Afghanistan Poppies - photo courtesy of University of OregonIn 2009 Canadian poet Suzanne Steele was appointed as the first ever Canadian war poet, and served in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry as a part of the Canadian Forces Artist Program. She documented her experiences in her poetry and on her website, warpoet.ca. After her return home, she mentioned to the late Michael Green, a co-founder of One Yellow Rabbit theatre in Calgary, the idea of writing a requiem using the words she had written in Afghanistan. Green introduced her to Heather Slater at the Calgary Philharmonic, who in turn suggested Vancouver composer Jeffrey Ryan as a collaborator. Steele liked Ryan’s music, and soon they were working together on a project that became Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The work received its premiere in Calgary in 2012, and was also produced and recorded with the Vancouver Symphony last January.

Ryan and Steele were easy and effective collaborators. Ryan recently told me, “It was clear to me from our first meeting that for Suzanne, the poetry would be coming from a deeply personal and emotional place–of course it could be nothing else but. So I knew that, not being the one who was there, it was also my job to be the counterbalance to that. Suzanne wrote and wrote, and I gave practical feedback from the compositional side: I think this is one too many stories, this needs to be longer, this needs to be shorter, this needs to be soprano not tenor, we need to combine these two ideas, can we have an orchestra-only moment here, and so on. It helped that Suzanne has a degree in music, so she had an understanding of what I was talking about, as well as how to write words that can be effectively set and sung. In the end, I think through this process we came up with something that is a perfect marriage of words and music.

I asked Ryan what struck him most about Steele’s poetry. He said, “The most exciting thing for me is that she was there. She was writing from what she saw and experienced. She knew people there who were killed, she knew people who came home with PTSD, she knew their families. So I knew there would be a truth and authenticity in her poetry that, really, no other poet could have brought, and it gave the piece immediacy and relevance. Also, it was a perspective I never could have even imagined myself. But being able to talk with her as the words were being shaped meant that as soon as it was time to start composing the music, I knew where she was coming from and what she was wanting to express, and from that foundation I already had ideas about what the music would sound like. It’s the same when collaborating on opera; being part of the development process of the story and the libretto, discussing each draft and giving feedback, means that the music is already emerging in my head long before I put pencil to paper.

Suzanne Steele“One thing that Suzanne said in our first meeting stuck with me through the whole process. She said that she was there as a witness, and it was the artist’s job not to provide the answers, but to ask the questions. We both agreed that it was important that the piece not takes sides in the conflict, but convey a witnessing of events to the audience: ‘These are some of the things that happened, what do you think about that?’ As the composer, I sought to express musically the emotional and dramatic content of each scene, whether it was the triage nurse trying to hold down a sense of panic as more and more injured arrive, or the fragmented thoughts of a soldier with PTSD, or the joyful sounds of children playing a game amongst the rubble.”

The completed work, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, is scored for four soloists, both adult and children’s choruses, and orchestra. The piece is in nine sections, opening with an evocation of the space and calm of the North, and a prayer for healing. The program notes in the score state: “It quickly comes back to earth, and to Afghanistan, with the fractured memories of a soldier suffering from PTSD, living in the present but tortured by the past, the sound of helicopters ringing in his ears. As the work unfolds, a young soldier writes home during a cold Afghan night, the voices of parents and children echoing in his mind. In the Day of Wrath, apprehension turns to catastrophe seen first in slow motion, gradually speeding up to real time as a soldier, critically injured by an Improvised Explosive Device, is airlifted to emergency care. A lover mourns. A soldier is killed two days before the tour of duty ends. A body returns home. Two soldiers tell their story of a lamb. Children play. Voices of light evoke a flock of birds flying freely overhead. A medic is overwhelmed by mounting casualties. A soldier seeks to be made whole again. In the final movement, the choir looks to an unknown future as the soloists remember past sacrifices, all coming together in a closing appeal for rest and peace.”

To commemorate Remembrance Day this year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Tania Miller will give the Toronto premiere of Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The TSO production features soprano Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Brett Polegato with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. TSO music director Peter Oundjian has written: “Of course, Jeffrey Ryan is one of the country’s most distinguished composers, and his work as our affiliate composer some years ago was outstanding. I am always keen to hear the most recent works by our former affiliates, and when our creative team brought this Requiem to me, I knew that we should program it. It is truly an epic work. Suzanne Steele’s moving poetry and Jeff’s powerful music make for an unforgettable experience.”

The performances take place in 8pm concerts on November 9 and 11 at Roy Thomson Hall. The concert also contains music by Vaughan Williams, the Scottish piper G.S. McLennan and a short so-called “Sesquie for Canada’s 150th” by Julien Bilodeau. Jeffrey Ryan will attend both Toronto performances, as well as a November 10 Calgary Philharmonic performance, in Calgary.

Jeffrey Ryan - photo by Chick RiceSteele and Ryan’s Requiem adds to the ever-growing repertoire of musical works honouring the sacrifices of Canada’s soldiers over the course of our history and makes for a poignant reminder of the reasons behind their creation. Ever since Canadian poet, doctor and soldier, Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872–1918) wrote In Flanders Fields, composers have been drawing inspiration from it and setting it to music. In 2006, Kingston, Ontario composer John Burge composed his Flanders Fields Reflections. Burge called McCrae’s work, “Perhaps the most famous poem ever written by a Canadian.” The recording of Burge’s work by Sinfonia Toronto on Marquis Classics won the 2009 JUNO for best classical composition. McCrae’s poem has been set numerous times by composers around the world. Interestingly, the very first setting was by American Charles Ives, in 1917. More recently, Canadians Stephen Chatman, Eleanor Daley and Alexander Tilley have also used the poem. In Chatman’s case, it was a setting commissioned by the Vancouver men’s choir, Chor Leoni.

McCrae’s poem is of course not the only literary source for music of remembrance by Canadian composers. Chatman has also made Remembrance Day settings using poetry by Walt Whitman (Reconciliation) and by Christina Rossetti (Songs of Remembrance). (Music by Chatman, Daley and Tilley will be sung in a concert titled “Acquired Taste: Music for Remembrance,” at 7:30pm on Sunday, November 12 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end.)

Born in England, Healey Willan (1880–1968) came to Canada in 1913 and lived and worked through both world wars. He wrote An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts in 1921 for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It’s a work that was dedicated to the memory of those members of the choir who had been killed in WWI. Then, in 1939, as Canada entered WWII, Willan composed A Responsory for Use in the Time of War, while serving as precentor of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

Near the end of his life, Harry Somers (1925–1999) composed A Thousand Ages, a major work for boy soprano, men’s choir, orchestra and electronics. The title comes from a line in the hymn, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past. Somers’ father had served in WWI and was haunted by severe nightmares throughout his remaining life. Somers recalled how as a youth he had often awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of his father’s screams. A Thousand Ages is one of Somers’ most personal works, and it received its premiere during the Winnipeg Symphony’s New Music Festival in 2000, with Bramwell Tovey conducting. Tovey was so impressed with the work that he made a version that replaced the orchestra with silver band. This is the version that I recorded with my production team, for a CD featuring the Hannaford Street Silver Band and the men of the Amadeus Choir at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Toronto. It’s a powerful, visceral work that conveys the horrors that soldiers experience. Personally, I feel it’s an impactful work that should be performed more often at Remembrance Day observances.

The same CD, on the Opening Day label, also contained an important work by Tovey. This was his Requiem for a Charred Skull, written as Tovey’s reaction to the war in Kosovo. It was this recording that won Tovey the 2003 JUNO for best classical composition.

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

Philip ChiuPhilip Chiu, acclaimed for his collaborative piano work with Jonathan Crow, Janelle Fung, James Ehnes, Andrew Wan and Raphael Wallfisch among many others, makes his Toronto recital debut for Music Toronto on November 28.

In a mid-October email exchange, the talented and personable Hong Kong-born pianist told me that he was excited to come back to Toronto, “very much my hometown and place of musical birth.” He left when he completed his studies at the Glenn Gould School in 2006 and has returned many times for concerts and recitals (most recently with Jonathan Crow at Toronto Summer Music) “but this feels like a real homecoming artistically, especially since it’s a return to form as a soloist.”

WN: Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?
Who were the first performers you fell in love with?

PC: I like this pair of questions because I can answer them with the same story: In brief, 1) Mendelssohn 2) Jon Kimura Parker. I forget exactly how old I was, maybe 14 or 15, when I was studying Mendelssohn’s G Minor Piano Concerto. Between working feverishly on that piece (so many arpeggios!) and constant exposure to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, I had completely succumbed to the infectious effervescence of Mendelssohn’s writing. Up until this point in our story, I never really listened to much classical music, so after years of taking me to classical music concerts and trying to keep me awake, my parents must’ve been totally confused to be hearing orchestral music coming from my room... I’m sure they thought I was hiding something! Suffice it to say, I was not your classic case of a young pianist dreaming of being the next Rubinstein or Horowitz.

One day I happened to catch a performance of that same concerto on CBC, and I was so thrilled to hear someone playing it the way I hoped I could play it! I caught the name of the pianist (Jackie Parker) and tried locating a recording to purchase. Sadly, his website revealed no such recording. In mild distress, I wrote to the email address on his website expressing my admiration for the recording I had heard and asked if it was available for purchase (expecting an efficient, dismissive reply from his agent).

I was totally floored when I received a reply from Jackie just a few days later. He had written an explanation of the recording (a live CBC recording that was not available for purchase) and excitedly asked about my progress with the concerto and shared his thoughts on the piece. He finished by saying that he would ask his father to search for the recording in his archives and to send me a copy (on cassette tape, of course) as soon as possible. I received the recording with another kind letter from his father within a short period.

This tiny, personal moment has stayed with me these last 15 years; among other things, it has shaped my idea of what it means to have success and to encourage those coming up (in my case, from very, very far away) behind you.

You’re known as a top collaborative pianist. What are the challenges of a solo recital?

Going solo involves an interesting mix of challenges and rewards. First and foremost, the memory component of the solo piano recital requires its own special mention: No thanks to Liszt for creating an expectation of pianists that far exceeds those of any other instrument. I am not one of those musicians with a prodigious mind that memorizes music the first time they hear it on the radio; it was one thing when I was a teenager and my brain was a soft, malleable mass, but now, trying to find the time to memorize about 85 minutes of music (for one program!) is not particularly easy nor, frankly, the most rewarding part of music-making. I am buoyed by more and more famous pianists (e.g. Alexandre Theraud, Gilbert Kalish) having scores on stage, but it’s still quite hard to shake the stigma associated with doing so.

Another challenging aspect of performing solo, as someone who has found some degree of success as a “very sociable pianist,” is convincing the established musical community that a pianist can be many things and, shockingly, even perform all roles extremely well. There is little doubt that collaborative pianism and solo pianism have some stark differences in their skillsets, but there is a surprising amount of bias (from all sides) about the ability of one to perform the other.

I absolutely love the thrill of having the stage to myself; the not-inconsiderable allocation of brain power dedicated to playing with others is now freed up for... anything! Even the finest of collaborations have some limitations to how far one can stretch timing/phrasing or introduce new ideas on the fly (of course, one of the joys of chamber music is pushing that boundary and being amazed by the results), but when I’m alone on stage, I have only to answer to the composer, the audience, and myself.

What went into choosing the repertoire for your Music Toronto recital? Please give us a snapshot of each of the works you’ve chosen.

“Stories & Legends” is a program I created specially for my Music Toronto debut. I would like to add how grateful I am to be performing in this longstanding series in the city where the majority of my education took place. I have many fond memories of attending great piano and chamber music recitals hosted by Music Toronto, so I was ecstatic when I heard from my agent Andrew Kwan that they had gotten in touch. When choosing the program, it was vitally important to me to share something of myself and not only to present A Good Piano Recital Program.

Our evening starts with The Mother Goose Suite. It is a brilliantly simple work that showcases Ravel’s uncanny ability to channel innocent wonder into song. It is a work I came to know intimately through my work with Janelle Fung (as part of the Fung-Chiu Duo), and is also, in a small way, my homage to our musical partnership. Fairy tale after fairy tale, Ravel gifts us beautifully rendered, first-person perspectives from these stories. I present it here in its solo arrangement by Ravel’s friend Jacques Chariot.

The companion work I’ve chosen for the first half is a personal selection of Rachmaninoff

Preludes. I find they are not unlike the Mother Goose Suite; self-contained tales that evoke diverse images and emotions. I’ve chosen five for five, five preludes that loosely match, in sense and style, the five movements of the Ravel suite.

Schubert. Yikes. The Wanderer Fantasy. Double yikes. This is a beautiful, impressive (every piano program needs some fireworks) piece that strays fairly far from its source material, at least in character. Save for the second movement, which quotes the original Der Wanderer lied almost directly, the remaining three movements present this melancholic song in a more jubilant, high-spirited manner. Twenty minutes of keyboard intensity with plenty of Schubertian modulations, melodies, and mood-changes.

Our night concludes with Liszt’s Deux Légendes; epic storytelling at its very epic-est. Liszt uses all his tricks in the piano-writing book to vividly illustrate two biblical stories (St. Francis’ Sermon to the Birds, and St. Francis of Assisi Walking on the Waves). You will hear birds, you will hear undulating waves, you will hear quiet, awestruck wonder and also very loud wonder.

Two years ago you were the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, an award so covert that the performers in the running for it don’t even know they’re being considered. Now that you’ve had time to digest it, what has winning the prize meant to you?

I can’t say I’ve really taken much time to digest it, haha. I was obviously flabbergasted to know I was the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, but my next reaction was to think of all the other more-deserving musicians I know who should have received it. Honestly, I think I’ve spent most time trying to find ways to justify (to myself) having been awarded this prize.

In another way, I took winning that prize as a message that it was time to change direction. It felt really, really good to be recognized for my work as a collaborative artist, but it was also a sign to myself that it was time to take stock of what I had accomplished thus far and consider where I wanted to go next. It’s a big part of the reason I’m answering your questions today: I knew that it was time to set aside the collaborative hat for a moment and show everyone a lesser-worn, but much-beloved hat: Solo Phil.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Ben SteinThe specific concert that sparked this conversation takes place Sunday, November 19, 2017, in the Music at Metropolitan concert series at Metropolitan United Church, one of a cluster of major downtown religious edifices that gave Toronto’s Church Street its name. The Met United congregation will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. This particular concert celebrates music that goes back 200 years before that, but in an intriguingly modern way.

Titled “Jazz Standards of the Seventeenth Century,” it promises “ground basses, lute songs and madrigals sung and played with the freedom, invention and unpredictability of modern club performers” and is the brainchild of lutenist Ben Stein. Under the rubric “Musicians on the Edge,” it features Stein on lutes along with the Rezonance Baroque Ensemble (Rezan Onen-Lapointe, violin; and Dave Podgorski, harpsichord), along with co-conspirators Emily Klassen, soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Erika Nielsen, cello.

A few days after our initial discussion, Stein got in touch, balking at the idea being characterized as his “brainchild.” “I hope what I’ve written doesn’t give the impression that this is a new thing I’ve come up with. If anything, I’m late to the program. There are a good number of [early music] groups building programs and ensembles around improv – but they are European for the most part. There are a few ensembles in the USA, and very little in Canada, which is why I’m pushing for it. And while places like the RCM are starting to add these elements, in my opinion they start too late. That was the key with the Neapolitans and their antecedents – it was built into early training. … Also we are being a bit liberal with the 17th century thing in the title; we`ve got a few bits of 18th- and 16th-century rep as well. It`s more about looking at the forms that musicians were aware of – ground basses, dances – that you can find in different centuries, though they evolved and changed during that time. …”

But let’s start at the beginning.

WN: So, how, why, when did you propose this idea to Pat Wright [Patricia Wright, music director at Met United]?

BS: Last year I presented a concert called “The Mystery of the Partimento” as part of the Music at Met series. It got a very good response from audience members who didn’t know quite what to expect, because no one knows what a partimento is. I didn’t until recently, even though I’d been playing early music for a number of years.

And what is it?

Essentially a bass line over which musicians were expected to extemporize melodies. Partimenti were a central element of Italian Baroque and galant music training, especially in the Neapolitan conservatories that produced some of the most popular performers and composers of that era. They resemble basso continuo accompaniment lines, but they weren’t just for chord harmonization. You were expected to use partimenti to create interesting melodies, and the Italians were renowned for their mastery of this skill.

Seeing how much people enjoyed having classical extemporization taking place before their eyes, I thought: if I was going to play a couple of rock or jazz sets for a club gig, I’d pick music I Iiked, find some musicians I was comfortable with and jam on the chord changes. Why can’t I do the same with classical repertoire I enjoy, playing melodic variations in a historically informed manner? So my colleagues and I are going to treat songs and madrigals, as well as partimenti and ground basses, as jumping-off points for improvisation, and no two renditions will be the same from rehearsal to concert.

Patricia Wright regularly programs early music at concerts and church services … The Rezonance Baroque Ensemble are actually Met’s artists-in-residence this year, playing at church services throughout the year, and also the featured ensemble for the Marg and Jim Norquay Celebration Concert in April 2018 – I’ll be joining them and other players for a collaboration/jam on Baroque concertos and sonatas. I’m planning to play the Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D, improvising on the the famous Adagio movement with the freedom of a player of the era.

I remember Jim Galloway, our long-time Jazz Notes columnist once remarking, in a column significantly on the topic of how to listen to jazz, saying (very loosely paraphrased), words to the effect of “If you want to find the structure and the beat listen to the bass, not the drums, It’s all built from that.” So when I saw this listing I immediately thought “Aha, the man with the lutes, especially the theorbo, must have had something central to do with this.” Is Renaissance/Baroque continuo as backline the way the word is used in a jazz context a far-fetched idea?

Jim was right! It really is “all about the bass.” Baroque and Renaissance musicians were aware at all times of the intervallic relationship between bass and treble voices. Beginner sight-singing exercises in the Neapolitan conservatories were not one-voice melodies, but two-voice duets, with the vocal line  accompanied by a maestro or more experienced students. Musicians learned to improvise in melodic counterpoint to bass lines. They even had a name for musicians who possessed this skill:  contrapuntisti. But contrapuntal knowledge is not fostered effectively in modern training; it’s reserved for advanced theory class, which is the worst place for it. So yes, I agree – if you truly want to understand a melody, play the bass line first! That  should be de rigueur for all instrumentalists and singers.

“Freedom, invention, unpredictability.” These are the words chosen in the Music at Metropolitan release to try to capture the jazzy essence of the concert. But often in the jazz context the platform for those things working is the strong sense the players, and at best their audiences, have of the structures that allow for the apparent spontaneity of the “improvisations.” How far would you push the comparison in terms of the two musics structurally  and in terms of the kinds of spontaneous on-the-spot negotiation that will take place among the players on stage during the performance? And would you say a jazz-lover in the audience might even have an edge over a typical period music aficionado, in terms of recognizing what is taking place?

Audiences of the Baroque court were aficionados, quite similar to the denizens of the jazz club. They were very aware of the components of composition – dance forms, ground basses, structural elements that recurred from composer to composer – and they expected invention and variation. I’ve found that classical audiences really enjoy hearing a model – a ground bass, madrigal or partimento – and then having a musician vary it before their eyes, composing on the fly. It’s as fun and engaging as watching a jazz musician take a solo, and rarer than it should be in early music performance, especially in North America.

So, problems of tuning aside, do you see the potential for an ensemble like yours, which is becoming comfortable with working from charts, actually rocking out with a jazz quartet capable of reading a Pergolesi oboe concerto score so you have a text to work with?

I am very interested in any kind of stylistic interaction that gets people challenging their preconceptions about how to play and sing - and most crucially, how to listen to music. I think classical musicians have a lot to learn from the jazz approach. And harmonically and structurally, there’s a lot more connection between rock, folk and early music repertoire than people understand or acknowledge. I’ve played Bach and 12-bar blues; Cole Porter and Caccini. I see more similarities than differences in them all. And I like to think of a score as something to be adventuresome with, to alter and vary, rather than to execute like a script within strict parameters. I’m advocating an approach that is serious, but not solemn; historically informed, but not historically constrained; and respectful, but not reverent towards the written score. If I feel like interrupting a composed set of variations to add my own,  I’m going to do it – and encourage others to do the same.

So, all going well, what happen from here?

I’d simply like for the skill of improvisation to be more widespread among classically trained players.  Why stop at the Baroque era? What if young musicians were given the tools and skills to improvise in a Classical or Romantic style? For that to happen, it’s got to be bred in the bone from the beginning of training, which means that our current approach has to be rethought. Even with various pedagogical attempts to develop creativity and stronger aural skills, we’re still very focused on correct execution of the written score as a primary goal, to the exclusion of all else. Score reading is a professional necessity, of course – but increasingly, so is improvisation. Baroque musicians could do both, and jazz musicians can do both, so it’s time for us to get with the program! The Neapolitans learned this approach from the very start of their training. Their beginner drills were simple, but the effect of them on young musicians’ ability to listen and create was profound.

This pushes your musical buttons, I see!

I’m a bit evangelical about pushing this, for sure, especially in Canada. It’s happening elsewhere, and has been for a while, but it’s not at all prevalent here. Very few people know about partimenti, and I’ve met players from all over the world who struggle to improvise Anyhow, ranting again! I could add that there’s a terrific website about partimenti, at Northwestern U which might entice people to have a look. Just google “Gjerdingen Partimenti” and you’ll find it. The guy who did it is one of the top two researchers in this area.

Better still, come on Sunday, November 19. Hopefully you’ll hear what I mean.

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

Daniela Nardi - photo by Danilo UrsiniIt was October 11 when I got in touch with Daniela Nardi, newly appointed artistic and executive director of the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture Arts Media and Education, less than a five-minute walk north of the Bathurst/Bloor subway station.

Coincidentally, October 11 was also the opening day of the 12th edition of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music Festival, which would, in other years, have had nothing to do with this story, because it would have been mostly presented at the Music Gallery’s usual home at the Church of St. George the Martyr on John Street, just south of Grange Park. This season, though, adjacent condo construction woes are, literally, shaking the Music Gallery to its foundations, leaving the Gallery and its partners scrambling for alternative venues.

Now it seems that 918 Bathurst has emerged as the answer to at least some of their prayers. As David Dacks, artistic director of the Music Gallery says: “We are beyond excited to present the majority of the [XAvant] festival in the beautiful main hall of 918 Bathurst ... The Centre has been a welcome new partner in helping us to stage the festival with a similar sense of occasion as our audiences have come to expect from the [St. George the Martyr] church environment.”

I started out my conversation with Daniela Nardi by asking what she thinks the qualities of 918 are that Dacks was referring to when he said “similar sense of occasion.”

“There are many possible layers to that” she replied,”the first being physical. That is, the music events presented at St. George the Martyr certainly had a vibe – not just another concert hall or club setting but a unique space. Combined with the Music Gallery’s top-notch sensibilities for presenting concerts, the musical experience was a special one, a particular one, unlike any other concert experience. And this is the same for 918 Bathurst. Our space is an ex-Buddhist temple, with its A-frame roof, all the wood, midcentury detailing. There is no other space like it in the city hence the musical experience created in this space is special, is unique. And the acoustics to boot are truly wonderful. Above all, though I think it has to do with a similar sensibility when it comes to the value in presenting quality. Both the Music Gallery and 918 Bathurst adhere to this sensibility as a mantra; coming to things from the same viewpoint allows us to be in sync, work together seamlessly in order to create the kinds of experiences we believe to be memorable and substantive.”

WN: The first time I became aware of 918 Bathurst as a venue was back in March 2012 when b current and Theatre Archipelago brought Nicole Brooks’ Obeah Opera there for its first workshop production. I don’t even know how long before that the Centre was already a going concern. Even since then, to be honest, it’s been on my radar more than my itinerary, despite the range of ensembles and presenters who feature in these pages who’ve used it, or are planning to – Ensemble Polaris, Afiara Quartet, TorQ Percussion, Opera 5, Tafelmusik, Toronto Creative Music Lab, Music Gallery, Teo Milea ... It seems like it still remains for many (artists and audiences), one of those “best kept secret” places – a “How come I never knew about this place” kind of thing. Fair comment?

DN: Absolutely a fair comment. It is Toronto’s best kept secret, it is a gem of a space and it is pretty remarkable that not enough people know about it. I hope to change that. The space is like no other space in the city and it is the perfect size. You can seat 200, it is intimate, the acoustics are great. We have a piano thanks to the Music Gallery and hopefully going forward with our partnership, 918 will house the other piano the Music Gallery owns. It is easily accessible by subway, part of the downtown core, part of the Bloor Street Culture Corridor. And this is just the start. But to go back to the question, I believe that not enough has been done to promote this space as a performance space. It has been a great staple for the community that surrounds it and has survived by word of mouth. Given its size and architecture, it is most suitable for most arts/music presenters in the city.  Considering the programming, we would like to create, as well as to continue, our partnerships and collaborations, we hope to demonstrate the fact that 918 is a unique cultural hub, a cultural sanctuary if you will, a cultural destination.

Say more about the “sanctuary” aspect. There’s the main hall (which was literally a sanctuary in the spiritual sense). And what else?

Yes, the Great Hall was used as a Buddhist temple – and you can still feel the good vibes. But we do have two smaller skylit rooms which we call the SunRoom and StarRoom which are primarily used for gallery showings, installations, also good for smaller more intimate concerts, meetings. We also have a slew of rooms in our lower level which are great for classes and meetings, a and fully equipped kitchen suitable for catering of events.

“Artistic and executive director” is your official title and you’re just starting in that role, right? So I am wondering to what extent you were aware of the Centre yourself as an artist, prior to applying for the position?

Yes I just started in July, then went off to Edinburgh to perform at Fringe so really I haven’t even had my first 100 days yet! But on the artist side of things, yes I did know about the space, had been in it a few times for other performances and was quite enamoured with it. Never did I think I’d end up here doing what I am doing.

Are the “executive” and “artistic” challenges ahead distinct and different from each other in your own mind at this point? Which ones wake you up in the middle of the night?

The two roles are distinct and different from one another. Executive, to me, is about managing all the moving parts which make the facility function: from day-to-day, nitty-gritty matters to more big-picture items like fundraising, strategic planning and marketing. This role is about making the venue go so that the art can soar.

The artistic director role is where my artist side can be creative, where I get to play. Discovering and showcasing the creators, thought-leaders and visionaries of our city is truly inspiring and satisfying. I say satisfying because being an artist myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to give other artists a space to do their thing and as a result, contribute to Toronto’s cultural landscape.

What keeps me up at night more are the items on the executive side of the checklist. Now being in this role, I can understand how presenters would talk about their bottom line. There truly is one! I find myself, when I am talking to artists, saying things like “I still need to keep the lights on,” which shocks me at times, like a parent saying “Because I said so.” But this is the reality. I want to keep this space running, sustainable and viable so that all creators can do their thing – and how to do that? THAT keeps me up at night.

And why are you the right person for the job?

Why? Well, first I don’t see this as a job. I have been in the arts all my life. I bring love, passion and hard-earned wisdom to this role. My skills set comes from the school of hard knocks, not an MBA program (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I have a drive and truly a passion to showcase the arts. I am driven to give an audience an experience. Whether it is through my own shows as an artist or from presenting other inspiring creators, I am motivated by the desire to move an audience member, to give them a moment where they can suspend themselves, be present and have an experience like no other.

I have the impression that much of the artistic and musical  programming over the years has taken the form of the Centre being available to partner organizations (so mainly as a venue). But does 918 have plans for more events/series of your own?

Yes, I do have intentions of creating our own programming. 918 has not done that for some time. I see our programming as multidisciplinary, with strong emphasis on music. But as our tagline suggests: Where It All Happens. THAT is what I would like to see.

From art to theatre, music to dance, film to literature from all cultural groups, I want to see 918 be the place where it all can happen. I want 918’s reputation to be the place where people come to find out what is happening in the Toronto cultural landscape, what artistic and cultural contributions are being made. To be life-enhancing. Tall order perhaps but I’ll try.

Planning arts and culture in the city seems to fall into two camps: there are those who talk about big plans for “making Toronto into a real music city,” and those who think it is already one, and worry about “keeping it real” in the face of forces, economic, political, social, that weaken the existing social and cultural fabric. I’m interested in your own thoughts on this. Also, where 918 Bathurst fits in.

First and foremost, Toronto is an amazing music city. We are finally coming into our own. Developing a personality, a character. Having been born and raised in this city, I have seen it grow, shape, form itself. No more are we comparing ourselves or thinking ourselves less than our American colleagues. We have it going on – and we are proud. Finally.

How I believe 918 fits into “keeping it real” is by staying committed to quality. By staying committed to giving audiences what is good and not what is expected. The moment you lose sight of that commitment is the moment it all starts to fall apart, when you do start to fall prey to the forces.

Perhaps this all sounds like new-agey rhetoric but if you ask what does it take to keep things real, you will observe that it’s about being true to what one believes. And when one is committed to that, nothing can shake it loose.

Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, and soon to be Isabel in another world premiere by the same composer, Lessons in Love and Violence. Title character in Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze. Ophelia in both Brett Dean’s Hamlet and in Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle let me tell you. Vermeer’s model in Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. The She character in Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. Title character in Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Mélisande in the Katie Mitchell-directed paradigm-shifting production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Berg’s Lulu in productions by Christoph Marthaler and Krzysztof Warlikowski. Voice of Salvatore Sciarrino’s cycle La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke per soprano e orchestra.

This is just a tiny selection of the world premieres and roles brought to life by Canadian soprano of global renown, contemporary music advocate and now also conductor, Barbara Hannigan. She returns to Toronto on November 10 for a Koerner Hall recital programmed around the Second Viennese School and the preceding generation of composers. Dutch pianist, composer and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw will be at the piano. De Leeuw has been music director and conductor of the Schönberg Ensemble since its founding in the mid-1970s. The ensemble, now known as Asko|Schönberg, continues to prioritize new music and perform the works of the 20th and 21st centuries exclusively.

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasHannigan is based in Paris, where she lives with her partner, actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric. I asked her a few questions via email about the forthcoming Toronto recital and its program consisting of songs by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

WN: Schoenberg’s Four Lieder, Op.2 and Webern’s Five Lieder have poet Richard Dehmel in common. Does this also make Schoenberg and Webern musical siblings? (They sound like it to me, I could be wrong.) Both atonal and Sprechgesang, poetry-driven, rather than songs as we know them from the Romantic and post-Romantic eras?

BH: Dehmel… well, he wrote a very important book in the 1890s called Weib und Welt, for which he was put on trial for obscenity. I mean, we read those poems now and we don’t feel that at all, but in the time, just to try and express sensual feelings, and from the imagined woman’s perspective… WOW! He was using imagery like… reflections in water, a beckoning hand from a window, a kiss outside marriage, a woman pregnant from a man she did not know or love… it was shocking. Dehmel was a huge influence for Schoenberg’s early vocal works (his writing was the reason we have Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht) and Berg, Webern and many others. So…is the music related because of Dehmel? Not necessarily. There are images, reflections, a fluidity of the music which was a musical development and style at the time. If it hadn’t been Dehmel it would have been Stefan Georg, who was a later influence for Schoenberg. The tonalities are not yet what I think of as atonal…that came a little bit later. Certainly the Schoenberg Op.2 are closer to Strauss than anything (but better than Strauss!). Webern’s five Dehmel songs are absolutely atonal. They avoid harmonic centre, though their endings always seem to confirm some kind of tonal centre which was elusive for the entire song.

How does the singer make them dramatic, as something unfolding before the audience? We rarely get to hear songs like this in recital, and the Romantic and post-Romantic songs have spoiled us in terms of drama, contrasts, things happening, and big, legible emotions.

I don’t need to make them dramatic. They already are dramatic. I just have to sing them, rather than interpret. I find the idea of “interpretation” very foreign. The emotions are deep, pure, full of instinct and that very Viennese idea of Sehnsucht… longing. It’s all there. I just need to get inside it. And with a pianist such as Reinbert de Leeuw…a huge mentor to me for over 20 years…this is a kind of musical heaven for me. An earthly heaven.

Berg’s Seven Early Songs come across as more varied. The texts are from different poets – but the songs differ musically too, for example the intense, soaring Die Nachtigall vs. the playful Im Zimmer. How do you approach this cycle? Berg is very much “your” composer, if I can put it that way – you’ve sung Lulu of course and your new CD is planned around the character of Lulu.

The Berg are more accessible I suppose. We have to remember that in this late-Romantic period, the song was still the centre of a composer’s expression. Every composer began with writing songs. They developed their harmonic style through the very intimate union of piano, voice and text. And from that, they expanded to larger works. Nowadays things are very different...

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasIntriguing that there’s Alma, but not Gustav Mahler on the program. We rarely get to hear her in recital. How would you describe her songs? (I thought Laue Sommernacht probably the most melodic song on the entire program?)

The Alma Mahler songs we chose were in part written when she was a student (and love interest) of Zemlinsky. And the songs we present of Zemlinsky were, by the way, written when he was teaching her. They seemed to be in love, before she met Mahler. Honestly, her songs are good but they are not great. They are the weakest on the recital program but we included them because she was such an important figure at that time. A muse, later a patron. She was the lover of Kokoschka and inspired his work, also Klimt, also the writing of Werfel; and the early death of her daughter Manon (with Gropius) inspired Berg’s violin concerto. She was a very, very important figure in the musical world of the early 20th century. These four songs show her potential but she did not develop it. Mahler told her before they married that she had to stop composing. So she only achieved a certain niveau in her work and then she stopped, and became Mahler’s wife. Laue Sommernacht … is it the most melodic? I don’t think so. Die Nachtigall of Berg is more soaring, I’d say. Or Irmelin Rose, the strophic fairytale song of Zemlinsky. And really, what does melodic mean? Something with a tune? I don’t know. I think melodic means something different to everyone.

The concert ends with Wolf’s extraordinary, almost operatic Kennst du das Land. How does a singer conserve the energy, physical and dramatic, up to that point and then deliver that Mignon mini-opera at the end?
I don’t know how other people do it but for me, there is a degree of strategy in the pacing of the recital and then… I count on adrenaline to get me through the final four songs of Hugo Wolf. I love them so much, I love Mignon and her need for secrecy. I just slip into her skin and she carries me through the music; her need to try to reveal herself, without explaining herself, is so powerful that the songs just… pour out. This recital program was devised by Reinbert de Leeuw. As I wrote earlier, my mentor. He is the guide and inspiration for me through this musical journey. And he carries me through it… every rehearsal reminding and insisting that I attempt the most delicate adherence to the composer’s wishes. Always searching for the real pianissimi that the composers demand, rather than the verismo of the earlier part of the 19th century. This world is one of reflection, of suggestion, of intimacy without explanation. And I am so thrilled to bring this program, with Reinbert, to Toronto.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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