Coming back to Canada last month after two and a half weeks in Versailles, Paris, and London gave me rather severe culture shock for a while, but there were shows I knew I wanted to see before they closed in order to catch up with the Toronto music theatre scene – particularly because all three took a new look at classics for the stage.

Onegin by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs, June 4

Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis in Onegin. Photo credit: Matt Barnes.Onegin began life as an epic poem by radical Russian writer Alexander Pushkin that, first published in serial form between 1825 and 1832, became a hit with the reading public. It also foreshadowed Pushkin’s own death, with the famous duel between the title character and his best friend Vladimir Lensky. In 1870, Tchaikovsky was asked to turn Onegin into an opera, which also became a huge success (and is still a reliable hit today). Tchaikovsky was also affected personally by the story: apparently not wanting to make the same mistake as Onegin, he divorced his wife and then married a young student who had written him a passionate love letter – another of the anchoring events of the original. So, from the beginning, Pushkin’s tale had a profound effect on all those who came in contact with it.

At the start of the musical, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre last month, all this history is mashed up into the opening numbers, performed by the cast as if they are a group of strolling players in a cafe inviting us, the audience, in to drink and take part in a rollicking romantic Russian tale – with audience participation. One character even tells us: “yes, it’s that kind of show.”

The first named character we meet is Lensky, a young poet who introduces us to the rest of the characters – finishing with his best friend Evgeny Onegin. It felt unusual to have Lensky so front-and-centre, yet Josh Epstein is so strong in the role that he rules the stage, bringing great energy to the scene. Onegin himself is described as a rake and a loner and yet very attractive; award-winning performer Daren A. Herbert inhabits the role with insouciant style, seemingly channeling Will Smith with a dash of Rex Harrington. The tongue-in-cheek travelling montage is hilarious and sets him up perfectly as the hero to be caught – and to be wary of.

When female lead Tatyana, played by Hailey Gillis, meets him, she falls in love immediately – and Gillis is so transparent in her emotions that she takes us with her every step of the way. In all versions of the story Tatyana’s ‘letter writing scene’, where she decides that in spite of all common sense she is going to write to Onegin to tell him that she loves him, is central. In the musical it becomes the heart of the story, in the form of Tatyana’s brilliantly performed, six-minute song “Let me die.” Gladstone and Hille’s stated goal of creating a song that “could be sung by a teenager today” was met completely, Tatyana even picking up and playing a guitar part way through, as any modern teenager in the throes of first love might do.

The tragedy begins with Onegin turning down Tatyana, telling her that “marriage is not for him, although if it were, she would be the one he would choose.” It gets worse when, out of pique, he flirts with her sister Olga, the fiancée of his best friend Lensky, leading in turn to Lensky challenging Onegin to a fatal duel.

Up to this point I was completely captivated by the story and performance and expected to have my heart thoroughly broken in the second half. Somehow, however, the final quarter of the show, where Onegin meets Tatyana again, did not have the effect on me that I expected. Looking back I think it may have been a result of the direction of the title character – or perhaps, missing material. In the ballet version of the story, Onegin has powerful melancholic solos that make achingly clear his sorrow and emptiness after Lensky’s death. While the musical gives Onegin moments to express this, there wasn’t ever a full song where we were given a personal connection with his pain.

What does almost work is the reprise and turnabout of “Let me die,” now sung by Onegin as he writes to Tatyana helplessly declaring his love for her while she, now married to another man, agonizingly turns him down. Gillis does a lovely job of showing us a Tatyana who has matured into an elegant woman with beauty and poise, who almost gives way to her reawakened love for Onegin – but again, there was something missing in the balance of the scene so that it felt more her story than his and not an equal tragedy.

Those caveats aside, this is a wonderfully energetic, young indie-rock version of Onegin that deserves a longer life. I left feeling a bit unsatisfied but still impressed and affected strongly enough by the show as a whole to buy the cast album on my way out. It will be interesting to see how this Onegin fares as it goes out in the world to other theatres, beginning with this production’s next stop at the 900-seat theatre of the National Arts Centre. It needs some tweaking in my opinion, but with that it should have a long life as the latest theatrical version of a beloved tragic story.

Porgy and Bess In Concert at Soulpepper, June 2

Troy Adams, Neema Bickersteth, Thom Allison, Jackie Richardson, Walter Borden and Alana Bridgewater, in Porgy and Bess In Concert. Photo credit: Daniel Malavasi.Also on my “must-see” list was Porgy and Bess in Concert, presented by Soulpepper for a very short run in the Baille Theatre. This was a very different case of a classic revisited: not a new version of a classic, but rather a new showcase for parts of it.

Again a tragic tale of love found and then lost, the glory of Porgy and Bess is the Gershwin score. Who has not heard some version of the lullaby “Summertime,” the biggest break-out hit song? Other songs are equally ensconced in the musical theatre canon: “I Loves You, Porgy”, “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”, “There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and more.

From the beginning, Porgy and Bess  has proven to be – as director  Mumbi Tindyebwa writes in his program notes – “a lightning rod for conversations around race and representation in the arts, questions that are very much alive in our artistic community today.” Gershwin famously insisted on having a fully African-American cast for his 1935 Broadway premiere, refusing to allow any company to perform it in “blackface”. There has also been some discomfort with the story itself being seen as a stereotypical depiction of African-American life. Both issues were addressed in the format of this production. Although advertised as Porgy and Bess in Concert, it was actually at once both less and more than that. It was not the full musical presented in concert format, but rather a selection of the main numbers along with other songs popular at the time of the show’s writing. Narrated by Walter Borden (from a script written by Richard Ouzounian), the framework provided interesting information on the original inspiration for the material, as well as its development from folk songs, to the novel and play by Dubose Heyward, to the musical/opera by George and Ira Gershwin.

Performing the songs in a tight jazz/blues quartet were some of Toronto’s top jazz, blues and gospel performers: Troy Adams, Thom Allison, Neema Bickersteth, Alana Bridgewater, and Jackie Richardson. While the singers were all strong, I wish they had not relied so heavily on microphones instead of letting their voices soar in the great ballads and duets of what is essentially, and was originally meant to be, an opera.

It was an informative and enjoyable evening, though not exactly what I had been expecting. Perhaps the title should have been something more along the lines of “Exploring Porgy and Bess in Concert.” There is a growing appetite across North America, if not also further afield, for concerts that incorporate a scripted framework with some staging and visual elements. One need only look at the success of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series, which explores the inspiration behind various symphonic works, or closer to home, Alison Mackay’s scripted shows created for Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. The “in concert format” is also an inexpensive way to keep older and more obscure musicals in the public eye and happily, Soulpepper has promised more concerts in this style in upcoming seasons.

A Streetcar Named Desire, John Neumeier. National Ballet of Canada, June 19 at the Four Seasons Centre

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo credit: Karolina Kuras.Of the three “classics revisited” last month, this was the most recent classic, though a revisiting from the 1980s, and also – to me – the least successful of the three. Iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire is a revered classic of the American Theatre, and though less universal than the other two, equally a tragic tale of love and lives lost,  known so well from its great impact and success on both stage and film. Who doesn’t know the famous quote of Marlon Brando agonizingly yelling “Stella!”?

There have been a number of ballet versions of the play, but this seems to be the only one that is not a straightforward retelling and instead a comment upon, or reaction to, the original material, as choreographer John Neumeier has said himself in interviews. His primary departure from the original play is to create an entirely new first act, where Blanche, from a bare iron bed in a sanitarium, revisits her past. In a sequence that feels much too long and vague we are shown the beginning of the tragic downturn of her life on the discovery that her husband is in love with another man, followed by his suicide and the decline and fall of her family. It’s an interesting idea but not totally successful, and not helped by the presence of three men in and on and around the bed with Blanche, clearly not part of the wedding or family scene but not clearly belonging anywhere else except, perhaps, in her mind, which ultimately is what we are supposed to realize. Accompanying this act are sparse recorded solo piano pieces by Prokofiev,   simple and enigmatic.

In the second act of the ballet, Neumeier returns to the well-known plot of the play, with Blanche visiting her sister Stella, now married to Stanley Kowalski, in New Orleans. The music choice here was completely apt, switching from the more romantic Prokofiev to the jarring and jazzy music of Alfred Schnittke, which the choreographer has said he found perfect for his purposes. Here we see Blanche trying to orient herself to the very different, rougher, modern, working-class style of life that she finds there.

Less dreamy than the first act, the action is faster but still lingers a bit too long in various parts: the boxing scene with Stanley and Mitch for example, and particularly the uncomfortably long and explicit yet stylized rape sequence. These scenes also felt dated for me, and would probably be choreographed quite differently today, even if by the same choreographer. The most effective scene I found was the heartbreaking pas de deux sequence between Blanche and Mitch that begins with a shy presentation of roses, grows to an increasingly romantic sharing of possibility, and then degenerates – after the interruption by Stanley “telling” Mitch of Blanche’s past – into Mitch leaving Blanche broken and in despair. Piotr Stanczyk was in good form as a strident and masculine Stanley, Svetlana Lunkina was delicate and fragile as Blanche, but the standout performance for me was Donald Thom as Mitch, elevating this secondary part into a new revelation of character and story – a striking example of how, in all three of these shows, a classic narrative can be reimagined and redefined with each new production and performance.

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.

 

Sean Catheroy (left) and Teresa Tucci, in SOLT’s 2016 production of the opera A Tale of Two Cities.Summertime in Ontario is notorious for being the operatic off-season—but these days that’s far from the truth. While it may be true that the region’s largest opera houses more-or-less adhere to a conventional September-to-May season, an increasing number of local opera companies are making adventurous summertime programming a part of what they do. And in the last few years, those companies have really come into their own.

Summer Opera Lyric Theatre is one example. While it’s been around as a summer opera workshop for emerging artists since the 1980s, it has increasingly been turning its focus towards creating productions that feel fresh and relevant for local audiences. This season, SOLT’s roster of emerging opera singers will present three productions, between July 29 and August 6: Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and a Canadian double-bill—John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus, paired with Michael Rose’s new one-act opera, Northern Lights Dream.

Part of what makes this year special is that all four operas—including the Bizet and the Mozart—will be sung in English. Also of note is Rose’s Northern Lights Dream, which, in addition to drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will explore queer themes.

“The Rose work—a one act piece—is a world premiere, [and] deals with the coming out of a mature gay man and the effect it has on his wife,” says Henry Ingram, who is on faculty at SOLT. He adds that coming-out stories that examine the experience of spouses are rarely told in the arts, especially in opera—but that operas that centre queer narratives have recently been gaining visibility. “Brokeback Mountain, Les Feluettes, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met and Rufus Wainwright’s commission for the COC on the Roman Emperor Hadrian are several examples that come immediately to mind,” he says. It all reflects how SOLT plans to use the summer—a time when it can be tempting for arts presenters to retreat to conservative, ‘back-to-basics’ programming—to experiment, and to create programming that reflects the language, concerns and interests of contemporary local audiences.

Of course, when it comes to the summertime reinvention of contemporary opera, one indie opera company is king. After a summer in eastern Canada last year to premiere the Alexander Graham Bell opera The Bells of Baddeck, Bicycle Opera is back, with one of its biggest projects to date. Starting July 15, the company will embark on a three-week bicycle tour with the premiere of Sweat, an a cappella, one-act opera by composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton—an ambitious departure from the company’s usual practice of touring collections of very short single-scene operas and opera excerpts. Featuring four soloists (Stephanie Tritchew, Catherine Daniel, Larissa Koniuk and Keith Lam) as well as a five-member chorus, Sweat explores the ethical issues behind the global garment industry. The company’s tour begins in Hamilton and includes stops throughout southern Ontario, closing in Toronto from August 3 to 6.

With both these productions, it seems as though this is the year that the companies have hit their stride—creating ambitious, large-scale works that feel relevant and refreshing, in the way that all summer music should be.

For a full overview of local opera this summer, see Christopher Hoile’s June opera column, which serves as a helpful reference for productions taking place across the region from now until the fall.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

 

Sheila Jordan, at Jazz Bistro. Photo by the author.Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan. 88-years-young and singing better than ever, she is at a creative peak, touring the world as jazz singer, educator and “jazz ambassador.” Much is amazing about this beautiful songbird who weaves her soul’s magic on all sorts of stages, changing lives one gig at a time. She does this all herself and always has, and as the song goes, she did it her way. “I’ve never had an agent or a manager,” she once told me. “I’m not a diva, if you know what I mean. I just want to sing, teach, and spread the message of this music. Most of the gigs I get, I get from musicians.”

On June 26 and 27, 2017, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Sheila Jordan at one of the city’s premier jazz venues, Jazz Bistro. Pianist Adrean Farrugia, bassist Neil Swainson and trumpeter Brad Goode all provided inspiring accompaniment for the singer. There were two performances nightly, at 7pm and 10pm, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for all four of them. (Thanks to Brian Chahley, the last set of the four can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/jecJbHKflhk.)

Before I get to the review of these appearances, just in case some of you reading this will say, “Sheila who?” I will give you a little introduction; for those curious about this woman’s extraordinary life, music and legacy, I highly recommend Ellen Johnson’s biography “Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan”.

Sheila Jeanette Dawson was born on November 18, 1928 in Detroit to unwed teenagers. As a toddler she was raised by her grandparents, at one time 10 people sharing a room, in Summerhill, a poverty-stricken coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania. It was there that she discovered her gift of expressing her woe through songs, her Cherokee bloodline seeping with chant into the likes of You Are My Sunshine, Downtown Strutter’s Ball, Shine on Harvest Moon and When I Grow Too Old to Dream in the beer gardens for an inebriated crowd of coal miners. She returned to Detroit at 14, but her alcoholic mother’s abusive husband drove the precocious child to early independence.

Then it happened – the moment that changed her life forever – sparked by a nickel in a jukebox. The record was Charlie Parker and His Re-Boppers and it was a huge eureka moment for her. The bold risks and expressive innovations of modern jazz, especially those by its magical main man, Charlie “Bird” Parker, struck a (bebop) chord deep within the adolescent, and since dedicating her life to jazz music 70 years ago, she has never looked back. Following Charlie Parker around from club to club, she and her friends inspired the song Chasing the Bird and Parker lauded her “million dollar ears.” They were close friends until his death in 1955.

Bird lives on in Jordan’s music to this day, his adventurous spirit felt in every note. On Tribute, her lyrics in dedication to Parker culminate in a sentiment her own fans can relate to: “…somehow I find it rather strange knowing that there are those of us who really love him, while so many aren’t even aware of his name…” A memorable performance of this tune can be found here, in duo with bassist Harvie S – “bass and voice” being a collaborative form Sheila herself originated after experimenting with Charles Mingus in the early 1950s.

Sheila’s life story is actually best summed up herself, in the tune Sheila’s Blues which she recorded on one of her finest albums,The Crossing in 1984. It is an incredibly personal artistic statement, encapsulating not only her dazzling musicality, but also the honesty which makes it matter. There are a handful of brilliant versions of this song on YouTube, including this one posted last week, filmed in 1988 in Graz, Austria where Sheila was teaching a workshop, and this one from 2012 in front of an appreciative hometown crowd in Detroit.

Fast-forward to June 27, 11:21pm, TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Jazz Bistro, Toronto, Canada. Sheila Jordan and the Adrean Farrugia trio just finished performing her cathartic composition about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, The Crossing, and there is not a dry eye in the house. Advertised by the festival as “one of the finest singers in jazz since Billie Holiday,” Jordan’s astonishing depth as a ballad singer was evidenced by songs she sent out to musicians who had touched her life. The second night in particular was poignant, in huge part by jazz pianist Geri Allen's passing. The 60-year-old jazz luminary was well-known for her spirited, deeply blues-oriented style of playing and composing. Jordan, a close friend of the artist, dedicated The Thrill is Gone to her, managing to avoid her own tears while inspiring a plethora in the audience.

Jordan's rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s melancholy Bird Alone was imbued with a bossa nova beat that only enhanced its mood. Kenny Dorham’s still-timely Fairweather was dedicated to its composer, an underrated trumpet player she urged the audience to check out. A splendid composition by Alan Broadbent and Dave Frishberg encouraged each audience member to follow their Heart’s Desire: “I quit my day job at 58 and here I am today. It’s never too late!”

Maybe what makes Jordan’s ballads so arresting is the humour that surrounds them. Hardly trying to hide her age, she channels her inner child, improvising her own lyrics on the spot with consistently hysterical results. On a slowed-down tribute to Ella, titled Lady Be Good, she purposely didn’t scat, but told the story of the first time she heard Fitzgerald, on a 78 she purchased with a quarter earned by scrubbing a woman’s steps.

A genuine jazz giant in a tiny frame, it is Jordan’s lightness of being, her casual ability to connect with strangers, that makes her not merely refreshing, but wondrous. Some 70 years after she first heard Bird, this sage storyteller is as fearless as she is precious; may she long continue to sing, swing and inspire.

Singer (with) Heart, Educator In-The-Moment! Loving Audiences
Jazzy Open Range, Dreamlike Agility; Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan.

Sheila Jordan performed a total of four sets on June 26 and 27 at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, as part of the 2017 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

 

Jean-Pierre Melville (left) and Pierre Grasset.To celebrate the centennial of the birth of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, TIFF Bell Lightbox is screening 12 of his feature films and one short between June 29 and August 19.

Most of Melville’s films dwell in the shadowy world of men who live close to death – gangsters, cops, French Resistance fighters. They usually unfold in B&W, methodically, in stories told like a procedural. His characters often drive around in big American cars, finned gas guzzlers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Melville likes to shoot them externally through the front window and internally from the back seat. He’s fond of long looks filled with unspoken words, and of scenes of dancing girls in clubs. But even fonder of jazz, which he uses extensively in the films I was able to preview for the TIFF retrospective.

Melville himself stars in Two Men in Manhattan (July 9), as a journalist for Agence France Press dispatched by his employer to investigate the disappearance of a French delegate to the United Nations. Released in 1959 (but more importantly, shot in Manhattan in November and December 1958), this noirish B-movie looks terrific, the authentic footage of NYC exquisitely beautiful and time-capsule worthy. The journalist turns to an alcoholic photographer pal (Pierre Grasset) for help in the case – he’s got photos of the diplomat with three different women (possible mistresses) – and the duo set out to cherchez la femme. One of these women is a jazz singer with a light, dusky voice (played by Glenda Leigh), who they meet during a recording session of Street in Manhattan at Capitol Records. (Leigh was still active in Florida as recently as 2013.)

Two Men in Manhattan: Martial Solal, piano; Bernard Hulin, trumpet.The evocative score is by Christian Chevallier and Martial Solal (who also wrote the score for Godard’s Breathless, Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers). From the opening trumpet underneath footage of Times Square, you know immediately that you’re in New York in the 1950s. The trumpet theme recurs periodically as the city is unveiled from the UN to Greenwich Village, including contemporaneous marquees of movies featuring the likes of Jeff Chandler and Esther Williams. But it’s images of Times Square and 42nd Street that jump out like time-lapse photography. Two Men in Manhattan may not have the gravitas of Army of Shadows, the elegance of Bob le flambeur (July 7) or the gangster demi-monde of Le Doulos (July 29), Le Deuxième Souffle (July 25) and The Red Circle (July 28), but it’s a jewel in its own right and not to be missed on the big screen.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos.Army of Shadows (June 30; July 30) is an unmissable portrait of a handful of French Resistance fighters (Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret star) inexorably doomed in the early days of the movement; Léon Morin, Priest (July 16) also takes place during the German Occupation which serves as backdrop to its erotically charged tale of a lapsed Catholic-turned-Communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, fresh from Hiroshima, mon amour) and the intellectually engaged priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Breathless) who rekindles her faith.

The series opened with a 35mm print of Le Samouraï (June 29; August 19), a film that influenced John Woo and Jim Jarmusch among others. Its ultra-cool hitman is played by the magisterial Alain Delon, his screen presence at its peak. The jazz-based score, filled with foreboding that mirrors the psyche of its protagonist, is by François de Roubaix. In Melville’s last film, Un Flic, Delon is a cop who plays piano for his mistress (Catherine Deneuve), the girlfriend of his prey (Richard Crenna, whose craggy face can’t be dubbed the way his voice is). Michel Colombier’s score was his first for Melville (who never used any composer more than twice) but followed in the jazz footsteps of most of its predecessors since Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer’s memorable work in Bob le flambeur.

TIFF’s retrospective on the work of Jean-Pierre Melville runs until August 19 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, visit http://www.tiff.net/#series=army-of-shadows-the-films-of-jean-pierre-melville.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

 The cast of Uncle Vanya. Photo credit: Valeriy Myasnika.As I made my way through the lobby of the John Bassett Theatre on Saturday, June 24 to find my seat, I was surrounded by Russian speakers excitedly in conversation, waiting for the curtain to go up on the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre production of Russia’s Uncle Vanya (as part of the 2017 Luminato festival). What a perfect unexpected pre-show start to an evening of classic Russian theatre that I was to review as part of my work as The WholeNote’s music theatre columnist

“Wait a second,” you say, “Uncle Vanya? But that's Chekhov, right? Slightly turgid, sad, straight plays about people who want to go to Moscow or not sell their Cherry Orchard...right?” “Well, yes,” I reply, “and no.” This company is famous for using the theatrical methods of Meyerhold – large-scale symbolism, mime and music – in their productions, so it does qualify as “music theatre” to some extent. I was interested to see how important music would be to telling the story, as well as what would be different in the Vakhtangov company’s approach, and how it would affect my response.

It took a while to acclimatize to the style and its conventions, which at first were almost alienating, but by halfway to the intermission I was won over and the production began to take hold. From the beginning, the music was a constant. Almost no scene was un-scored or unaccompanied by sound – sometimes in accord with the surface emotion of a scene, but more often expressing what lay beneath – and only rarely was there no music or sound at all, and only for specific effect.

While the text of the play (and the program stated, no word of Chekhov’s writing had been omitted) was spoken in what one would think of as a natural, realistic way, the physical expression of emotion, feelings and relationships was not. At first it seemed strangely presentational and arbitrary, but later it became refreshingly evocative of what the characters were feeling – often the opposite of what they were saying. From Elena throwing herself onto the floor in the middle of the stage or walking across the stage with a silver hula hoop (which naturally folded into the staging), to Vanya’s caressing of Elena’s feet and calves (the only part of her visible from behind a screen), to characters feeling no need to look at each other as they spoke, to the grand mimetic entrances and exits for the professor and his entourage, the physicality of this production was used to powerful, and often disconcerting, effect.

From my reading about Meyerhold I had expected the stylization to have more influence over the speaking of the text, so that was the biggest surprise, and for me a great part of the success of this production. Somehow in this particular combination of words, movement and music, the inner needs and lives of the characters were set free and allowed us to love them and laugh at them at the same time. World theatre criticism and production has finally moved on to a more general acceptance of the fact that Chekhov’s plays are actually meant to be funny (alongside the personal and societal sorrows they depict) but this production was a revelation, the comedy and tragedy so strongly interlaced and exposed to us in the audience that we came to really care about these odd, desperate trapped people, in all their absurdity and flawed humanity.

Dancers Ching Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter in Until the Lions. Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez.Until the Lions: Earlier in the festival on June 18, I had the chance to see Akram Khan’s dance production Until the Lions, and in this the music was even more integral. Long before the show itself began there was an almost subliminally present, ominous wind-like soundscape playing through the theatre’s speakers, interlaced with moving light and shadow on the stage. As the piece itself began this was layered with live music performed by a team of musicians using their voices, drums, a guitar and various other instruments to create an invigoratingly live soundscape score for the dancers. There was a magical quality to the setting: a stage looking like the rippled stump of a giant tree with springy bamboo shoots growing randomly on its uneven surface and around the stage, in front of an audience seated on all four sides, was a path for the musicians, and occasionally for the dancers, to travel. Taken from the “Story of Amba,” a princess in the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, Until the Lions explores the unseen side of her story in an immensely fierce and passionate hour of choreography for three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto RItter.

Pss Pss. Photo credit: Pipo Gialluisi.Pss Pss: On the same day as Until the Lions I went earlier to see Pss Pss, a clown performance by the Italian Compagnia Baccalà at Luminato’s “Famous Spiegeltent,” not expecting it to connect at all with the later show and yet, much to my delight, it really did.  Brilliant clown duo Camilla Pessi and Simone Fassari, looking like white face versions of Edward Everett Horton and a young Christina Ricci, began almost in silence, finding hilarity in the shared desire to eat an apple with barely a sound other than the whispered “pss pss” to catch one another’s attention. Then, the music erupted into the space – wonderfully circus-y dramatic music, selections from Ekberg, Torgue, Houppin and Lindvall – and these two goofy figures we were starting to love morphed into brilliant, slightly clumsy (but not really) acrobats throwing each other around. Pessi balanced on Fassari’s shoulders, head, even a single hand, the two bodies supporting each other then falling and tumbling and intertwining in a choreography that would find a serious counterpart in the passionate dance duets of Until the Lions later that day. Such synchronicity, and fascinating to see the relationship between two people depicted in such funny and then such searing detail.

All in all, an impressive array of shows at this year’s Luminato festival – and a reminder of how successful “music theatre” can be found in even the most unexpected of places.

The Luminato festival ran from June 14 to 25, in various locations throughout Toronto. For more information, visit www.luminatofestival.com.

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.

 

Westben concerts at the Barn.Classical music aficionados, rejoice! Westben Theatre is gearing up for their annual summer festival, which runs from July 2 to August 6 this year. The lineup is nearly entirely Canadian, making it a fitting celebration for the country’s 150th birthday. All the more reason to get out of the city and celebrate classical music as Mother Nature intended: in the great Canadian backyard. All you need is a curiosity to hear classical music packaged differently – have you ever heard a professional piano concert in a barn? How about a birdwatching walk with piano music serenading participants on the trail? Or a late night jazz pub crawl around the Trent Hills region?

Based out of a barn-style theatre in Campbellford, Ontario, Westben has 25 events slated for its music series this summer – most of which can be sorted into six categories:

International – a homecoming for Canadian artists who perform on world stages
Canadian Acts – eminent homegrown acts
Novel Experiences – sound explorations presented in non-conventional formats
Technical – technical demonstrations or presentations
Jazz – casual presentations around town
Miscellaneous – performances falling outside classical and jazz genres

Here are some of The WholeNote’s picks from each category:

INTERNATIONAL
Rolston String Quartet
Sunday, July 9, 2pm

The winners of the 2016 Banff international String Quartet Competition are on a busy touring schedule, playing at various festivals across the country. It will be interesting to hear how the acoustics of a string quartet resonate in a barn…

Great Pianists: Jan Lisiecki
Saturday, July 22, 2pm

Gramophone Magazine 2016 Young Artist of the Year, the 21-year-old Calgarian first came into the international spotlight in 2010. He will perform works by Bach, Schumann, Chopin and Schubert.

CANADIAN ACTS
Fiddle! Everything Fitz
Sunday, July 16, 2pm

Old-time fiddling and Ottawa-Valley step dancing. This promises to be an engaging and patriotic concert!

NOVEL EXPERIENCES
Song Birds: Find the birds, find the pianist!
Saturday, July 22, 7am

An out-of-city experience: a hunt for music and birds in Ferris Provincial Park, as pianist Rashaan Allwood interprets birdcalls in the park. Allwood will have performed the evening prior in the Barn, in another bird-themed program of piano works by Olivier Messiaen. The composer’s fascination with birds is well-documented: he would attempt to imitate their chirps and warbles in his music. As Allwood wrote to The WholeNote, “[the space] is a great venue because it's isolated, and quasi-outside in a barn that was turned into a concert hall. Really cool stuff.” He also has plans to bring the performance to Toronto audiences: “I'm planning to do the same program with images in Montreal, Scarborough and Toronto, sometime between September and November this year.”

TECHNICAL
On the Record
Saturday, July 22, 7pm and Sunday July 23, 10am

This is your chance to learn about the recording studio from sound engineer Andy Thompson. How does that life-changing performance get transcribed onto CD, for repeat enjoyment? After the workshop, participants will take away a recording of their own performances.

JAZZ
Emilie-Claire Barlow
Saturday, August 5, 2pm

Trent Hills will be alive with the sound of this two-time JUNO Award winner. Barlow is a Canadian jazz singer, arranger, record producer and voice actress. She will appear with Amanda Tosoff (piano) and Jon Maharaj (bass).

Jazz Jam
Saturday, August 5, 9pm

Bring your own instrument and jam with the Band! Featuring vocalist/pianist Rob Phillips, bassist Howard Baer, and drummer Harry Ellis.

Jazz Brunch
Sunday, August 6, 11am

An easygoing way to spend a Sunday. Breakout performances at various locations. See website for details.

MISCELLANEOUS
TGIFun! Arrogant Worms
Friday, July 7, 7pm

Those who are averse to fun should stay away from this performance! The Arrogant Worms will perform selections from their latest album, on Canadian themes. Billed as “tuneful and silly escapism for everyone who needs it!”

Waves of Broadway
Wednesday, July 26 to Saturday, July 29, 2pm

Performances of water-themed Broadway hits.

Montreal Guitar Trio & California Guitar Trio
Friday, August 4, 7pm

These two trios have been giving joint performances for the past seven years. On the bill: jazz, world music, classical, rock, blues, progressive, and quintessentially Californian surf music. With six guitarists on stage, this promises to be a fun event!

Westben’s summer festival series runs from July 2 to August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit www.westben.ca. Stay posted at www.thewholenote.com for more updates from this year’s Westben festival.  

Jennifer Liu is a recent graduate in piano performance, and has written on classical music for La Scena Musicale, The WholeNote Magazine, and Musical Toronto.

 

 

Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.With its hallucinogenic mood, stunning cinematography, survival-revenge theme and lone-wolf protagonist, Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to her striking debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night shows off its confident director's singular vision of a post-modern western with aplomb.

Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is a young woman unceremoniously dumped into the vast Texas desert, lumped in and fenced off with other marginalized rejects of American society known as the bad batch. She's soon caught by one of the area's many cannibals (bridge dwellers), who severs her right arm and leg. Managing to escape using her toughness, ingenuity and a skateboard, she's found by a Good Samaritan who brings her to the town of Comfort, where a Hugh Hefner-like, LSD-dispensing strongman known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) holds its citizens in his thrall. But Arlen can't resist the call of the wild in the form of Miami Man (Jason Momoa) and his young daughter. As the story unfolds (with frequent satiric jabs), it's clear that Arlen is living out an allegorical distillation of the American dream of family and freedom.

Jason Momoa and Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.The Bad Batch's languorous dystopian atmospherics are enhanced, amplified and re-enforced by Amirpour's well-chosen soundtrack. Federale's All the Colours of the Dark, for example, begins sleepily, like the day itself. “I awoke in the dark / called out into the cold dark” it sings out, as the day unfolds in a series of landscapes and skyscapes matching the music's druggy somnambulance: “All the colours of the dark will remind you of someone who once was you.”

Keanu Reeves as The Dream, with his enforcers. Courtesy of NEON.Black Light Smoke's Screws in My Head, with its cool, insistent beat, buttresses the carnival-like dance music played by Comfort's resident DJ (Diego Luna) that introduces The Dream and his coterie of pregnant machine-gun toting enforcers with their “THE DREAM IS INSIDE ME” T-shirts. Earlier, the same band's Firefly underscores Miami Man and his bridge-dwelling family with a rolling, hypnotic beat and pointed lyric: “I'm like a firefly trapped in the spotlight.”

And what could be more apt than the lyric of White Lies' Fifty on Our Foreheads to put a bow on the movie's happy, if uncertain, ending: “A quilt of darkness dotted with our teardrops. The moonlight licked the face of danger.”

If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, The Bad Batch is a must-see.

The Bad Batch plays from June 23 to June 29, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

The Seven Deadly Sins at the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.What a treat to hear Wallis Giunta sing Anna I and to watch Jennifer Nichols dance Anna II, to experience them playing two exquisite halves of a whole. Their plight was the centrepiece of last night’s concert at the TSO, in a semi-staged version of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins that documents the seven-year, seven-city trek that two ‘sisters’ undertake to make enough money to build the “little house in Louisiana” that is everything their family wants.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally envisioned as a “ballet chantée” – a “sung ballet” with a full ballet company as well as singers and a leading dancer, telling the story of two sisters (or are they?) encountering the seven deadly sins in seven American cities as they strive to raise money for their family. Last night’s semi-staged version, directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by his frequent collaborator Jennifer Nichols, did a very clever job of having the four male singers take on the roles usually performed by dancers as well as their own characters of the “family” (father, mother and two brothers). As Nichols had earlier told me (and as she explains in the program notes), her approach to the choreography was “to find a way to express that the family of Anna does not simply sit outside of her in judgment but are an extension of her own self-examination, her hopes and fears.” This, added to the usual interchangeability of Anna I and II in spite of the divided sides of her personality, led to a very interesting new take on the piece. The four male singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Stephen Hegedus and Geoffrey Sirett) proved admirable actors and performers of the choreography and staging – Geoffrey Sirett standing out in a moving pas de deux with Nichols in the “Lust” chapter.

Giunta and Nichols also blended seamlessly – Giunta moving like a dancer as well as acting powerfully, and Nichols also acting wonderfully while dancing and speaking. Looking almost identical but subtly differentiating themselves more and more throughout the piece, practical Anna I (Giunta) became more and more hardened to the “practical necessities” of the world while the ”she is an artist” Anna II (Nichols) grew more vulnerable and beaten up from fighting impossible fights. The pair’s repeated refrain (ironic for the audience) of “Nicht wahr, Anna?” (Right, Anna?) and “Ja, Anna” (Yes, Anna) still echoes in my memory, with poor Anna II more and more discouraged even while continuing to agree with her stronger and more soulless half.

The original production in Paris in 1933 was apparently received with some puzzlement, and while The Seven Deadly Sins is considered a modern classic and true to the political values seen in other Brecht/Weill collaborations, watching it tonight I was not surprised that it would have been received that way. The irony in the libretto is sometimes too subtle, sometimes too over the top,  and the sins themselves not easy to depict onstage – perhaps why this work is much more often seen in concert form rather than being fully staged. In this case, though, the semi-staged, choreographed production last night was much more satisfying than a straightforward concert singing of the material would have been.

It was also fascinating to see in this third collaboration of director and choreographer such a seamlessly smooth blending of approach and staging. Perhaps it was my high expectation of these friends and their abilities that made me want even more from the performance – perhaps a more pointed political context given the state of the world today, or another way to give the production more of a contemporary urgency, but that may be just me. Already their work together is reaching new heights and depths, and with the new video element to bookend each chapter of the story (enigmatic, Bergman-esque black-and-white video images created by Jennifer Nichols with Christopher Monetti), they are already exploring new territory. I look forward to seeing their next collaboration, as well as which other semi-staged productions the TSO will make part of future seasons.

Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday, June 14, alongside works by Balfour, Barber and Bartók. A second performance takes place on Thursday, June 15.

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.

Toronto, meet TONE.

Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who opens the first concert of TONE. Credit: Jonathan Sielaff.A new undertaking by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, TONE is a newcomer to the local summer festival scene this month. But unlike other festivals this summer, this one focuses exclusively on experimental music—programming a breadth of artists known for their adventurous approach rather than zeroing in on specific genres or styles. And unlike most other first-time projects, TONE—which features no less than eight concerts between June 14 and 29—has a scope that echoes that fearlessness.

In a recent interview with NOW, organizer Tad Michalak talks about how TONE was conceived as a way of filling a void, in a city that often omits experimental music from its summer festival offerings. “Year after year, it got disheartening to see a scene we worked year-round to build and invigorate get ignored by many major festivals,” he explains to NOW’s Carla Gillis. “TONE came about essentially out of necessity.”

If their goal was to do something about the dearth of summertime avant-garde music in Toronto, then TONE is a promising start. The festival features several sets of improvised music from both local and international artists, and aligns itself with some of the most active local venues for experimental music in the city. Acclaimed Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani opens the festival tonight (Wednesday, June 14) at the Tranzac, with other concerts taking place there in the following weeks, as well as at the Burdock, Array Space, the Jam Factory, and Ratio—which, having just announced its closure as a music venue, will present a TONE show on Saturday, June 24 as its last-ever concert.

Apart from a mandate for supporting experimental music, the TONE team—each of whom has a wealth of experience running music collectives and curating experimental music of one kind or another during the regular Toronto concert season—has been intentionally indiscriminate about genre. It means, ultimately, that among fans of the avant-garde, there really is something for everybody. Beyond opening night and the Ratio show, other standouts in the festival lineup include a three-set show co-presented with the Music Gallery on Thursday, June 15, featuring groups DKV, Icepick, and Invisible Out; an appearance by Berlin-based pianist Achim Kaufmann’s trio Grünen at Array on Monday, June 19 (in a double-bill with local group The Cluttertones); and a co-presentation with Electric Eclectics on Wednesday, June 21 at the Jam Factory, which opens with a performance by Ethiopian jazz accordion virtuoso Hailu Mergia.

Tickets range between $10 and $22 per show, with a 4-show pass available for $45 and a full festival pass available for $85—all of which are available at the door or in advance at Circus Books & Music, Rotate This, and Soundscapes.

Congrats to TONE for being bold, for making a plan for re-invigorating the summer experimental music scene, and for making it happen.

TONE, curated by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, runs from June 14 to 29 in multiple locations throughout Toronto. For details, visit www.tonetoronto.tumblr.com.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

Erin Stone, from the cast of Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Credit: Dahlia Katz Photography.Opera is no stranger to onstage ridiculousness—but it isn’t always as slyly self-aware as this.

Following its inaugural show of the same name in July 2015, Loose TEA Music Theatre is back with a new installment of opera improv series Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Inspired by the popular improv comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, Loose TEA’s production strings together improv comedy games into an opera of sorts, where professionals from the local opera community are forced to put their vocal and theatrical talents to comedic, and unexpected, use.

The show, which is organized by Loose TEA’s artistic director Alaina Viau and coached by Carly Heffernen of Second City, takes place on Friday, June 16, at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto. The cast itself is a promising cross-section of local opera singers, including Jeff Boyd, Amanda Cogan, Adanya Dunn, Gillian Grossman, Rachel Krehm, Jonathan MacArthur, Erin Stone and Lindsay Sutherland-Boal. Schmopera’s Greg Finney will host and Natasha Fransblow will accompany at the piano.

Loose TEA isn’t the only group experimenting with musical manifestations of improv comedy, either. Also in town this month from London’s West End is Showstopper!, an improvised musical comedy running at the Panasonic Theatre until June 25. The show features a troupe of musical comedians billed as ‘The Showstoppers’, who, similar to Whose Line, use audience suggestions to create an on-the-spot performance of musical theatre. While the show has toured extensively in the UK, this Mirvish-hosted run is the group’s North American debut.

Whether these shows represent a growing trend or simply coincidental offshoots into music theatre’s less serious side remains to be seen. And though it’s of course impossible to say exactly what these shows will offer, the mix of operatic and musical tropes with improv comedy is an interesting one, which pokes fun at the melodrama of music theatre while offering something more casual, spontaneous and light-spirited than your average Verdi or Wagner. A bit of a collision of worlds, perhaps, but one that makes sense—and one worth watching.

Loose TEA Music Theatre’s Whose Opera is it Anyway?! takes place at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto on Friday, June 16 at 9:30pm, and is a 19+ show. Tickets are $12; for details visit http://baddogtheatre.com/whose-opera-is-it-anyway. Showstopper! runs until June 25 at the Panasonic Theatre; more info at https://www.mirvish.com/shows/showstopper.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

The WholeNote Podcasts

ArtworkWelcome to the Conversations <at> The WholeNote podcast page. Below you will find our podcast episodes for your listening pleasure.

To listen, you have a few options:

  • You can listen via this website you can scroll down and find the episode you'd like and click play there.
  • Or you can download and save the podcasts on your phone, tablet or computer - and then you can listen to it anytime (even without an internet connection) by downloading from the episode articles below.
  • Or you can subscribe to this podcast on your favourite podcast service including iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, BluBrry, PocketCasts and more. Just open your podcast app and search for Conversations at The WholeNote and hit 'subscribe'. 

If you are unable to find us on the podcast app that you use, please let us know and we'll do our best to try and make it available to you.

Scroll down to select individual episodes to enjoy.

Back to top