video interview with pianist Stewart Goodyear, who will be performing all 32 Beethoven Sonatas on Saturday June 9 at Koerner Hall as part of the Luminato Festival, co-presented with The Royal Conservatory.

We hope you enjoy the conversation.

David Perlman talks with Stewart Goodyear, pianist.

To hear the full conversation with Stewart Goodyear 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.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Douglas McNabney, artisitc director, Toronto Summer Music

Click "Read More" for the two other Conversations from that day.

Read more: Conversations@theWholeNote.com - Videos from April 19, 2012

David Perlman talks with Gordon Mansell of the Organix concert series.

To hear the full conversation with Gordon Mansell 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.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Opera Atelier mounted the North American premiere of Armide (1686) by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 2005 to celebrate its 20th season.  Now OA has revived the production of this work, often considered the pinnacle of 17th-century French opera, in an enhanced version even more opulent than it was before.  It is a visual and musical feast that OA has been asked to take to the Opéra Royal de Versailles May 11-13, 2012 and to Glimmerglass Opera July 21-August 23, 2012.

The story, based on an episode of Torquato Tasso epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581), is set during the First Crusade and, as one might expect, depicts the Crusades as a battle between Good as embodied by the Christian knights and Evil as embodied by the Muslims.  What is quite surprising is that Lully’s librettist Philippe Quinault takes a more complex view of his characters than is present in his source.

Read more: 2012.04.17: WholeNote Blog: “Armide”

We have two new videos from the Conversations@TheWholeNote video series.  In these episodes David Perlman talks to Catherine Wilson of Ensemble Vivant, and Jan Lisiecki.


Jan Lisiecki

Catherine Wilson

The word “new” is a curious one, for what exactly is meant when we call something new? New in relation to what? The dictionary defines the word new as “recently made, created, or invented; recently introduced and previously unfamiliar; something that has not been used by anyone else.” In juxtaposition to this there is the age-old quote from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Last night, Thursday March 1, 2012,  the Toronto Symphony Orchestra launched the 8th season of their “New Creations Festival” at Roy Thompson Hall with an array of offerings - a pre-concert chamber orchestra performance in the lobby, the four featured symphonic works in the concert hall, and a post-concert jazz performance/party back in the lobby. The overall theme for this year’s festival is “Europe and Canada” - a broad sweeping umbrella under which Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, this year’s guest curator, offers his selection of new sounds to Torontonian ears.

Playing with this idea of “new,” each of the four symphonic pieces presented its own set of contributions and questions. For Canadian composer Brian Current, he sees part of his role as a composer as advocacy work, creating music that reflects what it is to be alive at this time. The concert began with “This Isn’t Silence,” a composition Current wrote fourteen years ago in 1998. Since that time, Current told the audience, the title has become a mantra, a way of reminding himself and others of the importance of listening to what contemporary music is communicating and that it not be relegated to the background or considered irrelevant.

As I attuned my ears to the orchestral sounds of “This Isn’t Silence,” there was a relentless energy that accumulated as the piece progressed, reminding me of what I’ve often experienced while engaging as a concentrated listener in urban-based soundwalks. It was an orchestral city soundscape full of sudden changes, percussive attacks, and loud roars. As the work drew to its close, there was a form of serenity that emerged, yet not without the presence of a low rumbling undertone, reminiscent of the omnipresent motor drones we are all exposed to on a daily basis. If orchestral music can challenge us to become more aware of what our ears and bodies are unconsciously listening to in our everyday environment, then this is one way it can address the underlying assumptions our culture ascribes to — an indifference towards urban sonic design and an unquestioning tolerance of industrial noise. The composer’s music thus becomes a voice of awareness and barometer for the times in which we live.

The concert then transitioned into an exquisite performance of Claude Vivier’s poignant work “Lonely Child,” which was written in 1980. As Canadian-born soprano Barbara Hannigan began to sing the opening lines of the lullaby “Bel enfant de la lumière dors, dors, dors, toujours dors (Beauteous child of light sleep, sleep, sleep, forever sleep), I felt the purity of her tone penetrate right into the layers of my flesh, a reminder of the intense power that sound can have on the body and something I’ve not often experienced with bel canto singing. As the libretto transitioned from French into a sonic language created by Vivier himself, the delicate fragility of the sounds continued to create a haunting soliloquy on the yearning for love. A shift then occurred as the soloist opened up into her full-bodied and mature voice to make a fervent plea to be granted eternity.

In preparing for the performance, Hannigan consulted with the original performer of the work who worked closely with Vivier at the time. She was advised to dwell in both the child’s world and in the more passionate and “somewhat desperate world of an adult.” Her ability to use a full timbral range to delineate both these places in tandem was the brilliance of her performance. These soul-infused vocal sounds combined with the intense orchestral spectral textures brought the listener face to face with the timeless and universal human quest for unconditional love and acceptance - a story that has been told in countless ways and forms throughout the centuries. Although this work by Vivier is over 30 years old, it stands as a testament to what can happen when the human spirit opens up fully in order to communicate messages from other realms and worlds. One can only imagine what visions and innovations this Montreal-born composer would have dreamed had he lived beyond his 35 years.

The most recently composed work of the evening’s performance was Peter Eötvös’ “Seven (Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts) for Violin and Orchestra” (2003). Rooted in the traditions of European composition, this homage to the seven pioneering spirits who lost their lives while pursuing a collective dream derived its structure from various permutations of the number 7. Reaching back as far as the 16th century to the experimentations with sound and space practiced by Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, Eötvös chose to disperse 7 violinists within the entire space and to divide the remaining 49 musicians on stage into 7 groups, with two groups of the low register double basses anchoring each side. With the solo violinist on stage and the remaining 6 in the upper balconies, these choices were made to evoke the impression of the 7 astronauts hovering in space.

Working with space as a compositional parameter immediately sets up an acoustic experience that could be seen as unusual or innovative. However the use of massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups was an important practice that set the stage for the shift from the Renaissance to Baroque idioms over four centuries ago. In electroacoustic music, the use of an ‘orchestra of loud speakers’ set up in multiple locations within a space is standard practice, creating a complete surround sound experience and offering the composer the possibility of creating multiple layers of movement. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare instrumental and electroacoustic music on this point, but working with spatial ideas is certainly a potent way to dynamically open up and bring change to the orchestral experience.

The European/Hungarian component of the evening came to a conclusion with the final work by György Kurtág with his “Messages for Orchestra, Op. 34.” composed from 1991 to 96. Like Eötvös, Kurtág is a leading compositional voice in Hungary, and this work exemplifies their close ties. At a turning point in Kurtág’s career, he worked with art psychologist Marianne Stein who encouraged him to develop his own personal voice. This was no doubt an influencing factor in the writing of these intimate symphonic ‘messages’, as they are a form of sonic communication to his fellow Hungarian musicians: Peter Eötvös, Alfred Schlee, Albert Simon, and Zoltán Jeney. In a style reminiscent of Webern, all the musical elements are scaled down to the essence so that we as listeners receive an imprint of each of these individuals. In introducing this work, Eötvös emphasized that the core of Kurtág’s vision was to convey ‘pianissimo’. He went on to give the audience an opportunity to hear the dynamic differences in a short sequence played first on a grand piano and then on an upright piano using the mute pedal. This concept of pianissimo however refers to more than just dynamic differences, as it is also a metaphorical way of describing a style that seeks to go to the very heart and reduce the musical elements to their core. The importance of personal intimacies and formation of community becomes a central focus in these delicate works.

The intent of the New Creations Festival is to give the citizens of Toronto an opportunity to hear the visions and sonic formations of composers influenced by our current times. We can see from these four works that while the way musical elements are treated and organized may differ, there is something universally human and elemental that unite these four composers from Canada and Hungary with the vast array of musical expressions that have motivated the human creative spirit throughout time. During the intermission, Barbara Hannigan gave us an insight into her own creative process in preparing a work for performance. For her, it matters not if the work is contemporary, classical, baroque, or any other style. What motivates her as a performer and artistic communicator is the overall architecture of the work that provides her the space to create her own images, associations and memories.

The concert also provoked for me an additional consideration to this question of what constitutes a ‘new creation’. With the multiple challenges and crisis points currently confronting our collective society, does musical practice maintain business as usual? What effect does the past year of global uprisings and desire for democratic rights have on our creative expressions? How can our new creations contribute to the current movements of change?

When asked about the reasons for why the Occupy Wall Street Movement happened when it did, New York political organizer and activist Yotam Marom stated: “It feels like something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed, and so all sorts of things that were impossible before are possible now. Something just got kind of unclogged”. With the strong winds of transformation swirling around all levels of society, it is ultimately necessary, I believe, that the creative spirit take a leading role. As the New Creations Festival unfolds, both listeners and creators alike must keep their ears attuned to the ground to see if what we are hearing and creating provides an opening for new possibilities, dreams and directions in resonance with the broader cultural currents.

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