There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.
The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.
What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot ofpiano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.
Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.
The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.
What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).
In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.
Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, one of Alison Mackay’s most popular and talked about programs for Tafelmusik, is about to travel to the US and I wonder what Americans will take from it. ISIL came out of the wreckage of Iraq after the US-led war on Iraq, and proceeded to, among other kinds of destruction, flare up the Syrian civil war resulting in millions of displaced people. More directly, the US history in the region has been er let’s say colourful with respect to literally every country there. This includes being a staunch ally to one of the worst regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Yes, Canada is still trading with the Saudis, thanks for that reminder, but maybe the recent welcome change in rhetoric will result in a more substantial change in foreign policy?
The country that stopped trading with Saudis tout court is Germany, which also holds a distinction of being the EU country that accepted the greatest number of Syrian and other refugees when the wave of arrivals started in 2015. And German states have, deservedly, the most prominent place in the Leipzig-Damascus program. I expect the idea for the L-D program came out of the EU refugee crisis headlines though the L-D stays mostly in the past and looks at trade, scholarship and coffee drinking as just some of the many things that Leipzig and Damascus shared in the course of their respective histories.
Actor Alon Nashman narrates in between the musical numbers, and Marshall Pynkoski’s direction has him enacting Don Quixote — during Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte — and falling and rolling on the floor in one of the fights. None of this is weird, and the musicians move around quite a bit, with no traffic accidents. Nashman is a key to getting the whole production to gel: his tone is fairly neutral, occasionally cheeky, and there’s no overacting or self-importance. Trio Arabica consists of Maryem Tollar (voice and quanun – a flat plucked-string instrument), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud, a magnificent cousin to lute). They mostly performed traditional Arabic songs from the region and occasionally joined a western baroque piece for an east-west arrangement. The Arabic music in part one of the show wasn’t as exciting as in the second part, where each member of the trio performed a thrilling solo and we got treated to an ecstatic finale with a trad Arabic song mixed in with a Telemann Ritornello. Oud being not as flashy as the voice or as visceral as the percussion, Petsalakis did not get the applause on finishing his remarkable solo so let me use this opportunity: applause. It’s too bad we get to hear virtuoso oud players so infrequently in Toronto.
Apart from the short appearances by Monteverdi, Lully and an allegro movement from a Torelli violin concerto (which was spectacular to watch as it requires a lot of elbow grease from the soloist, in this case Elisa Citterio), it was a German show, by the composers who had lived in Leipzig, Telemann and Bach primarily. Telemann’s Concerto for 4 violins in G Major got the musicians moving, with each of the four soloists coming forward and returning to the background. Viola concertos are not that frequently programmed, but this time we got to enjoy the instrument’s velvety tone in the Presto movement from Telemann’s viola concerto in G major. The allegro chorus “Ehre sei dir, Gott” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was performed in a version without the singing, with the bassoon and the oboes to the front.
Tale of Two Cities goes to State College, Boulder, Denver and Stanford (university concert halls), Santa Barbara (Lobero Theatre) and L.A (the Walt Disney), then to NAC in Ottawa with potential May dates still in the works. More info here.
Here’s my March art song column in this month’s Whole Note.
It looks better in print, as always, so do grab a copy somewhere. It is, as usual, free and priceless.
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On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.
The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.
I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?
The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.
The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.
I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)
So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?
Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?
I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?
In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.
Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.
Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.
Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.
In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.
I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”
He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.
Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.
“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.
There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.
But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.
Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.
Will Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?
With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.
Some March highlights
Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.
March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.
March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.
March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.
Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.
Toronto Masque Theatre is playing its third last show ever at the historical Enoch Turner House Feb 8-10 and I was there last night. (There’s still the Shaftesbury Avenue salon on April 23 and the final celebration on May 12.) Here comes a wee photo reportage, as it was my first time in this cozy heritage building which should def be used more for concerts and book launches.
Patricia O’Callaghan and Giles Tomkins sang Bach’s The Peasant Cantata – We Have a New Governor Cantata Burlesque, in English. Belonging to the less known goofy side of Bach’s output, the piece involves a visit to the pub, imbibing, the praising (ironic and not) of the peasant’s feudal master, and the grousing about tax collectors. It ends in good spirits.
The small orchestra on period instruments accompanying the shenanigans: Larry Beckwith (violin), Kathleen Kajioka (viola), Margaret Gay (cello), Sibylle Merquardt (flute), Scott Wevers (horn) and Christopher Bagan (harpsichord). Stage direction by Guillermo Silva-Marin.
A couple of photos from the intermission.
Second part had an amplified band — Bagan back at the piano, with Ed Reifel on percussion, John Gzowski electric guitar, Andrew Downing double-bass, with mezzo Marion Newman and Larry Beckwith joining the quartet of singers as the tenor of the group. This was a mix of songs (cabaret, Broadway, pop, a couple of Lieder and a lullaby composed by Marion Newman) on the theme of dark nights and bright stars. Actor Martin Julien read poems by Dickinson, Shelley, Byron, Sara Teasdale, et al.
I’ve read good things about Tafelmusik’s multi-media, through-themed concerts, but did not know how special they are until I finally went to one this Friday. Safe Haven, programmed again by Tafelmusik’s double-bassist Alison Mackay, takes on the theme of refugees and immigration this time. Pitfalls are many around the topic – sentimentality, didacticism, forced parallels, the idea that it’s incumbent upon art to fix historical injustices – but they were masterfully avoided. The multi- in its multi-media nature came from the video and lights (Raha Javanfar, projections & Glenn Davidson, lighting) and spoken text (researched and written by Mackay), with musical pieces tailored in.
Mackay spins the main thematic thread across the countries and continents while also remaining faithful to the orchestra’s preferred musical era, roughly the baroque style era between Lully on the one end (d. 1687) and Vivaldi (d. 1741) on the other. An extraordinary number of composers are on the program, many more than can be heard during regular Tafelmusik concerts because in most cases, single movements are played rather than the pieces in entirety. (And why not; didn’t, as Lydia Goehr argues, the ‘musical work’ as we understand it today emerge at around 1800 with Beethoven?) There are a few forays into our own time and among our contemporaries. A photo or two early on (the US-Canadian border crossing under snow, say), a recurring quote (“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”, the verse by Warsan Shire, young Somali-British poet), and at the very end the true story of a Newfoundlander who rescued a boat full of Tamil refugees thirty years ago.
The program itself is knitted into an almost narrative, pieces of music woven into the historical episodes described, often directly tied to the specific people named. The Huguenots had to leave France for England for reasons of religious persecution, the Jews had to leave Spain for The Netherlands, Catholics had to leave England and Scotland for Poland, the Roma had to keep moving through Europe even then, and all the while the slave trade is happening across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Africa is here important part of the narrative and is given voice in the musical program, with Diely Mori Tounkara’s solos on the multi-string plucked instrument from Mali called kora, which sounds a bit like a love child between cello and harp. Plus, the knockout lady percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand added beat to some of the western pieces, and absolutely blew the roof off with her solo on the Iranian daf.
Reading the script was the singer Maryem Tollar. She also sang the two vocal pieces on the program, “Or sus, serviteurs du seigneurs” by Goudimel and Bourgeois in old French and “A la salida de Lisboa” in Portuguese. The voice is non-operatic, which is exactly what was needed in the context – she naturally switched from the speaking mode to singing as a cabaret mezzo. It was simple, and intimate, and right. The only thing that perhaps wasn’t ideal is that during the reading segments she would overemphasize most of the adjectives and add dramatic enunciation to her words where this wasn’t called for. But not too big a deal, ultimately — and not everybody is a trained actor, c’est pas grave. She aptly navigated the microphones, the bows, the chairs and the other musicians–the narrator moves around a lot–and also played the tambourine in the final number with everybody taking part.
Which was Corelli’s legendary Allegro from Concerto grosso in D Major, except rearranged as a jam session between the instruments of the west, east and south with the percussion coming in loud and clear (Toller and Farahmand). A total burst of joy, ear-to-ear-grin ending to an emotional evening that was poignant and playful in turns and so smartly plotted out.
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.
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.
“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.
Special 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.
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Kerry Wall 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).
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).
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:
The 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.
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.
Competitions 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.