He's been called “probably the most uncompromising musician in Canadian musical history” by Robert Aitken, director of New Music Concerts. Udo Kasemets’ compositions have made an indelible and enduring contribution to the Canadian modernist and postmodernist music landscape. Through his concert activism he also introduced the music of the American and European avant garde to the Toronto public.
In fact, Kasemets’ career encompasses the story of the avant garde of the second half of the 20th century in our town. It is fitting that now in his 90th year, New Music Concerts is celebrating that contribution.
The “Decade With No Name” (the “Aughties” never quite caught on) has now ended. And while there was no audible bang or whimper at its close, for classical music fans in Toronto, the decade will be remembered as eventful. Not only was there an abundance of musical performances of all kinds, there were also fundamental shifts in the cultural landscape. Some of these changes were beneficial; others weren’t – but they’ll all have a long-term impact on classical music in this city.
Here’s my own list of the ten most consequential and era-defining events, during the first decade of the 21st century.
It never ceases to amaze me that Glenn Gould remains so fascinating to the world, more than a quarter-century after his death. There's been so much biographical material already produced about Canada's most famous pianist that you'd think the topic would be pretty much exhausted by now.
On the contrary. This year, another Gould book, entitled simply Glenn Gould, by Mark Kingwell, was published. I've not read it yet – but Pamela Margles, The WholeNote's book critic, reviewed it in our December-January issue. (You can read her review here.) And now we have a new documentary film, Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould, which I saw last night at the Royal Cinema.
Filmmakers Peter Raymond and Michèle Hozer have done a commendable job of patching together an impressive amount of footage of Gould. We see him in New York, in Massey Hall, at his cottage in Muskoka, singing to elephants at the zoo, and even making a nutty home movie while on holidays in the Bahamas.
Interspersed with archival footage, there are interviews with people who knew Gould. Here the film breaks new ground, revealing the cerebral musician as more human than he's often portrayed. There are interviews with three women in his life – yes, there were women in his life – including Cornelia Foss, who left her husband, the composer Lukas Foss, to live near Gould in Toronto for four years. (This first became public knowledge thanks to an article in the Toronto Star, a couple of years ago.) Ms. Foss is interviewed, and she tells much, if not all, about the relationship.
The film also doesn't pull punches about Gould's hypochondria, either. Indeed, it's a little horrifying to learn how he managed to get multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors – without anyone in the medical world noticing what was going on, and putting a stop to it.
Everyone interested in Gould should see this movie. Unfortunately, it plays at the Royal only until December 8. However, I hear there are plans for the film to be broadcast by Bravo Television in February. And I expect it will be available in the video rental shops before too long.
Well now, this looks like fun. Tafelmusik has launched a Sing-Along-Messiah video contest. They're inviting Handel enthusiasts to submit (by December 12) video clips of themselves performing Messiah excerpts. There will be prizes for Best Overall Performance, Best Group/Family, Best Soloist, and Most Creative. The best video clips will be posted online, and winners will be invited to appear on stage in Tafelmusik's Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall on December 20.
Personally, I think it would have been interesting to have another prize for Most Historically Inauthentic Performance – but I expect they'll get plenty would fall in that category, anyway.
According, to Ivars Taurins, director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, the idea comes from a CBC radio contest for which he served as a judge, a few years ago. At that time, people were invited to submit their do-it-yourself Messiah audio recordings. Tafelmusik has updated this concept by adding a video component.
"We're looking for people to be creative and inspirational," he explains. "They can get the family together, sing a duet with a friend, or have the dog join in. It can be anything from a serious performance from a professional or amateur, or from a student or child, to something lighthearted."
I hope Tafelmusik's challenge results in some imaginative approaches to Handel's perennial favourite. And just so everyone who's tempted to enter the contest is well aware of how high the bar has already been set, here's a YouTube video clip of the Northwestern University Kazoo Choir's inimitable rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus":
The COC’s Diamond Anniversary Gala was an unforgettable evening of magnificent music making. Ben Heppner may have pulled out of the concert, but the real star of the show, in any case, was the COC Orchestra led for the first time by Johannes Debus as its new music director. The shell built for Robert Lepage’s The Nightingale now allows the orchestra to sound great not just in the pit but also on stage.
The concert began with a sparkling performance of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, then alternated excepts from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust with arias from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette sung by Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas and Canadian baritone Russell Braun. The first section concluded with Vargas’ hugely impressive account of “Nature immense” from La Damnation. Throughout the Berlioz, the orchestra’s precision of attack, its internal clarity and the lush colours of its sound repeatedly reminded me of the Montreal Symphony in its glory days under Charles Dutoit. Debus clearly enjoys conducting the orchestra and they just as clearly enjoy playing for him. The encore of “Au fond du temple saint” from The Pearl Fishers, sung by Braun and Vargas, drove the audience to a prolonged standing ovation.
After intermission, the intelligently planned programme turned from Berlioz to Wagner, with Debus highlighting the influence of the former on the latter. A wonderfully warm and joyous performance of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger was followed by Cornish Heldentenor John Treleaven’s account of Walther's Prize Song from the same opera – then Braun’s gorgeous singing of Wolfram’s aria “O du holder Abendstern” and Treleaven’s moving Rome Narration both from Tannhäuser. The three-part conclusion from Götterdämmerung was Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Treleaven’s singing of “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut” and finally Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March. The emotion in the last excerpt was palpable, this being the first time the orchestra has played from the Ring Cycle since the death of Richard Bradshaw. It was impossible not to feel that the conflict between grief and heroism in the piece wasn't also meant to reflect the orchestra’s view of the General Director who had led it to such a height.
Vargas, a favourite at the Met, gave us a taste of the kind of Italianate, powerfully emotional singing we seldom hear from tenors at the COC. Braun, whose voice seems to grown only deeper and richer with every appearance, triumphed in the sheer beauty of Wolfram’s aria, which drew its own standing ovation. Treleaven, who sings almost exclusively in Europe, wasn't as outwardly demonstrative as Vargas or Braun. But he possesses a voice of Wagnerian magnitude, devoid of harshness and shaped by such clarity of diction as to render surtitles superfluous (not that there were any) for anyone who knows German. The final encore, though, fittingly belonged to the orchestra who played the overture to Tannhäuser with such verve and grandeur that one could only hope the work is among the COC’s future plans, along with La Damnation.
I left filled with a glow from knowing that we now have not only a great opera house and a great opera orchestra, but also a wonderfully expressive conductor who knows how to bring out the very best.
It sounds like a paradox. The Canadian Opera Company could hardly be more successful with critics and audiences alike, yet it ended the 2008/09 season with a deficit. As COC Board President Paul Spafford made clear at the COC’s Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, the COC’s operating deficit of $1.6 million for the previous season was directly caused by a shortfall in the company’s annual fund-raising programs. No points for guessing that this was a result of the global economic crisis. Fortunately, the COC had ended the six previous years with a surplus. These surpluses furnished the funds the company was able to draw upon to overcome the deficit and end the year $25,000 in the black.
Otherwise, there was only good news. The COC’s subscription rate is among the highest in North America. This season only the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago will stage more performances than the COC. And, best of all, the 2008-09 season played to 99.7 percent capacity.
As COC General Director Alexander Neef stated, “It has been an extremely exciting first year for me as General Director. I am very pleased and proud to lead a company that produces opera at a level as high as, or higher than, any other North American company with a much smaller budget than those of our North American peers. And, I have been particularly encouraged to see enthusiastic and full houses in the opera house for every performance. I’m glad that we can engage audiences with the breadth and depth of repertoire we produce because it bodes very well for the future of the COC and opera in Canada.”
Further good new for the company, now celebrating its 60th anniversary, is that for the first time in almost 20 years, the COC’s mainstage season will be broadcast across Canada. In conjunction with its Broadcast Partner, CBC Radio 2, each opera in the COC’s 2009/10 season will be aired twice nationally on CBC Radio 2 and Radio-Canada’s Espace Musique, and the broadcasts of COC recordings also will be available for internet streaming on both the company’s website, www.coc.ca, and on CBC Concerts on Demand, www.cbc.ca/radio2, for a period of 12 months after the initial streaming date. As the producer of these recordings, the COC will also seek additional means of extending the reach of its artistic output into new media platforms such as CDs, DVDs and cinecasts, as well as select National Public Radio stations in the United States.
We’ve had a crash course, this week, in the political power of youth and music.
With José Antonio Abreu here to receive the Glenn Gould Prize, and bringing with him Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, people who don’t care about youth and music – even people who, except for when handing out campaign promises, would rather forget about youth and music – have taken notice.
It’s been very good to see the political stock of an education in music getting a small amount of the credit it deserves.
I’m here today to give credit to another organization which has been doing similar work almost completely without fanfare, across an ever-expanding territory throughout the world, for 64 years.
Perhaps the most common epithet applied in print to sitar virtuoso, composer and musical dynasty head Ravi Shankar (b. 1920) is “legendary.” Glancing at the outline of his extraordinary 70-plus-year career, it would be hard to quibble with that summing up.
I admit that I've been among those who have occasionally followed the latter part of Ravi Shankar’s pioneering work reaching out to Western audiences. His legacy could be observed two ways in the Oct. 18 concert given by Ravi Shankar and his younger daughter Anoushka at the spanking new and welcoming-sounding Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. The first was in the make-up of the audience. It appeared overwhelmingly non-South Asian. Perhaps most significantly that indicates the overall success in Toronto of Ravi Shankar’s half-century of outreach. It has ultimately paid off in creating a broadly based audience for his and Anoushka Shankar’s music projects – certainly a much larger following than the core audience for orthodox "classical" Hindustani music.
Here are a couple of other picks to fill your calendar:
The Gryphon Trio continues to champion Canadian composers and their works in two world premieres this month: Wave by Gary Kulesha, and Paul Frehner’s Berliner Konzert.
I had my first taste of the gorgeous new Koerner Hall in the revamped Royal Conservatory of Music building on Bloor Street last night (October 21). And it was an amazing introduction to the place, as New York-based a-cappella group Naturally 7 put on an electrifying show.
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