Gemma New. Photo by Anthony ChangOne of the best things to come out of this wretched humanity of ours, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is always worth highlighting when spotted in concert announcements. A very good edition of Toronto Summer Music Festival is in the offing this year – check out our website for concert reports during summer – and will, on August 1, present the chamberized Das Lied at Koerner Hall in the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement. Mezzo Rihab Chaieb and tenor Mario Bahg will sing. Conducting: the young, and already highly in demand across North America, Gemma New, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director.

I took an express bus to Hamilton recently to catch the last HPO mainstage concert of the season, a program of Vivier’s Orion and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. New and HPO’s executive director Diana Weir took a substantial bit of time to address the audience in the FirstOntario Concert Hall and talk of all the civic partnerships developed around that particular concert. There was a small crowd of students on the balcony thanks to the HPO’s Adopt-a-School program, and representatives from mental health and the healthcare sector marking Canadian Mental Health Week. The HPO seemed extremely proud of its multiple connections to its city and the province, and eager to deepen and multiply them. What New tells me when I phone her the week after for an interview confirms this.

“Our audience is almost always full capacity,” she says on the phone from San Diego, where she was conducting that week. “What we’re doing in Hamilton seems to bring more and more for our budget every year, so we are actually growing as an organization. I think that we found a way to connect with the community and that’s one of the things that have helped the HPO grow.” Programming is of course crucial, she says, and also how that programming is delivered. “Being able to program concerts that can relate to those who know a ton about music and to those who are coming first time. Making sure that programs are well paced. Making sure the experience is great for musicians too and with enough rehearsal time. Planning a season and having a look at partnerships and community collaborations. Being able to talk about music! This is a skill that conductors are increasingly in need of, so we can advocate not only for our orchestra and musicians but also the program itself. And finally being very involved in education – especially with the schools not having so much funding these days for music education. It’s the orchestra’s job to bring young people to this art form and get them to feel welcome in the concert hall.”

New is also experimenting with the concert format at the HPO. Away from the main stage, Intimate & Immersive is a chamber music concert series with HPO musicians that takes the audience to less typical concert spaces and seats them next to and around the orchestra. “There’s always a part of the audience that wants something a little bit more relaxed and intimate and maybe even more involved than the traditional concert. They want to be able to move around and mingle and get to know the music in a more casual environment. That’s what we’ve been doing with the I & I. We wanted to create an ambience that’s more like a place you go to for a good drink and meet new people and a have good night out.” The audience also has a chance to talk to the musicians before, during and after, in time segments reserved for that. “Everyone sits very close together. The orchestra is in the middle, and the seats are all the way around the orchestra. We encourage everyone to move seats for the second half.” A visual artist is engaged every time to create the lights or video that fit the program. “Next to last time we also had smells and things that you can touch of different substances that evoked for the audience the idea of paradise,” says New. The last one this season, on May 23 at the Cotton Factory in Hamilton, was programmed around the beat and pulse, with an all-contemporary composer lineup.

I ask her about the stamina needed to conduct Mahler symphonies. “I run quite a lot. I find that helps. If I can run 40 minutes straight, that usually means I won’t lose my breath during a Mahler symphony,” she says.” And just rehearsing it as well. The amount of emotional drama that the piece provides and the excitement of it, the powerful sound that everyone is giving – it’s all very motivating, and I feel energized by it.” The Lied von der Erde at TSM will be the chamber version. Does her approach to conducting differ depending on whether she is before a chamber orchestra versus a big symphonic crowd? “Yes, I approach an orchestra in a way that will make most sense to them. For a small orchestra, like the one I conducted recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we were doing Beethoven’s Second Symphony and that’s a much smaller environment. You don’t need to give a big gesture, you can be more subtle. It really depends on what I’m hearing and what message I want to give. For the Mahler Fifth, it is a massive orchestra and the sound is so powerful and loud at places, but also other times it’s incredibly soft and close-knit and subtle. You have to show that gamut in your physical expression as a conductor.”

Of Das Lied von der Erde itself, which New covered during her tenure as an assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, she says: “I fell in love with it. It was such a personal work for Mahler. It’s sad to think that he didn’t hear it in his lifetime.”

Are there any composers that she’d like to advocate for in her programming? “Claude Vivier,” she says. “He is a favourite. His music is so intense and clear. It’s really got something that moves many of us. I’d like to do more of his music in the future.” She’s also enjoyed playing pieces by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, the HPO’s resident composer: “Her compositions are positive energy!”

What about the standard rep? I have the impression, I tell her, that my home symphony, the TSO, never plays enough French music. “There could be practical reasons for that,” says New. “Ravel often needs six or eight percussionists. I find, especially with the regional orchestras when we plan our seasons, that that’s often a challenge. And the works are shorter. But Ravel is one of my favourite composers of all time. We’re doing Daphnis et Chloé in September, and just did Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Nocturnes in March. Every time I plan the season I look at what HPO’s done since 2002 – I have that much information going back – and think that French music is something that we want to do more. Many orchestras do La mer, that one is probably the most popular, but what about Alborada del gracioso or La valse? I’d love to do La valse.”

We too would love to hear that, and we’ll be there when she does. Whether it’s with the TSO or the HPO, just a Presto tap away. 

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Photo by Elizabeth DelageWN: In addition to your concert on July 19 at this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival, you have the honour of mentoring Fellows of the TSM Academy. Why is mentoring so crucial?

CR-H: In my student years, I attended many summer programs which I now realize were as important to my education as my university studies. Especially the chamber music programs, since they feel very close to the professional world: you have to very quickly get along with other players and be ready to give up some of your preconceived notions and be open to learn from others. Experience is something that demands to be shared and passed on, and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to do that at the TSM Academy.

What is the most important thing a mentor can do? Please tell us about a memorable experience you had as a student with a mentor.

Inspiration. A great mentor, over a very brief period of time, can make you love the music you’re playing to a point where you don’t want to stop working until you’ve done justice to it. I’ve had many encounters like this, but most notably was getting working with Máté Szűcs in Denmark (at the Thy Chamber Music Festival) who was the Berlin Philharmonic principal viola for many years. He was extremely inspiring in his musicianship and in how he was able to communicate that love for the music.

What is the first piece of music you fell in love with? What musicians inspired you in your student days?

It’s hard to find a single piece, but I remember being obsessed with Chopin’s Four Ballades as a teenager, especially Krystian Zimerman’s recording of them. I remember not having a single clue in how he was able to make the piano sound like this and in how music can be so emotional and powerful. Later, I became obsessed with Radu Lupu’s recordings, all of them. To this day, his interpretations are the golden standard for me: everything he does is considered, impeccably balanced, yet completely in the moment and free as a bird. I also heard him live a few times and I always left the hall transformed. A truly magical artist.

I’m looking forward to hearing the Brahms First Piano Quartet with you and members of the Dover Quartet. Have you played with them before?

I have not, but I’ve heard them live a couple years ago with André Laplante in the Schumann Piano Quintet in Montréal. I was very moved and impressed by them and I really look forward to working with them.

How has your approach to Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante evolved over the years?

It is actually a relatively new addition to my repertoire! However, the musical language of the young Chopin, which I’m used to playing quite a lot (the two Concertos, the Rondo Op.16, etc) is very much there in this piece too. It is especially inspired music, with very memorable themes and melodies everywhere, even in all the transitions.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

La Monastère performing in St. Jax Anglican ChurchIt’s March 25, 2019 as I write this here at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts. That puts us right in the middle of Lent (the lead-up to Easter celebrations). We just struck St. Matthew’s Passion for Tafelmusik (which occurred on the same day as our meditative Compline service) and then headed straight into the University of Toronto’s student concerts. By the end of the week we’ll be onto Trio Arkel. And that’s just the sanctuary, one of ten available spaces in this large urban church.

Church. A place of faith. First and foremost, Trinity-St. Paul’s is that: a United Church, built 130 years ago for the gathering of a congregation of Christian worship. However, the intervening decades have seen this definition of its purpose adjust, with usage patterns and the will of the congregation, into something far more inclusive. Inclusive of different worship forms and inclusive of community in the broadest sense. On any given day you will see seniors exercising, children arriving for daycare, dance and music lessons, language classes and 12-step groups meeting, and professional arts organizations performing. It is a messy mélange of all the best things of community. And more and more T-SP (along with others) is serving as a model for faith buildings across Canada.

So, dear readers of The WholeNote magazine, why does this matter to you? Because the new models being built in these faith communities are providing new spaces for the arts and allowing for broad spectrum partnerships that could deepen our community’s relationship to the arts.

In 2013, Alan Brown of WolfBrown in the United States released a paper that talked about the increasing desire to create art rather than just witness it – to participate. He broke arts participation down into five “modalities”: inventive, interpretive, curatorial, observational and ambient (WolfBrown, A Fresh Look at Arts Participation, 2013). He argued that we deepen our relationship with the arts when we engage at all of these levels, acting as both practitioner and patron.

Our new hybrid faith-arts, community-centre spaces offer the opportunity to be inventive and observational in one venue, without the excessive costs of a full-scale theatre to hinder these explorations. The best centres create a dynamic in which audiences are allowed to feel a sense of ownership and the comfort of a home away from home. Unlike many large-scale recital halls, these are not “high art” places, even when the art being produced in them often is. The intimate scale of the work at Trinity-St. Paul’s, for example, can best be seen post-show in the lobby where artists pass through on the way to retrieve their things. There is a natural collapsing of distance, an ability to imagine oneself as being fully a part of the success of that venture, a part of a journey of art creation.

What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Canadian Arts Audiences

In a 2013 blog on the website, titled What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Canadian Arts Audiences, Shannon Litzenberger quotes a National Endowment for the Arts (US) Periodic Survey of Public Participation in the Arts as saying “we are rapidly introducing new or blended forms … expanding beyond purpose-built arts facilities, moving into bookstores, community centres, schools, places of worship and especially the home.” These models aren’t particularly new; who hasn’t heard of the infamous Trinity Sessions by the Cowboy Junkies at Holy Trinity Anglican, after all? What is new, however, is that aging congregations, and the weight of often historical buildings, are putting the model of faith buildings as multi-disciplinary hubs under threat. Regeneration Works (a project of the National Trust for Canada and Faith & the Common Good) estimates that 9000 faith buildings will close in Canada in the next ten years. How many of these buildings currently house rehearsals, workshops or performances?

There is an opportunity here, to preserve these unique architectural spaces, creating new venues for the arts that can work in collaboration with community activation. Many models are being developed around Canada, but here are just a couple to consider.

After the congregation at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Ottawa had shrunk to a point where it couldn’t maintain the building, Carleton University offered to purchase it. The new arts and education centre (yet to be named) will still house the faith community, but will also have Carleton University’s department of music, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Ottawa Children’s Theatre and other amateur and professional practitioners. This can only strengthen the learning environment and provide a built-in future audience. Carleton is invested in this concept of a hybrid culture, creating a more nuanced educational experience that will also involve adult learner lecture series. Check out more on the project at

Meanwhile, in Montreal, St. Jax Anglican Church has just announced a partnership with La Monastère as the resident circus company. La Monastère describes themselves as a cabaret circus, interested in creating fully immersive events in St. Jax’s sanctuary in which the seating has been removed to allow for large-scale public gatherings and events. With a bar, full lighting and sound system and the gorgeous architecture of the church, the venue is proving to be divine (excuse the pun) for La Monastère. The sense of height and daring inherent in the circus arts seems to be enhanced by the curved architectural features of this Anglican church, creating a experience that is both intimate and death-defying. The Anglican congregation continues to worship there and the team at St. Jax is looking to expand its mission by bringing more co-users into its community hub embrace. As they curate their own particular hub they are considering a gym (possibly circus-based), co-working and café spaces, as viable options that would enhance their mission.

While both of these models have favoured the church remaining resident, on the East Coast there are models in which arts groups have fully purchased the faith building, creating wholly new venues centred on the arts. These include the Highland Arts Theatre Centre in Sydney, Nova Scotia and the Indian River Music Festival, in Prince Edward Island. The Indian River Music Festival has expanded its programming to encompass the entire summer, with musicians of all different genres from across Canada, including, this summer, Polaris Prize winner, Jeremy Dutcher. As well, a sensitive glass addition to the historically designated site allows room for audiences to gather pre- and post-show, without damaging the historic structure.

Regeneration Works continues to work on models like these across the country, inspired by what has been created and looking to the future of hybrid faith-arts centres. In Winnipeg and Kingston, mighty Vancouver and tiny little whistle-stop Kingsbridge, communities are embracing these civic assets and asking them to reoccupy a place in the broader public life. If you’re interested in seeing more models that are being tested, head on over to to learn more; or consider joining us for a workshop in Kingston on June 1 at the Spire of Sydenham, another fantastic “arts in a faith building” project. Also feel free to join us on social media, and keep an eye out for our upcoming survey of how faith buildings are serving the broader not-for-profit community. We look forward to hearing about co-use projects from all over Canada via this two-year study.

As I finish writing this, a toddler has just chased the resident cat down the hallway and Dancing with Parkinsons is setting up for their weekly therapy/dance class/community gathering. In the sanctuary, a few tourists have come off the street and asked to pray, and rather unusually,the space was available. Someone tunes the piano for tonight while they pray. I cannot help but feel that this is a glorious use for this old place of sanctuary.

Trinity St. Paul's resident catKendra Fry is the general manager of Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts and an associate of Regeneration Works: Places of Faith, a project of the National Trust for Canada and Faith & the Common Good. She is passionate about building places where communities can grow and thrive.

Svadba c Bernard Coutant bannerA Scene from Svadba. Photo by Bernard CoutantI remember the first time I heard Ana Sokolović’s music: I was in Paris, participating as CBC Radio’s delegate at the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in 1996. My Radio-Canada colleague, Laurent Major, had chosen to present a work for violin duo, Ambient V, composed in 1995 by Montreal composer Sokolović (b. 1968) who had come to Canada from her native Serbia in 1992. I recall thinking that this was a distinctly fresh musical voice. There were elements of Serbian folk music, minimalism, as well as choreographed movement by the two players. It all added up to a memorable impression of music that was playful, yet highly focused and purposeful.

I certainly was not the only person to be impressed by Ambient V. Another young Montreal composer, Jean Lesage (b. 1958), heard the work and recommended it to a colleague who was designing a program for the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ). The piece was programmed on the SMCQ concert, recorded for broadcast on Radio-Canada, and subsequently chosen as the Radio-Canada submission to the IRC. Ambient V is available on a recording on the SNE label called Nouvelle Musique Montréalaise II through the Canadian Music Centre. Incidentally, Sokolović and Lesage connected romantically, and were married in 1998.

Ana Sokolović. Photo by André PermanitierIn 1999, Sokolović was named Grand Prize winner in the CBC/Radio-Canada National Competition for Young Composers, for which I served as CBC’s coordinator. The work with which she won is titled, Géométrie sentimentale. It’s a work in which the thematic material is seen from three different angles: “music through different geometries,” as her program note states. It was through her success at the competition that I first met Sokolović, and since that time we have collaborated on numerous occasions.

Géométrie sentimentale had been commissioned in 1997 by the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal (ECM+), a large chamber ensemble created in 1988 and led by its founder and artistic director, the Montreal conductor, Véronique Lacroix. Lacroix had also been in the audience for that same SMCQ concert in 1995 and had heard Sokolović’s Ambient V. Like many others, Lacroix, too, was struck by the distinctive voice she heard in the work. Over time, and at last count, she has commissioned four works from Sokolović. The most recent of these commissions is the violin concerto, Evta.

Andréa Tyniec. Photo by Sasha OnyshcenkoSokolović told me she based the concerto on ideas that surfaced in conversations with her soloist, the Montreal-born, but now Toronto-based violin virtuoso, Andréa Tyniec. Two areas of interest that Tyniec expressed were Gypsy violin music and yoga. Sokolović wrote, “Evta means ‘seven’ in the Serbian Roma language. Each of the seven movements of the concerto is inspired by the colours of the chakras and is associated with one of the notes of the scale: C/red, D/orange, E/yellow, F/green, G/blue, A/indigo and B/violet.” She further mentions, “The work is strongly influenced by Gypsy violin music played in the Balkans.” Tyniec told me: “Working with Ana on Evta after performing so many of her violin works during the past years, both solo and chamber, has been a real artistic highlight for me in my career. Playing Evta is a personal experience since some of its themes and structures are drawn from conversations Ana and I had years ago. Evta is also a wonderful challenge for any soloist, to be at once a prominent voice leading the narrative and still remaining a part of the bigger textures of the work. There is such joy in being able to both stand out, be oneself and belong.”

The concerto was premiered by Tyniec and ECM+, conducted by Lacroix at the 2017 World Music Days in Vancouver, sponsored by the International Society of Contemporary Music and Music on Main. I attended that performance. In my review of it for The WholeNote, I observed that Tyniec’s solo violin was an astounding traveller through the seven movements, flashing virtuosity in so many ways, one lost count. The thread of this fascinating composition never lost clarity as it swept through its intricate and surprising courses. It was a riveting experience to witness the unfolding of this exciting, highly original work.

Toronto audiences will at last get their chance to hear Tyniec perform Sokolović’s Evta on May 26 at 8pm when New Music Concerts (NMC) presents the work as part of their season’s final concert at Betty Oliphant Theatre. NMC artistic director Robert Aitken will conduct the NMC ensemble in a concert that also includes music by two rising young Canadian composers, Samuel Andreyev (b. 1981) and Matthias McIntire (b. 1986).

Evta is also available on a newly released CD on the ATMA label titled Sirènes (ATMA ACD2 2762.) The recording contains four major works by Sokolović, including the title track, Sirènes, a work for six female voices, written for Queen of Puddings Music Theatre (QOP) in 2000. In 2010 Sokolović wrote another, more ambitious work for six female voices for QOP, a 55-minute one-act opera in Serbian called Svadba (Wedding), arguably her greatest success to date.

In her note to the opera, Sokolović wrote: “When Queen of Puddings Music Theatre (1995–2013) approached me to write an opera for six female voices, I took the opportunity to explore the theme of a wedding, particularly the evening before the ceremony, during which the bride-to-be and her friends devote themselves to private ancient rituals. The text is based on original Serbian poetry but given a new context, adapting it to our contemporary culture, and the music is derived from traditional folklore.” Sokolović has told me that when she arrived in Canada as a student, she saw herself as a member of an international contemporary music community, and she tried to avoid any limitation to her music that might result from emphasizing her Serbian roots. However, she learned that, rather than being limiting, expressing her musical roots in a contemporary context enabled her to strengthen her voice as a composer.

Svadba has had 20 productions to date. John Hess, the co-founder (along with Dáirine Ni Mheadhra) of QOP told me, “I think it is easily the most performed Canadian opera ever. Our enchantment with Ana had a lot to do with her imaginative vocal writing and the unique exploratory quality of much of that. Her roots in Serbian traditional music and her ability to use that as a compelling ingredient of her work without becoming gratuitous or sentimental was important to us. Finally, her strong dramatic instinct left us with a body of works for the singing stage that continue to be performed.”

Sokolović’s proven success as an opera composer has led to a commission for a new mainstage opera from the Canadian Opera Company (COC). The Old Fools is an opera that Sokolović is creating with British librettist Paul Bentley. The two-act opera was inspired by a poem by English poet Philip Larkin, focusing on the fear of aging and death. In announcing the commission, COC general director Alexander Neef said: “One of the things I enjoy most about Ana’s works is that they are stories that tap into shared human experience, while simultaneously challenging our perceptions of what that is.” The Old Fools is currently in development, even as the exact production date has yet to be announced.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

PRO et CONTRA IMG 0684 3000 bannerScene from Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA. Courtesy Eifman BalletGood ballet is a feast for the senses, whether classical or contemporary in style. Music, movement and design create a symbolic display or depict character and story, with dancers moving through space delineated by the choreographer’s specific interweaving of physical steps and musical phrases, offset by the physical design of set, costumes and lighting. But conveying inner stories is not typically the art form’s long suite.

Having no words is usually an integral part of the definition of ballet; yet, recently, choreographers have been getting closer to finding a way to articulate thoughts and feelings that demand words as their medium of expression. Balletic adaptations of Shakespeare’s later, more complex plays are a case in point. Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet is extraordinarily effective at communicating Hamlet’s intellectual and spiritual torment. Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale is magical in how clearly the complexity of Leontes’ jealousy is conveyed.

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, coming to Toronto this month, has become internationally renowned for full-length ballets of great psychological depth; ballets that require not only a choreographer able to meld music and movement in ways that will invoke a powerful, detailed response in audiences, but also dancers able to embody his creations. Around the world, audiences have responded with great applause dubbing the company “unique” in their approach.

Boris Eifman. Courtesy Eifman BalletThis week I had the exciting opportunity to speak with Boris Eifman, the founding artistic director and choreographer of the Eifman Ballet as the company prepares to begin a new North American tour in Toronto with Eifman’s latest production, the already acclaimed: Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA.

What makes the company unique, Eifman says, is that in every ballet he choreographs, they “are really trying to reflect on the interior world of the characters, showing the emotions and feelings of that inner world through the language of dance and movement.” While grounded in the strong traditions of classical Russian ballet that emphasize having a clear storyline, emotional content and strong acting, they have taken those elements into the present, utilizing new contemporary choreography, modern design and cutting-edge technology. Founded by Eifman in 1977 as the Leningrad New Ballet, the company recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and boasts a dedicated ensemble of phenomenally talented dancers who are also very skillful actors. “In fact they are unique,” says their director, because “their acting and dancing skills are equal.” He credits these abilities and their “wonderful personalities” for constantly inspiring him in the creative process.

When it comes to the company’s individual ballets, inspiration can come from different directions, Eifman says: “When I was doing Mozart’s Requiem it was the music that came first. When I did Anna Karenina, it was definitely the story and the great novel by Tolstoy.” For this ballet, Tchaikovsky, PRO et CONTRA, he says, it is in equal parts the music and the story of the tormented life of the great composer. “Basically,” he says, “it is like a deathbed confession. What I am trying to do is show the secret or mystery of the life of this absolutely unique human being who, in spite of leading an incredibly difficult life, was yet able to create the phenomenal music that we all love.”

Interestingly, the phrase “mystery of life” also occurs in the title of an earlier Eifman ballet about the composer: Tchaikovsky:The Mystery of Life and Death. I asked him about the connection. “They are completely different works from different times,” he says. “When the first production came out in 1993, it caused a great scandal because the ballet explored Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality; and because of the social climate in Russia at the time it was felt that the great composer – who is of course an icon for every Russian – was being defamed. There were demonstrations, protests against the theatre, and I even received death threats.”

“Now we are in a different time, when homosexuality is not unknown or taboo to the extent it was 25 years ago,” he says. “The new ballet [created in 2016] Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA is a completely different production that raises many different questions about Tchaikovsky’s difficult life and the effect it had on his artistic creations, even while drawing on some of the same biographical facts.”

He explains: “Tchaikovsky [1840-1893] was a very religious person but, of course, at that time, especially in Russia, to be a homosexual and to be religious was not supposed to be possible, as being a homosexual was considered to be one of the greatest sins. That is why all his life he was torn between God and the Devil, so much so that it was like a split in his personality; and that is a main focus of this production.”

The idea of the split personality is given tangible form in the ballet. “Tchaikovsky is two characters in this production; one is Tchaikovsky the composer, and the other is his alter ego. One is always trying to move up to meet God, and the other trying to move down to meet the Devil.”

Watching the official trailers for the ballet on YouTube, one can see that concept being echoed literally in the choreography; Tchaikovsky and his double usually move vertically, often one lifting or lowering the other, while the rest of the company swirls around them dancing on the horizontal plane, enacting scenarios from Tchaikovsky’s life, or fantastic visions where his real life and artistic creations intertwine.

This led to one of my big questions for the choreographer. Given that Tchaikovsky composed some of the world’s most dearly loved ballet scores for works that are considered to be archetypal classical ballets, most notably Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, I wondered if we would hear any of this music in the new ballet, or see any images from or snippets of the original Petipa choreography woven into the new story.

I was surprised by his answer: the music from the ballet scores is not used at all. While all written by Tchaikovsky, the music is taken from six different symphonic works (including Symphony No.5 in E Minor and the Serenade for Strings in C Major). On the other hand, images reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and his operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are incorporated into the all-new choreography. “The main focus is to find out and understand what provoked the particular pieces that we all know by heart and think we understand. What was behind these creations? Why did he create these and not something different?”

(For those who don’t want to know, beware! There are spoilers coming up.)

“The main focus is to find out and understand what provoked the particular pieces that we all know by heart and think we understand.” Scene from Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA. Courtesy Eifman BalletIn what appears to be a long vision of his life flashing before his eyes, Tchaikovsky’s Double merges into von Rothbart, Drosselmeyer and Onegin. Visions of his disastrous marriage to his student Antonina Milyukova (who is said to have reminded him of Tatiana in Onegin ) overlap with images of swans from Swan Lake. At one point, the stage is suddenly filled by a swarm of mice seemingly escaped from The Nutcracker. At another, a table is surrounded by ferocious card players from The Queen of Spades, and Tchaikovsky’s unloved patroness Nadezhda von Meck appears as his nemesis in the guise of Carabosse, the evil fairy, from Sleeping Beauty.

In many ways this ballet could be viewed as the culmination of Eifman’s lifelong admiration for Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music, even though he has created six previous ballets using various music by the composer including The Idiot (1980), Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death (1993), Red Giselle (1997), Musagete (2004), Anna Karenina (2005), and Onegin (2009). “What is it about the composer’s music that you respond so strongly to?” I asked. “The emotional quality of the music is important” he says, “but most of all the music is very plastic (tangible), very theatrical; primarily it is the music’s strong dramatic energy that touches me the most and provokes me to create new works.” As for calling it a “culmination” he sounds a cautionary note, joking that he “has a lot of work to do as there is still a lot of music to be used.”

I ask if he has found that audiences in Canada or North America respond differently to his ballets than audiences at home in Russia. “The audience reaction is very, very similar,” he says. “I believe there are a lot of people here who know and understand ballet; and they give the company great feedback, so that we are always very happy to come and bring our new productions.”

Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA plays at Toronto’s Sony Centre for three performances only, May 9 to 11 at 8pm, with pre-show talks by dance writer Deirdre Kelly before each performance at 7pm.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

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