“I’m 66 – I don’t want to see puppets in anything.”

 – Man talking to wife in a New Yorker cartoon

2209 Pinocchio 1Funny, but he’s out of luck. Puppets and marionettes are throwing their weight around in today’s fantasy worlds alongside assorted automata, baleful robots and the human-like “synths” as they are called in Humans, the hit TV series. Michael Fassbender plays an android motoring through disaster in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Then there’s Dr. Who, Westworld and Mr. Robot to only just begin the cyborg list.

But leading the humanoid crew by a nose this year – pun unavoidable – is Pinocchio, the marionette of the moment. As proof I give you the National Ballet of Canada with its world premiere of British choreographer/dancer Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio this past spring in Toronto, and the upcoming 2017 Aix Festival’s July premiere of its Pinocchio, with Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans’ score fleshing out French playwright Joël Pommerat’s adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s kids’ adventure first published in the 1880s.

Like any Bat/Spider/Superman sequel, Pinocchio’s tale continually gets tempered to suit its time. Steven Spielberg’s 2001 A.I: Artificial Intelligence - a badly disguised riff on Collodi – has technology pulling the strings. Walt Disney Productions’ Pinocchio, invariably maligned for moral gooeyness, was in fact rather audacious for its time – 1940 – as it explored animation’s response to animation. One can only imagine what might now be out there if Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini had realized their Pinocchios. (That said, someone should make a film of Robert Coover’s postmodern novel, Pinocchio in Venice, where a writer interviews the aging puppet, a 100 year old American university professor, slowly reverting to his wooden state while reminiscing about The Blue Fairy.)

Arguably the most road-tested among recent live productions is British director Jonathan Dove’s opera, The Adventures of Pinocchio, travelling to Europe and the United States since its 2007 premiere in Leeds. Ballet Ouest de Montréal’s more recent Pinocchio had the little hero suffer from cyber bullying, not from the attacks by the mischievous and murderous fox and cat as in the Collodi original. And Ballet West Academy and choreographer Lindsay Folkman fashioned an inspirational Pinocchio: Awake My Soul.

Collodi – born Carlo Lorenzini – was a flinty Tuscan civil servant who detested kids, boys first and foremost. A “disgrace” and “confirmed rogue” is only the beginning of the calumny he heaps on Pinocchio. Nevertheless Collodi’s Storia di un burattino (The Tale of a Marionette) first appeared in 1881 in a kids’ publication, Il Giornale per i Bambini where it gained a huge readership. Intended as a cautionary tale aimed at the street punks of his day, the violence-filled early installments reflected the author’s richly brutal imagination. “Take care, you wicked ill-omened croaker,” the marionette warns the talking cricket in the original. “Woe to you if I fly into a passion,” Pinocchio adds before squashing the bug flat with a flying hammer – and this only in Chapter Four by the way, in the facsimile edition I am using published by BiblioBazaar Reproduction Series.

Fearing that this level of violence might scare off “i bambini,” Collodi’s editors suggested he tone down the trash talk which, in yet another example, has Pinocchio being strung up by the cat and fox to a branch of an oak tree – in the 15th chapter, as if the author had waited long enough to do away with the puppet. “A tempestuous northerly wind” gave poor Pinocchio “atrocious spasms.” Collodi eventually softened his language, brought his marionette back from the dead to be currently translated into some 240 languages.

Nevertheless, “closer to the original” is one of the most frequently used descriptions for just about any contemporary Pinocchio, along with “not like Disney” and “not just for kids.”

To these protestations we might, in the moment in time we occupy, consider adding “nothing to do with Donald Trump.” But the Trump trope is both too easy and too dangerous. “It’s impossible to make anything that escapes the world we’re living in,” ballet choreographer Will Tuckett argues. “But it’s also dangerous to choose any of those ideas now. When we get to next spring who knows where we’ll be.” (Tuckett is an ardent anti-Brexiteer.)

 “I never do theatre with a message,” playwright Pommerat tells me by email (in French; my translation) in regard to the upcoming Aix opera. “The show does offer among other things a reflection on lying. To get out of the whale Pinocchio lies to his father who thanks him in the end.”

2209 Pinocchio 2The Aix version tacks toward the fable’s deeper waters, though. “Born of the imagination of man, Pinocchio is both alive and artificial,” Pommerat says. “The staging plays on this ambivalence between animate and inanimate, human and puppet. There are lots of fake humans – mannequins – on stage. The spectator does not always know what is living from that which is inanimate.The perception of the spectator is disturbed. This [takes us] in the direction of questioning the difference between the thing and the living.

“In my staging, there is of course a scene with the fairy where Pinocchio’s nose lengthens with every lie. It’s an important symbol, both funny and violent. But in the preceding scene, Pinocchio is almost beaten to death by three murderers because he refused to tell them the truth: to confess that he was poor. It is an opera for children but the questions it raises, about education or the relationship with others for example, concern us all. Aggression, blackmail, punishment – all the adults in this tale question our relationship to authority and education.”

(It’s a vision more than a bit reminiscent of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, where string-pulling is followed by “twisting your mind and smashing your dreams.”)

Pommerat’s touchstone, he says, is Luigi Comencini’s remarkable, Le avventure di Pinocchio, the lavishly praised 1972 production for Italian television which harkens back to post-WWII Italian neo-realistic cinema – back streets filled with rubble, kids scrambling for food, that kind of thing. “I did revisit the Comencini,” says Pommerat, “but I had other sources of inspiration, the films of Fellini, (Max) Ophüls and old photos mixed with what I remember of Collodi. I created this Pinocchio in 2008 for the Théâtre (de la Monnaie, in Brussels). The libretto for that production was rewritten for opera especially for Philippe Boesmans. (Boesmans and Pommerat collaborated earlier for the 2014 production of Au Monde. Asked to come up with something new by Bernard Focroulle, Aix’s out-going chief in two years, Boesmans immediately thought of Pommerat’s Pinocchio.)

Adds Boesmans in his separate email: “I didn’t find it interesting for my music to imagine Pinocchio as a puppet. I found it more interesting that Pinocchio is a real pre-adolescent boy going through different phases. I opted for varied musical changes adapted to the adventures that happen to him.

“I’m often attracted to victims by having an attitude of compassion toward them. Julie” [based on the August Strindberg play] and Yvonne, Princesse de bourgogne are two good examples. Of course Pinocchio is a puppet, but Joël Pommerat has reconsidered him as a street boy of today. Pinocchio is not a dark character. He obviously undergoes rather violent initiatory tests that teach him to become a real little man.”

(Readers may recall that Julie, which premiered at La Monnaie in 2005, was produced in 2015 by Canadian Stage and Soundstreams, making Boesmans’ North American debut with an all-Canadian cast directed by Matthew Jocelyn. Aix’s Pinocchio has its share of Canadians, starting with soprano Marie-Eve Munger as the Fairy, along with mezzo Julie Boulianne, baritone Laurent Deleuil and soprano Magali Simard-Galdès. Munger’s Fairy is, reportedly more hot mama than Tinkerbell, offering the boy, in Pommerat’s description, “the chance of salvation.”

Will Tuckett’s spring Pinocchio for the National Ballet was also a follow-up of sorts, his second retelling of the Collodi following an earlier production for the Royal Opera House which, upon reconsideration, needed too much restructuring and rethinking for the Canadian company. “It’s more a family show than a kid’s show, more about excitement than scary,” Tuckett tells me. “There is a lot of subtext one doesn’t get into. So you have to be a lot more honest on how you tell the story. It remains a very strong morality tale, a case of ‘if you do the wrong thing your nose will grow.’ There’s a comeuppance if you transgress.”

If there’s any punishment for the title character in Tuckett’s Pinocchio it comes with the relentless – ruthless? – pace the choreography forces the dancer  (Skylar Campbell in Toronto) to maintain. Does he ever get off stage? Being an inert chunk of wood begins to look good after a while! Pulse and pace however contribute to the work’s strength, via Paul Englishby’s amenable score. “This production is huge and the music has to be light-footed enough to switch styles,” says the composer who worked with Tuckett on The Thief of Baghdad for the Royal Opera House. “Rhythmically speaking, we play all sorts of games with patterns we’ve set up. The harmony can be quite thorny at times, but Pinocchio has a a musical motive that runs the entire gamut of everything we do.”

The National Ballet’s Pinocchio would easily get the Disney seal of approval if Uncle Walt were still with us. Violence and sexuality are kept within parental guidance limits. Dramaturge Alasdair Middleton – who also wrote the book for the 2007 Jonathan Dove Pinocchio opera – avoids scenes of boys hanging or cricket crunching.

The Aix Festival has emerged in recent years as the Tiffany’s of the European music season; it’s always sunny and cher. Having Ottawa’s Philippe Sly as its Don Giovanni this year shouldn’t dent this impression in the slightest. (In thinking of the cavernous quality of Sly’s voice, a true bass-baritone, one is reminded of British critic Kenneth Tynan once describing Richard Burton’s voice as having “the stillness of a cathedral.”) But the festival – 70 years old next year – has become particularly sure-footed when it comes with its commissioning and performance of contemporary opera.

It seems Aix’s instinct to re-imagine what opera might be – sometimes falling flat on its makeup in the process – often has to do with revisiting the power of illusion itself. Its 2012 hit, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, set in 13th-century France revolved around illustrated texts. Last year’s Kalila wa Dimna, based on a 2,000-year-old bestseller in Arabic, dealt with the slippery relationship truth has with politics. Likewise, Pinocchio the marionette functions in a diminutive way, the way opera does on the grand scale, as an artificial means of understanding our humanity.

Speaking of artificial means. There is one Trump-Pinocchio connection after all. Geppetto is called “pudding” by the local kids, because of the yellow hair in his wig.

Performances of Pinocchio are at the Grand Théâtre de Provence July 3, 7, 11 and 14 at 8pm and July 9 and 16 at 5pm.

Peter Goddard, music, film and visual arts critic for the Toronto Star with a National Newspaper Award for criticism, is the author of The Great Gould, due out this summer from Dundurn Press.

2209 Feat Jazz 1Jazz festivals sometimes follow an uncomfortable pattern. Early success breeds an appetite for more. It’s difficult to attract crowds with niche music, so the emphasis turns to the most accessible forms of jazz, sometimes even distant relations. Fortunately, there are people like Hamilton’s Cem Zafir, committed to jazz at the margins, edgy, experimental music that’s defined by the risk of improvisation not by the tapping of feet.

Zafir, who first started booking radical jazz-John Zorn’s Masada and Rashied Ali-in BC around 2000, started the four-day Something Else! Festival of Creative Music in 2014. He’s clearly developing a sustainable model, using well-known, compatible musicians whose working lives involve overlapping ensembles. Amid the welter of bands appearing between June 16 -19 is a hard core of international improvisers, with musicians from the Netherlands and Japan as well as Canada and the US.

Ken Vandermark, saxophonist, composer and master of creative musical networking is artist-in-residence. He opens the festival with a solo performance and then over the next few days appears in numerous shifting ensembles. The DKV Trio (the other members are percussionist supreme Hamid Drake and stand-out bassist Kent Kessler) appears with guest guitarist Joe Morris on Saturday afternoon; during the Sunday matinee, DKV combines with Eloping with the Sun, the long-standing trio of Drake, Morris and New York bassist William Parker in which the three emphasize various African, ethnic and small instruments (even the trumpet is the pocket version). Alone, Eloping with the Sun concludes Saturday evening; DKV returns for the Sunday evening concert.

In another combination, Vandermark appears in duet with trumpeter Nate Wooley. Vandermark’s contribution to the duo is a work-in-progress called Sequences of Snow, in which he takes “visual and sonic aspects from [Michael] Snow’s films…as inspiration for material to interpret and transform for a completely different medium.” Wooley, whose experimentation extends to applying the International Phonetic Alphabet to trumpet sound production, also appears in a solo concert as does Joe Morris, who can alter one’s view of a guitar’s possibilities.

2209 Feat Jazz 2Perch Hen Brock & Rain, heard on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, consists of two well-travelled couples with distinguished resumes: Netherlander saxophonist/clarinetist Ab Baars and violist Ig Henneman and Brooklyn-resident saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. Baars, a prominent member of Amsterdam’s ICP, also has a guest-spot with Eloping with the Sun. Another couple, the Tokyo-based trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii appear in Kaze (Japanese for “wind”), an intercontinental explosion of brassy brilliance with the French trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins.

There are plenty of other performances as well, including solo turns by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. Montrealer Woody Epps’ Togetherness includes stand-out musicians, like saxophonist Erik Hove and trombonist Scott Thomson. Spontaneous ensembles punctuate the afternoon series, including a tribute to the late Toronto guitarist Ken Aldcroft.

It’s an opportunity to hear a spectrum of international radicals who are never heard in Toronto in this concentration.

For a complete schedule and locations, see zulapresents.org



The Isabel performance hall.For a half hour or so, around 10:15pm, last Saturday April 29, in Kingston, Ontario, two individuals with concert halls named after them occupied the same stage at the same time, albeit for quite distinct reasons.

One was Jeanne Lamon, first and recently retired director of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, for whom Tafelmusik’s recently renovated concert hall at the Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre in Toronto is named. The other was Isabel Overton Bader, for whom Queen’s University’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston is named and without whom (along with husband Alfred Bader), the Centre and its stunning 566-seat recital hall would almost certainly never have come into existence.

Lamon took a bow onstage at the Isabel last Saturday night as one member of a distinguished 10-person jury (along with fellow violin virtuosi Martin Beaver, Jonathan Crow and Barry Shiffman) for the inaugural Isabel Overton Bader Canadian Violin Competition, which kicked off on Wednesday April 26 with a two-day semifinal round during which the field was winnowed down from seven to three violinists. Friday was an intensive rehearsal day with the competition’s two indefatigable collaborative pianists, Benjamin Smith and Michel Szczesniak, for the three finalists: Toronto-based Katya Poplyansky, Vancouver’s Lucy Wang and Yolanda Bruno from Ottawa. 

Saturday’s final round consisted of three separate short solo recitals (at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm, respectively) with order of appearance drawn by lot, and roughly 15-minute breaks in between. As with the semifinal round, which was a very clever blend of compulsory and optional elements, the final round was deftly structured to allow both for clear points of comparison and for artistic self-expression.

To explain: each of the seven semifinalists was required, ahead of the competition, to choose the first movement of one of the five Mozart violin concerti to open their final program, should they make it to the finals. (For the detail-driven among you, each of the five, except Concerto No. 2, was chosen by at least one competitor, and, as it turned out, two of the three finalists, including the winner, chose to prepare No.3 in G Major.) What made the exercise particularly intriguing from an audience perspective, though (and I expect particularly revealing for the jurors), was that each performer was also required to perform her own original cadenza for the chosen concerto. It also gave each violinist the opportunity to establish a rapport with the pianist playing the reduction of the orchestral score, and to hear themselves in the hall.

After that appetizer, the main course of each program was a complete violin concerto, again with piano reduction, of the performer’s own choosing, and it was here that the personalities of the individual players shone through. Katya Poplyansky (who had chosen Mozart Concerto No.4 in D Major to start her program), followed it with the Prokofiev Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.63. Lucy Wang, who followed, chose Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53.

Yolanda Bruno.To round the evening off, Yolanda Bruno, the eventual $20,000 first prize winner (and winner of the audience choice prize), took on Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2, BB 117 with Benjamin Smith as pianist. It should be said that the competition was open to Canadian violinists from 18 to 29 years of age, and that while age is not necessarily an indicator of musical maturity it was clear from the first downstroke of the violin in the Mozart that Bruno has at this stage in her career achieved a level of comfort in her own musical skin that enabled her to fully relish the moment, interpretively and collaboratively. She and pianist Smith played off each other in the Bartók to an astonishing extent, evoking the full orchestral scope and scale of the work. The fact that Bruno currently performs on the 1700 Taft Strad on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank probably had something to do with it. So too did Smith’s extraordinary feathering of the pedals of the hall’s first-rate Steinway piano.

But the hall itself, and the kind of listening it evokes from its audiences – a kind of collective responsibility for the acoustical occasion – is in and of itself something unique in the Canadian musical landscape. It’s a facility that will, if well curated, and supported in its programming with the same sense of responsibility as went into the acoustical perfecting of the place, become one of those places that chamber musicians, and others, seek out, for the pleasure of the opportunity to simply be their best.

Tricia Baldwin is executive director of The Isabel Bader Centre, wooed back to Kingston from Tafelmusik, where she was general manager during Jeanne Lamon’s heyday. As for the future of this particular competition, she tells me, the plan is for it to continue as a triennial affair (like its illustrious counterparts, the Honens Piano Competition in Calgary and the Banff International String Quartet Competition). “But don’t expect solo violin to be its defining characteristic,” she says. “More central is the idea that it is a competition for young Canadian musicians.”

However that idea plays out, it’s off to a flying start.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.


Staniland BW 3458Johannes Debus will take the podium at Koerner Hall on May 24 to launch the 2017 edition of the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival, along with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers and soloists.

The program they will offer includes two works by 21C Festival artistic advisor, Brian Current, one of four composers featured during the festival who are former grand prize winners in one of the CBC/Radio-Canada national competitions for young Canadian composers. Current, Chris Paul Harman, Ana Sokolović and Andrew Staniland all have premieres of major works during the festival. These four composers, who won the CBC competition when they were in their 20s, 30s or, in Harman’s case, teens, have all demonstrated the promise and the purpose of the composition competitions by developing into successful professionals, now among the nation’s leading mature composers.

By way of background, the CBC/Radio-Canada National Radio Competition for Young Composers (1973-2003) was initiated by John Peter Lee Roberts, who was head of CBC Radio Music from 1965 to 1975. Roberts, who commissioned over 150 original Canadian compositions for broadcast during his tenure as head of music, saw the development of emerging composing talent in Canada as one way of fulfilling the objective, as defined by the Broadcasting Act, to “Encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas and artistic creativity.”

Clearly, the development of artistic creativity spoke to Roberts in a strong voice, and he grasped the need to develop the next generation of Canadian composers. He brought together his colleagues at Radio-Canada, as well as the Canada Council to help fund the competition in its first year, 1973, and then received additional support from several provincial arts councils the following year. When Roberts handed me the Young Composers project at the end of his time at Radio Music, in 1975, it was already the most important vehicle for young and emerging composers in Canada. The creation in 1978 of the national new music series Two New Hours provided a national network radio vehicle to share the unfolding story of the emergence of Canada’s musical future. And through the system of international program exchange between the world’s public broadcasters, we were also able to introduce the music of these young creators to listeners around the globe. The linkage of a national contemporary music network series with the young composers competition produced a generation of new Canadian composers. The list of winners reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary Canadian music.

2208 CBC2 CurrentReturning to Brian Current, he was a finalist at age 24 in the 1996 CBC/Radio-Canada competition but he won the Grand Prize when he entered again in the 2001 edition. He told me that just being a finalist opened a door that inspired him to raise his composing to a higher level. Current is represented in the 21C Music Festival by performances of two movements from his large-scale multi-movement oratorio, The River of Light, for soloists, choir and orchestra. Current says that “The River of Light is about transcendence and is based on the texts of several traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, First Nations Canadian, Sufi, Maori and Chinese) that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.”

The first part, The Seven Heavenly Halls, won the inaugural Azrieli Commissioning Competition prize in 2015. The world premiere was last October in Montreal with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Kent Nagano. Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s (RCM) executive director of performing arts, was present for the premiere and was so moved by the work, he persuaded Debus to perform it with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, together with tenor soloist Andrew Haji and the Elmer Iseler Singers at the 21C opening. Debus describes his feeling about the piece this way: “I would like to call The Seven Heavenly Halls an ecstatic, overwhelmingly colourful, opalescent, kaleidoscopic and at times turbulent journey through a galaxy of mystique and vision. It feels as majestic and luminous as a temple.” The text of the work is based on the Zohar, which Current’s longtime collaborator and librettist, Anton Piatigorsky calls, “The most mysterious of Jewish mystical texts.”

Part III of The River of Light will receive its world premiere in the concert. It’s a work for narrator, choir and orchestra titled Nàaka, and is based on stories of the Northern Lights in the Tłįchǫ Dene tradition. “I was grateful to meet the remarkable Tłįchǫ Dene author and storyteller Richard Van Camp, who is quite justly treated like royalty wherever he goes in the Northwest Territories,” says Current. “Spending just one minute listening to Richard’s stories is to be immediately put under his spell.”

In Nàaka, (meaning Northern Lights, in the language of the Tłįchǫ Dene), Van Camp will narrate his text accompanied by the orchestra and choir. The translations and pronunciations were prepared by Tłįchǫ Elder Rosa Mantla. The work was commissioned by the Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall with support from Kris Vikmanis and Denny Creighton. (The May 24 opening concert also includes music by American composer/conductor Matthew Aucoin, Korean composer Unsuk Chin and Canadian composer/conductor Sammy Moussa.)

Chris Paul Harman was 19 years old when he won the CBC/Radio-Canada Young Composers Competition Grand Prize in 1990, making him the youngest laureate of the competition. Similar to Current, he had been a finalist in an earlier edition of the competition, in Harman’s case at the age of 16. Harman’s two works, included in the May 28 21C concert, presented by Soundstreams Canada, are both part of a series of pieces he based on the music of the English popular composer Ray Noble (1903-1978) and, in particular, songs recorded in 1934 by singer Al Bowlly, Love Locked Out and It’s All Forgotten Now. Harman wrote that, “The popular music of this era appeals to me for its elegance, melodic and harmonic sophistication and subtly nuanced orchestration.” His Love Locked Out was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2014 and premiered in London, England. Harman notes that “in alluding to the popular music of a bygone era, Love Locked Out likewise chronicles developments in the classical music of the same period, by quoting or adapting excerpted material from seminal works by Anton Webern (Klavierstücke, 1925) and Béla Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: first movement, 1937), both of which contain the opening five-note pattern of Ray Noble’s tune.

It’s All Forgotten Now, receiving its world premiere, was co-commissioned for Soundstreams and 21C by Stanley Witkin and the Royal Conservatory.

Canadian Arts Song Project (CASP) co-artistic directors Steven Philcox and Lawrence Wiliford created a program for the 21C Music Festival on May 25 that celebrates the Canadian sesquicentennial with Canadian art song. They commissioned Montreal composer Ana Sokolović to create a cycle of songs that sets poetry from every province in Canada, Dawn Always Begins in the Bones. And they also included the Canadian premiere of a song cycle by Andrew Staniland, Peter Quince at the Clavier.

Sokolović and Staniland complete our quartet of former CBC grand prize winners featured at this year’s 21C. Ana Sokolović was the Grand Prize winner in the 1999 CBC/Radio-Canada competition and St. John’s composer Andrew Staniland won the 2009 CBC/Radio-Canada Evolution Young Composers Competition, which was a one-time event, created as a new vision of the earlier competition. For both young composers, their respective grand prizes raised their standing in the musical community. “It gave me, an emerging composer, crucial visibility at an important time in my creative career,” Sokolović said, “like a Cinderella moment.”

Sokolović told me that her search for the right poetry for her new cycle took two years. She was assisted by University of Toronto professor Linda Hutchinson. Staniland’s cycle, on the other hand, sets a long, four-part poem by American Wallace Stevens. The CASP concert, which takes place at the RCM’s Temerty Theatre, also includes Lloyd Burritt’s Moth Poem. Lawrence Wiliford said, “We are thrilled to have commissioned and to be presenting an incredible new work by Ana Sokolović in recognition of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation and are delighted that we will be presenting the Canadian debut of a brilliant set of songs by Andrew Staniland as part of the the 21C Festival at the RCM.” Baritone Ian MacNeil will sing the Staniland and Burritt songs with pianist Mélisande Sinsoulier. COC Ensemble director Liz Upchurch will accompany the Sokolović cycle, sung by soprano Danika Lorèn, mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Aaron Sheppard and baritone Bruno Roy. In fact, it’s an all-Canadian cast!

The 21C Music Festival consists of nine concerts and 31 premieres in the space of five days, May 24 to 28. Besides the concerts already mentioned, there are performances of contemporary music by the Bang on a Can All Stars, violinist Benjamin Bowman with pianist Claudia Chan, the Cecilia String Quartet, Cinq à Sept, Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà and the Soundstreams Emerging Composers Workshop. The affordable Festival Pass makes it possible for every new music lover to take in the entire program. The major sponsors of the 21C Music Festival are Michael and Sonja Koerner.

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

2208 Feat Total Immerstion Banner2208 Feat Total ImmerstionDenis Brott, founder and artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Festival (MCF/FCM), now in its 22nd year, and I are about 20 minutes into a lively phone conversation and I’m explaining to him why this year, more than any other so far, I have a hunger to play hookey from my work here and head east to take in all three weekends of MCF/FCM.

“I heard the complete Beethoven String Quartet cycle done by the Amadeus Quartet in Toronto over a two-week period in April 1976,” I explain. “Eight months after arriving in Canada. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I think. It was…” I struggle for words.

“So you know what I am talking about then,” Brott jumps in. “It is really a life-altering experience and I am hopeful the public will appreciate it as such, and appreciate the wonderful playing of what I consider to be the foremost young quartet before the public today.”

He’s talking about the Dover String Quartet, winner of the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, and the fact that the quartet will play the entire Beethoven cycle at MCF/FCM on three consecutive Fridays and Sundays starting May 26 and ending Sunday, June 11, 2017.

“How long has something like this been in the planning?” I ask.

“Years,” he replies. “Three, probably. I was in Banff the year they won, teaching. And I was asked to give a lecture on the final day of competition, right before the Beethoven round, on the subject of the emotional language of Beethoven. I had been there all week listening to all the rounds with avid interest and I had picked out right from the beginning the exceptional nature of the Dover Quartet, their emotional intelligence. They ended up being grand prize winners and winners in almost every area of the competition.”

He invited them to MCF/FCM right away, he says, and they’ve been there almost every year since. “This profession [chamber music] is one where people actually make friendships and colleagues and experience camaraderie,” he says. “It’s one of the things that makes chamber music different from almost every other segment in the music world.”

2208 Feat Total Immerstion 2The idea of doing the cycle was one that he raised with them right from the start. “I planted in their ear right away that any quartet that takes itself seriously has to play the cycle – something I remember from when I jumped into the Orford Quartet in 1980. In one year I had to learn all the quartets and play the cycle. Believe me that was quite an undertaking.” It was during Brott’s eight years with the Orford that the quartet completed their landmark recordings of the Beethoven quartets for Delos over an 18-month period from 1984 to 1986.

“So I encouraged the Dovers, and said when you have it up, let’s do it at the festival. And when it became clear that this would be the year, I said, okay so then we should do a festival theme of Beethoven; the whole idea of Beethoven’s role as a pivotal figure in the transition between the classical and Romantic era.”

Beethoven has fascinated Brott for decades, he says. “I have played every single piece he wrote that has a cello in it, and it’s a musical language that I understand and enjoy, and more than enjoy, that I am in awe of. I am privileged to have access to playing this music and obviously in designing this season I wanted to have a Beethoven work on every concert or most concerts where possible, and that’s what I have done. And I have put it together with a great deal of care over the last year and a half, two years; you know it takes about that long.”

The Dover Quartet, it should be said, will have completed two other complete Beethoven cycles this season, one in Buffalo, one in Connecticut. But each will have consisted of coming to town for two concerts, on three occasions spread out through the year.

“I come back to what I said before,” says Brott. “Experiencing the cycle in a condensed time frame, for audience and performers is quite remarkable. I remember doing it with the Orford at the Rubens House in Antwerp, the atelier of the artist Rubens, and there was a concert every second night with one night in between. So let’s say the Dover have been in training for doing this, and they are looking forward to it; needless to say we are looking forward to it immensely.”

Of the aforementioned other two Beethoven cycles on the Dover Quartet’s calendar this year, the Buffalo engagement is a highly idiosyncratic one: the “Slee Cycle,” which has been running since 1955, requires quartets to perform the cycle in the exact sequence preferred by Frederick Slee who endowed it.

“Did you have discussion with the Dovers about the sequence for your festival?” I ask. His reply is emphatic. “You are asking a fundamental question about what I believe in as a director, instigator, shepherd, call it what you like. The way you have people perform at their best is by letting them do what they want, as artists, people of distinction. On something like this I would never impose my will. They are presenting, it is in my interest for them to be playing at their best.”

Listening to Brott talk about the rest of the programming for the festival (and the Beethoven cycle is only the main course of a very satisfying full-course musical meal), the same sense of enjoyment at empowering inclusion comes through again and again. All built around the camaraderie he referred to earlier in describing chamber music’s unique place in the musical world.

“So how many people do you think will come for the whole cycle?” I ask, wistfully returning to the idea of making a two-week and two-day pilgrimage, for my older self to revisit one of the formative experiences of my musical life.

“How many people will take in the whole cycle? I don’t know. But it is a festival in every sense; an immersion, a celebration, so you have to be into immersion, not just social concertgoing. It’s for people who are as passionate about the music as the musicians. Just think of it this way. Two or three weekends in a row in Montreal is not so bad!”

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

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