Soprano Carla Huhtanen in Odditorium. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.How to approach a massive work that may put off potential audiences by coming off as a wee bit megalomaniac? You distil it, and stage the highlights as a piece unto itself, is the lesson to take from Laurence Cherney’s selection of parts from R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle into Odditorium, which opened on March 2 at the Crow’s Theatre. Schafer’s Patria is a decades-long project consisting of a dozen works that follow a hero and a heroine in various disguises through the mythology of the ancient Crete and Egypt and even further through the Schafer-authored mythologies, but for this occasion Cherney, Schafer’s frequent collaborator, wisely chose four excerpts only, and invited director Chris Abraham and dancer Andrea Nann to find the red thread.

And threads were very much in evidence in the modest but effective set (Shannon Lea Doyle), as they are used to outline the walls of the labyrinth with the mannequin body parts of those who did not manage to find the exit piled up in corners. The overarching theme therefore came from the final, best known and multiple times recorded The Crown of Ariadne (1979), an elaboration on the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus through the voice of the harp and a series of percussive instruments. The Crown was originally written for Judy Loman, who plays it (fair to say, performs it) compellingly in Odditorium. There’s drama in the procession of unexpected soundscapes and instrument pairings of this piece, of course, but there’s additional drama in observing the demands on the musician, the extravagant arm movements and the comings and goings of smaller instruments while the other hand is always on the harp. It’s a good choice for the end piece.

The preceding two, Tantrika (1986) and an Egyptian fantasy Amente-Nufe (1982) involve a mezzo-soprano and impressive sets of percussions – again, the prominent instruments are themselves part of the set. Mezzo Andrea Ludwig, always charismatic, produces an endless variety of extended technique sounds, moves around, handles the odd percussive task and employs acting where acting is required: in the tantric piece, for example, she observes, perhaps voices, the male-female dance of merging and separation (Nann with Brendan Wyatt centre stage). In Amente-Nufe from the section of Patria called Ra, the singer voices words in what a scholarly guess says the Middle Egyptian might have sounded like, but feel free to ignore this backdrop: the words are best taken in for the texture of their sounds, not for their meaning. The culmination of the segment, with all the gongs and bells going full blast, is an experience rarely available in concert halls – or houses of religious worship. Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy manned the considerable assortment of percussions (including gamelan) throughout the show with tireless focus and aplomb.

It all started with a scene best described as Felliniesque: the accordionist (Joseph Macerollo, in clown makeup) trots onto the stage and uncovers a severed head that speaks. Well, speaks: voices outrageous sounds is more accurate, as there are no words, but quite a lot of conversation happening between the accordion and the soprano head (belonging to the crystalline-voiced Carla Huhtanen). It’s a funny, charming opening to a performance that gets pretty serious immediately after.

Odditorium. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.Yes, but what does it all mean, you may ask? A question best left home for the occasion, I think. It’s slippery to pin meaning to music at the best of times, and this electrifying selection of oddities really rubs it in. It’s an immersive trip into what humans can do with their voices and their hands operating on metal, wood, strings and boxed air.

Still, Odditorium is an open work so should you need to, you may work out your own narrative out of it. Given its four prominent and very different women—a dancer, a virtuoso harpist, high- and low-voiced singers—the piece may indeed cohere, as Andrea Ludwig suggested after the opening night show, as an enactment of female empowerment. The world of classical music still leaves too little room for that, and any occasion that resembles it should be welcomed.

Or you can approach it as a ritual of sorts—a non-religious one. Schafer composed most of the Patria in 12-tone, and the unpinnable micro-intervals heard in Odditorium and the vocal acrobatics that evoke wonder rather than beauty keep the work refreshingly unfamiliar. And though your mind may drift in and out of it, it’s music that doesn’t lull you, but keeps the cogs turning and surprise in steady supply.

Soundstreams’ Odditorium opened on March 2 continues through March 5 (times vary), at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto. Details in our listings and at https://www.soundstreams.ca/performances/main-stage/r-murray-schafers-odditorium/.


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

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Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.The audience finds the experience invigorating. Violist Rory McLeod, co-director of Pocket Concerts, finds that when people experience music in the intense environment and intimacy of a private home they feel a deeper connection not only to the music but also to the musicians and fellow audience members.

Sunday afternoon, February 26, found me in a downtown condo along with 30 others packed cozily into a sun-soaked living room in the shadow of St. James Cathedral. What better place to hear Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording,” the Soviet-born violinist and arranger wrote. “For two months I probably had the time of my life, musically speaking, being in the constant company of Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould.” And if there is one piece of classical music that has served as a signpost for Canadians in the last six decades, it is the Goldberg Variations.

TSO violinist Carol Fujino along with violist McLeod and cellist Bryan Holt (freelance musicians fresh from a Götterdämmerung gig as part of the COC Orchestra the night before) have been working on the Bach since last November; Sunday’s concert marked their third public performance of it.

Emily Rho. Credit: Bo Huang.

McLeod’s domestic partner and Pocket Concerts’ co-director pianist Emily Rho introduced the trio with a refreshing informality. She pointed out that our convivial host, who had welcomed us so warmly to his home, was also an amateur cellist who studied with Holt. McLeod said a few words about Sitkovetsky and the music, paying particular attention to an explanation of the nine canons (and one quodlibet) that were a feature of every third variation. Then Rho led us in a brief breathing exercise to focus our attention, asking us to open our eyes the moment we heard the first notes of the famous Aria that begins and ends the Variations.

The intensity of those first notes was palpable as sound filled the physical space, the playing lively, the bright acoustic amplifying the energy. The trio arrangement, replete with ingenuity, seemed to make the music more transparent. The different timbres of the three instruments helped reveal the depth of character inherent in the music and brought clarity to the polyphonic lines, illuminating intricacies that only the best keyboard players are capable of unearthing.

The informality of the setting allowed McLeod to point out the first two canons just before they were to be played and to comment on how fortunate we all were that the ringing of the cathedral bells began during a brief pause between variations. And after the trio needed to start Variation 13 over again, McLeod simply said, “it’s okay, we’re among friends.”

Pocket Concerts’ format is able to break down the perceived barriers between musicians and their audience; the post-concert reception is an important part of that process. It’s an opportunity for the audience and the musicians to get to know each other, talk about the music or other things. McLeod told me that what he finds most gratifying about his Pocket Concerts experience is bringing music to people unfamiliar with classical music. McLeod and Rho met nine years ago in Sonata Class at the Glenn Gould School. They’re both alumni of Toronto Summer Music (she twice, he thrice). Sunday’s concert was the 48th Pocket Concert (of which 18 have been private) since the first one in August of 2013. The next, on March 25 and back by popular demand, features violinist Csaba Koczó with Rho on piano, performing Beethoven’s immortal Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 "Kreutzer" and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108.

Take advantage of the chance to experience music like you’ve never done before.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo

There are nine microphones and six monitors on the stage, that’s it. It’s Spartan with all of the wires neatly wound, lined up and bound. The nine men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo come onto the stage like a football team to cheers, applause and with an energy that leads straight into song. There is so much energy on stage the audience can’t help but get involved. It’s too bad the best you can get out of the usual stodgy Toronto audience is a polite clap. Ladysmith Black Mambazo presented a fine performance. Audiences in Kingston, London and St Catherines still have an opportunity to see them in action in the coming days. The group’s Toronto engagement at Koerner Hall was sold out.

Founder Joseph Shabalala isn’t with the group on this particular tour, but four of his sons are. Two members of the group are singled out for long service, the Mazibuko brothers. Albert has sung with the group since 1969, Abednego since 1974. The group pays tribute to them for “paving the way.” Their stories in between songs help warm the audience to their music.

The consonance and warmth of the sound was incredibly pleasing. The lead singer stays in tonality as the group plays with the melody, but the warmth of the sound comes from the eight other voices who share in tonic, mediant, dominant and octave. The modes of these relative intervals make the sound distinctively consonant. The effect with all-male voices contributes even more to this solidity in the sound. It makes for a sound like a warm sunset at the end of a vacation day, or the first sip of a fresh dark roast coffee after a huge meal.

Most of the songs of the evening are from the group’s newest CD, the Grammy nominee Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers. Nelson Mandela described Ladysmith Black Mambazo as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.” They paid tribute to the great man, well-loved in Toronto as well, with their song Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a remarkably bare piece with these lovely, well-measured swoops into the starts of lines. There are few words and they repeat a powerful message: “Let us work, and work together. Long way. Long walk to freedom.”

The songs are quite Spartan, repeat lines over and over (“Tough times never last, strong people do”), but they never lose energy and intensity. The ensemble is remarkable in their ability to infuse their songs with story, power it with energy, and steer it with well-rehearsed control. Everything, from inhalations to sound production, is clear and precise. There are many sounds that Toronto audiences don’t hear often like clicks, and throaty hums. Even ornamentations like swoops and dynamics are all neatly lined up, organic and fresh.

And then there’s the choreography. This isn’t tight, ballet-corps dancing, it’s rehearsed but feels fresh and spontaneous. I’m sure some of it truly is spontaneous, and the singers know each other and the dance vocabulary so well they can just pick up and go when someone leads. Their high energy finale gives shape to the music and makes repetition feel different. The repetition gives the dance a place to spring forth. They all dance, they all sing, and they all have a great time.

This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a fully amplified concert at Koerner Hall. The space is capable of carrying voices and these aren’t amateur singers so I was surprised to find them so heavily audio engineered. From my seat in the first balcony, the amplified sound was less than ideal for what Koerner is known for.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 14. They perform February 15 at the Grand Theatre, Kingston; February 16, at the London Music Hall, London; and February 17 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

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 Toronto Consort artistic director David Fallis, Marilyn George and Shirley Hay CREDIT Courtesy of Toronto Consort

It’s not often that you learn important aspects about your country’s history while attending a concert.  That was my experience on February 4 when I attended “Kanatha Canada: First Encounters,” the Toronto  Consort’s most recent program. The evening was divided into two halves – the first part a series of short pieces chosen to elucidate the occasion of the “Great Peace” of Montreal in 1701, and the second half a remount of composer John Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia, a work originally premiered in the summer of 2015 that tells a story of early encounters between First Nations people and the European explorers of today’s Ontario. 

The Great Peace of Montreal was a significant event that is instructive to understanding the full scope of the relationship between First Nations in Canada and the European explorers and settlers.  Often we hear only of the destructive European influences on First Nations’ culture, and so it was heartwarming to hear the opening words of the evening spoken by Georges Sioui, a Huron-Wendat historian, activist and songwriter who welcomed the audience and spoke of the principles of love, sharing and mutual respect. 

In the summer of 1701 representatives from 40 First Nations of North America met with the government of New France in Montreal to sign a peace treaty designed to end the wars and atrocities created by a combination of the existing grievances amongst the various tribes and the conflicts caused by the introduction of the French fur trade. The story was told musically by creating a choral documentary in five parts and was a collaboration between First Nations performers Marilyn George, Shirley Hay and Jeremy Dutcher and the Toronto Consort.  Using a series of songs and instrumental pieces from both Indigenous and French sources, the large arc of this significant historical event unfolded.

Jeremy Dutcher. Photo Courtesy of Toronto Consort

A unique highlight was Dutcher’s performance in which he mixed recordings of songs from his Wolastoq ancestors with his live performance on the piano and voice.  These recordings were originally made on wax cylinders found in the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau.  Dutcher digitized the recordings and played them from his laptop perched on the piano.  As the songs progressed, Dutcher added harmonies on the piano to accompany the melody and then eventually sang the song, accompanying himself with extended piano chordal harmonies. Each of his songs was also accompanied by projected images of scenes from the Wolastoq culture. A significant event during the peace process was the death of the Wendat leader Kondiaronk. One of the songs chosen to lament this event was a beautiful heartrending piece found in the music collections of the Ursuline convent in Quebec performed by Toronto Consort’s soprano Katherine Hill.  The overall affect of this weave of vocal and instrumental pieces of both Indigenous and French traditions was a sense of dialogue and exchange between these two cultures, a quality that was certainly present in the early years of the 18th century that led these two people to a great moment of peace. 

The performance of Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia in the second half provided a look at another historical moment of meeting, this time between Champlain and the Wendat people. However, this meeting of cultures did not end well.  Performed by the Toronto Chamber Choir, the Toronto Consort and Indigenous performers Marilyn George and Shirley Hay, this choral documentary in six parts begins with a sonic reference to snowshoeing, which is designed to give an aural impression of life before European contact.  Switching to a choral contrapuntal style in the second part, the composer used words and phrases from Champlain’s travel journals in which the words “Canada” and “La Nouvelle France” appear. The third part is organized around references to canoeing, combining French phrases chanted by the chorus and the proclamation of Wendat words by individual voices. 

The next two parts were full of emotion and drama.  Beckwith recreates the Feast of Souls, an elaborate and emotionally intense tradition of reburying ancestral remains through chanting, dancing and other ceremonial acts.  This feast made a huge impact on both Champlain and Jesuit missionary Brébeuf.  Given that the music created a tapestry of sorrow and an “abyss of despair”, I’m not so sure that these two Frenchmen understood the intention behind the ritual.  My sense is that this ceremony was a way of honouring ancestors, and that this combined with indigenous music and dance would repel these two Christian men. This cultural demonization and rejection paved the way for the next section of Beckwith’s work, which was a recounting of the disastrous results of the contact between the Wendat and French people. The texts reference Wendat prophecies of the demise of their honoured traditions and include a lament for how the Black Robes, the Jesuit priests, were changing names and proclaiming that the land now belonged to them.  On the advice of Georges Sioui, Beckwith didn’t end his work there, but rather focused on references to contemporary efforts to create reconciliation between settler and aboriginal cultures in the sixth and final part of the work. 

The overall impact of the entire evening was very much a fulfillment of the opening words of Sioui who called for peaceful dialogue and a sharing of ways, which was, in the end, the original motivation and driving spirit of the First Nations people when European contact was first made. By combining these two choral documentaries on the same program, each telling quite a different story, one can see current efforts of creating healing and reconciliation as building upon what began in Montreal in 1701. Cultural moments such as this concert play a significant and important role in this larger mandate of restoration between the peoples of different cultures as well as with the land itself. 

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