A protégé of legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and student of serialist composer and electronic music trailblazer Milton Babbitt, Stephen Sondheim is equally famous as a lyricist and tunesmith. Midway through the first decade of the 21st century, American pianist Anthony de Mare acted on his lifelong immersion in Sondheim’s work and commissioned a wide net of composers from multiple genres to create their own “re-imaginings” of a favourite Sondheim song for solo piano. By the time the Liaisons project was completed in 2014, 36 composers (31 men and five women; 32 of whom were American-born) had contributed and de Mare’s love affair with Sondheim’s music had borne a bountiful harvest.

Drawn from 12 shows – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) to Passion (1994) – Liaisons explores the sound world of the foremost creator of American musical theatre in the last half of the 20th century through the singular lenses of composers from Steve Reich to Gabriel Kahane. “Each of the composers is having a conversation with Mr. Sondheim,” de Mare told The New York Times, “with his material but also his influence, his musical wit and his craft.”

The lone Canadian contribution, Rodney Sharman’s Notes on “Beautiful,” written in the Valentine Studio, Leighton Arts Colony, Banff, Alberta, “is a transformation of the duet between mother and son, Beautiful, from Sunday in the Park with George, and dedicated to Anthony de Mare and the memory of my mother.” Sharman’s piece is one of 14 de Mare will be performing in Mazzoleni Hall on May 24 as part of the 21C Music Festival. A second concert, the following evening in Temerty Theatre, contains ten additional works concluding with a reprise of Reich’s Finishing the Hat.

Anthony de MareWN: How does it feel, as a lifelong fan of Stephen Sondheim’s music, to play a dozen or two of the Liaisons transcriptions in an evening?

AdM: It is always an exhilarating experience for me to perform these works, no matter how many are included on each program. And because I’m so enamoured with the entire canon of Sondheim’s work, there are just so many of his shows in addition to dozens and dozens of his songs that I love so much. He has often said that Sunday in the Park with George is the show “closest to his heart” and I would say that has [also] always been one of my favourites. And I would just add that for myself, the more I work and live with this material, the more I learn – it has become a body of work that I hold very close to my own heart and it is an honour to be able to share it with the world now.

The flexibility of the project allows me to create programs based on what each individual presenter desires coupled with my own instincts and choices. Some presenters have had me perform two to three concerts as a series covering a vast portion of the collection.

However, selecting the program content is very important to me, as is its shape. I actually consider the entire program (and its sequencing) to be its own “piece,” carefully assembled to guide the listener on a journey through these fascinating works. Each piece is very much a marriage between the composer’s individual style and Sondheim’s original material. Add to this the inclusion often of audio and video clips of the composers speaking about their relationship to Mr. Sondheim and his work, in addition to the short film of Sondheim himself speaking (extracted from the interviews that were part of the Liaisons premiere concerts at Symphony Space here in NYC). Audiences have often commented favourably on how satisfying the entire experience is for them.

What was the first Sondheim song you fell in love with? What did it mean to you?

The first Sondheim song I encountered was the iconic Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. The first recording I heard of it was Judy Collins’ classic version back when I was in high school in the 1970s. I was so enamored with the shape of the melody, the beautiful sequence of harmonies, the eloquent lyrics, and of course her gentle interpretation, which made it memorable.

What is the first Sondheim song you remember hearing? How old were you?

Along with Send in the Clowns, there was Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Shortly thereafter, I began listening over and over to the original cast recording of Company – the opening song of which became an immediate favourite, along with Another Hundred People. Again, this was around junior high and high school.

What prompted you to embark on such an ambitious project of commissioning piano re-imaginings of Sondheim songs? What was the genesis of the project?

This massive project was the culmination of a series of musical endeavours that I had created in years past. I have long been referred to as one of the leading exponents of contemporary music and my love of musical theatre has played a distinctive role in establishing myself as the “pioneer” of the speaking/singing pianist genre which I created in the late 1980s, commissioning a variety of composers to create specific theatrical works that I would perform solo at the piano. This in turn led to a large multimedia concert project I created titled “Playing with MySelf” – which involved a wide variety of contemporary works, video, projections, lighting, set design, costumes, etc. – which had a successful run here in NYC and abroad.

My love for Stephen Sondheim’s work dates back to my teenage years, having discovered such shows as A Little Night Music, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures – which led to an obsessive immersion into his work, especially each time one of his new shows appeared on the theatre scene. I had always wondered what his amazing songs would sound like transcribed as legitimate piano works, much in the same vein as what pianists like Earl Wild had accomplished with Gershwin’s songs, and what Art Tatum did for so many his contemporaries. This tradition goes back as far as Franz Liszt, but no one had ever approached Sondheim’s work like this for the piano, so I thought it was about time.

In the late 1980s, I was invited to create a transcription of one of his songs [Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George] to perform at a summer music festival and from there I decided I would like to possibly create about five or six more of these transcriptions. My performing and teaching career started to take off and got in the way of focusing on the project, so I had to shelve the idea for a while – actually a long while. Several composer friends and colleagues kept asking me throughout the 1990s (and into the new century) when I was planning to do it. Finally, in 2006, my good friend – Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec – and I sat down and he encouraged me to seriously pursue this. My idea at the time was to cast the net wide to a variety of composers from multiple genres (contemporary classical, jazz, theatre, film, opera, indie, pop, etc.) to create their own settings or “re-imaginings” of a favourite Sondheim song. With the help of a very talented and dedicated fund-raising producer named Rachel Colbert, the project was set afoot.

Stephen SondheimHow long did it take to complete the project from the time of the first commission? What was the first commission?

The first commissions were put forth in 2008/09. There were many composers commissioned all at once, but not the total amount that it ended up being. The first completed work to arrive was Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Every Day A Little Death from A Little Night Music. Following that, a few more trickled in (William Bolcom, David Rakowski, Jake Heggie) and then they started coming one after the other between 2009 and 2014.

What were your criteria for which composers you invited to participate in the project?

The project was originally going to be about 20 to 25 works, but the roster kept expanding as the composer genres expanded. Also, Steve would suggest more composers along the way who seemed perfect for the project and it gradually climbed up to 36 – “a nice round number” as the producer said – and this provided many options for presenters in addition to emphasizing the possibilities for flexible programming on my part.

I wanted to be sure from the beginning that each composer involved felt a true “connection” to Mr. Sondheim’s work and that they wrote well for the piano. Over the years, several composers continued to contact me asking to participate, but we were committed to keeping a balance within the genres.

Was it intentionally multi-generational?

Yes, definitely. We wanted to have a wide range in age, and the final roster encompassed composers ranging in age from their late 20s to their 80s.

Did you have any guidelines you asked the composers to follow?

The word re-imagining is key to this project. I presented each composer with five parameters when they started. First, they were free to choose any song they felt connected to. There was a wish list, but they didn’t need to adhere to that list per se. Second, they were asked to retain the original melodic material of the song. Third, to retain most of his original harmonies. Fourth, they were free to play with the structure, especially since they would now be creating an instrumental piece from an original song, which is where much of the re-imagining seems to have originated for many of them. And finally, I requested that they not “deconstruct the material,” although a few actually did.

Did any composer ask to transcribe a song that had already been chosen by another?

They were of course free to choose a song that had already been chosen. However, the situation occurred only a few times where they asked about a song that was already taken. Once they knew that, they each decided to choose a different one. Nearly all of them had so many favourites, it wasn’t very hard for them to choose another.

Which of the commissioned works surprised you the most?

Let me just say that each piece was a revelation and each was quite unique from all the rest. Therefore, all of them were actually wonderful surprises. There were those that chose to either add an audio track accompaniment, while others incorporated unexpected “bells ’n whistles.” In each case, the approach was usually indicative of their individual style of writing.

Sondheim is so well known for the quality of his lyrics, how did the composers deal with the absence of words in their transcriptions?

One of the core missions of the project from the start was to illustrate Sondheim’s genius as one of the great composers of the 20th/21st century.

Since Sondheim’s original musical material in each song is expanded by lyrics and narrative, the challenge for many of the composers was to capture and encapsulate the essence of the lyrics, the overall ambience/mood, the character singing it, and the core of its message through an instrumental setting of his brilliant musical material.

Some composers found this a mighty challenge – many commented that the songs were already “perfect.” Therefore, some went the route of direct transcription for piano, some more fantasia-like. Each again is unique to each composer’s individual style, active within the fabric of Sondheim’s original musical material.

Three examples: Steve Reich’s two-piano setting of Finishing the Hat – enhancing the original passionate melody with his own signature pulsing metre-shifts; David Rakowski’s ingenious setting of The Ladies Who Lunch – capturing the complete musical material combined with the pathos, sadness, humour and bitterness of the character who sings this song. Andy Akiho’s prepared piano setting of Into the Woods, where he animates the piano by orchestrating each character’s voice and personality using prepared piano techniques (dimes, poster tacks, credit cards) and exotic timbres in lieu of the text.

There are actually numerous more examples, too many to cite, especially since each piece accomplishes something unique in terms of the individual direction each composer chose to take.

What, if any, was Stephen Sondheim’s involvement with the project?

Steve was quite intrigued by the idea of the project from the start and also very humbled by the fact that so many of these “A-list” composers (as he referred to them) were so interested in setting his melodies at the piano. He has been extremely generous throughout the entire ten-year trajectory of this project, offering suggestions, commissioners, constructive ideas and a strong foundation of support. We would check in with him periodically to give him updates and he always provided a very enthusiastic “go ahead.” He seems to have a very deep respect for all of the compositions in the collection.

How eager would you be to participate in a project that examined the evolution of the musical elements of Sondheim’s songs the way Sondheim himself examined his lyrics with Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat?

Oh I would be very eager. Over the past several years, I often present workshops and classes for students and the public illustrating the connections of each re-imagined piece to its original song both from a musical standpoint as well as from a dramatic one. This has oftentimes also included exploring the composers’ process in creating and re-imagining the works – their challenges and their breakthroughs.

Anthony de Mare performs selections from Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim as part of the 21C Music Festival in Mazzoleni Hall May 24 and Temerty Theatre on May 25.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The creation of new Canadian operas continues apace. April saw the premieres of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring by James Rolfe to a libretto by Morris Panych and the premiere of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies to his own libretto. May will see the premieres of two more new operas that form a stark contrast in terms of subject matter, performers and intended audience. The first off the mark is Hockey Noir, the Opera by Quebecois composer André Ristic. The second is The Monkiest King by Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho. While at the COC The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, featuring two operas by Igor Stravinsky, continues to May 19, and Anna Bolena by Donizetti continues to May 26, the arrival of these brand-new operas demonstrates how varied and vibrant the opera scene in Toronto has become.

Hockey Noir the Opera - illustration by Kimberlyn Porter

Hockey Noir

Hockey Noir, the Opera premieres on May 10 with a second performance on May 11. Subtitled “A bilingual chamber opera in 3 periods,” Hockey Noir is the first full-scale opera to be presented by Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music. It is co-produced by Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (ECM) and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. As the title suggests, the opera is an homage to film noir, as well as a portrayal of the perennial Montreal-Toronto rivalry in hockey (which is why the libretto is in both French and English).

The setting is a fictional 1950s Canada during the playoff final between the Montreal Quabs and the Toronto Pine Needles.The action is narrated in voice-over by a Detective Loiseau, who describes the details of his investigation and the goings-on behind the scenes of the playoff series. He observes the backroom schemes of a colourful cast of characters consisting of mobsters, drag queens, hockey stars and femme fatales, whose paths all become entangled.

The plot involves Romanov, the city’s mob boss, who also has the hockey community in his grip, and Madame Lasalle, an irresistible seductress and Romanov’s girlfriend, who is under his thumb but who secretly hopes to take his place. Their problem is Bigowsky, a young hotshot player for the Quabs. Bigowsky is in love with Lasalle and deep in debt to Romanov, who is forcing him to lose the series so that Romanov will win his wager on the Pine Needles. To escape Romanov’s clutches, Bigowsky disappears, disguises himself as a female groupie for the Quabs and prowls around the stands encouraging and coaching his friend and teammate, winger Guy Lafeuille, a hockey veteran who wants to end his career on a high note by winning the cup.

The opera came about after Continuum commissioned 3 Environments by André Ristic in September 2015. At that time, artistic director Ryan Scott discussed the idea of a larger collaboration with Ristic and proposed a remount of the ECM production of Ristic’s first opera with librettist Cecil Castellucci, the highly successful comic book opera, Les Aventures de Madame Merveille (2010). By then, however, Ristic and Castellucci were already at work on the idea of Hockey Noir.

Veronique Lacroix. Photo by Pierre Etienne-Bergeron

To mount the opera, the four singers, conductor Véronique Lacroix and six ECM musicians (string quartet, percussion and synthesizer) will be onstage. They interact with projections designed by Serge Maheu based on illustrations by Kimberlyn Porter, moving from frozen to animated states, leaping from the giant screen onto the “skating rink” onstage.

Romanov will be sung by baritone Pierre-Étienne Bergeron, Madame Lasalle by mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau, Bigowsky by soprano Pascale Beaudin and Lafeuille by tenor Michiel Schrey. All four are familiar with Ristic’s musical style of caricature and his mix of acoustic and electronic instruments because they all appeared in Ristic and Castellucci’s previous opera. Marie-Josée Chartier is the choreographer and stage director.

CCOC’s Monkiest King

In complete contrast to Hockey Noir, which is aimed at adults familiar with the various tropes of 1950s film noir, is the other new opera of the month: The Monkiest King, the main opera production of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera, commissioned by CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, is by composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan, who won the 2013 Dora Award for Outstanding New Opera for their Toronto Masque Theatre commission of The Lessons of Da Ji. After school previews on May 25, the opera will have public performances on May 26 and 27.

The story is based on the Song Dynasty mythological figure of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. From these beginnings, the Monkey King as a mythological character grew to include Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu influences, spreading outside of China throughout East and Southeast Asia. He has appeared in many forms and adaptations, perhaps most prominently the classic 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The novel is best known in English under the title Monkey, in the 1942 abridged translation of Arthur Waley. The figure remains prevalent in the modern day, with appearances in Hong Kong action movies and video games. A proud trickster character reminiscent of Raven in First Nations lore or the god Loki in Norse mythology, Sun Wukong rebels against heaven, but ultimately learns humility.

The novel consists of 100 chapters and, in its latest, complete translation by W.J.F. Jenner, is 2346 pages long. In her librettist’s statement, Marjorie Chan writes that she and Ho realized that for an opera intended to be only one hour long, they would have to focus on only the first seven chapters of the novel. She says, “I wanted to steer away from a strict adaptation. I highlighted different parts of the story, changed a few details about characters for more impact, while remaining truthful to the novel’s message. So, instead of the Monkey King, we have the Monkiest King! Part of the joy for me on this project was creating a work for 50 or so diverse performers, from the very young to those out of their teenage years!”

In Chan’s version the story is told within a frame in which a child hides near a stuffed monkey in the Chinese exhibit in a museum and falls asleep. The action is thus the child’s dream. The action begins with the birth of the Monkey King and continues through the displeasure his boasting causes the Jade Emperor, who pursues and imprisons him. He manages to escape and under the guidance of the goddess of mercy, Kwanyin, begins to give up his foolish ways to do good.  

Alice Ping Yee HoIn her composer’s statement, Alice Ho writes, “The opera is written especially to showcase the talents of Canadian Children’s Opera Company: their soloists and six choruses of different ages. The young singers are featured in an abundance of roles, including a number of animal characters, soldiers of heaven, villagers, as well as the forceful Jade Emperor and the benevolent Kwanyin. The combination of Chinese and Western instruments (Western and Chinese woodwinds, erhu, pipa, guzheng, harp, percussion and string quartet) instigates an exotic sound world that depicts both the past and present, life or dream.”

The opera also explores the dramatic and expressive use of languages, Ho explains. “Though primarily sung in English, there are Mandarin songs that were composed to reflect the poetic side and spiritual philosophy of ancient Chinese culture. The occasional injection of Mandarin words and Cantonese slang also highlights the authenticity of Chinese folk culture. As a Canadian-Chinese composer, I hope this new opera will inspire and educate child performers with the magic of music and drama in a different cultural context. Taking a fresh look at Chinese folk mythology, The Monkiest King will bring new energy to a ‘cross-cultural’ children’s opera, bringing something exuberant and challenging to a diversified music community. It is a dream project for me to bring this mischievous good-natured character to life in a contemporary children’s opera setting.”

Unlike many previous CCOC operas, The Monkiest King will feature no adult singers. The only adult performer will be Yi Xi, a dancer from Toronto’s Little Pear Garden Dance Company (LPGDC). Stage direction will be by Nina Lee Aquino, choreography by LPGDC artistic director Emily Cheung and music direction by Teri Dunn. The production promises fun and challenges to all! 

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

Most songs are not created for the purpose of fighting injustice. There is, however, a definite period in the history of the English-language song when the political potential of songwriting craft became obvious: the 1960s and 1970s in the US, with roots reaching back to the 1930s and the odd branch extending into the 1980s. It’s this period, which we now call the golden age of protest song, that Art of Time Ensemble’s artistic director Andrew Burashko homes in on for the three-day festival “All We Are Saying” at Harbourfront Theatre. The festival runs May 10 to 12 with “The Songs Program” performed on May 10 and 12 and “The Classical and Folk Program” on May 11.

Andrew BurashkoWhere was the cutoff point for the protest song, I ask Burashko when we meet to talk about the festival. (It seems to me that few popular songs come out of political grievance these days.) They continue to be made, he replies, but generationally and aesthetically, he feels closest to the songs from this period, when the political songwriting was at its most creative. “Much of the first song program in our festival comes from the African-American experience. Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye. Billie Holiday in the extraordinary Strange Fruit.

“Then there’s Stevie Wonder’s Village Ghetto Land, which he opens with a string orchestra and gives it a surprisingly light, almost ironic tune, while the lyrics talk about extreme poverty and ghettoization,” Burashko says. How do you explain that discrepancy? Perhaps as a distancing of sorts, avoidance of sentimentality? “It’s hard to tell, but it’s fascinating, and Stevie Wonder did it in some other songs too.” For this occasion, Burashko asked a few Canadian composers to create original arrangements for the songs. “We had to find the fine line between too complex and ‘classical’ arrangements, and remaining true to the spirit of the song. There’s such a thing as being too clever as an arranger.”

Music in songs like these is there to amplify the words, not distract. And the lyrics have a core meaning that should be honoured. “In all fairness, some of the legendary singer-songwriters like Dylan and Cohen haven’t been particularly great musicians. They have been great poets, though. Words are what matters.”

As they do, I suggest, in hip-hop today, though only some of the hip-hop is political or concerned with injustice. And in pop and electronic music there are even fewer instances of songs concerned with broader societal issues. At the risk of sounding like an old person complaining about “the kids today,” I ask him, are today’s songs across popular genres largely apolitical and indifferent? Burashko demurs: young people surely have their own causes in pop song, it’s just that perhaps we aren’t following them very closely. An interesting coincidence, he says: just before this interview somebody sent him a piece by Theodore Adorno in which the German sociologist of music was being typically sceptical about the freeing potential of pop music. In Adorno’s view, the so-called popular song is opium for the people, crafted by corporations and selling the illusion of happiness and the illusion of political engagement. “And what we usually find in Top 40 is not far from that description,” says Burashko, unlike the best protest songs which have had mobilizing effects, have voiced the previously unsaid, and served as a form of collective memory.

The largely American program of the song night won’t be entirely devoid of Canadian creators. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier, Bruce Cockburn’s ’Red Brother Red Sister and Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi are also on the program. One wonders what a heavily Canadian program of political song would have looked like; it would certainly have more Quebec and other Canadian Francophonie in it, possibly the reggae remix of Michèle Lalonde reading Speak White (which exists on YouTube). On this occasion, it’s the performers who will bring in the Canadian component: singers Shakura S’Aida and Jackie Richardson, guitarist and vocalist Colin James, and instrumentalists Rob Piltch, Lina Allemano, Rob Carli and John Johnson, with Burashko at the piano. Among those Canadian composers who have be asked to rearrange the protest song classics are Andrew Staniland, Jonathan Goldsmith (who composed the music for Sarah Polley’s excellent Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell and who is an Art of Time Ensemble founding member) and Kevin Fox, composer, cellist and frequent Steven Page collaborator.

Jackie Richardson and the Art of Time EnsembleThe second program of the “Festival of Protest Music” is a classical- and folk-flavoured night on May 11. It will feature the Rolston String Quartet in George Crumb’s Vietnam War-era Black Angels for electric string quartet, and Burashko himself at the piano in a selection of variations from Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated. A set of roots and folk songs will be performed by Skydiggers’ Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson. Jay Gorney/”Yip” Harbur song of life on a skid row, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, made famous by Bing Crosby, will be heard, as will Dylan’s Masters of War, which borrows its melody from a late-medieval English folk ballad. Pete Seeger was an important link in the survival of the Black civil rights anthem Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and it’s his version that will be honoured on May 11.

Before saying goodbye to Burashko, I ask him who his all-time favourite songwriters are. He lists Lennon and McCartney, Tom Waits, George Gershwin, Paul Simon. “The last Leonard Cohen album I thought was exceptional,” he says. He also loves P.J. Harvey. Radiohead is still good – and will be touring Canada this July. And he really liked the 2010 album that John Legend released with The Roots, carried on the wave of activism well past Obama’s election.

But The Roots and John Legend compiled an album of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, not the Bush-era and Obama-era original content, I thought on my way back home. Not even Obama, the most youth-mobilizing US president in recent memory, managed to inspire much original political content in song. So far Trump’s presidency hasn’t ignited much either, Eminem’s anti-Trump song being one prominent exception. Or have I missed it, while trying to avoid being completely engulfed by American culture? Beyoncé’s performances and video art are certainly more political than her song lyrics, and her brand of feminism does mean a lot to a lot of young women. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. has only two or three songs that struck me as being of the politically conscious hip-hop kind.

Björk, Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu are extraordinary artists, yet remain mostly non-political in song. Janelle Monaé’s recent single ‘Pynk’ and its accompanying video directed by Emma Westenberg is rightly adored far and wide but it won’t turn anyone into an activist. Kate Tempest’s songs are political – see her album Let Them Eat Chaos – but Brits are on the other continent and do things differently: it’s American and Canadian song that strikes me as privately focused.

Ani DiFranco, Kathleen Hanna and Amanda Palmer are still around, though working for smaller, not planetary audiences, and not very much in the media. Was punk the last crowd of musicians who were overtly political in their work? (Grunge wasn’t exactly political, despite a political lyric here and there.) To echo Marvin Gaye, what has been going on, reader? When were you last stirred and made to pay attention to a problem in the world by a song? Or does the issue lie with the media and the Internet: pop artists who are multinational corporations hog everybody’s attention broadband?

Let me know your thoughts through the email below. Meanwhile, the protest song festival on May 10 to 12 is for taking stock, and maybe even inspiration.

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

The month of May is one of fully ripened choral fruit. At the end of the season for many choirs, these are the signature concerts for many ensembles and in some cases, farewells. I’ve provided some in-depth interviews and insights into a handful of concerts. Check out the Choral Canary Pages and learn about choirs in your area – and check out the listings for a more extensive list of concerts this month.

The Tallis Choir Celebrates 40 years: Rise Up my Love!

The Tallis Choir concludes their 40th anniversary season. Artistic director Peter Mahon spoke to The WholeNote about what to expect: “As we wrap up our 40th anniversary season, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and we offer a belated salute to our nation at the tail end of the 150th anniversary of Confederation with music by Canadian composers including Stephanie Martin, Eleanor Daley and Matthew Larkin” (all of whom reside in Toronto, as Mahon points out).

Mahon has a unique connection directly to Willan, whom he describes as “Canada’s best loved composer of church music.” There are few Canadian composers who have had the reach that Willan achieved. “Both my mother and father sang at St. Mary Magdalene,” shares Mahon, “from the time of their arrival in Canada in 1948, until Dr. Willan’s death in 1968 and for many years afterwards.” Willan served as music director at St. Mary Magdalene for almost 50 years. Mahon also remembers being a young chorister who was able to sing with his family in tribute at Willan’s passing: “I was 13 when Dr. Willan died and was privileged to sing at his Requiem Mass, sitting right behind my father in the Ritual Choir.”

“Most church singers in English Canada can name at least one piece by Healey,” says Mahon. “A good majority of them would also say that they can probably sing Rise Up My Love from memory. Such is the universal appeal of Willan’s music. For the most part, he wrote miniature gems, designed for the liturgy of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, but choirs across the country and beyond sing them regularly… Speaking personally, I grew up listening to Willan’s music at St. Mary Magdalene, so it is in my blood.” Willan’s music anchors this all-Canadian presentation of music for Tallis’ 40th anniversary.

May 12, 7:30pm. The Tallis Choir presents “Milestones.” St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

Schola Magdalena: Votes for Women!

Still on the subject of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Stephanie Martin, the ever-thoughtful composer and conductor-extraordinaire, has noted the upcoming centenary of 100 years since the first Canadian women were permitted to vote for the federal government. Martin and the six-member Schola Magdalena will be singing an all-female-composer concert to mark the event. “A small departure from our usual fare, like Hildegard of Bingen and Brigitte of Sweden,” Martin says, “the concert will also include some modern Toronto music from female composers,” including Martin’s own Missa Lumen, and from soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin. The feature of the evening will be Martin’s Te Deum, which she describes as a song whose “text conjures up so many visual images of martyrs, angels, joy and judgment.”

Schola Magdalena. Photo by Iain LoweAlthough 1918 marked the first time that certain Canadian women were permitted to vote, it wouldn’t be until 1960 that all women in Canada were included in the right to suffrage. (Women of colour, Indigenous women and anyone with mental or physical disabilities were excluded until that time.) Women’s voting rights ties into another event that Martin is exploring. Her upcoming opera Llandovery Castle tells the story of “nurses who served in WWI on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. [They] were able to vote earlier than other women because they were officers. They could vote federally in 1914.”

While we have much to appreciate in universal suffrage in our contemporary Canada, we would do well to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Stephanie Martin brings history into focus with her thoughtful approach to composition and music.

May 23, 8:15pm. Schola Magdalena presents Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women in Canada. Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble: La Rosa de los Vientos

For many newcomers to Canada, with family, children, partners, and friends far away, love can feel distant – strong, but distant, explains Jacinto Salcedo, coordinator of the Cantemos Latin Ensemble speaking to The WholeNote about the words he wrote in the poem: La Rosa de los Vientos (The Wind Rose). “This is a recurrent theme for immigrants. Often, families are split, but you still love them, care for them, and want the best for them,” he shares. “It is nostalgic and touching.” For the tenth anniversary of the ensemble, the poem has been set to music by César Alejandro Carrillo, a very well-known Venezuelan choral composer and conductor. Carillo is especially known for his work with the Orfeón Universitario of the Central University of Venezuela.

With 12 singers taken from the ranks of the Upper Canada Choristers (UCC), Cantemos endeavours to bring the sounds of Latin American heritage to Toronto audiences. “Ten years ago, the UCC wanted to feature one or two [Latin American] songs in a concert,” Salcedo shares. “It became a natural evolution to continue exploring the richness of the music. We’ve done Latin music that is sacred, secular, dance, Christmas, and modern pieces that aren’t as well known. It’s become a need to keep doing this. We’re always curious and interested in knowing more of our culture and sharing it with people.”

Cantemos Latin Ensemble. Photo by Daniel CharltonThe Upper Canada Choristers, under Laurie Evan Fraser, have a big offering with their “Magic of Music” concert. In addition to Cantemos, guest baritone Bradley Christensen and the Junior and Chamber Choirs of Allenby Public School will join the performance. Christensen will perform Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs along with the choir. En masse, the choirs will perform Rutter’s The Music’s Always There With You.

“UCC is about sharing music with the community,” says Salcedo. “We come from all kinds of different professions and interests in life, but [singing] is the common ground that we love and nurture.” Next year, the choir goes on tour to Japan with Canadian and Latin repertoire. “We want to keep exploring new rhythms, new songs. We are now at the point where we can be more well known. I think the level of quality and musicianship we’re getting will help us in the next ten years.”

May 11, 8pm. The Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble present “The Magic of Music.” Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Celebrating the Human Voice: SING! The A Cappella Festival

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival co-artistic directors Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell present a packed schedule this year, with ten days that explore the magic of a cappella music. Sankaran chatted with The WholeNote: “It’s cool again to be singing in Glee clubs, in barbershop ... Through Pentatonix or Pitch Perfect, or Glee, it’s cool to be singing.”

FreePlay Duo: Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell. Photo by Edward HanleyThere’s an astounding lineup. Part of the festival I’m flagging: artists FreePlay Duo (which is Sankaran and Bell); hugely popular all-male Rockapella; Retrocity, a local 80s group; an all-female concert featuring the Penthelia Singers and Girl Pow-R with others; and Resound, a totally unbelievable gospel trio who will drop your jaw and melt your heart.

For new attendees, Sankaran has some tips. “Take in one of the weekend shows,” she says. “It will give you a chance to experience a workshop or two, go to the outdoor free stage, drink in some of the a cappella artists, and then go to an evening show.” In one concert, three groups are celebrating their 20th anniversaries: Retrocity, the Toronto Northern Lights and Cadence. It’s a great introduction to the “spectrum” of a cappella as Sankaran describes it, including barbershop, jazz and contemporary.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival offers big weekend concerts, a free outdoor stage, and intimate performances in small venues like the Jason George Pub and the Little Trinity Church. There’s a huge breadth of performers representing diverse musical styles and that is a direct reflection of the energy and connections that Sankaran and Bell bring to the table. Local sacred traditions are reflected with “SING! Crossroads,” which features the Ruach Singers and Six 13, both Jewish a cappella worship groups. “SING! Celebrates Gospel” brings in the Christian tradition rooted in Black music of North America. And the multidisciplinary aspect of the festival is reflected with “Art Battle”!

Central to all of this is people making music with nothing but their voices. “The power of the human voice, the fact that it can empower a person, whatever age, whatever ability – that to me is the most important thing. It truly is a universal language, especially when you get into a cappella,” says Sankaran. “Your voice is like your fingerprint. It’s completely unique. People can try and imitate you but they can never be you, they can never breathe like you.”

Make sure to check out ten days of empowering a cappella music.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival runs from May 23 to June 3 in a variety of venues, mostly centred around the Distillery District, Toronto. Check out www.singtoronto.com for all the offerings.

Exultate Chamber Singers: “We Sing and Connect”

Last month, I wrongly reported that Hilary Apfelstadt’s final concert with the Exultate Chamber Singers was at their April 6 concert. There is one remaining program in the season, however: “We Sing and Connect,” which takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26.

May 25 and May 26, 8pm. Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Connect.” With special guests the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Adult Choir (May 26 only). St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto. 

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Steven Reineke leads Stephanie J. Block and the TSO in "On Broadway." Photo: Jag Gundu/TSOApril provided a rich abundance of music theatre in Toronto from the traditional to the wildly experimental, from new creations to double adaptations. Early in the month the Toronto Symphony Orchestra celebrated the classic musical with the superb pops concert “On Broadway,” under the skilled and energetic baton of Steven Reineke. On hand to sing the songs were the brilliant and brilliantly contrasting current Broadway stars, Canadian Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) and Stephane J. Block (Falsettos, Wicked). These two stars had never worked together before and their personal styles could not be more different. Block, with a bigger, brasher belting style, practically channelled Barbra Streisand in a galvanizing Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and Karimloo, with a much quieter, focused presence, though equally powerful, captured the audience entirely with an exquisite rendering of Old Man River to his own classical guitar accompaniment partnered with principal cello Joseph Johnson. It was fascinating to see these giant talents each hold the audience in the palms of their hands and to come closer and closer as stage partners through various solos and duets, culminating in what felt like an anthem for each: Being Alive from Company for him and Defying Gravity from Wicked for her, and with a beautifully nuanced Move On by the two together from Sunday in the Park with George. It was an evening that reminded us of the power of the best Broadway scores to move our hearts with stories told through words and music; particularly in the hands of interpreters with such a profound connection to the material, with each other, the orchestra and the audience.

Other music theatre works attempting to take possession of our minds and hearts this past month ranged from a lesbian cartoonist trying to figure out her past in order to move on, a man trying to deal with a recent tragedy and escape his grief, a poor accountant whose life is irrevocably changed by the acquisition of a new coat, and an American GI staying behind in Paris after WWII to indulge his love of painting.

All but one of these are adaptations of other source material. Adaptations are often difficult to pull off, having to match script and score to the source and meet or exceed the expectations of an audience perhaps familiar with the original material.

Fun Home, the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed and bestselling autobiographical graphic novel, opened on April 17 at the CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre in a new production from the Musical Stage Company presented by Mirvish Productions. It connected so strongly with its first audiences that its run was immediately extended (currently to May 20). I wasn’t familiar with the graphic novel before seeing the show, but the adaptation feels flawless. The characters are real, complex people, immediately recognizable; the script by Lisa Kron rings true and the songs by Jeannine Tesori (with lyrics by Kron) feel like necessary moments of heightened emotion, the musical style with a 70s feeling to it helping to create that sensation. The all-Canadian cast is excellent, led by Laura Condlin, Sara Farb, and young Hannah Levinson as central character Alison Bechdel at three different ages. (You can read my full review online on
thewholenote.com).

An American in Paris, another 2015 Tony Award-winner, also made its Toronto debut in April with the North American touring company coming to the Princess of Wales Theatre for a six-week run. In a way this could be looked at as a double adaptation. While this is a new stage musical inspired by/adapted from the famous MGM musical of the same name that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (and won a special Academy Award for the innovative and brilliant 17-minute American in Paris ballet that took Kelly and Caron’s characters through a love story using panoramic sequence of Parisian painters), the film itself with a script by Alan J. Lerner, was built around earlier classic songs and works by George and Ira Gershwin.

In developing the new stage version, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas have spoken in various interviews about how they wanted not to just “put the film on stage” but to create a new show with a deeper background. They wanted a more complex story, tied more closely to historical reality by setting it clearly in a Paris just beginning to recover from the ravages of occupation by the Germans. The first half of the show, I found, succeeds wonderfully in these goals. Paris slowly awakening from war and coming to life again becomes itself a character through the brilliant choreographed crowds who fill the stage from the top of the show, clearly signalling the style of the world we are about to enter. The characters we know and love from the movie are still there but slightly altered: Jerry Mulligan, the GI who has stayed after the war to paint, is here a slightly less confident character than in the movie, more uncertain in his talent, more affected by the war. Lise, Caron’s character, has become an aspiring ballet dancer, but still works in a perfume shop, still torn between Jerry and Henri Baurel. Henri is no longer an established musical hall star but a would-be performer, though still in love with Lise. Interestingly, Oscar Levant’s iconic cynical Adam has become the narrator and another would-be lover of Lise. Matthew Scott from the original Broadway company was so strong and likeable in this role that he stole the show from the other men.

While by intermission I felt won over by this new version of one of my favourite films, I found in contrast that the second half was a bit of a letdown, particularly in the iconic ballet sequence which here is very modern and abstract, and where Lise makes her professional debut and becomes a star. I found the choreography in this sequence dull and frustrating after the character and imagination elsewhere throughout the show, particularly in contrast to the movie, and not completely saved by the intense romantic pas de deux at its centre where Lise imagines that she is dancing with Jerry. I will say, though, that the audience around me did not seem to have the same reaction. It also seemed to me too easy and clichéd to make Lise a Jewish girl saved by Henri’s family when her parents were killed by the Germans, instead of her being, as she is in the film, the child of Resistance fighters. Still, with those caveats aside, this is a show worth seeing, particularly for its re-creation and re-imagination of post-war Paris.

Overcoat: The other big new music theatre production, half opera, half musical, this month was the world premiere production of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, a three-way co-production from Tapestry New Opera, Canadian Stage and the Vancouver Opera Company.

Highly anticipated as a new experimental exploration of Gogol’s famous short story by Morris Panych (the director and co-creator of the famous wordless physical theatre production of The Overcoat 20 years ago that repeatedly toured here and internationally), The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is, as I wrote in The WholeNote last issue, also the first collaboration between Panych and acclaimed Canadian composer James Rolfe. When I spoke with Panych about the show before rehearsals began he talked about the scope of expectations that this new production was facing: people who had loved the original show so much and seen it many times told him they did not want to see this new version for fear that it would dilute that original experience. And yet the creative team were all so energized and excited by the possibilities of exploring the original source material again from new angles and with new artistic tools, that one couldn’t help but feel as though they couldn’t fail to bring something remarkably new to life.

The new Overcoat, with words and singers rather than purely physical performers, is definitely recognizable as a relative of the first production but also clearly something different. It realizes many of the goals of the creative team to explore more intellectual themes and ideas, and it explores the potential of melding purely physical theatre with new opera. To anchor the physicality, choreographed again by Wendy Gorling (co-creator of the original Overcoat), are two actors from that original company and while they stand out from the rest as they do not sing, they perform their function well of anchoring the audience’s perception of the physical world in the style of movement presented, as well as leading the way for the rest of the cast. The singers do a wonderful job with the choreography, in fact seeming to revel in the extra theatricality, particularly the brilliant Peter McGillivray, a standout as singer and actor in his leading contrasting roles of Head of the Department and the Tailor.

The design team has created a clearly evocative world, a slightly macabre, slightly Dickensian, silent movie-in-looks world, dark with colours for highlights, faces all painted white with black-rimmed highlighted eyes exaggerating every facial expression. The music is clean and spare, toeing the line between new opera and new music theatre, occasionally going into flights of fancy (as when the tailor takes his snuff) and finding eerie harmonies for the mad-girl chorus who haunt the hero like an invisible three fates waiting for him to fall, commenting on his actions and predicting his end.

What I did miss was the odd aria, or solo song, to give the characters a chance to connect more deeply with the audience. Both librettist/director and composer spoke to me about wanting to give primacy to the words and ideas rather than musical ornamentation. But I missed the connection that an aria or solo can create between the stage and the audience, particularly for the lead character Akakiy, embodied well by Geoffrey Sirett, a simple man obsessed with numbers to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life. Oblivious to the attraction his rather Brechtian landlady has for him (she gets to tell us a little bit about this) he follows his daily routine and does sing to us a bit about numbers but not at any length or to any great depth. If the creative team still tinker with their creation as it goes on the road and goes into the opera repertoire I hope they will consider adding a solo or two.

Musicals, in my view, need to have these moments – in Fun Home, currently onstage, for example, the most powerful moments are captured in solo songs where the leading characters, unable to hold their feelings in, turn to the audience and sing. Middle Alison in Changing My Major and Small Alison in Ring of Keys, for example, offer clear moments of discovery for both characters.

That being said, there are some other very interesting dramaturgical choices that work well in this Overcoat. Taking Akakiy’s original obsession with copying letters from the short story, turning it into an obsession with numbers and then throughout the libretto into combined themes of counting and measuring a man’s worth, for example. The biggest dramaturgical choice that departs from the short story is the framing of the stage version with madness. When Akakiy loses his overcoat to thieves here, he goes mad rather than just getting mad, and the mad girls and physical performers become the inmates of a mad house where Akakiy ends up, wearing another sort of jacket altogether.

While there is a definite neatness to this concept, it is a bit frustrating in that it loses the universality of the original symbolism of Akakiy dying and his ghost continuing to haunt the streets stealing coats from passersby. There is a haunting moment in the staging where it looks as though this will indeed happen, but then it is gone. These caveats aside, this Overcoat is a highly accomplished, highly theatrical night in the theatre, and I’m sure it will live on and develop further.

QUICK PICKS

To June 3: Fans of TV Series Downton Abbey will be delighted to see Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) as Miss Hannigan in Annie (run extended to June 3), presented by Mirvish at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

To May 6: Former composer for La La La Human Steps, Canadian Njo Kong Kie brings his musical collage Picnic in the Cemetery to Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Starting May 3: Grand Hotel begins at the Shaw Festival. Fans of the film starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore may be curious to see this musical version.

May 4 to June 2: Soulpepper presents August Wilson’s classic 1920s musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Alana Bridgewater and a strong Toronto cast.

May 24 to June 17: Grease Toronto presents Grease. Music, lyrics and book by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

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