I realize that some of the blog subscribers may be interested in my non-opera-related writing as well. Here’s my latest essay for the Literary Review of Canada, on Aleksandar Hemon’s new book.
Why, look at the time!
Next month, it will be 20 years since I first moved to Canada. This anniversary got me thinking… about many things. And I decided to talk to people, Canadians old and new, and long-time Canadian residents, about this country that I feel I know less now than I thought I did a decade ago. I have been trying to fend off a feeling that I belong less to it now than years ago, when I had just moved to Toronto from Nova Scotia. Everything seemed possible back then. Now, twenty years later, perhaps I have hit enough walls to start noticing them and a different map of the possible territory of life here begins to take shape.
But these conversations are meant to be more about other people – and how they live here and how they make sense of Canada.
My first interlocutor is TV critic and author John Doyle, who grew up in Ireland and moved to Canada by the same method as I (an MA scholarship). Some of the topics that we cover:
– Canadian TV
– whether Canadians should be less nice and more raucous
– whether we are now practically an American cultural province
– privatized vs public medicare (I had no idea that Ireland switched from latter to former)
– if literary publishers today expect the novel to be more like TV
– whether the CBC cancels all the best dramas, and
– how is it possible that Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services manage to avoid sales tax.
Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/lperovic/johndoyle (c. 45min)
How accurate are the arts about mental health issues? I got thinking about this while working on the September piece for the Wholenote, which is an interview with soprano Monica Whicher about the concert series organized each year at the U of T during the Suicide Prevention Week. It’s a good occasion to talk about mental health issues in university context, and remind people what services there are for those who may need them. In the article, I leave the university grounds and look at the availability of talk therapy for general population. It’s not great.
There was no room for this sidebar, so here it is. Some recent creations and two old ones, which approach mental health problems in intelligent ways:
Flowers (British TV Series, 2016-2018). The two-season Channel 4 / Netflix series looks inside a family in which the father is struggling with depression and – in the following season – the young daughter with bipolar disorder. Somehow it manages to be a comedy while also being devastating. Stars Olivia Colman and Harriet Walter, but entire cast is brilliant.
Maria Bamford’s stand-up. Bamford has been very open about her own life with mental illness, both in her standup and in media interviews. It’s not always easy to watch her – she is not a polished communicator always in control, she is visibly struggling but just about functioning while also creating smart and funny material and living her life and staying in a relationship. Respect.
Imagine Me Gone, a 2016 novel by Adam Haslett. Story of a family which loses one member to suicide, and another, gradually, to a multifaceted, elusive psychological distress which often appears as… being extremely good and alert to injustices in the world. All the characters are drawn out in subtle detail, as are their sufferings and joys. At the end, the family reconstitutes after the losses as best they can.
Virginia Woolf – the 1926 essay on ‘On Being Ill’ and the 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, which has a character trying to live with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of the city of London and of being in the world in the 1920s after the Great War is entirely different from those that the central, well-off characters of the novel have, including the lovely and yet thoroughly oblivious Mrs. Dalloway herself.
Homer’s Iliad, any translation: the section The Grief of Achilles and the New Armour Made Him by Vulcan. As we’ve known at least since Homer, the problem with the dead is that they never die.
If you happen to be anywhere near Scotland this summer, make sure you check out the Edinburgh Fringe, the probably globally best known r&d festival of theatrical expression which usually doesn’t have much opera on offer. This year, however, one operatic indie, in part crowd-funded and entirely written, composed and directed by women, caught my eye: a chamber opera about Flora Sandes, the British volunteer combatant who donned the trouser and joined Serbian Army at the start of World War I, and her contemporary Emily Simmonds who travelled to the Balkan front as a nurse. In the second act, the story moves to our era and follows British female soldiers who come to Afghanistan as medics and tackles the questions around women’s front-line participation (finally officially allowed by the British Army in 2016, but in effect present in some form or other since 1999), unit cohesion in heterosocial context, soldier attachment, why choose a life of professional warfare etc. There is a Canadian connection: soprano Teiya Kasahara sings the role of Flora Sandes in the Edinburgh production and is happily Instagramming about the experience, if you’re on there (the odd tweet appears too).
I seriously hope that after Edinburgh this will be revived somewhere in the UK, which will increase the chance of my crossing its path. The Brits can catch it on August 13-15 and 20-25. Dead Equal is written by Lila Palmer, composed by Rose Miranda Hall and directed by Miranda Cromwell.
A brilliant BBC backgrounder on possible reasons why Sandes is still fairly unknown by the Britons is worth a read.
And the excellent Margaret MacMillan’s Reith Lectures on the changing nature of war and the warrior are still up. Women war historians are pretty much as few as women warriors.
There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.
The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.
What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot of piano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.
Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.
The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.
What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).
In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.
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.
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):
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:
Le Figaro reports, pretty unequivocally and quoting sources close to the current director Stéphane Lissner, that Neef is getting the job.
First, let me bask for a minute in Lokalpatriotismus. How cool is this? *Basking, with sunglasses on. Basking, basking, basking*
Congratulations to Neef on this not at all small accomplishment. We haven’t always agreed on details, but I generally agreed with his approach to programming opera, from that notorious Tim Albery Aida a decade ago on. What I think about his decade at the COC I wrote in 2017 in this piece for the Globe and Mail.
On a personal note: we are precisely the same age. Good to see a GenXer take this important position in the opera world. We’re talking about a house that was founded by Louis XIV.
Now. According to the Figaro, Neef won’t take on the role until June 2022 and Lissner is to continue in this transition period. The paper (and ForumOpera agrees) is not too happy that some of the labour reforms announced will now have to be done by a lame-duck director, and how much authority will he have to execute those, they wonder. I’d speculate that Neef needed a sufficient withdrawal period to wrap up the COC projects – but I don’t know. A lot of drive-by-appointed CEOs in Toronto’s cultural life simply do a runner and announce they’ll be gone next season, period. This won’t be the case here, and I think that’s good. (Maybe the Santa Fe festival will also benefit from this slow shift.)
End of an era. Who will come after? Send in those bets.
First, the good news. Pomegranate, subtitled A lesbian chamber opera, composed by Kye Marshall, written by Amanda Hale, directed by Michael Mori and conducted by Jennifer Tung, which just closed its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Theatre – works as a piece of art. It is alive and ticking – and that is the first and most important test a new opera must pass.
Kye Marshall has composed a distinct musical material for each of the two acts, though what unites them is a melancholy timbre of both eras, the Pompeii girlhood and 1980s Toronto youth. The three cellos, a keyboard, a harp, an oboe, and a flute for act one and saxophone in act two, are an unusual but perfectly sufficient mix of instrumental forces. There is a lot of harp in act one, and oboe gets good air time, but any quotations of the pastoral employment of harp and woodwinds are wrung through contemporary musical idiom, and come free of nostalgia for the melodic operatic tradition. Act One is almost consistently dissonant, with the only bit of lyrical arioso given to the representative of the brute force in the story, the Roman soldier who is about to capture one of the girls and marry her against her will. He seems genuinely in love (beware of beautiful music) and genuinely a brute, and a lot of the brutes in opera have been given pretty and memorable melodies over the centuries—and the composers have been manipulating opera lovers this way for some time.
This was something of a naughty wink in the score, and there were others.
The sex scene that builds to a climax in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier overture, for example, which was wittily directed as an interruption with one of the women stopping and sitting up and the other one trying to talk her out of dark thoughts while the music is doing its culminating. Or the unsentimental, almost unjazzy use of saxophone in Act Two – which is employed with great restraint in the bar scene that would have been in real life hopping with synth pop. There’s more. The first interaction the two Pompeii girls have is through the percussion instrument that each is holding – they harmonize their rhythms before they even have their first conversation. Marshall has also avoided cliché by giving the mezzo tessitura to the more helpless character of the two (when it’s usually the mezzos who have some agency in opera) while the soprano role in Pomegranate goes to the more self-assured and determined character. Last but not least, Marshall can write a mean vocal trio and quartet.
In short, there is much to be saluted in this score and how it works with the text.
And now, the less good news. The production itself had a host of issues. The text was frequently unintelligible, especially on high notes but not exclusively, and even I, who had read the libretto beforehand, occasionally missed what was being communicated. Surtitles were badly needed and it’s a (Pompeiian) mystery why they weren’t created as the text didn’t require paying a translator and the sets were largely made up of video projections anyway. Singers being native English speakers never guarantees that they will be expert enunciators of operatic and song verses in English, and Pomegranate confirms this.
The two young principals, soprano Rebecca Gray and mezzo Camille Rogers, were vocally the weakest pillars in the edifice when they should have been the strongest (temple, pillars, see what I did there? OK, I’ll stop now). Rogers was striking in the bel canto role of Isabella in an indie production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri some years ago, but in contemporary musical idiom with an English language libretto containing a ton of Sprechgesang the mezzo seemed reserved, ill at ease, risk averse and resigned into using that impressive voice most unimpressively. Rebecca Gray had much more to do as the narrator for the opera and the character of Cassia/Cass. Her dramatic commitment was stronger—she can definitely act and did–but her beauty of voice tended to disappear in the upper register, and that’s where the composer has her going quite frequently. The singer who has most singing to do and who effectively carries the opera should impress with her voice. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. (Gray is also a composer. I’m looking forward to hearing her work and wonder if perhaps this is where the best of her musicianship is to emerge.)
Teiya Kasahara (Priestess/Bartender) and Aaron Durand (Centurion/Suzie’s Uncle) were the two strongest voices on cast: voluminous, consistent throughout the register, with precisely controlled breath and strong grasp of the text. Stephanie Tritchew roles of the Handmaiden in the temple and Suzie’s mother in Act Two were small – dramatically important but musically modest. She has an undeniable stage presence which I hope to see properly exercised in a larger role, and which here had to remain muted.
Set and costume designer Rachel Forbes took the straightforward Roman and stylized Roman route for the costumes for the first act (though Kasahara’s Priestess had a touch of the Queen of the Night). The urge for the 1980s ‘authenticity’ in Act Two was however too keen: the deep-cut jeans, the large print blouses, the ill-fitting blazer and the red shoes were almost comic in the context and certainly distracting. A little less period costuming next time, please.
For there should be a next time: this opera should see a revival. There is a living, breathing work of operatic art under those tunics and plaid shirts.
There are a few things of interest at the TSMF this summer and I think the festival is going to be more exciting than the last year’s.
Rihab Chaieb is singing Das Lied von der Erde with a chamber group of musicians from the TSO in the Schoenberg-Riehn version. Gemma New conducts, Mario Bahg sings the tenor songs. Also in the program, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 “Turkish” with Jonathan Crow as the soloist. August 1, Koerner Hall. More & tickets.
By the way, I profiled Gemma New for the summer issue of the Wholenote here. She and the Hamilton Philharmonic have some excellent ideas about how to rethink the traditional concert format.
To me not particularly known, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is the lead song artist in this year’s Academy. His American-British recital program with Warren Jones at the piano however is intriguing: at least two men in the program were gay (Samuel Barber and Charles Tomlinson Griffes); another one, Frank Bridge, though hetero, was Benjamin Britten’s teacher and friend. One is a folkie (John Jacob Niles). There is also Charles Ives, Gerald Finzi and one woman, the prolific US composer Lori Laitman and her Four Dickinson Songs. Which is timely, as Emily Dickinson is having a Cultural Moment, it seems: Terence Davies’ black biopic A Dark Passion has recently had a wacky, joyful rejoinder in Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily:
In other words: I like the Crazy New Englander streak in this program. It’s promising. July 16, Walter Hall (alas).
Then there’s Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Koerner Hall. July 30. Nothing else need be added.
There are a bunch of string quartet repertoire concerts and the reGeneration recitals – and I’ll need to have a closer look and make my choices.
Opening night looks like a good pick-and-mix. Not sure why there’s a radio host in there? Anyway – beside said radio host, there are three pianists, one violin soloist, one string quartet, and soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in a program consisting of a Mozart piano sonata, Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Kreisler’s selections for violin and piano, a Chopin Ballade and Strauss Four Last Songs in the arrangement by Canadian composer John Greer. The Strauss and the Ravel are the only two vocal pieces.
Art of Time Ensemble will be performing an unspecified program with Sarah Slean, pop musician who is gradually returning to her original love (and training), classical music. Another singer-songwriter is in the show, John Southworth. The title, From Franz Schubert to Freddie Mercury, is all we have to go by for now. Koerner Hall, July 25.