The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), made a bold and exciting statement about new music in announcing its 2020/2021 season, the first under new music director Gustavo Gimeno. On their website, maestro Gimeno is quoted as saying, “I believe that orchestral music is at its most exciting when we create contrasts and diversity. We bring together our most cherished musical masterpieces alongside less familiar but equally brilliant works by contemporary composers who are evolving orchestral music for new generations.” Gimeno’s perception that Toronto’s vibrancy and diversity are qualities on which he feels he can build his tenure as TSO music director is reason for Toronto’s music creators to take heart!
“Change your mind and change your life.” This is what Canada’s beloved “Queen of R&B” Jully Black said to herself when she agreed to make her musical theatre debut as Caroline, the leading role in Caroline or Change for The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre, opening this month.
At first, she told me, she had said “No” to the invitation. “I said no to myself, no to my agent, mostly out of fear and dealing with vocal challenges.” Yet, when she realized in hindsight that those challenges were coming from emotional trauma, she began a deep research process into “the connection between silence and holding things in, between emotions and your vocal chords, between spirituality, neural pathways, and cognitive reflexes,” and came to the courageous decision that taking up this invitation would be – a thought she would repeat several times in our conversation – “a great opportunity to be a living witness and example of ‘change your mind and change your life’.”
“When did you two first start talking about this project?” I ask my guests. It’s January 14, 2020 and The Indigo Project, the latest in a long series of thematically based multimedia projects from the fertile curatorial mind of Tafelmusik’s Alison Mackay, will open on February 27. We sit surrounded by samples of indigo-dyed fabric, some old, some new, some borrowed – all very definitely blue. A fat binder of images from which Raha Javanfar is designing the projections for the show, sits on the table; over the course of the next
45 minutes, Mackay dips into it from time to time.
“Around a year ago …?” Mackay says, looking inquiringly across at Suba Sankaran, her prime collaborator on this project. “These things always take about two years to incubate...maybe a bit before that…I would have to go look at email. I began to think about this as a topic when I was working on Safe Haven. I have always been very inspired by the work of Natalie Zemon Davis – she wrote the first Return of Martin Guerre and she’s in her 90s now – she’s Aaron Davis’ mother, if you know him – and she’s just won, a couple of years ago, this enormous international history prize because she’s one of these cutting- edge people, examining court documents and things like that for written records that give glimpses into the lives of people who, perhaps as the less powerful, fall through the cracks of history. And she has done a lot of work on Sephardic Jewish refugees who went to Surinam and then in turn became plantation owners, and there was one family that were indigo growers there. I asked her to read the Safe Haven script for me, and she had some suggestions; but she also gave me some material about indigo at that time and it made me think, oh this would be a compelling topic! …”
With a career spanning half a century, renowned Toronto-based percussionist Bob Becker has garnered a global reputation for his instrumental mastery, interpretive skill and rigourous commitment to his art.
Reading road kill on balding tires
In the 1996 issue of Percussive Notes, veteran marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens summed up the prevailing opinion of Becker: “Everybody who knows anything about xylophone knows you are not only the greatest living xylophonist, but also the greatest xylophonist who has ever lived. Everybody who knows anything about … ‘world percussion’ knows you are a black belt on tabla and African hand drums. Anyone who has heard you perform the Toru Takemitsu From me flows what you call Time with Nexus knows you have a golden touch on steel drums. Anyone who is familiar with your performances with the Steve Reich Ensemble has to admit that you are a hot marimbist and vibe player, and anybody who knows you well, also knows that you are a superb all-around orchestral percussionist and timpanist who can read road kill on balding tires.”
Having established Becker’s percussion street cred, Stevens cheekily continued, “[but] … how are your drum set chops?”
Will there come a time when we journalists will be able to stop making a big deal out of women conductors? We are not there yet – systemic barriers in the profession remain all too real – but the fact that we can already see such a time on the horizon is thanks to the critical cohort of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have more than paid their dues in the industry and are now toppling the dams everywhere, finding themselves equally at home in opera and symphonic music, and combining associate principal positions with at least one directorship. We are talking people like Susanna Mälkki, Xian Zhang, Keri-Lynn Wilson, Dalia Stasevska, Gemma New, Han-na Chang, and the conductor currently in charge of the COC’s The Barber of Seville (January 19 to February 7), Speranza Scappucci.
Piano study since the age of five; degrees from the Conservatory of Music Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Juilliard School; nine years as the rehearsal conductor with Ricardo Muti; 15 years as a répétiteur in some of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe; fluency in English, Italian, French, German – even with such a résumé and experience, the switch to full time conducting wasn’t immediate. “It helped that I have worked as a coach in so many places and that I know the opera world well already,” recalls Scappucci. “But trying to break that wall between the categories – convincing people to see that yes I was a good répétiteur and can also be a good conductor, that was a challenge sometimes. People like to put you in a box. So they’ll think, ‘Oh she’s a pianist, and pianist primarily.’”