Lucas Debargue. Photo by Xiomara BenderLucas Debargue has already had a storied career. When he was 24, he finished fourth in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition but, more importantly, the Moscow Music Critics Association bestowed their top honours on him as “the pianist whose performance at the Competition has become an event of genuine musical significance, and whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience.”

Immediately SONY signed him to a recording contract. Now he’s just released his fourth CD for the company – 52 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti on four CDs – and he will play ten of them on January 16, 2020 in his fourth appearance in Toronto in less than four years. This, after sharing a Koerner Hall program with Lukas Geniušas (runner-up in that same 2015 competition) on April 30, 2016, a TSO debut in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2 in April 2017, and a memorable chamber music concert with Janine Jansen, Torlief Thedeen and Martin Fröst, highlighted by Messiaen’s ineffable Quartet for the End of Time in December 2017. He will make his third Koerner Hall appearance – and Koerner Hall solo debut – in an impressive program headed by those ten Scarlatti sonatas. I caught up with him mid-November, via an email conversation, in Lausanne, Switzerland where he was on tour.

Read more: In Conversation: Scarlatti and Beyond – Pianist Lucas Debargue

Marion Newman as Dr. Wilson in Missing. Photo by Dean KalyanThis past September 20, soprano Melody Courage posted the following on Facebook:

What an incredible evening last night! It was such an honour to perform the world premiere of Ian Cusson’s beautiful aria ‘Dodo, mon tout petit’ with Alexander Shelley. Ian was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company and National Arts Centre Orchestra to replace the opening aria in Act 3 of the opera Louis Riel. It will forever be inserted in the opera, taking the place of the original aria which used a sacred Nisga’a melody without permission. It was a monumental evening in this time of reconciliation, and I am so honoured I was asked to sing! … I was proud to share this moment with, not only the incredibly gifted Métis composer Ian Cusson, but my colleague Marion Newman who gave a beautiful performance of Barbara Croall’s Zasakwaa: There is a Heavy Frost. Marion, your passion and voice within the indigenous community continues to inspire me! I can’t wait to see where the future takes us!

The “incredible evening” she was referencing was a concert, on September 19, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, of the NAC Orchestra, and it serves as a useful narrative starting point for this story, which will, eventually, journey towards another significant evening, November 26, and repeated November 27, at Heliconian Hall, titled An Evening with Marion Newman. It will explore, in words and music, the question “What is classical Indigenous Music?” with the musical participation of Newman herself, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy, baritone Evan Korbut, and pianist Gordon Gerrard, with music by composers Ian Cusson, Barbara Croall and others. 

Some of these participants were involved in the September 19 Ottawa concert, some not. All will be people whose artistic lives have intersected significantly with Newman’s. Some, but not all, are of Indigenous background. All have significant classical credentials. And all are committed participants in an emerging nationwide conversation about the ways classical music can and must move away from a model in which Indigenous song and storytelling have been up for grabs by non-Indigenous composers, artists and academics, at the same time as the Indigenous custodians of the words and works in question were forbidden to utter them. 

En route from Ottawa in September to Yorkville in November, we must first detour to the West Coast, which is where I caught up, by phone, with Marion Newman in Victoria, BC, in late October, where she found half an hour to chat, very early in the morning of her first day off, halfway through a two-opera engagement with Pacific Opera Victoria (POV). 

The first of the two productions, Puccini’s Il trittico, was already up and running. It’s better known by the names of its one-acter constituent parts: Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), and Gianni Schicchi. They are seldom performed together this way, but when they are, they pack a cumulative punch, gaining perspective by congruity. Newman’s role in Il triticco is in Suor Angelica, where she plays two rather forbidding roles: The Mistress of the Novices and the Abbess, in this tragic tale of a noblewoman banished to a convent for bearing a son out of wedlock. 

The second of the two POV productions, Missing, just going into rehearsal as we spoke, is a piece that Newman has been involved with since its inception. It will run November 1 and 2 in Victoria, then, to Newman’s delight, travel to Regina Performing Arts Centre, November 8 and 9, and finally on to Prince George, BC, November 15, 16 and 17, on the Highway of Tears that, along with Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES), is this searing work’s primary setting. Missing was created “to give voice to the story of Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, and to show that each and every one of these missing people is honoured.” It premiered on November 1 2017 during Vancouver’s DTES Heart of the City Festival, before an invited audience of families, friends and the DTES community of the missing. This was followed by runs of five performances each at Vancouver City Opera and POV. Newman reprises her original role in this run.

A review of the first run in Vancouver Magazine stated that Missing “lays the foundation for a bridge between two cultural solitudes that must work together ... to give birth to a new Canada.” And Opera Canada called it “an important piece of theatre that builds over its short 80 minutes to a shatteringly emotional conclusion... [it] is something every Canadian should see.”

It also offers, in the way it was created, some clues to how to build that bridge between solitudes. One example: Marie Clements, who is Métis-Dene, fully developed the libretto prior to the selection of a composer; the composer selected, Brian Current, was one of four composers asked to set a portion of it, with their settings sung before a jury who did not know their identities. 

For Marion Newman, the fact that Missing is going to Regina is a source of great satisfaction, because of her relationship with Gordon Gerrard, music director of the Regina Symphony Orchestra, who will be the pianist for Newman’s Heliconian Hall November concerts. As she explains: 

“Gordon was really key in bringing Missing to Regina; he wanted it two years ago. He was very determined. This is very much with the support of the Indigenous advisory council there, which I’m proud to be a part of. He has a board member who’s an Indigenous woman from Regina and he asked her if she thought it would be possible to have an Indigenous advisory council from all walks of life in Regina, and she thought that was a great idea, to help guide the RSO towards being more involved in telling Indigenous stories in music and community – really leading the way in terms of symphonies engaging the people on whose lands they exist.”

A recent manifestation of Gerrard’s commitment to meaningful collaboration was his role in the March 2019 mounting of the new opera Riel: Heart of the North by Métis librettist Suzanne Steele and composer Neil Weisensel (in which Newman, along with mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy, who will be at the Heliconian with Newman, both had roles). But according to Newman, Gerrard’s commitment goes back further than that. 

“Well before Riel, going back to the beginning of his tenure … the first big thing we did was a festival for the symphony not part of the regular season, focused on social change and community. The first one was about truth and reconciliation and they partnered with the Art Gallery of Regina to make that happen, to create a unique space. Almost all the content was Indigenous performances in both dance and music. This coming year it’s about LGBTQ themes, planning for a different focus each year – related to people who don’t normally get a voice at the symphony – and to how to bring the community to the symphony, and the symphony to the community. 

“He has been there when things got awkward and people stuck their foot in their mouth about Indigenous people with me right there, watching how that affected me and others. So bringing Missing there is a no-brainer … and so is including him in a concert that is about Indigenous classical music. Besides, he is a wonderful pianist as well as conductor; so many of my ideas have grown out of conversations we have. I really want him to be part of this.”

Marion Newman. Photo by Liz BeddallDigging down into some of Newman’s other recent roles, the connections and bonds between her and the other November 26 Heliconian participants becomes clearer. For example, both Evan Korbut and Rebecca Cuddy were in Tapestry Opera’s production of Dean Bury/Yvette Nolan’s Shanawdithit in which Newman, as seen on our cover, played the title role. 

“We keep meeting up here and there, and Rebecca and I have become very good friends as well as colleagues and I’m always delighted to work with her. I think she’s a really smart and interesting artist – she’s very young but very grounded and centred and learning very quickly how to speak up when that’s what’s needed in a great way. She’s definitely that next generation who are going to do incredible things, and so it was an easy one to want to have her on board. And Evan … Evan has a beautiful voice – he’s from the Garden River First Nations in Ontario. And I think … he could sing anything – it doesn’t need to be Indigenous music but I think that he does have an important voice there, and I really want to let him to know he is welcome in that place and I hope one day he is also helping lead where we’re all going – where there is truth in music, bringing our culture forward.”

In its mushiest sense, the word “confluence” is a bit like the word “synergy,” descriptive of any old kind of coming together – good for grant applications and things like that, but not particularly helpful as to how to go about it. But its narrower meaning is both intriguing and instructive: namely the junction of two equivalent rivers: each strengthened by the other as they continue, downstream. True confluence means neither accepting or demanding tributary status of the other. 

The Heliconian event itself is a collaborative work in progress. “Evan and Rebecca are part of developing the plan. We need to make sure it’s not too wordy, but still offer some context … a bit like introducing songs like at a potlatch or powwow, you talk about the permission granted to perform a work, about who you need to be naming. In ceremony there is speaking and music, so seeing this as a ceremony of sorts makes sense. We’ll be singing in Gitxsan and Odawa and a little bit of Kwak’wala. It’s an amazing opportunity to sing those languages back into the air. And we are drawing from repertoire I’ve been involved in over the years, that come with really good feelings – ones where collaborations worked beautifully. Some of it is new for Rebecca and Evan, but they are really cool at saying yes, this is an opportunity.”

There’s nothing abstract about Newman’s personal understanding of what true confluence entails: “I have understood this idea of Indigenous classical music my whole life. At five I was already steeped in the cultures of both sides of my family. There’s a picture of me wearing my kilt … and my moccasins and my dad’s toque, with a pair of wooden spoons crossed on the floor, and I’m doing a highland dance. For my parents it was such a snapshot of how I was being raised, living all of my cultures. What it was like to be able to just be everything without anyone questioning. I began piano lessons – Suzuki – and right away did my own composing, like Kinanu, my lullaby, in its first iteration. I found my worlds could meld organically. Now it’s about getting other people to understand, and embrace, the possibilities.” 

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

 Udo Kasemets. Photo by Andre LéducAssessing the legacy of a musician is tricky any day, but particularly when celebrating the person’s birth centenary, and especially when he was my teacher, colleague and then, friend, over several decades. It’s even more daunting when that person is the prolific composer, pianist, vocal coach, choral conductor, music journalist and educator, and mentor to several generations of Toronto musicians, Udo Kasemets (1919-2014). 

Kasemets considered himself a perennial outsider. He also, however, possessed the entrepreneurial chops to stretch the definition of what it meant to be a composer – and somehow to survive doing just that throughout his fascinating, multifaceted and prolific career. For most of his life he was, as he put it, “always trying to get things going.”

The outlines of his biography may provide a few clues to this enigmatic man. Born into a musical Estonian family (his father Anton Kasemets was an organist, influential choral conductor, composer and musicologist), he was educated in Tallinn and, after WWII, in Germany. In 1951 Kasemets immigrated to Canada. He made Hamilton and then Toronto the home where his musical career grew; during his long life he mentored several generations of musicians, me included. 

This is not the first time I’ve written about Kasemets in The WholeNote. In my 2010 article, In Appreciation of Udo Kasemets, Robert Aitken, founding artistic director of New Music Concerts calls him “probably the most uncompromising musician in Canadian musical history”; while my 2014 article, Toronto’s Musical Avant-Gardist: Udo Kasemets (Tallinn 1919 – Toronto 2014) A Remembrance in Five Decades, leaves no doubt about its contents.

A number of organizations have taken Kasemets’ 100th birth year as a cue to program his extraordinary compositions. We’ll look at several Toronto concerts scheduled throughout November. To aid us with background, I’ve reached out by email to Canadian musicologist Jeremy Strachan, Estonian flutist (and Ensemble U: member) Tarmo Johannes, Toronto pianist and concert curator Stephen Clarke, and composer Linda Catlin Smith. They knew Kasemets personally, either performing his work or writing extensively about it.

I first asked my interviewees why Canadians should care about Kasemets’ musical legacy.

Jeremy Strachan was the first to reply. “Udo was one of Canada’s most prolific composers and a trailblazing figure, bringing the avant-garde to listeners in this country. Although he is remembered fondly by those he knew and worked with, by and large his work has flown under the radar, outside of the small circle of enthusiasts of experimental music scattered across Canada. Aside from being a composer, concert promoter and writer, he was also a teacher and collaborator who brought many people together. I’m reticent to say ‘without Udo...’ but he really did an extraordinary amount of work to ensure that experimentalism in music and the arts had a legitimate place in the Canadian cultural landscape.”

Tarmo Johannes. Photo by Harri RospuTarmo Johannes weighed in with his Estonian musician’s perspective. “He is a little known in Estonia – unfortunately too little. It has been our mission in Ensemble U:  to introduce him more to our audiences, draw attention to his music and to situate him as a very important, very enriching part of Estonian music culture, a figure with no parallel in the Estonian ‘homeland.’ On the other hand let’s not forget that he returned to Tallinn in 2006 as an honorary guest of the Days of Estonian Music festival. There was a concert full of his music, a masterclass at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, interviews, articles, though there haven’t been many performances since.”

From Stephen Clarke, seasoned interpreter of Kasemets’ piano works: “Kasemets with Susan Layard, his singer/companion, travelled to Tallinn where he gave lectures – in Estonian, the first time he spoke it since the 1940s (!) – and performances. The German pianist Florian Steininger contacted me some years ago asking for scores of Kasemets’ later piano works. He has been performing them around Europe.”

Johannes further observed: “As an Estonian, I’ve been impressed by how many people talk about him with deep respect, admiration and warmth. But first of all, let’s consider his output as a composer. Having studied several of his scores it has become more and more clear how strong his works are. My group Ensemble U: has considerable experience interpreting open scores. Even then, working with a Kasemets score still sometimes means we have to struggle for hours with quite complex sets of rules, yet time and again after unravelling the sounds, we’ve been astonished by the quality of his work! I’ve heard Kasemets sometimes referred to as Canada’s John Cage. Well, okay, but concerning his compositions, in my humble opinion, Udo Kasemets did it better.”

Clarke was just as unequivocal in his assessment: “I’m convinced that had Kasemets emigrated to the US instead of Canada, his would be an iconic name as a maverick composer along the lines of Harry Partch, for instance. But Udo kept a fairly low profile and any self-promotion was anathema to him.”

“Fortunately he moved to Toronto,” Clarke continued, “or I might never have had the friendship and collaborations with him! Musicologist Jeremy Strachan recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto on Kasemets’ work. This is highly encouraging, not only for preserving a legacy, but for opening doors for further exploration. Kasemets’ work is prolific and vastly ranging.”

Udo Kasemets’ Timepiece for a Solo Performer: aleatoric graphic score from the anthology, Notations (1969), collected by John Cage & Alison Knowles & documented via chance operations produced with the I Ching.Linda Catlin Smith, performer in many Kasemets pieces and coordinator for his massive work Counterbomb Renga, as well as for the recording of his Eight Houses of the I Ching, put it this way: “Udo is important to Canadian music for his unique and individual approach to music making. He’s also notable for his many concerts dedicated to celebrating other artists, especially poets such as Octavio Paz, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky and Susan Howe.”

I asked Strachan about Kasemets’ trailblazing 1960s and 1970s contributions to experimental music composition and performance in Toronto. 

“Udo was sort of the right guy at the right place at the right time in 60s Toronto. It was a period of transition and possibility, and he was determined to make an intervention in the suffocating conservatism of Canadian musical culture. He was, I think, uniquely equipped with the skills, the pedigree, and the disposition to shake things up at a time when there was a desire for something to happen, but he also had the required skills when he was forced to go it alone. In the 70s, you start to see the emergence of arts councils, artist-run spaces, and more collectivization and support; Udo really didn’t have that in the 60s. [Earlier] he had to forge alliances with galleries and navigate a frankly hostile musical terrain to present his work and the work of avant-garde composers.”

Smith added: “He was incredibly active in his early years in Canada, and was a passionate participant along with the other composers of the day presenting concerts, working with the League of Composers, bringing John Cage’s work to Canada, etc. He had a devoted following of listeners who came to many of his self-produced events. He also attended many, many concerts over the years, and was a keen supporter of younger composers and performers.

Toronto audiences can explore for themselves why Kasemets’ music still attracts musicians, composers and musicologists at the following events. 

Canadian League of Composers, 1955.  Front (L-R): Jean Papineau-Couture, John Weinzweig, John Beckwith. Back (L-R): Louis Applebaum, Samuel Dolin, Harry Somers, Leslie Mann, Barbara Pentland, Andrew Twa, Harry Freedman, Udo KasemetsNew Music Concerts: Kasemets@100

November 12, New Music Concerts presents Kasemets@100 at Walter Hall, University of Toronto, with guest Ensemble U: and pianist Stephen Clarke. Ensemble U: is the most active contemporary music ensemble in Estonia. Touring widely, it has gained recognition for performing very demanding works without a conductor. 

This celebration of the eclectic compositions of Udo Kasemets has another aim: to build musical bridges between Kasemets’ Estonian heritage and his Toronto career. The program features four works by Kasemets from the 60s, 90s and 2000, but also includes works by outstanding Estonian composers Märt-Matis Lill (b. 1975) and Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes (b. 1977), compositional voices unfamiliar to most Toronto audiences. 

An unusual programming touch for a contemporary music concert is the inclusion of Giovanni Palestrina’s sacred motet Tu es Petrus (1572); it directly addresses a Kasemets comment: “When studying Palestrina I sensed that musical order was larger than the sum of its components, however cleverly, imaginatively, and systematically they were put together.” It reflects the Kasemets view that composing music is a human approach to grasping the vastness of the multiverse and to creating order from its constituent parts. 

Array Music: Udo Kasemets @ 100

November 23, Array Music presents Udo Kasemets @ 100 performed by the Array Ensemble at the Array Space. This concert also pays tribute to “a towering figure in Toronto’s experimental music scene” with a program of his lesser-known chamber works curated by Array pianist and longtime Kasemets collaborator Stephen Clarke.

The inclusion of the 1948 Kasemets work, Sonaat in E, Viiulile ja Klaverile, Op.10, in the concert reveals a relatively conservative compositional style in his 20s, an aesthetic he brought to Canada. During the first decade of his career here, Kasemets performed, directed and organized concerts not of the experimental music of the day, but rather European high-art music of past centuries. Proof: he was the founder-director of the Toronto Bach Society (1957/8), and also of Musica Viva (1958/9), a pioneering Toronto organization in that it performed both new compositions and early music.

Clarke’s case for programming the 1948 work? “Udo’s earlier activities with choirs and traditional classical music aren’t so surprising given his inclusive views on what music is and can be. His Violin Sonata might be the most shocking piece of Kasemets anyone has ever heard: precisely because it’s not shocking!”

Kasemets at Estonian Music Week

Toronto’s Estonian Music Week (EMW), November 14 to 17 this year, partners with Latitude 44, an Estonian digital conference being held in Toronto for the first time. I’d be willing to bet that if Udo Kasemets were in his prime today, he’d be dreaming of fresh experimental music-tech interfaces for Latitude 44 and organizing performance events for it. (For more on EMW, see the sidebar to this story.) 

November 14, we can hear a prime example of a music-tech work at EMW when American composer Scott L. Miller’s immersive audio-visual concert work Raba is performed three times by Ensemble U: at the WE Global Learning Centre. Raba (“bog” in Estonian) is experienced by the audience wearing VR headsets. Audience members visually explore a 360-degree film while Ensemble U: performs the synchronized music. The ensemble and playback speakers physically surround the audience, providing each audience member with their own individual audio, as well as visual, experience.

November 17, the outstanding Toronto accordionist Tiina Kiik performs the 1993 Kasemets composition Kuradi Kiik (Satan’s Swing) for solo accordion at the EMW’s wrap party at Tartu College. Kasemets wrote the work especially for Kiik, a well-known musician in the Estonian community, whose repertoire includes classical, folk and improvised music. The party headlines the Estonian singer-songwriter Vaiko Eplik, a pop music star in his country, who has released 21 albums and produced music for many other artists.

Udo Kasemets: outsider or scene builder?

Let’s conclude our Kasemets centenary overview with one of his common declarations: “I’ve always been an outsider.” Strachan feels it’s not simply an off-handed statement of self-deprecation but rather speaks of a generation whose “attachments to place is far more grounded in displacement, dislocation and rupture – a diminished sense of rootedness” – one of modernism’s conditions.

Although Kasemets vigorously maintained his self-perceived outsider status to the end and questioned the lasting impact of his earlier accomplishments with cool skepticism, Strachan however assesses his legacy rather differently. Strachan’s 2014 Array Space lecture, Udo Kasemets: Uncompromising Experimentalist, ends with an optimistic appraisal: “The activity we see happening in Toronto today: with experimental music thriving ... new performance spaces opening as quickly as other ones close, and a sense of community among performers which is intergenerational, dynamic and always renewing itself – to me, that’s the promise that Udo saw in the 1960s, fulfilled.”

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Estonian Music Week – November 14 to 17

Puuluup

In addition to the two EMW concerts already mentioned here is another concert pick, providing a taste of the rest of the festival’s several performances.

On November 15 (Artscape Sandbox, Toronto) and November 16 (Cotton Factory, Hamilton) you can hear the quirky duo Puuluup (“wooden magnifying glass” in Estonian), from Viljandi, a town in southern Estonia. They’ve developed a unique musical hybrid variously dubbed “Estonian neo-folk” and ‘folktronica.” Their talharpas – horse-hair four-stringed bowed or plucked lyres – featured in the Estonian folklore revival, provide essential textures in their music, along with live electronic looping, electronic pedal effects, alternative bowing and amplified drumming techniques. Finnish jouhikko (a closely related bowed lyre) are also part of the mix. The duo’s catchy vocal melodies, harmonies and raps in the Estonian language draw inspiration from the village leiks (songs) of Vormsi island, Russian or Ukrainian chastushkas, and from more distant global music traditions. The tone is wry and unconventional, with lyrics about wind turbines, Polish TV heroes, fat cakes, and the “uncomfortable feeling that your neighbour’s dog might try to bite you while you take out the trash.” The old mashes with the new in their live performances and music videos, or as described in seasonally appropriate Baltic imagery, “sticking together like water and sleet.”

Estonian Music Week is co-presented with Latitude 44 a digital conference which introduces Estonia as the “world’s first digital society.” How did this Baltic country, about 24 times smaller than the province of Ontario, become such a digitally advanced society? Estonian e-engineers and managers share their success stories at the WE Global Learning Centre, 339 Queen St.E. Toronto.
latitude44to.ca/tickets

“Estonia, a small country, big traditions.” This country with a population of 1.3 million has over two million yearly concert visits. Massed national song and dance festivals have played an important role in the development and preservation of Estonian identity. During the “Singing Revolution,” for example, many thousands of Estonians gathered for massed choral demonstrations between 1986 and 1991, putting pressure on the USSR government to end decades of Soviet occupation. In 1991 Estonia achieved independence, nonviolently.

World music fans double the population of the town of Viljandi during the Viljandi Folk Music Festival which presents world music acts from all over the world. Jazz is prominent in the popular Tallinn Music Week and at the Jazzkaar Festival. Estonia also boasts a number of top composers, such as Arvo Pärt, among the world’s most performed living composers, and Veljo Tormis, who based some of his successful works on ancient regi songs. The country has also produced several fine conductors such as Neeme Järvi, Tõnu Kaljuste and Paavo Järvi, the latter having conducted Canadian musicians on a 1994 all-Kasemets CD on the Koch International label.

Alexina Louie with Lydia Adams (left) and Alex Pauk, conductor, Esprit Orchestra (right). Photo by Malcolm CookThe recent announcement of composer Alexina Louie as the winner of the 2019 Molson Prize in the Arts, the first time the $50,000 prize has been awarded to a female composer, signalled something of a sea change in the world of Canadian music that’s been developing gradually.

Alexina Louie and the Canada Council’s Marc-Olivier Lamontagne. Photo by Malcolm CookThe prize was presented to Louie by the Canada Council for the Arts, on stage at Esprit Orchestra’s season-opening concert at Koerner Hall this past October. “One of Canada’s most highly regarded and most often performed composers, performed and broadcast internationally,” the citation read. “Her commissioned works range across all musical genres, including ballet and opera.” It’s an award that recognizes Louie’s place at the forefront of the many women who have propelled themselves to positions of significant influence in Canada’s classical music community through both their activism and artistic achievements. 

In a blog on the Esprit Orchestra website Louie states: “I’m proud of my large catalogue of wildly diverse compositions. They range from pedagogical piano pieces for children, a full-length main stage opera, my ‘ground-breaking’ comedic five-minute made-for-TV operas (created with my collaborators, director Larry Weinstein and librettist Dan Redican), to more unconventional, leading-edge compositions. In my pieces I aim to create something captivating, magical, touching, inspiring. It doesn’t matter if the work is meant for a young piano student or the audience of National Ballet of Canada, I cannot be satisfied with my work unless I aim high. I also avoid writing the same piece over and over, a trap that is easy to fall into. However, pushing boundaries and propelling yourself into new personal artistic territory can be frightening. The compositions listed in my catalogue span many decades. You can hear my musical voice taking shape in the earlier pieces. There are works from those formative years that still affect me deeply. They still ring true after so many decades.” And in a subsequent conversation Louie told me that the Molson Prize is especially meaningful to her because nominees come from all the arts, not just music. “When you look at the list of past winners, it spans the full range of artists in Canada from Alice Munro, Glenn Gould, Mary Pratt to Bill Reid, Margaret Atwood and of course, Alex Pauk, and so on.” 

The Molson Prize is just one recent recognition of Louie’s prominence. Just a few days prior to her receiving it, she was also presented the Arts and Letters Award by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. John Stanley, the club member who nominated her for the award wrote: “Her work has been performed by all of Canada’s important symphony orchestras, locally and on tour. In addition, her works have been performed in the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States as well as in China. She was recently commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra to write a Triple Concerto for the orchestra’s concertmasters, a task which she fulfilled with great mastery and verve. The concerto was performed in all three cities in 2017/18. In 2019, she was the featured composer at Finding a Voice, a festival devoted to women composers, held in Cork, Ireland. This year, her work was also performed by the Ensemble symphonique Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The Canadian writer Emily-Jane Hills Orford has described Ms. Louie’s work’s ‘ethereal quality [that] transcends both time and place and leaves the audience, as well as the performers, with a distinct feeling of being in a trance, a dream. The unique sounds and colours of Alexina Louie’s music enlighten the listener, allowing the music, the performer and the audience to experience an idea, to gain knowledge of an emotion.’”

The Arts and Letters Award ceremony included performances of her vocal and piano music by soprano Caroline Stanczyk and pianist Morgan-Paige Melbourne; her accordion music, performed by Matti Pulkki; as well as excerpts from her made-for-TV operas, all introduced by the composer herself. She made the point that, though she’s a thoroughly Canadian composer, her musical voice is heard and recognized around the world. She told me: “In my desire to communicate and express my message, I’ve striven for a universality in my musical language.” 

It should be noted here that I am not an unbiased observer! On a personal level, I’m proud of the role I played in encouraging Louie’s early development in the 1980s, having arranged her very first commission through CBC Radio, as well as the broadcasts of her works on the national CBC network program Two New Hours. These broadcasts introduced Louie’s music to a national audience through the CBC’s Radio Two network. Our recordings of her music in concerts were also disseminated internationally through the International Rostrum of Composers and the network of international program exchange that CBC had with organizations like the European Broadcasting Union. 

I also produced her very first recordings on CD: clarinetist James Campbell and percussionist Beverley Johnston recorded her Cadenzas for Centrediscs in 1986, and the 2019 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award-winning pianist Louise Bessette recorded Music for Piano with me for CBC Records in 1993. Three years later I also produced a CBC Records CD with accordionist Joseph Macerollo that included the first recordings of Louie’s Earth Cycles for solo accordion, as well as her trio for accordion, harp and percussion, Refuge, the work I had commissioned in 1980 on the occasion of her return to Canada after ten years living in California.

Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner (left) and Rachel Mercer (Mercer Duo). Photo by Bo HuangI’ve also recently collaborated with another woman at the forefront of Canadian musical creativity, cellist Rachel Mercer, along with her violinist sister, Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner: their new recording of six works by Canadian women has now been released on the Centrediscs label. A few years in its making, the CD, Our Strength, Our Song, combines three of Mercer’s recently commissioned duos for violin and cello with three 20th-century Canadian duos. 

Rebekah Cummings. Photo by Claire DambioThe title of the recording comes from one of the works on the recording – one of the last compositions by the late composer Rebekah Cummings (1980–2019) who wrote of her composition: “Our Strength, Our Song is a tribute to the empowering generational bonds between women, and the beauty of sisterhood. I was so inspired to compose for a pair of sisters (the Mercer Duo), and for two instruments that support and complement one another so perfectly – unique, yet part of the same family – like sisters.” Cummings, who was Bulgarian-Canadian, found inspiration in the traditional two-part folk singing of Bulgarian women, and writes in her notes: “These songs are a strong, common bond among the women and girls in the community, and a remarkable way in which the older generation upholds the younger and imparts wisdom, culture, values, beauty and strength. This piece is based on a short theme written in traditional Bulgarian folk-singing style, recurring but ever-evolving, tenaciously rising again despite opposition, pain and struggle. The violin and cello personify the voices of sisters across generations, sharing and cultivating this ancient, everlasting song.”

Alice Ho. Photo by Bo HuangThis new recording also includes commissioned works by Alice Ho – her Kagura Fantasy, a new duo inspired by a Japanese fertility ritual – and by Jocelyn Morlock – Serpentine paths, depicting life’s twisting pathways. The pre-existing duos are by Violet Archer (Four Duets for Violin and Cello,) Jean Coulthard (Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello,) and Barbara Monk Feldman (Pour un nuage violet.) Rachel Mercer told me she feels Our Strength, Our Song – the recording – is “relevant to the current time we are in; celebrating and supporting the power and liberated expression of women. In this case we also hope our recording encourages others to play these older works that have been rarely performed.” It’s a fascinating mix of contrasting styles and approaches, all performed with verve and brilliance by this outstanding sibling duo. It’s a production I’m particularly pleased with. 

Abigail Richardson-SchulteRachel Mercer has been commissioning new works since 2010, when she asked Dundas, Ontario-composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte to compose a piece for the Mercer-Park duo (with pianist Angela Park.) The resulting work, Crossings, remains in their repertoire and is regularly programmed on recitals. Her most ambitious project to date was the creation of 14 new works (by seven women and seven men from every region of Canada), commissioned through her quartet, Ensemble Made in Canada. Titled the Mosaïque Project, it was inspired by a desire to reflect the diverse regions of Canada in music and media, and consists of three components: the 14 commissioned piano quartets; a national concert tour extending through the 2018/2020 seasons; and a specially designed website that showcases audience-generated artwork inspired by the musical commissions. There is now an impressive web presence to explore at mosaiqueproject.com, involving “artists from across Canada including performers, composers, visual artists and web designers, in order to create an evolving artistic work that can be experienced by audiences, participants and online visitors throughout our country and internationally. Our aim is to celebrate the diversity and richness of Canada through the eyes and ears of its people.”

Mercer’s most recent commission is a cello concerto by pianist/composer Stewart Goodyear. She tells the story like this: “In 2015, I received an email from Stewart Goodyear, saying that he wanted to write me a cello concerto! We’ve known each other since we were 13 and playing in a trio together at the RCM Toronto (with Susanne Hou) and had played together a couple of times since, but this was completely out of the blue to me. I couldn’t believe it, but he said he was already sketching ... forward to 2016 ... I didn’t hear more about the concerto, but ended up playing the Canadian premiere of his piano quartet with Ensemble Made In Canada at Ottawa Chamberfest ... finally in 2017 NACO [National Arts Centre Orchestra] was interested in programming the cello concerto and we received funding from the Ontario Arts Council and a research project at UOttawa. It will be a co-commission between me and NACO. I’m looking forward to seeing the score very soon and the premiere will happen on February 14, 2020 with my orchestra [National Arts Centre Orchestra].” 

For Mercer, as she told me, her desire to commission new repertoire is because “It feels like the closest I can come to being part of a creation, besides the interpretive creation that happens on stage.”

The composer, Louie, and the interpreter, Mercer, are just two examples of women who have been steadily changing the direction of the creative tide in the creative branch of the Canadian classical music community. Others come easily to mind, such as the prolific collaborations I witnessed over the years between the late composer Ann Southam (1937-2010) and pianists Eve Egoyan and Christina Petrowska Quilico. 

Gemma New. Photo by Anthony ChangOver the span of more than 20 years, I have been involved in the production of 14 CDs of Southam’s various and varied piano compositions. And the current collaboration between Hamilton Philharmonic (HPO) music director, Gemma New, and HPO Composer-in-Residence, Abigail Richardson-Schulte, seems to have exciting potential through their new initiative called the Composer Fellowship Program. In this program, emerging composers can apply to work with the orchestra. Richardson-Schulte says “Gemma is a great supporter of contemporary Canadian music at the HPO and I’m so pleased that we are able to commission, present, and mentor. We have a practically all-Canadian series (Intimate and Immersive), which is a larger instrumentation version of our previous What Next Festival (which was also Canadian new music). In addition to the Composer Fellowship, we have three main stage premieres by women this season – me, Alice Ho and Juliet Palmer. Gemma is conducting all of our new music at the HPO which shows her dedication to it.”

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

Left: Pamelia Stickney. Photo by David Visnjic. Right: Lev Termen.My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas emerge from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin’s tone. The second antenna controls volume. It is bent, looped, gold, and horizontal. The closer you bring your left hand, the softer the instrument’s song. The farther away, the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like a conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor …

Canadian author Sean Michaels’ debut novel (Random House) was called Us Conductors and the quotation above is from it. When Michaels won the 2014 Giller prize the citation read: “He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.” It’s based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the theremin, set in the glittery Jazz Age of New York in the 20s, the grim gulags and prisons of Stalin’s 1930s Soviet Union, and includes Terman’s love affair with a beautiful young violinist – Clara Rockmore. Full disclosure: after a few pages I forgot entirely that I was reading fiction, and in the end was left with a fascination I have not been able to shake. 

There’s something about the theremin and its ethereal voice that makes it hard to brush off because you just can’t put your finger on it – figuratively or literally. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) composer Miklós Rózsa used the theremin for a kind of alienation leitmotif. All you need to do is hear a little of that soundtrack and the entire film will slither back into your mind and ear-worm you for days.

On November 16 (7:30pm), Hedgehog Concerts presents a performance in Toronto’s intimate concert jewel-box – Heliconian Hall. It will offer the opportunity for a close encounter with the instrument that gives that supernatural something to film and television scores for science fiction and thrillers. 

But when first introduced in concert halls of North America, Great Britain and Europe, the repertoire was art music: Schubert and Glinka, for example, at Albert Hall where “The human voice, the violin, viola, cello, bass and double-bass, the cornet, horn, trombone, saxophone, organ, and almost every instrument you can think of, are all beaten at their own game by this one simple little apparatus” (The Musical Standard, London 1927). A hundred years later, while the theremin’s capacity for beauty is often and unjustly overlooked, it is newly championed by its closest friends.

Pamelia Stickney is one of these – a leading player in the theremin world, who will help us celebrate the instrument’s centennial year, along with Viennese pianist Thessi Rauba, performing three specially commissioned sonatas for theremin and piano by Canadian composer Alexander Rapoport – including the Canadian premieres of Sonata No.2 and Sonata No.3. Rapoport will introduce the works himself.

Composer-in-residence with the Talisker Players from 2001 to 2017, Rapoport’s had diverse commissions for orchestral, choral and chamber music, film scores, and incidental music for live theatre and musical comedy. But this new theremin learning curve was more or less self-inflicted.

Rapoport became aware of Stickney through Rauba, who is Rapoport’s wife. Stickney and Rauba had already worked together in Vienna. Rapoport did some arrangements for them and they decided he should write an original piece. “The First Sonata was a lot of fun, so I was able to talk them into letting me do two more. I wish I could do a hundred or so, as Haydn did with his symphonies and string quartets. By that time you’ve learned something.” 

Stickney began her musical career as a Los Angeles jazz/rock musician after spending her teens playing piano, violin, viola, cello and contrabass. She had her first personal encounter with the instrument while working on a recording project in 1999. Stickney’s jazz background led to what emerged as a walking bass theremin technique. Today, based in Vienna, she performs internationally, and collaborates and records with a wide range of artists and ensembles. Stickney was instrumental to the final design of Robert Moog’s Etherwave Pro theremin.

Pianist and educator, Thessi Rauba, is active in Vienna’s alternative music scene, performing with her brother, instrument-inventor Hans Tschiritsch, thereminist Stickney, and accordionist Otto Lechner. She also performs one-person shows combining piano performances with literary readings. Rauba plays and records a diverse repertoire including jazz, popular and classical music.

Will it be gimmicky? Rapoport had this to say: “Wait until you hear Pam play! The theremin is a thoroughly legitimate instrument with special capabilities and also limitations, just like any other. It is also an instrument where a performer’s individual expression comes out much more than you would imagine, in my view because of the infinite variation in intonation and vibrato.”

The last word here goes to Sean Michaels:

The theremin has always been a machine with two strangenesses. There is the strangeness of the playing: palms flexing in empty space, as if you are pulling the strings of an invisible marionette. But the stranger strangeness is the sound. It is acute. It is at once unmodulated and modulating. It feels both still and frantic. For all my tweakings of timbre, the theremin cannot quite mimic the trumpet’s joyous blast, the cello’s steadying stroke. It is something Else.

Yes, the Elseness is what brings audiences to their feet. It is what inspires composers like Schillinger and Varèse. But there is no escaping the other part, too: like the pallor of an electric lightbulb, like the heat of an electric stove, the theremin’s sound is a stranger to the Earth.

MJ BUELL is the regular writer of We Are ALL Music’s Children

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