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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Adrianne PieczonkaImagine you got to know a house by groping in the dark, its curtains always drawn, no light switch, its shapes many and varied learned and remembered for night navigation only.

Then imagine somebody opening the curtains and letting a blast of sun in. It’s a very different house. We see, rather than infer, what it looks like. We experience more fully.

Such was the effect of hearing soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sing Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise February 12 in the Mazzoleni Masters Series with Rachel Andrist at the piano. Rendered in a powerful soprano voice with an unfailingly brilliant top and a magnificent Technicolor middle, the Winter Journey is a different trajectory indeed from what we’ve grown accustomed to in the company of baritones and tenors.

The opening Gute Nacht unfolded at a good pace: everything was clearer under the soprano light, the plodding rhythm of a walk through the snow, the wayward energy of the words. But then the key changed from minor to major before the final stanza. In regular rendition, it’s the moment of an infusion -- a brightening -- of sadness while the text begins to address the lost beloved directly. (“I don’t want to disturb your dreaming / It would be a shame to wake you” etc.) Here, it was so close and visible it felt as if a raw nerve were grazed. So this is how it’s going to be with a soprano, then? Good to know.

And so it continued. The second stanza in Der Lindenbaum, usually a moment of calm beauty, tugged at the tear reservoirs in Pieczonka’s rendition. Never was the fairly mundane “So manches liebe Wort” – the many words of love carved on a linden bark – floated and held to such effect. A bit later, the branches too rustled with unexpected intensity in “Und seine Zweige rauschten” verse and so did the entire stanza.

Rückblick, in tempo and mood a fairly manic evocation of the times of early acquaintance and of spring, suddenly breaks down at “Und ach, zwei Mädchenaugen glühten,” a cry of unbearable joy, or memory of joy that still overwhelms. In the following, sombre song, Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) the last two verses which translate as “Every river finds its way to the ocean / and every sorrow to its grave” in Pieczonka’s hands become a mini scena. “Jeder Strom” starts very low and shoots up across the stave seeking its final destination up on high, followed by “auch sein Grab,” through the long, feline portamenti that make this inexorable direction of life almost bearable.

Der Wegweiser is delivered mostly softly, being an introspective moment where the poet, finding herself at the crossroads, wonders where to go. The törichtes in “Welch ein törichtes Verlangen” (“What is the foolish compulsion that drives me into desolation”) is a case of the famous Pieczonka high piano, the word here vibrating with a hidden sob.

When the light is on, details are clearer, and there were a number of times when I wondered if ornaments were added in certain places. Some of that is the effect of all the notes being made visible. In other cases, it is the honouring of the trills as they should be honoured: Frühlingstraum, (Dream of Spring), has trill suggestion written in on specific words like “Wonne” and “Seligkeit” (joy and delight, appropriately), and they were heard. In Der greise Kopf I thought I heard some masterful trilling in the last stanza on the “Kopf” and particularly “Greise” and went to the score after the concert; of course the markings are there.

Contrasts within the songs are also heightened with a soprano, and Wasserflut (Flood) could easily be an aria, clouds of anger flaring and subsiding across the bleak inner landscape. Der Leierman brought this atypical Winterreise to an equally atypical ending: the final stanza was whispered to the old man, almost flirtingly, certainly femininely and equally fearlessly, the question “Shall I go with you, will you play to my songs” given as the ultimate offering.

Rachel Andrist at the piano was a perfect partner in this macabre dance, playing as the score demands, sometimes against, sometimes alongside the voice. Her introductions and interludes offered as much in the way of text as the vocal parts themselves.

Let’s hope for a repeat of this sold-out concert, either in Toronto or on tour. More people deserve to hear it.

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Sciarrino Jaeger blog Banner Feb 2017Composer Salvatore SciarrinoNew Music Concerts' (NMC) A Portrait of Salvatore Sciarrino, a concert jointly presented with the University of Toronto at Walter Hall the evening of Sunday, February 5, was the final event of the U of T New Music Festival this year. During the pre-concert introduction, NMC artistic director/flutist Robert Aitken described his long-held enthusiasm for Sciarrino's music. He said the opportunity to finally work with the Italian composer appeared when U of T composition professor and festival coordinator Norbert Palej and several of his Faculty of Music colleagues revealed their mutual interest in the distinctive music of Sciarrino, who was then invited to Toronto as U of T’s Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition.

In his introduction, Aitken referred to Sciarrino as a “philosopher of music,” in reference not only to the questions raised in Sciarrino's music, but also to the many sage statements about the practice and perception of music he had heard Sciarrino make during the festival. Sciarrino stated that he has tried to invent a sonic vocabulary and create a new musical language in each piece. In response to Aitken's observation that it took great concentration and effort to constantly play the long pianissimos often found in his music, emerging from silence and then fading back to silence, Sciarrino agreed, noting that “at times the silences are noisier than the noises I ask the musicians to produce.”

Sciarrino's 1981 composition Introduction all'oscuro (Introduction to the Obscure), for a mixed ensemble of twelve instruments, uses sounds that imitate heartbeats and breathing – especially with the bassoon, clarinet and oboe – to create feelings of waiting and expectation. The question, naturally, becomes: waiting for what? The answer, however, remains obscure, and perhaps it's simply in the act of listening.

Sciarrino has composed several works for the Italian flute phenom Matteo Cesari, including his 2015 Trovare un equilibrio, è necessario?, for flute and string quartet. “My titles,” he wrote, “have often included a question mark. It tells of the behaviour and discipline at the heart of artistic language, where concision and subtraction are the secret principle and goal. Art demands effort, and it bores only those who are unable to conquer it.” The behaviour and discipline of the fine ensemble of flutist Robert Aitken, violinists Stephen Sitarski and Aysel Taghi-Zada, violist Douglas Perry and cellist Amahl Arulanandam revealed a delicate weave of fragile and mysterious sonorities, which seemed to have found the perfect balance.Sciarrino Jaeger blog Banner Feb 2017

Accordionist Branko Džinović has had Sciarrino's Vagabonde Blu (1998) for solo accordion in his repertoire for some time, but he told me that, since working directly with the composer for this concert, his interpretation has become considerably refined. He said that Sciarrino encouraged him to develop an elastic sense of phrase, where contrasting ideas stretch away from one another, but without breaking the musical line. Astrophysicists refer to certain bright blue stars that wander aimlessly in intergalactic space as “Blue Vagabonds”. “Beautiful and unstable,” Sciarrino notes, while borrowing the term to title his composition.

The final work may have embodied Sciarrino's artistic philosophy the most clearly: his 2005 composition, Archeologia del telefono, a concertante for 13 instruments. In his notes he wrote that “the artist interprets history; he reads the complexity of the world.” He said that every new work “should try to change society. When it is new, it burns, it is inherently problematic.” In his concertante, Archeology of the Telephone, Sciarrino admits he is trying to play with the listeners' attention span, creating hints of ideas that might be the leading motives, and then hiding them behind static moments. He wants us to become active listeners, and to feel rewarded for venturing through the music, along with the musicians.

This was both a provocative and stimulating concert, and the performances were meticulously prepared and executed. It was also a fitting conclusion to a week-long festival that succeeded in giving Toronto listeners a thorough chance to discover one of the most advanced musical minds of new classical composition. From the Karen Kieser Prize concert on opening night, through Sciarrino's opera The Killing Flower and the many other talks and concerts, to this musical portrait of Sciarrino, the 2017 edition of the U of T New Music Festival might have been the most compelling yet. Let's hope for more of the same next season!

The 2017 edition of the University of Toronto New Music Festival, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino as composer-in-residence, ran this year from January 29-February 5.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

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