The Russians Are Coming is film director Norman Jewison’s silly 1966 comedy about a Soviet-era submarine that runs aground off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, sending the local citizenry into unfounded Cold-War hysterics. In the last two decades, there’s been another kind of Russian invasion: a flood of musicians, dancers and theatrical artists. This artistic outpouring was largely caused by the collapse of the USSR in 1991. On one hand, this triggered a financial meltdown for many Russian musicians, due to deep funding cuts for cultural institutions and activities. On the other hand, it allowed Russian musicians to travel much more freely.

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Dvoretskaia with Spivakov

Even Russia’s most esteemed musicians found that in order to succeed in the new environment, they needed new skills: entrepreneurial savvy, a competitive spirit, and sheer determination. “In Russia in the 1990s,” the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev told me in an interview a few years ago, “you couldn’t possibly plan by thinking first about money. You must have your plans – and if you have artistic force, the money will find you.”

Like many Western cities, Toronto has benefited from the political and economic upheavals half a world away. Since the 1990s, Toronto has played host to such Russian pianists as Evgeny Kissin, Boris Berman, Michael Berkovsky, Olga Kern and Alexander Toradze (he’s Georgian, strictly speaking). Concert-pianist Alexander Tselyakov lives here. So do Inna Perkis and Boris Zarankin, who run Toronto’s Off Centre Music Salon.

And that’s just the pianists: we also get a parade of Russian conductors, singers, instrumental soloists, chamber musicians, even the occasional opera director. We also get large ensembles – most notably, Gergiev’s Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg, which has visited Toronto three times. The next big Russian ensemble to visit will be the National Philharmonic Orchestra, with pianist Denis Matsuev, which makes its Toronto debut at Roy Thomson Hall on April 28.

Read more: The Russians are…here!

Composer Alexina Louie offers a warm greeting at the door of her home, in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood. Repeatedly, she apologizes for the not-quite-finished renovations to the house she shares with her partner, conductor Alex Pauk, and their children. The renovation has been going on for several years – and at one point even threatened her compositional activity. (More on that later.)

Soon we’re sitting around the kitchen table, looking at the score to her newest piece, Pursuit, for orchestra and string quartet. The work was composed for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Tokyo String Quartet, and will be premiered on March 7, as part of the TSO’s New Creations Festival. Such an unusual combination of instrumental forces, was, Louie admits, a challenge.

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Alexina Louie takes a bow following the performance of her Infinite Sky With Birds, given its Toronto premiere by the Esprit Orchestra at the Jane Mallett Theatre on February 5. The work, commissioned by Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, was inspired when she saw a flock of birds suddenly take flight. (Photo courtesy Stanley Fefferman, www.showtimemagazine.com.)

“I spent a lot of time thinking about this piece,” she observes, turning the pages of the big score, “before I started to write the notes. At the outset, I had a meeting with the Tokyo Quartet – I heard them play, and we met the next day. I said I’d like to write a piece that won’t have to be amplified. But I’m not sure, even at this point, if the quartet will need microphones. Roy Thomson is a big hall.”

Read more: At home with Alexina Louie - March 2009

Golijof's AinadamarThe fascist militia of Grenada, Spain, abducted one of Europe’s great literary voices, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and then murdered him on August 19, 1936. The corpse of this landmark poet-playwright-director-composer-artist was dumped in an unmarked and still unknown grave. Lorca was only 38 when his life was stolen, and all that he would have created was stolen from posterity.

Murdering Lorca was an early act in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-38, which was itself a dry run for World War II. Lorca’s fate announced a campaign of targeted mass murders that helped pave the way for General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, a regime that lasted until the General’s death in 1975.

Oswaldo Golijov’s first opera bears the title of a location where many think the fascist militia “disappeared” Lorca, to use modern parlance: That location is a public fountain bearing the Arabic name Ainadamar, meaning “fountain of tears.” Indeed.

The artistry of Ainadamar, which premiered at Tanglewood in 2003, and was then revisd for the 2005 Sante Fe Festival, does full honour to Lorca’s life and work. It’s a partnership between a very hot and unorthodox composer with two frequent collaborators, the librettist David Henry Hwang and the New Music diva Dawn Upshaw, plus Peter Sellars as the stage director. Sellars, from my perspective, is beyond brilliant when he directs contemporary operas. He’s an invaluable ally to a composer as an opera travels from an initial gleam in the eye to its premiere. (When Sellars gets his hands on Mozart however, oy.)

My original intention for this month’s column had been to tackle Puccini’s penultimate opera, La Rondine, via a review of the recent Met production plus a better than fine Hardy DVD which remasters a 1959 Italian television production. But on the way back from viewing Obama’s inauguration from a comfortable perch in the Canadian embassy, I managed to slip Deutsche Grammophon’s recording of Ainadamar into the appropriate slot in my car’s radio despite the best efforts of DG’s packaging people to make shrink wrapping impenetrable. Having reviewed earlier Golijov recordings, I had high expectations. But this one bowled me over, as was evidently the case for the powers that be at the Metropolitan Opera, which has given a prized commission to Golijov to create a new opera for the 2011 season.

Golijov was born and raised in Buenos Aires’ large Jewish community. Anyone born in Argentina has a very direct knowledge of government and para-military thugs “disappearing” people. Lorca’s plays were kept alive in Latin America while Franco banned them in his native Spain. (In fact the central female character in Ainadamar is an aging actress in Uruguay – Margarita Xirgu, the actress who unsuccessfully tried to get Lorca to get to safety by joining her in a tour to Cuba.) Add in the experience of Golijov’s Eastern European Jewish parents in getting out of Europe in time to avoid the concentration camps, and it’s evident that creating this opera is far more than a good gig. This scenario is very, very personal.

The musical means that Golijov has in hand to create this scenario are unusually, perhaps uniquely, diverse – and deep. After completing his formal undergraduate training in Argentina, Golijov headed to the rigorous conservatory in Jerusalem. In Israel, Golijov picked up on the music of both Arabs and contemporary Israelis. His earlier informal training included immersion in Jewish liturgical music, Tango as high art music, and Afro-Brazilian drumming. The multiple musical worlds that we hear in Golijov’s compositions are the result of living and working in diverse contexts, not pastiche to be plugged in here and there. Golijov doesn’t quote Afro-Brazilian drumming or synagogue chants – he composes with them.

All of these elements had previously been wielded (and welded) with seeming ease in La Pasión según San Marcos, Golijev’s massive choreographed oratorio that was one of four Passions commissioned by the International Bachakadamie Stuttgart in celebration of both the new millennium and the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Sofia Gubaidulina, Tan Dun, and Wolfgang Rim were the other three invitees. This was heady company indeed for a young composer barely known a decade earlier.

La Pasión is an applied case of chaos theory, sparked by Golijov’s youthful experiences in synagogues. Traditional prayers often call for each person to chant to their own drummer. It seems to be a welter of confusion, but then the key prayers come. Everybody shifts gears on the spot and participates in tight coordination. It’s like the Count Basie Band’s legendary ability to turn on a dime. Golijov noticed the same pattern in Catholic street parades.

None of the above is chaotic in the slightest. It’s the product of practising for many years and knowing the signals and the repertoire. But it does build up dramatic tension and release.

Dramatic tension and release is the name of of the game in opera. When I first heard La Pasión, my immediate read was that this composer ought to be writing operas. Golijov’s change of course in that direction was thankfully not long in coming.

In contrast to La Pasión, Ainadamar employs smaller forces and is all the more powerful for doing so. The scenario shifts back and forth from the present of a dying actress to slices of the past. The sounds of Muslim Spain are rekindled long after they’ve disappeared. Brazilian drumming ups the emotional pitch when the time is right.

Just imagine what will occur when Golijov is let loose with the vast resources of the Met.

From humble beginnings to painstaking struggles and ultimately heroic triumphs, the jazz life of Sheila Jordan could inspire an epic play with a challenging lead to cast. Blessed with a haunting voice that is at once innocent and worldly, the animated jazz legend nicknamed Lady Bird shares the same birthday as Mickey Mouse. Sheila Jeanette Dawson was born on November 18, 1928 in Detroit to unwed teenagers. As a toddler she was sent to live with her grandparents in Summerhill, a poverty-stricken coalmining town in rural Pennsylvania.

“I lost a lot of self-esteem as a kid,” Sheila recalls. “Being one of the two poorest families in town, we were always hounded in this coal mining area. There was a lot of alcoholism in the family. My grandfather was an alcoholic and most of the kids in the family turned out to be alcoholics, including me, but not at that time…”

Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan

Read more: JOY AND JUSTICE: THE JAZZ JOURNEY OF SHEILA JORDAN

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale performs on the steps of the Canadian Embassy  overlooking the beginning of U.S.President Barack Obama's Inaugural parade. photo: © johnbeebe
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale performs on the steps of the Canadian Embassy overlooking the beginning of U.S.President Barack Obama's Inaugural parade. photo: © johnbeebe

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale is no stranger to prominent people and occasions: over its ten-year history, the Toronto-based choir has sung at events honouring Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mohammed Ali. But last month’s engagements in Washington DC were in many ways unprecedented, thrusting the group onto the world stage.

“We were pleased and flattered by the invitations,” said the choir’s director, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor (with understated delight), shortly before his choir sang at the festivities surrounding Barack

Obama’s inauguration. “We not only represent Afrocentric music, but also a kind of diversity that’s responsive to Obama’s ideas about community and coming together.”

The only Canadian musical group to take part in the inauguration events, the choir performed on January 19 (Martin Luther King Day) at the Smithsonian Institution’s

Museum of the American Indian. On January 20 – the day of Obama’s inauguration – the choir sang a concert at the Canadian Embassy.

Read more: Nathaniel Dett Cover Story - February 2009

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