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.

Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.The audience finds the experience invigorating. Violist Rory McLeod, co-director of Pocket Concerts, finds that when people experience music in the intense environment and intimacy of a private home they feel a deeper connection not only to the music but also to the musicians and fellow audience members.

Sunday afternoon, February 26, found me in a downtown condo along with 30 others packed cozily into a sun-soaked living room in the shadow of St. James Cathedral. What better place to hear Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording,” the Soviet-born violinist and arranger wrote. “For two months I probably had the time of my life, musically speaking, being in the constant company of Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould.” And if there is one piece of classical music that has served as a signpost for Canadians in the last six decades, it is the Goldberg Variations.

TSO violinist Carol Fujino along with violist McLeod and cellist Bryan Holt (freelance musicians fresh from a Götterdämmerung gig as part of the COC Orchestra the night before) have been working on the Bach since last November; Sunday’s concert marked their third public performance of it.

Emily Rho. Credit: Bo Huang.

McLeod’s domestic partner and Pocket Concerts’ co-director pianist Emily Rho introduced the trio with a refreshing informality. She pointed out that our convivial host, who had welcomed us so warmly to his home, was also an amateur cellist who studied with Holt. McLeod said a few words about Sitkovetsky and the music, paying particular attention to an explanation of the nine canons (and one quodlibet) that were a feature of every third variation. Then Rho led us in a brief breathing exercise to focus our attention, asking us to open our eyes the moment we heard the first notes of the famous Aria that begins and ends the Variations.

The intensity of those first notes was palpable as sound filled the physical space, the playing lively, the bright acoustic amplifying the energy. The trio arrangement, replete with ingenuity, seemed to make the music more transparent. The different timbres of the three instruments helped reveal the depth of character inherent in the music and brought clarity to the polyphonic lines, illuminating intricacies that only the best keyboard players are capable of unearthing.

The informality of the setting allowed McLeod to point out the first two canons just before they were to be played and to comment on how fortunate we all were that the ringing of the cathedral bells began during a brief pause between variations. And after the trio needed to start Variation 13 over again, McLeod simply said, “it’s okay, we’re among friends.”

Pocket Concerts’ format is able to break down the perceived barriers between musicians and their audience; the post-concert reception is an important part of that process. It’s an opportunity for the audience and the musicians to get to know each other, talk about the music or other things. McLeod told me that what he finds most gratifying about his Pocket Concerts experience is bringing music to people unfamiliar with classical music. McLeod and Rho met nine years ago in Sonata Class at the Glenn Gould School. They’re both alumni of Toronto Summer Music (she twice, he thrice). Sunday’s concert was the 48th Pocket Concert (of which 18 have been private) since the first one in August of 2013. The next, on March 25 and back by popular demand, features violinist Csaba Koczó with Rho on piano, performing Beethoven’s immortal Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 "Kreutzer" and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108.

Take advantage of the chance to experience music like you’ve never done before.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

There are nine microphones and six monitors on the stage, that’s it. It’s Spartan with all of the wires neatly wound, lined up and bound. The nine men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo come onto the stage like a football team to cheers, applause and with an energy that leads straight into song. There is so much energy on stage the audience can’t help but get involved. It’s too bad the best you can get out of the usual stodgy Toronto audience is a polite clap. Ladysmith Black Mambazo presented a fine performance. Audiences in Kingston, London and St Catherines still have an opportunity to see them in action in the coming days. The group’s Toronto engagement at Koerner Hall was sold out.

Founder Joseph Shabalala isn’t with the group on this particular tour, but four of his sons are. Two members of the group are singled out for long service, the Mazibuko brothers. Albert has sung with the group since 1969, Abednego since 1974. The group pays tribute to them for “paving the way.” Their stories in between songs help warm the audience to their music.

The consonance and warmth of the sound was incredibly pleasing. The lead singer stays in tonality as the group plays with the melody, but the warmth of the sound comes from the eight other voices who share in tonic, mediant, dominant and octave. The modes of these relative intervals make the sound distinctively consonant. The effect with all-male voices contributes even more to this solidity in the sound. It makes for a sound like a warm sunset at the end of a vacation day, or the first sip of a fresh dark roast coffee after a huge meal.

Most of the songs of the evening are from the group’s newest CD, the Grammy nominee Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers. Nelson Mandela described Ladysmith Black Mambazo as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.” They paid tribute to the great man, well-loved in Toronto as well, with their song Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a remarkably bare piece with these lovely, well-measured swoops into the starts of lines. There are few words and they repeat a powerful message: “Let us work, and work together. Long way. Long walk to freedom.”

The songs are quite Spartan, repeat lines over and over (“Tough times never last, strong people do”), but they never lose energy and intensity. The ensemble is remarkable in their ability to infuse their songs with story, power it with energy, and steer it with well-rehearsed control. Everything, from inhalations to sound production, is clear and precise. There are many sounds that Toronto audiences don’t hear often like clicks, and throaty hums. Even ornamentations like swoops and dynamics are all neatly lined up, organic and fresh.

And then there’s the choreography. This isn’t tight, ballet-corps dancing, it’s rehearsed but feels fresh and spontaneous. I’m sure some of it truly is spontaneous, and the singers know each other and the dance vocabulary so well they can just pick up and go when someone leads. Their high energy finale gives shape to the music and makes repetition feel different. The repetition gives the dance a place to spring forth. They all dance, they all sing, and they all have a great time.

This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a fully amplified concert at Koerner Hall. The space is capable of carrying voices and these aren’t amateur singers so I was surprised to find them so heavily audio engineered. From my seat in the first balcony, the amplified sound was less than ideal for what Koerner is known for.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 14. They perform February 15 at the Grand Theatre, Kingston; February 16, at the London Music Hall, London; and February 17 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

Toronto Mass Choir BannerToronto Mass Choir - Photo Credit Mike HwangHumility is a beautiful Christian tradition. It’s also an important one in choral music. Gospel music provides an unparallelled media for the connection of soloists, ensemble and audience. It is a balance of humility and important parts that come into equilibrium to make exciting, transformative, and healing music. Toronto has a robust gospel community and it is coalescing for one of the signature gospel music events of the year – Power Up!

Karen Burke is the director of the Juno award-winning Toronto Mass Choir, lead choral teacher for Power Up, and professor of music at York University. In a previous column last spring I featured Karen and the Toronto Mass Choir. She’s all set for this year, “excited and hopeful” (her middle name).

The Toronto Mass Choir leads the workshop at York University, the gospel hub of post-secondary music programming in the GTA (largely due to Burke’s dedication). Now in its 13th year, Power Up brings together 24 top musicians in the city in a variety of workshops. These include, “Conducting: The Art of Gesture” with Karen Burke; “Gospel Keys – Boot Camp” with Corey Butler; “Steelpan: the FUN-damentals” with Josette Leader; and “Vocal Troubleshooting: Targeting vocal issues and working to resolve them” with Dr. Melissa Davis, just to name a few.

Participants join a massed choir that performs on the final day. Younger participants can join in the Youth Choir. Burke helms the choirs which was over 200 singers in size last year. The Toronto Mass Choir doesn’t deny its religious messaging, it’s the core of their work – “To create and perform Gospel music that will draw all people into the awesome presence of God.” Humility also means placing oneself in faith before something greater and more eternal than even we can comprehend.

A choir of soloists does not make for a good ensemble. A choir of humble singers joining together makes a good ensemble. To be a lead singer is not to sing over all the other voices, but to be uplifted by the group to do something different. It is acknowledging that each part is equally as important as yours. The melding of ensemble and soloist is so prevalent in gospel music. It is empowering and supportive for both the soloist and ensemble in a way that helps support and enhance their work. Gospel manages to find a unique balance of the soloist and ensemble.

Gospel music is accessible, unlike many classical choral genres. There are melodies of hope and majesty wrapped in messages of the bible and Christian teachings. Gospel music repeats frequently in text and melody, it includes contemporary instrumentation, it is commonplace on the radio, it blurs genres and disciplines, and it is always high ntensity and exciting. Gospel music is also not just about the performers, its high energy is meant to involve audiences, to inspire faith in others, and to have them holler, sing, chant, scream and make sounds of joy in reaction.

Moreover, gospel music has always been an act of resistance and of forging relationships. “Gospel music is all about making music in community,” says Burke. “If we ever needed unique and dynamic ways to be intentional about ‘making community,’ you can’t find a better medium than gospel music. Think about it. Spirituals, which are the root of today’s contemporary gospel music/choirs, were the survival tool created by slaves who found themselves in a strange land thrown together with people from various tribes.” The relevance in a city as diverse as ours, with its own history of slavery, is especially powerful. She continues: “They shared no common language and individually felt disenfranchised, anonymous and frustrated (to say the least). They worked long hours in a hostile environment and even though they were with people everyday, they felt alone. This is also a general description of what many people, even in our enlightened society, experience everyday.”

There are four other things Karen Burke wants us to know about gospel music in Toronto.

  1. Gospel music has a long heritage not just in the U.S. but in Canada and like our neighbours to the south, the influence of gospel music is heard every day in the music we enjoy on the radio.
  2. Gospel music is very popular around the world including hot spots such as Korea (Heritage Gospel Choir) and Poland (Gospel Joy) and various other countries.
  3. The gospel music community is alive and well in Toronto and, like jazz music, holds within it many award-winning recording artists, a loyal fan base and an active concert scene.
  4. Gospel music is fun to learn and sing together and the fastest way that she know to make a room full of people into a family!

Burke says, “Ask anyone who has ever had the experience of singing in a gospel choir how they feel at the end of the day.  It is a transformative experience.”

The 13th annual Power Up Gospel Music Workshop at York University runs February 23 to 25 with a finale concert on February 26 at Global Kingdom Ministries, Scarborough. 

 Toronto Consort artistic director David Fallis, Marilyn George and Shirley Hay CREDIT Courtesy of Toronto Consort

It’s not often that you learn important aspects about your country’s history while attending a concert.  That was my experience on February 4 when I attended “Kanatha Canada: First Encounters,” the Toronto  Consort’s most recent program. The evening was divided into two halves – the first part a series of short pieces chosen to elucidate the occasion of the “Great Peace” of Montreal in 1701, and the second half a remount of composer John Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia, a work originally premiered in the summer of 2015 that tells a story of early encounters between First Nations people and the European explorers of today’s Ontario. 

The Great Peace of Montreal was a significant event that is instructive to understanding the full scope of the relationship between First Nations in Canada and the European explorers and settlers.  Often we hear only of the destructive European influences on First Nations’ culture, and so it was heartwarming to hear the opening words of the evening spoken by Georges Sioui, a Huron-Wendat historian, activist and songwriter who welcomed the audience and spoke of the principles of love, sharing and mutual respect. 

In the summer of 1701 representatives from 40 First Nations of North America met with the government of New France in Montreal to sign a peace treaty designed to end the wars and atrocities created by a combination of the existing grievances amongst the various tribes and the conflicts caused by the introduction of the French fur trade. The story was told musically by creating a choral documentary in five parts and was a collaboration between First Nations performers Marilyn George, Shirley Hay and Jeremy Dutcher and the Toronto Consort.  Using a series of songs and instrumental pieces from both Indigenous and French sources, the large arc of this significant historical event unfolded.

Jeremy Dutcher. Photo Courtesy of Toronto Consort

A unique highlight was Dutcher’s performance in which he mixed recordings of songs from his Wolastoq ancestors with his live performance on the piano and voice.  These recordings were originally made on wax cylinders found in the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau.  Dutcher digitized the recordings and played them from his laptop perched on the piano.  As the songs progressed, Dutcher added harmonies on the piano to accompany the melody and then eventually sang the song, accompanying himself with extended piano chordal harmonies. Each of his songs was also accompanied by projected images of scenes from the Wolastoq culture. A significant event during the peace process was the death of the Wendat leader Kondiaronk. One of the songs chosen to lament this event was a beautiful heartrending piece found in the music collections of the Ursuline convent in Quebec performed by Toronto Consort’s soprano Katherine Hill.  The overall affect of this weave of vocal and instrumental pieces of both Indigenous and French traditions was a sense of dialogue and exchange between these two cultures, a quality that was certainly present in the early years of the 18th century that led these two people to a great moment of peace. 

The performance of Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia in the second half provided a look at another historical moment of meeting, this time between Champlain and the Wendat people. However, this meeting of cultures did not end well.  Performed by the Toronto Chamber Choir, the Toronto Consort and Indigenous performers Marilyn George and Shirley Hay, this choral documentary in six parts begins with a sonic reference to snowshoeing, which is designed to give an aural impression of life before European contact.  Switching to a choral contrapuntal style in the second part, the composer used words and phrases from Champlain’s travel journals in which the words “Canada” and “La Nouvelle France” appear. The third part is organized around references to canoeing, combining French phrases chanted by the chorus and the proclamation of Wendat words by individual voices. 

The next two parts were full of emotion and drama.  Beckwith recreates the Feast of Souls, an elaborate and emotionally intense tradition of reburying ancestral remains through chanting, dancing and other ceremonial acts.  This feast made a huge impact on both Champlain and Jesuit missionary Brébeuf.  Given that the music created a tapestry of sorrow and an “abyss of despair”, I’m not so sure that these two Frenchmen understood the intention behind the ritual.  My sense is that this ceremony was a way of honouring ancestors, and that this combined with indigenous music and dance would repel these two Christian men. This cultural demonization and rejection paved the way for the next section of Beckwith’s work, which was a recounting of the disastrous results of the contact between the Wendat and French people. The texts reference Wendat prophecies of the demise of their honoured traditions and include a lament for how the Black Robes, the Jesuit priests, were changing names and proclaiming that the land now belonged to them.  On the advice of Georges Sioui, Beckwith didn’t end his work there, but rather focused on references to contemporary efforts to create reconciliation between settler and aboriginal cultures in the sixth and final part of the work. 

The overall impact of the entire evening was very much a fulfillment of the opening words of Sioui who called for peaceful dialogue and a sharing of ways, which was, in the end, the original motivation and driving spirit of the First Nations people when European contact was first made. By combining these two choral documentaries on the same program, each telling quite a different story, one can see current efforts of creating healing and reconciliation as building upon what began in Montreal in 1701. Cultural moments such as this concert play a significant and important role in this larger mandate of restoration between the peoples of different cultures as well as with the land itself. 

Adrianne PieczonkaImagine you got to know a house by groping in the dark, its curtains always drawn, no light switch, its shapes many and varied learned and remembered for night navigation only.

Then imagine somebody opening the curtains and letting a blast of sun in. It’s a very different house. We see, rather than infer, what it looks like. We experience more fully.

Such was the effect of hearing soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sing Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise February 12 in the Mazzoleni Masters Series with Rachel Andrist at the piano. Rendered in a powerful soprano voice with an unfailingly brilliant top and a magnificent Technicolor middle, the Winter Journey is a different trajectory indeed from what we’ve grown accustomed to in the company of baritones and tenors.

The opening Gute Nacht unfolded at a good pace: everything was clearer under the soprano light, the plodding rhythm of a walk through the snow, the wayward energy of the words. But then the key changed from minor to major before the final stanza. In regular rendition, it’s the moment of an infusion -- a brightening -- of sadness while the text begins to address the lost beloved directly. (“I don’t want to disturb your dreaming / It would be a shame to wake you” etc.) Here, it was so close and visible it felt as if a raw nerve were grazed. So this is how it’s going to be with a soprano, then? Good to know.

And so it continued. The second stanza in Der Lindenbaum, usually a moment of calm beauty, tugged at the tear reservoirs in Pieczonka’s rendition. Never was the fairly mundane “So manches liebe Wort” – the many words of love carved on a linden bark – floated and held to such effect. A bit later, the branches too rustled with unexpected intensity in “Und seine Zweige rauschten” verse and so did the entire stanza.

Rückblick, in tempo and mood a fairly manic evocation of the times of early acquaintance and of spring, suddenly breaks down at “Und ach, zwei Mädchenaugen glühten,” a cry of unbearable joy, or memory of joy that still overwhelms. In the following, sombre song, Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) the last two verses which translate as “Every river finds its way to the ocean / and every sorrow to its grave” in Pieczonka’s hands become a mini scena. “Jeder Strom” starts very low and shoots up across the stave seeking its final destination up on high, followed by “auch sein Grab,” through the long, feline portamenti that make this inexorable direction of life almost bearable.

Der Wegweiser is delivered mostly softly, being an introspective moment where the poet, finding herself at the crossroads, wonders where to go. The törichtes in “Welch ein törichtes Verlangen” (“What is the foolish compulsion that drives me into desolation”) is a case of the famous Pieczonka high piano, the word here vibrating with a hidden sob.

When the light is on, details are clearer, and there were a number of times when I wondered if ornaments were added in certain places. Some of that is the effect of all the notes being made visible. In other cases, it is the honouring of the trills as they should be honoured: Frühlingstraum, (Dream of Spring), has trill suggestion written in on specific words like “Wonne” and “Seligkeit” (joy and delight, appropriately), and they were heard. In Der greise Kopf I thought I heard some masterful trilling in the last stanza on the “Kopf” and particularly “Greise” and went to the score after the concert; of course the markings are there.

Contrasts within the songs are also heightened with a soprano, and Wasserflut (Flood) could easily be an aria, clouds of anger flaring and subsiding across the bleak inner landscape. Der Leierman brought this atypical Winterreise to an equally atypical ending: the final stanza was whispered to the old man, almost flirtingly, certainly femininely and equally fearlessly, the question “Shall I go with you, will you play to my songs” given as the ultimate offering.

Rachel Andrist at the piano was a perfect partner in this macabre dance, playing as the score demands, sometimes against, sometimes alongside the voice. Her introductions and interludes offered as much in the way of text as the vocal parts themselves.

Let’s hope for a repeat of this sold-out concert, either in Toronto or on tour. More people deserve to hear it.

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