Minoriten Konvent

MinoritenKonventI can’t get over how good this CD is. I stumbled on it via Stephanie Paulet‘s (inactive) Twitter account, found it on Rdio in its entirety and haven’t been able to leave the computer since.

It’s a selection of late seventeenth-century sonatas for violin and organ from the Habsburg and German lands. The only composer (remotely) known to most of us will be Biber.

Paulet is Insula Orchestra‘s Concertmaster and I’ve only ever heard her play within the orchestra and orchestral solos, never in duos or a chamber ensemble. Elisabeth Geiger is at the organ.

Two YT clips that’ll give you an idea.



Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre

LooseTEA2Is Gounod’s Faust salvageable in any way and should we bother? Alaina Viau and Markus Kopp with the latest Loose TEA production Dissociative Me make the case that we should, and keep the score while rewriting the libretto, originally by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Goethe. Gone is the religion from the text (yay), gone are all female roles but Marguerite (no yay; no trouser role of Siébel and no contralto Marthe). We are in the present time and Faust is a recent PhD in astrophysics (tenor Kijong Wi), lonely and unemployed, neither a job nor a date on the horizon. In comes Mephistopheles (baritone Michael York) and promises the world if Faust agrees to “stop taking his medication”.

So instead of the discourse on sin, we are within the discourse of mental health, and in this way Viau’s update is very much of its—our–time. Today we prefer talking about criminal responsibility instead of ‘evil’, which to us smacks of Catholic Hell. We find it difficult to analyze (still no better word->) evil acts committed by the perfectly sane, well-educated and comfortable people. Our secular age lacks a discourse on evil, because we’re all too happy to chuck it with the rest of the Christian mythology. This doesn’t solve the problem, alas. And evil as an applicable concept, to echo Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, survives well into our secular age, whether we have the framework for it or not.

Viau could argue of course that in their adaptation, Faust is not evil as much as a nasty date; seducing a woman from a very patriarchal family, impregnating her and abandoning her perhaps isn’t evil, perhaps it’s a bad love practice, perhaps he is just being an unethical slut. Yes, I can go with that. But in the course of Dissociative Me, Faust also lands a spectacular job and acquires charisma. Those are the worldly goods he was promised—and he is finally enjoying them. Marguerite, on her part, ends up being devastated by the abandonment and single-motherhood to the point of killing her newborn and herself. Would that really happen today, or is Mephistopheles again pulling some underworldly strings? The Catholic bits of the original libretto return to Dissociative Me to undermine the mental illness paradigm. The eerie prerecorded sounds heard in some scenes also flirt with the supernatural, but remain ambiguous enough to work (is it the supernatural or is Faust hallucinating, or is it atmospheric music like a film score). Viau and Kopp have approached the rework of the Gounod with seriousness, and for that kudos. They could have, however, gone much further, particularly with the character of Marguerite. The poor soul still gets seduced via a box of jewels.

In any case, the two-sides-of-the-same-person idea works well overall. Viau and Kopp keep the two characters fairly independent until the key scene at the end when Faust’s suicide also kills Mephistopheles, his other face. This is very effective as the final act. I suspect this dual protagonist idea would have worked even without the mental illness: a sane, unmedicalized Faust could have met his darker self and decided to give it full reign. Or perhaps Mephistopheles could stand for or supply some mood- and concentration-enhancing drug to which Faust becomes addicted.  It is to Viau and Kopp’s credit that I found myself long after the show thinking about this and Gounod’s Faust in general, an opera I don’t usually rush to contemplate. And this in spite—or perhaps because—of the blind spots in the adaptation. This take on Faust will get opera lovers thinking and talking, even if the execution leaves a thing or two to be desired.

There was probably no money for the set or the props, so the director (Viau) makes the best of the location—the night club RED in the Liberty Village—and some dark curtains. For example, Act 2 happens at the bar, and moves to a coffee shop where Marguerite works. Among the bits of the opera that were cut out is unfortunately also “King of Thule”, Marguerite’s melancholy aria. Her jewellery aria is still there and still as unflattering for the character as in the original libretto (selfies are involved). Soprano Beth Hagerman did her utmost in the ungrateful role, sang movingly and acted credibly. She was innocent when innocence was called for and believably broken in the latter parts.

Michael York was a compelling Mephistopheles who goes by the innocuous name of Lee. The devil’s emissary is usually the meatiest role in any production of Faust, no exception here. York exercised the greatest range of emotions, including forays into comedy. Kijong Wi’s Faust was somewhat single-note dramatically; vocally, however, he was reliably good, with a full-bloodied top and the evenness of tone.

Jennifer Tung at the piano kept the motor running and the vehicle moving. Somebody should write a long piece on the music directors who act as one-person orchestras—where would the Toronto indie opera be without you. Hat tip from us all.

One performance left to go: August 22.

LooseTEA1Left: Beth Hagerman as Marguerite. Top photo: l-r Michael York and Kijong Wi as Lee and John Faustus. Both photos by Rachel McCaig Photography.

The Aix Svadba livestreams on Arte July 10

The Aix Svadba livestreams on Arte July 10

The Aix-en-Provence production of Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba will be livestreamed tomorrow here – figure out your time zone via the live ticker on the screen. The production is by Ted Huffman and Zack WinokurDáirine Ní Mheadhra conducts with John Hess at the percussion. Here are a couple of good curtain call photos from the opening night, courtesy of the dramaturge Antonio Cuenca Ruiz. The only original cast member is Andrea LudwigFlorie Valiquette sings Milica, alongside Liesbeth Devos, Jennifer Davis, Pauline Sikirdji and Mireille Lebel in the remaining roles.

The production looks much less abstract (alas) than the original Toronto production by Michael Cavanagh but I am open to being pleasantly surprised. While the teaser looks rather specific, I’m told these images are not really in the production. Trailers are now often being made completely independently from the stage-directorial concept.


A dandy audio mashup from the rehearsals:

This is a co-production between Aix Festival, Angers Nantes Opéra, the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Festival Ljubljana, Ars Musica and Sarajevo Winter, so will probably travel to all those places sooner or later. More photos and info here.

Stéphanie Argerich on Martha Argerich: the documentary

Bloody Daughter COVER“Art Monster”. In Jenny Offill’s acclaimed Dept. of Speculation, it is the ideal against which the narrator looks at her own life and finds it wanting, overcome as it is by the demands of motherhood, relationship and domesticity. This is what I wanted to be, the narrator reminds herself: pursue my art at the expense of everything else, be the best I can be, and not be concerned about the rest. As many a man had done before, and as so few women have – or have been mythologized as having done. Motherhood is an absolute demand on woman, the point where the purpose of her life gets hijacked, and therefore should be rejected absolutely.

I was thinking a lot about this dichotomy while watching the documentary that Martha Argerich’s daughter Stéphanie Argerich made about her, Bloody Daughter. A camera had been given to her as a play-activity, something to keep the child busy, and the footage included in the documentary spans decades and is always from a uniquely intimate vintage point. Most of the footage however is from the last couple of years: candid observations of Argerich getting into a (usual, Stéphanie explains) pre-performance state, or talking to her longtime manager about “something missing from her life”, or trying out food on various travels, or rehearsing, along with the talking-head sequences in which Stéphanie’s personal questioning of her mother on life, art and family may lead them to a bout of travel, say, to Argentina, on the traces of Argerich’s parents. It’s a well-crafted mass of material in which we are gradually introduced to Argerich’s other two adult daughters—there’s a particularly interesting story around her oldest—and Stéphanie’s mostly absent if friendly father, pianist Stephen Kovacevich. The somewhat unfortunate title of the documentary comes from one of his jokes—the (distant) father gets to keep his naming rights, accidentally.

Argerich had her three daughters with three different men—one of whom was Charles Dutoit—but with the exception of the first daughter, the parenting tended to fall back to her, with fathers absenting themselves sooner or later. She lost custody of her oldest, but reconnected with her later in life, and some of the aspects of that reconnecting process are shown in the film. From the way the three young women speak of and with their mother, it’s clear how much they love her and what an important part of their lives she remains. For Stéphanie, growing up with her mother meant a nomadic life, with secondary caretakers proliferating—she lists and shares her footage of many of them—and never any semblance of a traditional couple situation. (It would have been more difficult to parent within a couple, the man of the couple has his own demands, coupledom itself does, explains Argerich in one of her frank responses to her daughter’s quizzing.) The girls recollect the wackier sides of their childhood without any rancour—and a too laissez-faire attitude towards school attendance and achievement was among them.

“Some people say you can’t be a great artist and a good mother,” says Stéphanie to her mother early in the film. Argerich gives it some thought, says she doesn’t know about that. She says she thinks she finally knew what she was doing with the two later daughters, but perhaps not with the oldest, Lyda. The question remains hanging—or perhaps Argerich doesn’t even want to contemplate the dichotomy. But if the film is to be believed, she very much answered the question and broke through the dichotomy with her own life. It’s How to be both (hi, Ali Smith!).

Stéphanie’s gaze upon her mother is atypical in other ways, too. Though past seventy, the Argerich of the film is endlessly sensual and good-looking, uninhibited in her physical being and in what she lets be seen. We see her consuming food—lots of smelling, tasting, mastication–, getting a massage, smoking, there are many closeups of her hands, shots of her lying in bed. (“I love Schumann the most,” she says in one of those early morning shots.) Her feet get special attention, as at least two of the daughters remember distinctly spending a lot of time under the piano while their mother was practicing, observing her foot on the pedal, and her toes.

We learn about Argerich’s own mother too—and her father, who cared for her a lot and perhaps monopolized the parenting a little too tightly. But it’s Argerich’s mother’s personality that ends up looming. There was love there too, if the methods of giving had its wacky aspects, and again the story told by a daughter of her mother is one without recriminations. It’s all very liberating to observe. There’s respect for the otherness of the other woman—even if that woman is your mother—and a certain ecumenical solidarity across generations.

“My mother once confessed to me she had always wanted to have the capacity to heal with her hands,” says Argerich in another intriguing aside, looking at her own hands. Elsewhere, she tries to answer her daughter’s question on how her playing changed while she was pregnant. She had recorded one of her most popular discs, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, when seven months pregnant. When she first heard the proofs, she got upset because it all sounded like it was done by a “pregnant housewife”—“not suggestive at all, not the least bit demonic like you’d expect of this piece”. The doc is positively kaleidoscopic about its human subject and about its central question of mothering-while-artist, and daughtering-while-artist. There’s never a Technicolor moment of reconciliation of all needs in the film, thank god, but the Art Monster definitely meets the Good Mother in the same person, and mothers, daughters and grandmothers are seen working out a kinship of care and respect of differences, a balance of freedom and obligation. And this is extremely rarely seen on screen small or large, in feature or documentary film. What a treat.

Subscribers to Medici.tv can watch the doc here. The DVD package contains two discs, the other one being a recording of Argerich’s 2010 performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra in Warsaw. 

A montage of clips:

The English-language trailer:

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

Lanser2My interview with Professor Susan S. Lanser just came out on DailyXtra. It’s a much condensed and edited version of the director’s cut below, which is way more fun and twice the length. Do dive in, let me know what you think.

– – –

When was the last time an academic book made you tremble with excitement? Made you talk to it out loud, interrupt your reading to run and tweet about it feverishly? You can’t recall? Pick up Susan S. Lanser’s The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (University of Chicago Press) the soonest, then.

The 2014 book by the Brandeis University Prof will likely become a game-changer in the fields of literary history and queer studies. The research focuses on the huge increase in textual representation of the female same-sex relations—be that fiction, proto-anthropology, poetry, drama, travelogues, political theory, court trial records, medical treatises–and the fuss that some of the most developed Atlantic economies were beginning to kick up about the girl-on-girl and girl-with-girl from about 1600s on. She argues that modernity itself spoke through the phenomenon of the sapphic—that the female homosociality and homosexuality and their cultural representations were crucial for the emergence of human rights, equality before law, social experimentation, and even the novel as an art form.

There is a whole lot of good news and bold erudite hypothesizing in this book. We managed to cover some of the ground in our recent Skype chat with Prof. Lanser.

This term that you use, ‘sapphic’, is a gift that keeps giving. A lot of the queer history are investigations into whether A and B ‘really did it’ and whether a piece of writing really is about sexual practices, but you offer a way out of that impasse. The sapphic is a sort of a continuum.

Sapphic is a wide umbrella for female intimacies, as I use the word. I also agree with Martha Vicinus and other theorists who argue that same-sex relations should not be held to a higher evidentiary standard (i.e. proof that someone engaged in certain practices or even acknowledged certain forms of desire) than that to which we hold heterosexual relationships. And we have to put historical pressure—and cross-cultural pressure—on words such as “chaste” and “innocent.”

What’s also interesting is your thesis about how the sapphic worked in conjunction with modernity. Let’s see if I got it correctly: the sapphic in culture was a way for the modernity to voice itself. It was a “prospect of political levelling” much more radical than man + man.

Yes, engaging the sapphic was a way in which the culture grappled with some of the most radical challenges of modernity-in-the-making. When I say that the prospect of levelling embodied in the sapphic is more radical than “man + man”, I do not mean to suggest some kind of sanction for male-male relations; men were far more likely than women to be prosecuted for sodomy—but that the idea of relations between women radically challenged a set of assumptions about the hierarchical social order on which traditional societies were built. In a sense, the sapphic exposes the centrality of women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems.

If a woman had a passionate friendship with another woman, her attention would be taken away from the marriage and the household, her primary duties.

Absolutely. And any kind of primary relationship between women stood as an implicit claim that a woman did not need to be under the legal and social rule of a man, whether husband, father, or brother.

Some of those early narratives that you analyze, I think just around the 1600, involve bonding across class too–there are maids and noblewomen pairings. And some of the utopias of 1700s go across classes.

Yes. Cross-class relations are threatening, of course, whether they involve men, women or male-female couples. But it’s significant that the sapphic becomes a site where the dangers (and sometimes the benefits) of relations across class are so frequently explored. Scholars have sometimes argued that gender and class can function interchangeably in the early modern imagination. I also think that the loosening of hierarchy implied by female-female relationships raises the spectre that relations between women will undo all social hierarchies. One the other hand, there is certainly elitism in many of the representations I study.

There were periods, as you show, when the sapphic was a tale of how things are done in some other places–whatever the other of the day was, for whatever national culture. It’s something done in France, or in Spain, or very frequently in Ottoman Empire.

This recognition that the sapphic is tied up with other social phenomena is really at the heart of the book. The language that pervades sapphic representations in the early modern period is language shared by other discourses— whether about governance, difference, status, the place of the individual in a community, etc. That pulls the sapphic into the mainstream of history and indeed explains the reversal of terms that shaped my title and indeed shaped the book as a whole. When I started working on this project, I was looking for representations of the sapphic but I hadn’t yet recognized the potential to turn the history of sexuality into what I call the sexuality of history—i.e., not just to uncover a history of sapphic texts but to see that those sapphic texts were serving larger purposes not necessarily tied to the sexual in an obvious way.  It was an exciting moment indeed when the project made this flip of the coin.

Moreover, the colonial project seems to me of specific importance to representations of the sapphic in a somewhat more oblique way: the rise of colonialism and the rise of the sapphic share cultural space. It’s also illuminating to see the repeated association of the sapphic with Turkey and other near-East societies as a sign not simply of orientalist connections with the “harem” but as a site of anxiety about competing empires and especially about Ottoman power.

And sometimes the sapphic is indeed tied to the sexual directly. Nicholas Rowe’s ‘Song’ for example. That poem is ahead of our time, let alone its. The female intimacy in which the ruler and the ruled change roles freely–where everybody is both the top and the bottom, to put it in contemporary parlance–as a vision of a non-hierarchical society.

You’re right about that one! Each one is “fierce Youth and yielding Maid,” and since both are women, we’re definitely in a gender-queer space. And without suggesting that early modernity is some kind of golden age for queerness—we know better!—Rowe’s “Song” is by far not the only text that plays with gender in this way.

Lanser Book CoverI have to bring in the sapphic apostrophe. You describe those poems as ‘incredibly intense’ but I’ll be the brat and say that they are incredibly hot. Though you do show later in that chapter that if the apostrophe was between two ladies, chastity was presumed.

Yes, and as you see from that chapter (though this idea may get me intro trouble), I don’t think the intensity is entirely due to personal desire: I think there’s a feminist project here in which same-sex desire is helping to produce female subjectivity. As for hot: that chastity is presumed doesn’t mean it existed, and in any case what do we mean by chastity?  There is erotic intensity in these poems whatever the acts or even desires of their authors. (And we should not forget poems by men—for example, John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” which you might also consider “hot”. Do you?).

OMG yes. But where was I? As we approach the French Revolution, the sapphic begins to acquire some sinister traits—a presumed secrecy, an aristocratic pedigree, anti-maleness, an anti-republican spirit.

The sapphic has both positive and negative valance for much of the early modern period.  But yes, at a certain point, for a certain period, it is so tightly associated (especially but not only in France) with negative figures, forces, and values that it is not available for some of its more positive purposes. Yet in a somewhat transmuted and domesticated form, female intimacy later becomes a Romantic embodiment of the utopian.

Perhaps because the republican clubs are largely masculine, and the Enlightenment philosophes are for the most part anti-feminist? What was it that expelled women from the public life and moreover relegated them to the reactionary corner?

That’s a large and controversial question. Scholars disagree about whether the French Revolution opened or foreclosed opportunities for women. The answer depends to some extent on where one looks—that is, on where one locates public power. Certainly there was a backlash against women influencing the political order and little interest among the revolutionaries (with a few exceptions such as Condorcet, and that was early in the Revolution) in giving women formal political power. On the other hand, French women were better able, in the wake of the Revolution, to bring legal suits, and the historian Carla Hesse has argued that more works by women were published during and after the Revolution than before. In England, patriotism, as Linda Colley has argued in Britons, became a way for women to exercise increased public-sphere power in the Revolutionary period. But we can heed the lesson of the French Revolution that women’s rights is in no way a linear struggle and that advocating for rights for other groups does not necessarily entail advocating for women’s rights. And that, again, is evidence of how critical the subordination or domestication of women has been to the social order.

By the end of the eighteenth, you write, the “explicitly sexual representation are more or less foreclosed from polite discourse.” Would you say the nineteenth century in Europe and in North America turned out to be more puritan, private, with gender roles more ossified, nuclear family-centered time than the two centuries preceding?

If we follow an argument like that of Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex there emerges by the end of the eighteenth century a biological legitimation for sexual difference that does ossify gender roles as a way of preserving them. What I mean (and he means) is that the old hierarchies of male-over-female are reimagined as putatively equal-but-different–and of course we know that equal but different is never equal. So instead of arguments that women aren’t, say, intelligent enough to vote, we get the argument that the corrupt world of politics will taint women and make them unfit for motherhood. Or the theory that nourishment drawn to the brain by intense study will deprive the uterus of necessary nourishment for a fetus. But I think there is something of a split in culture in the nineteenth century—we see it in the Romantic period and later in the avant-garde movements of the fin-de-siècle—in which the rigidified gender roles of the bourgeois social imaginary find their antithesis in radical challenges including challenges to the status quo of both gender and sexuality.

Did the long nineteenth century ever end? It often feels like we’re still in it.

I’m not sure at any century ever ends: we are heirs to our past and that past also keeps revising itself as we revisit it. In at least that sense, we always live in queer times. We might also recall the first words of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: it was 1775, and yet so far like the present period: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

At the same time, things change, and I would not have been able to write this book (or to be legally married, for that matter) if modernity had not been in some important sense sapphic.

Mahler’s 2nd with the TSO, Peter Oundjian (c.), Susan Platts, Erin Wall

Mahler Resurrection (25 of 42)

The most exciting moment of the TSO’s Mahler Second was actually one of the more quiet and contemplative ones: mezzo Susan Platts’ entrance with the Urlicht, the first vocal solo appearing mid-symphony. After the swirls and the busyness of the preceding music, the low-voice timbre with its discreet accompaniment is a welcome change of mood and even texture. For a time, the solo violin dances a cheerful dance around the vocal line, but blends in with the orchestra as the text becomes more insistent—“Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”.

Platts’ appealing colour (not to mention potency and a well controlled vibrato) is to return later in the piece, in a duo with the soprano. Said soprano Erin Wall gets material that’s a little less poignant, but she confidently soars above the chorus and orchestra in the tuttis, and very much makes her presence known. In the final stretch everything leads up to the big choral fireworks affirming the belief in the resurrection. What do you do with it if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the flesh and that Jesus was sacrificed to redeem everybody’s sins? Perhaps THE question of this symphony; a secular or a non-Christian listener may find the final chorus manipulative and bombastic, rather than moving. I, for one, do.

But let’s be fair: there is more to the work than the statement of faith of its second half. The first movement is really where it’s at—arguably the darkest and most dramatic, and the TSO under its music director Peter Oundjian did it justice. It’s in the following scherzi and dances that the symphony tends to lose me: they proliferate and the mood changes frequently, so the thoughts may drift. A strong dramatic unity needs to be imposed somehow in this section, and this was only occasionally in evidence on Wednesday night.

The final movement is a busy affair, with multiple percussion stations, a part of brass going off stage (horns for the distant trumpet call effect) and returning for the exuberant finale involving the organ and the bells. For those who like that kind of thing, this is the thing that they will very much like. For the rest of us, this remains a puzzling work, a challenging collage worth the trouble figuring out why and how it should be done today. The TSO gave it a solid read with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in good form and two excellent soloists.

Last performance tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Roy Thomson Hall. Tickets and more information.

Photography by Brendan Zamojc

Brook, Meet Doundou Tchil: Schubert and Messiaen as a couple

Brook, Meet Doundou Tchil: Schubert and Messiaen as a couple

2295I was skeptical about the Schubert-Messiaen mashup going in, but the latest AtG offering Death & Desire turned out to be excellent. The closer you look at how Topher MokrzewskiJoel Ivany and comp. shaped it, the more stirring and intelligent the work shows itself.

Schubert’s 1823 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen’s 1945 Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort kinda copulate (a highly technical musicological term) here: instead of stand-alone two one-acters, as it were, the songs from each are interwoven and mixed to form a new Gestalt. The structure of the Schubert cycle is almost untouched, while the Harawi deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled, and added onto the Schubert.

The mezzo (Krisztina Szabó, in what’s now my favourite role I’ve ever seen her in) voices Harawi, and the baritone (the very good Stephen Hegedus) the Müllerin, with Mokrzewski at the piano for each. The basic set-up is a woman and a man (feel free to fill in the  genders applicable to you) talking—and loving each other—at cross-purposes. One speaks Romanticism, the other the twentieth-century, surrealism, and psychoanalysis; one German, the other French with a smattering of more or less invented words in the vein of the ancient Peruvian language of Quechua, not to mention the onomatopoeic bird-language . The woman gets the music that is more complex and interesting in every imaginable way, but on the downsize her emotional expressivity is also off the (Schubertian) charts. While the Schubert has a fairly linear narrative of a young man arriving at a mill, being hired there, falling for the miller’s daughter, ending up broken-hearted and throwing himself into the river, Harawi is Messiaen’s reworking of the Tristan & Isolde myth through the Andean cultures and myths, beheadings and all. It also has something of a narrative in the original lineup, of lovers coming together and entering the otherworld. With his deceptively plain material and simple motives, the man is at the beginning the easiest one to understand and to psychologise. But things get complicated.

The woman opens with “La ville qui dormait”, and later “Bonjour toi, colombe verte”. The two people are already on divergent clocks, because after her melancholy “La ville”, he starts off his cycle with that aimless wander-about, “Das Wandern”, followed by the (c’mon, admit it) silly “Wohin?” enumerating the many restless things he sees that match his own restlessness. He must go down to the brook, where he spots the mill and its house (in “Halt!”).

Hegedus plays him just you may expect, as a bit overeager, sweet chap who likes the tone of his own voice. The woman takes over with “Bonjour toi, colombe verte” in a very different tone against an astonishing canvass of sound coming from the piano, and the man responds with his address to the alter-ego (alter-body?), the brook in “Danksagung an den Bach” and an expression of bravado and his need to impress the millermaid in “Am Feierabend”. A couple of blocks in similar vein later, the woman sings one of her numbers that are veritable mini-operas, “Répétition planétaire” which *also* happens to be about the creation of the world. The chap’s answer? A cheerful, sunny “Morgengruß” (think “Good morning” from Singing in the rain) and “Des Müllerss Blumen” (he’ll plant some flowers for her and hope she’ll notice them). But hey, another one of these numbers in HD coming from the woman, the remarkable “L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil”. The man answers with the song “Mein!” in which we find out that in some way he got his millermaid, she is his (he thinks), and he is celebrating. Act 1 finishes with the woman’s riposte: “Doundou tchil”, performed by Szabó engulfed in anger, puzzlement, disappointment, lyrics largely incomprehensible even after they switch to French.

The blocking so far is extremely simple, with two singers singing to or past each other, walking around the table or sitting down. The lighting changes sometimes, and that is pretty much it. And it’s enough.

The dance of clever juxtaposition continues in Act 2, with the souring on the part of the man and a certain sweetening and resignation in the woman. The “Hunter” song is excised from the man’s songbook, possibly because it would require introducing another character to the stage, but the stuff that follows is there, the man’s sulking and the feeling of betrayal at the millermaid’s real or perceived flirting with the hunter. Near the end, there’s quite a bit of respect to the literal text in both song cycles, and somehow, intriguingly, they converge to a joint ending. “Syllabes” contains the plucking of flowers and removing of petals, and that is also performed before us. The man follows with “Die liebe Farbe” in which the green, previously the colour of their love, is now the colour of his sadness, and of the grass that will cover his grave. “L’amour de Piroutcha” is even sadder, a Liebestod of sorts, operating in the chthonic folk mythology register. Near the very end, the dialogical “Der Müller und der Back”, in which the brook answers to the dying miller, the woman joins the German song as the Brook. (Dastardly smart, guys. A surprise, a relief, a feeling of it being an illusion, a feeling of it being too-late: all this and more provided by those few sung lines.) After the man is laid down and covered in what remains of the flowers, last word given to the woman for “Dans le noir”, the actual ending of “Harawi”.

Remaining performances: June 4 and 5, 8pm, Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery.

A word of warning about the performance space. It is—no other way to put it—terrible. Please, AtG: don’t do this to us again. Seriously. Don’t.

In the photos: Krisztina Szabó, Stephen Hegedus and Topher Mokrzewski. Photos by Darryl Block.


Podium Politics: Conducting While Female

Podium Politics: Conducting While Female
Judith Yan Photo by Johan Persson RESIZED
Conductor Judith Yan in a photo by Johan Persson

I’d love you to read this article that I did for Opera Canada that features six women at various points in their conducting careers.


A sampler:

— Canada’s biggest opera house itself used to have its own young conductors’ training program for a brief period in the late nineties and then again in the late noughts. Judith Yan, today the Artistic Director of Guelph Symphony Orchestra, was the first alumna. The COC residency was a crucial step in her career. “My mentor and teacher was Pierre Hétu, and Pierre was wonderful. In music, like any other industry, most of the education is passed down, and you learn the behaviour as well. How to do the job and how to handle different situations. And Maestro Hétu would bring me to the concerts and take me back stage–he knew everyone—and he would introduce me to the conductors, and he would coach me: this is what you say and this is how you behave, which is quite important.” Hétu was first to suggest that she meet Richard Bradshaw (“You would get along,” he had said to her), which soon did take place thanks to a conducting workshop that  Hétu organized.

— Composer Leslie Uyeda conducted five productions at the Vancouver Opera between the early nineties and early 2000s, and was VO’s Chorus Master up to 2005. “I recall being in a Masterclass given by Joan Dorneman from the Met, before I had given much thought to conducting. She said to all of us young coaches, ‘If you have an opinion, be a conductor.’ I guess I decided that I had opinions!” She became aware soon enough that forging a conducting career as a woman will be very different. “It seems that for a woman to have a conducting career, for the most part, she has to start her own organization or have a very influential backer.” Were the orchestras cooperative when she was starting out? “Not many of us were around! I knew I was pioneering to a certain extent, but being in Canada, the worst treatment I received from orchestras was silence. And one engagement did not necessarily lead to another. I think this is still a problem for many women. Someone has to promote you (other than an agent). If that doesn’t happen, it can be difficult.”

— [Kinza] Tyrrell has herself received comments on her appearance more times than any of her male colleagues in their lifetime. “Rather than hearing how good my languages were, or how well I cued or played, after a rehearsal I’d sometimes hear from some of my male colleagues how good I looked.” Feminine dress and relatively young appearance can work against a female conductor’s authority. “I see the respect my male colleagues get, even those younger than me.” There is an almost automatic respect for a male conductor or coach. “I am often friendly and humourous in rehearsals, and people like that I’m approachable and can break down what the maestro meant by what he said. But this kind of trouble-shooting is a conducting assistant’s work. It’ll be interesting to be the principal conductor and be the head.”

(Caron Daley’s take on why there are more women in choral conducting) “In choral setting it’s about a relationship, about teaching, you can crack a few jokes…You are also taking care of people’s bodies, care about the temperature and the humidity. There are also more amateur choirs than amateur orchestras. I think the basic premise is, anybody can learn to sing, whereas not everybody will be good with an instrument. When I’m in front of a professional orchestra, I’m not going to start with ‘Hi guys, how’s everybody doing.’ They are on the clock and rehearsals must be efficient. And even if it’s a professional choir I’m conducting, the rehearsal cannot be that driven. It has to be more about the person before me.

Tania Miller
Tania Miller, Victoria Symphony



IMG_20150523_170237The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert yesterday turned out to be an extraordinary event. Let’s see if I can say something coherent about the two personal highlights, the world premiere of Jordan Nobles’ work titled π, and Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman performing parts of Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams.

Commissioned by the RCM specifically for this festival, π was performed by an ensemble consisting of violin (Aysel Taghi-Zada), cello (Amahl Arulanandam), vibes (Dave Burns), flute (Tim Crouch) and piano (Adam Sherkin), plus a soprano (Carla Huhtanen). The composer said a few introductory words on how the work came about and how he—basically, randomly–got interested in using the numbers of the π as the blueprint for the composition. This was just enough to send me on a research spree on my own after I made it back home.

So let’s break it down. Stay with me, it’s worth it.

π – 3.1415(et endless cetera) is a math constant. You’ll remember this from elementary school: the circumference of a circle equals its diameter times π, that is, its diameter times 3.14. It’s an irrational number that just goes on and that computers now can specify to millions of digits, if you’re into that sort of thing. For practical, earthly purposes, the engineers and what-nots limit the number to a couple of digits past the decimal point.

But Nobles didn’t; he went some way into the number and thought, hmm, what if I took a scale—let’s say D minor harmonic (my source on what scale precisely it was is Carla Huhtanen via Twitter! Thanks Carla):

d-harmonic-minor-scale-on-treble-clefimage source: BasicMusicTheory.com

 …and give each of the notes one of the numbers appearing in the π. So the start note would get 1, its second would get 2, its third 3 and so on. Since the octave obvs consists of eight notes, the note that gets number 9 is the next one up. 0 is a pause.

But how far into the π to go? In Nobles’ words: I needed to stop somewhere, but where? He discovered a spot in π that has several nines bunched up together, and decided that would be it.

Upon consulting sites like One Million Digits of Pi (yes, such websites exist), it’s easy to track down where Nobles decided to end the piece:


And there you have it: the entire score.

Although the five instruments and the singer play/sing simultaneously, the notes that each performs are of different length. Only one of them actually reaches 999999 – the piano, which plays on at a good clip while others take their (own) time. The cello gets the longest notes and therefore the shortest score. Musicians are positioned around the audience and the soprano walks the circumference of the room while singing her part. As the piano approaches the end, each of the instrumentalists starts leaving the music by pronouncing in whisper the number instead of playing the note. One whispered number followed by a few notes at the instrument is followed by two whispered numbers, and so on, but without any regularity, completely unpredictably. By the time the pianist gets to play and say 999999, everybody else has stopped playing but a smattering of whispers of 9 join it from the ghosts-formerly-known-as-instruments from around the room.

But here comes the crux of the matter. None of these fun and games would matter one iota if musically the piece didn’t turn out to be the most devastating work I’ve heard in a long time. It comes at you in ripples of heart-breaking melancholy that you only gradually acknowledge as such—you find yourself sad, then sadder, than closer to tears, then struggling not to sob, and not really knowing why. I tried to analyze later why I was crushed by it to such a degree. It could be the playing out of the finite vs. the infinite: the work marks off a limited segment of (to our view) the infinite row; what happens during that segment of time happens by chance but non-negotiably, there is no controlling it or improving it; then each of the finitudes peters out. The 999999 is like a life flat-lining—the beep of no vital signs.

It could be also that we’re operating in the D minor scale. Nobles mentioned in the intro that he used a “tone row” and I concluded, completely baselessly, that it must be the twelve-tone row and that the notes used are the first 9 notes of the twelve-tone. Talk about finding music in the totally random, out of any and all keys, I thought! But it wasn’t twelve-tone; it was the scale known for its melancholy pedigree. However, its notes are used aleatorically. Does this not make it all fairly atonal, then? Probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. (Dear Jordan Nobles, if you ever read this: I was the incoherent individual who tried to tell you, before running away, that she was gutted by this “twelve tone” piece. You know that people can’t count when they’re overly emotional, right?)

At any rate. This concert will be one for the annals. I expect to be talking about it to people for years.

Also thanks to Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman’s take on Saariaho fragments. Awful of me to put such a magic performance in the last short paragraph. What Saariaho did with Sylvia Plath’s poems is she used the actual words, but distilled them, or merged them, or extracted the syllables and put them through the wringer of extended vocal techniques and in that way brought to light that side of the life of words, the one not straightforwardly semantic and consciously understood. (The semiotic, Kristeva would say?) The soprano and the mezzo rocked this score consisting of nothing but challenges—and idiosyncratic markings. Here’s the photo of the score that Marion Newman posted on Twitter after the concert:

(With a special contribution by another singer, soprano Virginia Hatfield: “Gotta love the ‘sensual’ high B”.)

Verdi Requiem at the TSO with Wagner, Barton, Lopardo and Owens

Verdi Requiem at the TSO with Wagner, Barton, Lopardo and Owens
Wagner, Barton, Davis, Lopardo and Owens with the TSO in Verdi’s Requiem. Photo by Malcolm Cook

Verdi’s Requiem is a huge spectacle: an opera in search of a staging—and preferably by Cirque de Soleil.

Those who like their Mass for the Dead showy and grand will think of Verdi’s Req as the default Req. There is an in-built mise-en-scène to the work. The dramatic Dies Irae (the Judgment Day) unleashes its force at the beginning of the Sequence, but then reappears half hour later between Confutatis and Lacrymosa, and then later, in the concluding Libera me. It is used as a melodic ‘hit’, and to add dramatic accents. Tuba mirum has brass on and off stage, which create a theatrical space in the music with a sort of call-and-response. The Recordare, usually one of the softest movements in any Requiem, with the dying narrator begging Jesus (the one who sits to the right of the Father, not the earth-roaming, merciful one) not to judge her too harshly, is here of course soft too but also a virtuoso soprano-mezzo exercise reminiscent of Norma and Adalgisa. The Libera me at the end is a mini-scena, given to the soprano who soars and amazes—more ostentation than supplication, more aria than a prayer.

There *are* some contemplative movements too, not all is over-excitement–Hostias, or the tenor’s Ingemisco and the bass’s Confutatis, and the very opening which begins with a pianissimo chorus particularly stand out. But this Requiem won’t get you thinking about death, put it that way. There are too many resplendent things in it that entertain and comfort. If to study philosophy is to learn to die (Cicero via Montaigne), to listen to a Requiem is also something of the sort—a reminder, a reckoning. Not so with Verdi’s Requiem.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was its usual competent self on Thursday night, under the baton of its very very very frequent guest conductor and former music director Andrew Davis. TSO is good at honouring its history—in fact, I wish it was less good at that, and have more guest conductor debuts. There seem to be a number of conductors who appear in just about every season brochure. Maybe skip your all-time favourites sometimes, dear TSO? What’s with the MSO’s seasons getting more and more unpredictable and diverse, how come they are beating us at that? Mariss Jansons’ one Canadian stop next year will be the MSO, par example.

On the good news front, the four soloists of the Requiem are all making their TSO debut with this concert. And they were uniformly good. I will begin by singling out the lyric tenor who among the three big-voiced soloists more than held his own. Frank Lopardo’s appealing timbre and evenly beautiful tone impressed in the Ingemisco solo, and all the trios and quartets, particularly in Hostias, arguably the contemplative peak of the entire musical score. As he’s no stranger to Toronto—he already sang at the COC—let’s hope we hear him again on concert stage.

The bass goes solo twice and Eric Owens struck the right tone with his interpretation: the considerable power of his voice in check, an almost humble, understated approach, without any overly dramatic flourishes. In contrast, the soprano is often asked to soar above the entire orchestra and the soloists and Amber Wagner gave a performance full of joy and zeal, never neglecting the technical precision. The score asks of the soprano some atypical jumps into the lower register, but Wagner handled them well.

Jamie Barton is such a distinctive voice and such a big personality, it’s almost too bad that we didn’t get to see her in a piece that gives the mezzo more to do. Still, her presence was notable. She particularly shone in the Lux aeterna (shared with the tenor and the bass) and the duos/vocal dances with the soprano—Recordare and Agnus Dei.

This was a fine performance by the Symphony and the TMC of a work that is likely to make you think of anything but the dead and the finitude.

As Achim Freyer well knows. Here’s the trailer for his (circus-y!) staging of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper.