Joni Mitchell. Photo by Paul BabinI’m not sure I’m entirely surprised that it was a Canadian who wrote “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lament for the loss of a bit of Hawaiian landscape has taken on new meaning in our pandemic-roiled lives some 50 years later. Today, lamenting what has gone, temporarily or not, has become a worldwide emotionally traumatic phenomenon. 

But so has its reverse – being aglow in anticipation of what might return. That’s certainly how I’ve felt as I’ve eagerly devoured the announcements of what’s planned for the upcoming season for many of the major musical institutions in the city. It’s true – the bogey of the variants has taught us that our expectation of a clear, straight-line recovery from our own black plague is not to be. The future is considerably less than clear for performing arts organizations. Nonetheless, the desire to move forward, to plan, to anticipate the future, such a uniquely human characteristic, is on full display in our musical institutions. 

The pandemic has been something of a litmus test for many organizations and institutions in society, testing their durability and persistence, and our musical institutions are no different. Some have struggled to keep the faith, and maintain their identity. Others have refused to let the incredible circumstances of the past 18 months dim their normal creativity. And for a very few, the pandemic has actually made them more creative than ever – among them two organizations in our community one might not have expected to do so: Tafelmusik and The Royal Conservatory of Music.

Read more: The Desire to Move Forward On Full Display

Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Isaiah Bell as Antinous, 2018. Photo by Michael CooperOne of the more unfortunate things about the pandemic, in my biased opinion, has been the lost opportunity we Canadians have had to say a proper goodbye – goodbye and thank you – to Alexander Neef. Neef, who ran the Canadian Opera Company for 12 years, actually slipped out of town last fall during the pandemic and officially took up his duties at the Paris Opera in February. Since then, he has emerged as one of the boldest artistic directors in the world. 

First, he shocked the intellectual complacency of France by daring to set the companies and administration of the Paris Opera on a thoroughly modern course of social equity and inclusiveness. 

Then, he surprised the world again, this time in the artistic sphere, by hiring Gustavo Dudamel to be the music director of the Opera for the next five years, the expected choice of, it seems, no one. Both were provocative acts of artistic gutsiness and bravado, part and parcel of a man we hardly got to know while he was here. Hardly got to know, and (gauging by some of the chatter I’ve read and heard about Neef over the years) weren’t entirely sure we approved of. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me anymore, because this is Canada after all, and artistic success, especially our own, seems to enrage us. But honestly, am I the only person in Toronto who thinks that Alexander Neef was one of the best things that ever happened to us?

Read more: Alexander Neef and the relevance of excellence

Photo credit CBS PHOTO ARCHIVESo here we are a year later, and we’re still waiting for our lives back. But for me, all of a sudden, the pandemic hasn’t all been bad – because I’ve fallen in love again. In musical love, that is.

For most musicians or repertoire that have penetrated my heart the actual circumstances in which I first heard them are lost to my memory. They’ve just been there as long as I can remember. But not for all. My most vivid repertoire love affair came when I was about 14, maybe, visiting New York, and walking with my parents by the construction site of what would become the Columbia Broadcasting System’s headquarters, the famous Black Rock building on 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

To make things more interesting for passersby, CBS had installed little listening posts with headphones so you could sample CBS recordings as you walked by the site. And one of them contained the explosive Finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in a Bernstein/NY Philharmonic performance – a piece I had never heard before. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d never heard a note of Stravinsky before. There I stood, on 52nd Street, utterly and completely transfixed, playing the excerpt over and over again, many, many times, to either the delight or horror or amusement of my parents. (I think I returned to the site to listen again the next day.) I still have the Bernstein album I bought immediately on my return home.

Read more: Music that penetrates to the heart

Maria Callas, Madama Butterfly, Chicago, 1955. Photo credit SONYHere’s a reminder for those of you who think we Canadians have no substantial international intellectual clout. You are wrong. So wrong. And how do I know? Because Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, told me.

You see, Paris is up in arms these days because our Alexander Neef, now running the Paris Opera, has decided to stop ballet performances in blackface, and pledged to improve the racial balance in the makeup of members of his companies. He’s even wondered out loud whether certain pieces might be permanently retired from the Opera’s repertoire. (Please, take Madama Butterfly, please.) Everyone from the President of the Republic to the monstrous Marine Le Pen is beside themselves with alarm. “Woke, leftist ideas” they shudder, are intruding into the rarefied world of French intellectual life.

But, as Le Monde pointed out, what can you expect? Neef spent more than a decade in Toronto, they note, where, clearly, his mind and soul were permanently debilitated. In other words, it’s not Neef’s fault he has been polluted with these new ideas. It’s our fault. Take a bow, Toronto, we are corrupting the whole world! And maybe, just maybe, the world is ready for it. 

Read more: Toronto ‘woke leftist’? Sounds like a plot for an opera

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). Photo credit Google Art ProjectMy daughter said something to me last week that has had me thinking. She said that there’s been one very positive aspect to this world of suspended animation in which we’ve been living for almost a year now. And that was, she thought, that the virus has forced introspection upon us, forced us to slow down and disrupt our patterns of living, to scrutinize them with more care. For her it’s meant a serious career change, a new place to live, and a quite different attitude towards things – all very positive from her point of view.

My feeling has been almost the opposite – that we are so desperate to keep afloat these days, financially, socially and physically, that we haven’t had a minute to contemplate what the pandemic means on a larger scale. And what if it doesn’t mean anything? Perhaps it’s just something that happened, with no deeper implications. 

It’s interesting to note, however, that back in the Middle Ages, when a similar pandemic roiled Europe, its meaning, for many, was extremely clear. God was punishing mankind for its sinfulness, and the Black Death was the result. That interpretation, almost universally held at the time, gave rise to many changes in thinking and attitude in the decades and centuries that followed. Indeed, some historians draw a straight line from the bubonic plague to the Protestant Reformation of a couple of hundred years later. 

We live in a more secular age today, of course, so I’m not sure the prevailing currency on the meaning of the COVID virus centres around divine displeasure (although I’m certain there are many who think exactly as they thought in the 1300s). But it interests me that I haven’t yet come across any 21st-century equivalent explanations. 

Read more: Suspended Animation, or Animated Suspense?
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