Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

As somebody who doesn’t believe in the Trinitarian God, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day, I’ve sometimes struggled to feel close to or give meaning to the texts of many of my favourite musical works (Mozart’s Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Johannespassion, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Berlioz’s Requiem, to name just the first few to come to mind). I look up the translations if it’s Latin or German, that’s not an issue, but the theology behind them is. Sometimes I succeed in understanding the words as directly relevant to my life today, sometimes I fail. When I fail, the music comes to the rescue: music is so bizarrely powerful over our emotions that it really doesn’t matter what the text is, music does its own text on you. And I am often one of the millions of unsophisticated listeners that make Adorno toss in his grave in agony, when we should know better. So for example I enjoy the dramatic anger of Mozart’s Dies Irae even though the notion of the omnipotent, omniscient God who will at one point divide the sheep from the goats means nothing to me. I do, there’s no other way to put it, often consume some of my favourite works of art kinda idiotically.

I wonder if the love that we—that I! I should stop using the nebulous we—have for these works is an expression of a nostalgia for faith? For a time and situations when Dies Irae really meant something? Did people who listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor enjoy it as a theological work primarily? Who can even begin to tell. That’s an even worse kind of listening: escapist, mythologizing of the past, needy.

I wish that present-day conductors (institutions, program writers) doing these works today spoke about this question more. There’s a global audience for the sacred classical music canon today, consisting and potentially consisting of people of all kinds of non-Christian religions beside the atheists and agnostics. What more important is there for a conductor of a sacred work than this, to tell us why we should listen to these words, and therefore this work? Among the conductors that I follow, I’ve noticed Laurence Equilbey broaching the topic now and again, but still extremely rarely. There’s a quote in a magazine interview along the lines of some of these sacred works being about the celebration of creation, of the importance of something existing rather than nothing, of how glorious being alive can be, and I thought, okay, now we’re talking business. (The quote was frustratingly short.) In another radio interview she mentioned a potential collaboration with artist Philippe Quesne on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn and about the work being about something anybody can understand, the thirst for water, the need for air, the survival against all odds, and then too I stopped what I was doing and said, Go on, that’s interesting.

In moments like those I realize how badly I need these kinds of interpretations. We are taken for granted as an audience; we’re expected to keep showing up “because it’s the work X, Y, Z and the work X, Y, Z is important”.

Any of you reading this, have you encountered any other conductors addressing the issue of interpretation in this way?

These thoughts are actually prompted by last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (at the Metropolitan United on Church East, with Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams conducting). Bizarrely, I’ve become something of a Messiah fan, and even more bizarrely, I don’t have any problems finding its texts resonant. The music naturally oils the cogs, nothing new there, but the texts survive scrutiny even if I read them from the page, music-less. The Messiah text is a hodge-podge of snippets from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of it allegorical. I don’t know if it’s the poeticism of the King James translators or Handel’s genuinely populist music genius, but arias like:

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah XL, 5)

…are a bottomless pit of interpretive pleasure. Yes, ultimately this is indeed about the Judgment Day, but it can also be about the dream of the this-wordly justice, of those who tirelessly work for it and won’t give up the notion? Those distant ideals that seem to be receding but not disappearing, the betterment of the condition of the womankind, the democracy?

Or this much trickier chorus:

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi III 3)

What do we do when we ‘offer an offering in righteousness’? Is this about leading by example?

For we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah LIII 6)

You don’t need to believe in The Redeemer to get the depth of how much like sheep we have gone astray, and in what ways. But how are the consequences of our own iniquity transferred to another?

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm XXII 8)

And where to even begin with this one: Christianity tangling itself into a knot of polytheism, in order to introduce the attribute of compassion to its god.

I mean, I could go on and on (“Let us break [the bonds of nations] asunder”, anyone?). But there it is. Sacred classical music as pop culture, where you know the lyrics, they mean something, you misremember and abuse them, want to sing and dance when they’re offered to you in much too solemn concerts. I’ll always prefer a whole slew of other sacred pieces to the Messiah—just about any of the named above–but there is some work ahead of us as a generation of classical music listeners and performers toward making them… come closer, put it that way.

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The Human Passions

The 15-16 season opener The Human Passions with Tafelmusik under the returning guest director Rodolfo Richter was a good mix: a Francesco Maria Veracini overture in four movements, two Handel arias for the mezzo / castrato (a Sesto aria from Giulio Cesare, “L’angue offeso mai riposa” and the now legendary “Scherza infida” from Ariodante), two Vivaldi arias plus a Vivaldi Concerto for bassoon, and the centrepiece, Bach’s Concerto for harpsichord D Minor transcribed and rearranged for the violin.

The Bach concerto comes with a history—Bach wrote it for the harpsichord by re-using the first two movements of this cantata, and the first movement of this one that only survives as a reconstruction. Richter heard this piece as a child and loved it since, and for this occasion transcribed it for his own instrument, while emboldening the woodwinds with three oboes and a bassoon. Violin and harpsichord are two very different sounds, and it was delightful trying to parallel-listen and guess, especially in the long notes and legato transitions of the violin, the sound of the short, crisp, staccato-y harpsichord. Imagine that the solo instrument here is the violin, and you’ll get the idea:

Another highlight last night was the concerto on the (period) bassoon, with Dominic Teresi as the soloist. It’s an unusual sound to associate with Vivaldi—who composed a whole lot of bassoon concertos in his lifetime, but they’re not nearly as frequently performed today as his violin concertos. The melismas and the semiquavers must be difficult as hell to play on this instrument, and I suppose part of the excitement in live performance is not being able to guess the type of sound that’s coming next. Period bassoon’s is not a beautiful sound, but it’s odd and appealing in its oddness. This was a very welcome diversion in a string-heavy concert.

Among the vocal pieces with the young light mezzo Mireille Lebel, the standout was “Scherza infida”. As I’m not a massive Vivaldi fan, “Gelida in ogni vena” from Farnace is for me a mannerisms trap (like so). “L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Handel’s Cesare is a rather humdrum Sesto aria (take Otter over JDiddy). Any number of other mezzo arias or cantata bits could have been chosen from Vivaldi–hey, “Cessate, omai cessate” is passionate enough–and Handel. But “Scherza infida” was a superlative choice. Though frequently performed and recorded around the world, it’s still rarely heard in Toronto, and the ensemble and the singer did it justice. The fine-tuning, the subtle changes of mood between the instruments and the voice, and the attention to the text were all excellent. Lebel started too dramatic but settled down into the right mode for this aria that is more of resignation than of fury. We lucked out with the da capo too, which was well-judged—and da capo ornaments, it turns out, were all entirely improvised.

The Trinity-St Paul is much more comfortable now with the new seats, so definitely worth a go. Repeat performances on Sep 17, 18, 19 and 20.

John Eliot Gardiner: Bach – Music in the Castle of Heaven

JEG-Music in the Castle of HeavenBy Kerry Wall

“The author talks about himself in the biography?!”, a friend asked incredulously after I summarized for him the first chapter of Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s easy to see where he was coming from: one doesn’t usually sink into a 600-page tome about a composer expecting to begin with sketches from the author’s life. But the author is Sir John Eliot Gardiner, so one makes exceptions.

Gardiner, known in classical circles for founding and directing the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (among other historically informed ensembles), states early on that his book is more a “portrait” than a conventional biography (hence the subtitle). The bulk of his text is devoted to Bach’s liturgical choral works, particularly the church cantatas and the Passions. The great Bach instrumentals — the Goldberg Variations, the Art of Fugue, the Brandenberg Concertos and so on — are mentioned in passing if mentioned at all. What we get instead is a broad retelling of Bach’s life story illustrated through choral music: his own days as a choirboy, his work as a cantor and organist, and ultimately as the composer of dozens of liturgical and secular cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions and the Mass in B Minor. It’s hard to fault Gardiner for limiting the book’s scope; entries in the BWV catalogue number in the thousands, and any worthwhile examination subsequently has to either zero in on a select few works or merely mention the standouts in passing.

It’s also here that we can surmise the reasons for Gardiner’s semi-autobiographical first chapter. He opens with stories from his childhood — singing Bach motets with his siblings and growing up alongside one of two surviving portraits painted during Bach’s lifetime — recounts how he first came to conduct the choral works, and describes his interest in historically informed performance, which eventually led to the founding of the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir and, later, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. The chapter is light and engaging — the maestro’s memoirs, should he opt to publish any, will be a delightful read — and he manages to explain his own lifelong connection to Johann Sebastian Bach without his own presence becoming gratuitous.

The real point of the autobiographical notes really crystallizes later, as Gardiner delves into specific compositions. He often discusses the structure of the music, potential issues or challenges for musicians, singers and conductors, or recounts anecdotes from the EBS/MC 2000 cantata pilgrimage (the choir and orchestra performed each of the liturgical cantatas in different churches on the Sundays for which they were written). By providing a brief description of his own experience, Gardiner is in essence saying early on that he’s qualified to write this book. (It works: his occasional personal interjections fit into the narrative far more seamlessly than, say, Eric Siblin’s in The Cello Suites.)

Gardiner’s qualifications (which are plentiful) aside, Music in the Castle of Heaven is thoroughly researched and documented. One of the book’s greatest assets is its focus on historical context; Gardiner spends a lot of time explaining the state of Christianity and the duelling subsets of Lutheranism during Bach’s day, and the influence it had on his music.  He also takes time to discuss the other members of what he calls the “class of ‘85,” other prominent composers (Domenico Scarlatti, Georg Friedrich Händel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Mattheson and Georg Philipp Telemann) whose careers both paralleled and differed from those of Bach in a number of ways.

Johann_Sebastian_BachSpecial attention is also given to the two Passions, chronicled in chronological order (St. John, then St. Matthew). Gardiner deftly explains what we know about Bach’s compositional process based on surviving documents, then dives into the works themselves. These chapters contain the most in-depth musical analysis in the book (not that the cantatas weren’t duly analysed). It’s important to note that while Gardiner doesn’t fall into the trap of overloading his analysis with inaccessible musical jargon, he also doesn’t oversimplify. Music in the Castle of Heaven is probably best enjoyed by readers with at least an intermediate knowledge of music theory. A glossary is provided at the back for certain terms, particularly Italian and German terms, but Gardiner refers to theoretical concepts such as scale degrees and modes on a fairly regular basis, and expects his readers to understand. (It’s probably a given that anyone who seeks out a Bach biography by a world-renowned conductor will have that level of interest in music anyway, but it’s worth mentioning.)

If there’s anything to quibble with in Gardiner’s narrative, it’s that he could have stood to include more of his own experiences when discussing the choral works themselves. His use of primary documents and secondary sources are masterful, and it’s clear that he did draw on his own savoir-faire, particularly when he highlights the challenges soloists and musicians face in the Passions or the B Minor Mass. His experience is also evident when he notes specific ways in which Bach’s works foreshadow those of Mozart, Beethoven and even Wagner. But like Bach himself, Gardiner has conducted the cantatas, Passions and B Minor Mass, and can speak directly to the emotional ramifications of preparing an ensemble and then leading it in these gargantuan works. Some additional informed speculation of how Bach must have felt wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Otherwise, Gardiner himself (ironically) notes the only remaining issue with Music in the Castle of Heaven in the acknowledgements. While thanking his wife, he reminds readers that he took on this, his first book, in his sixties. It may be too much to hope that Gardiner, still at the helm of his orchestras and choir at 71, will slow down enough to turn his attention to equally well-phrased and impeccably researched looks at the choral works of Handel and Mozart (or those memoirs), but one can hope.

* * *

Kerry Wallkerry is a Toronto-based web developer with a lifelong classical music habit. She can usually be found at one of the city’s concert halls or taking piano lessons at the Conservatory. She also twice ran half-marathons powered entirely by Tafelmusik recordings of Beethoven symphonies (and carbs).

We interrupt regular programming

We interrupt regular programming

My interview with the great Margaret Drabble now online over on The Believer web exclusives:

The Believer: The golden baby of your novel has a mother who decided to give up a lot. The mother in The Ice Age also, and they both do it quite happily. Before I read the book, I wondered if it was in any way like The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Margaret Drabble: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really read The Fifth Child. I knew Doris Lessing quite well and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I know one or two people with children with problems who were cross with her about that book. They thought she’d shown a very bad side of care. She had not been without her own problems and they felt she shouldn’t perhaps be describing other people’s problems in this harsh tone.

BLVR: And the book is almost more about motherhood than about a child with special needs.

MD: Well, Doris was a problematic mother.

BLVR: I didn’t know this before reading it in Gold Baby, but she also had a son with special needs.

MD: From what I’ve learned about The Fifth Child through the grapevine, I imagine she was reflecting on the experience she had had with him. I think it’s lucky that he died before she did.

BLVR: A bit surprised to hear you say that Lessing was a problematic mother.

MD: But she would know that. She left two children behind and brought one with her and clung on to him very close. It’s a strange pattern of mothering. She has also said on the record that she hated her mother. I think the whole area of mothering is to her extremely problematic. She really loved the boy who stayed with her but it was not a calm relationship.

BLVR: And as many of your other novels, this one isn’t just about our own time. It’s also about the period of the British colonization of Africa, and goes back much further, into the archaeological history of the continent. The Seven Sisters hasThe Aeneid in its basis. The Peppered Moth has the matrilinear genetic history of the species and Hellenistic Egypt.

MD: For me, that’s entirely natural, to interpret what’s happening now in terms of the mythology. We get new insights. Some of what we read in classical literature is not relative to our condition, but then many women novelists and poets have turned it upside down and told the stories from the other point of view. I find that fascinating. But it seems natural to put women’s lives today in the context of what went before—either as a contrast or as a development.

I remember I had a lot of fun looking at various translations of the Aeneid. I enjoyed having a sort of background structure that is so far removed from the characters’ lives. In their real lives, a lot of them are quite washed up, really. And then they go off on this heroic journey. And yes, they’re all women.

BLVR: And in your novel A Natural Curiosity it is said that “when we meet our Gorgon, we die”—one character wonders if her sister, who had run away, “had met her Gorgon”. The ancient stuff comes to life in our otherwise mundane present.

MD: It’s very common in poetry, but in the novel you’re being a bit more adventurous when you do it. But it’s just that—I see symbols all around me. And apropos that trilogy I got very interested in things about the severed head and confronting the fate.

For MD’s musical choices, head over to Desert Island Discs, where of course she chose all the right people (i.e. Monteverdi, Bach and Handel; surprisingly no Mozart but bigup for Kurt Weill in the earlier DID).

Q&A: Heather Flemming, Contralto

Q&A: Heather Flemming, Contralto

This is how I first heard of Heather Flemming: the Belgian public radio station has been live-commenting the Queen Elisabeth singing competition back in May (Camille de Rijck was behind the Musiq3 handle), and this popped up in my Twitter feed, followed by the exchange below:

HF TwitterThe rest is, as they say, browser history. I found Heather’s home page (impressive schooling, promising beginnings) and Twitter account and am looking forward to following this young artist as she builds her career.

How did you find your (contralto) voice in the course of your music education and after? My impression is there are never enough contraltos among singers of the younger generations in Canada, and I can’t remember seeing any in competitions and ensemble studios lately. (Is the situation better at McGill and in Quebec in general on this issue?)

Finding my contralto voice has been a journey in itself! I first began singing as a young girl attempting to sing soprano with a rather hefty voice with lack of top register…this was very limiting. It was during my undergraduate degree with a wonderful teacher Monette Gould (still one of my great mentors), that I began exploring the possibility of my voice deepening and adapting to a more natural mezzo-soprano quality. During my masters degree I gained access to my contralto register actually by accident. I was studying with soprano Joanne Kolomyjec when she discovered I had the ability to imitate a ‘false tenor’ voice, impressed with the color, she was able to help me turn this into something useful! At this point I still lacked a top voice and as we were developing the top, my bottom voice began to grow also. This is when we discovered I had the ability and the color to sing contralto repertoire. What often impressed people was that I was able to sing in the contralto register without the sound becoming brassy, edgy or harsh sounding. It maintained a warm quality which I am thankful for.

Yes, I too agree there are not enough of this voice type, especially in the younger generations. It is sometimes a mystery as to why this is. In my opinion, it is not that we have a lack of these voices (though they are indeed, and will always be, a rare breed), it is that there is a lack of opportunities in which to showcase this voice type. We are of the generation of ‘flashy, exciting, high note galore, stratospheric fireworks, which does not lend itself kindly to the contralto, or lower dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Apprenticeship programs rarely take chances on these voice types because they feel it limits their casting. These voice types tend to sing smaller roles, or in some cases, like mine, more Wagnerian or Verdi roles, which younger training programs tend not to program. I wouldn’t say the situation is better at McGill or in Quebec, I would say it is sadly, currently a global issue.

Your appearance at the Queen Elisabeth competition this year was an exciting exception.

Thank you! Yes, the Queen Elizabeth Competition is incredibly selective. I do think being a contralto was both a service as well as a disservice for me. I think being a Canadian contralto helped me in being selected, but it was also difficult for me to compete against the ‘firey’ sopranos and tenors and other voice types with ‘show stopping’ entertaining repertoire. I think biology does have a lot to do with voice type, especially in contraltos: aside the lack of roles/opportunities for this voice type, it is still not a common one.

heatherflemmingheadshot1

We did have a couple of star contraltos in Canada over the last few decades (of course– Lemieux and Forrester) and I hope they helped pave the way for other future contraltos…Were there any of import in the US, or do they tend to end up, due to larger career opportunities, promoting themselves as dramatic mezzos (I’m thinking Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Michelle de Young)?

Maureen Forrester has most definitely helped to pave the way for contraltos, however during her ‘reign’ as the Canadian contralto, things were very different in the arts. There were more opportunities for concert work, Mahler symphonies, oratorios etc. It is noted that Forrester rarely performed operatic works, and to be honest, she did not really need to. She was kept very busy as a concert artist, which is much more difficult to do today. Why? Well it just seems that we are of the ‘operatic’ entertainment decade, or what sometimes feels, century! I would say that most contraltos in order to survive in the operatic repertoire, lend themselves to the dramatic mezzo soprano Fach. Yes, all of those mezzo-sopranos mentioned consider themselves dramatic mezzo-sopranos. If you want to be able to make a living you almost need to be able to spread yourself between the two fachs, at least to some degree.

Career paths for a contralto can be tricky. First and foremost, I would advise students to never limit themselves. Contraltos often tend to be placed in a box which can be very restricting, so I strongly advice students to continue to expand their horizons to gain the optimal amount of opportunity. This may mean some opera, some oratorio, passions, masses, concert work, contemporary work. Truthfully, for a career you may need to be a multiple trick pony, so to speak, and grab everything that is handed to you! Never underestimate high notes, though singing a high C may not be necessary for every low voice, contraltos do still need high notes. To me, it sometimes feels that we are the voice type that needs to be able to do it all.

Does the much more extensive and diverse baroque and early music scene in Europe make a huge difference for a contralto? Or maybe the fact that the Mahler lieder and other lieder rep in which a contralto can shine are also more frequently performed there than in N.A.?

It is somewhat true that the concert repertoire, symphonic repertoire and lieder repertoire are more frequently performed in Europe, but I feel that it is because there are so many smaller symphonies and venues in which to gain opportunities. However, though it seems very easy to just ‘cross the pond’ to sing, it is much more difficult than that. Making a name for yourself is very difficult, much more than people realize. Sometimes companies or agencies will only hear you based on your experience level, if you have not yet been engaged with a well recognized company than some will not even take the liberty to hear you. Like many people in multiple professions today, they simply want you to have experience first. However, sometimes it seems that no one will give you the experience…a two edged sword! I am still very much in the process of learning all of this myself and figuring out ways to help get my name out there and to be heard. You could have the best voice in the world, but if no one knows who you are it can be difficult to be recognized.

Heather Flemming Formal HeadshotCompetitions can help for some, but for different reasons, some voices do not compete well. No, not because they lack in ability or beauty of sound, but because winning competitions is hard to do! You must exude a certain level of flashiness; which with some voices, though they may be incredible, have trouble achieving this recognition. I have learned that in some competitions it is not always the best voice that wins, sometimes it is the most entertaining. But of course that is not the truth for all competitions. I continue to remind myself daily, there is not one road to the top and am often reminded of the famous words by Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”

Your top five works for contralto that you either performed or would love to perform?

This is a tough one! I am constantly discovering new works each day as I continue to grow in this field. However, if I must choose 5 I would say that my picks for where I am currently in my life would be the following. In no particular order:

  1. Mahler – Urlicht (Symphony No. 2 4th movement) I have not yet sung this piece but REALLY hope to soon! Listen to Maureen Forrester sing this (via the wonderful YouTube) with Glenn Gould conducting and try not shed a tear…I dare you.
  1. Wagner – Weiche Wotan, Weiche! also known as Erda’s aria from Das Rheingold. This is my go-to aria, the one I frequently use for auditions, the one that tends to turn heads or at least have panels look up from staring at my resume during an audition (hehe). It is by no means ‘flashy’ but it is definitely intense!! I have not yet performed this role, but look forward to that someday.
  1. Elgar – Sea Pictures. I have performed this cycle with piano, but hope to sing it with orchestra someday. It is beautiful, descriptive, picturesque and one of the most beautiful works for contralto/mezzo-soprano.
  1. Bach – Es ist Vollbracht (St. John Passion). I am currently working on this aria and am in love with it. I love Bach, my soul sings when I hear Bach. His works have taught me so much about breath support, line, flexibility and musicianship.
  1. Robert Fleming – The Confession Stone (Canadian Cycle). This cycle is dear to my heart, not only because of the text but also because it is some of the best Canadian writing ever written! The piece follows the journey of Mary, told from her perspective, from the birth of Jesus through to His resurrection. It is captivating, moving and chilling and I hope to continue to work on this cycle and perform it throughout my career. Singing in church is where I discovered my voice, as a believer and Christian, sacred works are first and for most my passion and will forever give me grounding and continue to give me reason to sing.

Emmanuelle Haim fest on France Musique

Emmanuelle Haim fest on France Musique

Grandes figures, the France Musique series on notable musicians, is dedicated this week to Emmanuelle Haim the Magnificent. You can listen to the entire series starting with the show 1/5 HERE, with each show’s musical lineup available in precise detail. En plus, Concert D’Astré celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a gala concert at the TCE on December 19, with the appearances of Patrizia Ciofi, Karine Deshayes, Natalie Dessay, Topi Lehtipuu, Sandrine Piau, Sonia Prina, Camilla Tilling and Anne Sofie von Otter. I’m dying to know what everybody will be singing. More about their ongoing Saison on their official website (in Flash, alas, but it’s worth the trouble).

I always love the videos that EMI/Virgin makes about her recordings, so here’s a couple:

Natalie Dessay opens with a hilarious description of Monteverdi’s “Lamento di ninfa”, and a rehearsal with Joyce DiDonato singing Ottavia’s “Addio, Roma” (which I actually liked!) concludes the video on the CD Lamenti.

Every second of this is lovely. Haim talking, the drums, Ian Bostridge’s Orfeo some of the highlights of this gem video on Orfeo.

And of course the “Voglio il tempo” from Il Trionfo with Dessay, Hallenberg, Prina and Breslik, which shows that the differences between soprano, mezzo and alto are not only to do with tessitura but almost equally timbre:

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Due to some work on a small but sweet project with an Ontario summer music festival, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (pictured above). There is plenty of good MF music on YT (sample some Mahler, Purcell, Bach and Handel), and her discography spans several Amazon pages. But it’s the memoir Out of Character (with Marci McDonald, McClelland & Stewart, 1986) that grabbed me — brave and frank, usually not the case with the diva memoir genre. Also, of course, well stocked with gossip, slant and unreliability.

Let’s take page 59. On it, we may or may not be witnessing Mighty Mo meeting her very first lesbian. We can’t be sure. We’re given the commentary, not the evidence. It’s a minor episode in this memoir consistently devoid of queer people. By the end of this remarkable tome, you realize that that was it — the only encounter with the queer. And was it really? We can’t be sure.

Have a listen.

I had noticed in reading reviews that whenever the critics mentioned somebody as up-and-coming, she had invariably won a Sarah Fischer Scholarship. Sarah Fischer, a one-time soprano who had enjoyed a brief fling on the world stage, was an incredibly theatrical woman. She looked like Helena Rubinstein with her flowing capes and her hair swept back severely into a bun. By the time I heard of her she was retired and liked to give young talent a break with competitions which she held in the Ritz Carlton ballroom. The programs featured her profile printed on cover.

I entered one of them […] and to my shock I won. […] Preparing for [the two concerts] presented me with a problem I had never anticipated. Sarah Fischer started phoning me all the time, always late at night, on some pretext about the performance. I began to get a little nervous about her. I didn’t know anything about females liking females at the time, but my instincts told me she was interested in more than my voice. Finally I had my father answer the phone one night. “My daughter is a very young and we have rules in this house,” he told her. “Nobody gets calls this late unless it’s an emergency… You can call at a decent hour or not at all.” After that, the weeks left leading up to my prizewinner’s concert, Sarah Fischer was good as gold.”

Now. Isn’t this story good as gold? Could have been written by the authors of The Killing of Sister George. A predatory old lesbo after an innocent young thing. Luckily the father puts everything right.

So of course I immediately send a search party after Sarah Fischer.

I was happy to discover that the Canadian heritage institutions aren’t as flippant about Sarah Fischer as our beloved contralto. A couple of recordings survive! There is a six-page online biography at the Library and Archives Canada, the SF page in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and this treasure collection of photographs on the Jewish Montreal Public Library Archives. Not surprisingly, not a word about the ‘female-liking-female’ business — she was married to a man, natch — but mentions of very special friendships and mentors, yes. A ‘lifelong friendship’ with another singer Emma Albani (p2, LAC bio), and a particularly ardent fan, the wealthy “Mrs. Bracket Bishop of Chicago” (p3) are fine but meagre findings. “She left her personal papers to the National Archives of Canada,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. I see where my next trip is going to be; the capital, in search of letters or diaries that may turn out to be the earliest record of a glorious opera dyke ancestress.

Sarah (Eugénie, ‘Nini’) Fischer. Born Paris 23 Feb 1896, naturalized Canadian 1912, died Montreal 3 May 1975.

About town

About town

The kids are all right

Last week I went to see COC’s Ensemble performance of the Magic Flute — same costumes and set, same conductor, different singers. We were so close to the stage and the pit that we could see some of the orchestra soloists and smell the stage (yes, you know that magic dust of the stage smell?) Too bad we couldn’t applaud the flute soloist at the end. The audience was all ages, as it’s increasingly the case with full houses at the COC, with strong representation from the 20-35 crowd. The conductor TV was also in my line of sight so I could glimpse Johannes Debus’s conducting frontal.

These attractions in themselves could make for a worthwhile evening, but the Ensemble singers, the reason we were all there, did not disappoint. Michael Uloth as Sarastro impressed the most. He controlled his remarkable old-man basso with a twinkle in the eye and made the abysmally low notes appear an easy game. I look forward to hearing him in the role of Truffaldino in the Ariadne auf Naxos in May.

Simone Osborne improved Pamina considerably for this opera goer (see my Feb 8 review). It’s an interesting voice, not at all light and with a considerable vibrato, possibly a large dramatic voice in the making. Timbre is similar to Bayrakdarian’s, though. We’ll have a chance to hear her in many demanding roles in the next season because she seems to be cast in every other opera or requiem in town next year. She is incredibly cute (we haven’t seen cheeks like that since the young Edita Gruberova) which has its advantages (Gilda in Rigoletto next COC season) and disadvantages (typecasting; defaulting to cuteness in acting). Check out these kisses with Marilyn Horne… cuteness embodied.

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Dorothee Mields, Charles Daniels baroque Master Classes

As part of their ongoing Baroque Mentors program, Tafelmusik recently held the Guest Artist Masterclass with the German soprano Dorothee Mields and British tenor Charles Daniels (February 12). Daniels worked with three singers on the anglophone baroque repertoire, a Purcell hymn and Handel’s Jephtha and Acis arias, while Mields covered Bach, St Matthew Passion recitatives and arias, and the ‘Erbarme dich’ cantata with the preceding Rezitativ. Too bad we never got to hear Erbarme because the thirty minutes alloted were spent on ironing out German articulation of the rezitativ! But it was fascinating whichever way you look at it. Mields started off by recommending to anybody who sings Pontius Pilate to read Bulgakov’s book Master and Margarita (a singer who reads Russian novels!) and then went on to impress all of us present in the Trinity-St. Paul with her mastery of the singing technique, perfectionist nigletizing over articulation and a genuinely warm personality. Many things I had to look up afterward — “I want you to do a messa di voce in this phrase here,” she said to a singer, and as soon as I got home, I grabbed a Richard Miller that’s been lying around and looked up the vaguely familiar expression. (Next time I’m going with a Richard Miller in hand!)

Dorothee Mields sings ‘Ich will dir mein herze schenken’ from Mätthauspassion:

On the subway on my way home I read through the Tafelmusik Intro to Baroque booklet which each audience member received with the program, and what a useful thing it is! The Baroque ABC on the Tafel website is tucked away in a flash file so no wonder I kept missing it. This printed booklet saves the day. The mystery of the changing pitch resolved (and many of us here and at Lucy’s have been wondering about this):  the modern orchestra pitch of 44ohz for the note of a’ was adopted at an international conference which took place in London in 1939. Before that, the pitch was 435hz for the A, which was set in 1859 by the Paris Academy. Before 1859 there was no standard and the pitch varied across European musical capitals and even within the same city depending on the performance hall (church pitch differed from the theatre or court pitch). Tafelmusik performs most of its baroque at 415hz and uses 430hz for classical rep. Some repertoire warrants going all the way to 392hz or to 440hz. (The lovely and indispensable yet in Flash Baroque Learning Centre by Tafelmusik is nestled HERE)

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Four more days. Four more days. Four. More. Days. Meanwhile, can we rename this province ‘Otterio’? They named rOtterdam after her, so I don’t see why not.