Tap:Ex Metallurgy with FKD UP

Jordan de Souza (front) with Jonah Falco (at the piano in the background) in Tap:Ex A. Photo by Dahlia Katz

There’s a music-making ethos that says that anybody can partake in music and compose by doing it, learn on the job as it were, regardless whether they have any music education. This is the pop, rock, folk, etc sphere—including the very DIY punk. Then there’s the classical music ethos, where music making is a matter of the written-down complex forms (the ‘musical work’), academic or communal training, perfectibility of performance.

The two kinds of ethos were expected to meet and collaborate in Tapestry Opera’s new project, Tap:Ex Metallurgy, but under one condition: each had to work in the other’s idiom. Jonah Falco from the punk band Fucked Up got to create Metallurgy A (to the libretto by the band mate Mike Haliechuk and poet David James Brock), and composer Ivan Barbotin Metallurgy B, with DJB as the librettist. As the FU explain in this video, his part was a collective effort in which conductor Jordan de Souza got the lion share of the work of notating Falco’s remarkable creation. Barbotin, in the second, much shorter work, got to use some of the pop idiom, including the drums and the electric guitar.

It was a good concert—not really an opera, not really two one-acters spliced together, but a concert. Musically, the Falco-de Souza collaboration with a small string orchestra, a piano and an electric guitar was much more interesting, if clearly the less popular one with the audience. There were no tunes, no rock rhythms and the soundscape was atmospheric and dissonant, occasionally lyrical in an austere (non-Rufus Wainwright) way. Krisztina Szabo and David Pomeroy produced some pretty awesome noise at certain junctures. The librettos, although great on the verse level, were as dramatic works bizarrely unambitious, intimate, almost banal – set within the couple in each case, a couple with a dead child in Tap A, and a couple just…er…being a couple over the years? in Tap B. The music was of greater interest in each Tap. Falco used the electronica very sparsely—was that one of the conditions?—while Barbotin used it unabashedly, together with some recognizable rock music quotes.

I expect the goal of the collaboration was to mix the two audiences more than anything—the Fucked Up’s and the Tapestry’s–and judging by the show of hands when Michael Mori asked after the first timers, the opening night did have a real mix of people. I wonder what FU connoisseurs thought about the experiment (they probably don’t analyze performances in this precious way that we in classical music do). Perhaps the project should leave the claustrophobic studio space on the third floor of a Distillery building and travel to a space where FU is likelier to perform. And perhaps it can be allowed to change each time it’s performed, in the spirit of spontaneity of a live band performance. Take the risk-taking further.

Tap:Ex continues Nov 20 (PWYC) and 21 (two performances).

David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz
David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner and Music at the AGO

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, occupying the second floor of the AGO till January 31, is an exhibition of Turner’s later works. It’s Turner at his least ‘realist’ and most experimental, pushing the boundaries of the form this way and that. What’s really new at the AGO, however, is the musical soirees programmed alongside and presented each Friday to the audience that happens to be in the gallery during the AGO Friday Nights extended hours. The music is meant to relate to the exhibition in some way–it’s up to the programmer to establish the connection. One of those pieces is always to be a work especially commissioned for the occasion.

Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori is the first music programmer of the November series. He chose an interesting mix of literally and indirectly Turner-related pieces, first half of which is piano only (Adam Sherkin) and second more of a Liederabend (with mezzo Marion Newman). The commissioned works concluded the concert, the atmospheric “Shade and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” composed by Adam Sherkin and inspired by some of the Turner paintings exhibited.

In Part I, Sherkin played Liszt’s “Orage” (1848) and “La lugubre gondola I” (1882), Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126 (1824), a piano quickie by John Adams, “China Gates” (1978), and Sherkin’s own “The Fire Maker” (2013). The acoustics of the Walker Court dispersed the sound and did not entirely do justice to the evident drive and focus of Sherkin’s playing. People are also bound to mill about, clink glasses and drop programs, but the informality and the extraneous sounds soon enough became a legit part of the experience. As the available chairs quickly filled up, people sat on the stairs, and the un-concert-like seating arrangements abetted an intimate atmosphere.

The sound got much better once the mezzo started singing: Marion Newman rocked the place with her powerful voice and cabaret cheekiness. After Schubert’s sedate “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), the gear switched to flirtatious with Carmen’s “Habanera” (1875) and settled down on poignant with Dido’s Lament. The bright and pretty “Where Corals Lie” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures concluded the historical part of the concert, while Sherkin’s commission concluded the evening.

The program repeats November 20 and 27, 7:30, Walker Court at the AGO. Definitely worth experiencing after a proper visit with Mr. Turner upstairs.

CASP, gasp!

CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.

“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.

She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000).  Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.

Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.

She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.

The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.

Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.
Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.

Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One performance left to go: August 22.

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

Stéphanie Argerich on Martha Argerich: the documentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A montage of clips:

The English-language trailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Podium Politics: Conducting While Female

Judith Yan Photo by Johan Persson RESIZED
Conductor Judith Yan in a photo by Johan Persson

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


A sampler:

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

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

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

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

Tania Miller
Tania Miller, Victoria Symphony


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And there you have it: the entire score.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to see at 21C

What to see at 21C

The 21C Music Festival returns this month for its second year.

What I’m noticing this time is an inroad of the world music, jazz and rock into the programming. Is this how the performances of the contemporary ‘classical’ will be sold in the future, especially in Canada and the US? Being sneaked in amid the “sensual music of Latin cultures” and a new commission by the former drummer of The Police? You could argue that the music with any electronic components is automatically related to the rock and the metal, and that the improv, while customary in jazz, is not entirely foreign to art music. So yes, there are connections, and I’m not against but let’s say I’m agnostic about this kind of mixed programming. The Koerner Hall itself programs with a huge emphasis on the more popular forms of music, and if you look at the last few seasons’ brochures, the classical (old or new) is in the minority. But okay. It’s too early to worry that the 21C will go the same route.

There are also two After Hours concerts, in a more casual setting with video projections on one night, and cash bar on both nights. All positive developments. The tickets range from $21 to about $60, and the $21 ticket can go even lower if you combine it with a ticket for another specific concert or get an all-access pass,

What piqued my interest:

Saturday May 23, 2015 – 5PM

Cinq à sept  (involving a cello and three voices)
Raphaël Weinroth-Browne: new worlk for solo cello (World premiere)
Raphaël Weinroth-Browne: Offering
Kaija Saariaho: Grammaire des rêves
Jordan Nobles: π World Premiere (The Royal Conservatory of Music commission)

Saturday May 23, 2015 – 8PM

Spin Cycle (Afiara Quartet performs works by various composers, Skratch Bastid performs the remixes, then SB and Afiara play the four new pieces composed by the original composers after they’ve heard the remixes)
Kevin Lau
Dinuk Wijeratne
Laura Silberberg
Rob Teehan
Skratch Bastid

There is a big Kaija Saariaho concert on May 21,  with four pieces by her, one by a Polish composer (Jerzy Fitelberg) and one by a Canadian composer (Omar Daniel). I would have normally be interested, but Daniel’s vocal piece uses the words by Yann Martel, possibly the most overrated writer of the last 20 years, so I will skip. Or might go and suffer those few minutes, we’ll see.

There’s much else–the Bicycle Opera peeps (an After Hours on May 21); a multi-media, multi-composer shindig Illusions (May 22, 8PM). The entire schedule finally has its own page, an improvement on last year.


TSO’s 2015-16 season announcement

TSO by Sian Richards
Photo by Sian Richards

Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced the 2015-16 season last week. A few highlights:

Matthias Pintscher will make his TSO debut as conductor and composer on April 28, 30 2016. He will conduct his own work towards Osiris, and also Mahler’s First and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Inon Barnatan at the piano. (Pintscher is also conducting a fabulous  program with the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa next month. Double Ravel, including the iconic piano concerto in G, and one of my favourite Beethoven works, the Sixth.)

Dina Gilbert, the dynamic young (27) assistant conductor at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will debut as a conductor at the TSO, but in a children’s program. (Alas. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, May 14.)

Speaking of women conductors, Victoria Symphony will guest in a Matinee Masterworks concert on March 31, under the baton of its music director Tania Miller. Oesterle, Grieg’s Piano Concerto (with Stewart Goodyear), Copland and Stravinsky on the program. The one remaining woman conductor this season will be Barbara Hannigan, who will sing and conduct in the program of Haydn, Nono, Mozart, Ligeti and Stravinsky, October 7 and 8, 2015.

The New Creations Festival will be curated this year by the Australian composer, conductor and violist Brett Dean, while Bernard Labadie curates Mozart@260 Festival.

Composer stats this year look like this: The warhorses for the TSO are again Mozart (9 works) and Beethoven (6), with Brahms and Tchaikovsky at the atypically low 3 each. There are, unusually, 5 Richard Strauss works in the program this season. Among the composers I’d like to hear more performed, we find 3 Berlioz (including Symphonie fantastique), 2 Debussy, 2 Haydn, 2 Mahler (usually a higher number per TSO season), 2 Ravel, 3 Sibelius, 4 Stravinsky, 1 von Weber (a clarinet concerto). Kurtag and Ligeti 1 each. For those who like Shostakovich: 4.

The TSO multidisciplinary programs also continue, the pop and jazz nights, children’s programs, the Second City at the Symphony is back, and there’s some stuff with circus artists in December. The standout in their film with a live orchestra program this year is Hitchcock’s Psycho. Constantine Kitsopoulos (TSO debut) will conduct Bernard Herrmann’s string orchestra score.