St. George's of Montreal's "G Major" show choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.You don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never seen the Show Choir Canada competition. It’s every bit as intense and crazy as you imagine, and more – but also mostly just plain fun. This marks the seventh year that producers George Randolph (Founder of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts [RAPA] in Toronto) and Peter Dacosta (of Dacosta Talent) have been hosting Canadian and international show choirs in competition. There’s a friendly air and a spirit of collegiality, but make no mistake: the competition is real.

Each performance is about 20 minutes long. No one performs any one song or any one style. Music theatre, pop, rock, soundtrack...anything really, if the choir can make it work. The songs blend together, sometimes more gracefully than others, sometimes a hard stop and a new scene begins. Fame, a show choir from Woodbridge, does a set of Beatles songs including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Help.” Each song is a distinct new scene. Throw in dancing, acting, staging and lighting and these are little mini shows, made up of skits all focused around music.

Hours of group rehearsal, dance classes, acting workshops, singing lessons and personal rehearsal time are behind every show choir. Participants love it. Sophie Koren, from St. George’s “G Major” show choir from Montreal, QC, says, “I joined when I was in grade 7; this is my fifth year. There are only a few of us that have been doing that this long.” G Major are the defending champions, having taken the grand trophy in 2016. But everyone is wary of the American group this year.

The Totino-Grace choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.Totino-Grace High School “Company of Singers” is leading off the evening performances. From Fridley, Minnesota, the Americans are bringing a much longer history and institutionalization of show choirs to the competition. From the minute they start, you can see what that means. Their performance was called “Ready Set Go,” featuring “Shut up and Drive” by Rihanna, “For Good” from Wicked, “Change in Me” from Beauty and the Beast, and several other songs. Dazzling costumes, a company of almost 50, a full band in regalia, and artistic staff backing it all up. There’s a lot of money behind this ensemble and it’s obvious compared to the others.

“Show Choirs are big business in the States,” shares Randolph. “However, with our competition, we have judges from the US as well. What they like about our competition is that it isn’t just about extravagant sets…it’s stripped down to a more pure state. Show choir is about the voice. Bottom line. It’s about the vocals.” A recurring theme in the commentary from the judges is too much unison singing. There are songs being sung in too low a key, major triads being built on top of minor keys, and a mismatch between music and style that affects the overall performance. And unfortunately, just a lack of male voices in harmonies, even amongst the co-ed groups. 

After each choir the judges provide feedback. Three judges, Linda Southard of Chicago, Kevin Chase of Iowa City, and Jeannie Wyse of Toronto, lead the evaluations. Steve Lehmann judges the live bands where applicable. The evaluations are affirming and fair, looking to improve rather than admonish. It’s tough to get feedback on the spot like that. But these performing artists are anything but ordinary.

Totino-Grace winning first place at the Canada Show Choir competition. Photo credit: One For The Wall Photography.Everyone is bringing their A-game as best as they can. Koren, of G Major, speaks more about being a defending champion. “Returning to defend is a different feeling,” she says. “But last year, being overall grand champions was wow! [This year] we had to kick ourselves in the butts. We need to stay strong. Our director even said to us, winning the first time is not the hard part. Winning the second time in a row is the hard part.” But she feels confident. “It’s a struggle, but we did our best. Our absolute best. We fully left everything on the stage. We’ll see what happens.” G Major ultimately wins second place, the first place prize going to Totino-Grace.

Randolph shares the story of the success that he hopes the competition continues to foster. He mentions Jahlen Barnes, currently part of the Shaw Festival and signed talent with DaCosta. “This, giving someone the opportunity…for Jahlen, getting into a show choir, getting a full scholarship to RAPA, signs to Dacosta, and now, he’s singing for Stephen Schwartz at the Panasonic.” This is the dream.

It’s a dream that many others are aspiring to. Carter Djam, from Totino-Grace, tells me about getting into show choir. “I play basketball, football, and track – all about sports,” he explains. “But one of my friends kept asking until I finally had to say yes. I fell in love with it at that point. This is my life now. I want to go to school for performing. My life has changed around the subject.” You can see him onstage, acting on point, dancing with all the right energy. He’s still got many years of show choir competitions ahead of him, years more of performing arts.

For Randolph, “It’s about sharing in the creative process, meeting new friends, new relationships...what the students directly benefit from is more self-esteem, confidence. It’s very self-empowering. Because they have found a place that can identify with and have a voice, and be understood.”

The 2017 Show Choir Canada competition took place on April 7-8, 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto.

Full 2017 Grand Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/championships/results

Full 2017 Junior-Mid Level Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/jr-mid/results

Non-Arts Large Ensemble

GRAND CHAMPIONS – Totino-Grace, “Company of Singers” (Best Vocals, Best Choreo, Best Combo)
2nd Place – St. George’s of Montreal, “G-Major” (Best Show Design)
3rd Place – Beaconsfield CHS, “BHS Crescendo”
4th Place – Richmond Hill HS, “Vocal Fusion”

Arts/Community Division

1st Place – Milton Show Choir “Gleam” (Best Vocals, Best Choreography, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – Unionville High School “Synergy”
3rd Place – Fame School of the Performing Arts

Non-Arts Small Ensemble

1st Place – Our Lady of Lourdes, “The Pitches” (Best Choreo, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – All Saints CHS, “Flash” (Best Vocals)
3rd Place – J. Clarke Richardson, “Vocal Thunder”
4th Place – Michael Power/St. Josephs, “Power House”
5th Place – York Mills, “Cheat Notes”
6th Place – St. Francis, “Sound FX”

Individual Awards

Top Vocalist : Brendan from All Saints CHS
Top Dancer: Emily from Unionville HS
Top Male Triple Threat: Ryan from St. George’s
Top Female Triple Threat: Mojo from J Clarke Richardson

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

David Lynch.Filmmaker Jon Nguyen spent 25 weekends over almost three years interviewing David Lynch in his studio – painting, sculpting, smoking, drinking coffee and talking – to produce the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. The result is a compelling autobiography from a working artist who literally makes art every day, when he’s not occupied with filmmaking or writing his new Twin Peaks TV series. Lynch leads us on his life’s journey as an artist, from childhood to the AFI grant that enabled him to produce his fabled first feature Eraserhead.

This “private memoir” is dedicated to Lynch’s young daughter Lula, who was about three and a half when seen with her father in his workshop. (His daughter Jennifer, the offspring of an early relationship, is seen in a home movie from the late 1960s.)  Lynch’s unforced lilt as he narrates his life reminded me of John Cage’s one-minute storytelling cadences in Indeterminacy. Danish composer Jonatan Bengta’s electronically-based soundtrack over a hypnotic percussion beat etches a deep groove that moves symbiotically with the film’s natural rhythms. Bengta wrote on his Facebook page just before The Art Life premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September: “As a teen I tried to copy his hairstyle and twang my voice similarly. I then learnt how to talk like the elephant man and finally started to drink black coffee like Agent Cooper.” Lynch’s own blues-based music – I Have a Radio, The Night Bell with Lightning and Sparkle Lounge Blues, all with collaborator Dean Hurley – makes a few pointed appearances as well.

Filled with family anecdotes illustrated by old photographs, Lynch takes us through a happy childhood in the American Northwest and an unhappy adolescence triggered by a move to Virginia, all of it seemingly focused on his past, present and (implicitly) future life as a hardcore artist. An early key was his prescient mother who recognized something in her son that led her to forbid his use of colouring books because their rigidity would restrict his creativity. In high school it was the painter Bushnell Keeler, the stepfather of a friend, who became a mentor and later rented Lynch space in his studio. Keeler was the embodiment of “the art life,” which for the teenaged Lynch meant “smoking, coffee and painting.” Now at 71, he’s still blowing smoke into the haze of memory, stoking the creative process.

Among the priceless stories the film relates: Lynch inviting his father down to the basement of their house to show him his prized collection of rotting fruit and decaying insects and animals which prompted his horrified father to advise him never to have children; and then there’s the time when he was a boy at play in the street and suddenly saw a naked woman walking towards him – a striking correlation to the memorable scene from Blue Velvet. Tellingly, he always kept his friends separate from his family and his friends separate from his art friends, a compartmentalization that resonates in such films as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

David Lynch and his daughter Lula. This is must-see stuff not only for Lynchian aficionados but also for anyone interested in the creative process.

David Lynch: The Art Life is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Taylor PodcastP1020987-small.jpg"Good luck with the editing” was almost the first thing world-renowned Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor said to Bryson Winchester, WholeNote podcast recording technician, when we sat down for this particular conversation. And indeed, pinning the mercurial Taylor down to one topic of conversation is a tough task, as his innate musicality takes him deeper into teaching and music directing, along with an intensive concert and recording schedule remarkable for its range, both in terms of geography and repertoire.

As it turned out, we managed to touch on several topics of interest.

To hear the full conversation with Daniel Taylor click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Read more: Daniel Taylor: 17.03.22

Parr BannerPhoto Credit - Bruce ZingerToronto-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.

So reads the little bio on our website at the end of her recent online concert report for The WholeNote on the Toronto opening night of the new musical Sousatzka.

It was the “fight director” angle that provided the spark for this conversation taking place at this particular point in time, but by the end of our chat I’d say we’d at least touched on all the aspects of her life alluded to in that little bio.  

To hear the full conversation with Jenny Parr click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcastsfor the entire list.

Or click here to download this episode. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Read more: Jenny Parr: 17.03.06

Braun BannerP1020588-small.jpgRussell Braun dropped by our studio on March 2, just back in town after his umpteenth Mendelssohn Elijah in Ottawa (around two and a half decades after a prescient Robert Cooper first picked him out of a University of Toronto student lineup to perform the role). “No-one in their 20s should do it,” he says now, with a laugh. Unsurprisingly for those who know him, with rehearsals for Louis Riel due to start March 19, he wasn’t exactly planning to rest up. Both of his sons, he told me, are heavily involved in baseball so he’s heading off the next day on a side trip to their respective spring-training camps in Florida, “en route” to London for a March 13 performance of Senza Sangue (Without Blood), a one-act opera by Peter Eötvös, based on a novella of the same name by Alessandro Baricco. His character in Senza is in his 70s, he informed us.

To hear the full conversation with Russell Braun click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcastsfor the entire list.

Or click here to download the episode. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Read more: Russell Braun: 17.03.02

NFD Poster BannerNational Film Day 2017 PosterOui The North. On April 19, 340 unique feature films will screen for free in more than 1700 locations in Canada, plus over 60 international sites like Canadian embassies and Canadian military bases, to celebrate our country’s movies in this sesquicentennial year. From 90 screenings in Toronto to two in far-flung Tuktoyaktuk NT (appropriately The Sun at Midnight and The Lesser Blessed), the country will be blanketed in movies from coast to coast to coast in what is billed as the world’s largest film festival. “Everything from high to low,” Reel Canada’s artistic director Sharon Corder told me mid-March.

Reel Canada has been moving towards this unique celebration since they began showing Canadian films in schools in 2005. The inaugural Canadian Film Day, April 29, 2014, became an annual event that will culminate April 19 with this year’s National Canadian Film Day 150 (in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Canada On Screen project which is responsible for 150 of the screenings).

“In scale and intention,” Corder said. “We’ve been building to this. We’re going after everyone.” What an extravaganza it will be, a far cry from the not-too-distant past when Canadian movies (English-language in particular) were scorned by the general public. Now the richness of our film culture is evident from Oscar nominees to Cannes prizewinners. And, as Corder points out, because of the school webcast (with schools screening films before logging on to interact with guests), movies like Breakaway and The Trotsky are two of Reel Canada’s most popular. The same goes for the French school webcasts and Paul à Québec. And because of the “respectful inclusion of Indigenous people,” there will be more than 75 screenings of films by Indigenous filmmakers.

Some of the most popular films being screened April 19 are:

The Grand Seduction, Snowtime/La guerre des tuques, Passchendaele,

La légende de Sarila (The Legend of Sarila), The Whale, Corner Gas: The Movie, The Rocket, Anne of Green Gables, The Sweet Hereafter, Angry Inuk, Stories We Tell, Water and Sharkwater.

“Not necessarily what anyone could predict, eh?,” Corder said.

And then there the films that fit nicely into The WholeNote’s Music and the Movies niche. Most, if not all, can be seen somewhere in Canada on April 19.

It’s Only the End of the World

What follows is a random sampling of films where music plays a significant role headed by the most recent.

Xavier Dolan’s emotionally riven chamber piece, It’s Only the End of the World (2016), won six Canadian Screen Awards, three French Césars and the Grand Prix at Cannes. Dolan’s camera lingers on his characters in close-up, accentuating pauses, building to the affective climax. Gabriel Yared’s warm, empathetic symphonic score and pop music outbursts like Camille’s Home Is Where It Hurts, Grimes’ Oblivion and the Moldovan pop group O-Zone’s Dragostea Din Tei are crucial ingredients.

Sleeping Giant

Toy Piano Composers co-founder Chris Thornborrow wrote the evocative score to director Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant (2015), which captures the energy of growing up near Lake Superior in a well-crafted character study over one summer of awkward adolescence. Kevin Turcotte’s uncanny trumpet on the soundtrack of Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue (2015), a reimagining of Chet Baker’s life, is essential to making Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Baker believable. Pianist David Braid, who arranged the extensive music track (which is far more reality-based than the plot), leads the fine quartet of Turcotte, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke. 

Mommy

Stéphane Lafleur’s understated little bijou, Tu Dors Nicole (2014) filmed in rich black and white, is a finely etched portrait of a 22-year-old young woman maturing over one aimless summer. Xavier Dolan’s Cannes prizewinner, Mommy (2014), which jumps off the screen with a life force that is contagious, is driven by a carefully chosen soundtrack of music performed by Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Counting Crows, Andrea Bocelli, Lana Del Rey and the ecstatic use of Oasis’ Wonderwall.

Gabrielle, the title character of Louise Archambault’s exceptional Gabrielle (2013), is a young woman with Williams syndrome (a genetic condition characterized by learning disabilities, among other medical problems). She has a contagious joie de vivre and perfect pitch (exceptional musical gifts are a positive blessing of Williams syndrome). Gabrielle and her boyfriend are members of a choir that is preparing for an important music festival. The film’s emotional impact is unforced and uplifting.

In his mesmerizing documentary, The End of Time (2012), Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler uses images and sound -- the tools he’s most comfortable with – to observe time and make our experience of it palpable. Music by Autechre, Robert Henke and Thomas Koner animates his images (of lava flowing on the big island of Hawaii, for example) while techno DJ Richie Hawtin (“Plastikman”) distills time down to its basic rhythm and Christos Hatzis’ and Bruno DeGazio’s Harmonia depicts harmonic overtones.

Nathan Morlando’s cinematic intelligence permeates every frame of his film debut, Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster (which won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF 2011). His cinematic good sense led him to hire Max Richter to compose the music which supported the narrative without ever being overbearing.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

The following classics of Canadian cinema are inseparable from their musical bearings:

I am one of many who believe Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is the best Canadian film ever made. Music by Huun-Huur-Tu, Christopher Mad'dene, traditional Inuit ajaja songs and throat singing, plus Chris Crilly’s score back this Inuit tale handed down over the generations. A masterpiece of stunning landscapes, epic in scope.

Francis Mankiewicz’s haunting Les Bons Débarras (1979) uses Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 K488, Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Puccini’s O mio babbino caro to underline its Gothic passion. The music in Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age masterpiece, C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), is inseparable from its narrative. Patsy Cline, Charles Aznavour, Grace Slick, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones (among others) form the soundtrack to a life. And Perez Prado’s Mambo Jambo makes it alright in the end.

Denys Arcand’s Le Déclin de l'empire américain (1986) captures a vibrant historic moment in Quebec’s intellectual and social history to a score by François Dompierre. Arcand’s next film, Jésus de Montréal (1989), uses Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and the exotic The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices to buttress his engrossing, uncompromising look at contemporary religious values.

Bruce McDonald’s iconic road movie, Highway 61(1991) is propelled by The Archies, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Tom Jones, The Ramones, Sonny Terry, Nash the Slash, The Razorbacks, Rita Chiarelli, Colin Linden and the infamous Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.

Alan Zweig will make a guest appearance April 19 at 9pm when his compulsive documentary, Vinyl (2000), shows (appropriately) at the Sonic Boom Cinema Club, 215 Spadina Ave.

J.A. Martin: photographe

One of the first Canadian films to make an international splash, Jean Beaudin’s J. A. Martin, photographe (1977), a beautiful cinematic portrait of a bygone age, is supported by Maurice Blackburn’s unobtrusive score.

Oscar winner Howard Shore has worked with David Cronenberg on almost all his films including the seminal Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996).

Mychael Danna, another Oscar winner, has scored almost all of Atom Egoyan’s films including the still-resonant The Sweet Hereafter (1997). He has an uncanny but totally unforced ability to combine Western and non-Western music seamlessly. For proof, watch (and listen to) Deepa Mehta’s best film, Water (2005).

Egoyan’s Calendar (1993), unusual in not being scored by Danna, is one of the director’s most revealing and personal films. The music by Eve Egoyan (piano), Jivan Gasparyan (duduk), Hovhanness Tarpinian (tar) and Garo Tchaliguian (singer) reinforces the enigma that drives the film’s deceptive narrative.

Two indelible Music and the Movies moments: Atom Egoyan’s Exotica resonant with Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows and Sheila McCarthy literally flying high accompanied by The Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé in Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).

One film I wish was available: Julian Roffman’s beatnik time capsule, The Bloody Brood (1959), was Peter Falk’s first starring role and the movie that preceded Roffman’s widely heralded 3-D horror film, The Mask (1961). I saw it at a special TIFF Cinematheque screening several years ago and was delighted to see that the jazz combo that provided the music in the coffee house where Falk and his cohorts hung out was led by none other than the eternal hipster Harry Freedman. On English horn. How cool is that!

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

Finally, there is François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), its elegantly constructed vignettes a masterful distillation of the life of a (musical) genius. That is the film I would choose to watch on National Canadian Film Day 150. Luckily for me, it’s showing at TIFF Bell Lightbox on April 19. Writer-actor Don McKellar and star Colm Feore are special guests.

Karina Gauvin. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian.Karina Gauvin and Tafelmusik are old friends and this shared history comes across in the ease of concertando whenever the two get together. A lot has happened since the rising light baroque coloratura Gauvin recorded Morgana’s “Torna mi a vagheggiar” with Tafelmusik for their 1999 Handel CD—she now sings Mozart’s Vitellia in European opera houses and Tafelmusik now claims the early Romantics as part of their repertoire—but this mutual understanding and ease of playing remains. Tafelmusik and Karina Gauvin will never not sound good together.

The two convened again March 23-26 at Koerner Hall in a program titled “Baroque Diva.” Gauvin sang four programmed pieces and two encores which demonstrated again how remarkable her range is. The aria “La mia costanza” from Handel’s opera Ezio is a serene, moderate number with a good amount of coloratura. “Mio caro bene,” from Rodelinda, which she introduced for the first encore as the “all is well with the world” aria, is in a similar tone. Alcina’s aria “Ah, mio cor,” on the other hand, is one of those agonizingly sad and long (it’s the most glorious kind of wallowing) Handel arias that shows how polished the soprano’s high sustained piani are. Beauty and purity of tone are a must. Together with “Verdi prati” in Alcina, “Ah, cor mio” is the saddest point of this magic opera, illustrating what happens when the spell of love wears off or is suddenly taken away. A dramatic commitment is required in equal measure. Gauvin of course got both sides down to a T. Her voice is more substantial now, there’s a well controlled vibrato, there are gradations in shading: not all light and bright, the voice is more womanly than girly. Gauvin acted the aria as a scene, and while she was as dramatic as she would be in a staged opera, nothing went overboard. There was no hamming, because she withheld nothing.

Moving on across the Gauvin range, the Vivaldi’s religious motet “O qui coeli” on first online listening in preparation for the concert may sound a little boring, but Gauvin rendered it as an aria and it was anything but. It sounded like the motet was written exactly for Gauvin’s tessitura and timbre; she made the absolute most of it at every turn, including the virtuoso “Alleluia” coda. Her final aria on the program was of the baroque soprano rage type: “Furie terribili” from Rinaldo showcased this side of the consummate baroqueuse. There are speedy high coloraturas, some stylish screams and extravagant ornamenting packed into this two-minute aria.

The concert finished with a second encore, the classic Handel weepie “Lascia ch’io pianga” that he used in more than one opera. We were back in the slow, intimate, melancholy range after a whole lot of different soprano territory was criss-crossed in the preceding two hours.

In the last several years, we have been lucky to hear a wide array of new guest musicians with Tafelmusik, which has brought in some new rep and new visions of the rep. One of those new interpreters—now fortunately a regular—is British/Brazilian violinist Rodolfo Richter. Deciding to open the concert with Telemann’s “The Frog” Concerto in A Major was unexpected and bracing: the solo violin is meant to echo frog sounds, and it starts the bariolage on its own, the production of the fairly unlovely sounds made by moving between stopped and open strings on (roughly) the same note. The other instruments join in, and the music continues as it keeps moving between the discordant frog chorus and beautiful passages of the familiar kind. It’s a funny and fun piece.

With Telemann’s Concerto in D minor, as with the sonata and concerto by J.G. Pisendel in second half of the concert, the extremely polished sound of the Tafelmusik ensemble is back on. Telemann’s D minor concerto in particular showed just how consistent and melded the sound of both the strings and the woodwinds are, and how they merge seamlessly in the tutti passages. It’s a fresco always worth coming back to.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Jordan Barrow (L) and Victoria Clark (R) in Sousatzka. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.There is nothing quite like the opening of a Broadway musical – or of a large scale musical on its pre-Broadway out-of-town opening night – and the air was crackling with energy at the Elgin Theatre on March 23, from the sidewalk through to the orchestra, as we waited for the curtain to rise on the official opening performance of Sousatzka.

The brainchild of Garth Drabinsky (somehow back in the saddle after having spent 17 months in jail following his conviction for fraud and forgery while with Livent), the new musical is based on the 1962 novel by Bernice Rubens (which also inspired the 1988 film Madame Sousatzka starring Shirley MacLaine) and boasts a multi-Tony Award winning and nominated creative team and cast to tell the story of a young piano prodigy torn between his mother and his brilliant but eccentric piano teacher. Or is that the story? This musical version of Sousatzka has changes and additions to the original novel. They make the production more ambitious but ultimately make it unwieldy and muddied, trying to tell too many stories and to be too significant in too many ways at the same time.

The piano student is now a young South African, Themba Khenketha (newcomer Jordan Barrow) who has escaped from the uprisings and dangers of imprisonment in Soweto with his activist mother, Xholiswa (the amazing Montego Glover). The title character, Madame Sousatzka (Tony winner Victoria Clark), for her part, has been given an equally dark past in World War II Poland,  though, in her case, one she is trying, impossibly, to forget. As these three characters meet there are conflicts and tensions but eventually (spoiler alert) they break through the barriers between them and rejoice in Themba’s success.

Onto this personal story of three people, the production attempts to graft the weight of a moral fable about refugees, crossing racial boundaries, and in the words of the press release, of “genius, sacrifice and the redemption of the human spirit”; it is too much, at the moment, for the framework of the show to bear, although we do eventually come to see the parallels between the two backstories of the main characters, and to be moved by their personal journeys.

All seems to start well with a wonderfully powerful opening number (the prologue) depicting the education riots of 1976 Soweto where we meet a younger Themba, his mother and father, and are pulled forcefully into a brilliantly choreographed and lit world full of passion, violence and emotion. The contrast to the world of the next scene at Sousatzka’s home in a rather dilapidated London house is – at least partly intentionally, I’m sure – a bit of a shock. The characters all seem slighter and less convincing, and unfortunately so, too, does the music. The longtime composer-and-lyricist team of Richard Maltby Jr. and and David Shire seem to fall down here, lapsing into rather mediocre tunes and banal lyrics that are only uplifted by the passionate performances of the actors. A sympathetic audience, while disconcerted by this, still wants to give them a chance to get better but, again, unfortunately, they don’t and it is a pity. The excellent powerhouse cast pulled out all the stops last night, putting heart and soul into every scene and every song, but the show is too divided and too uneven to get our wholehearted approval. The London-based (as opposed to South African-based) numbers, even ballads such as “This Boy” or “Gifted,” were frustrating in the simplicity and repetitiveness of their lyrics, and two of the big London-based production numbers, I felt, were clichéd to the point of being almost self parodies, and could easily be cut or edited down. “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin’),” where Sousatzka’s housemate Jenny (Sara Jean Ford) takes Themba out to a punk dance club, could be cut without losing anything important to the story (other than cutting Jenny’s one solo), and the odd My Fair Lady-ish “Maunders’ Salon,” while necessary to show the audience Themba losing his nerve at a first public performance, could be turned into a much shorter straight scene and be more effective.

Having said that, there were some powerful moments: Xholiswa’s ballad of a mother’s love for her son “Song of the Child,” sung with heart-stopping emotion by Montego Glover; Victoria Clark’s heartfelt embodiment of the eccentric piano teacher coming to love Themba as a son she does not want to lose and yet learning to let him go; the spirited full-cast singing (led by Ryan Allen as Themba’s father) of the Desmond Tutu inspired “Rainbow Nation”; and one of my favourite scenes – the escape sequence from Soweto to London, “Themba’s Dream,” cleverly directed and choreographed by Adrian Noble and Graciella Danielle, with effective projections by Jon Driscoll.

As a director curious to see new work and as a musical theatre fan, not realizing at the time that I would be reporting on this for The WholeNote, I had actually seen the very first preview, and then another a week later. So I was particularly excited, opening night, to see what had been accomplished since I had last seen it. I’m happy to say that an enormous amount of work has already been done. The structure is much tighter and the themes and parallels are clearer. But it is still not fully clear exactly whose story it is and what we, the audience, are supposed to feel is the heart of the show. As the show stands now, it feels more Themba’s story than his teacher’s because of the primacy of the South African-based songs and production numbers. If it is supposed to be Madame Sousatzka’s it would help, perhaps, to see her at the beginning before we meet Themba and his family; then the impact of their experiences could be seen as a new influence on Sousatzka’s life and work, and we would know that this is the journey we are being taken on.

The audience at the end of last night’s performance gave the show a standing ovation, every bit of which was deserved by the 47-member-strong ensemble cast, for their talent, passion and commitment. But I believe the production itself needs some more serious workshopping before it will be ready for Broadway.

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.

The Toronto Mozart Players in rehearsal. Photo by the author.Concertmaster and soloist Leslie Dawn Knowles stands at the front of the string players, double stop melody soaring into the dome of the Church. The Toronto Mozart Players are having their first playthrough of the premiere of Farewell to a Soul Ascending by David Bowser. The Church of the Redeemer is a large open space with no obstructions between the audience and the stage. The feeling of spaciousness in the physical space is equally matched by the spaciousness of the composition. Bowser’s piece is one of three in the Toronto Mozart Players’ March 26 concert, a contemplative program on the emotional weight of loss. But also, as Knowles acknowledges, it is a program of ascension as well.

David Bowser leads the Toronto Mozart Players in Beethoven’s Equali (3) for four trombones, Farewell to a Soul Ascending, and finally, the grand work – Mozart’s Requiem. Joining the players will be Toronto Mozart Vocal Competition soloists soprano Andrea Núñez, mezzo-soprano Lyndsay Promane, tenor Daevyd Pepper, and bass-baritone Dylan Wright, along with the Hart House Chorus.

Bowser’s program is shaped by sharing the universality of loss. All three pieces he’s programmed speak to this, but it is his own premiere that he is most connected with. “The universal experience of loss is something we can all tap into, understand, and empathize with,” he says. “I think this piece is really talking about the experience of losing someone. The moments of reconciliation and new reality. There are a lot of climbing melodies and descending melodies. The upwards and downwards shapes are part of the struggle of recognition and acceptance.”

Bowser chose to write for solo violin and string orchestra. “I felt that strings were the most poignant. They’re the closest instrument to the human voice and give a lot of warmth and legato,” he says. It suits the sustained pitches in the piece that shape the emotions he’s trying to convey. This creates a technical consideration for the players to not only encourage the story, but also maintain the pitch over extended periods and give the notes the space required to be effective.

Knowles is equal to the task. “The biggest challenge is how sustained it is,” she says.
“Just the kind of calm it takes to do that and not be in a hurry to play notes and let the harmonies develop… It’s like when you’re going through a loss, it’s like time goes so slowly, the feeling... there’s no rushing out of it…You have to allow that sadness to happen...the calmness.”

Bowser has also crafted instances of silence in his music. “There are moments where it’s silent just for a moment,” he says, “and the contemplative moments after each movement of the Mozart. They’re not done attacca; they’re moments of just repose. And actually the silence is where we have these little moments that are valuable.”

Knowles appreciates this. “The silence is like the blank canvas,” she explains. “We have to have silence in order to process and be ready for what’s next.” She continues: “I’ve got places where I have to wait for the sound to clear before I play. It’s always, ‘better hurry up and play there’s nothing happening here,’ but no, the silence belongs here. Be patient. Just wait.”

But time continues, even when we feel the emptiness of loss. Bowser uses articulated eighth notes through the strings, usually in the double bass and cello, to give the feeling of movement. Bowser’s work evokes Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and is reminiscent of John Williams’ main theme from Schindler’s List. The occasional moment of dissonance is enough to remind us that this is a song of unsettled feelings, and just enough to prevent the piece from wallowing in emotional heaviness.

Bowser leans strongly towards tenuto, legato phrasing in his piece, as well as in his interpretation of the Mozart Requiem. The relatively small set of players, about 20, playing in this fashion gives the music a sense of fullness. We will have to see if the legato will hamper the choir in the fugal runs, especially the opening Kyrie Eleison. The weighting and rallentandos at the end of some of the movements like the Dies Irae contribute to the overall spaciousness and fullness of Bowser’s interpretation and approach.

The higher strings are prominent throughout but are well balanced by the vocalists. The four soloists are pleasantly well-suited for each other’s voices. A darker depth to their voices helps their blend and matches well to overbalance of higher strings. The robust, harmonious sound comes across especially in the Recordare and the Benedictus. Soprano Andrea Núñez is the first soloist we hear; her warm and focused voice provides a great depth to the Introit. Lyndsay Promane provides a genuine and deeply satisfying sound matched by Dylan Wright’s active, rolling bass-baritone. Daevyd Pepper’s tenor voice carries clearly and almost over-effectively above the orchestra. These four are selected participants from the Toronto Mozart Vocal Competition.

Farewell to a Soul Ascending has another key theme, the connection of two people. Bowser wrote the piece specifically for Knowles on violin. It was her playing that he had in mind. “There’s not even words to describe what that makes me feel like. It’s humbling,” Knowles says, “to be trusted with something like this…it’s an honour…like being blessed with a child, a sacred trust.” They’ve been friends and colleagues for a very long time. They speak of being able to communicate with just a look and they are completely on the same page for this program.

“It’s an emotional rollercoaster – not in a violent sense, but in the quietness,” Knowles continues. “The opening is almost like a sob…It’s beautifully written. Very rewarding to play. Very zen-like. I felt comforted after playing it. There’s a real sense of peace.” Bowser adds, “It’s extremely uplifting and hopeful. There’s a lot of light in this music. There’s a lot of gratitude in this music. Even the Mozart Requiem contrasts between the vengeance and inevitability of judgement [with] the supplication of ‘please save us.’ There’s such a universality in that darkness and light.”

“Something that I’ve come to value in my experience with loss... to live the experience authentically and wholly seems to be the way through,” says Knowles, “this is also in the piece, to fully live the experience. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. There are certain things you have to go through. Knowing that other people have felt the same thing to is valuable and we’re able to share this and let people know that their feelings are valid. That’s what makes us human, that we do experience these things.”

Knowles speaks very highly of her fellow musicians. It’s easy to see her respect and deep love of the music she wants to share. “Rejoice that we have Mozart,” she says. “In a world full of things changing all the time and uncertainty, there are some things that remain constant. Things that break language barriers, distance barriers, and distances of time…come away with a sense of centeredness.”

David Bowser, artistic director of the Mozart Project, presents Mozart’s Requiem alongside a world premiere of Bowser’s own work, Farewell to a Soul Ascending, performed by the Toronto Mozart Players and the Hart House Chorus on March 26, 2017, at 2pm at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen in Odditorium. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.How to approach a massive work that may put off potential audiences by coming off as a wee bit megalomaniac? You distil it, and stage the highlights as a piece unto itself, is the lesson to take from Laurence Cherney’s selection of parts from R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle into Odditorium, which opened on March 2 at the Crow’s Theatre. Schafer’s Patria is a decades-long project consisting of a dozen works that follow a hero and a heroine in various disguises through the mythology of the ancient Crete and Egypt and even further through the Schafer-authored mythologies, but for this occasion Cherney, Schafer’s frequent collaborator, wisely chose four excerpts only, and invited director Chris Abraham and dancer Andrea Nann to find the red thread.

And threads were very much in evidence in the modest but effective set (Shannon Lea Doyle), as they are used to outline the walls of the labyrinth with the mannequin body parts of those who did not manage to find the exit piled up in corners. The overarching theme therefore came from the final, best known and multiple times recorded The Crown of Ariadne (1979), an elaboration on the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus through the voice of the harp and a series of percussive instruments. The Crown was originally written for Judy Loman, who plays it (fair to say, performs it) compellingly in Odditorium. There’s drama in the procession of unexpected soundscapes and instrument pairings of this piece, of course, but there’s additional drama in observing the demands on the musician, the extravagant arm movements and the comings and goings of smaller instruments while the other hand is always on the harp. It’s a good choice for the end piece.

The preceding two, Tantrika (1986) and an Egyptian fantasy Amente-Nufe (1982) involve a mezzo-soprano and impressive sets of percussions – again, the prominent instruments are themselves part of the set. Mezzo Andrea Ludwig, always charismatic, produces an endless variety of extended technique sounds, moves around, handles the odd percussive task and employs acting where acting is required: in the tantric piece, for example, she observes, perhaps voices, the male-female dance of merging and separation (Nann with Brendan Wyatt centre stage). In Amente-Nufe from the section of Patria called Ra, the singer voices words in what a scholarly guess says the Middle Egyptian might have sounded like, but feel free to ignore this backdrop: the words are best taken in for the texture of their sounds, not for their meaning. The culmination of the segment, with all the gongs and bells going full blast, is an experience rarely available in concert halls – or houses of religious worship. Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy manned the considerable assortment of percussions (including gamelan) throughout the show with tireless focus and aplomb.

It all started with a scene best described as Felliniesque: the accordionist (Joseph Macerollo, in clown makeup) trots onto the stage and uncovers a severed head that speaks. Well, speaks: voices outrageous sounds is more accurate, as there are no words, but quite a lot of conversation happening between the accordion and the soprano head (belonging to the crystalline-voiced Carla Huhtanen). It’s a funny, charming opening to a performance that gets pretty serious immediately after.

Odditorium. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.Yes, but what does it all mean, you may ask? A question best left home for the occasion, I think. It’s slippery to pin meaning to music at the best of times, and this electrifying selection of oddities really rubs it in. It’s an immersive trip into what humans can do with their voices and their hands operating on metal, wood, strings and boxed air.

Still, Odditorium is an open work so should you need to, you may work out your own narrative out of it. Given its four prominent and very different women—a dancer, a virtuoso harpist, high- and low-voiced singers—the piece may indeed cohere, as Andrea Ludwig suggested after the opening night show, as an enactment of female empowerment. The world of classical music still leaves too little room for that, and any occasion that resembles it should be welcomed.

Or you can approach it as a ritual of sorts—a non-religious one. Schafer composed most of the Patria in 12-tone, and the unpinnable micro-intervals heard in Odditorium and the vocal acrobatics that evoke wonder rather than beauty keep the work refreshingly unfamiliar. And though your mind may drift in and out of it, it’s music that doesn’t lull you, but keeps the cogs turning and surprise in steady supply.

Soundstreams’ Odditorium opened on March 2 continues through March 5 (times vary), at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto. Details in our listings and at https://www.soundstreams.ca/performances/main-stage/r-murray-schafers-odditorium/.


Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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