Source and inspiration of a Saturday: a bit more Sarah Slean

Sarah Slean / photo Art of Time website

Art of Time Ensemble’s AD Andrew Burashko prepared another concert for the TSMF this year, a mid-day do at Walter Hall this Saturday, the time slot usually reserved for the song or chamber music academy boys and gals. This was different: instead of a master class or a young talent showcase, Burashko, the Rolston String Quartet and the guest singers gave us a sample of songs that have come out the AoT Banff residence created to get composers/arrangers, popular singers and classical instrumentalists to re-work some of  the classical chamber pieces into something new and their own.

Some years before the Banff collab, Burashko had commissioned 4 singer-songwriters to do something with the Schubert piano trio (discussed in the previous post on this blog and performed on July 25 in Koerner Hall). 9 new popular songs came out of the Trio and ended up being recorded on different albums. Burashko repeated this experiment with a Schumann piano quintet and a Korngold piece, at which point Banff asked him to do the program under their auspices. And soon enough, 6 singer-songwriters and 6 composers met in Banff Centre for a three-week collaboration on making new pop songs with elaborate musical tapestries based on a piece out of the classical canon.

Sarah Slean and John Southworth mentored the singers in Banff, and for this concert on Saturday they sang some of what came out of those three weeks. They were joined by two other singers whose names I didn’t manage to write down correctly and could not find online after. One was possibly Neil Hannon, Northern Irish singer-songwriter? Another one, who also arranged one of the songs, had the first name of Kelsey? Alas, AoT doesn’t print detailed programs in advance (they do post them after – this is a good archive of past performances), and as long as that’s the case, the info that I can share about their concerts will unfortunately have to be partial.

Among the singers, La Slean stood out again – not least because her lyrics are unusually clearly enunciated, whereas I missed most of the lyrics in songs performed by other singers. I promise you it’s not my classical art song snobbery talking; I genuinely couldn’t understand what was said and some of those lyrics are probably quite good. Second song of the two that Slean did she explained that she wrote for Rilke – specifically in solidarity to his claim that he communicated with the supernatural. Slean really has the Romantic mythemes down pat, doesn’t she? There are often interesting stories behind her songs; she really is a delightful song artist.

Rolston Quartet, after it accompanied all the singers and Burashko at the piano in the song program, was then joined by pianist Todd Yaniw for an energetic Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 Op 81. Some of the preceding songs, it became clear, had recognizable affiliation with the Quintet.

TSMF continues apace; I will report on at least two other concerts coming up next week.

Art of Time in Schubert, Hatzis, Cohen, Brel, Gershwin and Freddie Mercury

Sarah Slean (singing), l-r Berick, Mercer, Burashko

Last night at the TSMF, Art of Time did that thing that they always do well: a concert of popular songs in classical arrangements for a chamber orchestra with a piano. I’m always curious about the arrangements side of things: the composers that the AoT engages for this purpose come from a variety of backgrounds and styles, and the combinations are sometimes quite inventive. There was a Leonard Cohen song arranged by British composer Gavin Bryars, and I remember hearing Kevin Lau’s name in one of the songs (full list of arrangers updated below).

The traffic went the other way too: pop singer-songwriters taking over classical pieces and making them their own. Projects like this one are among the beacons of this approach, and I’m always on the lookout of good treatments of the classics by the musicians of other genres. Singer-songwriter Sarah Slean has been one of those musicians for a while now, at least since she decided to take a turn from the pop stardom business to classical, chamber orchestras, piano-with-live strings, and smaller venues. Her song Lonely Side of the Moon is a direct response to Schubert’s piano trio op. 100, the movement Andante con moto. In the concert, the two were played side by side. First the AoT artistic director Andrew Burashko (piano) played the trio with Yehonatan Berick (violin) and Rachel Mercer (cello). Slean followed, explaining what she changed (the meter in the opening bars on the piano, as you’ll spot!) and what she developed.

From this (by a different trio, not AoT):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e52IMaE-3As

…to this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlADcEegX9Q

The song can of course stand on its own: we have a very German Romantic preoccupation that is the Nature here revived as a song topic, through an environmentalist perspective. I think she’s onto something. We already have the novel of the climate change and perhaps trad Romanticism will see a revival thanks to the poetry of the climate change?

Slean was also excellent in Leonard Cohen’s rearranged Anthem and Take This Waltz. While Cohen himself was around to perform these songs, what he’s saying and how was of greatest interest (as you can read in the recently published Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Cohen started out as part of the early CanLit poetry contingent and published in small presses before he decided to move to the all-powerful melting pot of American song and become a star). His songs can be read from the page as poems and not a whole lot would be lost (OK! the spoken poetry people will disagree; yes, the delivery etc, but let’s move on). The luxurious arrangements that add layering to the musical side of his songs are therefore a pretty exciting thing to discover. Slean also did a solid job with Brel’s Ne me quitte pas and almost almost managed to make Queen’s spectacular The Show Must Go On intimate.

Singer-songwriter John Southworth was also in the program, performing some of George Gershwin and Cohen songs. He happens to be not the most communicative of performers. I was trying to understand his low-key, coarse-voiced, dispassionate approach and the best I could come up with is: imagine if the characters from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot decided to take up singer-songwriting? That. It’s certainly an original mode to operate in but I have yet catch the bug. Here’s a sample from his songbook.

A  very lively opener started the proceedings: a piece by Christos Hatzis from Constantinople. I believe it was this one: https://youtu.be/o3aUenb2xz0?t=26

AoT return to the TSMF for the reGeneration concert with young musicians of the song academy this Saturday July 27, Walter Hall. AoT were, beside Burashko, Berick and Mercer, Peter Lutek at woodwinds, Rob Piltch on electric guitar, and Joe Phillips on double bass.

Edited to add: Here’s the full list of pieces and composers with (in most cases) arrangers:

Old Photographs by Christos Hatzis
 
Anthem by Leonard Cohen was arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Who Cares by George and Ira Gershwin arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Gavin Bryars
 
Darkness – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Kevin Breit
 
Man I Love – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Kevin Lau
 
Swanee – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Shelley Berger
 
Take This Waltz – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in Eb major, ii. Andante con moto
 
Good Mourning by John Southworth
 
Lonely Side of the Moon by Sarah Slean
 
The Partisan – Anna Marly, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Ne Me Quitte Pas – Jacques Brel, arranged by Jim McGrath
 
Dance Me to the End of Love – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Andrew Downing
 
The Show Must Go On – Queen, arranged by Rob Carli
John Southworth with Berick, Mercer, Burashko and Phillips. Photo: Art of Time

The Liz Upchurch magic

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.

+ + +

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.

April in Art Song: Judy Loman (82), the harp godess

When she joined the TSO, Loman was by no means the only woman, she tells me; while some of the internationally prominent orchestras to this day struggle with the issue of too few women in the ranks, she wasn’t an oddity in the TSO of the 1960s. Though she did help set a positive precedent that eventually changed a particular bit of orchestral culture that will sound unusual to us today. “Well, a funny story. If a female player got pregnant,” Loman says, “she was expected to stop playing in the orchestra as soon as the pregnancy was beginning to show. But what happened with me is that I stayed for as long as I could comfortably embrace the instrument, because there weren’t many harpists that the TSO could hire while I’m away on maternity leave for months. So I played through pregnancy, and after that, other women in the orchestra could too.”

Continues here

Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s one more performance tonight

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

Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

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.

Lauren Margison

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.

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

Animula vagula blandula

Anima Vagula Blandula in Hadrian’s Mausoleum

I first visited Rome in 2006 and for a long while before and after it was my favourite city of all actual and possible cities. I had read the Yourcenar novel about the Emperor Hadrian especially before the trip and enjoyed it much more than I enjoy the memory of it now. Then, I thought it was a terribly sophisticated, subterranean investigation of a “good” emperor’s public and (verrrrry subtly) private life. Now I find Yourcenar’s académicienne sentence a bore, and the multiply veiled story coy (the way exciting literature usually isn’t): a writer writing from deep within the closet.

At any rate, I of course went to Hadrian’s Mausoleum and loved it. The only picture I seem to have taken is this one above, with Hadrian’s poetry chiseled fairly recently onto a stone plate and placed high up (or was it low down? I forget) on a wall inside the mausoleum. There’s a modern-day Italian intro at the top: “Words from the dying Emperor Hadrian to his soul”.

Hadrian likely wrote more, but as far as I know only this poem remains, & has been translated in multiple versions. Yourcenar amplified further its importance in the novel.

I was surprised after I’ve read Daniel MacIvor’s libretto for Hadrian, his and Rufus Wainwright’s operatic child which just premiered at the COC, that he did not include this famous bit of Hadriana in the text. All the same, it’s a decent libretto, and a functioning (if clunkily) opera which has alas been given a commercial theatre-type production. Why nobody said at any point Waiiit that’s just too many bare bottoms mixed in with the extras from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I don’t know.

Here’s my Opera Canada review.

I think it’s a touch of (devious gay) genius that Antinous tops the Emperor in their very detailed and leisurely sex scene. If any of you have read Alan Hollingurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, the brilliant last sex scene in that book comes to mind. You know, the one where the wealthy English aristocratic narrator who’s been topping everybody in the book finally gets bottomed–and totally naturally and ordinarily, with no words exchanged on the topic–by a working class guy of Middle Eastern origin. Hollinghurst has this incredibly poetic, uber-stylish way of describing the filthiest sex between men, and he doesn’t disappoint here. “He fucked him with leisurely vehemence”, he writes of the guy topping Will the aristocratic narrator. Leisurely vehemence! A phrase to make you guffaw and blush at the same time. Well yes. Quite. There was some leisurely vehemence in evidence in that Hadrian-Antinous encounter.