The Seven Deadly Sins at the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.What a treat to hear Wallis Giunta sing Anna I and to watch Jennifer Nichols dance Anna II, to experience them playing two exquisite halves of a whole. Their plight was the centrepiece of last night’s concert at the TSO, in a semi-staged version of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins that documents the seven-year, seven-city trek that two ‘sisters’ undertake to make enough money to build the “little house in Louisiana” that is everything their family wants.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally envisioned as a “ballet chantée” – a “sung ballet” with a full ballet company as well as singers and a leading dancer, telling the story of two sisters (or are they?) encountering the seven deadly sins in seven American cities as they strive to raise money for their family. Last night’s semi-staged version, directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by his frequent collaborator Jennifer Nichols, did a very clever job of having the four male singers take on the roles usually performed by dancers as well as their own characters of the “family” (father, mother and two brothers). As Nichols had earlier told me (and as she explains in the program notes), her approach to the choreography was “to find a way to express that the family of Anna does not simply sit outside of her in judgment but are an extension of her own self-examination, her hopes and fears.” This, added to the usual interchangeability of Anna I and II in spite of the divided sides of her personality, led to a very interesting new take on the piece. The four male singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Stephen Hegedus and Geoffrey Sirett) proved admirable actors and performers of the choreography and staging – Geoffrey Sirett standing out in a moving pas de deux with Nichols in the “Lust” chapter.

Giunta and Nichols also blended seamlessly – Giunta moving like a dancer as well as acting powerfully, and Nichols also acting wonderfully while dancing and speaking. Looking almost identical but subtly differentiating themselves more and more throughout the piece, practical Anna I (Giunta) became more and more hardened to the “practical necessities” of the world while the ”she is an artist” Anna II (Nichols) grew more vulnerable and beaten up from fighting impossible fights. The pair’s repeated refrain (ironic for the audience) of “Nicht wahr, Anna?” (Right, Anna?) and “Ja, Anna” (Yes, Anna) still echoes in my memory, with poor Anna II more and more discouraged even while continuing to agree with her stronger and more soulless half.

The original production in Paris in 1933 was apparently received with some puzzlement, and while The Seven Deadly Sins is considered a modern classic and true to the political values seen in other Brecht/Weill collaborations, watching it tonight I was not surprised that it would have been received that way. The irony in the libretto is sometimes too subtle, sometimes too over the top,  and the sins themselves not easy to depict onstage – perhaps why this work is much more often seen in concert form rather than being fully staged. In this case, though, the semi-staged, choreographed production last night was much more satisfying than a straightforward concert singing of the material would have been.

It was also fascinating to see in this third collaboration of director and choreographer such a seamlessly smooth blending of approach and staging. Perhaps it was my high expectation of these friends and their abilities that made me want even more from the performance – perhaps a more pointed political context given the state of the world today, or another way to give the production more of a contemporary urgency, but that may be just me. Already their work together is reaching new heights and depths, and with the new video element to bookend each chapter of the story (enigmatic, Bergman-esque black-and-white video images created by Jennifer Nichols with Christopher Monetti), they are already exploring new territory. I look forward to seeing their next collaboration, as well as which other semi-staged productions the TSO will make part of future seasons.

Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday, June 14, alongside works by Balfour, Barber and Bartók. A second performance takes place on Thursday, June 15.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

John Cage in 1981, “Music is an act of aspiration,” claimed historical novelist Rose Tremain (Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata) in her Writers & Company (June 4, 2017) CBC radio interview. And aspiration was also at the top of American iconoclast composer John Cage’s list of research topics when he set to work on his CBC commission for a work, in Cage’s words, to “observe the bicentennial of the United States of America.”

The composer tells us in his pre-recorded, self-narrated Preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975), played back before each performance, that the  “first thing I thought of doing in relation to this work was to find an anthology of American aspirational thought and subject it to chance operations.” His motive was transformational: “I thought the resultant complex would help to change our present intellectual climate.” Unfortunately, no such anthology existed, he tells us.

This compellingly rich yet provocative Cage work received a rare and thought-provoking concert performance on May 28, by the Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble at the Great Hall in Toronto.

It was the keystone work of a concert which included works by American minimalist Philip Glass (Tissue # 1, 2, 7, 2002) and Canadian postmodernist Michael Oesterle (Daydream Mechanics for string quartet, 2001). The concert was the centrepiece of the evening, which also included, in other Great Hall rooms, Becoming Sensor, a multi-sensory installation by Natasha Myers, Ayelen Liberona, Allison Cameron, Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray; and The Great Arc by the New York City duo Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna. All of these Music in the Barns events were created for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research conference titled Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World, held in Toronto the last week in May.

One of Lecture on the Weather’s most significant – and perhaps challenging – features is the work’s essentially multimedia and highly collaborative nature. It is a result of the collaborative processes set up by the composer to include his own text, texts by Henry David Thoreau (from which Cage selected relevant sections, filtered through I Ching procedures), recordings of environmental sounds produced by American composer Maryanne Amacher, plus a film by Chilean visual artist Luis Frangella using Thoreau’s drawings. As for live performers, the score calls for 12 expatriate “vocalists and/or players” with independent sound systems, each “given an equalization distinguishing it from the others” – emphasizing Cage’s socio-political agenda in the piece.

As far as I could tell, those stipulations were adhered to in Music in the Barns’ recent performance. The Music in the Barns performance also included composer Jim Montgomery, who also served as performer at the work’s premiere in 1976 – a nice touch of continuity.

On one level, Lecture on the Weather is an homage to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy, words and drawings. A New England transcendentalist writer and naturalist, much of the nature sounds reflected in Thoreau’s work are represented in Cage’s piece. On the other hand, the methodology of Lecture on the Weather conforms to well-established Cagean practices of that period, such as employing I Ching divination to determine compositional choices, as well as a tip of the hat to his own back catalogue in the form of his most iconic work 4’33”: the durational range each speaker-vocalist is given is determined by multiples of 4’33”.

The work also serves as a radical personal political statement, an incisive critique of his home country’s place in the world. Cage concludes the first section of his Preface by linking the corruption of the laws of the land when it “concentrates its energy on protecting the rich from the poor” to leadership lacking in “not only aspiration but intelligence (as in the work of Buckminster Fuller) and conscience (as in the thought of Thoreau).”

Lecture on the Weather has long been recognized as the most overtly political of Cage’s oeuvre. It points fingers, raises questions. It is part polemical lecture, part experimental film, theatrical performance, part environmental sound poem. It is problematic (and problematizing) to the bone. And – as the compelling Music in the Barns performance on May 28 demonstrates – that is why it’s still as relevant today as the day it was first performed.

Lecture on the Weather was presented by Music in the Barns on Sunday, May 28 at the Great Hall in Toronto, as part of a series of works presented for the conference Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World. For those curious about the deep backstory of this work’s commission, I recommend David Jaeger’s first-person account in his October 26, 2016 WholeNote article.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

annes cropped finalSt. Anne’s Anglican Church is a beautiful, welcoming environment in which to hear a performance. Entering the church on Sunday, May 28, I was greeted with an exhibition of Indigenous artists, on the theme of reconciliation. The first piece I noticed was a striking silk dress with a subtly integrated traditional star quilt pattern created by designer and artist Sage Paul. Placed about the auditorium are other works of art, including paintings and a beautiful birch bark canoe. Beyond that, in front of the altar, the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (ECCG) was assembled to add its musical voice to the conversation.

St. Anne’s ensemble-in-residence, the Junction Trio, opened the concert – titled “Post-Industrial Gamelan!” – with a Haydn divertimento, and the St. Anne’s Choir further quieted the mood with Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and Canadian composer Rupert Lang’s Kontakion.

After the release of two new recordings recently, the ECCG returned to more familiar territory for this performance. They began their portion of the set with a staple of the group’s repertoire, Anjeun (you), by the late Indonesian composer Nano Suratno. The piece was a pop hit in Indonesia in the 90s, but is a much subtler composition than any of the pop versions would have you believe, and is also a great introduction to the degung orchestra (and the ECCG is first and foremost that).

Rengga Renggi by Burhan Sukarma (arranged by ECCG member Bill Parsons) featured a lively section of “trading fours” between hand drums and other percussion, an energetic highlight of the performance.

Another mainstay of the ECCG repertoire, Lou Harrison’s Ibu Trish, a gently contemplative piece, was well suited to the ambience of the room. Canadian film composer Paul Intson’s Rainforest rounded out the program as the least traditional-sounding piece, full of melodic and rhythmic twists and turns, and fully utilizing the timbral possibilities in the gamelan.

The ECCG’s part of the program came to a close with a loosely-structured vehicle for joint improvisation between the gamelan and the Junction Trio. No one really took any risks, but the tremolos and long tones made for a gentle landing at the end of the program. In all, a subtly diverse set of compositions played with a relaxed familiarity, giving evidence to the ECCG’s long history of working together.

I feel compelled to commend St. Anne’s for its annual series of diverse programming, and even more so for its series of events on the theme of reconciliation (the current art exhibit but one of many this year). The concert performance of the ECCG, Junction Trio and St. Anne's Choir proved a powerful example of the diversity of music on offer at this venue. And as for the art exhibit that set the tone for afternoon, I was reminded, first, of the systematic persecution of local Indigenous communities, and second, of the Louis Riel quote: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

"Post-Industrial Gamelan! took place on Sunday, May 28 at 2pm, at St. Anne's Anglican Church in Toronto.

John Carnes is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, jewellery designer and skateboarder.

The Toronto Bach Festival performance of the St Mark Passion. Photo by the author.Toronto has a thing for early music. Audiences in this city can’t seem to get enough of baroque-era music, including chamber, orchestra, choral and opera works. Into this community, there’s a new festival in town: the Toronto Bach Festival, running this year from May 26 to 28. Just concluding their second year, a third is already on the books for 2018. Celebrated historical oboe specialist John Abberger is the festival’s artistic director. Focusing on all things Bach, early music lovers in this city have much reason to support this venture.

The festival is based out of the Anglican Church of St. Barnabas on the Danforth – a sizeable church that provides ample room and appropriate acoustics. Three days of programming made up this year’s festival: “Cantatas & Brandenburgs,” featuring a host of local artists well-known to early music audiences including Asitha Tennekoon, Larry Beckwith, and Brett Polegato; a harpsichord recital by Christopher Bagan, known for his extensive work with Tafelmusik and the Canadian Opera Company, amongst many others; and a finale performance of the St Mark Passion. Many of the instrumentalists involved come from various Toronto-based early music groups, including the Theatre of Early Music, Tafelmusik and Opera Atelier.

The biggest work featured was the final Sunday concert, the St Mark Passion. Featuring Asitha Tennekoon in the very-hardworking role of the Evangelist, familiar faces Daniel Taylor and Agnes Zsigovics were also soloists. Joined by a small chorale of nine voices, this was an intimate performance, incredibly well-executed.

Bach’s original score for this work does not survive in full to present-day; this performance followed the reconstruction by musicologist Simon Heighes. St Mark Passion is one of those examples of a historical relic that has come to us in very different shapes and sounds over the centuries. I know that there are many opinions amongst early music lovers about stringency to source material and performance practice of this piece – yet I won’t try to be a Bach historian myself and delve into the intricacies of editorial decisions made in this particular performance. This was a beautiful delivery of music from Bach, even if it has passed through many hands in between.

The assembled musical forces were small but mighty. The orchestra was spirited and played very well for the choir, who took the lead with energy and artistry. The nine voices blended together seamlessly and should perform together regularly. Tennekoon’s Evangelist was exceptionally well-delivered and a feat of endurance, as he performed probably close to half of the sung material in the entire work. Various solos throughout the performance were equally well-executed, including Brett Polegato’s effortless but emotional “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)

Bach’s St Mark Passion is not often performed because it is considered incomplete. The piecemeal assembly of this work makes it all seem a bit mismatched, unlike the superior Mass in B Minor or the Christmas Oratorio. Roseen Giles, in the program notes, provides us with an answer why this is so. Bach frequently reused his work, written in different contexts for different reasons, assembling them into “parodies”. Almost all the choruses are church hymns, from performances during Lutheran ceremonies. There are hymns that make an appearance throughout the work in the Heighes version, including “Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), the great Lutheran anthem. But this tune was not written by Bach, but rather, Martin Luther. “Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (O Sacred head, now wounded) makes an appearance as the last part of Act I, also written centuries before Bach, but with different text. A greater historian than I will have to explain why this might be and the relevance of these disparate hymns in this work.

Regardless of the history, this type of elite-level performance is unique to the choral world of Toronto. Early music is big here and certainly has an audience. But, with early music ensembles and audiences very much a homogenous group, I can’t help but wonder who this music is meant for – and how its reach can extend further beyond those already active in the scene.

The final performance of the Toronto Bach Festival, of Bach’s St Mark Passion, took place on May 28 at the Church of St. Barnabas on the Danforth in Toronto.

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