Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, led by Masaaki Suzuki in their performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Photo credit: Jeff Higgins.It is the challenge of any conductor of early music: how to take works with innumerable minute sections and transitions, and smooth them into a cohesive performance. This challenge becomes particularly demanding when the individual sections themselves are complex and technically formidable, requiring an elevated level of focus from each performer and precise control from their leader. Within the corpus of such works, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion reigns supreme: almost three hours in duration and scored for two choirs and orchestras, the immensity of every aspect of this piece makes it the apotheosis of Baroque religious music, the pious parallel to Handel’s great operas.

To the delight of Bach fans across the city, Tafelmusik presented the St. Matthew Passion, led by the renowned Japanese Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki, on March 21 to 24 as part of their 40th anniversary season. Expectations were understandably high as Toronto’s premier early music ensemble joined forces with their legendary guest director – but this performance surpassed them all, providing an experience that made both a musical and spiritual impact. By neither losing the musical details in favour of dramatic effect nor neglecting the dramatic elements in favour of the musical, the Tafelmusik musicians reached a balance that resulted in a fulfilling, complete performance.

Central to this success was Suzuki’s incredible knowledge of the score and control of the ensemble, whom he guided with assuredness and precision. From beginning to end, each recitative was led with intention, looking ahead to what followed, providing innumerable transitions that felt logical and organic. The chorus was in top form throughout (their blend and tuning perhaps the best it’s ever been), and their agile maneuvering of Bach’s complex counterpoint conveyed both clarity and affect in perfect balance. The orchestra was magnificent as well, leading the chorus and soloists through their retelling of Christ’s passion with a wide range of expression, and following Suzuki’s leadership and interpretive ideas with precision.

The continuo team and strings deserve particular mention in this regard, as they had the task of accompanying a vast amount of recitative, from the secco narration of the Evangelist to the accompagnato words of Christ. Their unity and control lent a support that helped the audience to forget the technical difficulties and potential pitfalls of accompanying recitative and focus instead on the drama as it unfolded, guided through our journey by the stunning Evangelist, tenor James Gilchrist.

All of the soloists were in superb form, providing sublime reflections on the narrative unfolding within the Passion story. Of particular beauty was the final bass aria, ‘Mache dich, mein Herze’, which connected soloist and orchestra in such a way that they existed as one, an alchemic moment that set up the tranquil and introspective conclusion in which the choir is taken to ppp, the very bottom of their dynamic range, bringing the performance to rest.

If it is impossible to find a perfect live performance of this work, this one came incredibly close. Everything and everyone worked together in synchronicity to realize the musical vision of one of the world’s great Bach interpreters and, ultimately, what one hopes was the vision of the composer himself.

Signing his contract as Thomaskantor in 1723, Bach had to agree not to write in an excessively operatic style; despite this apparent stylistic restriction, Bach’s score is incredibly fertile, spanning the gamut of human emotions in three short hours, and reflecting his own theology in musical form. We are exceedingly fortunate to have such gifted interpreters in our midst, who provide their audiences the rare opportunity to hear such extraordinary music performed in an extraordinary way.

Tafelmusik presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, led by Masaaki Suzuki, March 21 to 24, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

plastic babies bannerPlastic Babies at Burdock on March 11. Photo credit: Bea Labikova.There is a strong do-it-yourself ethos in the improvising music community in Toronto, and a dearth of venues that regularly book free jazz. When more open shows do occur – such as the recent Tony Malaby/Nick Fraser performance at The Rex – they tend to feature older, more established musicians, or artists from the United States or Europe. In many ways, the free improvisation audience has more in common with the audience for contemporary classical music than it does with mainstream jazz listeners; as such, it isn’t surprising that a number of the more frequent presenters of free improvised music in Southern Ontario (including Somewhere There and Arraymusic) are not-for-profits presenting classical-style series, or established festivals (such as the Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium) that are, at least in Guelph’s case, connected to academic programs at postsecondary institutions. (The Tranzac also provides regular space for improvised music, often in the form of artist-curated residencies with monthly slots.)

On Monday, March 11, I went to Burdock Music Hall to attend the last of four evenings of music hosted by a new venture in the creative improvised music community: the inaugural Women From Space Festival. Women From Space aims to “celebrate women’s artistic voices and achievements and to draw attention to an underrepresentation of women in free improvisation and jazz,” and took place from March 8 to 11 at four different venues (in chronological order: Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, The Tranzac, Arraymusic and Burdock Music Hall).

With no fixed venue and minimal sponsorship, co-organizers Bea Labikova and Kayla Milmine – both of whom are active performers, and played in the festival – did an admirable job fulfilling the festival’s mandate. Women From Space presented 16 acts and over 30 individual musicians in total; each evening featured four acts, and each act played a 30-minute set. Happy Apple, Allison Cameron and Joe Strutt’s duo project, kicked off the festivities at Burdock on Monday. With the use of found objects (including the titular apples, which turned out to be apple-shaped bell shakers with painted-on smiles), contact microphones, a tape machine, a ukulele, and a variety of pedals, Happy Apple referenced both experimental music and noise band traditions. Cameron performed primarily on ukulele, and used a number of effects – from long delays to jagged, gated fuzz – in single-line passages, while Strutt tended to create more atmospheric sounds.

Vocalist Laura Swankey was in the second slot, presenting her solo voice project (Swankey’s recent EP, Once More: for solo voice and electronics, was covered in the October edition of The WholeNote EP Review). While Happy Apple’s performance was open and exploratory – they played one continuous set that came, eventually, to a natural conclusion – Swankey’s was tightly-composed, and was made up of a handful of individual songs. Most of Swankey’s solo compositions are built on minimal lyrics, that repeat, build on themselves, and transform throughout the course of a song; they resemble the work of a singer/producer such as James Blake as much as they do mainstream jazz, free or otherwise. Fresh from a residency at The Banff Centre, Swankey displayed an admirable command of her voice and her pedals throughout her carefully-crafted, technically accomplished set.

Prices Easy and New Chance at Burdock on March 11. Photo credit: Bea Labikova.Prices Easy and New Chance – also known, respectively, as Aisha Sasha John and Victoria Cheong – performed in the second-to-last set, presenting several medium-length pieces that featured Cheong on creative DJ duty and John on voice. Each piece was built around a first-person narrative sketch, which John performed with spoken word, singing, and a variety of vocal effects, deployed to add emphasis and create unique texture throughout. The narratives followed a certain kind of dream logic, moving quickly from scene to scene and interlocutor to interlocutor, and were deliberately difficult to parse; near the end of the set, as part of the performance, John spoke about the power of illegibility, and the important role that illegibility can play in artist/activist resistance to cultural hegemony.

Following Prices Easy and New Chance, the trio Plastic Babies – comprising Swankey on voice, Patrick O’Reilly on guitar and Christine Duncan on voice – performed the final set of the evening. Plastic Babies has been playing together for some time, and, of the evening’s four acts, worked most within the framework of the free jazz tradition. Duncan is, probably, one of Canada’s leading improvised music vocalists, and is able to access an incredible range of vocal devices, from rapid-fire machine-gun stuttering to rounded operatic vowels. Plastic Babies’ set ended with a round of enthusiastic applause, and, judging by the full house, a very satisfied group of festival attendees. Though still in an early stage of development, Women From Space has established itself as a valuable festival with excellent potential for future growth; it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.  

The Women From Space Festival ran from March 8 to 11 at multiple venues (Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, The Tranzac, Arraymusic and Burdock Music Hall) in Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Sting and the cast of The Last Ship – Toronto Production, 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.The Princess of Wales Theatre was full of the buzz of excitement on February 19 for the official opening of multi Grammy Award-winning musician Sting's musical The Last Ship, starring Sting himself in the critical role of union foreman Jackie White. This is a story of industrial action, of workers bonding together to defeat the  government-mandated shutdown of their shipyard, the main source of livelihood for their town. It’s also the love story of a boy (Gideon) who runs away to sea to escape the trap of the shipyard – leaving behind his girlfriend (Meg) who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with their daughter. When Gideon returns 15 years later, he finds a girlfriend who doesn't seem to want him back, a rebellious daughter who wants to leave as much as he did, and the shipyard, the backbone of the town, in desperate straits.

Based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly the attempted shutdown of the Upper Clyde Shipyard in 1971 – and on Sting's own childhood in the ship-building town of Wallsend in the north of England, the show clearly has strong personal meaning for its creator. In the program notes he is quoted as saying: “I wanted to give the community where I was born a voice, to tell a narrative in this form because it's a story that hasn't been told. In a way, it's a kind of debt that I feel I owe. [...] I abandoned my town [...] I didn't want to be a part of it, so now I want to go back and say thank you for what (it) gave me.”

This feeling of emotional resonance is strongly present throughout The Last Ship – particularly in the wonderful music. Powerful choral numbers form the backbone of the score, songs full of rich harmonies and deep full-voiced singing. Equally strong and engaging on a personal level – interwoven with the community's choral voice – are the lovely clean and clear melodies of the solos and duets, particularly for the lovers meeting again, but also for (Sting's role) Jackie and his wife Peg.

There is much in the book to grab the interest and emotions of the audience, but also much to frustrate. The opening sequence, for example, takes too long to set the scene and yet seems to rush the time transition from the departure of Gideon to his return. There is also a rather clumsy use of a narrator (played by the same actress who plays the daughter), who speaks in mythic generalities rather than specifics. Once this opening sequence is out of the way, the plot does become clearer, but the book still needs work. This is a new version of John Logan and Brian Yorkey's original script (as seen on Broadway) by new director Lorne Campbell, but it feels at times as though words have been cobbled together to fit around the songs, rather than songs and scenes making an organic whole.

This is particularly the case with the shipyard plot, where, after deciding to face down the forces of government industrial privatization by taking over the shipyard to complete the last ship of the title, the characters never really seem to reach the anticipated climax. The interwoven love story plot, on the other hand, works much more smoothly and had all of us in the audience sitting forward in our seats, totally involved in the intricacies of the former lovers reconnecting and the “new” dad and daughter starting to navigate their newly discovered relationship. All three actors were very strong, particularly Frances McNamee as Meg, who is extraordinary. She had us in the palm of her hand throughout, completely magnetic in quiet moments and tearing up the stage with her defiance in the song “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Sophie Reid as the daughter, Ellie, also lit up the stage in the glorious “All This Time.” Here was Sting's past in a nutshell but in the person of a rebellious girl – which somehow made it even more powerful to watch. (Interestingly, in the original version of the show, this character was a boy.) It is, of course, rather a thrill to see Sting himself live onstage as part of this strong cast, though he seemed so much less at ease without a guitar in his hands.

The set by 59 Productions has some great elements, including some magnificent projections, but seems underused in the new staging, which often groups the actors statically on the main level rather than taking advantage of the possibilities of the set's scaffolding. The choreography, or movement direction, also seems lacking in imagination in the group scenes. One of these scenes does stand out for excellent staging because of its simplicity and symbolic placement of the singers: a wonderful song set in the town's church, complete with stained glass windows depicting the shipyard workers and one of their finished ocean liners. Movingly focused on the dying Jackie White with his wife Peg at its centre and using every level and nook and cranny of space for the rest of the cast, this caught at the heart.

This is the North American premiere of the newly revamped version of The Last Ship, which began at a workshop at Sage Gateshead in the UK in late 2017 before heading into a very successful run at Newcastle's Northern Stage and tour of the UK in 2018. While there must be some speculation about this being a test run before another trip to Broadway, I would say that the show isn't ready yet. It has great potential in its beautiful score, and great heart in the aim of its story, but could do with another concentrated workshop period to fulfill that stirring potential.

The Last Ship opened on February 19 in Toronto and continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24.

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.

The Rolston String Quartet performing Reich’s Different Trains on February 2. Photo credit: Claire Harvie.From Chicago to New York
One of the fastest trains
From New York to Los Angeles
Different trains every time

As artistic director Lawrence Cherney said from the stage on Saturday February 2, the concert we were about to hear was “the hottest ticket in town.” It was going to be another one of those epic Steve Reich nights reminiscent of when Reich’s music was performed at Massey Hall in April 2016. This time it was the stunning Rolston String Quartet performing his work Different Trains, along with R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves, and pieces by the mentoring composers for Soundstreams emerging composers workshop Dorothy Chang (Vancouver) and Rolf Wallin (Norway). Seamlessly accompanying the musical performance of Different Trains was a film by Beatriz Caravaggio, who used a wide range of archival material primarily of trains from the late 1930s and into the mid-1940s.

Reich wrote this work in 1988 for string quartet and pre-recorded tape for the Kronos Quartet, and it received a Grammy Award in 1989. It was Reich’s first foray into what he called “documentary music video theatre” and was built on compositional ideas he had experimented with in the 1960s—melodic and rhythmic ideas generated from speech rhythms. The opening text I’ve quoted above comes from Part 1 of this 3-movement work, inspired by Reich’s early childhood experiences of riding trains from New York to Los Angeles as he visited his parents who lived separately in each of these cities. Being Jewish, he wondered what his life would have been like, and more specifically what riding a train would have been like, if he had been born in Europe during the Second World War. The texts were derived from various interviews: his governess who accompanied him on the train rides, a retired Pullman porter, and the memories of Holocaust survivors who were close in age to him.

The Germans walked in
Walked into Holland
Lots of cattle wagons there
They were loaded with people
They tattooed a number on our arm

Reich’s music is particularly important for me personally: when I was introduced to his work in 1976 at a student composers workshop he gave at U of T’s Faculty of Music, it felt like a breath of fresh air had just blown in. He spoke about slowing down the unfolding musical process so that the musical changes could be fully perceived. His music offers the listener an experience of being fully saturated with repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple melodic and harmonic textures, with the totality creating an impact that is mesmerizing and trance-like. As American composer John Adams has explained, Reich’s music arose at a time when Western concert music had reached an information saturation point. Hyper-complex musical abstractions had prevailed, but Reich’s approach brought back sensuality and pleasure into the listening experience. I certainly experienced this while listening to Different Trains, despite the intense subject matter of the Holocaust.

The originally-recorded text fragments, some of which I’ve quoted here in this report, were audible on the pre-recorded tape in the February 2 concert, and one could hear quite plainly the connection between the nuances and inflections of the speaker’s voice with the melodies and rhythms being performed by four string quartets in total—three prerecorded quartets and one live. The music progressed from one text phrase to the next, with each fragment receiving focused attention to create interlocking rhythms and resulting melodies. At times, the movement from one text section to the next created quite contrasting rhythms that served to amplify the meanings of the text itself. Reich also included archival sounds from American and European trains of the ’30s and ’40s on the pre-recorded tape.

Then the war was over
Are you sure?
Going to America
From New York to Los Angeles
One of the fastest trains
But today, they’re all gone

The accompanying film was brilliantly suited to the music, providing startling and vivid images on a 3-part screen: the patterns of multiple train tracks, spinning train wheels, people boarding and disembarking—some onto comfortable passenger cars, others stuffed and locked into box cattle cars.  The visual editing rhythms, both for each separate screen and between the three screens, complemented the rhythmic changes and juxtapositions of the music.

Throughout the evening, the Rolston String Quartet captivated their audience with deeply passionate and committed playing. Formed in 2013 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the quartet has a busy touring and teaching schedule worldwide. Their performance of Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves (1976, rev. 1978) was breathtaking, bringing to life this piece that Schafer composed using his study of the ebb and flow of waves to create both phrase lengths and large-scale proportions. The work ended with the two violinists and violist leaving the stage one by one, taking the music off into the distance with them. We also hear in the music the call of the white-throated soprano—all the more poignant now that this particular birdsong is rarely heard. Rolf Wallin’s two works on the program provided both humour and an enchanting palette of unique sonic textures and timbres.

It was indeed a hot ticket on a winter’s night that provided a provocative sonic ride through history, memory and nature.

Soundstreams presented “Different Trains on February 2, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

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