Sting and the cast of The Last Ship – Toronto Production, 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.The Princess of Wales Theatre was full of the buzz of excitement on February 19 for the official opening of multi Grammy Award-winning musician Sting's musical The Last Ship, starring Sting himself in the critical role of union foreman Jackie White. This is a story of industrial action, of workers bonding together to defeat the  government-mandated shutdown of their shipyard, the main source of livelihood for their town. It’s also the love story of a boy (Gideon) who runs away to sea to escape the trap of the shipyard – leaving behind his girlfriend (Meg) who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with their daughter. When Gideon returns 15 years later, he finds a girlfriend who doesn't seem to want him back, a rebellious daughter who wants to leave as much as he did, and the shipyard, the backbone of the town, in desperate straits.

Based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly the attempted shutdown of the Upper Clyde Shipyard in 1971 – and on Sting's own childhood in the ship-building town of Wallsend in the north of England, the show clearly has strong personal meaning for its creator. In the program notes he is quoted as saying: “I wanted to give the community where I was born a voice, to tell a narrative in this form because it's a story that hasn't been told. In a way, it's a kind of debt that I feel I owe. [...] I abandoned my town [...] I didn't want to be a part of it, so now I want to go back and say thank you for what (it) gave me.”

This feeling of emotional resonance is strongly present throughout The Last Ship – particularly in the wonderful music. Powerful choral numbers form the backbone of the score, songs full of rich harmonies and deep full-voiced singing. Equally strong and engaging on a personal level – interwoven with the community's choral voice – are the lovely clean and clear melodies of the solos and duets, particularly for the lovers meeting again, but also for (Sting's role) Jackie and his wife Peg.

There is much in the book to grab the interest and emotions of the audience, but also much to frustrate. The opening sequence, for example, takes too long to set the scene and yet seems to rush the time transition from the departure of Gideon to his return. There is also a rather clumsy use of a narrator (played by the same actress who plays the daughter), who speaks in mythic generalities rather than specifics. Once this opening sequence is out of the way, the plot does become clearer, but the book still needs work. This is a new version of John Logan and Brian Yorkey's original script (as seen on Broadway) by new director Lorne Campbell, but it feels at times as though words have been cobbled together to fit around the songs, rather than songs and scenes making an organic whole.

This is particularly the case with the shipyard plot, where, after deciding to face down the forces of government industrial privatization by taking over the shipyard to complete the last ship of the title, the characters never really seem to reach the anticipated climax. The interwoven love story plot, on the other hand, works much more smoothly and had all of us in the audience sitting forward in our seats, totally involved in the intricacies of the former lovers reconnecting and the “new” dad and daughter starting to navigate their newly discovered relationship. All three actors were very strong, particularly Frances McNamee as Meg, who is extraordinary. She had us in the palm of her hand throughout, completely magnetic in quiet moments and tearing up the stage with her defiance in the song “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Sophie Reid as the daughter, Ellie, also lit up the stage in the glorious “All This Time.” Here was Sting's past in a nutshell but in the person of a rebellious girl – which somehow made it even more powerful to watch. (Interestingly, in the original version of the show, this character was a boy.) It is, of course, rather a thrill to see Sting himself live onstage as part of this strong cast, though he seemed so much less at ease without a guitar in his hands.

The set by 59 Productions has some great elements, including some magnificent projections, but seems underused in the new staging, which often groups the actors statically on the main level rather than taking advantage of the possibilities of the set's scaffolding. The choreography, or movement direction, also seems lacking in imagination in the group scenes. One of these scenes does stand out for excellent staging because of its simplicity and symbolic placement of the singers: a wonderful song set in the town's church, complete with stained glass windows depicting the shipyard workers and one of their finished ocean liners. Movingly focused on the dying Jackie White with his wife Peg at its centre and using every level and nook and cranny of space for the rest of the cast, this caught at the heart.

This is the North American premiere of the newly revamped version of The Last Ship, which began at a workshop at Sage Gateshead in the UK in late 2017 before heading into a very successful run at Newcastle's Northern Stage and tour of the UK in 2018. While there must be some speculation about this being a test run before another trip to Broadway, I would say that the show isn't ready yet. It has great potential in its beautiful score, and great heart in the aim of its story, but could do with another concentrated workshop period to fulfill that stirring potential.

The Last Ship opened on February 19 in Toronto and continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

JNorman 1 banner Alexander Neef and Jessye Norman in conversation. Photo credit: Kenneth Chou Photography.The newest laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, legendary soprano, activist and educator Jessye Norman brought her regal countenance to TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 12 for an engaging 90-minute conversation with Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef.

Neef began by asking about Norman’s early memories of music in her life.

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam was my big number when I was four [and singing in the church choir],” she said. At nine, she was given her own radio and the chore of cleaning her room (“What drudgery!”) on Saturdays. But she had just discovered Milton Cross and the Met broadcasts, so cleaning her room lasted as long as the opera.

“I was very lucky that I didn’t have my first voice lesson until I was 17 at Howard University,” she said (although she did take piano lessons when she was younger).

Hearing Marian Anderson singing Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with Charles Munch impressed her deeply: “I had never heard a voice so low with such timbre.”

By age 24 she was onstage with Deutsche Oper Berlin as Elisabeth in Tannhauser; it was her professional debut. Notified in the spring of the coming December date, she spent five months at Duke University in between studying conversational German. It was an early indicator of her devotion to the importance of text in singing: “I don’t sing a language I don’t speak.”

In her extraordinary masterclass at U of T on February 15, she put that axiom into practice by going over the pronunciation of the text of each of 12 songs with the six U of T singers who performed for her. Sometimes she would speak a word into her mic just before or just after it was sung; occasionally she would have the singer say each word of the text for her after the first run-through. As she pointed out in her introduction to the capacity crowd: “What we’re doing is a work in progress; we’re correcting, thinking, improving … to make music.”

She was an active participant in the process, mouthing the words of an aria, conducting with her left hand (or both hands), moving her fingers as if she were the collaborative pianist, even letting a word or two escape into the Walter Hall air through her mic. Frequently she would exhort the singer to “Go on!” or “Take your time.” Or comment in French: “C’est pas facile ce phrase.” Or German: “Wunderbar.” Her joy was infectious; sometimes it felt as if she were performing the piece herself.

She learned from Laurence Olivier no less, to keep the opera’s drama on the stage and leave it behind once you’re off the stage. Questioned by Neef about how she saw her legacy: “I hope I would inspire artists to step beyond our professions – to be concerned with the welfare of other people. I cared,” she said. “And it showed.” In answer to a question from the audience about how to deal with the onset of a career: “Preparation is the first part of success,” she said. “Learn a new piece; preparation and opportunity will give you success.”

U of T masterclass participants and faculty with Jessye Norman. Photo credit: Kenneth Chou Photography.At the conclusion of the three-hour masterclass, and before she was greeted by scores of admirers who filled the Walter Hall stage in search of a few words or an autograph, Norman answered questions from that audience. “Take a deep breath to relieve tension,” she told one singing student. As to how she dealt with negative criticism, she brought down the house: “First you have to consider where the criticism is coming from. As my grandmother used to say, ‘Consider the source.’”

Her advice to a young dramatic soprano: “Sing a lot of Handel and Mozart to keep the oils running and keep the weighty voice agile,” she said. “Mozart and Handel will save your life.”

And finally: “Sing truly what suits you, what you love. Don’t allow someone to label you. Listen to other singers.”

“Be brave,” she said.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Never Look Away bannerTom Schilling as Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away – nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscars – paints a vast canvas chronicling the turbulent times in Germany from 1937 to the mid-1960s. It’s loosely based on the life of famed German artist Gerhard Richter but as it hits some major historical notes of the mid-20th century – Nazism, Communism, master-race eugenics and the Berlin Wall – it does so in the context of its central character Kurt’s love for two women, both named Elisabeth.

Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth May and Cai Cohrs as Young Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.As a child, Kurt was under the thrall of his aunt, Elisabeth May, who encouraged his love of art. Indeed, the film opens in 1937 when the two of them attend the Dresden exhibit of decadent art (immaculately and beautifully rendered by the director and his legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel). Kurt once watched his aunt play Bach’s lovely Sheep May Safely Graze (from Cantata No.208) on the piano in the nude. (Not since Luis Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty has the instrument been so artfully exploited.) It was her last moment of freedom. As she is taken away to be institutionalized, composer Max Richter’s post-minimalist score picks up on the Bach for an apt variation, recurring later when Kurt is at art school. The second Elisabeth, a fellow student at the Düsseldorf Academy, is the daughter of a notorious gynecologist, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) who was responsible for the death of Kurt’s aunt.

Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Koch, who was one of the key cast members in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, plays the villain in the new film. Koch’s relationship with the director is highly collaborative and he has described his character Professor Seeband as a monster. “He is ice-cold and domineering. But what is truly monstrous about him is that he is convinced he is doing the right thing. There is no feeling of wrongdoing, no sense of guilt. He does what he does because for him there is absolutely no alternative.”

Henckel von Donnersmarck’s work with Richter was crucial. “[Richter’s] orchestral piece November [from 2002’s Memoryhouse] was the leitmotif for the film,” the director said. “It accompanied me throughout the entire filming and editing… He is a man of deep knowledge and great wisdom. His music has true healing power and is always incredibly beautiful.” By 1940, Elisabeth’s impending sterilization is underlined by a wrenching, ominous moment in the score. The end of WWII is played out to Handel’s Dixit Dominus.

Though nothing in Never Look Away rises to the level of November, Richter’s post-minimalist shards of emotionalism serve to buttress the complex relationships between the painter, the eugenicist and the two women who link them.

While Never Look Away is just now (February 22) opening in Toronto, two other Best Foreign Language Film nominees I profiled in The WholeNote’s September issue are still going strong in local theatres as the Academy Awards loom on February 24.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media.Pawel Pawlikowski’s epochal love story Cold War, nominated for three Academy Awards – Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Direction – stands out for its cinematic artistry and fervour. Cold War begins and ends in Poland, with stops in Paris, East Berlin and Split, Yugoslavia as it journeys from 1949 to 1964. Wiktor and Zula’s love is deep and true but subject to the political vagaries of the era it inhabits. Both are musicians who meet through music (of which there is a wide variety, from traditional Polish folk to 1950s jazz). Pawlikowski depicts it with rigorous attention to detail. Filmed in stylish, enhanced black and white, with compelling performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War succeeds at every level.

The music credits for Cold War are a treasure trove of traditional Polish folk music, with almost two dozen excerpts; the jazz side features Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Kulig and Kot doing Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy. What wraps up this musical odyssey? A few moments of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s all a not-to-be-missed cinematic experience, due in large part to its crucial musical component.

Zain Al Rafeea (right) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Photo credit: Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Nadine Labaki’s emotionally potent film Capernaum, about a 12-year-old Lebanese boy who sues his parents for giving him life, won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It’s another worthy nominee contending for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Labaki’s husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. To fit what Mouzanar called “the poverty and rawness of the subject,” he wrote a “less melodic score than usual using dissonant choral melodies that seem to disappear before they can be grasped, as well as synth-based electronic sonorities.” Crucially, he chose not to “underline or highlight emotions that were already sufficiently intense.”

Any one of these Oscar contenders would make for ideal viewing in the days leading up to Sunday’s awards ceremony. And for months and years in the future for that matter.

Never Look Away opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 22. Cold War and Capernaum continue their Toronto runs.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Sir Andrew Davis with the TSO and TSYO on February 6. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Sometimes an email subject line helps a bunch of different ideas to fall neatly into place. Such was the case a day or so ago. Old meets new as Tafelmusik unveils 2019/20 Season” the subject line read. More about the Tafelmusik spin on the “Old Meets New” theme in the upcoming March issue, but for now, upcoming February concerts by Toronto Consort and Art of Time Ensemble, and a recent evening at the TSO, all fit the theme rather nicely.   

February 15 and 16 at Trinity-St. Paul’s, Toronto Consort’s "Love Remixed" features only 20th- and 21st-century music for early instruments and voice, the first time in the ensemble’s four-and-a half decade history that the ensemble has presented an entire program such as this. The concert features Juno-nominated James Rolfe’s Breathe with text by librettist Anna Chatterton, followed by David Fallis’ Eurydice Variations, the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice.

Breathe Front CoverWriting for period instruments is not a new adventure for Rolfe. He dipped his toes in these waters as far back as 2003, for Toronto Masque Theatre, in partnership with André Alexis (the 2010-11 Giller Prize winner for his novel Fifteen Dogs). Their first collaboration was a piece titled Orpheus in the Underworld, paired up with Charpentier’s La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers. Their next was Aeneas and Dido (paired with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 2007). Their Orpheus then returned to Toronto Masque Theatre in 2011, to close Toronto Masque Theatre’s season that year.  

The creation of Breathe has also taken place in layers, over time. It had its premiere performance in 2011, in St. Anne’s Anglican Church, as a Soundstreams commission for the  Norwegian a cappella ensemble Trio Mediaeval and the Toronto Consort. In it, Chatterton’s libretto is interwoven with the writings of 12th-century poet and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Rolfe’s music also has a medieval bedrock. As Globe and Mail writer Robert Everett Green described it at the time, “with voices and instruments attuned to medieval sonorities (or what we think they were), [Rolfe] used drones, interlocking patterns and melodies as simple as plainchant, sometimes running them as live loops against each other … [finding] a distinct gait and tone for each section of the text. … Between Hildegard's visionary, sensual description of "divine mysteries" and Chatterton's breath-centred evocations of love, the text exuded the same kind of sexy spirituality as the biblical Song of Songs.”

Since then the work has seen life as the opening track of an eponymous  Centrediscs release of James Rolfe’s music, Breathe, nominated for a 2018 JUNO Award. In her review of the disc in The WholeNote in October 2017, Dianne Wells described it as “in its performance here, by far one of the most extraordinarily beautiful recordings experienced in recent memory.”

As for David Fallis’  Eurydice Variations, “the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice” which closes the program, for many in the Consort’s audience whose oldest memories of the group are inextricably interwoven with David Fallis’ recently concluded 28-year tenure as artistic director, it will be really intriguing to hear what he’s been doing with all that new-found time since relinquishing the reins at Toronto Consort.  

Art of Time, February  22 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, has dedicated itself to playing off old against new, and vice versa, for all of its 20-year history under the artistic direction of Andrew Burashko. This particular concert, titled The Classical Program, is sandwiched between two performances, Feb 21 and 23, of a complementary, more contemporary,  program titled “The Songs Program.” This one, for me, gets to the heart of Art of Time’s mission to break down artificial, genre-bound barriers among music lovers. It’s innovative “Source & Inspiration” format “pairs a Franz Schubert piano trio with songs written and performed by Danny Michel, John Southworth, and Martin Tielli, along with performances of chamber music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and more.”

Danny MichelAudiences for whom the core Art of Time ensemble (Andrew Burashko, piano; Jonathan Crow and Mark Fewer, violin; Shauna Rolston, cello Barry Shiffman, viola) are already old musical friends may will meet three new ones  in singers Martin Tielli, Danny Michel, and John Southworth, whose respective songs, inspired by the Schubert Trio, are at the heart of the program. And for those who come precisely because they know who Tielli, Southworth and Michel are, the bridges will be built in the other direction.

Postscript: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Wednesday February 6: I was sitting in the RTH  balcony with music writer Robert Harris, 20 minutes before showtime. (Harris is mentoring this year’s  Emerging Arts Critics enrolled in a joint TSO/COC National Ballet program, where they write and submit reports and reviews to The WholeNote, Opera Canada, and Dance Umbrella magazines, for publication on our respective websites.)

Anyway, Harris and I were scratching our heads looking at the sea of chairs on the stage – twice as many as one might expect for the Brahms concerto for violin and cello, or the Dvořák sixth symphony to follow. Even for a pizzing contest between Strauss and Wagner it would have been a hell of a lot.

All was revealed when Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s interim artistic director, and conductor for the evening, mounted the podium and explained that if we were wondering about the chairs this was the occasion of the TSO’s annual “side-by-side” performance where members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the TSO, rehearse and perform together. (Not the whole concert, but in this case Oskar Morawetz’s crackling Carnival Overture which kicked off the evening’s proceedings.)

Old meets new? Davis made his TSO debut in 1974, the year before commencing a 13-year tenure as the TSO’s music director; the TSYO was founded, by Victor Feldbrill, in the very same year. And ten of the current members of the TSO were, at one time or another, members of the TSYO. (Toronto Consort was two years old at the time!)

A big deal? No. But nice. Very nice.

The Rolston String Quartet performing Reich’s Different Trains on February 2. Photo credit: Claire Harvie.From Chicago to New York
One of the fastest trains
From New York to Los Angeles
Different trains every time

As artistic director Lawrence Cherney said from the stage on Saturday February 2, the concert we were about to hear was “the hottest ticket in town.” It was going to be another one of those epic Steve Reich nights reminiscent of when Reich’s music was performed at Massey Hall in April 2016. This time it was the stunning Rolston String Quartet performing his work Different Trains, along with R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves, and pieces by the mentoring composers for Soundstreams emerging composers workshop Dorothy Chang (Vancouver) and Rolf Wallin (Norway). Seamlessly accompanying the musical performance of Different Trains was a film by Beatriz Caravaggio, who used a wide range of archival material primarily of trains from the late 1930s and into the mid-1940s.

Reich wrote this work in 1988 for string quartet and pre-recorded tape for the Kronos Quartet, and it received a Grammy Award in 1989. It was Reich’s first foray into what he called “documentary music video theatre” and was built on compositional ideas he had experimented with in the 1960s—melodic and rhythmic ideas generated from speech rhythms. The opening text I’ve quoted above comes from Part 1 of this 3-movement work, inspired by Reich’s early childhood experiences of riding trains from New York to Los Angeles as he visited his parents who lived separately in each of these cities. Being Jewish, he wondered what his life would have been like, and more specifically what riding a train would have been like, if he had been born in Europe during the Second World War. The texts were derived from various interviews: his governess who accompanied him on the train rides, a retired Pullman porter, and the memories of Holocaust survivors who were close in age to him.

The Germans walked in
Walked into Holland
Lots of cattle wagons there
They were loaded with people
They tattooed a number on our arm

Reich’s music is particularly important for me personally: when I was introduced to his work in 1976 at a student composers workshop he gave at U of T’s Faculty of Music, it felt like a breath of fresh air had just blown in. He spoke about slowing down the unfolding musical process so that the musical changes could be fully perceived. His music offers the listener an experience of being fully saturated with repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple melodic and harmonic textures, with the totality creating an impact that is mesmerizing and trance-like. As American composer John Adams has explained, Reich’s music arose at a time when Western concert music had reached an information saturation point. Hyper-complex musical abstractions had prevailed, but Reich’s approach brought back sensuality and pleasure into the listening experience. I certainly experienced this while listening to Different Trains, despite the intense subject matter of the Holocaust.

The originally-recorded text fragments, some of which I’ve quoted here in this report, were audible on the pre-recorded tape in the February 2 concert, and one could hear quite plainly the connection between the nuances and inflections of the speaker’s voice with the melodies and rhythms being performed by four string quartets in total—three prerecorded quartets and one live. The music progressed from one text phrase to the next, with each fragment receiving focused attention to create interlocking rhythms and resulting melodies. At times, the movement from one text section to the next created quite contrasting rhythms that served to amplify the meanings of the text itself. Reich also included archival sounds from American and European trains of the ’30s and ’40s on the pre-recorded tape.

Then the war was over
Are you sure?
Going to America
From New York to Los Angeles
One of the fastest trains
But today, they’re all gone

The accompanying film was brilliantly suited to the music, providing startling and vivid images on a 3-part screen: the patterns of multiple train tracks, spinning train wheels, people boarding and disembarking—some onto comfortable passenger cars, others stuffed and locked into box cattle cars.  The visual editing rhythms, both for each separate screen and between the three screens, complemented the rhythmic changes and juxtapositions of the music.

Throughout the evening, the Rolston String Quartet captivated their audience with deeply passionate and committed playing. Formed in 2013 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the quartet has a busy touring and teaching schedule worldwide. Their performance of Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves (1976, rev. 1978) was breathtaking, bringing to life this piece that Schafer composed using his study of the ebb and flow of waves to create both phrase lengths and large-scale proportions. The work ended with the two violinists and violist leaving the stage one by one, taking the music off into the distance with them. We also hear in the music the call of the white-throated soprano—all the more poignant now that this particular birdsong is rarely heard. Rolf Wallin’s two works on the program provided both humour and an enchanting palette of unique sonic textures and timbres.

It was indeed a hot ticket on a winter’s night that provided a provocative sonic ride through history, memory and nature.

Soundstreams presented “Different Trains on February 2, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

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

HookUp photobyDahliaKatz 9188 bannerEmily Lukasik in Hook Up. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Despite the unbelievably cold weather on January 30 (below -30 degrees with windchill), the audience was packed for the opening night of Tapestry Opera’s world premiere of Hook Up at Theatre Passe Muraille.

An irreverent, relentlessly contemporary new hybrid of opera and music theatre, composer Chris Thornborrow and librettist Julie Tepperman’s new work had a powerful effect on the audience. The world they created of three students embarking on their first year at university was familiar and funny, then disturbing and uncomfortable to watch, as it got closer to dealing with the issue at the heart of the opera: consent and campus rape. A difficult subject to deal with in any context, what worked so well here was a libretto that immersed us in the first-year-away-from-home-university context, giving us time to get to know, like, and become invested in the three central characters, laughing at their foibles and lyrics like “those Cheetos are nasty” before more serious concerns took over. The language is sexually explicit but the action is not. The aftermath, on the other hand, of Mindy's despair, we do see, and as it should be, this is hard to watch. What takes the show to a category further beyond the ordinary is a plot turn near the end – which I don’t want to give away – that brought home not only the lasting evil and impact of rape, but also carried such a strong message of compassion, of understanding, and of the possibility of recovery that it held us all spellbound, in silence, and in tears or close to them.

Thornborrow and Tepperman first met at Tapestry’s annual operatic speed-dating event, the Composer Librettist Laboratory, or LibLab, five years ago, and the success of their first creation (a funny and engaging five-minute opera brief about two students texting each other about dating) led to a commission from then-new artistic director Michael Mori, to develop the piece further. There was comment last night about this piece of artistic match-making, but I think what has made the piece truly great has been the addition of a third person to the mix, acclaimed theatre actor and director Richard Greenblatt. Made a part of the collaborative team three years ago as dramaturg and director, Greenblatt has helped fashion a powerful contemporary piece of music theatre that can speak to all – or most – ages. On top of that, he put together and directed an outstanding ensemble of singing actors (or acting singers) who worked together seamlessly: Emily Lukasik, Jeff Lillico, Alexis Gordon, Nathan Carroll, and Alicia Ault – the last making her Tapestry and Toronto professional theatre debut. I will declare my personal interest here by stating that Alicia is a friend and protégé of mine, so I was incredibly proud to see her make such a strong debut.

The entire company gave stunning performances. Lukasik was immediately recognizable as the first-year university student Mindy, thrilled to be away from home and to have privacy for meeting with her boyfriend. Ault was wicked and funny as her rather amoral best friend Cindy. Carroll, whom I hadn’t seen before, was funny and real as Mindy’s boyfriend Ty, and veteran stars Lillico and Gordon were both excellent in playing a range of different parts, from Mindy’s parents, to student orientation leaders, to other students. I have never seen Gordon so strong – funny and versatile in her many different roles, then almost painfully real and touching as  ‘Heather.’ Lillico was equally brilliant, from his role as a slightly awkward loving dad to a brief cameo, dangerous and creepy, as the potential rapist.

Yes, this was billed as an opera and required classically-trained voices for often-challenging music, but it was also sung clearly in a more musical theatre style, with the words having equal importance to the notes. There were no arias, though there were some wonderful full-company songs, such as the opening number about the freedom of getting away to university. It was as if we were simply in a world where people sing instead of speaking, the notes and words coming out as if invented on the spot.

Both for the issues it confronts and as an artistically accomplished piece of music theatre, this is a must-see event.

Hook Up, presented by Tapestry Opera in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille, opened on January 30 and runs until February 9 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Toronto (Content warning: contains explicit language, sexual content and discussion of sexual violence).

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

karendonnelly mfasa bannerTrumpeter Karen Donnelly of the NAC Orchestra. Photo credit: Dwayne Brown.In an article last October, Quartz examined the workplace demographics of 22 of the world’s top orchestras. “This fall,” that article begins, “the world’s great symphony orchestras will open their 2018/19 seasons. And just as they have for decades, many of them will be sharply segregated by gender.”

The study was (of the authors’ own admittance) rudimentary and, when it came to guessing the gender identities of orchestra members based on names, images and bios, highly speculative. But at the same time, it proved a valid point: that when it comes to determining who should play which musical instruments, old habits die hard. In those 22 orchestras, 94% of the harpists were female, while all of the trombone and tuba players across the board were men. Of the 103 trumpet players listed as full-time musicians in those orchestras, only one—Anne McAneny, of the London Philharmonic Orchestra—was a woman.

For many brass players, it’s a familiar problem. Part of it comes from the history of brass instruments in hunting, industrial bands, and the military. Part of it also has to do with which instruments have historically been seen as delicate and suitable for domestic performance—a category where instruments like trumpet and trombone rarely landed. Either way, when instrument choice is so segregated in this way, it affects everything from teaching practices, to gendered divides in pay grades, to how leadership and musicianship are negotiated in the industry.

This week at the University of Toronto, the Canadian Women Brass Collective is presenting ‘That’s What She Said’—a 5-day conference dedicated to gender diversity in brass music. Running from Jan 15 to 19, with masterclasses, workshops, competitions, concerts and roundtable discussions, ‘That’s What She Said’ aims to celebrate and support women brass musicians, from the student to professional levels—and realize new understandings of who, and how, brass players can be.

For Canadian trumpeter Karen Donnelly, working towards a professional career as an orchestral musician meant facing that gendered dynamic firsthand.

“When I was a young player studying in the late ’80s, there was one woman that I knew of in an orchestra job. Joan Watson was Associate Principal Horn at the Toronto Symphony at that time,” Donnelly explains over the phone, “That was the only woman I knew. And then later, when I was a student at McGill, there was a trombone player: Vivian Lee joined the Montreal Symphony. So, then there were two women—two women who made me believe that, oh my God, I can do this. Because there was that one person who was already doing it—and now there’s two.”

It was a realization that worked for her. Now midway through her 22nd season as Principal Trumpet of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Donnelly is a driving force behind the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective, and the upcoming U of T conference—the organization’s first-ever event.

“Basically about a year ago, I emailed friends and colleagues and asked: ‘Would you be interested in doing a project like this?’” Donnelly says. “And basically, not one person wrote back with a negative response.”

Other artists of the collective featured at the conference include tubist Karen Bulmer, trombonists Megan Hodge and Vivian Lee, trumpeters Amy Horvey and Merrie Klazek, horn player Catherine Turner, and conductor and trumpeter Gillian MacKay. Several other musicians and arts workers are involved in the conference project in other capacities, and several others still, says Donnelly, weren’t available—but everyone who she contacted expressed support for the project and mission.

The conference, which hosts events at U of T each afternoon and evening from Thursday, January 17 to Saturday, January 19 (as well as an opening masterclass that took place on January 15), features an orchestral excerpt competition, as well as several masterclasses, talks and clinics geared towards early-career players—and a final ensemble concert on the 19th that will bring together artists of different abilities and levels from across the country.

“Thirty-nine women brass players and percussionists, coming from 7 different provinces, 9 different orchestras, and 4 different military bands, including 5 or 6 student apprentices up there playing with us—and musicians from Newfoundland and the University of Victoria,” says Donnelly. “Coast to coast.”

As a model, Donnelly looked to the International Women’s Brass Conference (IWBC), an existing US-based project founded by Susan Slaughter, the former Principal Trumpet of the St. Louis Symphony, in 1993.

In a 2017 interview with Jennifer Hambrick of WOSU Public Media, Slaughter describes the feeling of those earliest IWBC meetings, where women brass players were able to meet and share their experiences with one another—in many cases for the first time.

“At the time, most (orchestra) brass sections, when there was a woman in it, there was only one,” Slaughter says. “And [there were] things that we could never say to our colleagues, because we were put in situations that if you said something back, you could pay for it later, or you were considered not one of them or something like that. So you just kept your mouth shut. But when you came to our conference, we would go out afterwards and people could start talking—'What do you do in this situation?'"

For Donnelly, Slaughter’s work at the St. Louis Symphony and IWBC, and the community of musicians that she helped to create, served as an inspiration—first as a young trumpeter, and now as a teacher and organizer of an analogous Canadian project. In that vein, things have come full circle: the IWBC is serving as a sponsor for this week’s ‘That’s What She Said’ conference, while Donnelly hopes that from this event forward, the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective can begin to build a similar community of mentorship and support that’s more accessible for Canadian artists and students—connecting local early-career musicians with professionals in the field who are doing the work.

“I think that aspect of the conference is the most important part of it,” she says. “Creating a mentoring situation—one that is a positive, inclusive, joyful experience.”

‘That’s What She Said’, presented by the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective, takes place from January 15 to 19 at the University of Toronto. More information can be found at www.canadianwomensbrasscollective.com.

The singers of Verbotenlieder.After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby—a.k.a. Tongue In Cheek Productions—decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to singcertain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.

It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December 19 concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.

Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Smut. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the 20th and 21st centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing woman-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance—for example in the transposed-for-soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. (Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.) Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint,’ which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about a bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow, piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.

Lauren Margison.And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil,’ unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed-off manner, yet still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second performance was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was: if you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.

On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio,’ Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea, and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my own theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make a strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlos with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.

The evening ended with an ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.

All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.

Tongue In Cheek Productions presented “Verbotenlieder” on December 19, 2018, at Lula Lounge, Toronto.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

Recipients of the 2018 Toronto Arts Foundation Awards. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Arts Foundation.Sometimes when trying to hammer out a piece of writing for a deadline like this one, the only way to do so is to nail oneself to a chair and let one’s fingers do the walking. So before I gave up on trying to explain why the thing I am about to ask you to do is is important, I managed to hammer out the following:

“Just as in dead of winter it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around planning for what one will be doing  musically next summer, so too it’s a bit hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of taking time, while the snow flies, to sit down and write something that will influence the outcome of an arts award that will not take place until the black flies fly, in May of next year. But, with The WholeNote having been the recipient of one of last year’s Toronto Arts Foundation #TOArtsAwards, we’ll always be grateful that one individual actually took the time, this time last year, to nail themself to a chair and nominate us for the award.

“Toronto Arts Foundation Signature Awards honour Toronto's arts community, shining the spotlight on the role of the arts in keeping the city vibrant and humane. Most of the awards are presented at a so-named annual ‘Mayor’s Arts Lunch’ in the late spring (yes, Virginia, hard as it is to believe right now, there will be a spring). Not all awards are presented annually: the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition that The WholeNote received last year, ‘in recognition of its role in promoting current music and emerging artists,’ for example, is biennial.

“This year’s five award categories are: ARTS FOR YOUTH AWARD (celebrating an individual, collective or organization that has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to engaging Toronto’s youth through the arts); EMERGING ARTIST AWARD (celebrating the accomplishments and future potential of an emerging Toronto artist working in any discipline); MURIEL SHERRIN AWARD (celebrating outstanding achievements in music and a global commitment to the arts); MARGO BINDHARDT AND RITA DAVIES AWARD (celebrating an individual who has demonstrated creative cultural leadership in arts and culture in Toronto); and the EMERGING JAZZ ARTIST AWARD (celebrating an outstanding emerging jazz artist in Toronto).”

And that is as far as I got. Because sometimes, when trying to hammer out a piece of writing for a deadline, the only thing to do is to stop staring at the half-written draft on the screen (with its paragraphs degenerating into half-formed sentences containing words like energetic, significant, leadership, celebrate, spotlight, honour, nominate) and get the hell out of the house, letting my feet do the talking while my mind bounces ideas off every passing building, so they can rebound as voices in my head telling me what might be useful to say. And besides, I had a meeting to get to, to chat about a very different award ceremony coming up in February, a couple of miles away.

So off I went, heading south-east, finding diagonals wherever I could and zig-zagging the rest of the time. From home base on Bellevue Avenue, where we could listen to the sounds of last September’s Kensington Market Jazz Festival from our front yard, as that astonishing initiative, only in its third year, continues to grow and evolve. Diagonally across Bellevue Square, where anyone can sit, and does, and music is perpetually part of the fabric of things. Down that little stretch of Augusta Avenue just above Dundas Street, where every year during Nuit Blanche things happen, even though they are not on the “official” festival map (from a “live karaoke” tent to a Philippine gong ensemble rehearsing in a basement art gallery I never knew was there till I heard the call of the gongs). Across Dundas Street through the heart of Chinatown, to Beverley Street, the Italian Consulate to my left, where from the lawn on summer evenings you just might hear the sounds of opera or vintage car chases, corresponding images flickering on a movie screen. And straight ahead, the Art Gallery of Ontario, with all its treasures and potential for partnership. Down Beverley a short way, then the long south-east diagonal through Grange Park, past the wonderfully relocated Henry Moore two large forms. And past University Settlement House, with its vibrant and inclusive community music school where 24 years ago a child too small to reach the pedals sat at a piano, and the ensuing photograph found its way to the cover of the very first issue of this magazine.

Exiting Grange Park down John Street, the pace picks up. Past St. George-the-Martyr, for two decades the home of the Music Gallery (before they moved to 918 Bathurst) and still a treasured intimate music venue, despite the condo going up, loudly, to the east of it. Hanging a left at the laneway just before hitting Queen, and emerging from that laneway alongside the Rex Hotel. The Rex Hotel. Turning left onto Queen, directly ahead the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But before crossing University Ave., a quick glance to the north at Campbell House Museum, a little gem of an occasional music venue, as violinist Edwin Huizinga could tell you. And a longer, nervous glance north up University Ave. to Queen’s Park, where the shadow of Ford the Elder, who talks about art the way George H.W. Bush talked about broccoli, looms large. Past City Hall, from which sanctuary, a few years back Ford the Younger didn’t get out of his chair and walk across the street to attend the Mayor’s Arts Lunch, held that year in the Arcadian Room in the Simpsons Tower, on the southeast corner of Bay and Queen.

Somewhere along the last couple of blocks of my walk,on Bay between King and Queen, a man who looks to be 20 going on 50 is moving to some music only he can hear, trapped in some paroxysm of the body or dance of the spirit, twisting and turning on the sidewalk across the road from me, in front of the freshly painted white hoardings around the base of some tower with a crane (the official bird of the city) perched on top. Between each gyration he stretches his hand as high up the hoarding as he can, writing giant looping letters with a pen, all along the hoarding; then back to the beginning, a little lower down, for the next line, and starts again. The pen is imaginary. His story is invisible.

So, what am I asking you to do? Take the time this winter – the deadline is February 15 – to nominate some artist, in any and every sense of that word, whose work in the arts you honour, for a Toronto Arts Foundation Award. By doing so, irrespective of who the finalists and winners turn out to be, we collectively make visible the stories, block by block, of who we are, what we do, and why it matters.

You can read about the awards here. And about the awards that are currently accepting nominations at: https://torontoartsfoundation.org/initiatives/awards/nominate-today.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

The Yellow Ticket in Vancouver with Alicia Svigals performing. Photo by Chris Randle.“When I see the interiors of the film, I smell the apartment of my great-grandmother [who emigrated from Odessa]... It’s a magic, rare, strange, mysterious, fascinating little item. It’s like photos of my great-grandparents come to life. 
— Alicia Svigals

Alicia Svigals. Photo by Tina Chaden BeskurenSvigals, the renowned klezmer violinist/vocalist/composer is referring to The Yellow Ticket, a silent film made 100 years ago which will be screened at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on February 7. But this is no mere revival of a rare artifact. “The Yellow Ticket” is a multimedia event featuring a fascinating 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket (aka The Devil’s Pawn). Svigals’ original score breathes new life into the film as it is performed live by the violinist along with virtuoso Toronto pianist, Marilyn Lerner.

Considered by many to be the world’s foremost klezmer fiddler, Svigals is a founder of the Klezmatics and a driving force behind the klezmer music revival. The film, directed by Victor Janson and Eugen Illès, was a very early production of the legendary German film company UFA-Pagu, and made near the end of WWI on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Starring a young Pola Negri (later to become a femme fatale of the silent era in Hollywood), The Yellow Ticket tells the story of a young Jewish woman from a Polish shtetl who is constrained by antisemitic restrictions to lead a double life in a brothel while attempting to study medicine in Tsarist Russia. The first film to explore antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, The Yellow Ticket (which was restored in 2013), includes precious footage of the former Jewish quarter of Warsaw and the people who once lived there.

Remarkable for its time, The Yellow Ticket addresses ethnic and religious discrimination, human trafficking and poverty in startlingly progressive terms. Its clear-eyed denunciation of antisemitism caused the Nazis to condemn Negri in the years to come.

According to Michal Oleszczyk of rogerebert.com, Pola Negri (née Apolonia Chałupiec), the only Polish actress ever to become a major Hollywood star, lived a life as exciting as the movies she graced with her presence. Born in the small Polish town of Lipno in 1894 (while the country was still under a triple occupation by its neighbours), she climbed her way up: first to the theatre stages of Warsaw and then to the budding movie business. After a successful crossover to the much more sophisticated German film industry – and a happy pairing with its finest director, Ernst Lubitsch – she starred in the international smash-hit, Madame Dubarry (1919). It was Lubitsch’s ticket to Hollywood – as well as Negri’s.

“I believe this accompaniment to The Yellow Ticket is one of the most powerful I have heard. It evokes not only a sense of the contemporary context of the culture in which the film took place, but our awareness of what was done to it afterwards. The sound of piano, violin and the human voice evoke passion, energy and a profound sense of mourning, bridging the historical distance between us and this film as eloquently as does Pola Negri’s extraordinary face.”
-
University of Chicago film scholar Tom Gunning

FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is only one stop along a whirlwind tour of Southern Ontario. Svigals and Lerner will also be accompanying the film in Burlington on February 8 and in Oakville, February 16. In between, on February 9, the “queen of klezmer” gives a recital at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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