ALERT: A mezzo Cesare coming up

Britain’s Opera North recently announced the 19/20 season and whaddaya know: a mezzo Cesare is in the offing, that precious and almost extinct species.

This fall, the northern four-city opera is reviving Tim Albery’s 2012 Cesare, which also starred a mezzo in the title role, Pamela Helen Stephen (below). This year, the role goes to Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte alongside Sophie Bevan’s Cleopatra.

Pamela Helen Stephen in Opera North’s 2012 production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

The concert started with the lights down and a Debussy flute solo, Syrinx, by Kelly Zimba placed not on the stage but up on the centre-mezzanine. The three-minute piece led uninterrupted into Hannigan conducting and singing Sibelius’s Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra. The work uses the first poem from Elias Lönnrot’s nineteenth-century epic cycle Kalevala, on the female nature-spirit of the air who comes down to the water and… interacts with the elements to create the universe. So we start with nothing less than the creation of the universe. The Sibelius tone poem sounds much later than mid-19th–it sounds in fact early modernist with unRomantic, unmelodic, not straightforwardly emo orchestral colours and vocal material for the soprano and with a kinda overall abstractness. We tend to (well, I do) paint the nineteenth with the same brush, but that’s where modernism started–Turner was already painting, Debussy composing, and Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Emily Dickinson writing poems. Hannigan added her Hannigan performing magic to the poem and melded singing and conducting into singer-conducting, and this sometimes meant she wasn’t going to turn to the audience but sing facing the orchestra. It made perfect sense in the context.

Off we went, with a halved orchestra, to Haydn’t upbeat Symphony 86, a delight in all its four movements. I think I heard La Hannigan intone the first bars to the orchestra before the second, Largo, movement, and that too felt perfectly fine. A singer is conducting, why wouldn’t she hum at some point or other?

After the intermission, Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu, which clocks at about 30 min, was the chunkiest chunk on this eclectic menu. The moods of the Rondo, Ostinato, the song, the variations and the Adagio are diverse enough to keep you involved, and while the orchestral forces are considerable, they did not trundle but dance. Midway in, the singing returns, and Hannigan turns around and sings the Lied der Lulu with a fresh, girly voice.

The George Gershwin suite from the musical Girl Grazy, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott and orchestrated by Elliott, concluded the set. The four songs were flowing into one another, without interruptions for applause (excellent decision), and for this performance the singer was miked (logical as she, for the most part, did not sing in operatic voice and the brass section can get intense). I would probably describe this arrangement as a touch Bergian: Gershwin meets Berg in ‘But not for me’, ‘Strike up the band’, ‘Embraceable you’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’. Hannigan had the men of the TSO sing a section of ‘Embraceable you’ and now we know they can definitely carry a tune. Get that hidden choir out for a walk more frequently, conductors.

Hannigan has nothing left to prove as a musician at this point and if orchestras are asking her to conduct and program, more power to her and them. I was skeptical at first–there are a lot of women who have undergone long/endless training to be conductors for whom these doors remain closed shut, and Hannigan’s celebrity certainly precedes her. But so does her musicianship and artistry, which are undeniable. So after initial misgivings I am now completely favour of the already established singers switching to conducting (like Nathalie Stutzmann, and Hannigan herself). Whoever’s in position to make a crack in that stubborn glass ceiling, I’ll celebrate it. Sometimes it will be musicians who have had a career in another area, and that is fine.

As Hannigan’s singer-conducting programs with the TSO and other orchestras show, she can be an innovative programmer and innovative performance director. She may become even freer and more experimental as her reputation as a conductor grows, and I’ll be curious to see where La Ha and partner orchestras will take the concert format in the future.

There’s one more performance tonight

Top and bottom: Hannigan with the TSO. Both photos by Jag Gundu.

I have seen the future of the baroque concert, and it is programmed by Alison Mackay.

Safe Haven / Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins

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.

There’s one more performance left – at the big hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Tuesday, January 23. Unmissable.

Safe Have – Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins.

The Messiah, liberated

Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Frédéric Antoun, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Halls, TMC, TSO. Photo by Jag Gundu/TSO

British conductor Matthew Halls was unknown to me until last night, but I’ll be following his career from now on with interest since he liberated Toronto’s biggest Messiah from Andrew Davis’ vision and made it exciting again. Thanks also go to those who booked Halls for this run of The Messiah concerts in December (there are four left to go) and to whoever decided–I expect it was Halls himself–to move the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from the crescent of the back balcony down to the concert stage. Five rows of about 28 singers each are a concentrated, powerful force. The inner intricacies of the sound sculpting among the voices are much more easy to follow too, and the contrasts are easier to spot. After this experience, I can’t see why any conductor would put the choir anywhere but on stage.

Halls also reduced the orchestra to the Mozart era size and skipped all the extraneous instruments that Davis is so fond of. The choir never overpowered the instruments, however. Balance was good throughout. There was the odd moment when this or that soloist was being covered by the orchestra, but they didn’t last long and the scale settled back into balance quickly.

There was opera and mélodies in Karina Gauvin’s solo arias. I don’t think Come unto Him and How beautiful are the feet ever sounded that lush and sensuous–more like Les chansons de Bilitis than religious worship, but you didn’t see me objecting for one second. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was most impressive in He was despised, which more than made up for the occasional drops in volume power earlier in the oratorio. Tenor Frederic Antoun had the volume and coloratura galore, and an unusually dark timbre to boot–or did I get used to the thinned out near-falsetto hautes contres tenors that keep being asked to sing this? Another welcome change, in any case. Bari Joshua Hopkins completed this quartet of capable soloists that left nothing to be desired.

An even bigger draw for me have always been the choruses, and I can report that my favourites (And He shall purify, For unto us, His yoke, Behold the Lamb, All we like sheep, He trusted in God, The Lord gave the word, and Amen — ok, just about all by three) have been handled well. Well worked out tempi, nothing bizarre; limpid sopranos, velvety altos, bright tenors and dark but not too heavy as to sound Orthodox church basses were on at all times. Sometimes the middle alto-tenor section get smudged in complex choruses, but none of that here. (Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director and I presume he rehearsed the TMC until it was time for the tutti rehearsals.)

Continues today, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and definitely worth catching.

Zing-Along Messiah mit Herr Handel at Massey Hall: Instructions for Use

Tafelmusik with conductor Ivars Taurins (as Handel) and the audience in a sing-along Messiah at Massey Hall. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

I am happy to report that I finally experienced my first Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiah in which the audience too sings the choruses (grazie, Luisa!). The 30-year-old event has a cult status and is sold out every year; there were people there who have been coming every year for 10, 20, 30 years. (Conductor Ivars Taurins, he under the Handel costume and wig, asked for the show of hands last night for each of the decades.)  The full libretto can be downloaded beforehand or picked up at the Massey Hall. The soloists that Tafelmusik brings for the Messiah series each December–all concerts of that series but one are performed traditionally, without audience participation, and in a smaller hall–tend to be international HIP stars, and always a good mix of familiar and new-to-Toronto singers.

Since it’s a big, potentially unwieldy, practically pop concert, you should know what to expect from the Sing-Along (or Zing-Along, as Taurins/Haendel called it), and come prepared.

+ Avoid the gallery like the plague. I arrived 30 min before start time and the parterre and the mezzanine were already full so we were directed to the galleries. The seats are wooden there, without any upholstery, and with no leg room. I am not exaggerating: those with sensitive knees should think twice. There’s no room for the jacket behind your back, no room for a bag, let alone a backpack. In the course of the concert you are asked to rise and sit down multiple times. You will know your four neighbours N-S-E-W very closely by the end of it. How do you avoid the gallery? Come earlier, but if you come too early, there will be a long queue to join in the cold. There’s got to be a time when you arrive just as the queue starts being let in? Toronto practices long queues during Tiff, so treat this is a Tiff-size event. Come early.

+ OK so you ended up in  the gallery. If you spot any free seats in the mezzanine during the first half, you can at least move down and take ’em during intermission. It’s general seating, so you’re more than welcome to. Mezzanine and parterre seats are actually decent. This is what I did.

+ It’s a family-friendly event, so there will be children. Toddlers and babies too. Some of them will sit on their parent’s lap and be shown how to follow the score, maybe for the first time in their wee lives. So: don’t be a grump. [It takes one to know one.] These are future classical music audiences and performers. It’s all good. And they tend to be really well-behaved.

+ What I didn’t know was how ethnically diverse the Sing-Along audience is becoming. Lots of Asian families, multi-racial couples, black Canadians, together with the usual hardcore WASP contingent. It wasn’t entirely as diverse as Toronto Islands of a weekend, but it’s definitely  getting there.

+ The Sing-Along is not primarily a music experience, necessarily. Let me explain what I mean. If you like the choruses of The Messiah, you may feel shortchanged, because what you will hear around you will not be particularly pleasant. You won’t be able to hear the choir on stage at all, and depending on what section you’re in, your experience of the choruses may range from OK (the Altos area) to ugh (the Mixed section, where I spent the first half). There will be a lot of smudged coloratura, missed notes and creative tempo-keeping around you. This was particularly the case in the Mixed voices area, with two very loud elderly sopranos behind me, a quiet alto to the left, a guy who sang I’ve no idea what voice part to the right. When I moved to the last row of the Mezzanine Altos, it was like being within a gentle wave of alto base that included me (when I could find it, tonally) or left me alone, whichever I preferred in any given moment.

+ Oh yes: find an edge seat, a top row seat. That way, if you don’t want to get up for every chorus, you won’t attract attention. There were a few of us scattered who sang while remaining seated. It wasn’t unusual.

+ There may be people around you who will quietly “join” the soloist while s/he’s singing. This behaviour is deserving of a glare. Again, I heard it in the Mixed area from two of the sopranos, and there was some arm chair conducting from the guy to the right, but down among the altos, nothing of the sort. While the opposite does happen occasionally, your enjoyment of the soloists will for the most part be undisturbed. Amanda Forsythe’s laser-sharp coloratura stunned everybody into silence last night. (There’s an added task for the soloists here: stun the unruly audience into shutting up.) Tenor Colin Balzer (“Ev’ry valley” kicked the entire engine into motion) and baritone Tyler Duncan (whose “Trumpet will sound” closed it with a glorious clarity of tone) were just as good, and Krisztina Szabó got to shine in “O Thou that tellest” with the chorus/audience coming in at the end.

+ In conclusion, I think my next Messiah will be of the traditional sort. I like my choruses cleanly sung. (You should have heard what dog’s breakfast we all made of “Amen”. Or rather you shoudn’t.) But the Zing-Along has its own culture, its own following and–judging by the diverse multigenerational audience–a very bright future. And there’s room for both forms of concerts, and for some new forms to boot. Could a baroque concert in which the audience are allowed to dance be far behind? I see your sing-along, and I raise you dance, Tafelvolk.

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And may they offer unto the audience all kinds of Messiahs

And may they offer unto the audience all kinds of Messiahs

What perhaps impressed the most last night, on the first night of Tafelmusik’s series of period Messiahs, was the subtlety of the choral work. There were many faces in the chorus last night that we know from solo performances elsewhere: sopranos Lesley Bouza (who recently solo’d in Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Mozart and Haydn extravaganza) and Michele DeBoer (who often signs with Toronto Masque Theatre), baritone Keith Lam (recently seen in When the Sun Comes Out), and conductor/countertenor Peter Mahon (artistic director of the Tallis Choir) and that’s just naming four. All of these individual artists showed a different side to their talent as choral singers last night. Both the band and the choir performed Handel’s most popular creation alongside their long-time choral conductor Ivars Taurins countless times, but there were no signs of routine last night: the choruses were tremendously accomplished, and the modest size of the ensemble allowed for an easier discernment of the nuances and the dynamic shifts.

If I were to find a quibble or two, I would have preferred a numerically heftier, more female alto section. Too, some of the tempi were a fraction too brisk. “And he shall purify”, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, “For unto us a child is born” all ended too speedily. (And even so, “He trusted in God” was as superb as it can possibly ever get, anywhere, HIP or not.) The soprano air “Rejoice greatly” was almost too fast for Lydia Teuscher, who however did survive and did not short-change on any of the coloratura. It’s in the slower movements that you could really notice the blend, the togetherness, yet also the many subtle differentiations within the Tafel-band sound. The bass was particularly remarkably blended; there were moments when the three cellos and the double bass sounded like a single instrument. Across the floor among the violins, Christopher Verrette was the reliable Concertmaster heading a group of a dozen seasoned string players. (The more I hear from and by this musician, the more I’m interested in hearing. He was very eloquent at an after-concert talk that I attended some months ago: perhaps he and a few of his colleague should start an informal edu-tainment salon so the conversations of this kind could continue?)

The movement most illustrative of what kind of delicacy of sound the choral Tafelians are capable of was probably the Amen. All the weaving and interweaving was there, and Taurins not only took time and took time to play with colours and shades, but slowed down into almost a fade-out towards the end of the work. Jubilant works always end on a bombastic tutti, and this was a most welcome twist—ending contemplatively, rather than on a rah-rah note.

Soloists, interestingly, were mixed. Originally, Julie Boulianne was booked to sing the all-important alto airs, but she cancelled (to sing Annio in Paris, is it happens: you can watch her in this role live at the TCE starting 1:30 EST today here). Countertenor James Laing was engaged to sing instead. There were some problems with the purity of tone last night, especially in the lower notes, which I hope are corrigible and will be fixed for the remaining performances.

It’s good to hear new artists debuting in Toronto, and kudos to Tafel for debuting international soloists, instrumental and vocal, fairly frequently. Enter young German soprano Lydia Teuscher, who’s received remarkable notices in NYC recently, in Emmanuelle Haim’s concert rendition of Acis, Galatea e Polifemo. Her bell-like, silvery timbre is very appealing, but perhaps due to nerves, the accentuating was a little unpredictable last night—many of the high syllables would get unusually high in volume too, which gave to the text a certain bumpy mapping. The diction also got a little fuzzy up high. However, sometimes an artist wins you over with vulnerability and rawness rather than the cool mastery.

Speaking of mastery, Colin Balzer (he of the chest even more magnificent than Michael Schade’s) has a gorgeous tenor and was the rock solid soloist of the four last night. Nevermind the odd thinning of the high “dash” in the otherwise exquisite “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”: his tone was overall smooth, even, well-controlled; diction excellent; inflections in harmony with the meaning of the text. Baritone Brett Polegato was also good, but the occasional detachment from the text was evident; there was many a broad smile and a lot of acting in “The trumpet shall sound” where none at all was needed, and possibly distracted a little.

Koerner Hall was packed last night, which proves again that some like their Messiah chamber and intimate. But the either-or narrative that the media are giving to the Messiahs this season is ridiculous: it’s not modern, stonking vs HIP, intimate: it’s both-and. RTH for the spectacle, Koerner for a more intimist rendition. Let’s not forget the sing-along version and the staged versions (which are bound to come). I just wish the dance-hall version existed too; the danciness of much of the score sometimes makes sitting still in your seat a real challenge. Whoever picks up the idea first in this Messiah-crazed town—count me in.

The Tafelmusik Messiah at Koerner Hall continues Dec 18, 19, 20. Sing-along is on Dec 21 at the Massey Hall

From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister’s Georgian Christmases

Anne ListerIn England during the Georgian era, the spirit of Christmas varied from region to region and even from family to family. In some places, the religious rites associated with the birth of Christ were rigidly observed with all indulgences, such as rich food and other festive trimmings, strictly excluded, whilst in others there was a judicious mix of religion and merrymaking. As one writer put it: “One half of Yorkshire behaved as if there had never been a hint of [religious] reform, with all the joy and merriment of the ‘Old Christmas’; the other half fought against all but the meanest acceptance of the birth of Christ as a reason to rejoice.’ It rather appears that the Listers fell into the latter category.

From the evidence available in the journals of Anne Lister Christmas at Shibden Hall, then, was a sober affair with attendance at church on Christmas day the focal point of the day. Virtually nothing is recorded by Anne about anything remotely festive. The selection below, taken from the pages of her journal, is some indication of her Christmas experiences.

Christmas night, 1810, found Anne writing a wistful letter to her new love, Isabella Norcliffe, in which she imagines her lover dancing the night away at the Assembly Rooms in York.

“Perhaps my dear girl at this moment whilst my thoughts are all yours, you are gaily winding through the mazes of the dance, or led by some stupid senseless coxcomb gasping for breath among the careless crowd.”

Sat at home, far away from the York revelries, Anne’s melancholy mood deepened as she allowed her imagination to conjure up seasonal ghosts and spirits to haunt the ‘midnight dances’ in which she fancied Isabella was indulging.

“‘Tis then the hour when sprites and witches go abroad and “thin shiv’ring ghosts from yawning charnels throng and dance with silent sweep the shaggy vaults along.”

She cheered up a little when she remembered that, as it was Christmas night, the Assembly Rooms would be closed, but still, her own Christmas festivities of burning the ‘yewl log’, eating rich food and playing cards with the family ‘from conformity rather than inclination’ were no compensation for the absence of Isabella.

In 1822, we find that even in the town, life went on in a very workaday fashion. On Christmas Day the shops were open and the postman was on his rounds – i.e. ‘…As we were going to church, met the postman. A letter from Isabella Norcliffe’. Although Anne’s father, Captain Jeremy Lister, and her sister Marian called at Shibden Hall later in the day (they were living at Northgate House), there is no mention of an exchange of presents or what we now regard as a traditional Christmas dinner. It appears, when compared with other sources where the Georgian Christmas is shown as a truly festive occasion, that the Listers’ Christmasses must have been relatively austere, according to Anne’s journal entry for the day. ‘…Went to morning church…all 3 [herself, her aunt and her uncle] staid the sacrament [sic].’ From then on the day progressed normally with Anne visiting her horses and writing letters.

For a number of years, the one bright gleam for Anne in any Christmas spent at Shibden was the prospect of her married lover, Mariana Lawton, coming to stay. In the year 1817, Christmas Day itself was passed, as usual for the Listers, in churchgoing in the morning and prayers at home in the afternoon. However, the following day, breaking her journey from her parents’ home in York to her own home, Lawton Hall in Cheshire, Mariana arrived at Shibden, bringing with her her new cook, Elizabeth, whom she had hired in York. She was also the bearer of gifts. Her sister, Anne [Nantz] Belcombe had sent Anne, ‘a pair of cambric muslin sleeves, with broad wristbands, to be worn as linings, which she (Nantz) had made…& a Saffic [Sapphic]seal – new moon rising over the sea – motto – je ne change qu’en apparence’ – a covert message of love to Anne, reminding her of their affair earlier that year. It is intriguing to note that the wax seals of those days had many covert and overt uses – money could even be concealed beneath the wax e.g. in 1810 Eliza Raine (Anne’s first lover) wrote to Anne and told her that ‘You will find half a guinea in the seal for my shoes’ [Eliza Raine to Anne Lister. 27.4.1810.]

As the years went on, Christmas for Anne took on different forms, not least when she was in such exciting places as Paris and Moscow but the ones I have chosen do give us a glimpse into what Christmas must have been like for her in the fastness of her medieval family home in the small provincial north of England town of Halifax.

Helena Whitbread


Talisker Players and the City of the Mind – Bonus Material

Talisker Players and the City of the Mind – Bonus Material

Talisker PlayersThere’s a little thing that I wrote about Erin Bardua & Vicki St. Pierre’s upcoming performance with Talisker Players (pictured above) in Daily Xtra today: CLICK. I was only given 500 words, so this questionnaire alas did not make it:


Erin Bardua

Victoria, BC I miss a lot of things about it and always dream about going back. It’s beautiful, the weather’s great, people are casual and friendly, and wonderful music is being made there. Plus, it’s where I started my serious musical education, so I love it for the memories and opportunities I had.

Paris I mean… IT’S PARIS.

New York Since I’m thinking about this programme, New York City is the city-est place I can think of. I’ve visited a few times, and travelled there as a student doing auditions, and even on a student budget it’s a blast.

Vicki St Pierre

Paris (I’ve been told that if I don’t write this as my number one choice, I’m getting a divorce) Because my wife and I went there on our honeymoon in 2009. It’s a gorgeous, vibrant city, full of art and culture and fantastic food.

Sendai, Japan I met some extremely interesting people and enjoyed the city and surrounding areas very much. Sadly, much of it was destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Fredericton, NB I spent many summers of my childhood with my grandparents and extended family in Fredericton. The warmth of the east coasters and the beauty of the scenery are unrivalled. The drive from Edmundston to Fredericton through the St. John river valley is, in my mind, the most beautiful drive in the world.


Erin Bardua

I’m picturing something like Ravel’s Bolero, but with layers upon layers of distinct material from every part of the world and every walk of life. It would probably end up sounding like an insane gamelan orchestra.

Vicki St. Pierre

A big Vaudeville show, chock-full of variety — from gaudy, raunchy numbers about sex and the seedy side of life, to poignant, touching numbers about love and pain and hope and community. And a puppet. There should always be a puppet.

From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister at a Georgian music fest

From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister at a Georgian music fest


Miss Stephens, one of the vocalists at the festival, drinks hard, they say, & is kept by the editor of the Times.

From Helena Whitbread:

In writing the biography of Anne Lister there are times when I get really carried away with various topics which arise in the course of my research. The most recent instance concerns the four-day Grand Musical Festival held at the York Minster in September 1823, the aim of which was to raise money for the York County Hospital, a charitable institution for the relief of the poor people of the city who could not afford private care in times of illness. Anne attended each day of the Festival along with her many friends in that city. Both Anne Lister’s account in her journals and John Crosse* in his exhaustive analysis of the event, are fascinating, not least because of the little social details which their observant eyes and ears pick up on.

Crosse is almost as deeply interested in the beauty of the women and their dress as he is in the music. He writes of how the number of ‘…beautiful and elegantly attired females’ filled the gallery and centre seats, giving an added lustre to the occasion despite the management’s request to refrain from wearing high head-dresses. The aisles, which were only moderately full, did not, said Crosse, who obviously had a penchant for female glamour, ‘…afford equal gratification to the eye.’ It is to be hoped the modest caps worn by Anne’s party and the sombre black of Anne’s own clothes did not trouble the fastidiously discerning eye of Mr Crosse to any great extent.

There was a disturbing note in Anne’s account of the Festival when she noted that pickpockets were busy at their nefarious trade among the people crowding the Minster. ‘…Pick-pockets in the gallery. Dr Blomberg told us this evening at the concert it was true – he had his pocket picked in the gallery of £20. It is said 2 or 3 suspicious people have been taken up.’ Tidbits of scandal also went the rounds. Miss Stephens, one of the vocalists at the festival, ‘…drinks hard, they say, & is kept by the editor of the Times.’

Around 4,000 people attended each day’s performance and the entire ‘band’, as Crosse called the orchestra, consisted of over 450 ‘performers’. To open the proceedings ‘…the Bishop rose from his seat in the front of the gallery and signified, by the waving of his hat, that the performance should begin’. An encore was signalled by the dean of the Minster hoisting a white handkerchief.

The four evenings of the Festival were filled with entertainments at the Assembly Rooms, which were given over on alternate nights to concerts, where Madame Catalani and other Festival singers once more gave of their best, and to celebratory balls attended by some 1600 people. John Crosse was at hand again to express his appreciation of the glamour of the occasion. ‘…Long as these rooms have been appropriated to uses of this nature, on no preceding occasion were they ever filled with so brilliant an assembly of rank, fashion and beauty, as was now presented to the delighted eye. The dresses of the ladies were many of them exceedingly magnificent, and the display of diamonds was splendid beyond any former precedent within those walls. For some time the room was too crowded to admit of dancing, which did not commence until a late hour, and was confined chiefly to quadrilles…’

Meanwhile, at the York Theatre, for the whole week there was a full programme of Shakespearean drama. Such a week of culture perhaps would never again be visited upon the ‘antient city’ in the Georgian era – and we are fortunate to have both John Crosse’s and Anne Lister’s eye-witness account of these events.

* An Account of the Grand Musical Festival, Held in September, 1823, in the Cathedral Church of York; for the Benefit of the York County Hospital, and the General Infirmaries at Leeds, Hull, and Sheffield: To which is Prefixed, a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Musical Festivals in Great Britain: with Biographical and Historical Notes, 1825, the original of which is held in the Bavarian State Library. It was, however, digitalised on 18th June 2010 and is available online.