FallisBannerDavid Fallis, of the Toronto Consort. Photo credit: Paul Orenstein, digital work by Ross Duffin, background by Gerrit Dou (17th century, Dutch).Start a title with the word Escape and end it with the word Egypt and depending on the preposition you link them with (from or into), you will find yourself either entering an Old Testament story hinged in time on the vernal equinox, or else a New Testament tale revolving around the winter solstice.

La Huida (The Escape) is the title of one work among the 19 in the Toronto Consort’s recently completed program Navidad: A Spanish Christmas, December 8 to 10 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. It was the last song before the intermission; the silence that followed its final drumbeat was a moment of dark stillness at the centre of a swirling panoply of festive musical light. A masterfully curated moment of disquiet, of hopelessness and hope, with “escape from” and “escape to” balancing, literally and figuratively, on a knife edge.

The song’s twelve lines of text are, in the context of this concert, squarely based in the gospel of Matthew, in the story, as Matthew tells it, of the flight of Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s edict to quash talk of the birth of a potential future charismatic leader of a Palestinian uprising by killing off all the (male) babies born at the time.

La Huida a Egipto (Escape Into Egypt), in an illustration by Juan Luis Gallardo.“Escape from” is the urgent priority of the first of the song’s two stanzas:

¡Vamos! ¡Vamos! ¡Burrito apura! it begins.
(Come on! Come on! Hurry up little donkey!
If you don’t hurry up they will catch them
Along the path, along the salitral [salt flats].
They are already slitting throats,
The dagger is already wet with blood.
If you don’t hurry up they will catch them.
¡Vamos! ¡Vamos! ¡Burrito apura!)

And then, out of hopelessness, hope.

Niňo bonito, no lloris mi amor.
Ya llegaremos a tierra mejor.
(Beautiful child, don’t cry my darling.
Soon we will arrive at a better land.
Go to sleep now, don’t cry.
I will cradle you in my arms,
Bass drums beating in my heart.
¡Vamos! ¡Vamos! ¡Burrito apura!)

One mother and father exhorting one child not to cry, on the road from hell to hope. And at the same time, a compelling evocation of the plight of the tens of millions of such people in our world today. And all this in a Christmas concert by a 45-year old ensemble ostensibly focussed on the discovery and re-creation of music 300 to 500 years old. Several very interesting things are happening here in terms of engaged artistic practice, and it’s worth taking a closer look.

Unlike the bulk of 19th and early to mid-20th century classical repertoire where every note (and most of the composer’s desired creative nuances) is captured on paper, the further back in musical time one drills down, the more complex and multifaceted the work of the musician becomes. Paradoxically, the older the music, the greater the chance that one will be playing or hearing it for the first time. Throughout its 45 years, the Toronto Consort has been driven by this spirit of inquiry, but particularly so since 1993, under David Fallis’ artistic directorship. Rather than historically informed performance, one might say that their programs are historically enlightened – not just going back in time, but revealing the timeless.

Take the subtitle of this particular show: “A Spanish Christmas.” Given the Consort’s primary interests one might safely have expected to be treated to an evening of the music of Spain of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But right from the start the word “Spanish” has perhaps unanticipated resonances: During the historical period being explored, it is the primary language not just of Spain but of the conquistadors of a significant portion of the Americas. Almost all the evening’s works, as described in the program, were what is known as villancicos, “a distinctively Spanish song form that has enjoyed a long history of popularity across Spain and Latin America continuously from the late 15th century.”

But the concert widened the lens even beyond that fact: it became geography, history, religion and politics all rolled into one, starting with the first two villancicos on the program, sung in Nahuatl and Quechua (both Indigenous languages, and the latter still the mother tongue of more than 10 million people in Latin America.) Right from the start there was a tension (for those who chose to hear it) between the language and the substance of the songs, between the challenges facing a single biblical family and those that confront countless displaced or disrespected people today – with the inescapable reality of proselytizing intent, and all its historical consequences, roiling just below the surface.

At the end of the first half of the concert, La Huida, as already mentioned, stripped all the tinsel from the Christmas tree. Written by Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez (1921-2010), it carried the truth of its message into the present without the kind of didacticism that sometimes allows an audience to distance themselves from the urgent currency of a necessary message.

Rodrigo ChavezAs important to the Consort’s artistic practice as the integrity of their research is the extent to which they have the hunger (and the musicianship to go with it) to truly learn from their guests. In this case the catalyst was Rodrigo Chavez, who joined the Consort onstage on charango and percussion. Director of Cassava Latin Rhythms band, the Argentinian born and trained Chavez is a prominent exponent of contemporary Latino-Canadian music, with a deep interest in connecting his own creative vision with the deep roots of Native and Afro-Latin percussion, playing a prominent role in Ontario’s burgeoning global music scene.

The joy of musical exploration and shared discovery was everywhere to be seen on the Trinity-St. Paul’s stage in this concert. And the program’s effortless linking of past and present bodes well for a future in which committed musicians do not leave their consciences at the door in the pursuit of the arcane, no matter how tempting, in troubled times, escapism can be.

David Perlman is publisher of The WholeNote, and can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

The Other Side of Hope. Photo credit: Malla Hukkanen/Sputnik Oy.Twin stories of a Syrian refugee and a Finnish restaurateur dovetail nicely in The Other Side of Hope, the second film in a “ports trilogy” by director Aki Kaurismäki. Kaurismäki’s profound humanism dominates the screen as his poetic, intense portrait of a tragic life comes face to face with the director’s trademark comic deadpan style. The result is a sweet and droll story driven by optimism and fuelled by the generosity and concerns of its characters.

A little squeezebox music sets the dockside scene, as a man slowly emerges from a shipboard slag pile just before dawn. Meanwhile, a second man wordlessly leaves his wife, dropping his house keys and wedding band on the small table where she sits drinking, before driving off in his big black car accompanied by the sound of a Finnish blues song on a box guitar. As he passes the stowaway on the street, we see the source of the music: a street busker played by Tuomari Nurmio, often called the quintessential Finnish musician for his ability to perform a variety of genres.

The stowaway, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), cleans up in a hostel before reporting to police to officially seek asylum. The husband, Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), sells his entire carload of shirts and gives up his travelling salesman life to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. He uses the proceeds of the shirt sale as a stake in a stud poker game and, with Kaurismäki’s deadpan style put to good use, wins a small fortune, enough to lease a restaurant well past its prime and the assortment of staff that comes with it.

Khaled, who has made the long and hazardous trek from Aleppo to Helsinki despite being separated from his sister, befriends an Iraqi refugee who helps him adjust to the local red tape. One night, he winds up sleeping in a dumpster behind Wikstrom’s restaurant. Wikstrom hires him on the spot, arranges for an identity card and the story evolves from there, with the aid of Kaurismäki’s amazing actors, like the marvellous Kati Outinen, from his older films.

The musical component is an intrinsic part of the whole. Virtually all the music we see and hear is within the action of the movie. From street performers like the left-handed guitar-playing, harmonica-blowing Ismo Haavisto (performing his song Midnight Man) to the sad old dancehall tune by Henry Theel; from the left-handed guitar players Harri Marstio and Marko Haavisto to Nurmio’s Skulaa Tai Delaa, the blues that subtly caresses the crowd in a club that includes Khaled and his friend; to the music of Toshitake Shinohara, who also contributed to the score of Kaurismäki’s 1992 film La Vie de Bohème; to a touching scene with his Iraqi friend, in which Khaled (Haji) plays the oud.

The world of The Other Side of Hope has a timeless feel; it seems to swing between the past and the future with its richly expressive cinematography and matter-of-fact dialogue. At its core is the tender humanism of Jean Renoir.

The Other Side of Hope plays until Thursday, December 14 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Evan Winther in Holly Small's Cheap Sunglasses. Photo credit: David Hou.On November 16, the highly-regarded DanceWorks celebrated (in a three night run) its 40th anniversary, on the main stage of Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Having emerged out of the York University Dance Department in the late 1970s and subsequently merging with other urban and metropolitan Toronto influences, this innovative company helped stimulate, contemporize and change the face of dance – and music composed or re-imagined for dance – in Canada. This special production presented a combination of world premieres and re-stagings of past successes, featuring both past company members and dancers still in the first blush of their careers. The packed, sold-out house was rife with a veritable who’s who of the Canadian dance community.

For any creative enterprise to reach the age of 40 is not only a magnificent accomplishment, but a statement of incredible commitment and devotion from the artists and administrators involved. Johanna Householder is the co-founder of DanceWorks, as well as a performance artist and professor at OCAD University, and Mimi Beck serves as dance coordinator. “This selection of works is rooted in the past, celebrates the present and invites hope for the future,” said Beck of the event. “The five choreographers have premiered and performed pieces in DanceWorks seasons – dating back to 1981. Each has a strong artistic vision that supports a unique, creative practice. All are still active in their craft.”

All five pieces were presented with integrity, technical skill and imagination, along with integral music and soundscapes that stirred the soul, heart and mind. First to take the stage was an exceptional world premiere titled The Night Journey, featuring veteran Learie McNicolls as both choreographer and single performer. The ghostly ‘live’ projections, as well as the eerie design concept, came from the mind of Judith Sandiford, and the entire piece was inspired by an album of solo, six-string bass playing by Wilbert de Joode, a cutting-edge, a masterful musician based in Amsterdam. The free, luminous soundtrack fed the performance, which fearlessly explored the true nature of the soul, as well as the plastic and subjective nature of time and the ability to transcend space/time through shamanic focus on the multi-layered nature of the “now.”

Jennifer Dahl and Robert Glumbek in Learie McNicolls' Dancing With the Ghost. Photo credit: John Lauener.Dancing With the Ghost was a glorious pas de deux that initially appeared in 1995. This soulful and seamless piece was originally performed with a quartet of dancers, but was presented here as a compelling duet, featuring the lithe and beautiful Jennifer Dahl and the agile and sinuous Robert Glumbek. Learie McNicolls acted as a choreographer here, as well as the composer of the “soundscape,” which included funky, steamy elements of Dance Hall motifs – adding to the already viscous eroticism and ‘push me-pull you’ nature of the piece.

A joyous delight was the multi-sensory Cheap Sunglasses. First presented in 1981, choreographer Holly Small was thrilled to reunite with composer Robert W. Stevenson. This piece is quite simply as relevant now as it was at its inception. Created with a four-person “Greek Chorus” that uttered, shouted and whispered both guttural and sibilant vocal sounds (in English and Japanese), this number ruthlessly examined youthful egotism and the breakdown of communication exemplified by shallow encounters, tinged with artifice and transitory desire.

The world premiere of Amalgam was the brilliant reboot of a 20-year-old acclaimed presentation entitled “Firedance” that reunited the original kathak/flamenco duo of Joanna de Souza and Esmeralda Enrique. The stirring live music (by Ian de Souza, Caroline Plante, Santosh Naidu and Maryem Toller) featured an incredible cross-cultural quartet, which fueled this dynamic dance-trek into the deep cultural connections of the music and dance of ancient India, as well as the music and dance of the “Gaetanos” – marginalized Spanish Roma peoples who may have originated in India, or possibly Egypt. The performance and commitment of these beautiful and accomplished dancers and musical artists was simply breathtaking.

Denise Fujiwara's Moving Parts. Photo credit: John LauenerCompleting this thoroughly stunning evening was the world premiere of the complex production Moving Parts, featuring choreography and direction by Denise Fujiwara of Fujiwara Dance Inventions. The exquisite musical direction and arrangements were created by the talented Phil Strong and Laurel MacDonald. New perspectives on four “pop” tunes comprised the musical score of this extended piece, including the evocative 1983 hit, Mad World (Roland Orzabal); Michael Franti’s Hey World (2009); last year’s Quiet by MILCK and a choral-infused arrangement of Parachute Club’s 1983 smash hit, Rise Up.

DanceWorks’ ongoing beautiful message of love, oneness, joy and hope was illustrated with every dance move, and with every vocal nuance of the fine choir and soloists. The audience returned that joy with an extended – and well-deserved) – standing ovation.

DanceWorks’ 40th Anniversary Celebration took place at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto from November 16 to 18, 2017.

Lesley Mitchell-Clarke is a media consultant, therapist and music and arts writer based in Toronto and NYC.

Jake Epstein (L) and Sara Farb, singing a final duet as Springsteen and Dylan on November 14. Photo credit: Joanna Akoyl.How have I never been to an UnCovered concert until this point? How could I have missed that this series is right up my alley? Now a signature annual event for The Musical Stage Company, the UnCovered series makes a point of investigating and unearthing the stories told by popular songs and, via exploration with individual performers alongside artistic director Mitchell Markus and music director Reza Jacobs, creates new, explicitly theatrical musical arrangements to bring those stories out.

Every year, different singer/songwriters are chosen to be featured. This year they fell upon Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, a choice that led to a revelatory, moving, celebratory evening of both their and our times.

The evening began with Sara Farb as Bob Dylan. Calmly, with a quiet, almost disconcerting intensity, she came onstage to talk to us, slipping in and out of a cappella snippets of song before gradually moving into a full-throated performance of “Mr Tambourine Man.” It set the tempo and tone of the evening: a window into an unexpectedly self-deprecating, rather dark-humoured singer-songwriter denying to us that he had any deep purpose in the writing of his songs, that he was not, as some insisted, “the spokesman of his age.”

Throughout the first half of the evening, Farb (as Dylan) continued this theme, talking to us between songs performed by others, often watching from an armchair ensconced in the territory of the (magnificent) band. He continued to deny his importance until near the end of this first half, when he expressed the hope that someone might be found to carry on “the work” – work that clearly, through the performance of the songs, proved wrong his insistence that he wrote without any socio-political purpose.

In Part Two, Jake Epstein as Bruce Springsteen took over the narrative duties, as his own story overlapped with Dylan's – the young Springsteen inspired to write songs and “make a difference” in the same way, but along that journey having to fight being compared to Dylan, and create his own identity and style. Like Farb as Dylan, Epstein was completely believable as his character, embodying Springsteen’s personality and his clear approach to involving the audience in the concert experience – a more joyful, lighthearted approach than Dylan’s, with songs with just as much weight and anger and purpose, yet also filled with longing and hope.

The superb company of singers joyfully shared the songs with us, excavating the stories and bringing them to life with subtle detail. Melissa O'Neill, with her rough, dark velvet sound, made magic first in Dylan's “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and then again in the classic Springsteen “The River,” making the iconic character of Mary live before us in a moving partial duet with Epstein’s Springsteen. Brent Carver proved again why he is at the top of the list of interpreters of song, imperceptibly gathering up all the audience into his arms to wring our hearts with a quiet exploration of “Knocking on Heaven's Door” that built to an apocalyptic passionate finish. There was also the joyful release of full rock and roll power in Dylan's “Like A Rolling Stone,” with Farb saying to the band “now play loud” and singing full out – and in the second half, Andrew Penner backed up by Hailey Gillis and Arinea Hermans blasting out a joyously rocking rendition of “Born to Run.”

All was tied up at the end, with Dylan and Springsteen meeting backstage on the occasion of  Dylan being awarded the Kennedy Centre Honours – Dylan asking, “Is there anything I can do for you?”, Springsteen replying, “Are you kidding, you have already done it” – and the two of them joining in a quietly powerful duet of “The Times They Are A Changin’,” an arrangement that in its subtlety and complexity summarized all we had heard: difficult times are still here, and we still need music and song that connects with our world, that tells its stories and that asks the questions and speaks the truths that not everyone wants to hear.

I could easily write several pages more about all the talent onstage and in the full creative team: Jackie Richardson’s soul-inspired rocking of the house with a powerful yet soft, all-encompassing “Forever Young,” Hailey Gillis and Arinea Hermans, who did excellent work as the backup singers and giving us exquisite harmonies of notes and emotions in “Make You Feel My Love,” Jake Epstein again showing a wide range, from an aching performance of Dylan's “Don't Think Twice/It's All Right” in the first half to creating Springsteen before our eyes in the second.

This is an unmissable show and series – and I am already looking forward to the next one.

The Musical Stage Company’s present “UnCovered: Dylan & Springsteen” at Koerner Hall in Toronto, November 14 to 16.

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.

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