Patrick Jang, Carla Huhtanen and Phillip Addis in Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro (2010). OA’s revival of Figaro runs from October 26 to November 4.This October offers opera lovers a wide range of choices. The COC is presenting a new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from October 11 to November 4. Opera Atelier is reviving its much-loved production of The Marriage of Figaro with American Douglas Williams making his OA debut in the title role from October 26 to November 4. And Toronto Masque Theatre begins its final season with a pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1687) and James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido (2007) on October 20 and 21. Besides these, there are two 20th-century works that have never before been staged in Toronto. One is Richard Strauss’ Arabella, running at the COC for seven performances from October 5 to 28. The other is Musik für das Ende by Québécois composer Claude Vivier, given ten performances by Soundstreams from October 27 to November 4.

Arabella

Arabella (1933) was Strauss’ sixth and final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss asked Hofmannsthal for a “second Rosenkavalier” and Hofmannsthal was happy to oblige. Unfortunately, Hofmannsthal died in 1929 before he could revise the final two acts of the opera. Strauss, as a tribute to his friend, set the remaining libretto as it was.

The opera is a comedy set in Vienna in the 1860s, about a once-wealthy family who hopes an auspicious marriage for Arabella will restore the family fortunes. Erin Wall sings the title role and Jane Archibald the role of her younger sister Zdenka, a girl brought up as a boy to save money. Tomasz Konieczny is Mandryka, the wealthy man Arabella’s father hopes she will marry. And Michael Brandenburg is Matteo, the poor soldier who also loves Arabella but is secretly loved by Zdenka. Patrick Lange conducts.

I spoke with Tim Albery, who directed Arabella for Santa Fé Opera in 2012 in the same production we will see in Toronto.

Albery’s view toward directing a comedy like Arabella is that “there might be a tradition of playing it quite broad and that everyone should be aware of being in a comedy, but if that is a traditional approach, it’s not a very helpful one. I feel that the way to make a piece like this work is to play it as seriously as you can and if people laugh then it is because of the situation itself and not our intent to make it into a comedy.”

Albery finds an enjoyable paradox in Arabella: “Arabella is more concerned to reveal something of the human heart within a plot that, at one look, might seem inconsequential but at another strangely has a lot to say about how we want to live our lives; what love is and how what you think love is can change. In the case of Arabella, we see how one person can love parties and playing Beatrice-and-Benedick with men, and yet can meet someone who makes her realize that that’s utterly not what she wants at all. I find all of that within the neatness of the plot quite enticing because it’s a process we all go through in our lives. Over the course of our lives we often discover through meeting other people or being thrown into different circumstances that the life to live isn’t the one we thought ours would be.”

Erin Wall as Arabella and Zach Borichevsky as MaŠeo in the Santa Fe Opera production of Arabella, 2012Some see a dark side to Arabella, what with a family basically prostituting one daughter to raise money, and raising the other against her will as a boy. Albery agrees that there is such darkness, “but that to emphasize it is contrary to what the music is doing. And besides that, the libretto makes quite clear that both Arabella and Zdenka are bright, intelligent women who are totally aware of what their parents have done to them.” What he finds most interesting is that “the relationship between Arabella and Mandryka is really quite modern in the sense that they commit themselves to each other as equal partners.”

Some critics have felt that while it was noble of Strauss to honour Hofmannsthal by setting the unrevised last two acts as they were, this has led to Arabella being marked as “flawed.” Albery says that “there’s no doubt, especially in the third act, that we go over ground we’ve already gone over and we have conversations between characters we’ve already heard before. So there is a tradition of many cuts in the third act to remove sections that Hofmannsthal would likely have removed himself. It’s the kind of editing that Strauss didn’t like to do but which people of the future have done on his behalf. If it is not absolutely clear who knows what when, those are the kinds of decisions we have to make in the rehearsal room and as long as we know exactly what is happening so will the audience.”

Has Albery’s view of the opera changed since his production in 2012? Albery says, “What changes there are come from the different interactions of the performers, because different performers bring different things to the piece and I try really hard in my role to respond to what they offer.”

Vivier

The other major work of music theatre this month in no way fits the traditional operatic mould. It is Musik für das Ende written in 1971 by Claude Vivier (1948-83), now regarded as one of Canada’s greatest composers. The work Vivier described as a “grande cérémonie funèbre” was originally written for 20 performers divided into three groups, two of which are visible with one offstage. All the singers play instruments and are given specific physical tasks to perform. These instructions written into the score demonstrate that Vivier intended the work to be staged.

The piece was first performed in concert in 2012; Soundstreams will have the honour of presenting the world premiere staging of the work. Vivier, a devout Catholic, writes in his preamble to the score that the work was the product of his meditation that we are all surrounded by human beings destined to die: “I experienced the increasingly strange ceremony of beings disappearing forever and becoming ‘an infinite moment’ in eternal silence. This became ... a Ceremony of the End, infused with the hope that humanity would understand the real meaning of its earthly experience and ultimately purify itself.”

Chris Abraham has been chosen as the director and he explained to me in an interview the makeup of the evening, of which Musik für das Ende is both the overall title and one of the three segments.

“The evening begins with a 20-minute-long play by Zachary Russell, which is a fictional imagining of a night with Vivier (played by Alex Ivanovici) in Paris shortly after a violent encounter with a male prostitute who assaulted him. We meet Vivier just in the process of finishing what would be his final work, Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul? Vivier is trying to write the text for the piece which, as it turns out, prefigures his own death.” (On March 8, 1983, Vivier was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute.)

“That play is followed by a staged performance of Immortality, an eight-minute piece for tenor and soprano and 12 singers intended as the final section in an immense opéra fleuve that Vivier imagined as his magnum opus. And then we finish with Musik für das Ende.

“The reason why we approached Musik this way is that we wanted to open a door into the piece for the public who don’t know his work. We wanted to investigate the biographical mythology around his music. We wanted to demonstrate the continuity of his thought across his works. And we wanted to theatricalize what would otherwise be presented most likely in program notes, [so as to] …provide some kind of toolbox for the listener to enter into a deeper relationship with the music. Musik für das Ende has a narrative within it but it is also extremely experiential and intuitive, so we wanted to create a context where both registers would be part of the listening and viewing experience.

Musik für das Ende has a number of textual sources – the Catholic Good Friday liturgy along with mantras, some which come from Eastern traditions and some which are invented. There are also passages that require individual performers to express fragments of text about their own lives.

“We have very freely interpreted the notations Vivier has made in the score about staging. Since individuality is central to understanding the piece, we have made some changes to allow the audience to engage with the ten celebrants as individuals first before the celebrants become a group.

“…The staging is ever evolving and what guides it are the rules that are set down in the score. The score requires the passing of melodic lines from one singer to another so that the positioning of bodies onstage in relation to each other dictates itself. I have been closely observing the group’s movements, so my staging is really a kind of attempt to preserve those organic features of what happens to the group when they try to perform the score from memory.”

As someone who is primarily a theatre director, Abraham says, “It has been interesting to think of the task-based nature of music performance. The effort of the singers actually constitutes the dramatic spine of the piece and my role is to create a dramatic environment that allows the audience to come as close as they can to that effort and those tasks.”

As Abraham notes, “Much as Vivier was obsessed with death, he was also obsessed with reunion with an eternal beyond this world, and music for him was a kind of tool that he worked with to try to understand that eternal presence.”

Maureen Forrester - photo by Frank Lennon GrayDer Abschied (The Farewell), the longest movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), is among the greatest achievements of humankind. I can already hear some readers objecting, why not the entire Song of the Earth – yes, the cycle is a superb creation, but other songs are overshadowed by the final chapter. I’ve always found the preceding short songs that Mahler gave to the tenor something of a prank, especially The Drunkard in Spring. Is this a sly comment on the silliness of tenor characters in the history of opera, one wonders? The tenor song that opens the cycle, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, cuts to the chase a little too quickly. His third song, Youth, sounds comparatively simple-minded, bordering on folksy, even though the lyrics are more ambivalent. The contralto or mezzo, the second voice in the cycle, is on the other hand immediately given gravitas and complex sonic tapestry in both of her shorter songs, The Solitary One in Autumn and Beauty. But I rush to any live performance of The Song of the Earth that I can find for the 30-minute mezzo-sung Der Abschied. I worship it impatiently, that I will concede. It is this song cycle’s summit; more precisely, it is its realization.

Susan PlattsOn October 19 and 20, it will be the TSO’s turn. Das Lied von der Erde will conclude the two concerts in honour of Maureen Forrester, Canada’s best known contralto of the previous generation, who has sung Mahler under the baton of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer and was in fact a crucial part of the postwar revival of interest in Mahler. While the hour-long cycle could warrant a concert all on its own, two shorter pieces are also on the program: the 15-minute-long TSO-commissioned L’Aube for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra by Howard Shore and a two-minute sesquie by John Abram titled Start. Mezzo Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade will sing; Peter Oundjian conducts; Ben Heppner hosts.

The poetry of The Song of the Earth has roots in classical Chinese poetry, but only loosely and by way of multiple mediations. It can be tracked down to the 1867 Le Livre de jade, a collection of adapted (read: rewritten) Chinese poetry by a 22-year-old amateur translator, Théophile Gautier’s daughter, Judith Gautier. Gautier was in her late teens when her father hired a tutor of Chinese origin, Ding Dunling, for the benefit of her and her sister’s education. Judith Gautier was an eager apprentice; so eager that a few years later, still not quite fluent in Chinese, she started copying Chinese poems from the French national library archives and took it upon herself to translate them. Very little Chinese poetry had been translated to any European language at the time, but there was clearly demand for it: The Book of Jade has since accrued many reprints and editions (latest French reprint was in 2004) and translations to several other European languages, including German. The version that reached Mahler and affected him so was the book’s third German adaption, Die chinesische Flöte by the poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), sent to him by a friend in 1907.

Mahler was recently bereaved (he had lost a daughter at the time) and had just learned of his own heart condition, a diagnosis that did not leave much reason for optimism (in fact, he died soon after, in 1911). For Der Abschied, he used two of Bethge’s poems attributed to Mong Kao-Jen and Wan Wei, to which Mahler liberally adds his own verses. The end result is beautiful, undemonstrative text – devastating yet somehow unsentimental, like the music Mahler set to it. A first person narrator awaits a friend for their final farewell, while observing nature’s quieting of a sunset. The friend finally arrives, goodbyes are said, departure takes place, but the final verses are given to the life that goes on, the cyclical regeneration of the natural world, the Earth that will continue even if we are not around to see it. Structurally, interludes, recitatives and arias alternate, orchestration ebbs and flows until the Funeral March gives rise to its own song within the song. The melodic material moves between the woodwinds, horns and violins, in physical, almost tactile ripples, twirls, sweeps and risings. When thoughts of the beauty of life appear among the verses, the music swells. Sometimes, the sound recalls familiar voices of nature, and at other times things get complicated; we are there to give in, not understand. Pauses are important. Each part gets extinguished before we move on to the next one. Morendo appears among Mahler’s markings in the score. Structurally, too, there is dying in Der Abschied.

Then, a change of voice mid-way. After the Funeral March, the first person narration turns to the descriptive third person – from an “I” that shares its impressions and feelings (“I stand and wait for my friend …where are you?”) to a “he” as if narrated by an observer. (Bethge’s version maintains the first person address; this change is entirely Mahler’s.)

So what is happening here? Interpretations vary greatly, but I was struck by the one I found in musicologist Andrew Deruchie’s paper in a 2009 volume of the journal Austrian Studies (‘Mahler’s Farewell or The Earth’s Song? Death, Orientalism and Der Abschied,’ Austrian Studies, Vol. 17, Words and Music), discovered while I was trawling the TPL article databases looking for new writing on Das Lied von der Erde. Death does not take place at the end of Das Lied, Deruchie argues; the first-person narrator dies before the Funeral March and the Funeral March is precisely for him/her, not in anticipation of departure. “In Part I the protagonist is the speaking (singing) subject, but in Part II his voice has vanished, and his words are merely quoted by the narrator. The music, one might say, no longer emanates from him,” writes Deruchie, connecting this to the Taoist tradition, “where in death individual subjectivity is folded into nature’s eternal cyclicism: just as spring follows winter, the narrator tells us, the earth blossoms anew after the protagonist’s death.”

I don’t know that it is exclusively about Taoism. Buddhists among my readers will interrupt with “But that’s us, too” and so could the atheists and the scientists. What’s certain is that Das Lied steps away from and leaves behind the Christian paradigm, not a small gesture by a composer who has used that same paradigm without moderation in many of his other works. (I cannot stand the Resurrection Symphony. It offers a coy, calculating consolation, as opposed to the radical, uneasy one of Das Lied.)

What the final part of the final part of Das Lied von der Erde, the ultimate song on finality, always brings to my mind is the pages near the end of the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s book The Following Story. It too is a unique and extraordinary work of art on trying to accept the fact of dying. Its protagonist goes to bed alone in his Amsterdam apartment one night, only to wake up in Lisbon next to the love of his life, except many years earlier than the present day. What is he doing there? The journey goes back in time (protagonist’s) and deep time (through antiquity, as the narrator is a classics professor) and we gradually gather that he has crossed the Lethe, and that time and space are not anymore how he’s known them to be. He is perhaps still lingering, for the duration of the novel, in the in-between before the final farewell, just like the spirits of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo tarry and refuse to understand their condition and really pass on. But in due course, Nooteboom’s professor too is ready to go (in translation by Ina Rilke):

It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined; it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings, never to be ousted from the universe, and so it would take part in the most fantastic metamorphoses, about which it would tell me nothing because it would long since have forgotten all about me. At one time the matter it had consisted of had housed a soul that resembled me, but now my matter would have other duties.

Narek HakhnazaryanJoshua Bell began taking violin lessons when he was four years old after his mother discovered that he had stretched rubber bands across the handles of his dresser drawer to pluck out music he had heard her play on the piano. Several decades later in January 2007, Bell performed incognito as a busker at a public transit station in Washington DC. More than 1,000 people passed by but only seven stopped to listen. He collected $52.17 from 27 people (including $20 from the one person who recognized him). Now in his 50th year, the celebrated American virtuoso returns to Toronto for a recital in Koerner Hall on November 4. The program, with the gifted Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, includes sonatas by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Brahms, as well as additional works to be announced from the stage. But the concert is sold out (one of several in that category this season) so unless you’re already a ticketholder (or one of the fortunate few able to secure rush seats on the day of the recital), you’ll miss the chance to hear the musician who has become only the second music director (after Neville Marriner) of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.

There is consolation the following afternoon, however. After winning the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 at the age of 22, Narek Hakhnazaryan was named a BBC New Generation Artist in 2014 and welcomed by the world’s most prestigious venues. His concert (75 minutes with no intermission) on November 5 in Mazzoleni Hall at 2pm is FREE (ticket required). Mentored by Mstislav Rostropovich, this is Hakhnazaryan’s Toronto recital debut after several orchestral performances, including the TSO in 2015. “I try to be honest with the composer’s music,” he told an interviewer last year. “I don’t really show off or do anything for the audience. The scores don’t need any changing because they are genius already. The musician is just the narrator, and the script is already written. It’s all about how you read it. It’s like Shakespeare: there’s millions of actors doing different things with his original works.”

Still on the subject of the Royal Conservatory’s new season, making their Canadian debut October 20 at Koerner Hall, the Khachaturian Trio (pianist Armine Grigoryan, violinist Karen Shahgaldyan and founding member, cellist Karen Kocharyan) has been active since 1999, taking the name of their Armenian countryman Aram Khachaturian in 2008. Their handful of recordings focus on the music of Armenian modern composers as well as Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Babadjanian and Shostakovich. The program for their Toronto recital includes Tchaikovsky’s intense, demanding, symphonic Piano Trio in A Minor, op. 50, “In Memory of a Great Artist”; Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, the composer’s personal memorial to Tchaikovsky whom he called the most enchanting of all the people and artists he had ever met (“His delicacy of spirit was unique.”); Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Spartacus Suite No. 2, Op.82b (the music for the Spartacus ballet from which this suite was taken is among Khachaturian’s most acclaimed works); and Babadjanian’s richly romantic, melancholic Trio in F-sharp Minor.

Music in the Afternoon

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz open the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto’s 120th season on October 5. What began in 1899 when a group of women musicians and music lovers met to share their passion has become Music in the Afternoon, a five-concert series on Thursdays in Walter Hall. After performing Franck’s justly celebrated Sonata in A Major for violin and piano, written as a wedding present for famed Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886, St. John and Herskowitz will play selections from her Shiksa CD (2015). Its 14 tracks feature traditional folk tunes from the Jewish diaspora, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, reimagined for the concert stage by contemporary composers. When St. John does a similar program two weeks later, at Wolf Trap outside of Washington DC, the program will include John Kameel Farah’s Ah Ya Zayn (Levant), Matt Herskowitz’s mashup of Hava Nagila, Nagilara (lsrael), Serouj Kradjian’s Sari Siroun Yar (Armenia), St. John/Herskowitz’s Adanáco and Martin Kennedy’s Czardashian Rhapsody (Hungary). That’s the kind of music the Toronto audience can expect, followed perhaps by an encore like the rambunctious Oltenian Hora, which St. John calls  “improvised Romanian violin tricks, twists and turns.”  

St. John told Laurie Niles on violinist.com (November 5, 2015) that the idea for Shiksa had been percolating for a long time – since her first trip to Hungary when she was 11 years old. “I was astonished by all the music everywhere and thought that maybe I had been kidnapped by some Canadian family, because I felt like I belonged there. Since that time, and especially since my year of living in the Soviet Union when I was 17, I’ve been fascinated with songs and music from many cultures in, shall we say, that general area. The borders are always changing, but the music is the one thing that folks always respond to and recognize.”

U of T Faculty of Music/TSO

As Toronto audiences have come to recognize from the many appearances in the recent Toronto Summer Music Festival by the concertmasters of Canada’s two major symphony orchestras, Jonathan Crow of the TSO and Andrew Wan of the OSM, the two are consummate, generous musicians dedicated to conveying their joy in the music they play. And despite their considerable commitments to their principal orchestral roles, they still find time to come together for several concerts each season with the New Orford String Quartet, where they alternate in the first and second violin positions. Such is the case when the U of T Faculty of Music presents the New Orford on October 5 in Walter Hall. Ravel’s wistful, melancholic String Quartet in F Major, arguably the most performed string quartet of the 20th century, shares the stage with Tchaikovsky’s moving String Quartet No.3 in E-flat Minor and Steven Gellman’s Musica Aeterna (1994).

Faculty of Music free noontime concerts continue on October 19 with Crow joining his colleague Joseph Johnson, TSO principal cellist, to play music of Ravel and Kodály. Johnson’s TSM Shuffle Concert last August was enlightening and entertaining, with the personable cellist’s onstage patter illuminating his impeccable playing of selections from Bach’s solo cello suites mixed in with works for two, three and four cellos! Brooding, intense and sedate Bach contrasted with showpieces featuring Viennese musical twirls and swoops and Lisztian Hungarian rhapsodies, all smoothly led by Johnson at his collaborative best.

On October 30 Johnson teams up with the Gryphon Trio’s pianist, James Parker, in a U of T recital at Walter Hall with a substantial program comprising Debussy’s rapturous Sonata in D Minor, Beethoven’s densely packed, forward-looking Sonata No.2 in G Minor, Op.5 and Brahms’ bold and passionate Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99.

Marc-André Hamelin 

Juanjo MenaCrow and Johnson’s day jobs with the TSO find them supporting Marc-André Hamelin in Ravel’s ingenious one-movement Concerto for the Left Hand on October 25 and 26. It was the most successful of the works commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm during World War I. When Wittgenstein first saw the long solo cadenza that opens the piece he said: “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto.” But Ravel refused to change a note. When I spoke to Hamelin last winter he confirmed my suspicion that Ravel’s one-movement concerto in D Major was a piece he really enjoyed playing. “Very much so,” he told me. “Although I’ve also for the first time recently played the G Major [in Montreal with the OSM and Kent Nagano]. Can you believe? And that’s worked out well. I would like to offer a program in which I play both in a single evening. Which is perfectly fine.” Indeed, that would be quite a program.

This time, however, under the baton of visiting Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena (principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic), the TSO program is augmented by the Canadian premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s expressionist, dance-driven Ollantay, inspired by a pre-Columbian Inca poem and sounding like Aaron Copland’s music transposed to the Argentine landscape. Mena’s Chandos recording of this and other Ginastera works is considered by its publisher Boosey & Hawkes to be definitive. The major work of the evening is Schubert’s Symphony No.9 “Great,” an extensive melodic and rhythmic quilt that deserves its apt nickname. Schubert began writing the symphony in the year after he heard Beethoven’s Ninth and inserted a quote from the Ode to Joy melody into the middle of the last movement of it. See if you recognize it when you hear it.

"Classical music is dying!" Charlie Albright reported for CNN back in May 2016, and its death is not a quick and abrupt one but rather slow and painful, like a cancer that kills from the inside out. “With [its] stifling atmosphere of rules and ‘appropriateness,’ it is no wonder that people (especially youth) are apprehensive and often uninterested in the whole idea of classical music. Somehow, classical music has become inaccessible and unwelcoming."

October is here and based on the above we can anticipate a wave of the same old junk, identical to what came before, and identical to what will come next, a musical merry-go-round of the first degree: obsessive etiquettal xenophobia, predictable programming falling into pretty, compartmentalized categories (like a mother cutting up a pork chop for her child – easy to eat and it just tastes better this way) with attention-grabbing headlines that ensure that the conductor’s circle donors (who give more in a year than you’ll make in five) will remain happy, contentedly perennial boons to the budget.

Wanna hear something German? Here’s some Bach…

Wanna hear something French? Here’s some Lully and Rameau…

Wanna hear something English? Here’s a Handel oratorio…

Wanna be up to your eyeballs in gentrified groupies spewing vapid pleasantries? Here’s a post-concert reception…

Want something different?

Regeneration

In recent years there have been some interesting and original performances built around rather conventional repertoire, combining standard tunes with new visual and environmental stimulation. Alison Mackay’s multi-disciplinary Tafelmusik presentations of The Galileo Project and House of Dreams, among others, have broadened the horizons of many stiff-necked concertgoers in a way that is both familiar yet new, good for business but also for the regeneration of old music through new art forms. (“Thank Wotan for multimedia!” Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk ideals are whispering somewhere in the celestial ether.)

Multimedia collaboration is just one way that we can use old music in new incarnations. Last month I wrote about the fresh, modern movement that gets the cobwebs out of the canon by bringing classical music to bars, clubs and taverns. (You can read my review of the ClassyAF performance at Dakota Tavern on The WholeNote website.) These stripped-down yet high-quality performances declassify art music, removing the frills and snobbish attitude, making it less like a liturgical rite and more like the pop music it was when it was written. If you’re the guy who cringes when someone claps between movements at a concert or a member of the conductor’s circle, stay far, far away (and get your snotty nose out of my column!). If, however, you long for a way to take in the music you love without all the extra chi-chi superfluities, get out there and explore. Toronto is a wonderfully diverse city with dozens of concerts and events taking place every night, hundreds each month, thousands every year. I encourage you to go to as many as you can and step outside your comfort zone. Explore the different sections of this magazine, not just the ones you always do, and support the artists that bring this city to life!

(As a side note, if you own a bar and want to host a mean set of Bach and Brubeck, give me a shout…)

Aeneas and Dido?

Larry Beckwith conducting Toronto Masque Theatre's 'A Soldier's Tale'Henry Purcell, particularly his opera Dido and Aeneas, has become something of a fixture the last few years – Google “Dido and Aeneas Toronto” and watch the 275,000 hits pop up. Musically, the relative simplicity of Dido’s score has long permitted conductors, producers, choreographers and directors free reign over the dramatic and visual components of the theatrical production, resulting in a wide spectrum of aesthetics. The beauty of Purcell’s opera, from a programming perspective, is its brevity; the 40-minute-or-so runtime allows another work, similar or contrasting, to be placed cheek to jowl with it, thereby creating a more dynamic performance than the Purcell does as a freestanding piece of music.

Larry Beckwith’s Toronto Masque Theatre is doing just that – pairing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido to form a uniquely expressive concert. Far from being just a convenient inversion of the title, Rolfe’s Aeneas (commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2007, with a libretto by 2015 Giller Prize-winning novelist André Alexis), “tries to imagine Aeneas’s interior life. What drives Aeneas to choose an uncertain quest for a new homeland over Dido’s offer of love and country?” (from jamesrolfe.ca) This performance takes place on October 20 and 21 and features soloists Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley, as well as orchestra and chorus.

It will be fascinating to see and hear how the Purcell and Rolfe complement, juxtapose and intertwine with each other, being separated in time by so many centuries. Choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière will add another dimension to the performance, perhaps paving the way for even more adventurous interdisciplinary collaborations in the future as the Toronto Masque Theatre disbands after this season, and its creative minds seek stimulation elsewhere.

The Holy Gospel According to Gould

Art of Time Ensemble's Andrew BurashkoTaking a leap well beyond the usual scope of this column, from November 2 to 4 the Art of Time Ensemble will present “…Hosted by Glenn Gould: Gould’s Perspectives on Beethoven and Shostakovich,” via screenings from CBC’s Glenn Gould on Television as introductions to live performances of music by Beethoven and Shostakovich.

In addition to being an interesting and exciting concert idea, a voice-from-the-grave presentation similar to holographic posthumous appearances by Frank Sinatra and Elvis, it will be fascinating to hear Gould’s perspectives on Beethoven, whose music has been comfortably and successfully interpreted by a great number of historically informed performing groups. Gould was equal parts genius and eccentric, certainly not at all a traditional performer in the historical sense, and those of us indoctrinated with the idea of fidelity to the score above all else should look forward to this concert as an opportunity to broaden our horizons, especially those of us (myself included) who were not fortunate enough to experience Gould in person during his lifetime.

Speaking of Beethoven…

This month is a good one for fans of Beethoven and his symphonic music. In addition to the release of Tafelmusik’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle featuring Bruno Weil directing the Tafelmusik orchestra and chorus (look for the CD review in this issue of The WholeNote), on November 4 and 5 former Tafel violinist Aisslinn Nosky leads the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Hearing a modern orchestra tackle historic repertoire while led by an expert in historically-informed performance practice is a stimulating and thought-provoking experience. For those who have been trained to play a certain type of music a certain way, it is often difficult to reorient yourself around a different style and method of interpretation. I often spoke with Ivars Taurins on this topic while at the University of Toronto, and it was enlightening to hear his ideas on approaching Baroque and Classical symphonic repertoire with a modern orchestra such as the Calgary Philharmonic, where Taurins is a frequent guest conductor, versus a more specialized group such as Tafelmusik.

So take a trip down to wine country, partake in a tasting or two, and enjoy an evening of one of Beethoven’s greatest symphonies. (And if someone wants to clap between movements, for chrissakes, let them!)

I said at the beginning of this article that classical music as we know it is dying – that’s a good thing, for it is also being reborn under our noses.

Back to CNN’s Charlie Albright for the final word:

Breaking down ‘classical’ rules will kill ‘classical’ music – and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting, allowing for all of us to share more emotion and passion through the music. It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert. It will encourage more young people to have fun with the performing arts instead of viewing them as a necessary evil that requires a boring practice each day after school. And it is this death of “classical” music that will bring true classical music more life than ever.”

If you want to drop me a line, email me at earlymusic@thewholenote.com or talk to me in person at one of this month’s concerts – I’ll be at the bar.

Perhaps more than any other subset of collective music-making, the choral scene is subject to the dictates of the average working individual’s personal calendar, weekly and monthly. A case in point: of the 25 to 30 upcoming choral concert listings I perused in preparing to write this column, all but one fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And none dare intrude on the sanctity of the October 7 to 9 Thanksgiving weekend!

CCOC at 50

Karina Gauvin, former CCOC chorister graces the CCOC Gala - photo by Michael SlobodianThat one, by the way, is a bit of an exception to the rule in terms of the nature of the event as well as the weekday on which it falls. The event in question, October 26 (a Thursday) is a gala concert at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company (formerly known as the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus). And while the company’s several choirs will doubtless shine, there will be solo star turns by some of Canada’s opera elite, either former members of the CCOC themselves, or parents of past or present choristers. (Regular choral scene columnist, Brian Chang spoke of this event and other highlights of the CCOC’s upcoming season in the previous iteration of this column, so I won’t go into more detail here.)

As for Mr. Chang, he is on brief hiatus from this column while, as all good tenors should, once in a while, he throws himself into supporting a candidate in one of the political leadership races that are as predictable a feature of the fall landscape as homecoming choral concerts featuring alumni as soloists, and occasionally even en masse, as will be the case with the CCOC gala October 26.)

Those of you who like your choral columns less prone to meandering will be relieved to know he is scheduled to return in November!  

Alumni

While on the topic of alumni, though, one might be tempted to argue that the number of alumni who can free themselves up to participate in a youth and/or children’s choir’s fall homecoming concert is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of them who have kept up their music. But this is to undervalue the strength of the ties that bind individuals to the ensembles in which they discovered for the first time the particular power of lending one’s voice to a common musical cause.

Two such concerts come to mind. Saturday October 21, the Toronto Children’s Chorus (Training Choirs, Choral Scholars, staff and a fistful of distinguished alumni will foray from home base at Calvin Presbyterian Church on Delisle Avenue to the visually and acoustically radiant environs of St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue for a 3pm concert titled “Autumn Radiance,” featuring Ryan Downey, tenor, Giles Tomkins, bass-baritone and Stan Klebanoff, trumpet. The choir is heading into its 40th season in 2018/19, so one would imagine that this will be the start of a concerted campaign to reach out to the thousands of individuals who honed their appetite for music-making under their auspices.

And a week earlier, on Friday October 13, a throng of St. Michael’s Choir School alumni will make pilgrimage (if it isn’t too strong a description) for a 7pm Founder’s Day Concert at the newly restored St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Bond Street. Note the placement of the apostrophe in “Founder’s” by the way. The event still honours the singular memory of Monsignor John Edward Ronan, who founded the Choir School in 1937.

According to the SMCS website, tradition has it that the day after the Founder’s Day concert, the SMCS Alumni Association comes together to “sing Mass as part of an alumni homecoming, followed by a reception and open mic night at which the alumni share their talents, and catch up with friends old and new.” With alumni like Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, opera stars Robert Pomakov and Michael Schade, and Kevin Hearn of the Bare Naked Ladies among their ranks, one would think that the mic would hardly be necessary!

Period Ensembles

All kind of patterns emerge when you use the Just Ask! search function in our online listings to look for music of a particular type instead of ploughing through acres of print. One pattern, among many that caught my eye going through this date range just for choral music, was the number of period choral ensembles among them.  

Oct 14 at 3pm Melos Choir and Period Instruments in Kingston presents “A Tea and Recital: Virtuosic Vocals 12th-18th Centuries” covering the evolution of western bel canto singing from the monastery to the Baroque opera house. And if I really hurry back I can boot it back to Toronto by 7.30pm in time to hear the Tallis Choir, under the direction of the ubiquitous Peter Mahon perform “Six Bach Motets” to kick off their 40th anniversary concert season. Or if I am running late, take in Opus 8’s “A Musical Bestiary” at 8pm, offering works from Monteverdi to Stockhausen. Moving on, Oct 28 and 29, U of T early music vocal ensemble, Schola Cantorum, with Baroque orchestra offers up a period treatment of Handel’s Messiah under the expert direction of Jeanne Lamon and Daniel Taylor, at Trinity College Chapel. Also on Oct 29 at 10:30am Royal York Road United Church celebrates the “500th Anniversary of the Reformation” with Bach’s Cantata No.79 “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” BWV79. And the same day at 3pm Toronto Chamber Choir offers up a program titledThe Architecture of Music (Kaffeemusik),” with works by Dufay, A. Gabrieli, Charpentier, Purcell, Telemann and others. Finally, Cor Unum Ensemble on November 4 and 5, also at Trinity College Chapel offers up polyphonic madrigals and “a string band of 16th-century Italy.”

The Big Choirs

And that, dear reader is no more than a flag on the tip of a choral iceberg growling its way towards us. Because, make no mistake, we are at the point when all of the region’s large choirs, professional and community alike, are gearing up for at least one serious undertaking before December’s seasonal frivolity sets in. October 21 Grand Philharmonic Choir offers “Big Choruses: From Brahms to Broadway.” Oct 29 Pax Christi Chorale’s new music director gets a first chance to show off the fruits of his new labours in a program titled “Romantic Masters” featuring Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, and a stellar array of soloists. Chorus Niagara (on November 4) and Orpheus Choir (on November 5), both under Robert Cooper’s direction, offer up “Last Light Above the World: A War Litany” featuring the premiere of a searing new work by that name. And the list goes on. (As I mentioned at the outset, perusing the listings I found myself with a good 25 to 30 concerts worth writing about, or better still, attending.) Check them out for yourself.

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