The Cast of Missing. Photo Credit: Michelle Doherty, Diamond’s Edge Photography.It’s not many operas where the audience, at the end of a performance, remains on its feet following a standing ovation to chant along to a surprise denouement, in this case the Women’s Warrior Song, led by an Indigenous woman beating a round, animal-hide hand drum. Many audience members took up the mesmerizing chant, until the song and drumming ceased.

A dirge of pain, rage and healing, the Women’s Warrior Song is heard at marches commemorating Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. The spirit of the song has been reimagined as the one-act chamber opera Missing, a City Opera Vancouver creation, overseen by artistic director Charles Barber, which premiered November 3 at the York Theatre in Vancouver and continues until November 11. It then moves to Victoria’s Baumann Centre for Opera, for six shows starting November 17.

Missing breaks with much classical opera not only in its bold subject matter – racism against native peoples as well as the ongoing tragedy of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women – but also its sparse, eloquent storytelling, complemented by a minimalist set design, that delves into magic realism and metaphor as a means to express pain and, possibly, redemption. It is also unique in that four of the seven opera singers are Indigenous, while the libretto is written partly in Gitxsan, an Indigenous language spoken in northwestern British Columbia. In the hands of librettist Marie Clements of Vancouver, an award-winning Métis writer, director, producer and playwright, words become as powerful as arrows, each one piercing deep-seated emotions, from guilt, sorrow and enlightenment among white viewers to – for Indigenous members of the audience – grief and a sense of vindication from having the suffering of one’s community acknowledged and honoured in a public setting.

The power of Missing’s libretto is magnified by the equally spare music of Toronto-based JUNO Award-winning composer Brian Current, whose sublime score – conducted here by Timothy Long – soars and plummets in unison with the fierce complexity of emotions that are brought to bear through the telling of this tragic tale.

To underscore the immensity of the tragedy, Missing reveals early in the libretto that 1,200 Indigenous women have been murdered or disappeared in Canada. Such a grim but abstract figure is made accessible by telling two linked, but very different, tales. One is the suffering of an Indigenous family whose daughter, a high school student, goes missing while hitchhiking along BC’s Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears, a lonely northern forest roadway where possibly dozens of native women have vanished. The other story arc is a masterful rendering of the chasm that divides Canada’s European and Indigenous cultures, and exposes white culture’s blasé attitude towards the missing and murdered. This thread is expressed through the near-death experience of Ava, a law student from Vancouver, whose car goes off the road during a nighttime drive along Highway 16.

Caitlin Wood as Ava (left) and Rose-Ellen Nichols as Native Mother (right) in Missing. Photo credit: Michelle Doherty, Diamond’s Edge Photography.Sustaining horrific injuries in the crash, Ava’s car lands near the place where the native high school teen has been murdered and her corpse abandoned. The dead teenager, played with ethereal grace by coloratura soprano Melody Courage, has seemingly left an imprint that haunts the dark forest. In that moment, with her body broken, Ava somehow absorbs both the horror of the slaying and with it, the spirit of the murdered girl.

Ava is performed by soprano Caitlin Wood with exquisite vulnerability as the young law student who is struggling to heal, beset by nightmares and flashbacks to inexplicable events. When she resumes law school in Vancouver a year after the accident, it becomes evident she has been transformed; she is inscrutable to best friend and fellow law student Jess, whose sense of white entitlement and opaque racism is played with artful subtlety by mezzo-soprano Heather Malloy.

Ava doesn’t support Jess’s bigoted challenge to Indigenous guest lecturer Dr. Wilson, played with dignity and power by mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, whose discussion of entrenched racism highlights the inherent injustice of Canada’s legal system. This leads to a rift between Jess and Ava, expressed in a soaring, bitter duet that is both heartbreaking and magnificent to watch.

Much later, when Ava gives birth to a baby and finds her mental equilibrium uprooted by the child’s chronic crying, the native teen once again permeates her consciousness. The murdered girl gives Ava the horrifying details of her final moments and laments what she will never experience: love, a family and unfulfilled ambitions to become a lawyer.

Missing is an extraordinarily moving and thought-provoking work, and a milestone for the opera world. It has taken a painful and horrifying topic and rendered it into accessible art. Ultimately, its message is a universal one: open our eyes and hearts to each other’s pain. By doing so, humanity has a chance for healing and redemption. Missing begins this healing journey in a magnificent mélange of singing, acting and music that, one hopes, will be seen by audiences across Canada and the world.

Missing premiered at City Opera Vancouver on November 3 and runs until November 11, 2017, followed by a run at Pacific Opera Victoria from November 17 to 26, 2017. This report on Missing is part of a series of articles on thewholenote.com on music in the Vancouver area, in light of the Vancouver-based ISCM 2017 festival this month.

Roberta Staley is a Vancouver-based independent magazine writer and editor and documentary filmmaker.

DidoAeneasBannerAeneas and Dido, in an oil painting by Rutilio Manetti c. 1630.It is rarely surprising when the works of different composers who lived in the same time period share social and political themes. Although the individual notes might sound significantly different, events such as the two World Wars or the Soviet regime affected composers across the globe and, whether Britten or Bax, Schnittke or Shostakovich, the similarities between their experiences in the world are contained in their works. It is, however, a much more surprising and unexpected experience when two unrelated organizations present two separate events that, although created centuries apart, complement one another in their relevance. Such was the case this week, as the release of a film by the incredible Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Toronto Masque Theatre’s double-bill performance of Dido and Aeneas thematically converged in an unexpected way.  

Earlier this week the Toronto International Film Festival released renowned artist Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a film that addresses the issue of human displacement, currently at its highest level since World War II. With 65 million people forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war – many of them in the world’s poorest regions – Ai explores the courage, fortitude and insurmountable hardships of the displaced. A powerful and heartrending exploration of the modern refugee and our political attitudes towards them, Ai’s film is as much a product of the 21st century as the people it documents.

Further north, at Jeanne Lamon Hall on Bloor St. W., a large and enthusiastic audience packed the house to watch the Toronto Masque Theatre tackle two independent yet interwoven works, as Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas was paired with James Rolfe and André Alexis’ Aeneas and Dido. About 335 years before Ai picked up a camera to film Human Flow, the ink was drying on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a work which, in that strange way that old things can become suddenly relevant once again, focuses on the role of the refugee. For what is Aeneas other than a vengeful asylum seeker? His beloved Troy has been destroyed, burned to the ground, its people slaughtered, and it is from this extreme dual-edged desire to restore his nation and exact revenge (egged on by a persuasive visit from a sinister spirit or two) that Aeneas flees Carthage and his beloved queen Dido, ultimately leading to her dramatically tuneful demise.

In 2006 the Toronto Masque Theatre, in its quest for the perfect complement to Purcell’s masterpiece, commissioned two Canadians, librettist André Alexis and composer James Rolfe, to write Aeneas and Dido. Aeneas is largely parenthetical, taking place in those gaps in Tate’s libretto where the audience typically must assume what happens between scenes. According to Alexis, more than hanky-panky takes place in the grotto during the rainstorm (Aeneas receives his calling and mission, biblical in its prophetic nature) and we witness a more thorough, comprehensible and private argument between Aeneas and Dido, rather than their brief public ‘Away, away!’ row in Purcell’s original work.

Where Nahum Tate’s libretto focuses primarily on Dido and her entourage (we don’t actually see Aeneas until midway through Purcell’s opera), Alexis’s libretto attempts to explore Aeneas’s actions and their underlying psychology, determining what it is that makes him leave Dido in favour of a monumental and seemingly hopeless task, that of single-handedly restoring his fallen nation. The text is explicit in its portrayal of Aeneas as a war refugee, the main character lamenting the destruction of his motherland:

“I am a man with no home…My city is a dark memory.” (Scene Two)

“I must go, for the sake of my people…We have suffered a holocaust. Our parents, children, grandchildren have been slaughtered and left to rot.” (Scene Five)

It is in these passages that we see Aeneas as a dual figure, part alien and part messianic prophet, called by the gods to strike out into the wilderness and begin a new nation – a Greco John the Baptist. Aeneas’ impassioned longing for his homeland serves as his motivation for departing Dido, providing a suitably modern and convincingly severe rationale for an act that can seem sudden and rash in Tate’s libretto.

From a musical perspective, both works were exceedingly well done on Friday night: a beautiful blend of music and drama. Purcell’s score is continuo-based, a band led by a team of cello, harpsichord/organ and theorbo, with a small group of treble parts (violins, flute, oboe and viola) rounding out the ensemble. If a performance of Dido is too musical with not enough action, it can seem dull; if a performance is extremely dramatic but not musical enough, the singing can border on sprechstimme, speech-singing, something we associate with the folk tunes in John Blow’s Beggar’s Opera or Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire more than Purcell’s Dido. This interpretation was a marvelous mix, with incredible singing throughout and enough visual dramatic action to engage the spectator.

Rolfe’s score, rather than maintaining the Baroque convention of the bass-upwards continuo group, writes for his instruments as a chamber ensemble. Using contrasting styles that range from expansive, sustained accompaniments (mainly in conjunction with choral passages) to sparse, almost pointillistic moments that are rhythmically ambiguous and used to great effect, each instrument provides bursts of colour throughout the opera and creates a diverse sonic palette for the listener. There were many moments in the score which sounded ‘Baroque-ish’: Baroque-style structures and forms shrouded in modern harmonies, chordal extensions, and even the occasional quoting of Dido’s famous ‘Lament’, which helped Rolfe’s Aeneas tie into the original Purcell score like a distant cousin following the labyrinthine connections of a family tree.

Now in their last season, the Toronto Masque Theatre will be greatly missed when they disband at the end of the year. Their musical interpretations and performers are well-informed, their stagings well-executed and, whether they intend this or not, immediately poignant and relevant to contemporary global issues. By pairing the Tate/Purcell Dido with the Alexis/Rolfe Aeneas, Virgil’s story of the political alien-cum-prophet Aeneas and doomed, lovelorn Dido is brought squarely into the 21st century – a profound and thought-provoking tale of love for queen and country in a world decimated by conflict.

The Toronto Masque Theatre presented the double-bill ‘Dido and Aeneas/Aeneas and Dido’ on October 20 and 21, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto.

Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow opened at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 20, and plays until October 26.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

James TenneyJames TenneyOn the evening of October 15, I attended the last event of the Music Gallery’s X Avant Festival 2017, a concert titled James Tenney: Resistance. Preceding the concert was a panel discussion on the topic of socially conscious music and a lively conversation related to the evening’s repertoire. The concert was entirely dedicated to Tenney’s music, which was presented as one continuous stream of sound, punctuated with commentary before each piece from the Music Gallery’s artistic director David Dacks.

Jim, as we all called him, lived and taught in Toronto from 1976 to 2000, and was very active in creating community among both practitioners and lovers of contemporary music in the city. His own compositional focus was dedicated to understanding how we perceive music and sound, and he was committed to creating sensory-based listening experiences. One might think that these interests might be a contradiction with composing “socially conscious music.” However, the pieces we heard demonstrated how brilliantly Jim wove his theoretical concerns with a strong message on culturally relevant issues. Even though I had heard many of Jim’s pieces in the past, the combining of these five pieces into a coherent whole powerfully shone a light on this aspect of his work.

The concert began with Viet Flakes, a film by Carolee Schneemann for which Tenney composed a tape collage. The piece was originally created for a New York City arts festival in 1965 designed to bring awareness of the American involvement in the Vietnam war. Tenney used pop song recordings to create his tape collage, highlighting the contrast between carefree American lives and the horrors being inflicted thousands of miles away. Tenney’s tape piece Fabric for Che from 1967 followed, a dense and continuous stream of sound composed as a “scream of frustration” in response to the way the liberation movements of Central and South America were being portrayed by the US government.

Timbre Ring, composed in 1971, received its world premiere at this concert, and is a perfect example of Tenney’s intention to bring awareness to listening and perception. The eight performers from diverse musical and cultural backgrounds surrounded the audience and passed between them one single pitch, using fluctuations in timbre, dynamics and rhythmic pulsations. Behind the choice to program this work is another important story.

Tenney’s work Ain’t I A Woman (1992), based on an 1851 speech by Sojourner Truth that combines anti-slavery resistance and women’s suffrage – what we would now call an intersectional feminist text – was considered for performance. However, after a lengthy consultation process with the community, the decision was made not to program the piece. Since no black women were involved in the original creation process, one concern was that if nothing was changed for this performance then it would be problematic. In addition, some in the community felt it inappropriate to program a work of white art based on black pain.

Interestingly, during the panel discussion earlier that day, all three of the panelists expressed their disappointment with this decision. Sci-fi turntablist SlowPitchSound, himself a member of the black community, felt that in this case, it’s really about the “message being made and trying to get more ears to hear things. Sometimes it gets stuck at race, and goes no further. With art you’re supposed to be free to come up with things, but yet you can’t.” Performer and scholar Parmela Attariwala expressed her desire to have had the conversation and then heard the piece. “I wish we could do that with more pieces. There are a myriad of western classical pieces that are controversial and we haven’t thought about it.” Lauren Pratt, who was married to Tenney from 1988 until his passing in 2006 and currently manages his archives, pointed out a potential contradiction between the ‘no’ decision regarding this work and the programming of Pika-Don, which uses texts of Asian women and children who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki spoken by white women. Dacks acknowledged this in his program remarks, but felt that since this work used texts recounting several sides of the story, including texts by American scientists, this was an example of “reportage turned into artistic expression” and “was illustrative rather than exploitative and doesn’t speak to a larger history of exploitation as had been pointed out about Ain’t I A Woman.” Many more important points were made in this conversation, which can be viewed in full at https://www.facebook.com/events/1474084846013659/permalink/1532822040139939/

Listening to Pika-Don, composed for four percussionists and pre-recorded spoken text, was challenging – simultaneously hearing familiar voices amidst reminders of the utter devastation caused from the dropping of the atomic bomb. The first half is based on quotations from the scientists involved in the creation and testing of the bomb, with the texts for the second half as noted above. The horrors of this event were profoundly captured in the percussion part while the texts, densely layered at times, also added to the cacophony. Tenney wrote the piece in 1991 and invited members of the Toronto community to record the texts, myself included. It was uncanny listening to the very intimate sound of people’s voices that one knew, juxtaposed with the catastrophic realities of nuclear war.

The evening concluded with Listen…! composed in 1981/84 and performed at the concert by three female singers with piano accompaniment. The text for the piece was written by Tenney and reminds us that it’s really up to us in how we respond to the injustices of the world. Despite the seriousness of the words, the music was set in a light-hearted manner, as a sendup of popular music.

The final events of the Music Gallery’s X Avant XII Festival, titled “James Tenney: Resistance,” took place at the 918 Bathurst Centre in Toronto on October 15, 2017.

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

The Tallis Choir’s Bach buffetJohann Sebastian Bach was the premier Masterchef of his time. By using the musical ingredients of his era in extraordinary ways, Bach was able to concoct an infinite number of deep and complex masterpieces, usually under a significant time crunch. His cantata cycles are legendary, his passions profound, and his motets magical. It was these motets that were on display in the Tallis Choir’s Bach: The Six Motets performance on Saturday, October 14 in Toronto: a smorgasbord of Bach’s smaller liturgical choral works, composed outside the regular cantata cycles.

Appetizer

Nothing produces an immediate feeling of penitence like a wooden Catholic Church pew, and the seats at St. Patrick’s Church are no different – within minutes of sitting, one’s back end starts to ache. The venue is nonetheless a striking one, ϋber-Catholic in its setup but beautifully decorated: each wall covered in a kaleidoscope of icons, murals and statues, the walls painted a luminescent white, a rather paradoxical spot to hear the pinnacle of Lutheran musical theology. The acoustic at St. Patrick’s, with its immense ceilings, is incredible – lively, robust and perhaps, at first listen, better suited to the homophonic chromaticism of Bortniansky or the expansiveness of Tallis and the Renaissance masters than repertoire featuring rapidly-paced contrapuntal intricacy.

Each of Bach’s six motets are works unto themselves, and the program (featuring excellent notes by the musicologist Doug Cowling, who passed away at the beginning of this year) was well-structured, providing contrasts in character and affect that provided aural relief without changing composers or styles. With only a basso continuo line (played by cello and organ) as accompaniment, the chorus is unleashed in its full expressive and technical capacities, the motets serving as micro dramas, mini multi-sectional cantatas with their own dramatic arcs. There is a certain danger with Bach, in that a Bach-only concert can (continuing our buffet allegory) be too rich and overwhelming for the palate, especially when presenting a collection of related works. There was no such problem this evening, the thoughtful order of the motets making the concert conceptually straightforward and aesthetically appealing.

Entrée

There are a number of approaches one can take when interpreting Bach, but a standard characteristic of the modern approach to baroque music is an idea known as ‘conjunct/disjunct motion’: the concept that notes which are close together, stepwise passages for instance, are sung more smoothly than notes that are separated by larger intervals. ‘Legato’ as we understand it today is to be used sparingly and as an expressive item, a sauce that finishes the dish rather than the broth it sits in.

The choir’s first offering, the tripartite Lobet den Herrn BWV 230, has an opening which is described in the program notes as shooting upwards “like a rocket.” The choir’s smooth phrasing of this rising theme, coupled with the venue’s cavernous acoustic, made this interpretation rather muddied and texturally ambiguous – we knew it was a fugue from the written notes, but many of the characteristic features of the fugue were obscured.

This was a pervasive conflict within the first half of the concert, the choir and their smooth articulations battling the voluminous void of the space. In the multi-movement motet Jesu meine Freude, in which Bach combines and contrasts affects and styles to great effect, a number of the more energetic passages, particularly those with repeated notes (‘die nicht nach dem Fleisch wande’, for example) likewise lacked clarity.

Peter Mahon, the Tallis Choir’s conductor, effectively resolved the issue in the second half of the program, which came off splendidly. Throughout the concert, the choir seemed to grow stronger as they went on; when the final motet, the fearsome Singet dem Herrn, was sung, one wondered how the choir was still standing! By this time the ensemble and its venue had melded, and even the fleet-footed ‘Halleluja!’ was clear and energetic.

Dessert

An example of a five-string piccolo cello. Image via stringking.net.Interspersed between motets were movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No.6, a brilliant programming move that evoked a similar-yet-different soundscape from the German Baroque master. Bach’s sixth cello suite is unique in that it was written for five-string piccolo cello, a smaller and higher-pitched cousin of the standard four-stringed cello.

Cellist Kerri McGonigle, playing a piccolo cello on loan from Tafelmusik cellist Christina Mahler, executed the suite with panache, although the programming that worked so well for the audience made her evening into an athletic performance! In addition to switching back and forth between five- and four-stringed cellos multiple times, there was the additional issue of temperamental gut strings which, left unchecked and untuned for extended periods of time, made her forays into solo repertoire fraught with tenuous tuning. Even one brief tuning break in each half would have helped the issue, which was made most apparent when open strings were played. This was, however, a logistical issue, not a musical one, and did little to hamper the beauty of the suite, particularly the sensuous Sarabande.

Final Thoughts

In this remarkable Olympiad of a concert, the primary issue was ultimately one beyond anyone’s control: that of a venue mismatched to the music performed therein, an acoustic too wet for the contrapuntal commotion that Bach composed. The weather, which was also too wet that evening, undoubtedly contributed to the occasional cello tuning issues.

A performance of a Bach work is a project, an entire concert of Bach works nothing less than a monumental undertaking. Despite the countless hours of rehearsal and labour involved in this concert, part of a season celebrating the Tallis Choir’s 40th anniversary, the music came across as effortless, enthusiastic and organic. Bravo to all involved!

The Tallis Choir performed “Six Bach Motets” on Saturday, October 14 at 7:30pm, at St. Patrick’s Church in Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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