The year in books

Well. I suspect due to various personal upheavals this year, good (a lot more writing assigned and pitches picked up than last year, on top of my regular 3-day-a-week non-writing job in Etobicoke) and bad (having to move out from the rent-stabilized apartment where I lived for 9 years was a proper life kerfuffle), I read less this year, down to 2.333 books a month from the 4-a-month average.

OTOH, the newly added time and stress constraints made me choose wiser each one, which resulted in some consistently good reads across months.

Here’s all the books I’ve read this year, with favourites in bold.

Lee Smolin: Time Reborn. Dr. Smolin is a theoretical physicist at UoT and Waterloo’s Perimeter and this book gave my brain an extreme kind of exercise in scientific and philosophical thinking that it’s rarely asked to do. I didn’t grasp everything, and that’s just par for the course even though Smolin manages to write about the most perplexing questions before the human mind in an accessible, general public way.

Anne Garreta: Not One Day. An editor from BookForum got in touch to ask if I’d like to review this new translation of Garreta’s book, and after looking up the author (whom, shamefully, I hadn’t heard of before) it took me zero split seconds to jump at the opportunity. I am now an ardent fan of AG, the rare woman among the Oulipo gang. Read my review here [PDF, because it’s behind the paywall on Bookforum dot com].

Sam Byers: Idiopathy. Haven’t encountered this much knowledge about what happens within a couple since Iris Murdoch. SB is also on Twitter and excellent at it.

George F*cking Saunders: Lincoln in the F*cking Bardo – a masterpiece. If you deem it sentimental, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Or you haven’t yet encountered death from a closer distance.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation. Lots of good readers went gaga for this one, but meh.

Rachel Cusk: Arlington Park
Rachel Cusk: Transit
It became clear to me that I have to read everything this woman has ever written. Arlington Park, one of her “pre-fame” books, shot up past Transit and is now, together with Outline, in my Pantheon.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy. What a pile of self-important, over-publicized poverty porn dreck this was. Was supposed to review it for said BookForum, but wrote an angry, hatchet-y, impatient review that the editor wanted me to re-do, in a calmer tone of voice and with more textual examples. I said no.

Gwendolyn Riley: First Love. A gem.

Amy Parnes & Jonathan Allen: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The very first book to come out about That Thing, and I had to have it. Nothing extremely new in it to anybody who religiously followed the US media at that time, but it was a good overview and the sundry off-the-record interviews with staffers resulted in some new insights. Not sure if I’m buying the “this was the most factional and divided campaign it could be”, but the authors provide plenty of evidence that there have always been too many cooks around the Clintons’ pot (which they cultivated themselves) and that while WJC could cut through his to form a unified, persuasive political vision, HRC couldn’t cut through hers. I also read

What Happened by HRC this year. I liked it. I was moved, and the Sisterhood chapter is on point. There’s some light bs occasionally, but it doesn’t mar the overall impression. I also closed the book thinking, I should call my loved ones much more frequently; Chelsea called her late grandma more frequently than I did my own late mother. And how many political memoirs will make you want to call your mother more?

Dorthe Nors: So Much for That Winter. I wanted to love this, but alas.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary. He wrote it after his mother passed. You’re beginning to notice some recurring themes in my reading materials, don’t you.

Delphine de Vigan: Based on a True Story. This won the Goncourt in France recently, and riding that wave of recognition got a swift English translation. The narrator who’s also an author meets a woman at a party, who quickly becomes her best friend and insinuates herself into every aspect of author’s life. She also subtly starts manipulating her fiction writing – and by the end of the book you don’t quite know if the woman really wrecked her life or if she was a character written by the author. One of those Who exactly is deceiving me now? read.

Mathias Enard: Compass. A Viennese musicologist goes to bed and can’t sleep; instead he’s pondering his life and his recent terminal diagnosis. Lots of music, lots of East meets West business, and a particularly effective argument against Edward Said’s concept of ‘orientalism’ — from the mouth of a female character. Meditative, erudite and unruly. Didn’t love it on the whole, but loved so many of its moments.

Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour. Authors in extremis. Brilliant through and through – even though most of the authors are not those that I would have looked at (all somewhere on the traditional masculinity and alcohol abuse spectrum).

Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends. I wanted to love this too.

Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises. A very unusual Drabble, in that the best conveyed, most complex characters are male. Gave me two nights’ worth of flooding nightmares. Didn’t love it, but loved finding again that recognizable Drabble voice so unique to her. We’re lucky she’s still writing and publishing.

Penelope Lively: Dancing Fish and Ammonites. A cultural and personal memoir about reaching old age. Where do we go, what do we do, if we live still must?

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters. Americans don’t do (ie know how to handle, how to write about, how to be conscious of) class, either on film/TV or in novels. But this novel is among those few exceptions.

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick is also among those exceptions.

Nick Mount: Arrival. A fun and thoroughly researched look into the making of the CanLit. Essential.

Sybille Bedford: A Compass Error. A lesbian triangle novel published in 1968 in Britain? Narrated by a sharp, erudite coming-of-age heroine? Set in a Highsmith-Ripley-sque version of Europe? I’ll take that extra large and to go, SVP.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled. A claustrophobic, oneiric, Kafkaesque, incomprehensible world with classical music at its centre.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It works, it works just fine as a novel, well written and lively; I’m just not sure if the woman at its centre deserves what the author puts her through. It’s a bit much, the humiliation. Give her SOMETHING, shurly?

Alex Good: Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction. Oooh this is naughty and incisive.

Gonçalo Manuel Tavares: Joseph Walser’s Machine. Formally inventive, and I’m glad I discovered GMT thanks to the author interview in the French Philosophie magazine. However, in Joseph, women either don’t exist or appear in order to hinder the proceedings and to be discarded by the Important Ideas pushing the text forward.

Stuart Jeffries: Grand Hotel Abyss. A bit overlong, could have used a trim or five, but otherwise an informative, fair and occasionally even witty collective biography of the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Fromm, Habermas and its straying predecessor Benjamin.

Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs. This Wood essay made me aware of McGregor, and this novel did not disappoint.

Have a pleasant rest of holidays, dear readers – and thank you for reading.

 

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The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

Sarah Connolly sings Das Lied von der Erde with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. James Conlon. I went to Chicago for this; sadly the TSO’s own Erde was a wreck this year.

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

Canadian Art Song Project + 21C Music Festival: the all-Ana Sokolovic recital with Danika Loren, Emily d’Angelo, etc

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

Vivier’s Kopernikus in Banff, Against the Grain & Banff Centre

Met in HD: Der Rosenkavalier (dir Carsen, with Fleming, Garanca, etc)

Arabella at the COC

Toronto Consort’s Helen of Troy (aka Cavalli’s Elena) – in concert.

Theatre

The Youth-Elders Project @ Buddies in Bad Times. Much of this was unscripted: half participants in their twenties, half past their sixties, all bent, some homosexual, some queer (and there is a generational divide with terminology too), talk about their lives and experiences.

What Linda Said by Priscila Uppal @ Factory Theatre. Late Linda Griffiths appears to her friend (based on Uppal) who is now herself sick and undergoing treatment for cancer. They talk about life, love, writing, dying.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry & Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory @ Buddies. Second half was as close as I ever came to witnessing a shamanic ritual. Laakkuluk donned an animist persona/mask and went straight into the audience. Crawled over and between the rows, ground against people, grabbed, handled, dry-humped. All kinds of boundaries got crossed. It was fantastic.

Unholy by Diane Flacks, Buddies & Nightwood Theatre. A panel of four women (an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, an atheist and a Catholic nun) debate whether women should abandon religion altogether. Further complications ensue after the atheist and the Muslim fall for each other.

Young Marx via National Theatre Live (Yonge-Bloor Cineplex). Young Marx lives in London, throws (and throws off) communist meetings, has no money, has a wealthy loyal friend in Engels, one wife, one servant-lover, many children, police always on his tail for one reason or another. A laugh out loud farce and the best piece of left propaganda (I mean this as a compliment) I’ve seen in performing arts in a long time.

The Bakkhai at Stratford Festival on the other hand disappointed – chiefly due to music which was sugary musical theatre fare.

Media arts

Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary about the locals of the southernmost Italian island Lampedusa and the African migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean into the EU.

Angry Inuk, a Canadian documentary about a handful of seal hunters in Nunavut who are barely making ends meet vs. the PR-savvy, big budget environmentalist organizations campaigning against seal hunting.

The Lives of Thérèse, a French doc about feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. Here’s a clip in which she tries to explain to her granddaughter that lesbianism is the sexual arm of feminist politics, and that heterosexuality is like sleeping with the occupier.

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a Maya Gallus doc about women around the world who wait tables.

Agnes Varda & DJ: Faces, Places. Outstanding docu-fiction reminding us that there is no such thing as insignificant lives.

Sieranevada, a Romanian feature film about a Bucharest family preparing for the wake for its deceased patriarch. From the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a Quebec feature film which walks the esthetic and political avant garde side of the street. It imagines a radical left splinter group coming out of the Quebec anti-tuition fee protests from a couple of years ago which continues the fight in a more direct action mode (destruction of property, theft, and some violence against humans too). Refreshing, bizarre, Godard-ian, frustrating, but provocative and smart for its entire three hours. The movie that shifts the treatment of politics in Quebec’s engaged art – after this film, Robert Lepage’s play-pic 887 at CanStage, which still circles around the October unrest and the Quiet Revolution, seems dated.

Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.

I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.

I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre

Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert

The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall

The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams

Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):

Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)

Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”

Best  singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore

Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast

A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.

+ + +

For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.

My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.

 

Handel Unbound

Miriam Khalil, Justin Welsh, Michael Uloth, Danika Lorèn, Topher Mokrzewski (Darryl Block Photography)

Against the Grain’s new Handel concoction, Bound, is still very much a work in progress. Last night, we had a chance to see the first version of the three-year process of developing a production, and the final version may end up being completely reinvented.

The founding idea is good: 7 characters who are confined due to a brush with the immigration law sing Handel arias about their condition. The spoken bits connect the arias – the Stage (voiced by Martha Burns, in a dark far away corner of the COC’s Jackman Studio) interrogates each inmate in a weary and slightly menacing tone through a glitchy microphone.

The Handel aria texts (Cara sposa, Ombra mai fu, Iris hence away and Ah mio cor I did manage to recognize) are discarded and new words written to build the stories for these specific characters. Music is often rearranged as well (Topher Mokrzewski @ piano) – sometimes to the detriment, when the coloraturas are sacrificed, and sometimes the arrangements indeed enrich the song, as when Arabic-inflected singing is added to Miriam Khalil’s character take on Ah mio cor.

The cast of young singers are good actors to one though neither is exactly a fireworks Handelian voice. The vocal side would matter much less if the dramatic core of the piece solidified — which is still not entirely the case. Is the State specifically Canadian, or is it American, or an abstract cross-cultural entity? Is the State meant to be uniformly oppressive? In which case, the individual stories need to be revised and made more specific. In one case, a man was asked about a German relative of his who’s had ties to the Nazi party. Sadly, Nazis are back in the news and I wasn’t entirely sure if the libretto was suggesting that the relatives of Nazis or the Nazis themselves have been in the past or are being today unfairly prosecuted or harassed by association?

Another character is sister of a man who committed I presume one of those white terrorism acts: lots of innocent people are killed, is all I gathered; and the man’s name is Liam, the name which, when sung out in a plaintive aria, sounds almost comical. She is being interrogated, I presume, as is customary to talk to family members of mass murderers? I am not entirely sure that that too is an extremely oppressive act.

Perhaps the main dramatic problem is that the reason why these characters are being interrogated remains unknown? More detail would help clarify the absurdity of the charge – the vagueness doesn’t help. Perhaps Joel Ivany should look at some of the news stories and work them in, with changed names? One of the characters wears a hijab, and is questioned by the State about it – but the exchange just doesn’t sound credible. Since we don’t have all the other information on why she’s being detained, it sounds like she is being given extra hard time because of the hijab? The hijab question is also a bit more complicated than that. If the State was Iranian or Saudi Arabian the woman harassed would be the one without a hijab or niqab. I kept thinking of Zhara Kazemi, who was an Iranian-Canadian photographer apprehended on false charges and beaten to death in a jail in Iran. Might be wise to take a wider look at what some other States are doing as well when it comes to women and how they dress.

Left as vague as this, neither of the character stories actually work. The one thing that is clear is that they are all massively incovenienced. A big crime in Canada, I know… But silliness aside, if the libretto is to stay Canada-specific, the stories should be more specific. A clear cut case that Ivany could have used is toddlers being stopped at border crossings because their names appear on do-not-fly lists, for instance. Or live-in caregivers being denied family sponsorship visas because their children have medical conditions which would be “a burden to Canadian health care system”. Or the live-in care-givers themselves. There is much to be mined from the actual news – no need to invent vague unspecific instances of what we are told is oppression.

This show can be much better. Meet you same place, next year?

Bound continues to Dec 16 and returns next year in a new disguise

Justin Welsh, Danika Lorèn (Darryl Block Photography)

 

Dirigenten! review

Filming the work of an orchestra is not an easy job. The television series Mozart in the Jungle, about a fictional orchestra, focuses on a handful of individuals to tell the broader story. Dutch documentary Around the World in 50 Concerts (dir. Heddy Honigmann, 2014) follows the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on tour and looks at the orchestra’s work in a roundabout way, by talking to music lovers about how they experience the music they hear. While both creations have much to recommend them, neither is quite as exciting as the orchestral music-making itself—and neither exactly capture the contingency, the heartache and the unpredictability of a career in music.

Conduct! Every Move Counts, screened in Toronto on Tuesday, November 21 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of the cinema and the Royal Conservatory’s Music on Film series, made me think of these earlier examples because this 2016 German documentary about the Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition comes closer to both the glory and the gore. It zooms in on a few candidates (I presume the team interviewed many more of the 24 conductors selected for the 2008 competition before deciding who to follow), and while the winner did turn out to be among them, the documentary centres on the “losing” candidates and their personalities and musicianship, which they have in bucket-loads. The winner too comes across as an interesting character – Shizuo Kuwahara, who at first stands out for his bizarre arm gestures and grimacing, but who eventually convinces the orchestra (of the Frankfurt Opera), the jury, the audience on the final night as well as the doc viewers of the seriousness of his approach.

Still, he remains in the background. Foreground is occupied by the then little-known, now established conductors Alondra de la Parra (who doesn’t make it to the second round, and who in the cab on the way back to the airport says on camera: “I shouldn’t have done it. I already have my orchestra, I already conduct – I really didn’t need this”), James Lowe, Andreas Hotz, and the “dark horse” figure in this film, the very young Aziz Shokhakimov. Shokhakimov and Lowe become fast friends and the camera captures them a few times playing the “guess the symphony by my hand movement” game.

The director, Götz Schauder, managed to access and film the jury’s pre-selection of candidates, the rounds of the competition which are not open to the public, jury deliberations, the announcement of results, and of course, the final, public round at the Frankfurt Opera. On the candidates’ side, in addition to the on-camera interviews, there was access to their hotel rooms, prep time, off time, waiting time and the feedback conversations – including one particularly memorable one in which the orchestra’s first violinist tries to explain to Shokhakimov that he should try to be less cocky and listen more, since he just couldn’t fix a problem in a particular section in rehearsal.

This documentary is not afraid to go into details: there is a lot of useful footage on the nitty-gritty of the work of conducting and playing in an orchestra. There are also some surprises along the way, but after all is said and done, the reasoning of the jury remains looking fairly arbitrary, or mysterious at best. Competitions are there to drum up media interest and the excitement of the public, and to give a boost to the careers of musicians who don’t have connections or a big agency behind them. At the same time, competitions can be as arbitrary as awards and auditions, dependent on multiple other factors besides candidate’s musicianship and potential.

In the post-screening Q&A at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, conductor Tania Miller talked about her own experiences with competitions – and as a young conductor, she’s tried some, including one that was won by the then still little-known Gustavo Dudamel. The Music on Film Series MC, the Royal Conservatory’s Mervon Mehta, asked her about her take on why there are still few women making a career in conducting, and she said she perceived three main reasons. First, the business side of a career in classical music: agencies, labels and media “sell” what they know and what’s been profitable so far, and that will be men. Second, some of the women conductors just out of school will not feel confident enough faced with what looks like an awe-inducing, largely male monolith – the classical music canon and the people whose job is to run it and write about it – and will need a confidence boost which may not come from anywhere. ‘Well, if nobody else is willing to believe in me, they must be right and I must be wrong,’ is the kind of thinking that may make a woman conductor change careers. And third, Miller said, is in part a matter of choice. It’s not an easy road to take. Alondra de la Parra says at one point in the documentary that she is studying scores from early morning to late in the evening, “and I believe her,” said Miller. “It is actually like that.” Miller went on to say that, if you want a family as an aspiring conductor, you must be extremely lucky to have an accommodating partner who is willing to do a lion’s share of child-rearing and relationship maintenance.

Greatest laugh of the evening? Mervon Mehta describing seasoned orchestra players as, on principle, “cranky bastards.” “Not the Royal Conservatory Orchestra,” interjected Miller. “Yes, not them, because they’re still students,” said Mehta to another wave of audience laughter.

The Music on Film series continues on January 30 with Strad Style, a documentary about an Ohio-based, Stradivari-obsessed violin maker, and February 27 with a bio-doc dedicated to Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa. Full program for Music on Film can be found here.

This review first appeared online in the Wholenote magazine

The Emerging Art Critic Program 2017

The class of 2017 (front row) with, in the back row (l-r), Francine Labelle, media relations at the TSO, Sara Constant (managing editor, The Wholenote), David Perlman (publisher, The Wholenote), and John Coulbourn (former Toronto Sun performing arts critic, now retired). Photo: the National Ballet of Canada Twitter account.

The Emerging Art Critic Program is in its fourth year, with two additional organizations in the mix and an expanded mission. I first heard of the program when John Coulbourn mentioned it in our long conversation in 2015, and promptly put it out of my mind thinking it was bound to stay a dance criticism training ground only. This year, however, the Wholenote magazine joined the Dance Current on the media side, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra joined the National Ballet of Canada on the arts organization side to make the training program about music criticism as well.

And that’s a good development. There are rumours of orgs in other art disciplines expressing interest — and next year may bring an even bigger program.

This year, the plan is to train all the candidates in music writing (David Perlman and Sara Constant will work with writers on those reviews, which will be published in the Wholenote) and dance performance (John Coulbourn and Megan Andrews, TDC founding editor, guiding and TDC publishing). Each gets assigned two things to review. There are workshops and guest speakers and outings. This was the call that appeared on the TSO website, which joins the National Ballet call.

John, with whom I spoke on the phone  this morning, tells me the level of quality and enthusiasm is high. Many of the young writers are just recently out of school, with degrees in Dance, Music or English.

This is happening in very unfavourable conditions for arts journalism in Canada. Neither the Sun, the Post, the Star or the Globe has a permanent writer on the music beat. The Rogers magazines like Macleans and Chatelaine continue to reduce arts coverage. The CBC Music website as a depressing joke. (While the NYT and the Guardian are actually expanding music coverage.) How will the emerging arts writers monetize their skill in Canada? Well, that is a $50,000 question that will need dealing with later. For now – let’s enjoy the news that there are a good number of young people eager to write about arts each year. Arts journalism, in this one way, is on the renewal trajectory.

And now, the drum roll please: here is the Class of 2017, with Twitter handles embedded for those who are on Twitter:

Arianna Benincasa
Eve van Eeden
Josette Halpert
Kallee Lins 
Taylor Long
Jaimie Nacken
Melissa Poon
Wei Shen

Satie on marimba, an androgynous dancer & sophisticated pop

One week late (due to technical difficulties at The Wholenote blog, where this appears originally), here are my thoughts about Against the Grain’s pairing up with Kyrie Kristmanson. ‘Twas good.

A scene from Reverie at Alliance Francaise, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo by Jonathan Russell MacArthur / Against the Grain Theatre

Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.

Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.

Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.

It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.

The second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.

Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.

Kyrie Kristmanson

September in Art Song

A few interesting things coming up in September. In my new The Wholenote article, I go on a bit about the Sept 23 recital (see below), but there will be more concerts of interest. For ex:

10 September 2017, 12 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. World of Music: Mysterious Barricades. A cross-Canada concert in honour of World Suicide Prevention Day. Lorna MacDonald, soprano; Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Monica Whicher, soprano; Russell Braun, baritone; Judy Loman, harp; Carolyn Maule, piano; Tracy Wong, conductor. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen’s Park. 416-408-0208. Free. [I may write about this one.]

29 September 2017 09 8:30 PM: FusionFlamenco. Silvia Temis, voice, Benjamin Barrile, Flamenco guitar, Derek Gray, percussion. Gallery  345, 345 Sorauren Avenue, Toronto. $25/$10, cash only.

19 September 2017, 12:10 PM: Rising Stars Recital. Students from the Glenn Gould School. Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation/Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. Free; donations welcomed. [Still no info about who is singing and what.]

25 September 2017, 7:30 PM: Canada in Words and Music. Toronto Masque Theatre Salon Series. Shaftesbury Atrium, 21 Shaftesbury Ave. $25.

Now, though, more on the Imperfect Recital – – – – – – – – – –

Lindsay Lalla. Photo credit Marc Betsworth

There are several song events worth your time this month, but the one that stands out will require a trip to upper Parkdale and Gallery 345, an unusually shaped space that’s becoming the recital hub of West Toronto. On the program for “The Imperfect Art Song Recital” (September 23 at 6pm), conceived by the soprano Lindsay Lalla, there is music by two living composers – Toronto’s Cecilia Livingston and Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone – as well as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, an Anne Trulove recitative and aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a brief musical theatre set with Carousel and Showboat songs.

The imperfect as a recital theme may sound unusual, but it’s a question as old as the arts. It’s also a personal notion that kept Lalla focused on teaching and the vocal health of her students and at a distance from performing and concert stage. “My strong technical focus in my teaching carried over to my singing and I felt almost paralyzed trying to find perfection,” she explained when I asked what the story was behind the title. After years of working on other singers’ voices, the minutiae of their development, health and rehabilitation, the goal of perfection struck Lalla as a little overbearing. What if she created a whole program around the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect singing, a perfect lover, a perfect human?

The theme of imperfection runs loosely – er, imperfectly – through the texts of the pieces on the program. “The Strauss songs compare women to flowers and to me represent ‘old school’ classical music where perfection is an appreciated aesthetic,” she says. Livingston’s songs “explore the theme of an absent lover, and I find it really interesting that absent lovers are always perfect.” The character of Penelope, that mythical perfect wife of antiquity, appears in a Livingston song as well as Lalla’s own drawings (she admits to something of an obsession about Penelope) which will be on display at the gallery along with art by clarinetist Sue Farrow created during rehearsals.

Then there’s the Cerrone song cycle on the poetry of Tao Lin. The 18-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, percussion and piano, I Will Learn to Love a Person, can be found in its entirety on the composer’s website; on first listening it sounded to me like plainchant meets American minimalism, with shades of Ann Southam. Its engagement with text is fascinating – and I don’t use this word lightly. Lin is now primarily known as a novelist – Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei, Eeeee eee eeee – but he had published poetry as a young writer and Cerrone made a selection of poems that rang particularly true to his experience. The composer’s own statement highlights Lin’s accuracy about “millennial lives” and Lalla agrees, but this Gen X-er can tell you that Cerrone’s piece, like any good music, speaks to all cohorts. (Some of Lin’s fiction, Shoplifting for example, a novella of young impecunious lives in NYC’s emerging ‘creative classes’ flowing on vegan smoothies, band following, brand savvyness, internet, psychological opaqueness of characters and overall scarcity of explicit feeling will remind of Douglas Copeland, who’s probably an ancient writer to the millennials.) Lin made a selection of his poems available online, and I’d recommend listening to I Will Learn to Love a Person alongside the poem i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know to appreciate fully how they enhance one another.

The first piece by Cerrone that Lalla ever heard was this song cycle, and it impressed immediately. To wit: “It hit me hard!” She decided to do the chamber music version and invited two of her best friends, husband and wife Brian Farrow (percussion) and Sue Farrow (clarinet). The pianist and Lalla’s accompanist in other songs on the program, Tanya Paradowski, happens to be their niece. “We’ve been rehearsing up at their cottage, with the sounds of vibraphone over the lake… I can’t imagine what the neighbours must think.

“Because there is so much repetition on just a few notes, the focus goes to the text,” she says of the inner mechanism of the cycle. “Just like in the recitative of an opera, it’s now about the words, and the emotion behind the words. And the accompanying instrumental part is very repetitive, so you instinctively listen to the words to find out what’s going on. So, over top of this unconventionally textured background (quite an unusual mix of instruments!), you get just words. And they happen to be on notes. I think this is a brilliant way that Cerrone is highlighting the directness of Tao Lin’s text.”

It was actually composer Cecilia Livingston who first recommended Cerrone among a few other composers to Lalla (the two women have known each other from high school). Livingston’s own songs, too, Penelope, Kalypso and Parting, are going to be in the recital. Livingston’s website lists an impressive number of commissions, collaborations and fellowships – including a recent research fellowship at King’s College in London with one of the most interesting Verdian thinkers today, Roger Parker – but also an array of publications and papers both academic and journalistic, including her U of T PhD thesis on “the musical sublime in 20th-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism and musical silence.” There are also audio files of her work, including a good number of songs. I was eager to ask this vast and curious creative mind about her work.

Cecilia Livingston. Photo credit Kaitlin Moreno

In which art song features prominently, it turns out. “I just finished a commission for the Canadian Art Song Project, which reminded me that art song is one of my favourite things to write, period! It calls for this very strange close reading: scrutiny of a text combined with a huge, bird’s-eye view of its emotional terrain,” Livingston says. “Northrop Frye wrote about this, and he titled his book from Blake: The Double Vision – seeing a text both for what it is, and for what it can be in the imagination. And then also – for a composer – in the musical imagination, in the ear.”

Her three songs in the Imperfect recital explore a style that she describes as “somewhere between art song and torch song. Penelope and Kalypso are both portraits of Homer’s characters, of women who are waiting; both songs have weird, dark middle sections: one is sort-of-aleatoric and one isn’t, and I can see I was working out different solutions.” With Kalypso, Livingston was looking for a new way to write for coloratura soprano and ended up thinking about scat singing and the Harold Arlen songs she loves, like Stormy Weather. “I think Duncan [McFarlane]’s lyrics for Kalypso are one of the most extraordinary texts I’ve ever worked with: beautiful, intricate layers of language; so much that the music can shade and shadow and shape.”

A pianist by training, Livingston composes by singing as she writes: “It helps me build on the natural prosody of the language and makes sure the vocal line is comfortable: that there’s time for breath, that it’s well supported musically, that it sits comfortably in the tessitura, etc. – even when it’s challenging.” The process of finding a text that will lead to a song is more intuitive, harder to pin down. “I’m looking for something that catches my inner ear: an image, mood, the sound of a phrase. When I come across that, I can sort of hear the music for it, and then I know I can work with it. I don’t hear actual music yet, but I can hear the intensification that music can bring. Which sounds slightly bizarre; it’s probably easier to say I get a particular feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

She doesn’t entirely buy the argument that simple, unambitious or bad poetry makes better (because easier) text to set to music. “Look at the riches of Alice Goodman’s libretti, or the ways that Britten illuminated all sorts of texts. If a writer savours language – its sounds and its meanings – then I’m interested.”

Among the larger projects on Livingston’s agenda, there’s a full-length opera in the works for TorQ Percussion Quartet and Opera 5, with the world premiere in Toronto scheduled for the 2018/19 season and a European premiere in 2020. “I’ve admired TorQ Percussion Quartet’s musicianship since we met in 2008, and I wanted to write an opera with them the moment I saw their incredible performance of John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise,” says Livingston. “They have a dramatic physicality to their performances that is perfect for contemporary opera.” And Opera 5 produced her first chamber opera: “We built the kind of really supportive friendship that I wish all young composers could have.”

And what does her music feel like to a singer? Let’s let Lindsay Lalla have the last word: “I adore how lyrical and melodic Cecilia’s songs are. I feel that they were written like mini operas, with so much emotion to explore in once piece… One of her musical instructions in the Kalypso (over the introductory coloratura) says: “Ella-Fitzgerald-meets-Chopin, vocalise-meets-scat.” As a singer, I fell in love with her just from that.”

Oksana G. is shockingly bad

I left the May 26 performance of Oksana G. stunned. The most ambitious operatic project by our biggest contemporary opera producer in recent years made a lot of us excited and keen to embrace it. The topic hinted at seriousness of purpose, boldness in the face of potential controversy and rootedness in our age. The libretto took the road less travelled by letting the characters speak in their original languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Italian in addition to English. The action, ambitiously, moves across several borders. The casting promised the right mix of the newcomers and the acclaimed.

The result of those ten years of work is, turns out, an atrociously banal libretto with music which serves as faded wallpaper or, in those rare moments of visibility, as an injection of lyricism for purposes of telling us what to feel.

The story of a young Ukrainian woman Oksana who is promised a job in a high income country but then taken into sexual slavery by her smuggler is told in the manner of a TV special for very slow children. We follow her life in chronological sketches and each leaden scene is designed to highlight a problem or explain a point. We are being walked through, with a heavy stomp. In between the acts, there are documentary intertitles that tell the place of action and the exact date.  There are moments of extraordinary vacuity. Middle-aged East-European women that Oksana leaves behind keep looking at tarot card to learn about her fate. (That’s how East European women inform themselves about world events, FYI.) Oksana’s guide-turned-pimp in one dramatic moment in the woods removes his glasses and she is horrified that his eyes are of different colour (bad omen, evil is ahead). Later, escaped and among other women in a recovery camp in Italy, Oksana and her girlfriends play folk dances to remind themselves of home. (Slavs = folk dances, FYI.) Speaking of Slavs, every woman in the story is clad in the style that can be best described as a cheap made-in-China quasi-glamour, which I suppose is there to suggest that they all, as a demographic, not only lack means, but also pine for western glam and try to scramble a knockout version of it.

But the most serious issue with the libretto is structural. The story of Oksana’s life is told through her passive relationship to two men who have agency in the story: her captor Konstantin, and then later, her savior, priest Father Alexander. Oh, and: Father Alexander is a blonde and muscular Canadian hunk who happens to live in southern Italy, where he runs the centre for the escaped trafficked women like Oskana G. It’s the myth we like telling each other, the peace-keeper Canadian who saves the day in the less fortunate parts of the world, and astoundingly, here it is served again, unexamined, in a 2017 opera.

The quiet scene between the priest and the recovering Oksana is jaw-dropping: he tells her there is still time for her, maybe she will meet a man one day who will lover her and she will have children, and a happy family life, and not to give up hope. Music heard from the orchestra stage right, amping up the sentiment, comes in unsubtly and signals that yes, this is sincere, this is a moment of rare intimacy between the two, his words are to be taken seriously.

There is the odd collective scene with other women in captivity but while a different librettist and composer pair would have made something out of it–a slave chorus, a gathering of forces, a lament of the kind that Britten created for the women of Peter Grimes–zero luck here. The women remain atomized.

The ending made everything that one final degree worse. There’s a very old operatic trope that goes like this. The impure woman has to die at the end of an opera – either by her own hand, by a man’s hand or due to an illness – as that is the only way we can feel for her. With no dramatic reason except this one, that we can finally be allowed to love and pity her, Oksana, finally free from her enslaver, commits suicide out of shame. What fresh Butterfly BS is this, librettist Colleen Murphy, composer Aaron Gervais, director Tom Diamond, and Tapestry Opera?

Singers are generally fine–Jacqueline Woodley as Oksana’s friend Nataliya, Keith Klassen as Konstantin, and Natalya Gennadi as Oksana in particular leave a mark–but colossally wasted by this production. Krisztina Szabo as Oksana’s mother is not given much to do except fret. (See also under: East European mothers) Adam Fisher as the priest was in fine voice, but his gym bunny physique and his stylish coif stood comically incongruous with his character’s profession.

And what to say of Gervais’ music which overall takes leave to the far background and lets the B-movie libretto take up all the air?

I don’t enjoy writing reviews this disappointed and hope to never have to do it again. So let’s end here.

Banging Was Heard

Another good thing about the 21C Festival is that you always end up going to things that you wouldn’t usually go to any other time. Last night I went to hear a band I didn’t know anything about — except its pianist Vicky Chow. The group consists of percussion, electric guitar, double bass and cello, keyboards, and clarinet/bass clarinet, plus the electronic component handled by an off-stage sound man and in most of the numbers tonight video as well.

Those of you who’ve seen Nicole Lizée’s work, this will bring it to mind, but unlike Lizee who makes her musicvideo forms herself, the BoaC band performs other composers’ works. One of the pieces that stood out for me was Christian Marclay’s Fade to Slide, which was played alongside his own film, an incongruous, compelling montage of short cuts from old movies that was accompanied by the live performance with split-second precision. John Oswald’s Fee Fie Foe Fum gave a pop hit from 1960s his signature plunderphonic treatment (take the existing sound, transform it) and a suitable video component to go with it. René Lussier used a recording of his wife’s snoring to compose within it a new work titled Nocturne. It’s a piece that’s not really played for laughs: while pre-recorded snoring was distinctly heard, the piece mainly fills in with instruments the space between two intakes of breath of a snorer. The inconsistent breaks between noise and silence in the snoring pattern is rendered faithfully. You are kept alert and guessing throughout – as a sleeper forced to stay alert to the erratic production of sound next to him. Will the snorer will go quiet with the next intake of breath, or is it going to be louder; is he changing rhythm or staying consistent. All of this is in the piece.

Caroline Shaw (in Really Craft When You) and Anna Clyne (A Wonderful Day) both used recordings of spoken word as the basis on which to compose. Shaw used archival recordings from the 1970s of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia and Clyne an old man’s singing–it’s hard to describe it, so head here for a shot of joy and wonder.

Gene Takes a Drink, a piece by Michael Gordon to the footage filmed by a cat going about his day, which was made into a film by Bill Morrison, holds your attention. David Lang’s unused swan was an extraordinary experience: an ensemble of instruments overpowered by–of all things–the closely miked chains coming to contact with the metal platform.

21C continues today (Sunday, May 28) with two more concerts: an Unsuk Chin extravaganza, and a Benjamin Bowman and Claudia Chan violin and piano tango.