My Liz Upchurch profile is now online and of course in physical copy wherever you pick up the Wholenote magazine.
I’d like to share here this bit that I had to leave on the cutting room floor, as the space was limited.
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What about the visual ‘packaging’ of female singers in competitions and concerts? It seems to me they’re all in prom dresses, have long locks, makeup, all are presenting in the high femme style? When somebody like Emily D’Angelo appears, who already has her own very elegant and not at all highly sexed up style, one notices.
It’s changing. The next wave of singers will reject it. You know those recordings from the 1960s where everybody’s got the same up-do, everybody’s wearing the same neckline? I think the millennials are our true leaders at this point. They are going to show us what should have happened one way or the other, and quite right too, there’s a lot of change that needs to come.
But then, there are a lot of archetypes in the opera world.
Yes… Singers kinda have to create a fantasy, or speak to a fantasy. Female singers, that is. Men get to wear a uniform, and be sexy without ever changing it.
Imagine being a high high voice playing all the fluttery silly soubrettes and being one of the most serious people in the world.
But you’re an actor. And if you’re an actor, an actor would say That’s my character, that I have to figure out and understand.
There are certain expectations, yes. But I’m not a big media fan, I don’t have enough time to follow it. All I’m interested in is, can you sing well. And that they are prepared, that they become better artist, have the opportunity to do that. And don’t show up with jeans with the great big holes – unless the piece is written like that. It’s up to them; they are their own agents, at the end of the day.
It’s interesting to think how things have changed over the years. Beginning of every rehearsal at the COC now, and I think this is a direct result of the #MeeToo awareness, somebody will get up and talk about the policies that are in place in the company, who to go to if there are issues, where the information is, etc. Two years ago that wasn’t even there.
I was happy to see that a recent run of Hadrian, which had an “intimacy coach”, also had a seriously erotic sex scene. Not an operatic love scene: a properly sexy sex scene.
Yes, good point. This new awareness won’t abolish eroticism on stage – on the contrary.
After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.
It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.
Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.
This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.
For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.
Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.
Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow, piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.
And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.
On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.
The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.
All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.
Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.
A few (belatedly posted) thoughts on the Joyce El-K and Beste K recent concert at the RCM, on the Wholenote website.
Art songs delivered in a full-on operatic register within a small resonant space such as Mazzoleni Hall can be hard to take, I’ve learned last Sunday.
On the program at the RCM’s intimate, chapel-like hall were French a few of the mélodies with an Orientalist flair, as well as a selection of Lebanese and Turkish folk songs in new arrangements chosen by the two singers, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender. Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist accompanied from the piano, and for one Ravel cycle Nora Shulman (flute) and David Hetherington (cello) joined the mezzo onstage. It was a well-programmed concert, diverse and thematically unified at the same time.
El-Khoury, Lebanese-Canadian soprano highly in-demand internationally as Violetta and Mimi, is a singer of exceptional glamour and stage presence. Her voice is opulent, with a beautiful upper top, but it did not seem like El-Khoury recalibrated it for the more contained, subtle and withholding recital genre. Most of the singing, whether that was the intention or not, came through as fairly loud—and I was seated in the last row. On that level, Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from Shéhérazade sounds almost irate. ‘Île inconnu’ from Berlioz and Gautier’s masterwork Les nuits d’été was a very loud statement, rather than a cheery invitation to voyage that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But things changed in part two of the concert, in El-Khoury’s program of Lebanese songs which she introduced and which are personally meaningful to her. As if by a magic wand, there it was: the real song intimacy. As if a camera zoomed in to a private moment between friends. This was an entirely different singer, very much capable of pianissimi, full of thoughtful inwardness, implicit rather than explicit, and generous.
Mezzo Beste Kalender was more consistent. A fine French diction and rich dark timbre enhanced every song. Seductive and mischievous in ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ by Fauré, Kalender added some wicked castanets playing to her gamut in Ravel’s ‘Zaïde: Boléro’. She was particularly memorable in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, alongside the flute and the cello. ‘Nahandove’ is unusually sensuous, even for a French song, and it would be fair to describe it as, in fact, sexual (‘Arrête, ou je vais mourir / Meurt-on de volupté’). It, and the third song ‘Il est doux’, are voiced by a male narrator. He greets the female lover in the first, and orders female servants gently about in the third, but the middle song ‘Awa!’ is an outburst and a warning against such men. ‘Do not trust the white men’ is its refrain, and the verses explain what will happen when they arrive on distant shores and settle.
In part two, Kalender presented a selection of Turkish songs. One among them, ‘My Nightingale is in a Golden Cage’, she explained, was Kemal Ataturk’s favourite, so she would sing it in homage to the Turkish statesman—the modernizer and secularizer of Turkey after the end of Ottoman Empire and the republic’s first president. *
The two women finished the program with Delibes’ mega hit from opera Lakmé, The Flower Duet.
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*which I thought was interesting, bc he wasn’t exactly a democrat. What is Ataturk’s status currently, in the Turkey of Erdogan?
A whole bunch of us missed the Muse 9 staging of Dominick Argento’s song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf because it took place on the night of the Nightingale premiere at the COC. There’s a chance to see the same cast in a more or less concert version of the piece coming up at the RBA on November 13. I talked with the director Anna Theodosakis (pictured above) about what the Muse 9 Productions is, and how they ended up working on this particular piece. She’s one of the bright young things in Toronto’s opera world that give me great hope. Read the profile here.
Another new thing that piqued my interest, as you’ll see in the Wholenote article, is the recently created song series The Linden Project, based in Hamilton. Singer-spouses Julie and Jeremy Ludwig have announced the inaugural two-concert series, and have expansion plans and some really good ideas about the presentation and *purpose* of song recitals. The first concert took place earlier in the month, the second one is booked for early spring.
And here are my Quick Picks for November. The endemic Toronto problem of people not publicizing (deciding on) the program until close to the performance day persists, so I’m not sure what’s going to be heard in some of these, but the blurb copy sounds intriguing enough.
Every now and again, I get to do an interview where there’s no BS, where what you hear is just about all straight-up truth-telling. When that happens, you try to do your best to do the encounter justice. I hope I managed to do that in this interview with Erin Wall who talked to me last month about how she is trying to balance medical treatment and its demands, with having a busy singing career and a family.
Wall will sing (with Carolyn Maule on piano) the following program in Picton, Prince Edward County, on Sept 14:
And so the Art of Song Academy concerts come to an end. Today I managed to get to the final one, the mostly German program with a Chausson piano quintet thrown in for a change of scenery.
Renee Fajardo with Janhee Park on piano sang Schumann’s Der Soldat, Clara Schumann’s Die Lorelei and Schoenberg’s Galathea, the last song standing out as the most intriguing and accomplished of the three. Meave Palmer with Leona Cheung sang Wolf’s Kennst du das Land? and what felt like a scene by Strauss, Säusle, liebe Myrthe – Rustle, dear Myrtle, with lots of onomatopoeic effects of cooing, rustling and crickets. Again, the dramatic commitment was unreserved with Palmer, for which kudos; there is perhaps an over-reliance on feminine fragility in her choice of songs and expression. I’d love to see this singer stretch her talent into other moods in art song rep. I am sure the voice will sound differently then too, not as pure and child-like as it does now.
Danielle Vaillancourt (+ Frances Armstrong, piano) did a Wolf song (finely) before an Alma Mahler three-song set with Die stille Stadt, Laue Sommernacht and Bei dir ist es Traut. There is great beauty of tone in this dark mezzo voice, but also perhaps a certain uniformity of colour where a wider palette would be welcome. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon sang his beloved Der Doppelgänger, a Wolf and a couple of other talky Schuberts, and his precision and gusto with the text were out of ordinary. He did not interpret as much as inhabit the songs–just like Palmer did earlier in the concert.
All of the singers obviously worked hard on the German text and engaged intensely with it. If I had to pick at something, it’s that frequently there was a certain naturalness with it lacking across the board–because the preparedness and hard work was still visible. I would however gladly see each of these singers again.
Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle was also on the program, with mezzo Lyndsay Promane, Steve Sang Koh and Julia Mirzoev (violins), Julia Swain (viola), John Belk (cello) and Alexey Pudinov (piano), but for some reason it did not engage me at all. The Chamber Music fellows with mentor Yehonatan Berick rounded the evening with Dohnanyi’s overlong Piano Quintet No. 2.
Now, song academy is over but the song is not: Steven Philcox and Krisztina Szabo are scheduled to perform a yet undisclosed program of songs by Canadian composers on July 24 at 5pm at Heliconian Hall. It’s a free (sponsored) series and I hope it gets a solid turnout, unusual start time notwithstanding. Also in this series, Alice Ping Yee Ho’s opera in concert, Your Daughter Fanny.
By casting a woman in the title role in Stravinsky’s kind-of staged L’Histoire du soldat performed last night at Koerner Hall in the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Alaina Viau effectively rescued this rather thin story from the fate of being but a curious Russian folkloric riff on Faustian bargaining. The text, based on a story by Aleksandr Afanasjev, involves a returning soldier striking a bargain with the devil and losing everything in exchange for the magic ability to create wealth with the help of, um, a magic book. He eventually saves an ailing yet dancing princess (dancer and choreographer Jennifer Nichols) but by the end loses her again by disobeying the devil’s injunction never to leave the confines of the palace? It’s a tale alternating between confusing and tedious, with not enough Stravinsky’s music to make it all worthwhile. It is a piece in need of directorial intervention.
We did get that in one respect: the Soldier-Princess storyline is livened up with the woman + woman casting; the travails and tribulations of a wandering soldier, and the obstacles to charming a princess, are a very different game when a female principal is involved. Suzanne Roberts Smith, give or take a spot of goofy miming of fiddle playing, was a credible and handsome soldier, sometimes clueless, sometimes foolhardy, always engaging. Jennifer Nichols was appropriately enigmatic and distant as the Princess on pointe.
The Narrator and the Devil on the other hand were merged into one, which didn’t work as well. L’Histoire is often performed with one person taking on all the roles, but once you begin to distinguish the characters, there is no reason to leave any two merged. The fact that Derek Boyes (who performed in L’Histoire many times before) read his words from the script wasn’t ideal either. It felt like some parts of the production were staged and others not.
More work could have been done in the visual side of story-telling. The lighting and the video remained modest; I am not of course expecting the William Kentridge scale, but a stronger presence of the visuals would have considerably improved things, which remained under-defined, as if grappling towards an idea. On the upside, Viau did give bits of stage business to the orchestra, the TSO Chamber Soloists with TSMF’s AD Jonathan Crow on the violin.
The Soldat was preceded by a concert performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Scored for more instruments than the Stravinsky piece, Spring brought to the stage some of the TSMF Academy Chamber Music fellows. There are parts of stunning lyricism in Spring that otherwise sounds very familiarly American, with citations from folk and dance, and an overall upbeat-ness.
At the opposite end of that, and at opposite end of the night, there was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at 10:30pm, billed as the TSMF Late Night Encore. The hall was emptied to one third of occupied seats when Jonathan Crow, Julie Albers (cello), Miles Jaques (clarinet) and Natasha Paremski (piano) came out and dug into the first movement, ‘Liturgie de cristal’. As one movement followed the other, the narrow vertical screen showed video, mostly abstract shapes changing ever so slightly. For the movement with clarinet solo, the lights went down in the house and the only things remaining lit were musicians’ stands.
Good ideas, but not enough of them, and executed modestly.
Messiaen’s war camp quartet is a tricky choice for a late night performance. It has long stretches of mournful and/or monotonous sound-making: a long violin line sul ponticello that varies in intensity and stretches eeeever so slowly to its extinction, is just one example. There was not much demanding our attention from the stage (except when trying to fend off the idea this video art looks too much like a screensaver I used to have…) and as we were pushing past 11pm, there was quite bit of nodding off all around me. Again, more directing wouldn’t have gone amiss – more doing stuff with the lights, both house lights and stage lighting. Still, there was something pleasantly taboo-breaking about a late night concert. It had a less formal atmosphere perhaps, and breaking the house lights rules contributed to that.
TSMF continues apace. There is a Russo-German chamber program tonight, and on Saturday it’s back to reGeneration, the final round.
The first of the recitals have just started happening. Yesterday, Julius Drake, who’s been working with the singers the preceding week, held a Master Class with four of them — four mezzo-sopranos, as it happens. It was really interesting to follow a master class that assigns equal amount of importance to the piano as to the voice. There is repertoire which fundamentally *comes* from the piano, and if that side isn’t finessed out or painted boldly, there’s no amount of voice and textual interpretation that’ll save the song.
This was extremely clear in his work around Fauré‘s A Clymene (Danielle Vaillancourt with Jinhee Park at the piano), Grieg’s Ein Traum (Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong, piano). In Britten’s song about a mother losing patience with the baby who won’t sleep from A Charm of Lullabies (Lyndsay Promane with Leona Cheung) Drake pointed out something else: that the singing wasn’t interacting with the piano — whereas the text should be coming as a response to it.
And always, always, insistence on the text. That the singer look at it very closely and carefully and understand all the nuances. Should an important nuance be lost (say, the foreboding in Berg’s Nacht), the song is lost. After Vaillancourt sang Jean Coulthard’s The White Rose, quite a bit of time was spent on saying the words passion and love and what it means to colour each differently.
And in Rossini’s song Il rimprovero, the operatic virtuosity needed to be dialled down to a salon song. Renee Fajardo (with Pierre-André Doucet on piano), whose voice is indeed the embarrassment of riches, had to switch from the operatic AAAAH into the sigh-like Aah. Similarly, Drake asked Doucet to tone down the cheeriness and make the fiorituras in the piano score more laden and melodic by changing the dynamic. It was quite interesting to observe.
I came out of the class quite a fan of Drake. He is soft-spoken–had to move closer to hear what he was saying to the pianists–and wastes no words. At every turn he shows sharpness, sound judgment and impeccable instincts, but without any flashiness or self-importance. I did know he was good communicator since I attended his concert with Gerald Finley earlier in the year (while GF on the other hand can’t really do chatty informal eloquence…), and yesterday he impressed further. He reminded me of this piece by one my favourite columnists Janice Turner that just came out on the weekend, on the quiet, non-self-promoting heroism; there is such a thing as the quiet, non-self-promoting brilliance in art.
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The first reGENERATION concert (why they insist on that awkward moniker, beats me) took place today at 1 p.m. There was no detailed program, and I neglected to write down everything, so I’m working from memory here, pardon. Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong returned with Ein Traum, which sounded more polished and energetic than the day before, though the piano could go much more wild — I felt Armstrong was still too polite with it. Schriesheim’s voice is already beautiful and voluminous – a high, bright, soprano-y mezzo that, as the song demands, bursts out by the end. Where there’s perhaps a bit more work to do is in the interpretation department; cockiness is all right–who among us didn’t know everything in our twenties?–but may put the blinkers on a singer.
Florence Bourget and Leona Cheung opened with Debussy’s Songs of Bilitis and it was I think the most accomplished set of the four. It was an artistically mature, well thought-out presentation of this sensuous cycle that’s available in some top notch recordings. Bourget is one of the contralto-y timbre’d mezzos in this year’s Academy. The voice is nimble and elastic, its opulence doesn’t hinder it. Extra points for the elegantissimo yet neutral black jump suit, an atypical dress choice. (Tip: elaborate dresses and hair may distract the listener from the job at hand, which is imaging a world based on the words and the music.)
Soprano Meave Palmer (piano: Jinhee Park) sang Strauss’ Ophelia songs. Although the voice is still very young and in the bud, she has a great dramatic gift already and a keen interest in contemporary music, which is always exciting to see. Toronto tenor Joey Jang is also young and possibly found himself undermined by a bad case of nerves. His singing was tentative, but there’s a sumptuous tenor tone in there waiting to come into development.
The level of singing overall is really quite something. Each of the musicians at the TSMF AofS Academy is on a donor sponsorship–a scholarship, really. You can catch them for another round of recitals next Saturday. I’ll be there again, at least for one, possibly both. Julius Drake and Christoph Pregardien meanwhile (on Tuesday, to be precise) will do a recital before the German tenor takes over the class of 2018.
Gerald Finley has a baritone which casts a bass shadow. A voice dark and ripe and opulent that doesn’t lighten gladly, but the ear won’t mind two hours of it because Gerald Finley the dramatic interpreter and wizard of inflection comes with it.
Finley and one of the most in-demand accompanists today, Julius Drake, presented a German and Russian program at Koerner Hall this past Sunday, April 22. The first part assembled poems by Goethe set to music by Beethoven and Schubert, two almost exact contemporaries (the older man died 1827, the young one the year after) whose songs however belong to two different eras. Beethoven is not known for his vocal music and next to Schubert’s songs his come across as plainer, simpler melodies, playful or curious rather than stirring. In Finley’s hands the songs grew to become little scenes, delivered smoothly in his precise enunciation.
Schubert’s Goethe was a different Goethe. The set was capped with arguably the best known Schubert song, the infanticidal Erl King, but began with the long Prometheus lied, D 674. The Prometheus of this poem is defiant, not yet punished by Zeus, proudly creating humans after his own image. At the time of its creation the song could have signified political rebellion against the powers of the state, or personal rebellion of young creative men against their fathers, but the text has lost much of its resonance for audiences of our time and is potentially overlong and self-important. Not here: again, Finley worked his magic with the text and the song became a meaningful cri de coeur.
An den Mond (To the Moon) stood out from the set by its languid pace and silvery lyrics, while An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) swept though in a gallop.
The secondhalf, all-Russian, was shared between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky’s four songs came out as positively moderate next to the Rachmaninoff set. Rachmaninoff gives the pianist a lot to do, and is no stranger to a sweeping cinematic statement. An orchestra might have been present in the downers-with-high-dramatic-peaks O nyet, molyu, ne ukhodi! (Oh No, I Pray, Don’t Leave), O, dolgo budu ya (In the Silence of the Night), and Na smert chizhika (On the Death of a Linnet) but it was indeed just these two men onstage. A lot of chiaroscuro is required there, which Finley created through sensitivity to the text rather than vocal timbre (which stayed consistently as dark as plush velvet). Julius Drake from the keyboard supplied Romantic excess where Rachmaninoff calls for it.
One number in the Rachmaninoff set was actually fun: Sudba (Fate) – a song in which the singer voices more than one persona, in the vein of Schubert’s Erlkönig – had Finley (and us with him) delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of fate knocking on various people’s doors. The final song in the official program was the astonishing and astonishingly exaggerated Vesennye vody (Spring Streams), which starts by cranking up to 10 and stays there for its remaining two minutes. But Finley and Drake made it sound almost natural.
The encore was reserved for songs in the English language – Barber, Copland, Healey Willan, and a Britten arrangement of The Crocodile, a folk song recounting how a man ended up eaten up by the gigantic reptile and spent ten years inside it, “very well contented.”
As was the audience on this night.
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake presented a recital program on April 22, at Koerner Hall, Toronto. They continue to tour this program to Washington DC, Georgia and NYC. Finley will have an extra stop in Montreal, with pianist Michael McMahon (Info).
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.