In the summer of 2016 I was given a package of Mahler DVDs produced and directed by Jason Starr, a prolific maker of dozens of video and films, from classical music and modern dance performances to documentary profiles of artists and cultural issues. He began his Mahler odyssey in 2003 with a splendid deconstruction of what Mahler himself called “a musical poem that travels through all the stages of evolution.” I wrote about What the Universe Tells Me: Unravelling the Mysteries of Mahler’s Third Symphony – Starr’s impressive 60-minute film – in the September 2016 issue of WholeNote in conjunction with the TSO’s performance of the symphony then.

Gustav Mahler

Having noticed the TSO’s upcoming performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 “Resurrection” on April 17, 18 and 20, I decided to take another look at Of Love, Death and Beyond, Starr’s 2011 exploration of that monumental work. The combination of an all-star orchestra and chorus conducted by Neeme Järvi, with narration by Thomas Hampson and talking Mahlerian heads led by Henry-Louis de La Grange, produced a rich tapestry of insight and background, some of which I thought I would share to illuminate what has become a cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire.

When Mahler began working on his second symphony in 1888, he was “a 27-year-old itinerant conductor and virtually unknown as a composer.” By the time of its premiere in December 1895, Mahler’s conducting star was burning brightly, although the negative reception of his first symphony still lingered.

Mahler believed that there must be something cosmic about a symphony; it should be as inexhaustible as the world. With the “Resurrection” Symphony, he burst the confines of symphonic form with a massive instrumental and choral cohort that outdid Beethoven. Haunted by death throughout his life – he lost several family members to early death – the symphony was a means to explore his own ideas of death and the purpose of life. (Early on in the symphony, Mahler picks up the hero’s theme from his Symphony No.1 and shockingly kills that hero right away, burying him with funeral-march references and Dies Irae allusions. Waves of struggle alternate with periods of serenity – the role of love always a factor for Mahler.)

After this 1888 start on the symphony, five years passed before Mahler returned to work on it. But during those years his conducting experience had grown, and a key relationship blossomed with the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow after Mahler’s appointment to the Hamburg State Opera. He settled on the edge of an Austrian lake in 1893 and finished the second, third and fourth movements. (It would, however, take von Bülow’s memorial service in 1894 to unleash Mahler’s creativity and act as a catalyst to compose the choral movement that would complete the work.)

The Andante Moderato second movement is mysterious and threatening in tone, but not without considerable charm, as happiness alternates with melancholy memory. The spooky and sardonic third movement is a parody of the Biblical fish sermon with a mocking tone that leads into music riven by despair. The basis of the fourth movement (Primal Light) is a child-like woman’s voice (sung by a mezzo-soprano) with text from one of Mahler’s favourite literary sources, the poems of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. There is compassion and simplicity in the voice of the child who is driven by a desire to enter heaven and be reborn into eternal blessed life.

The fifth and final movement opens with a reference to the third movement before we are treated to a series of tableaux that expand the bounds of the concert hall with two off-stage bands and otherworldly horns. The notes of the Dies Irae musical reference of the first movement is reversed, a sign that personal rebirth is on its way. A visceral percussion build followed by a march made up of popular music announces the struggle between the Dies Irae and resurrection motifs which morph into an apocalyptic tension. Then, after barely audible offstage brass, mass hysteria leads into celestial calm and an omnipotent feeling of love takes over. The chorus enters (everyone partakes of the resurrection) in one of the most sublime moments in all of music. Mahler’s own text leaves out much of the original religious content, replacing it with spirituality. Ultimately, a new life is unleashed. There had never been a symphonic movement of such scope and dramatic impact. It still generates a genuinely palpable feel-good climax.

Juanjo Mena. Photo by Mark LyonsMahler’s Massive Cohort

To illustrate the instrumental scope in personnel alone, this is what Mahler called for: four flutes (all doubling piccolo), four oboes (two doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet and another doubling E-flat clarinet) plus E-flat clarinet, four bassoons (two doubling contrabassoon), ten horns, ten trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani (two players), cymbals, triangle, military drum, orchestra bells, chimes, bass drums, tam-tams, two harps, organ and strings, plus soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists and a mixed chorus; an offstage band comprising four trumpets, bass drum with cymbals attached and additional triangle; another off-stage band consisting of four horns and additional timpani.

The TSO presents Mahler’s Symphony No.2 “Resurrection” on April 17, 18 and 20 at 8pm in Roy Thomson Hall. With Joëlle Harvey, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Amadeus Choir; Elmer Iseler Singers; renowned Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena takes the baton.

Louis Langree. Photo by Jennifer TaylorLouis Langrée has been music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York since 2002 and of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 2013. On April 10, 12 and 13, he will lead the TSO in another pillar of the classical music canon, Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 “Eroica.” Originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte (the composer later defaced his original dedication to the French emperor, calling him a tyrant), the Eroica marked the beginning of Beethoven’s Middle Period and was a major musical step forward in his symphonic writing. The first movement’s grandeur is followed by the unnerving, influential funeral march and the uncanny scherzo which set the stage for the finale’s theme and variations that pushed the expressive envelope of 1803. Uncompromising and challenging to this day, the Eroica marked a bold step into the 19th century for a work that has never lost its power to connect emotionally.

Opening the program is another keystone of the repertoire, Debussy’s hugely popular Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) that stretched the traditional system of keys and tonalities to their late 19th-century limits. Rounding out the evening’s first half is Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 (1916), considered one of the first modern violin concertos and a musical heir to Debussy’s work. Christian Tetzlaff, whose consummate musicianship and versatility have long been a source of great pleasure, is the violin soloist.

Students Rule

As spring blossoms fill our senses, it’s time to partake in the fruits of another year’s worth of musical training. Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation presents “Rising Stars” of the U of T Faculty of Music on April 2 and of the Glenn Gould School on April 30 and May 7. Admission is free for these 12:10pm recitals at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in midtown Toronto. The Royal Conservatory presents the Glenn Gould School Chamber Music Competition Finals in Koerner Hall at 7pm on April 3. Tickets are required (but free) and can be reserved a week in advance. At noon on April 9, the COC presents “Rachmaninoff-Go-Round,” a free concert featuring GGS piano students playing selections from Six Moments musicaux, Op.16 in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. In the same location, on April 10 at noon, the COC presents a free concert featuring the winner of the GGS Chamber Music Competition. On the same day at 7:30pm in Mazzoleni Hall, RCM presents the final Rebanks Family Fellowship concert of the season (free; ticket required). The future is ours to see.

CLASSICAL AND BEYOND QUICK PICKS

APR 7, 2PM: The Gallery Players of Niagara present the Gryphon Trio at 25 years young! Fresh from winning their latest JUNO, the venerable trio’s program includes works by Haydn, Brahms and Wijeratne. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

APR 7, 3PM: RCM presents the justly celebrated American pianist Richard Goode in an all-Beethoven recital topped off by the master’s final sonata, the celestial Op.111. Goode will also give two masterclasses in Mazzoleni Hall, to which the public is welcome, on April 5 at 2pm and April 6 at 2:30pm.

APR 7, 7:30PM: Gallery 345 presents pianist/scholar/writer Jarred Dunn in a recital comprised of a selection of Chopin pieces along with Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, Op.110. Featured on the 2018 CBC Top 30 Under 30 list, Dunn has been highly praised by piano stalwarts Seymour Bernstein and David Dubal.

APR 14, 2PM: Chamber Music Hamilton presents the luminous Calidore String Quartet in a superbly constructed program of Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major Op.77, No.2, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.131 and two pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (whose Taxidermy was one of the revelations of the recent 21C Music Festival performance by Sõ Percussion).

APR 14, 3:15PM: Mooredale Concerts presents the New Orford String Quartet whose impeccable musicianship will be on display in an all-Beethoven program featuring a quartet from each of the composer’s early (Op.18, No.4), middle (Op.74) and late (Op.131) periods.

Ariel QuartetAPR 18, 8PM: Music Toronto presents the Ariel Quartet (winner of the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award in 2014) in a program they call “Neue Bahnen (New Paths).” The title comes from Schumann’s famous article from 1853 heralding a new era with the arrival of the then-unknown Brahms. The program highlights the special relationship Schumann and Brahms shared, and looks back to Beethoven and forward to Webern.

APR 27, 7:30PM AND APR 28, 2:30PM: Elsewhere in these pages David Jaeger writes extensively about Marjan Mozetich, whose Postcards from the Sky is part of this concert by the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Another reason to attend is to catch up with one-time prodigy, pianist Anastasia Rizikov, featured in Shostakovich’s Concerto in C Minor for Piano and Trumpet and String Orchestra. Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings complete the surefire program. Bradley Thachuk conducts.

APR 28, 3PM: Jeffery Concerts presents the five-time Grammy Award winner, MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Dawn Upshaw, singing Respighi’s haunting Il Tramonto and Schoenberg’s visionary String Quartet No.2 with the esteemed Brentano String Quartet (who also perform Haydn’s Op.20, No.2 and Bartók’s String Quartet No.2). Wolf Performance Hall, London.

Peter Serkin. Photo by Regina Touhey SerkinMAY 1, 8PM: Pianist Peter Serkin, heir to the Busch-Serkin musical family, makes his Koerner Hall debut performing Mozart's Adagio K540 and Piano Sonata K570 as well as Bach's Goldberg Variations. Serkin replaces the originally scheduled Murray Perahia, who is unable to appear due to a sudden medical setback.

MAY 2, 12PM: Spring may be in the air, but summer’s not too far from violinist Jonathan Crow’s mind as he previews the 2019 Toronto Summer Music Festival – Crow is its artistic director – in this COC free concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre.

MAY 2, 1:30PM: The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto closes out their season in Walter Hall with a strong program – Mozart, Schafer and Beethoven – by the acclaimed Rolston String Quartet, who have been on an extensive tour since winning the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2016. Named one of CBC’s 30 Hot Canadian Classical Musicians Under 30 and recent winner of the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award, the Rolstons – who take their name from Canadian violinist Thomas Rolston, longtime director of the Music and Sound Programs at the Banff Centre -- are currently fellowship quartet-in-residence at the Yale School of Music.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The boundaries of music theatre in Toronto continue to be stretched in all directions from Opera Atelier’s The Angel Speaks, the brilliant “modern meets Baroque” extrapolation by composer Edwin Huizinga, choreographer Tyler Gledhill, and director Marshall Pynkoski, from Purcell’s The Blessed Expostulation of the Virgin Mary, to the changing nature of what we know as the traditional stage musical into the most effective platform for exploring and dealing with some of society’s darker and more difficult issues in such shows as Parade, Next to Normal, and Dear Evan Hansen. While the latter two have not yet opened as I write, Toronto Musical Concerts just presented a two-day run of a semi-staged concert reading of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Based on real events – false accusation, mistrial, and eventual lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in 1913 Georgia – this is dark material. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the theatre was packed for a strong rendition of this powerful work anchored by outstanding, magnetic performances from Eric Craig and Ma-Anne Dionisio as Leo and Lucille Frank. The content is so relevant to the evils faced by contemporary society, and the audience attention was so rapt, that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of a full production happening somewhere soon.

Another direction of the current redefining of music theatre being explored by an increasing number of companies is the move from purely text-based shows to plays where music is not only an important but an integral element of powerful theatrical storytelling. This is resulting in some fascinating and unique hybrids.

AngéliqueToronto’s Factory Theatre is hosting, in the latter part of its season, two productions from other Canadian companies that are experimenting in this way: Bears and Angélique. When I asked Factory’s artistic director, Nina Lee Aquino, about the choosing of these two multidisciplinary shows, particularly if their incorporation of music as an integral element of storytelling was instrumental in her choice, she said:

“Not directly on purpose, but ... how the Canadian experience is presented on our stages is just as important as the what and the why. All the productions in our past seasons have had amazing, different, and unique containers of telling the Canadian story. It is necessary to be able to look at something in different ways, from different lenses and perspectives. It reminds us (and our audiences) to keep witnessing and listening to stories in prismatic ways. That’s one of the more meaningful ways to learn from one another and become better human beings to each other.”

Bears (an Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre co-production) which just finished its run on March 17, is unique in that it began with playwright Matthew Mackenzie exploring his newly discovered Indigenous heritage and wanting there to be a movement vocabulary along with his words to create the specific world and language of the play. From the beginning he worked with choreographer Monica Dottor as his co-creator to invent the show’s physical language, then brought on board composer and sound designer Noor Dean Musani to develop a musical vocabulary to meld the two together. The result is an amazingly effective myth-turned-music theatre experience. With humour as an important element, the words, music and movement align to immerse us in a mythic yet completely modern wake-up call to recognize our ties to the earth and the need to save it from the inroads of industry and climate change.

Next in the season, Factory partners with Obsidian Theatre to present the Toronto premiere of Lorena Gale’s award-winning musical play Angélique in a new production from Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre that incorporates a live musical score throughout. Like Parade, Angélique is based on real events and another case of false accusations and miscarriage of justice. The location this time, though, is Montreal in 1734, where an enslaved Black woman, Marie Joseph Angélique, was accused and convicted of setting fire to the city although there was very little evidence against her.

I asked director Mike Payette why he feels this play written in 1998 is an important one to share with audiences now. He responded passionately about its contemporary relevance:

Angélique is an urgent play that speaks to the immediate and historical systemic nature of oppression and racism within our country, but more importantly, as this is not a history lesson on slavery, it is about the life of a woman who is forced into an environment of abuse and servitude, unrelenting in her condemnation of slavery, and ultimately tortured and killed for something we will never know she did. This is a play that looks at the visceral qualities of us as human beings; the monsters that we have inside all of us and the questioning of whether we act on these monstrous thoughts. Angélique says at one point: ‘And though I am wretched, I am not wicked.’ I find this to be a compelling distinction of the human experience. In the pursuit of dialogue and understanding, Lorena Gale urges us to find the inherent and universal qualities of both the oppressed and the privileged; all this through a highly theatrical and contemporary experience.”

Sixtrum Percussion EnsembleMusic is central to the language of the play and particularly this production. As the director explains:

“I wouldn’t call Angélique a musical theatre play, but it is indeed, musical. The score, composed by award-winning Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble, has myriad influences, from Afrocentric to European to popular, seamlessly heightening tension and giving breath when we need it most. The drum is central to this play, it is one of the last words spoken, and it becomes the instrument that is universal because it represents not only the rage of fire, but the swelling of a heart beat.

The score is unique to this production. From my understanding, although the script calls for dance and musicality, this is the first time the play has offered the music to be a character in and of itself. The musicians are ultimately always present, we allow ourselves to be swept by how they complement the action of the play, and ultimately it is but one of the elements of the production that makes it an exceptionally alive and aural experience.”

Under the StairsUnder the Stairs at YPT

This fascinating concept of the music becoming “a character in and of itself” or having a very specific role, coincidentally is also true of the world premiere this month at Young People’s Theatre (YPT) of acclaimed British playwright Kevin Dyer’s Under the Stairs.

Innovative, poignant, and funny, the play tells the story of Timmy, a boy who tries to escape the throwing of plates and noise of his parents arguing by going into the cupboard under the stairs only to find that there are other children there, too. When Timmy’s parents disappear, he enlists the help of the other children to find them. Together they uncover surprising secrets that could repair the turmoil in Tim’s house. In the words of the playwright, “This is a story that is sung; a contemporary mash-up of free verse, prose and delicious music.”

YPT’s artistic director Allen MacInnis explained the unique roles of music and spoken text that the playwright imagined:

“YPT has produced two other new works by Kevin Dyer (The Monster Under the Bed and Minotaur). When he proposed this play, one of its many intriguing features was his idea that the turmoil in Timmy’s home should be expressed entirely in singing while the quiet of the cupboard under the stairs to which Timmy retreats should be expressed in talking, no music. When we asked if he planned to write the music, Kevin said ‘heavens no … but I think I know what it sounds like.’ This set us on a journey to find a Canadian music theatre composer who could capture what Kevin heard in his head. We asked a number of people to set to music some of Kevin’s poetic, rhythmic dialogue from sung sections of the first draft of the script. Having heard them all, the composer Kevin chose was Reza Jacobs. We couldn’t have been more pleased to bring these two great artists together.”

Jacobs, who will also be the music director for the show, is well known as an award-winning composer and music director for companies including the Stratford and Shaw Festivals as well as being the “Fine Furneaux Director of Music” for the Musical Stage Company, where he creates the musical reworkings of iconic songs for the annual Uncovered concerts as well as music directing regular shows in the company’s season.

Playing the role of the mother in Under the Stairs, is Neema Bickersteth, one of our most versatile and accomplished cross-genre performers, known for her classically trained beautiful soprano voice, rich acting talent, and for her multidisciplinary theatrical work. When I asked her what it is like performing the “mash-up” of text, poetry and music in this show, and knowing that she will be playing to younger audiences, she said that in contrast to some of her other work this show is a natural extension of her everyday life:

“It is all mashed up so beautifully! When I’m at home with my kid, all our games are a mishmash of one thing flowing to the next. And in the moment, it all totally makes sense.”

This points again to the inherent ability of music to connect with all of us, and how it is a part of our lives even if we don’t specifically notice from moment to moment. Theatre creators are drawing more and more on this intrinsic power of music as a universal language, continuing to push the boundaries of how words and music can be combined together in a myriad of different ways uniquely appropriate to each theatrical story. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

APR 1 TO 16: Under the Stairs. YPT.

APR 3 TO 21: Angélique. Factory Theatre.

ONGOING: Dear Evan Hansen. Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre. The almost entirely Canadian cast is just one of the reasons to see this multi-Tony Award-winning pop musical by Pasek and Paul.

APR 9 TO 11: The House of Martin Guerre. Theatre Sheridan. Canadian composer Leslie Arden’s 1993 version of The Return of Martin Guerre seems to be making a comeback now that its rights, which were tied up for years, are available again. It had a successful concert performance at the Charlottetown Festival last September.

APR 9 TO MAY 5: Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. Mirvish, Princess of Wales Theatre, another chance to see the luminous Canadian star Chilina Kennedy reprise her Broadway triumph as Carole King in this biographical musical.

APR TO MAY 19: Next to Normal. Musical Stage Company. Ma-Anne Dionisio, continuing her season with the Musical Stage Company, leads the cast as a mother trying to deal with bipolar disorder in this urgently contemporary rock musical

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Art cannot exist in a vacuum, independent, immune, and untouched by the innumerable facets and fluctuations of the world, for all art is created at a specific time and in a specific place. The artist, without exception, exists in a society with its own concerns, issues and goals, and it is these chronic yet changing problems that play a large part in the creation of new works. Whether due to war, famine, personal poverty, or forced relocation, each piece of music that we perform or listen to has its own context and purpose. We must wonder if much of the art that we now consider great would have been created at all, had it not been for the struggles that come with living in such an imperfect world.

Perhaps the most poignant and radical example of this social-artistic reactivity was in the 20th century, when the abominations and mass destruction of World War II necessitated the creation of a new aesthetic to reflect the forever-changed and irreparably damaged global community. Artists of all types were forced to flee their respective countries and seek refuge elsewhere, many coming to North America to escape the dangers of the European continent. Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Hindemith are only a few of the significant composers who relocated to the United States, a career move that, far from being planned, was forced by external factors.

While some musicians went less far afield, choosing to flee their homelands in favour of another European state, others involved themselves in the defense of their country by picking up arms, sometimes with tragic results. Jehan Alain, the French organist and composer, was killed in battle, and Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps while in German captivity and it was first performed by his fellow prisoners; it has come to be recognized as one of his most important works.

The deconstruction of music’s essential components through serialism was a significant and reactive measure to the postwar world, a highly ordered approach to composition that served as a juxtaposition to external chaos and is one of the most recognized movements of the postwar musical aesthetic. Renowned serial composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was perhaps the most outspoken advocate of music as a social and political vehicle, giving such memorable quotes as, “I assert that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced – the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch … All the art of the past must be destroyed.” For artists who witnessed the destruction of their national histories and cultures with their own eyes, such sentiments likely seemed far less radical than they now appear.

Although the discussion of serialism might seem strikingly modern within the context of an early music column, the sociopolitical catastrophes that precipitated serialism’s formation are not at all new. The Thirty Years’ War, for example, lasted from 1618 to 1648 and was one of the most destructive conflicts in human history resulting in eight million fatalities, not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine and plague. Conflict between the Catholics and Protestants created an unstable social environment, which resulted in a myriad of responses from composers and performers, including Heinrich Schütz. As Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, Schütz had to provide music not only for standard liturgical ceremonies but also for special occasions, which was complicated by reduced performing forces as the war progressed. In fact, members of his church ensemble dropped one by one so that from 1632 to 1639 the number of members diminished by 29 people. Other composers were forced to flee the violence and disease or lost their positions as courts were eliminated or relocated, events that were to repeat themselves three centuries later as Europe’s nations once again took up arms against each other.

Dido and Belinda

Although the current political climate is far less devastating than in either the early 17th or 20th centuries, contemporary issues continue to affect the way we perform and perceive art. By changing the lens through which we view it, old music can be reinvented and presented in a new way. One method of doing so is through de-contextualization, reapplying an ancient work to tell a new and immediately relevant story. On May 4 and 5, Cor Unum Ensemble attempts to do just this in their collaboration with OperaQ, focusing on Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, re-labelled and reworked as Dido and Belinda. According to Cor Unum’s press release, “Dido and Belinda offers a new perspective on Purcell’s beloved opera, Dido and Aeneas. With the addition of narration from the point of view of Dido’s closest confidante, Belinda, this staged production will emphasize many of the themes already found in the original libretto: the shame surrounding feminine sexuality, the blindness of male privilege and the societal pressure to conform to gender roles.”

Ryan McDonald 3An additional circumvention of tradition includes the casting of reversed-gender roles, with this performance featuring countertenor Ryan McDonald as Dido, Camille Rogers as Aeneas and Rebecca Genge as Belinda. While this may seem like a radical departure from Purcell’s original intention and scoring, this novel interpretation should maintain the integrity of the musical score as well as increasing its dramatic poignancy through a contemporary reimagining.

Purcell Reimagined

Before Cor Unum and OperaQ combine to tackle Dido, Purcell’s music gets reconstructed by Confluence on April 5 and 6. “‘Tis Nature’s Voice: Henry Purcell Reimagined” features arrangements of vocal works by Purcell performed by an extended roster including Anne Atkinson, Larry Beckwith, Andrew Downing, Drew Jurecka, John Millard, Patricia O’Callaghan, Gregory Oh, Alex Samaras and Suba Sankaran. The most renowned arrangements of Purcell’s vocal music were done by Benjamin Britten, whose deliberately pianistic realizations of figured bass launch this harpsichord-based 17th-century music into the piano-focused 20th century. For this concert, however, Confluence associates Patricia O’Callaghan and Andrew Downing bring together some of Toronto’s finest composer-musicians to rearrange and perform the music of Henry Purcell. It will be most interesting to hear their perspectives on Purcell’s songs, which run from the simple to the sublime and everything in between.

Marco Cera. Photo credit Sian Richards PhotographyStrangers in Strange Lands

Renowned for both their musical finesse and social awareness through novel multimedia presentations, Tafelmusik goes small-scale on April 10 with Strangers in Strange Lands, part of their Close Encounters chamber series. Presented in smaller venues across the city, these concerts are a wonderful opportunity to get an up-close look at the performers that make Tafelmusik the ensemble it is; this session features Marco Cera, Julia Wedman, Patrick G. Jordan, Allen Whear and Charlotte Nediger as they explore music in the galant style.

julia wedmanThe galant style was short-lived, bridging the Baroque era with the classical, but it nonetheless featured some fine musicians and their works: C.P.E. and J.C. Bach, Quantz, Hasse, Sammartini, Tartini, Alberti and early Mozart are all exemplars of galant style, which simplified the contrapuntal density of the Baroque and introduced more melody-driven features. Even Haydn was influenced by this melody-based movement, reportedly commenting, “If you want to know whether a melody is really beautiful, sing it without accompaniment.” With such fine musicians performing such delightful repertoire, beautiful melodies will undoubtedly abound, both with accompaniment and without!

No matter how charming or innocuous a piece of music may seem, there is inevitably a story behind it. Whether written during or because of war, as a lifeline during a period of personal financial hardship, or as part of an application for a position or promotion, it is remiss of us to extract our art from its historical context. While it may be overly idealistic to apply to all works, the hearing of certain pieces such as Britten’s War Requiem, Penderecki’s Threnody or Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi can serve as reminders of historical and personal landmarks. It is also possible, as we see this month, to adapt and reinterpret old music in new ways, increasing its relevance to the modern audience member.

Regardless of whether you prefer old music or new, I encourage you to listen with open ears and an informed mind. Get in touch if you have any questions or want some more context on what’s happening this month: earlymusic@thewholenote.com

Daniel CabenaEARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

APR 6, 8PM: Scaramella presents “Red Priest” at Victoria College Chapel, 91 Charles St. W. Despite being one of Italy’s greatest Baroque composers, Antonio Vivaldi’s vocal music is still underperformed. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a selection of his mini-masterpiece chamber cantatas featuring countertenor Daniel Cabena.

APR 27, 8PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presents “Harpsichord Explosion” at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave. Two words: Harpsichord. Explosion. Have you ever seen a harpsichord explode? Neither have I.

MAY 4, 7:30PM: Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts presents “Baroque and Beyond: Bach and His World.” 390 King Street West, Kingston. Conceived, scripted and programmed by Alison Mackay, this multimedia presentation is sure to entertain and inform, and features works by one of the greatest musical minds in history.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

VOCA Chorus of Toronto. Photo by Jim CrawfordFall workshop: Once in the fall and once in the spring, artistic director Jenny Crober brings in an artist to work with the VOCA Chorus of Toronto in an intensive workshop. Matthew Emery was the clinician for the fall, working on his song Still Colours, Velvet Shoes. At the very end Crober asked, “Do you mind if we take a little peek at Sing your Song? Would you mind telling them something about who you’ve dedicated this to and why?” Emery agreed and spent the time explaining his reason for writing this song – to honour one of his musical mentors, Ken Fleet, when Fleet retired from Amabile. (Fleet has been living with dementia for many years now.)

“I first met Ken Fleet as a young singer in the Amabile Choirs of London, Canada,” Emery shared by email with The WholeNote. “My first memory of him was thinking “Wow he is so tall, will I ever be that tall?” (Fleet stood six feet five inches. Those who have met Emery in person can attest that yes, he did get to be almost as tall).

“I was a young boy in Grade 4 or 5 at the time,” Emery continues. “It was his presence and influence from singing with Amabile that led me to attend Medway High School where Ken taught music for nearly 30 years. Ken was one of the early mentors I had in composition. He was always encouraging me to write. He also introduced me to the music of Stephen Chatman who I later studied with at UBC.”

The story was impactful for the choir. Crober is reminded “when you look out at the choristers and you see their faces soften; some tears in the eyes. It’s obvious when you hear Matthew speak, the fondness he has for Ken.” That fondness is felt by Crober too, who studied music with Fleet at Western University. “We were at Western together,” she shared. “He was three years ahead of me. And everyone knew who he was, partly because he was very tall, but he was a gentle giant. An extraordinarily lovely human being, a wonderful person.”

“The refrain used in this song is built on the text ‘sing your song’ which is taken from a short documentary about Ken,” shares Emery. “His wish in life was that no matter what “just sing your song” – a beautiful image to be yourself and to be proud of who you are.” For Crober, that message “means get to the heart of it, right now. Get right into it. Don’t waste time. Just do it. In a gentle and supportive way.” The choir has loved learning and singing the song.

“The song uses a verse-chorus type framework to increase its accessibility,” shares Emery. “Ken worked with musicians of all levels, so I wanted to honour that philosophy in some way. There are phrases where the voices enter in canon, a metaphor for life. After the contrapuntal middle passage, the voices join in unity on the text “come home, come home.” This is intentional, to suggest that through grief, strife – anything – music is our refuge.”

“The song has to be very active, very positive, very buoyant,” says Crober. “It really is bubbly. But not flip. There’s nothing flippant or trivial about it … It’s jubilant and tender at the same time. It’s a really lovely piece.”

Emery put significant thought into creating this outcome. “I wanted to create a poignant work,” he said. “The meaning is deeply felt, but kept light-hearted with the syncopated melodies and pulsing piano gestures. To me, I am reminded of the lessons Ken taught me about life and the values he passed on when I hear the song. He was always full of joy and generosity. I tried to capture his genuine full spirit in the work.” The notion that music can bring us “home” – a perfect image to end a concert celebrating a beloved conductor and mentor to thousands of singers.”

Matthew Emery and Jenny CroberUpcoming concert: The signature work of VOCA’s upcoming April 27 concert is the Paul Winter Missa Gaia/Earth Mass. “It has been a while since we last did the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” says Crober. “We did it in 2012, when the East York Choir first became the VOCA Chorus of Toronto. This was the first performance of the choir under our new name.” Crober didn’t revisit the piece until two years ago when she had to step in at the last minute to conduct it for the Achill Choral Society in Orangeville. She admits, “I had kind of forgotten how much I loved the piece.” The revisiting is the reason for the “II” added to the concert title – “Earth, Seas & Sky.”

Joining the choir is vocalist Alana Bridgewater who has done the Missa Gaia on several occasions. “I’ve known about her a long time so it’s just a joy to finally be able to work with her,” says Crober. “We’re also doing three pieces by Paul Halley: Freedom Trilogy, Sound Over All Waters and The Rain Is Over and Gone. Alana will be really featured in some of these as well. There’s a moment in the third movement of the Missa Gaia, for example, the Beatitudes. It starts off slow and contemplative and by the end it’s a rocking gospel choir. Alana’s a powerhouse.”

Andrew BalfourSpring workshop: At the end of March, the choir had its spring workshop with Andrew Balfour. (The choir has been learning his piece Ambe for their upcoming concert.) “The first time I heard the piece we were at Podium 2018 in Newfoundland,” says Crober. “It was being performed by Chronos Vocal Ensemble from Edmonton. It was so hypnotic and driving and compelling and powerful and beautifully sung. The minute it was done, I marked in my program ‘Do this!’” Crober approached Balfour later during that conference. She booked him for the VOCA spring clinic this year, so the choir would have a chance to workshop the song directly with Balfour.

Going through the experience of Balfour’s thought process and listening to him give life and meaning to the music he’s written was important. Recently, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (IPAA), of which Balfour is a part, released a statement on Indigenous Musical Sovereignty. The statement is an invitation to participate in the full experience of the music created by Indigenous peoples while simultaneously acknowledging that much of what has passed for Indigenous music or Indigenous themes by outsiders has been traumatizing. The statement asks hard questions of presenters who seek to perform Indigenous music: “to non-Indigenous composers who seek to tell ‘Indigenous-inspired’ works: be honest with yourself and ask why you feel compelled to tell this story and whether you are the right person to do so.”

The statement acknowledges that there is a place for non-Indigenous musicians in partnership, but there is an added weight and depth of responsibility that Indigenous creators have to their communities. To do this work well, the IPAA says, “We seek to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards of Indigenous community engagement, and request that our collaborators in the Canadian music community work to the same level of accountability.”

For Crober, through the opportunity to learn directly from Balfour, the choir will have a better chance to bring life to his musical offering while respecting its Indigenous nature.

See all of this in action in “Earth, Sea & Sky II” presented by VOCA Chorus of Toronto under artistic director Jenny Crober featuring guest artists Alana Bridgewater (vocalist); Colleen Allen (saxaphone); Shawn Grenke (organ); Roberto Occhipinti (bass); Mark Kelso (drums); and Juan Carlos Medrano (percussion). April 27, 7:30pm. Eastminster United Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

APR 17, 18 AND 20, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers for the superlative Mahler Symphony No.2 “Resurrection.” A stunning masterpiece of choral music caps off this transformative symphony. Under the baton of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, the iconic organ of Roy Thomson Hall shall shake thee to thy bones with the full force and power of orchestra and choirs blended together in a way that only Mahler could. With three options to catch these performances, do it! Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

APR 19, 7:30PM: The Grand Philharmonic Choir performs Bach’s St. Matthew Passion joined by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a stellar line up of soloists: Isaiah Bell, Daniel Okulitch, Esteli Gomez and Allyson McHardy. Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Cheryll ChungAPR 27, 4PM: Reaching Out Through Music presents “Spring Breezes.” ROTM provides free music education to children in the St. James Town community. Their hallmark is the Choral Program run by Cheryll Chung. Their Spring fundraising concert features Asitha Tennekoon. With a varied programme, this event will help ensure that the program can continue to provide accessible music education for future generations. Grace Church, Toronto, 383 Jarvis St.

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

In most years, April is the month with the single highest concentration of opera presentations in Toronto and environs. In past years there have often been so many examples of opera from all periods that the month’s offerings could form a survey of the genre. This month, for unknown reasons, there is a high concentration of operatic warhorses which will certainly please those who primarily enjoy familiar works. Yet, two companies are presenting works out of the ordinary to help spice up a month heavy on household-name composers.

Opera Atelier’s Idomeneo. Photo by Bruce ZingerIdomeneo and Atelier

The first on offer is a remount of Opera Atelier’s stunning production of Mozart’s Idomeneo (1780), first seen in 2008. Famed soprano Measha Brueggergosman made her Mozart operatic debut and her debut with Opera Atelier in this production. Now she returns to OA to sing the role of Elettra again. The cast includes tenor Colin Ainsworth in the title role, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta as Idamante and soprano Meghan Lindsay as Ilia. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs.

Because the Mirvish production of the hit musical Come From Away has taken over OA’s traditional venue, the Elgin Theatre, Idomeneo will be performed in the Ed Mirvish Theatre, a block or so north of the Elgin. Audiences will have to decide whether performing in an auditorium with 700 more seats than the Elgin has any effect on the acoustics. The opera runs from April 4 to 13. 

Opera by Request

Opening next is familiar Mozart on a smaller scale in the form of his Così fan tutte in concert only on April 5 by Opera by Request. Deena Nicklefork sings Fiordiligi, Erin Armstrong is Dorabella, Conlan Gassi is Ferrando, Anthony Rodrigues is Guglielmo, Danie Friesen is Despina and John Holland is the cynical Don Alfonso. Claire Harris is the pianist and music director. 

Vera Causa

In April even the new company Vera Causa Opera, which presented the world premiere of Dylan Langan’s Dracula last month and will present a selection of arias from Canadian operas in June, has chosen a work from the standard repertory for April. This is Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from 1832 that the company, as per its mandate, will present in three cities in Southern Ontario. Allison Walmsley will sing Adina, James Smith will be Nemorino, Jorge Trabanco will be Belcore, Michaela Chiste is Giannetta and Camilo Rodriguez-Cuadrado is the wily Dr. Dulcamara. Dylan Langan conducts the Vera Causa Opera Chorus and Orchestra and is also the stage director. The production opens in Cambridge on April 5, moves to Waterloo on April 6 and finishes its run in Guelph on April 7.

Opera Belcanto

Filling out the crammed first week of April, running April 4 and 6 at the Richmond Hill Centre, is the blockbuster opera Carmen presented by Opera Belcanto of York. Mila Ionkova sings the title role, Stanislas Vitort is Don Jose, Michele Pearson is Micaela and Andrew Anderson is Escamillo. David Varjabed conducts the Opera Belcanto of York Chorus and Orchestra and Edward Franko, co-artistic director of TrypTych Concert and Opera which has now moved to Kenora, will direct. 

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Boheme, 2013. Photo by Michael CooperCaird’s La Bohème at COC

In mid-April the spring season of the Canadian Opera Company opens with Puccini’s La Bohème, the opera that vies with Carmen as the world’s most popular. The production (which runs from April 17 to May 22) directed by John Caird was first seen in Toronto in 2013. It features Angel Blue as Mimi, Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, Andriana Churchman as Musetta, Lucas Meachem as Marcello, Brandon Cedel as Colline and Phillip Addis as Schaunard. On May 5, 11 matinee and 22 the cast is Miriam Khalil as Mimi, Joshua Guerrero as Rodolfo, Danika Lorèn as Musetta, Andrzej Filończyk as Marcello, Önay Köse as Colline and Joel Allison as Schaunard. Fans of the opera may wish to see both casts. The conductor will be Paolo Carignani.

The COC follows La Bohème with yet another work from the standard repertory, Verdi’s Otello, but one not seen in Toronto since 2010. The production will be directed by David Alden, creator of such other COC productions as The Flying Dutchman, Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor. Alden’s production is most notable for relocating the action from the Renaissance to around the time of the opera’s premiere in 1887. The COC fields its first African-American Otello in the person of Russell Thomas. Canadian Gerald Finley is Iago, Tamara Wilson is Desdemona, Andrew Haji is Cassio and Carolyn Sproule is Emilia. COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts the opera that runs from April 27 to May 21. 

Lucia Cesaroni is The Merry WidowTOT goes tried and true

This year even Toronto Operetta Theatre finishes its season with the tried and true – in this case Franz Lehár’sThe Merry Widow (1905), the greatest of all Silver Age operettas. The opera runs April 24 to 28 and features Lucia Cesaroni in the title role, Michael Nyby as Count Danilo, Daniela Agostino as Valencienne and Gregory Finney as Baron Zeta. Larry Beckwith conducts the TOT Ensemble and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Dion Mazerolle, featured in Shakespeare’s CriminalAnd finally … something new

Despite this plethora of familiar works, April does offer one new opera and one important but seldom-seen opera. The new opera is Shakespeare’s Criminal by Dustin Peters to a libretto by Sky Gilbert. Orpheus Productions will give the chamber piece three workshop performances at Factory Theatre from April 26 to 28.

The magic realist work, set in the present, plays with the notion that Shakespeare was gay, a view some hold since many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man. Other sonnets are addressed to an unknown woman whom critics have dubbed the “Dark Lady of the Sonnets.” In Shakespeare’s Criminal, an older male poet named Shakespeare is unable to admit that he is homosexual. Instead he hides his attraction for men in the eloquent language of the sonnets for which he is much esteemed. He meets a beautiful young HIV-positive man to whom he finds himself attracted, but whom he resists. Enter a wild, fierce voyeur who urges the older poet to fall in love with the young man and bed him. The woman is so persuasive that it seems the older closeted poet will succumb, but at the last moment he cannot bring himself to risk his reputation. In revenge, the woman turns the old poet into a tree – a gender-reversed image of what the river god Peneus does in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to his daughter Daphne to preserve her chastity.

Dustin Peters is a Toronto-based composer whose works range from concert and chamber music to film scores and pieces for voice and dance. Sky Gilbert is an award-winning writer, director, filmmaker and professor. His many critically acclaimed plays have been performed in theatres worldwide. Guernica will publish his investigation of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, Shakespeare: Beyond Science, later this year.

The opera features mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, baritone Dion Mazerolle and actor Nathaniel Bacon. The structure of Shakespeare’s Criminal is inspired by musicologist Ellen T. Harris’s notion that male composers were able to ground the emotional core of their operas through the wild female voice (something which eventually led to the tragic Romantic heroines of Verdi and Puccini). Presented opera-in-concert style, Shakespeare’s Criminal raises many questions including, “Why do gay men often gravitate towards friendships with women and vice versa?” Peters is music director of the accompanying string quartet and Gilbert directs.

And something seldom seen

The important seldom-seen opera in April is Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus: Rituel de la Mort (1980), the only opera by Québécois composer Claude Vivier (1948-83). This will be the first performance of the opera in Toronto since a touring Banff Centre production visited in 2001. In 2017 the present AtG production also had its premiere at Banff. Of what may be the most performed Canadian opera outside Canada, director Joel Ivany says, “I think this could be Canada’s greatest opera ever written. Vivier was unique, he was an innovator and a true artist.”

Ivany related in a conversation in March that he first heard of Kopernikus when he read that famed director Peter Sellars included it on his wish list of operas he’d like to direct. Sellars indeed went on to direct the American premiere of the opera in 2016 at the Ojai Festival in California. Ivany began working on it as a project for Canada 150 at the Banff Centre. While AtG is well known for its productions of Mozart’s operas with new English libretti written by Ivany, Ivany mentions that AtG has also presented operas with their libretti unchanged such as its open-air production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2014.

That will be the case with Kopernikus. Set in two acts for seven singers, it challenges the norms of classical opera with its innovative use of compositional and technical devices to create a vivid meditation on self-transcendence. It unfolds through a series of obscure trials, inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute, but played as an enchanted ritual. Canadian mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan revives her role as Agni, the central character who travels to an unknown space suspended in time wherein she meets the fragmented embodiment of many eclectic characters, such as Tristan and Isolde, Copernicus, Lewis Caroll and Mozart. Singing these roles are mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, bass Alain Coulombe, baritone Dion Mazerolle, sopranos Nathalie Paulin and Jonelle Sills and baritone Bruno Roy. Joining the singers on stage are dancers Anisa Tejpar and William Yong who will realize Matjash Mrozewski’s choreography.

Ivany has taken an innovative twist on orchestration by incorporating members of the orchestra into the onstage roles of the ensemble. AtG music director Topher Mokrzewski conducts the dispersed ensemble. The production will be presented at Theatre Passe Muraille on April 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13, 2019. 

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

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