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

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

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’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.

Bob Gilmore’s book Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life

Bob Gilmore’s book Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life

What is Vivier’s status right now internationally? Is he being performed, known by the concert-going public?

I would say the knowledge of his work is growing all the time. Several factors led to that: one, its being taken up by a major publisher in 2005, Boosey & Hawkes. The availability of scores and materials has boosted performances, no question about that. There are also a number of young composers who are interested in his work, in what he did technically, in terms of his musical language. As for how much he’s known to the public, contemporary music of this sort will never draw huge crowds, but the performances are increasing, and there’s more and more sense that this was a major figure and a very original one. There’s nobody who, like Vivier, really manages to combine this extremely strong emotional content — lots of his work is overwhelmingly emotional — with the compositional rigor of the sort that he was able to employ. His work will continue to be better known as the years go by.

My conversation with Bob Gilmore on arguably the most internationally renowned of all twentieth-century Canadian composers, available in full here.


John’s Your Uncle

John’s Your Uncle

_MG_7833Against the Grain’s adapted Don Giovanni takes place in a wedding hall that’s seen better days. The party planning company is owned by il Commendatore, and his daughter Anna is on staff. Zerlina and Masetto are the couple to be wedded, Elvira is Zerlina’s friend who gets invited to the wedding. Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé, is a low-ranked policeman, though in an earlier version of Uncle John he was, more plausibly, a security guard at the venue. John and Leporello are besties. What brings them to this particular hall, other than a shared interest in breaking up other people’s monogamy contracts is anyone’s guess. Once Elvira shows up and John sets his eyes on Zerlina, they are reluctant to leave.

It can’t have been an easy task for Joel Ivany to adapt the Don Giovanni libretto in the course of the year that saw an unprecedented public debate on sexual consent and rape in Canada, but he did an honourable job. While navigating the countless pitfalls this work contains, he sometimes erred on the side of safety, but probably wisely. (How on earth do you transladapt Zerlina’s “Batti, batti”? Obviously not as “Punish me, slap me”, and probably not as “Discipline me, tame me”, so Ivany’s complete cleanup of the aria was, I’d wager, a wise decision.)

I don’t belong to the school of thought arguing that DG is a rapist: there would be no opera to unfold if this were the case. Donna Anna would not be obsessing about a rapist and would not be endlessly postponing her marriage; and although DG’s no stranger to using and abusing his aristocratic power differential, Zerlina and Elvira would not have been seduced by sexual blackmail or threats. The work would not be a dramma giocoso but a dramma thriller-ico in which the three women do their best to avoid a violent predator and to go on with their lives. I wonder if anybody ever tried doing a production with DG as a naked brute? I don’t think the staging would work, but I’m open to being surprised.

All this to say that Ivany avoided the pitfall in that other direction too: tranlsadapting DG into a very (to us, today) recognizable type, a high-powered sexual criminal who goes on unpunished thanks to the enabling infrastructure around him.

No: Ivany’s and Cameron McPhail’s DG is a charmer. A sleazeball, an ADD, a junkie-in-the-making, violent to other men, but a charmer to the laydeez. Ivany didn’t give him any special qualities that our age worships (celebrity, athletic prowess, wealth) so it’s all down to his personal seduction skills and muti-tasking. We never really find out what is it that he does in life; we do find out his number of LinkedIn endorsements, so he does have a career in some field it seems. A smart political point could have been scored by giving him some prestigious career in the background (Tech? Hedge funds? Hollywood? Media mogul-dom?). Without any of those crutches, McPhail’s job of convincing us of DG’s irresistible prestige is more difficult, but he carries it off, and plays the fairly young Uncle John with a certain wide-eyed “the world is here for my pleasure” boyishness. DG’s two solo aria come to us intriguingly devoid of any concern for women: the mandolin-accompanied “Deh, vieni alla finestra” is here turned into DG’s melancholy paean to his drugs and mood enhancers, and his later call to the party Finch’han dal vino” is delivered as the effect of taking a line of cocaine, the aria’s jittery beat gaining a new meaning.

Neil Craighead is perfectly convincing as Leporello, a dishevelled wingman who tries to keep track of John’s social entanglements chiefly out of loyalty, and much less so out of desire to get in on the action. “Madamina, il catalogo e questo”, probably the most successfully adapted aria of all in the production, starts as he opens an iPad for Elvira and begins reciting the number of followers and connections John has forged over various social networks. (“Ma in Ispagna son gia mille tre” becomes “But on Tinder, there are 14K.”) The tricky part of the opera in which Elvira goes to bed with Leporello thinking it’s Don Giovanni is here cleverly handled as an episode of sexting, Leporello texting on behalf of his friend.

_MG_8072Some of the loose ends of that episode remain untied and that is probably the weakest spot of the adaptation. Ivany dispenses with the change of the clothes sub-plot, and rightly so; I can’t see it working in modern adaptations. Leporello here does not dress as DG, and does not seduce Elvira, but later still gets caught by the group of the aggrieved principals and has to endure their anger caused by (supposedly) Don Giovanni. It’s a well-directed and well-sung scene that however does not make a whole lot of sense. I guess you could argue that all of them are now flat out angry at both men, at Leporello mainly because he’s enabling? Still, some questions linger on.

While I’m at the weak spots, let me smuggle in this one so I don’t end on that note: the quartet in charge of the music, the Cecilia String Quartet, was consistently underwhelming. They sounded disjointed and uninterested. Here’s hoping that the conductor at the piano, Milos Repicky, gets them inspired, unified and crisp in time for the remaining performances. A lively quintet of instruments can make you forget that you’re listening to a radically reduced score.

Back to the positives, my favourite voice of the night—amid some tough competition—was the big, bright and beautiful sound of Betty Allison. She opens the opera, effectively, and her voice is there full-on from the very first bar. Anna in this production is anything but glamourous—very working class, too sentimental and naive for her (not tender) age, and having to sport a uniform in colours of dish water for the whole of 2.5 hours. None of that manage to distract from Allison’s remarkable voice.

I’ll have to rush through a few other mentions as this is getting too long: the award for superb acting goes to Miriam Khalil (her Elvira is somebody who suffers profoundly, and makes us suffer with her) and Aaron Durand (who hilariously delivers to us, ladies and gents, and I think for the first time on any stage, Masetto as a jealous hipster). John Avey is also very good, vocally and dramatically, as the Commander who comes without the usual pseudo-Gothic accoutrements (pardon the green lights at the end). He scares the heck out of all with his rage even while donning the uniform of his catering company.

Uncle John continues Dec 13, 15, 17 and 19. This online promo video will give you a further idea of its tenor.


Photos are by Darryl Block. Top photo: Cameron McPhail (Uncle John) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina) with Aaron Durand (Masetto) under the table. Middle photo: Sean Clark (Ottavio), Miriam Khalil (Elvira), Betty Allison (Anna), Neil Craighead (Leporello), Aaron Durand (Masetto) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina).

Politics. Music. Bacon.

Politics. Music. Bacon.

A number of things on my calendar over the next three weeks:

Ubu Mayor: A Harmfu Bit of Fun, a play with music written and directed by Adam Seelig, is being performed at the Artscape Wychwood Barn Sep 12-21. It tackles (uhm) our current ruling mayoral bottom-of-the-barrel dynasty via the absurdist theatre of Alfred Jarry. I wanted to see somebody do the Ubu treatment of Ro and Do Fo since the two rambled onto the political scene, and now I finally have the pleasure. The live band consists of bass, drums and piano, tickets $20-25. All the info you need here.

Ubu Mayor poster+

A program of Schoenberg, Ravel and Berg tomorrow Sep 14 only at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, with the Canzona Chamber Players and the KiWa Chamber Music Society, Rachel Krehm singing. No social media advertising anywhere, the Canzona website not updated, so I swiped this add (originally spotted in the print issue of The Wholenote) from Jonathan Krehm’s personal Facebook page:

Canzona-KW-PierrotThe snipped off bottom reads: Yosuke Kawasaki violin/viola, Wolfram Koessel cello, Vadim Serebryani piano, Amelia Lyon flutes, Rachel Krehm voice, Jonathan Krehm clarinets.


Tafelmusik opens a very intriguing season on Sep 18 at the Koerner Hall. Why intriguing — it’s the season that’s also the search for the new music director, and many of the musicians we’ll see guest-conduct and perform with the orchestra are being considered for the position, I’ve been told in a tweet. First off is the violinist Rodolfo Richter in a program of Vivaldi, Handel, Corelli, Heinichen and Telemann. All the info. Through Sep 21.


The Opera 5 do the Offenbach/Hahn Ba-ta-clan/L’île du rêve do on Sep 19-21st at the Alliance. It looks good.


On Sep 27, Essential Opera performing Gluck’s Paride ed Elena with mezzo Lyndsay Promane in the role of Paris, and Erin Bardua, Maureen Batt, Julie Ludwig and Emily Klassen making up the rest of the cast. Vicki St Pierre (with Wesley Shen) in charge of music direction. All the info.