Maus in the haus: Art Spiegelman retrospective at AGO

I saw Art Spiegelman interviewed at the media preview for his retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  I suppose if I were like a typical critic I’d just start talking without a preamble, because (nervous cough) everyone knows his importance. Or do they? But I don’t work that way, whether I’m talking about someone famous or unknown.

Click for more information about Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective at the AGO

But how to explain Spiegelman’s influence? I suspect we’re just now ready to look at that, or maybe still too close to the time. I only know that the world has changed substantially in the last half-century, and that we’re still struggling to understand the ways in which the arts have been transformed. When I was young there was a well-defined phenomenon known as the generation gap. Boomers –those of us who came of age in the 1960s and after—experienced a profound cultural disconnect from their parents, whose values were often diametrically opposed. Spiegelman’s Maus begins for me in that disconnect, in a cultural gap between parent and child that nowadays doesn’t happen, or at least not so violently.

My daughter gets the Beatles, she loves Spiegelman and Maus. We don’t have that kind of gap. Parenting is different now. Are we better parents? I don’t know, but we listen to much of the same music, look at the same movies. Spiegelman is part of that generation of transition in everything beginning with art, but reaching right into the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to the old country.

It’s quite the show, five hundred works curated by the artist, making it a genuine retrospective. I’ll paraphrase a few of Spiegelman’s responses to AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum’s questions –as he played Oprah—because you recognize that he’s much more than his art.

AGO Director Matthew Teitelbaum interviews Art Spiegelman

AGO Director Matthew Teitelbaum interviews Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman speaks in aphorisms, not so much because he thinks he’s Friedrich Nietzsche or Confucius, but because his comic art necessitated brief verbal gems to accompany his art. As you discover when you wander around at the show: his verbal gift is every bit as important as what he does with ink on the page, and might be the real reason for his Pulitzer.

The man tells great stories, and knows how to tell them.

When I first heard that Spiegelman was going to give a talk (January 26th at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema: tickets & details via I thought to myself “nice”, but I wasn’t sure how interested I was. After listening to Spiegelman for about 5 minutes, engaging, irresistible, like a time-capsule from the counter-culture, a relic from another very magical time: I knew I have to hear him talk some more.

And do I know what I am talking about? I don’t know. But the question I was tempted to ask –and dammit should have asked if I wasn’t feeling sniffly and coughing and too sick to sidle up to a microphone across the room—would have concerned Spiegelman and the druggy imagery in some of his pictures. Goya was mentioned by one polite questioner, but I suppose I am conflating the artist and the art, wondering not just about the life but also life-style. Does anyone care about drugs anymore? I merely meant, that there’s a druggy hallucinogenic quality to his art. It’s trippy, which is an amazing achievement for still images in black ink. No I didn’t ask because I suppose that, phrased the wrong way, it sounds like a moralistic accusation, when I understand it in a positive way, seeing these images as distant cousins to what de Quincey & Berlioz explored long ago.

Art Spiegelman Cover art for Print magazine, May/June 1981 Watercolor, ink, and collage on paper. Copyright © 1981 by Art Spiegelman. Used by permission

Art Spiegelman Cover art for Print magazine, May/June 1981 Watercolor, ink, and collage on paper. Copyright © 1981 by Art Spiegelman. Used by permission

It’s ridiculous if not perverse to walk into the gallery and see Maus in its entirety on a wall. We usually encounter it in book form, not spread out on a wall: as though it were a single work of art. But that’s actually what it is. One can’t see much of it unless one were very tall AND able to bend low to take it all in. My eyes feel weak before all the details in these fabulous creations. I ‘m remembering my recent walk through the Michaelangelo show that’s still here at AGO, another tribute to the power in tiny works of art. Small isn’t just beautiful, it can be awesome & overpowering.  I had to step away partway through, a bit overwhelmed by what I’d seen.

Spiegelman told us that until the 1960s the comics were exclusively a commercial product, so they had to all look the same: that is, until the 60s, when comics –and everything else—changed.  I am recalling the shock of those who decided to rebel, artists who decided to be different.  The images had the same powerful impact of the first musicians who had long hair.  I mean, it may seem like a little thing, but at the time it was overwhelming.

Teitelbaum asks the inevitable provocative question: IS IT ART?

Art Spiegelman Cover for RAW no. 1: The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Art Spiegelman. Used by permission of the artist and The Wylie Agency LLC. Courtesy Drawn + Quarterly.

Art Spiegelman Cover for RAW no. 1: The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Art Spiegelman. Used by permission of the artist and The Wylie Agency LLC. Courtesy Drawn + Quarterly.

Spiegelman tells us that “anxiety of place” was something he experienced, as a lower middle class kid. Where do you fit in? Art and especially the criticism of art talks about high and low, good and bad. I sense that his art is addressing the cultural question –connections to the old country and the older generation (as I alluded above)—and that anxiety of place.

Spiegelman is going on with a fabulous lecture that in tiny brilliant chunks explains a lot, while answering Teitelbaum’s “is it art” question.  In passing he speaks of the invention of the cartoon in Montmartre (perhaps thinking of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec?), perhaps to put us at our ease in case we’re hostile to a cartoonist in the realm of great art.

Ha, if only he knew.  Recently we saw shows from Ai wei wei and David Bowie, two others whose aptness for shows at the AGO might also be questioned. I’m glad that the AGO is going aggressively into this discursive space, to interrogate our assumptions, broaden the understanding of what art is.  I’m reminded that maybe Teitelbaum wasn’t merely mouthing questions supplied by his knowledgeable staff, but speaking from his heart.  and yes, i like where the AGO is going.

It took a long time, he tells us, to understand what modernism is about. I wish I could recall where he got this insight –a wonderful one—about Picasso, but wow it’s so clear and simple, and as usual, in a tidy aphorism that knocks you on your ass. If I got it right, he said “just think of Picasso not as a grand artist but as someone going to his studio and jacking off everyday.“

Of course there was this cute moment between Teitelbaum and Spiegelman when they acknowledged that this might not be normal language for such a conversation.

But the importance of that quote is to deflate the aura around the artist, to normalize his work and yes to deconstruct it. Hm I suppose seeing it as masturbation is perhaps deconstruction or possibly just a recognition that the output of these revered artists doesn’t necessarily belong on a pedestal or behind some kind of wall. This isn’t to denigrate the artist, just to put it all in perspective. Spiegelman was –if I recall correctly—trying to explain his own history, his coming to terms with art & artists. Here we are in the AGO with Alex Colville, (whose recognition as a great artist is relatively recent), and Michaelangelo + Rodin; Spiegelman most certainly belongs in their company. The fact that some would question it intrigues me, and i’m grateful for the conversational spaces such questions –especially  the one posed by Teitelbaum– open for us.

Musing away, Spiegelman drops a few more jewels into their dialogue.  He cited Marshall McLuhan, that “when a medium is no longer a mass medium it becomes art or vanishes”. He gave the example of woodcuts. And he boggled my mind when he alluded to the old function of paintings since supplanted by photography, whereby painting lost much of its reason to exist.

It never dawned on me that he was really going to talk about the fading importance of comics.  But by the 1970s comics had ceased to be the popular medium it had once been. As Spiegelman put it, while they were still read widely, they’d been castrated by a comic code.

And then we came to Spiegelman’s projects. As he came up to his 30th birthday he consciously decided he had to do something more significant, and as a result took on something suitably ambitious. There were two projects he envisaged. The other one fell by the wayside, but Maus grew out of his desire to do something significant and important.

In 1972 “The Holocaust” wasn’t known, wasn’t the big topic it would become.  People merely spoke of the war and the things that happened. It was fascinating, I should add, to hear Spiegelman give us some very personal history.

“Holocaust” is one name. Even before that word acquired currency, there was another word coined, namely “genocide”, a word to describe the unimaginable, something that hadn’t been seen before. Then “holocaust” began to be the word used to describe the experience of the war, apparently a word from Elie Wiesel, which Spiegelman unpacked for us, explaining that it’s a word that means “burnt offering”.

Spiegelman doesn’t approve of the word “holocaust” applied to the events of the war, nor, he added, does he approve of the epithet “graphic novel” (something mentioned only in passing).

Spiegelman gave some insight into what he’s really doing when he said ”it’s easier for me to look at drawings than painting. They’re like a seismograph of how the brain works”.
Indeed. As an opera fan who also listens to rock or jazz or folk music, virtuosity and the apparatus of musical expression fascinates me, especially when we come to large-scale works onstage or in the cinema.   The last couple of centuries of art have seen art re-invented and reframed as something more immediate & emotionally authentic. We’ve seen it in the invention of new ways of acting onstage that strip away the alienating theatricality to let us get closer to something and someone with whom we can connect.  The difference between an opera aria and a folk-song –in search of simplicity and authenticity—is very much like the difference between a painting and a drawing. Of course it’s art, but it’s not art that scares you away by being intimidating or difficult.

MY_MICEThere’s a great deal to see at this show, and Maus is only part of Spiegelman’s work. If you know him and his style from the two illustrated novels, you won’t be disappointed. But there’s lots more.

And there’s much more to be said. But maybe that’s best encountered either in the gallery with the art, or perhaps at Spiegelman’s January talk. I know I’ll be back for more.

Art Spiegelman: What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?
Monday January 26, 2015 at 7 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St W, Toronto
Tickets & details:

Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective opens on
Dec. 20, 2014, and runs to March 14, 2015
at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Posted in Books & Literature, Personal ruminations, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Messiah opens

Soprano Jane Archibald with the Toronto Symphony (photo: Malcolm Cook)

Soprano Jane Archibald with the Toronto Symphony (photo: Malcolm Cook)

It’s Messiah season in Toronto.  I understand there are other towns that present Handel’s oratorio, but does any city go quite as nuts as Toronto?  Everywhere I turn it’s happening.  I sang a bit at my church, a friend conducted some more at her church, and of course, then we all try to hear one of the big ensembles do it.

If you’ll excuse the gross over-simplification, for awhile the city has been divided between the two big alternatives, meaning two approaches that were understood to be diametrically opposed:

  • The Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing modern instruments in a more modern understanding of Handel
  • Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra playing period instruments in a more historically informed understanding of Handel

But if you accept my crude mythology, there were opposite philosophies in place.   While the TSO would play the piece in a bigger space with bigger forces (especially the Mendelssohn Choir) using modern tunings, Tafelmusik made it all a bit more effete, with their smaller more elaborated reading.

Except that now there’s been cross-pollination.  Tonight I heard the first TSO Messiah of the season led by Grant Llewellyn.  If you judged by the tempi or the da capo elaborations you might have been confused, because much of what we heard tonight seemed historically informed.  The orchestra and chorus roared through the evening fearlessly.  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised considering what conductors have been doing lately with modern orchestras. I think especially of Harry Bicket when he comes to conduct the COC orchestra, and makes them sound like a period ensemble.

Yes the crowd did stand –and some even sang along—for the Hallelujah chorus.  But I think the rules (some overly strict) governing concert behaviour could stand to be loosened.  I believe the TSO crowd is unpretentious, out for a good time: and that’s what they found at Roy Thomson Hall tonight.

The four soloists each have a special function or role:

  • The soprano announces the magical events of Christmas eve such as the angelic appearance, and begins Part III with the direct confession of “I know that My Redeemer liveth”.
  • The alto sings pieces of great drama, particularly the opener for Part II, “He was despisèd”
  • The tenor starts things off for the evening, and in Part II plays a huge role in dialogue with the chorus
  • The bass sings some important announcements, especially “The trumpet shall sound”.

Bass-baritone Philippe Sly displayed a lovely tone, wonderful musicianship even if at times his words weren’t fully clear.  In contrast, Lawrence Wiliford made every consonant clear.  His second utterance of “comfort ye” was a very original reading (or at least one I’ve never heard before), likely to induce the tranquility and peace he was exhorting us to feel.  I saw Allyson McHardy sing Messiah with Tafelmusik a couple of years ago, and it was again marvelous, as she’s very comfortable with this music.

I was sorry to hear that Jane Archibald is nursing a cold, as she was the voice I was most eager to hear tonight, a singer who has had great success in Toronto (Zerbinetta & Semele with the COC, and a Juno award-winning CD before that), and will be right back to take a starring role in a little over a month,  her first Donna Anna in the COC’s Don Giovanni.  We were grateful that she didn’t cancel, as it was great to see her up there,  sounding quite lovely.

It’s a Messiah full of highlights, accurately played and sung, and powerfully dramatic at this time of year. Handel fanatics shouldn’t hesitate.

Handel’s Messiah continues with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall Dec 17, 19 & 20 at 8:00 pm, plus on the 21st at 3:00 pm.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Leave a comment

2014 CD and DVD reviews

I am way behind in reviewing the CDs & DVDs i have been receiving in the mail, or the ones i have been buying.  This little summary may be too late for Christmas shopping although there are also the gifts we give ourselves, in that happy orgy known as Boxing Day (or is it boxing week?). It’s an anachronism speaking of recordings as if they’re exclusively on CD &DVD when so much content is now downloaded, but i find the discs convenient. Does the medium you use matter? I’m really talking about the content, whether it’s on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, VHS, or anything else you can think of.

Looking back at the year’s reviews I can see I’ve been very pre-occupied with certain sorts of content. As I do a quick statistical tally for 2014 I found the following:

Or we can organize them chronologically:

  • One is from the Renaissance
  • One is from the baroque
  • One covers about two centuries , ranging from Mozart (18th century) to Schubert to Massenet to Ravel to Menotti (McPhee’s Portrait)
  • One is exclusively Beethoven (Stewart Goodyear)
  • Four would be located in some part of the romantic period: Allure and the three Stratton CDs
  • One is about half a century old (Riel) while the other three are from the new millennium (Baby Kintyre, Julie, Cobalt)

I am very fortunate to receive recordings from artists & recording labels, including unsolicited surprises turning up in the mail. Sometimes I have to wait a long time before writing, but occasionally I don’t write because I don’t know what to say. I have a few more reviews up my sleeve that I hope to publish in the next little while, likely too late for Christmas.

There are a few recordings that I listen to or watch obsessively.

  • On my laptop? it’s Gerald Finley. I’ll be posting a review of his Meistersinger one of these days, which I watched on the weekend for the first time. I posted a bit about it (as well as other recordings he’s made) in the wake of the COC’s Falstaff earlier this autumn.
  • Michael Slattery, who will be appearing with the Toronto Consort in March

    In the car? I’ve been playing the Toronto Consort Christmas recording The Little Barley-Corne in the car a great deal lately, which i reviewed recently.  Speaking of Toronto Consort, the only CD I’ve played as frequently in the car is Dowland in Dublin, a CD that anticipates a March concert from that same Toronto Consort, who will be welcoming Michael Slattery and La Nef. I marked this on my calendar long ago as one not to miss.

I’ll be posting more reviews in the next little while.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews, video & DVDs | Leave a comment

Saying #Uncle: more on AtG’s latest

I barely scratched the surface in my review of Against the Grain’s #UncleJohn from late Thursday night.  With one prominent exception I barely mentioned anyone.  I am cocooning Saturday because of the cold that burst in on me like a stone guest (although considering Joel Ivany’s adaptation perhaps Peter Schikele’s “Stoned Guest” might be more apt), pounding in my head.  The headline could be me surrendering, even if my laptop is no substitute for a nap.  Maybe later…

So where the first piece was an attempt at something logical and orderly, this is more like the remnants of the wedding reception, glasses still half-filled and unfinished plates to be collected.  I’ll spare you the sound of my blowing my nose, which has been likened to a cross between a Disney character and a foghorn.  Think of Marley’s Ghost played by a duck.

I was struck by a few things reading other reviews, enjoying the agreements and the diversity of responses.  I’ll aim to say what hasn’t been said; otherwise I’d already be napping.

I want to look at –and properly celebrate–what Joel Ivany accomplished. Were there three types of action?

  1. Dialogue (which may have been dry recitative originally, but was re-written into fluid lines)
  2. Accompagnato (corresponding to accompanied recitative that you don’t mess with, such as the grim discovery of the body by Anna & Ottavio)
  3. Arias & ensembles

I suppose opera has always been a hybrid whose grafts are visible, where the shifts of gears from one style to another can be jarring, especially if the singer treats the recit as mere preparation for their big solo, and in so doing kills the dramatic illusion, thwarting anything natural and organic in the process.  I saw less of that than usual on this occasion, but even so I wondered whether Ivany’s respectful treatment of Mozart may not always have been the best pathway.  The flow of the dialogue was so compelling that the music did not always seem like the natural outgrowth it should have been.   I’ve never seen opera do this, showing us opera singers acting so powerfully that the music is almost superfluous.  Each of the principals is so well thought out, so crisply executed that the music is like icing on a cake.  Even so, there are good reasons for recit to sound lame, as it sets up the (hopefully) better segment that follows.  If the recit were too good it would disbalance things.  Perhaps the solution (if anyone else even thinks this is a problem…) would be to trim some of the cleverness that (for me) seems to upstage Mozart when we finally get to the music, making it seem like an anti-climax or a strait-jacket of convention imposed on something fluid and alive.  When it works –as it did in the reinvented Catalogue aria—the setups are golden.  I was rapt for the encounter between the Commander and John (and fascinated that Ivany’s  translation didn’t shy away from the religious overtones of their confrontation), and then not really satisfied by the closing ensemble: an ensemble that I usually find to be an arbitrary tonal shift that may not fit with what came before; but Mozart didn’t make this one easy for anyone.

Ah but then again my head was starting to explode from my cold so maybe I was more sympathetic to a guy popping pills (just like me the past couple of days!) than all those happy peppy people at the end.

I was in too much of a rush Thursday to properly address several contributions. Most glaring was my omission of Zerlina & Masetto, namely Sharleen Joynt and Aaron Durand.  In the worst productions of Don Giovanni that I have disliked, I always still like these two.  Can anyone dispute that Zerlina has the most beautiful music in the opera? (disagree?  “la ci darem”, “batti batti” and  “vedrai carino” would be my choice for the three prettiest tunes in the opera).  Mozart was trying to tell us something about love & marriage, as indeed Joel Ivany was also reinforcing with his beautiful & direct translation.  How could you not melt listening to Joynt asking Durand to marry her while staring up at him as they cuddled in the middle of the stage?

And no i didn’t take a picture; i was a puddle on the floor,  remember?  This one will have to do in its place…

L-RL Sean Clark, Miriam Khalil (sorry that she's facing away,,,) Neil Craighead, Betty Allison, Aaron Durand and Sharleen Joynt, giving Leporello what-for.

L-RL Sean Clark, Miriam Khalil (sorry that she’s facing away,,,) Neil Craighead, Betty Allison, Aaron Durand and Sharleen Joynt, giving Leporello what-for.

I think Ivany is true to what da Ponte & Mozart wanted in three different types of relationship:

  • Ideal matrimony:
    that’s Masetto & Zerlina once they realize it (with UncleJohn’s help actually), and needing very little adjustment in the adaptation
  • Woman pursuing a man:
    Elvira is the most modern of the three women, unsatisfied with the one who has her heart
  • Man pursuing a woman:
    Donna Anna keeps stringing Don Ottavio along, decade after decade (or so it seems); that Anna dumps Ottavio at the end is perfect after what I’ve seen in every other production (sad to say).

This is the first time we’re seeing the adaptation, which had an earlier life in Banff.  I hope good #UncleJohn has another incarnation, to see what new ideas they might have, to say nothing of the different chemistry created by casting.  AtG seem to be here to stay, a company that’s still small but offering remarkable quality & insight with everything they do.  As usual they’re making theatre that’s informed by musicianship.

Next for AtG?

  • Death & Desire with Colin Ainsworth, Krisztina Szabó and Christopher Mokrzewski in May 2015, in other words Schubert (“Die Schöne Müllerin”) and Messiaen (“Harawi”), presumably in Toronto.
  • A Little Too Cosy, a new adaptation of Cosi fan tutte in July 2015, in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre (who also host the production).

    Cam McPhail deep in thought or perhaps it's just withdrawal.  Give the man a tylenol for goodness sake.

    Cam McPhail deep in thought or perhaps it’s just withdrawal. Give the man a tylenol for goodness sake.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | 2 Comments

#UncleJohn, or COC lite: a new way to do business

Against the Grain Theatre premiered #UncleJohn, their new adaptation of Don Giovanni tonight at The Black Box Theatre at the Great Hall on Queen St West after workshops out west at the Banff Centre. As much as anything this was the first night for a new concept as well as a new show.

AtG partnered with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre, and will do so again with A Little Too Cosy, their upcoming adaptation of Cosi fan tutte, to complete their survey of the da Ponte trilogy of Mozart operas. The business model is perhaps more exciting and original than the actual opera presented onstage –which wasn’t too shabby—given that opera is in big trouble all over the world.  Big companies are struggling with big overhead, in the salaries for orchestras, chorus and other staff members. Opera is understood to be the most expensive art form, so naturally this comes with the territory.

Left to right: Miriam Khalil, Sean Clark, Betty Allison and Cameron McPhail

Left to right: Miriam Khalil, Sean Clark, Betty Allison and Cameron McPhail

Or does it? AtG offer something a little simpler. They don’t have a permanent chorus or orchestra, even though they have been gradually tippy-toeing in that direction. While their Messiah last year used a chorus and (if I remember right) their largest orchestra yet, the important point to note is that they have not turned it into something permanent, tying them down with entitlements & pensions. The sound for tonight’s performance was just about right, the small space of the Black Box Theatre filled comfortably by a string quartet plus piano, played by music director Milos Repicky, and no chorus. While the oomph of chorus might be welcome in a few places it would make no sense in Joel Ivany’s modernized story. There are no mass groupings of peasants on an estate, just Torontonians.

There’s no arguing with the business model. It works, or to put it another way, the other one is terribly precarious, depending heavily on private funding and government support. While the government is there in Austria & Germany –where opera has a huge audience and so remains viable—they’re the exceptions to the gradual change to more austere models the world over, Canada included. AtG appear to be in better shape than their bigger parent –the COC—who are in a much more precarious position, balancing huge expenses with revenues from various places. I love the COC orchestra & chorus, but worry about the viability of the company in the long run.

Ivany’s adaptation is every bit as remarkable as what he created with Figaro’s Wedding (first of the trilogy) in 2013. There are aspects that I quibble with just as I did in 2013, yet overall this is new without feeling like Regietheater, where the director is like another author competing or overlaying texts upon the original. It’s simply modernized but still largely faithful to the original text. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but suffice it to say that almost all the music you know and love is there, including an appearance by the Commendatore in the last scene.

Some of Ivany’s touches are brilliant. By now I cringe whenever I see someone putting a mobile phone into an opera, even if people still titter at the effect. But this time it made wonderful sense when Leporello –who usually disguises himself as the Don to woo Donna Elvira early in Act II—communicates to Elvira through the phone: the perfect modern medium for this sort of dissembling.  Neil Craighead is a messy foil to the tidiness of the Don, the man who gets the most punchlines all night and doesn’t miss once. Putting the entire opera into the context of the wedding of Zerlina & Masetto, with Anna as the daughter of the caterer, helps to make up for the mixed blessing of the venue. At times it was bizarrely real to hear music from the other venue blasting into our space, exactly the way it would if we were in one of those rented banquet halls where so many weddings happen in this city.

The concentration of action around that wedding made some sense, even if it was accomplished at a price, namely reinventing Donna Anna & Don Ottavio without any of the nobility that they had in the 18th century version. It made the new version of “il mio tesoro” one of the highlights of the evening, wonderfully sung and acted by Sean Clark, now more of a soliloquy to anyone who will hear his complaint, concerning his manhood, and probing the numb passivity for which the character is known. Donna Anna became Anna, still a character who seems to have little ability to laugh at herself, making soprano Betty Allison’s job extra challenging.

As a result #UncleJohn shuffles the key relationships ever so slightly. Anna and Ottavio are now a comic pair who seem even lower in the social hierarchy than Zerlina & Masetto; that’s only jarring if you insist that AtG do it as written, a stipulation I’d never make. The two key figures are now Elvira and John (formerly Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni), which is perhaps a reflection of the brilliance of the two performers.

Miriam Khalil’s centrality to the production might be a reflection of her centrality in Joel Ivany’s life as his partner and the mother of his little boy. But she makes the most of every moment, including the most scintillating reading of “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata”, the big aria that usually tests audiences’ ability to stay awake, coming as it does in the latter stages of the opera. It can seem like an add-on, it can seem like part of the battle between two divas seeking to one up each other. Or in this case, it’s a wonderful affirmation of the empowerment that Elvira is seeking while hoping to redeem her relationship with John, and got one of the biggest ovations of the night.

And speaking of John, Cam McPhail demonstrated a level of star power in his singing & acting that suggests something very radical about the COC Lite business model: that there are wonderfully talented Canadian singers who can actually out-do what you see from the COC. This should be no surprise. It’s an open secret, one that has been whispered in my ear repeatedly since I posted a diatribe about the bizarre spectacle of David Pomeroy’s photo advertising a COC Madama Butterfly sung by a pair of imports who were inferior to the Canadian tenor who was busy singing in Manitoba instead.

Back to McPhail, this is a very intriguing reading of Don Giovanni –aka Uncle John (no hashtag because I’m speaking of the character this time, not the opera). He’s cruel yet manages to be likeable. His charisma is genuine. The voice has nuances, including two brilliant re-makes of famous arias:

  • the champagne aria –“fin ch’han al vino” –becomes the cocaine aria, and suddenly the quickness of the aria makes incredible sense (and yes it’s the fastest reading i think i’ve ever seen)
  • the serenade by the window –“deh vieni alla fenestre”—becomes a soliloquy about drugs (hm,…no wait, it’s still a love song-serenade, but he’s singing his little love song to the drugs)
Baritone Cameron McPhail

Baritone Cameron McPhail

McPhail carries most of the darkness in the work, more intelligible in his enunciation of the English in this libretto than anyone else in the show, which is a good thing considering he had the most lines by far.  But while he’s the one who goes to the dark side, he’s balanced by John Avey as The Commander (formerly the Commendatore), standing his ground musically and physically in this life and maybe the next.

It’s lots of fun, above all.  #UncleJohn continues December 13, 15, 17 and 19, 2014 at 7:30 p.m, at the Black Box Theatre at The Great Hall.   I look forward to seeing more from this team, and more of this approach to an expensive art form. This business model seems to work.

Posted in Opera, Reviews | 3 Comments

Glenn Gould: extra hands

Thank you Edward Johnson Building library, once again I found treasure in the collection that never disappoints.

I’d grabbed a great mass of scores in anticipation of a couple of gigs, never knowing fully what to play, but wanting to let my impulses lead me.

One pathway of association is the magic of transcription. People sometimes want to hear a tune that they know, whether it’s a pop-tune, a jazz standard, or something classical. There’s an incredible sensation of power in playing something as a piano solo that you’ve heard massively from a full orchestra. This is true whether it’s originally for piano and later orchestrated , (as with Mussorgskii’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite that I prefer on piano, especially the last few) or an orchestral piece that’s been transcribed for piano. The most exciting composers I’ve ever experienced in transcription are Berlioz and Wagner, two composers of massive scores that defy easy reduction.

It was in the realm of transcriptions that I found the aforementioned gem.  Perhaps it’s a lost art, but at one time these transcriptions performed an important function. Without a piano transcription it was otherwise impossible to encounter some new compositions. If you were a composer and nobody wanted to play your orchestral pieces, a transcription could help champion your work: which is precisely what Franz Liszt accomplished for Berlioz & Wagner. Nowadays one can easily hear scores on youtube (or of course via various recorded media that you pay for), but in the 19th century? the only way to encounter some music was via a piano reduction.

And that means either you had to play it yourself or hear it played for you. Live music was the only option.

Live performance represented a special nagging part of Glenn Gould’s life. As you may recall, the Canadian virtuoso, famed for recordings such as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, made an unprecedented decision to abandon live performance. It wasn’t because he was a recluse or an introvert (although come to think of it, maybe he was those things too, and the personality type was a contributing factor), so much as his preference for recordings, the control he could exercise over dynamics and background noise in a studio. His was a very modern view of music that is in many ways still far ahead of its time.  Recorded music offered a pathway to achieve the perfection one imagines while reading a score.

Let me illustrate further by talking about the gem I found. It’s Glenn Gould’s transcription of passages from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (or “Twilight of the Gods”). If the opera’s name doesn’t scare you, the published piece is called Morgendämmerung und Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt, or Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine-Journey. To get some idea of what’s being compressed for the piano, let’s listen to the original. The prologue to Act I of Twilight of the Gods has two scenes:

  • A slow but portentous scene of the three Norns, who weave fate in the dark: and announce the imminent End of things.
  • Sunrise, an exciting duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and after they say goodbye, he rides off into the morning (just to confound fans of westerns, where they ride off into sunsets instead).

The recording that follows is also a kind of transcription from the opera.  In this one Wagner is edited down to orchestra only, without any singing. Now, listen to this full orchestra version, and imagine how you might distill it further by playing all those louds notes as a piano solo.

This is a kind of program music because the music comes from an opera, deriving at least some of its beauty from its story and what it’s signifying. The story? We begin with the darkness that precedes the dawn. After a shift into B-flat and a quiet statement in brass of Siegfried’s motif followed by Brunndhile’s theme in the clarinet, the music begins to grow in loudness & intensity, as if to suggest sunrise, dawn and perhaps two people going out into the day. The lovers are about to say farewell, as Siegfried goes off in search of further adventure. The duet is a kind of pledge of eternal love, building to a climax as Siegfried rides off. Does the music in any sense depict his journey? Or perhaps we’re presented with ideas and themes relevant to the story that’s to unfold. Whatever it signifies, this is especially spectacular when it’s presented by the unique sound of the Cleveland Orchestra brass.

Did you notice the astonishing array of colours Wagner brings to individual moments? That’s part of the challenge for the pianist, who has to emulate 100 instruments of various colours on a solo piano.

The essence of a piano transcription is live performance, the transmission of a composition through a live medium whereby the pianist defies the complexities –for instance, all the notes played by perhaps 100 players suddenly reproduced by one person on one instrument—in daring to imitate and portray something so huge in a compressed and miniaturized form. No wonder then that this was a common pathway for virtuosi, particularly Franz Liszt. While Liszt was a humanitarian in helping out relatively unknown composers (Berlioz & Wagner most prominently, both through his transcriptions and financial assistance, but also as a champion of their work in his own programming), playing such wonderful music made him look good in the process.

Now let’s zip forward to the 1970s. Glenn Gould last played a live concert in 1964. In transcribing he was not celebrating liveness at all, because his transcriptions would be studio entities. Not only would his performances be on record rather than live, but there’s another dimension that’s pure Gould. There are impossible passages where there seem to be so many notes that two hands couldn’t possibly execute the passage, no matter how virtuosic. How could he do it? I wondered as soon as I heard these recordings, and now have confirmation, both from seeing the score that I took out of the library, and after reading the splendid introductory essay from Carl Morey:

Emeritus Professor Carl Morey

Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey has the unusual feature (shared with and more extended in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger) of having been written for a kind of four-hand duo performance. Gould first recorded the main piano part, then put on ear-phones so that he could hear his own performance and dubbed a supplementary part over the first recording. The final recording thus presented a texture that is complex beyond the capability of even the most brilliant single pianist.

I’d wondered about this when I first heard Gould’s album of Wagner transcriptions, especially the Meistersinger prelude, where the overdub is very clear.

The irony of this floors me. The live performance of transcriptions affirm virtuosity in a live setting, a display for the pure purpose—and exquisite pleasure—of showing off. These big loud pieces are an incredible ego trip to play: except that’s not what Gould wanted. He sought instead to get closer to the ideal text in the book, the reified distilled essence of Wagner, not the live experience of Wagner. That is what the goofy headline is about, that in contemplating an ideal Wagner in the studio far from the crowd, divorced from singers & live performance, Gould creates something that’s not performable live: not without an extra pair of hands, that is.

Here’s Gould’s performance. There are a few seconds missing at the end, but you have the final cadence and a good idea of the piece.  If i had an alternative link to substitute i would.

Gould’s creation (as published in the book i withdrew from the library) is a very playable score, at least until we come to those impossible passages that require you to suddenly grow a third and fourth hand. When one tries the comparable passages in the piano-vocal score (with an accompaniment that’s far from simple) one at least encounters something for two hands, yet even this too can be challenging (and loud!).  Gould’s score is more pianistic, a piece that stands alone.

While we’re at it there’s one hugely important detail I want to mention. As a child I encountered the orchestral excerpt –not the Cleveland one, but another version—without any voices. The piece ends with a nostalgic return to the triumphant E-flat of the beginning that gives the piece a wonderful sense of symmetry and a happy ending. But that’s not how it goes in the opera. Oh no. Siegfried does not happily ride off into the sunset. He dies, murdered in Act III of Götterdämmerung. I can still recall the sense of wrongness I felt the first time I heard the opera, a visceral sense of dread and horror before Act I even begins.

Have a listen (three parts) to the relevant passages from the opera including the vocal parts.
1. Dawn and beginning of love duet:
2. Conclusion of love duet, beginning of Rhine Journey: 
3. Conclusion of Rhine Journey (the key discrepant passage begins at 4:44): 

I believe this discrepancy –between the concert version with its happy ending and the way it flows in the context of the opera—might be one of Wagner’s great achievements. “Might” because I am not even sure it’s his achievement. I understand from my reading that he approved of the excerpts from his operas—that helped publicize his operas—but I don’t know who is really responsible for this insightful ending, going back to E-flat.  I believe that it’s implicit in the music,  that a tone-poem that were affirming tradition rather than seeking revolution would revert to the home key.  I wish I knew more about the creation of the concert piece with its happy ending.

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Don’t miss Stanley Kubrick at TIFF

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is currently on at TIFF Bell Lightbox until January 25th. You know it’s a happening when you see people dressed in special costumes.

A droog and I contemplate a model of the maze from The Shining

A droog and I contemplate a model of the maze from The Shining

When the droog is actually a polite gentleman sharing quips with no threats of violence you know you’re in a special place.

I am a great admirer of Stanley Kubrick, a film-maker whose influence is under-estimated in my opinion. As a student & scholar of film-music I believe he is the single most important director of the 20th Century, a pioneer and a great artist. Where Bernard Herrmann is perhaps the most revolutionary composer of the first century of music in the cinema, Kubrick outdoes him with his insights as a director, reinventing film music in the process.  Come to my film music course and I’ll be happy to explain in detail.

Kubrick’s background as a still photographer in his youth followed by documentary film was important groundwork for his unique style. Part of the exhibit shows us his work at Look Magazine, a career that began amazingly enough at the age of 17.  Yes he was clearly a prodigy, a brilliant young nerd before we had even invented the werd… er i mean word.

A picture of a young Kubrick in Look Magazine

A picture of a young Kubrick in Look Magazine

Walking through one encounters his work chronologically, a combination of informal still photographs, drawings, paintings, models, story-boards and other artefacts alongside examples from the films themselves.

Model of war-room from Dr Strangelove

Model of war-room from Dr Strangelove

It’s highly immersive, as each successive film & its world grabs you, alongside pictures of the actors and the director sharing a laugh or smoking a cigarette between takes.

It's my very poor photograph, which hopefully doesn't violate anyone's copyright.  In person they're quite breath-taking.

It’s my very poor photograph, which hopefully doesn’t violate anyone’s copyright. In person they’re quite breath-taking.

Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ll learn more than you expected. I didn’t know, for instance, that Sterling Hayden –the General in Dr Strangelove –also stars in The Killing from a few years previous. I knew about AI, the unfinished idea that Steven Spielberg concluded with the approval of Kubrick’s widow. I didn’t know about the unfinished Napoleon project –which we see diagrammed in detail—that was shot down by studios due to the failure of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. I had no idea Kubrick had a holocaust project in mind –again illustrated and explained—that he had to abandon when Spielberg made his own film.

Is HAL getting a little long in the tooth?

Is HAL getting a little long in the tooth?

It’s a very densely packed show, with more imagery & information per square foot than you’d normally find at, for example the AGO. I believe art galleries want us to have space to meditate and experience the art, whereas this space is much tighter, with music from (for example) 2001 or A Clockwork Orange seeping into your current space from the room around the corner, unavoidably. I suspect that’s more of an issue for me because I am more aural than visual. Yet it works brilliantly, the way previous films by a director stay in our eyes and ears to impact our current film experience.

The Clockwork Orange room

The Clockwork Orange room

It’s a fabulous show, brilliantly curated. I’d like to think they’d do as brilliantly with any director, but let’s not forget that Kubrick’s work is above and beyond. See it while you can.



And in the meantime we’re having a Kubrick festival at home the next few days.  Spartacus.  Lolita.  Dr. Strangelove.  2001: A Space Odyssey.  Clockwork Orange.  Barry Lyndon. The Shining. Eyes Wide Shut.  

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