What do a Medieval mystic, Santa Claus and Elvis Presley have in common? They are the centerpieces of contrasting concerts in Southern Ontario this July and August. Stylistic extremes are quite common in any healthy choral scene, but in the summer, when many choirs are on hiatus, the relative paucity of concerts makes the contrasts even more noticeable.

p20The Elora Festival (July 9-August 1) has as its centerpiece the excellent Elora Festival Singers, who are performing a range of music from works by Beethoven, Vivaldi and Handel to a Broadway concert with the great Jackie Richardson as soloist. But if I had to pick one concert to go to during the festival, I would opt for their performance of Benjamin Britten’s oratorio St. Nicholas, on July 25.

Britten is hardly a neglected composer, but I have always been curious as to why his St. Nicholas isn’t performed more often. Written in 1948, it shows all the poise and dash of the young composer of Peter Grimes, combined with the genuine friendliness towards the audience – not an especially widespread attitude in 20th-century composers – of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The subject of the work is of course the Medieval bishop who was the source for the modern Santa Claus, and with Christmas concert attendance often being the economic anchor for many choral groups, I would have thought that this clearly seasonal work could do well against more familiar seasonal offerings by Handel, Bach, Monteverdi and others.

One possible explanation for St. Nicholas’s relative rarity in concert is its unusual scoring. Written in celebration of the centenary of the English boy’s school Lancing College, Britten made use of the school’s comprehensive musical resources to score the piece for tenor soloist, an adult mixed choir, a children’s choir, two pianos, organ, percussion and strings. To quote a character in Robertson Davies’s A Mixture of Frailties, it is “just the size to be neglected.” He might have been referring to St. Nicholas.

Britten’s conception of St. Nicholas himself is filled with nuance. Outwardly powerful, stern yet benign, the true character of the bishop is one of doubt and conflict. This powerful tenor role alternates between quiet soliloquies and fiery sermons, while the choral movements encompass childlike playfulness, pageantry, savage cannibalism, a wonderful depiction of a storm at sea and finally Nicholas’s death and ascent into sainthood. It is a rare treat to hear this work in concert, especially this time of year.

The Medieval mystic mentioned above is Hildegard of Bingen, and her music is the focus of a concert on August 8 given by Schola Magdalena, a five-voice ensemble of female singers based out of Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Hildegard was a medieval polymath of almost Leonardian scope, and recent researches into both early music and the work of female composers has brought her work, neglected for centuries, into new focus.

Medieval scholars often struggle with lost or incomplete sources in their attempts to shine a light on the past. They have been lucky with Hildegard, who left behind a clear legacy of songs, poems, books and letters that gives us insight both into the times in which she lived and the mind of an individual artist. Performers of her music have found a richness of invention, in which melody can be made to illuminate and enhance the meaning of the text in a way that can be challenging with even the most beautiful chant.

From a Medieval cleric to a modern composer’s take on a Medieval saint, to the proverbial King of Rock and Roll may seem like a unlikely leap – especially in a choral context. But Elvis Presley was a deeply religious man, who loved singing gospel music as a vocal warm-up prior to giving concerts, and whose earliest musical influences were the choirs and quartets that he heard attending church as a young child. On August 20 Hamilton’s Brott Festival Choir and National Academy Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in good classical fashion. But on August 4 the orchestra is joined by a Gospel choir to perform Elvis: The Way it Was with vocalist Stephen Kabakos. Though the concert will likely focus on Presley’s pop songs, anyone familiar with Presley’s gospel singing can hear clearly the degree to which a song like “Suspicious Minds” draws on that influence.

Performing popular music in a choral context is much trickier than it might seem. Ease with syncopated rhythms is an essential part of the performance of popular music, and classically trained musicians can struggle to free themselves from the straightjacket of notated music, in which syncopation is often difficult to convey convincingly and idiomatically. An awareness of the backbeat (accents on two and four in a 4/4 measure) needs to inform the performance at all times, and often singers must re-jig their vocal style as well. A legato vocal line that serves Handel and Mozart is usually too heavy and rhythmically undifferentiated for popular music.

I predict that even choirs mostly accustomed to classical repertoire will begin to delve with increasing frequency into the world of popular music. The challenge for choirs and choral directors will be to recognize that good execution of popular music takes skills that classical training has neglected, and adjust and even re-train accordingly. The term “performance practice” is often applied to early music: equal care and respect is needed in the area of popular and vernacular music as well.

p21Some last notes. The Elmer Iseler Singers perform on July 11 at Westben, and at Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound on July 30 and August 8. The 2010 Ontario Youth Choir, directed this year by Iwan Edwards appear from 27-29 August, in London, Orillia and Toronto respectively. And in a final Gospel context, at Toronto’s Fringe Theatre Festival (June 30-July 11), the play “Maurice Carter’s Innocence” will feature a Gospel choir onstage, helping to illuminate and tell the true story of a miscarriage of justice that led to one man’s wrongful imprisonment, and of the determination of those who fought for his release.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at: choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

 

You’d do well to keep your frequent flyer card handy over the next two months. I know I will. We new-music seekers are going to be bouncing between Toronto and Ottawa a lot if we want to catch all the excellent programming promised by the mainstay festivals, as well as a few new offerings in a sizzling summer concert calendar.

We’ll start in Toronto with the 12th edition of New Adventures in Sound Art’s Sound Travels festival, which has a healthy run from June 26-September 26. Sound Travels takes a more grounded focus to sound and space than other NAISA festivals, bringing together a mix of interactive installations, performances, sound walks and workshops at their home in the Artscape Wychwood Barns. Featured artists include Toronto’s own Rose Bolton alongside Marcelle Deschênes, David Eagle, Ned Bouhalassa, D. Andrew Stewart, Satoshi Morita and Rob Cruickshank, among others. Full programming details are available at www.naisa.ca.

Next, we bounce over to Ottawa, where the adage seems to be “enough is never enough.” While our nation’s capital is already home to the world’s largest chamber music festival, it will welcome a new contender this summer, Music and Beyond. Running from July 5-14, Music and Beyond’s 85 concerts will forge links between music and other art forms in concerts featuring some of the greatest names in classical music. While new music from many countries can be found throughout the festival programming, those of us looking for a “bang for our buck” will want to pay attention to the mid-festival dates.

P18On July 8, CBC Radio 2, the National Gallery of Canada and Music and Beyond will unveil the results of their Gallery Project – the culmination of a national contest to choose five works of art from the Gallery to inspire new compositions. The programme includes works by a cross-country collection of Canadian composers, including Jocelyn Morlock, Denis Bédard, Michael Conway Baker, Colin Mack, Scott Macmillan, Elizabeth Raum and Kelly-Marie Murphy. The following day, Music and Beyond partners with the Ottawa New Music Creators to celebrate local composers Gabor Finta, Steven Gellman and Patrick Cardy at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. Across both days, the National Arts Centre Orchestra will open its afternoon rehearsals to the public with two new music reading sessions. Conductor Gary Kulesha will lead the orchestra in explorations of new orchestral works by both emerging and established Canadian composers. For full Music and Beyond festival details, and to purchase passes, visit www.musicandbeyond.ca.

Back in Toronto, the lovely Queen of Puddings Music Theatre will unveil its latest project from July 29-31 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour comprises three distinct chamber operas sung in three languages (Mandarin, English and medieval French), exploring three cultures and three historical periods within the music of three Canadian composers: Fuhong Shi, John Rea and Pierre Klanac. Written for soprano, mezzo-soprano and accordion, these three premiere pieces are connected by the universal theme of love, and will be presented as one fully staged opera work. Two Toronto new opera pros, soprano Xin Wang and mezzo Krisztina Szabo, share the stage with accordionist John Lettieri. Tickets to Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour can be purchased through www.youngcentre.ca or 416-866-8666. To learn more about Queen of Puddings visit www.queenofpuddingsmusictheatre.com.

Meanwhile, running parallel to Beauty Dissolves is the Ottawa premiere of Christos Hatzis’ wildly successful Constantinople, featuring the Gryphon Trio with the extremely talented cabaret/opera singer Patricia O’Callaghan and renowned world music vocalist Maryem Tollar. This multimedia, concert-length chamber work, which has been presented to sold-out audiences on two continents, is a feature presentation of the 17th  Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, on July 29.

While the Ottawa festival gets underway on July 24, the real new music activity starts up on August 2 with the annual New Music Marathon. This year’s version offers no less than six concerts under the New Music Dialogues banner, all housed at the handsome St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts near Ottawa’s bustling Byward Market. Highlights include the world renowned Penderecki String Quartet performing new music by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich; the world premiere of 9 Dances for Flute and Accordion by Toronto-based composer Juliet Palmer; Alexina Louie’s spellbinding Take the Dog Sled for two Inuit throat-singers and ensemble; and the Gryphon Trio performing works by Gary Kulesha. Adventurous listeners will want to explore the Late Night at St. Brigid’s series, where Montreal composer Nicole Lizée pushes musical boundaries with turntablist DJ P-LOVE and the maverick trio Toca Loca. Full festival details, tickets and passes are available through www.chamberfest.com.

Finally, we return to Toronto, where the Toronto Summer Music Festival will be underway July 20 – August 14. July 30 seems to be a very popular date in the festival calendar. This time, we get to hear the Penderecki String Quartet, strong champions of new music, in a programme of five new string quartets. Waterloo-based composer Glenn Buhr gets special attention in this year’s festival:  the Pendereckis will perform his Quartet No. 4 and the composer himself will give a pre-concert talk on all five new works. (I was hoping that we would get an earful of the results from Toronto Summer Music’s Composer Workshop, but this young addition to their academy programming seems to have been inexplicably and sadly cancelled.) On August 7 at the University of Toronto’s MacMillan Theatre the festival will premiere Buhr’s Song of the Earth, a companion piece to the well known and loved Mahler song-cycle. Both will appear in versions for chamber ensemble with soloists Roxana Constantinescu and Gordon Gietz. For full festival details, and to purchase tickets, visit www.torontosummermusic.com.

After all of our city and concert-hopping, we can finally take advantage of the late summer weather and rest up for the concert season ahead. But not for too long! New music makes its return on September 26 with the Toronto New Music Marathon – eight hours of continuous and contemporary sounds from Toronto’s new music creators in the lively Yonge-Dundas Square.

Jason van Eyk is the Ontario Regional Director of the Canadian Music Centre. He can be contacted at: newmusic@thewholenote.com.

 

P16Thinking of going on an early music treasure hunt this summer? Here are some ideas for you.

If your travel boundaries lie within Toronto and the GTA, you could spend the whole summer sampling a variety of styles and genres in many different programmes:

The Italian singer/instrumentalist Viva BiancaLuna Biffi (featured in the June early music column) presents her one-woman show, “Fermate il Passo,” a programme of Italian frottola in which she sings universal tales of love – its euphoria and torments, its ultimate triumph over adversity – while accompanying herself on the viola d’arco. This Music Mondays concert at the Church of the Holy Trinity takes place on July 5.

Beaches Baroque, a duo made up of baroque violinist Geneviève Gilardeau and lutenist Lucas Harris, presents “The Bach/Weiss Sonata.” The featured work is a seven-movement sonata for violin and lute supposedly by Bach, but striking in that the lute part began life as a sonata in its own right by Bach’s friend, the virtuoso lutenist Leopold Weiss. As well, more music by Bach, Weiss and Hagen will be presented, on July 10 at Beaches Presbyterian Church.

Hildegard von Bingen’s music broke the boundaries of expression for its time, and sounds amazingly modern today. The soaring chant of this 12th-century abbess can be heard on August 8 at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, sung by a group that’s been acclaimed for its performances of medieval music and Gregorian chant. The five-voice women’s ensemble Schola Magdalena is led by artistic director Stephanie Martin.

And sprinkled through the ambitious Summer Music in the Garden programme of the Toronto Music Garden – a concert almost every Sunday and Thursday from now till late September – are the following hour-long programmes, each one featuring a different aspect of early music:

July 4: On the day before her Music Mondays concert (described above), Viva BiancaLuna Biffi’s imaginative show “Fermate il Passo” can be heard here too, in this lovely outdoor setting.

July 15: “In Four Hands, Twenty-Nine Strings,” baroque violinist Linda Melsted and guitarist Terry McKenna explore a whole range of styles from the 17th to the 20th century – old English dance tunes, an opera overture, tango and more.

August 12: “Inspired by Cremona” presents some of the bold new music created to showcase the unsurpassed perfection of the stringed instruments crafted by 17th-century Italian makers. Music by Farina, Merula and Castello will be performed by baroque violinists Patricia Ahern and Linda Melsted, harpsichordist Borys Medicky and lutenist Lucas Harris.

August 22: In “Masque of the Garden,” musicians of the Toronto Masque Theatre, actor Derek Boyes and baroque dancer Dorothea Ventura celebrate the Music Garden itself, with music and dances that inspired the six sections of the garden.

August 26: “Able was I ere I heard Abel” is a tribute to the 18th century’s last great gamba virtuoso, Carl Friedrich Abel. Gambist Justin Haynes and baroque cellist Kate Bennett Haynes present music by Haydn, Schaffrath, and Abel himself.

September 2: In “Bach at Dusk,” cellist Winona Zelenka’s six-year odyssey through the Bach solo cello suites is fulfilled, with her performance of the Suite in C Minor (which is actually number five in the set).

It’s so easy to “catch the fire” of a summer festival – music springing up in various places, artists and concert-goers sharing the excitement of magical moments – and I urge you to work one or more into your summer plans. Here’s some of what you might find in various Southern Ontario festivals:

July 4: North of Toronto at historic Sharon Temple, Music at Sharon presents Les Voix Baroques, a celebrated ensemble specializing in vocal works from the Renaissance and Baroque. They’ll offer music by Charpentier and Carissimi in this imposing space.

July 18: Northwest of Campbellford, the Westben Festival presents the Toronto Consort in their presentation “Shakespeare’s Songbook.” The Consort uses the songs and dances of Shakespeare’s plays to engage the audience in the wonderful world of Elizabethan music: “music for fools, fairies and Falstaff.”

July 9-August 1: The Elora Festival takes place in a village with a spectacular setting along the Elora Gorge, north of Guelph. If you go, you’ll be able to hear four early music concerts: choral works with the Elora Festival Singers and collaborating artists on July 18 (Handel and Vivaldi) and July 22 (The Tudors); the delightfully daring group I Furiosi on July 24; and “Love: Sacred and Profane” on July 31 – a programme of renaissance music presented by Ludus Modalis Vocal Ensemble from France.

July 16-August 8: At the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, you can hear concerts as diverse as “Sound the Trumpet” (music for trumpet, soprano and piano by Purcell, Handel, Bach and Scarlatti) on July 29; Bach’s powerful B Minor Mass on July 30; and “Baroque on the Boat” (a morning concert on the M.V. Chippewa in Georgian Bay with the Festival Winds) on August 6.

July 19-August 22: At Stratford Summer Music, gems seem to be multiplying: Winona Zelenka, having recently recorded all the Bach solo cello suites, will perform each of them in separate concerts – and as several of these are now sold out, more performances are being added as I write. (Zelenka is featured as the cover story in The WholeNote’s June issue.) As well, Bach’s Coffee Cantata can be enjoyed in the appropriate setting of a coffee house (August 13, 14 and 15); and from it another event has been brewed: “Bawk’s” (alias Tiefenbach’s) Cappuccino Cantata (or The Lonely Barista) can be savoured the following week (August 20, 21 and 22).

July 24-August 7: If you find yourself in Ottawa this summer, you must take in some events of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. July 28: Les Voix Humaines (gambists Susie Napper and Margaret Little) present “Master and Pupil: Sainte-Colombe, the master, and Marin Marais, his pupil”; August 1: Ensemble Caprice explores an unlikely connection in “Bach and the Baroque Gypsies”; August 5: Helene Plouffe, Mark Simonds and friends present “Discovering the viola d’amore and chalumeau”; August 5: Ludus Modalis perform “Spiritual Songs and Psalms of the Renaissance” with music by Sweelinck, Estocart, Ferrabosco, Costelley and Le Jeune. (This list is not comprehensive, so do check the listings.)

As for me, I am enslaved by a gamba and a cat, neither of whom travels very well; so I’ll probably do most of my concert-going within the boundaries of Toronto. But you never know – don’t be surprised if you find me at any of the aforementioned events. And may your own treasure hunt be fascinating!

Simone Desilets is a long-time contributor to The WholeNote in several capacities, who plays the viola da gamba. She can be contacted at: earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Saying nothing about Maureen Forrester’s passing felt unimaginable, but I worried that by the time July’s issue of The WholeNote hit the stands there'd be very little not already said.  And indeed, there have been some fine things written  already.  For example:

p15_maureen_forrester…Her embodiment of earth-mother, reigning queen and good sport made her the shining model of what Canadians want a diva to be. And her some 30 honorary degrees from Canadian universities (she was even chancellor Wilfrid Laurier University from 1986 to 1990) and her many other honours attested to her unique and powerful numen for Canadians. Her service from 1983 to 1988 as chair of the Canada Council left no doubt that her wisdom in the arts was valued. Her personal advocacy of Canadian music went well beyond lip service: she premiered and championed major vocal pieces by a wide range of Canadian composers. An authentic celebrity, she touched the Canadian nerve as no other singer of her time had done…

Read more: Shine on, Maureen Forrester

p8Courage, strength and wonder: three little words that merely scratch the surface of Alex Pangman’s inspirational story. But before going into details concerning her health and heroism, here’s a prelude to her music.

Seated on her grandpa’s knee some 30 years ago, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” was the first jazz song Pangman recalls hearing. Today the five-foot four-inch turquoise-eyed singer is known as “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing,” a title the Mississauga native has earned by remaining unflinchingly faithful to American popular music of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Read more: Alex Pangman: The Gift of Life
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