10 questions for James Gilchrist

Here is the “informal biography” from James Gilchrist’s website, and offers a much better portrait than anything I could attempt.

At the age of eight I came home from school one day and informed my parents that I was now in the local church choir, and needed to be at rehearsal every Thursday, and morning service every Sunday, thank you very much. If my parents were surprised or even annoyed, they hid it well. Our family was always surrounded by music, and I think I just assumed it was a normal thing to do. From then on, much of my vocal training has been in church choirs. I was lucky enough to sing in the choir of New College, Oxford as a boy treble, and as a tenor in that of King’s Cambridge. I think, though, that I never dreamt that I might one day earn my living through singing. It was just part of normal life – another straightforward way to communicate. Indeed, if anyone had asked me then what sort of a musician I was, I’m sure I would have (forgetting the self-derogatory terms) put my cello playing first. But I have come to realise that it’s the unique fusion of words and music that is singing that moves me beyond measure, and makes singing the essence of my musical self.

But I wanted to be a doctor. Not in a half-hearted way, but truly as a vocation, and it is only really by accident that I find myself not in medicine, but in the arts. I trained in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, very much using my singing in professional choirs both as a way of keeping me sane, but also to give me something to live off. And so, while studying and working in medicine, I sang in groups such as the Sixteen, the Tallis scholars and the Cardinall’s Musick, alongside appearing regularly in choral societies up and down the country as their tenor soloist. In retrospect, this was a wonderful training. I was learning huge quantities of repertoire, learning the importance of looking after one’s voice, and also how life was as a professional musician, while having the luxury of knowing that my life wasn’t on the line if it all went wrong.

So when I found my diary rather full of solo engagements, and having completed (and by some miracle passed) yet more medical exams (my MRCP), I went along to my consultant at the time to ask his advice. I must confess that I was terrified. He was a very well-respected nephrologist, and the job much sought-after, and I was wondering whether I might possibly have a month off. But his encouragement was immediate and whole-hearted. Go and try your hand in music and come back in a month to see how it feels. And a month has so far stretched to ten years, and I don’t think I have any regrets.

I do miss medicine, though. It’s not the sort of thing one goes into on a whim. I miss the academic challenge, the excitement of the diagnostic process, the sense of being in a team of so many different disciplines, the enormous privilege of being so intimately involved in people’s lives, and above all else the sense that one is doing something which is so manifestly useful and beneficial to your fellow human-beings. Of course, there are things I don’t miss. Not being one’s own boss, and working always to timetables and rotas. And, tellingly, the responsibility of knowing if you make a mistake that it might be someone else whose life is spoiled. I think I have found a way of life that suits me better now – I’m very much myself on stage. But I miss hospitals, and I and my family very much miss me not having a “normal” job, and having so many weekends away from home.

I was once accosted by someone after a concert in Aldeburgh, who told me I wouldn’t remember him (he was not quite right, but I certainly couldn’t place him), and telling me that he used to tell me off for humming during his operations when I was a student of surgery, and now look – he’s having to fork out a fortune to hear me! He was delighted to do so, of course, and it was an important lesson for me about why music is so valuable to us all. I believe the arts are in some profound way essential to all of us. Artistic expression and endeavour are what makes us human, and the most visceral and basic of our modes of communication. It’s glib to call music the medicine of the soul, but I think there’s some truth in that.

And in a few weeks tenor James Gilchrist will be singing with Tafelmusik as they present Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about preparing to sing JS Bach.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Our family always made music together. Chamber music with family and friends. Oddly, never singing. But music surrounded us since I can begin to remember. I was sent away to school at quite an early age, when I became a chorister. Then it was of course singing, and that to a high standard. But I mostly just got on with it. It was just normal life.

To answer your question, though, I dare say I’m a bit of a mix of my parents. Luckily for them, neither is very much like me!

Tenor James Gilchrist

Tenor James Gilchrist

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

The worst thing is easy: getting sick and the precariousness of vocal health. It’s horrid having to pull out of things and let people down. I’ve been lucky, and am rarely ill. But even so, I probably have to pull out of one thing a year. That, and the constant travelling. But the best things easily outweigh that. To sing is to communicate in an uncluttered and profound way. To sing makes you feel better. I hope that’s the case when people listen too! That’s the aim: to move people.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Funnily enough, I don’t listen to much recorded music. I love to go to things live. I’m like that with works I’m learning too: I rarely listen to recordings. Not sure whether that’s a good thing. One – alas rare – pleasure is the theatre.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Too many!!!! Languages. I wish my German and French and Italian were better. But the overriding one would be a better memory for names and people: I’m spectacularly bad (drives my poor wife mad!)

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Started sailing a while ago mainly because my eldest son wanted to see whether he enjoyed it. He did and is a natural. But I can see the attraction. There’s something totally magical about gaining power and movement from the wind. Can get awfully expensive, though!


Five more about singing the tenor part of The Christmas Oratorio with Tafelmusik

1-Talk for a moment about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, especially what he writes for the tenor.

The piece is really six separate cantatas which have been bound together, so each part has it’s own “flavour” (in our performance we’re only doing five). It tells the Christmas story very straightforwardly, in simple declaimed recicative (that’s the tenor’s job), which I hope is easy to understand. But interweaving this (and making up the vast bulk of the piece) are choruses and arias for the soloists. The choruses serve two purposes: first, they’re book-ends to each cantata, being sort of concerted utterances of the hopes and fears of the congregation in Leipzig who would have been there in the eighteenth century. Second, they are active participants in the action. Much less often than in the passions, but nevertheless there in the thick of it. The arias offer a thoughtful moment to ponder on, wonder at or otherwise explore the story.

So the tenor’s job is two-fold. First, he tells the story as it unfolds. Such a familiar story of Mary travelling to Bethlehem, the birth and naming of Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, Herod. Second, he’s occasionally (especially in the last part, part six) one of the commentators. I love this duality in the role..

2-The Christmas Oratorio combines theatre, music, and sacred texts. Please reflect for a moment, on where you place the emphasis among those three (drama, music & spirit) and how this informs your preparation & your performance.

Of course it’s a profoundly Christian and spiritual work. And I suspect Bach would be bemused to find us performing it in a concert hall. The joy and power of the story and the music, though, make it exuberantly open for anybody to enjoy. It has moments of extreme tenderness and intimacy (perhaps Mary cradling her baby and singing to him) and rousing choruses. It’s about finding good and joy in the world with us now.

3-What’s your favourite moment in the Christmas Oratorio.

One of my favourite arias is in part 2 when the commentator is urging the shepherds to hurry along to visit the child. Bach writes runs of tumbling fast notes for the tenor and the flute, which is great fun to perform. You can almost see them whizzing down the hill. And the “evangelist” role (storyteller) is such a delight and so different from the hurtful, tortured role in the passions: you can really smile your way through the work.

4-How do you adjust from one century to the next? talk about the difference between the baroque and musics of more recent centuries & styles, and how you reconcile the many different requirements placed upon your voice.

Interesting question. Do I do anything technically different performing baroque and, say, romantic or modern music? I think the answer Is probably “not consciously – it’s all music”. But I think I’m kidding myself. I think there must be things I alter. Of course there are things – especially with singing – that remain the same. In particular, using the text to shape phrases and make sense of musical gestures. Composers have been inspired by something in the text to write the music and it’s out job to find that and bring it out. But there are differences in articulation, vocal production and so on. Of course, there’s no such thing as “original instruments” for voices. Or perhaps it’d be better to say there are only original instruments. In that way we have an advantage over our instrumentalist colleagues: we’ve never tried to sing Bach on any other instrument than that which Bach used. But that’s also a problem: because we have to do all periods of music, perhaps we lose sight of the advantages of specialisation. That being said, we all tend to gravitate towards music that suits our instruments. I don’t touch romantic opera: I’ve not got the voice for it. So that is a sort of specialisation.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

In Britain, we’ve recently lost two of the tenors I have admired beyond others: Anthony Rolf Johnson and Philip Langridge. But I think I’ve learned the most from the countless wonderful musicians whom I have had the privilege to work with over the years.


Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Choir present JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio led by Ivars Taurins–in performances that are now completely sold out—on Thu Dec 3, Fri Dec 4, Sat Dec 5 at 8pm, Sun Dec 6 at 3:30pm  at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall.

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High Def Lulu: Walmart Opera?

An irritated blast I sent to Facebook is the basis for this commentary (I don’t think it’s fair to call it a review), which is really more a series of speculative questions than answers.

At one point in Saturday Nov 21st’s High Definition Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, the transmission died.

Screen blank..!  just a faint wash visible.

No sound..! until i heard  a few people muttering.

I grabbed my iPhone and posted the first thing that came to mind. There had already been some conversation that included James Jorden, Ambur Braid, Ramona Carmelly, Stephen Farrow & other assorted friends & acquaintances (and yes this is shameless name dropping). I’d joked that while I was at a theatre in Scarborough (where I live btw, even if some don’t think much of the place, calling it “Scarberia” and worse), it was empty!

But at this point I posted

And right now we have SILENCE in this theatre. You get what you pay for.

High def = Walmart opera

We lost three minutes or so before the transmission came back, in medias res. If the delay had been longer I would have been more upset, but even so, this seemed reasonable at the price.

Let’s talk $ and the morality of saving money.  If I am all that matters, perhaps i can justify shopping for the cheapest option.  But I am not all that matters surely.

I never ever go to Walmart. I may have been there once, perhaps a decade or more ago, but I avoid those stores on principle. Yes I pay more by shopping at a store with higher prices, but I believe that keeps Canadians employed.

If you follow the analogy i wonder: could Canadian culture even exist if we were to contract everything out, producing all products abroad?  I am still breathing huge sighs of relief over our federal election, one with several subtexts including threats to the CBC due to funding cuts.  I’m hoping that we’ve dodged that bullet.  There are jobs for our actors, writers, technicians, musicians… or anyone else in the supply chain, because there are still productions Made in Canada. They compete with Hollywood, and thank goodness we have rules about Canadian content.

Composer Adam Scime, whose opera L'homme et le ciel will premiere in early December with FAWN Opera

Composer Adam Scime, whose opera L’homme et le ciel will premiere in early December with FAWN Opera

I can’t help thinking about the High-Def broadcasts in the same context.  Now of course, I’m a hypocrite if I decry Walmart while I go to High-Def broadcasts. I pay $28 to the Cineplex to see an opera, rather than support Bill Shookhoff or Guilermo Silva-Marin or AtG or FAWN or the COC or OA or the Canadian producers currently producing new opera such as CanStage/Soundstreams or Tapestry Opera ?

The fact is I am feeling a bit guilty because I chose the Cineplex Lulu over a downtown Prince Igor to be presented by Opera in Concert tomorrow afternoon: because I could only manage one this weekend, and chose the foreign product over the domestic.  It’s simplistic of course, because no single purchase decision is going to damn or save an industry. I can’t help reflecting on this for a few reasons:

  • Because this is my first High-Def broadcast in a long time…
  • Because I am noticing simultaneously, strengths (cheap price, close-up views, great performances) and weaknesses (irritating aspects such as the interviews with the singers, or the outrageous claims: “Only at the Met” they say. Excuse me?)

William Kentridge’s production team created a Lulu that screams out every moment “you’re missing half of the show, you need to come to the theatre to see this properly!”Almost every production in the High-def series teases you somewhat with what you see and what you can’t see, but I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so keenly as this time, a design that employs a powerful stage picture comprised of illustrations, projected text, mime performers and complex effects framing the live performers, like a bad dream after reading too much Brecht. I don’t believe we had an accurate view of the production for even one moment out of the 3+ hours.

The stars of the production, especially Marlis Petersen, Johan Reuter, and Susan Graham, were especially powerful in closeups that omit the remainder of the stage picture. One can’t have it both ways, but in the relentless pursuit of the ideal close-up, we often were force-fed a paraphrase, an interpretation of what was actually happening on the stage. Chances are this is by now something the artists in question have accepted, possibly because they have no choice, possibly because I’m being too much of a purist.  I’m still pulsing with the emotions of the concluding scene, mostly presented in exquisite close-up of those three principals, even though the last thing we saw ripped us away, giving us a very sloppy full-screen shot that only makes sense if you’ve seen the show before. In the Cineplex one can’t really feel the power of the live human voice, the way it hits you when you’re within the same actual air-mass. Petersen, Reuter, Graham et al only moved me via proxy today, amplified and not really within the same space. The authentic experience of those voices (two of whom I’ve experienced live & in person) is perhaps a purist concern, when the virtual performance is so good.

Is this the future of music, theatre and opera? That is: will other companies follow this path? I know some have tried, including our own Stratford Shakespeare festival but I doubt there’s enough demand for this model to work for smaller companies. Could the National Ballet sell their Nutcracker for an audience beyond Toronto? Could the COC offer their own high-def Christmas treat comparable to what the Metropolitan Opera will offer in December (when they re-broadcast The Magic Flute)?  Whether they do their own Flute or perhaps Hansel and Gretel, there’s surely an audience out there. But I don’t think it has to be either-or, so much as a combination of channels / outlets whereby a content producer earns their revenues.

I am impatient to see another Lulu produced here in Toronto by the COC, or failing that by some other courageous producer; for instance, what about the Toronto Symphony, who have already brought Barbara Hannigan to town a couple of times? I must sound greedy, considering how many ambitious smaller companies are courageously carrying the ball for new & daring opera productions.

And then again I may have to content myself with seeing the Encore.

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Tap: Ex METALLURGY: Visigoths in the Cathedral

While all roads may once have led to Rome, in the Canadian opera world, all roads seem to begin with Tapestry and artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, whose visionary ideas are like seeds sown onto the blank staff paper of composers all over the country.

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabó (photo: Dahlia Katz)

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabó (photo: Dahlia Katz)

I am mindful of Rome because Michael invited the barbarians into his wee cathedral in the Distillery District, namely a rock band called “Fucked Up”.  Barbarians? Rock is loud and irrational, at least when it’s billed as “metal”, which was how I understood the title of the show “Tap: Ex METALLURGY”, the latest in Michael’s ongoing series of experiments, provocations, attempts to inspire & encourage the creation of opera.  Michael’s world is a bit like MaRS or Dragon’s Den, a crucible for creation, but without the negative judgment you find in those other places.  Let me say –unlike what you hear on that negative CBC show –“I’m in!” Never mind that experiments don’t always work, that they’re sometimes achingly close while still falling short. We need what Michael offers.

While Michael bravely invited a rock band to collaborate on opera, there’s way too much clever verbiage, too much order, and not enough of the rough and raunchy that makes rock worthwhile.  The headline tells you, indirectly.

I interrupt this somewhat rational discourse for an outbreak of noisy rebellion.  I like the irrationality of rap and metal and even jazz. Noisy music coupled with clear text is an oxymoron! Give me something crazy, challenging.

The example? A song I love, full of rhythm and life and whose lyrics I know um perhaps 1/10th..? Death and pain and agony, and also sex lurk under the surface. It’s an uneasy balance, but the music rides the text abusively, disrespectfully, destructively.  It’s not a happy marriage, it’s a shotgun wedding, if not actually more like rape.

Tonight: Metallurgy B came much closer to this miserable ideal than Metallurgy A.  The second piece’s fifteen minutes include five minutes of gold, and is mostly good because it is far less polite and rational. Even so, both pieces are too nice, too logical.  It’s as though Michael invited the Visigoths to come to Rome, and they not only came to his cathedral, but they sang in his choir without shame, all scrubbed and civilized.  I would strongly encourage Michael to do this again, but next time let the madmen take over the asylum, let the barbarians really bring the metal, smash up the cathedral, at least figuratively, or scrawl messy graffiti all over the polite edifice of the libretti.  Yes the libretti are works of art but they need to be subverted, trashed, stomped on, turned into something more genuine.

I can’t decide whether the outcome was because of strictures placed on the musicians, or because they themselves were cowed or even seduced by the temple to which they’d come? Either way I’d hold Michael accountable, as the ringmaster, the one who might have reminded them that he wanted animals in his circus ring.

Speaking of genuine, the most authentic moment of music in the whole evening came when David Pomeroy took up a guitar and wailed away for a couple of impromptu moments bringing the house to life.  For those moments it felt connected, mind, body and spirit aligned. The remainder was never as congenial, even though there are some lovely moments, especially in Metallurgy B, composed by Ivan Barbotin.

These voices are the two best voices in Toronto, David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo.  They are always listenable, although again, I was far more engaged in the second piece than the first.

I would ask Michael to keep up the experiments, mindful that this is a good beginning.  But I wish they would take it further, much much further.


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CanStage / Soundstreams Julie: so old yet so new

Tonight I saw the North American debut of Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie in a joint production of Soundstreams and Canadian Stage, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, a triumphant opening in front of a full house.  You might want to attribute its success to its adherence to convention.  It’s as old as the clichés of opera:

  • It adapts a known play
  • Its main action concerns a larger-than-life female character, whose portrayal calls for everything understood in the word “diva”
  • The plot includes a love triangle

But that observance of convention is only half the story, as Julie does some things that you don’t usually see in opera.

Left to right Lucia Cervoni (Julie), Clarence Frazer (Jean) and Sharleen Joynt (Christine), Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Left to right Lucia Cervoni (Julie), Clarence Frazer (Jean) and Sharleen Joynt (Christine), Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

A page of text in a spoken play usually moves much faster than what one finds in most operas.  Composers slow things down, adding opportunities for  the singers to show off, to repeat lines or for other purely musical effects (when the composer is the one showing off): which are usually the enemy of verisimilitude.  Opera is usually a form pushing the signification into something symbolic, reflective and normally much slower than the original play being adapted.

But Boesmans’ opera is fast: breathtakingly fast.   Julie runs about 70 minutes, which is actually shorter than the original play, which is normally about 90 minutes in length.  This is especially remarkable when we remember that the story of Julie, from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, is in a “naturalistic” style.   I recall from my Modern Drama class so long ago, that Strindberg sought to play up the element of Darwin & natural selection, and so we shouldn’t mistake “naturalism” for “realism” although there are parallels between the two.  How does one reconcile Strindberg with the poetry of opera?  The answer is Boesmans’ approach plus a libretto by Luc Bondy & Marie-Louise Bischofberger, which is to say, that it doesn’t allow the composer to dwell on anything, the way composers sometimes have done in the past.  Tosca, for example, that verismo opera involving murder & mayhem, still gives the tenor and the soprano moments for arias.  Not so Julie, which really does cut to the chase, making Tosca look like Hansel & Gretel.  There are moments when reactions are a bit operatic, but they’re very economical. Boesmans does build a great deal of ebb and flow into the score, which does sometimes race along, and  at other times seems to pause to reflect or brood.   At some point i’d like to get my hands on the libretto of Julie, to compare it to Stringberg’s play, to see what cuts were made to achieve such economy of means.  Like a fast car, this opera is genuinely streamlined.  

Boesmans’ moody arioso is very original, responding with great agility to the emotional nuances onstage, shifting from one affect to another, seemingly as instantaneous as a good film score, which is to say, it stays out of the way of the story, and doesn’t call undue attention to itself.  The ideal filmscore is supposedly the one that’s never noticed, and indeed there are lots of moments when one gets so lost in the story that one isn’t really concerned about the specifics of the score or the singing.

Director Matthew Jocelyn and Composer Phillipe Boesmans (photo: ©Isabelle Françaix) Click photo for more information.

Director Matthew Jocelyn and Composer Phillipe Boesmans (photo: ©Isabelle Françaix) Click photo for additional information

Director Matthew Jocelyn painted a very busy stage picture, the action often frenetic among the principals, each character given a vivid portrait.  Lucia Cervoni was the larger-than-life aristocrat Julie, the voice rich & full.  Clarence Frazer was a very physical Jean, youthful and strong, while Sharleen Joynt as the more proper & conservative Christine established a completely contrasting presence to the other two.  The acoustic in the Bluma Appel Theatre is very friendly, with a small orchestra in a sunken pit, conductor Les Dala never covering any of his singers.  The text isn’t fully intelligible without the surtitles, which were most welcome.

It’s worth noting that this is not a presentation of a song cycle or something non-operatic purporting to be an opera, as so many companies have done lately in the GTA. This is a real new opera, and wow there’s no comparison.

Julie runs until Noveber 29th at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

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10 questions for Peter Oundjian

Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian

A dynamic presence in the conducting world, Toronto-born conductor Peter Oundjian is renowned for his probing musicality, collaborative spirit, and engaging personality. Oundjian’s appointment as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in 2004 reinvigorated the Orchestra with numerous recordings, tours, and acclaimed innovative programming as well as extensive audience growth, thereby significantly strengthening the ensemble’s presence in the world. He recently led the TSO on a tour of Europe which included a sold-out performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the first performance of a North American orchestra at Reykjavik’s Harpa Hall.

Oundjian was appointed Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) in 2012. Under his baton, the orchestra has enjoyed several successful tours including one to China, and has continued its relationship with Chandos Records. This season Oundjian and the RSNO opened the Edinburgh Festival with the innovative Harmonium Project to great critical and audience acclaim.

Few conductors bring such musicianship and engagement to the world’s great podiums—from Berlin, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv, to New York, Chicago, and Sydney. He has also appeared at some of the great annual gatherings of music and music-lovers: from the BBC Proms and the Prague Spring Festival, to the Edinburgh Festival and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Mozart Festival where he was Artistic Director from 2003 to 2005.
Oundjian was Principal Guest Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2010 and Artistic Director of the Caramoor International Music Festival in New York between 1997 and 2007. Since 1981, he has been a visiting professor at the Yale School of Music, and was awarded the university’s Sanford Medal for distinguished service to music in 2013.

Later this month, Peter Oundjian will be leading the TSO in a benefit for the Hospital for Sick Children, featuring a performance of Peter and the Wolf.  I wanted to ask Peter (the conductor, not the hero of Prokofieff’s piece) ten question: five about himself and five more about leading the TSO.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

My parents were remarkably unalike. One was born in Istanbul during the Armenian Genocide, the other in the north of England but was an orphan by age 7. I grew up in Toronto and south London in a peaceful, fun loving family with sport, humour, and music everywhere. I also grew up with the Beatles and Monty Python which they certainly didn’t! Hard for me to imagine what my parents would have been like if they’d been born after the Second World War instead of before the First. Looking back, we were worlds apart.

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

Without question it is the privilege of communication on so many different levels; from inspiring a young child to love music, to spending time with music lovers, to sharing the passion for so much great music with other musicians.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I like to listen to Dylan Moran and I like to watch Roger Federer.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

To be able to play the last 3 Beethoven piano sonatas and to improvise like Oscar Peterson.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Peter Oundjian

Play tennis, watch any great sporting event or hang out with family and friends.


Five more about the upcoming year as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, especially Peter and the Wolf: In Support of SickKids.

1- Please tell us about the fund-raising concert program for the Hospital for Sick Children, and the guests who will be joining you, and is it true that they saved your life?

click logo for more information about the Sick Kids Foundation

They absolutely saved my life when I was 3 months old. My mother took me to SickKids in the middle of the night and I had internal bleeding from intussusception. You don’t last long in that condition especially if you weigh less than a large cat. The opportunity to support the extraordinary work that the hospital does all day every day is extremely thrilling and rewarding for me.

The concert is a wonderful celebration featuring music of tremendous variety. Pianist Coco Ma will play Rachmaninoff”s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She is only 16 and already a wonderful artist.

Rick Mercer, whom we all know to be an accomplished conductor/skydiver, along with multiple other skills to his credit, will narrate the masterpiece Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev.

Neil Deland is principal horn for the TSO (click for more info)

It’s also great that Neil Deland, the TSO Principal Horn gets to shine in a delightful arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust – a great American standard and one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century. To start the evening we will play the Young Persons Guide to the orchestra by Benjamin Britten; not only is this a fantastic and exciting piece but I was fortunate enough to make a few recordings with Benjamin Britten when I was a kid.

2- As a Canadian conductor of the TSO, you’ve led performances by Canadian composers, sharing the stage with some great Canadian musicians. Please reflect for a moment on your role as a champion of Canadian musical talent.

If you look back in history, performers have always played a key role in the creation of great music. If we don’t dedicate ourselves to giving opportunities to Canadian composers to write and have their music heard, how can they ever develop or be known. It is both a pleasure in terms of discovery and experimentation and also a challenge to do justice to new music by interpreting with the same care as Beethoven or Mahler or whoever.

3- Tell us about highlights of the current season, such as the Decades Project and New Creations.

I came up with the idea of The Decades Project about two years ago.

The 20th century in most people’s minds evokes modernism in art and culture. It led to the development of the motorcar, the skyscraper, film, and an incredible number of technological advancements. Simply put: The Decades Project aims at putting the music in context. It’s fascinating to see all of the different things that were going on at the same time. For instance, while Sibelius was writing his amazing Second Symphony, Einstein was developing the theory of relativity. Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring- an incredible work- shortly after the Titanic sank. The first two decades of the 20th century shaped what we are today! Will being aware of this make people listen to the music differently? Next spring, we will be exploring 1910-1919 withAn Alpine Symphony by R. Strauss, Daphnis et Chloé by Ravel and Elgar’s Violin Concerto (among other things). Each concert includes activities in the lobby, pre-concerts performances with the TSO Chamber Soloists, post-concert chats with AGO Assistant Curator Kenneth Brummel, etc. It’s an immersive experience.

Australian composer, conductor, and violist Brett Dean – one of the most internationally performed composers of his generation – is the curator of the TSO’s 12th annual New Creations Festival. A crucial aspect of Dean’s work as a composer is the fact that art does not arise from a cultural vacuum but is inspired by its environment as well as the social and cultural reality around it. This is interesting, as I was just talking about putting things in context… The music featured in this year’s festival is a comment on our times and, in a festival remix by DJ Skratch Bastid, a comment on the festival itself. Dean has invited fellow Australian composers Anthony Pateras (Fragile Absolute) and James Ledger (North American Première of Two Memorials [for Anton Weber and John Lennon], for works featured in the festival. The festival will also include the Canadian Première of Water, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. That’s all pretty exciting!

4. Do you have a favourite composer whose music you love to conduct and/or hear?

Most of us end up answering this question the same way; and it’s an honest answer. The music you are playing or conducting at any given moment is your favorite piece. We can be 100 per cent dedicated to it, no doubt about it, no questions asked. I would just add that there are occasionally exceptions but I’m not naming them!

5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Itzhak Perlman has been an enormous inspiration to me since I was about 9 years old. A great violinist, great musician, an example of how to offer so much to all mankind despite having had so much taken from him at such a young age.


The TSO season rolls along with Peter Oundjian leading them through programs that include the New Creations Festival early next year and some of the first concerts of the Decades Project.  But in the immediate future? On Thursday November 26 Oundjian leads the TSO in a benefit concert namely Peter and the Wolf In Support of SickKids.  

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Soup Can HERETIC: not the usual martyr

Tonight I watched the latest version of HERETIC, Sarah Thorpe’s latest version of her play with the sub-title ”A Modern Retelling of the Story of Joan of Arc“. I was aware of her objective, to give an old story a new spin, and I confess I was resistant to this expanded version of Thorpe’s one-woman show that was previously presented earlier this year.

Sarah Thorpe (photo: Laura Dittman)

Sarah Thorpe (photo: Laura Dittman)

I was resistant because it’s a story that bothers me at a deep level. Joan’s story is simultaneously a miraculous tale of redemption and cruel punishment. While the first part—where the English are pushed back by a French army led by a bold young girl dressed in armor—is inspiring, yet she doesn’t deserve her eventual treatment. No I don’t like the usual way the story is told because it teases you and then breaks your heart. This is a tale that reminds us of the horrific discrepancy between the ideals of the spirit and the reality of human nature, of the worst sins committed by religion in the name of God. It’s stories like this one that might be the reason so many people fall away from their faith, as we question religion itself, wondering if humanity is really capable of living up to the ideals in the Bible. My usual way of reconciling that is by distinguishing between the ideals in the Bible and the reality seen in the conduct of religions. However inspired their origins, religion is where the murder & genocide comes from. Religion poisons the inspiration of spirit with something sadly all too human, the sick interface where Jesus gets slandered and sold out by child molesting priests and TV preachers. It’s not Jesus’ fault that Christianity is in trouble; with friends like these who needs the Romans (aka the ones who crucified him)?

Enter Sarah Thorpe and her company Soup Can Theatre. HERETIC tells a story I’ve known all my life, but in a genuinely new version. No I’m not saying you will shout “Hallelujah” and rush to a church; quite the contrary. This story is very much the no-bullshit version of Joan.  While it still includes inspiration, it also helps us understand the betrayal, reconciling the two.  As a result I was not freaked out the way I was watching Shaw’s play or the film adaptations I’ve seen.

Part of this is Thorpe’s writing, which includes her portrayal of a multitude of characters of both genders. At one point she is the executioner. At another –one of my favourite scenes—we get a portrayal of the Dauphin and his mistress in a dialogue, back and forth in complete cynicism.

Sarah Thorpe as the Dauphin (photo: Laura Dittman)

Sarah Thorpe as the Dauphin (photo: Laura Dittman)

We hear from a priest who is her confessor, yet whose dialogue frames her life as though from an immortal perspective, the view from beyond the grave and beyond life itself. This perspective is the frame-work for HERETIC, and is a brilliant choice for the beginning and end, for although his language is judgmental, she refuses to buy into his criteria, refuses to accept his religious perspective. And that is the reason Thorpe as Joan is free of the claustrophobic enclosure of a religious perspective. Joan is genuinely modern in her refusal to be judged, a refusal to disclose her mystery to our profane and cynical eyes.

The choices in the mise-en-scene reinforce that contemporary angle. While the design may have been originally chosen simply because it’s pragmatic & inexpensive, it’s an inspired series of choices from Alyksandra Ackerman. As we begin, we’re looking at the sparsely decorated space at Theatre Passe Muraille backspace, with a series of chalk outlines on the upstage wall (at the rear) that resemble stained glass. At the best of times stained glass is cartoony, a clumsy symbolism arising from the expressive limitations imposed by the materials. We see the approach of cloisonism, the same style employed by Gaugin & his circle, echoing the outlines one sees in cloisonné or of course on a church’s glass windows.

Whether it was conscious or accidental, Thorpe steps into this space with big sticks of chalk, telling her story by drawing big chalk outlines on the floor, while walking in this same imaginary space, herself as a sort of icon, among outlines of the cross, of castles & crosses. In a very real sense, she strides among the symbolic icons as though the stained glass were incarnated & walking before us, herself an icon (later a saint) telling her stories of messages from other saints and from Jesus, and her eventual martyrdom.

And so the part that has always bothered me—the political priests—scarcely upset me in this telling, because it was clear that Joan is stronger and clearer than the corruption of these terrestrial politicians. They may drag her down with their limited sexist ideas of how a person should live (for instance, their insistence that she not wear pants): but that only helps make her immortal in the end.

Thorpe wears several hats, not just as writer, but also performer & co-director. Speaking of resurrection & rebirth, to me it’s as though Thorpe has brought this story back from the dead. If for no other reason than to struggle with the meaty ideas in this story, you owe it to yourself to see HERETIC¸ playing at Theatre Passe Muraille’s backspace until November 22nd.

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Mahler’s decade

Michael Sanderling led the Toronto Symphony in a program of works from the first decade of the twentieth century featuring soprano Simone Osborne. We heard a diverse assortment of musical styles represented even though the works have a few things in common. Let’s set aside Mahler’s 4th Symphony from the second half of the program.

We began with

  • “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome by Richard Strauss
  • The Song to the moon from Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak
  • “Depuis le jour” from Louise by Gustave Charpentier
  • The Vilja song from The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar

We heard a seductive dance, a song dreaming of love, “Depuis le jour” (a young girl reflects on her first days in love) and the Vilja song (a sentimental old song concerning love of a spirit of the woods).

Sanderling led a comparatively restrained reading of Salome’s dance, one clearly articulating every sound for the first half of the composition, but gradually building up the pace as though discovering greater levels of passion.

The three vocal pieces (the Lehar piece being an encore) make a nice set. Where the song in Rusalka seems to represent an impossible dream, the Charpentier is a reflection upon the recent achievement of that dream in a young woman’s life, while the Lehar is a sentimental tune meant to look back, as though it were an old folk-song. I found that the orchestral tempo Sanderling gave the Dvorak kept a bit of a lid on its passion, perhaps making Osborne’s reading more polite than it might otherwise have been. Similarly the Charpentier is often done at a moderate tempo. making it more reflective and thoughtful, and as a result perhaps more chaste than what the composer had in mind. In the third item, Osborne fully relaxed into the song, entering fully into the spirit of the song.

After intermission, Sanderling led a fascinating reading of Mahler’s 4th. This is a work that is best illuminated by a conductor willing to make the necessary tempo changes, a piece showing us scenes from childhood, sometimes with wild energy, sometimes with nostalgia and schmaltziness: and Sanderling didn’t disappoint. The TSO responded wonderfully to Sanderling’s choices, opening the first movement gently, building to several break-neck tempi in the first movement, sometimes displaying a playful energy then just as suddenly putting on the brakes. We were treated to several exquisite solos, especially concert-master Jonathan Crow and several of the wind players. The long & dramatic third movement can be done with greater restraint and subtlety than this, which I believe makes the drama ultimately that much more powerful so long as one doesn’t mind making the movement longer; but Sanderling was emphasizing contrasts, bringing forth climaxes from key voices, and making the piece very articulate, very transparent. When we got to the loud climax in the third movement, often spoken of as though the composer is flinging open the gates of heaven, we saw a wonderfully theatrical gesture, as at this moment the stage door opened for Osborne’s solemn entrance, for the final movement.

This is a very different sort of singing from what we experienced in the first half of the program, as the voice must be unforced, gentle, to match the angelic text. Osborne’s charming expression seems ideal for the innocence of the piece, her voice gently floating over the orchestra.  Overall Sanderling and the TSO achieved a spectacular rapport.

The program will be repeated Saturday Nov 14th at 8:00 pm.

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