Shore’s Fellowship

The Toronto Symphony, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, The Canadian Children’s Opera Company in partnership with tiff presented a concert performance of Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films. If you think that sounds like a lot of people, you’d be right, and that’s not even including the big-screen presentation of the film, with its cast of thousands of humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, hobbits, uruk-hai, and assorted birds. Considering that I consider the first film to be the weakest of the three, I did not expect such an overwhelming experience, and am a little gaga imagining what the other two might be like, in a live concert version.

It’s not at all the same experience as the films we’ve seen in the theatres or at home on DVD or Blue-Ray. We have subtitles for the dialogue, which was often drowned out by the powerful musical forces arrayed around and behind the screen.

I’ve made analogies to try to describe this experience after seeing several other tiff—TSO co-productions, and I realize that my words fail to adequately capture the true magic of the experience. It needs to be said that

  • Each one of these concert presentations is sold-out
  • The TSO now has seen some competition in town from other promoters offering films with live accompaniment
  • The reception at the end was overwhelming, suggesting that anyone there on a lark will be back again if they get the chance.
  • And the TSO brought their A-game. For some previous films they’ve not used all their big-name soloists, but tonight, there was Jonathan Crow, Joseph Johnson, and Neil Deland.

I think of Shore as a film music composer with a background in rock or popular music, one of many now composing for film, such as

  • Danny Elfman
  • Michael Kamen
  • Mark Mothersbaugh
  • Mark Knopfler
  • Tangerine Dream
  • David Byrne
    …and there are lots of others.

But it’s a simplistic thought and hardly a new development, especially considering the composers who could write jazz—such as David Raksin or Elmer Bernstein– from more than half a century ago who changed the sound of film scores.

The Hobbit scoring sessions - Howard Shore / Abbey Road 9&10 Sep

Composer Howard Shore

Shore has a particular sound that he employs in the Tolkien trilogy that doesn’t necessarily stand on its own, so much as work in partnership with the films. While I am a great admirer of Bernard Herrmann –to name one obvious example—I didn’t have nearly such a powerful experience seeing his films live (last year the TSO and tiff partnered to offer us Psycho and Vertigo), as I had tonight, and i confess it took me by surprise.

I think part of it is Shore’s counter-intuitive choices. In the sequence where Boromir dies–to give the most obvious example in the film– we get a very plaintive sound from the chorus, something you might call sentimental, but that I’d simply call beautiful, effective, powerful.

These moments are distant cousins of moments in Elfman scores where he uses wordless chorus.  For some reason these compositions have a a particularly powerful  impact live. I have no doubt that my favourite moment in The Two Towers –the sunrise sequence in the battle of Helm’s Deep, where Gandalf re-appears on a horse—would become overpowering done live.

I may be overthinking this, but where Herrmann’s scores are mostly cool surfaces applied to overpowering images in the Hitchcock films, Shore’s scores are more purely romantic.
And yes I’m hoping that the TSO & tiff offer us the other two Jackson Tolkien films.

In passing I must mention that Shore created an operatic version of The Fly¸ from one of several Cronenberg films scored by Shore.

As the Canadian Opera Company looks for possible scores, here’s one by a Canadian composer that has already been staged in France, USA and Germany.

But I digress.

There’s no question there’s a big market for this. I mentioned not long ago that Danny Elfman participated in a live performance of Nightmare Before Christmas with Paul Rubens & Catherine O’Hara in the Hollywood Bowl.

I wonder just how big the potential market is for this kind of film showing. Make no mistake, it’s a very special thrill, and the TSO seem to recognize that fact. I am expecting that next season they will have even more films with live accompaniment.

And I’ll be there if at all possible.

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Filament Incubator – Paradise Comics

It sounds challenging, this objective of Filament Incubator to produce eight plays in eight months and as far as I can tell they pulled it off.

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Playwright Caitie Graham

How difficult is it? To put it in context, you’d have to look at how many new plays get produced by each of the theatre companies in this city. They likely have more resources & funding. And perhaps key is that the playwrights are knocking on their doors, sending them proposals and scripts and asking to be admitted to workshops and programs.
If the other Filament Incubations –that is, the raw creations brought to fruition by Filament Incubator—were anything like Caitie Graham’s Paradise Comics, that I saw tonight, it’s quite a marvelous achievement.

Without giving it all away, I will say that Paradise Comics flies by, a ninety minute show that felt like it must have been less than an hour. It’s remarkably accurate in its portrayal of the issues we’ve encountered in my own family, such as incipient sexuality, depression, the enabling of bad behaviour and the power struggles between parents trying to cope.

But don’t get the wrong idea. I was laughing loudly throughout, the writing bouncing back and forth between a few serious moments and a great many comical ones.

It wouldn’t work without a tight ensemble picking up cues but genuinely listening to one another.

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(l-r) David Ross, Sherman Tsang, Sarah Naomi Campbell and Maddie Bautista

Sherman Tsang is Beans, the nerdy child who is perhaps the most adult person on the stage even though she’s only 13. She’s angry and we won’t find out what fuels her fire until later. For now she’s the straight-person in many comic scenes, while the others play off her fury. Maddie Bautista is her partner in presentations & self-discovery, gleefully setting up the best laughs of the night without tipping anything off (but how could she keep from laughing?).

The adult world is the axis between Sarah Naomi Campbell as Janie and David Ross first as her partner George and later as Marvin. Director Darwin Lyons makes every relationship valid & alive.

I never felt any sense that this was a new and untested play, but instead fell deeply into the world of Caitie Graham’s story. Graham has a gift for dialogue, particularly between the children.

Paradise Comics continues each night this week at 8 pm, Kensington Hall until Saturday December 3rd.  Click here for tickets
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10 Questions for Tyler Duncan: Handel’s Messiah

Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Spoleto Festival, Boston Early Music Festival, Pacific Opera Victoria; and Princeton Festival.

Duncan’s concerts include Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony, Berlioz L’enfance du Christ with the Montreal Symphony; both Bach and Mendessohn’s Magnificat with the New York Philharmonic; Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Munich Bach Choir, Montreal Symphony, and the Oregon Bach Festival; Haydn’s The Creation with the Québec, Montreal, and Winnipeg symphony orchestras; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Calgary Philharmonic and Philharmonie der Nationen in Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt; Haydn’s The Seasons with the Calgary Philharmonic; Handel’s Messiah with Tafelmusik, the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, Handel and Haydn Society, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque, and Portland Baroque; Mozart’s Requiem with the Montreal, Toronto, and Salt Lake City Symphony Orchestras. He has also performed at Germany’s Halle Händel Festival, Verbier Festival, Vancouver Early Music Festival, Montreal Bach Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, Lanaudière Festival, Stratford Festival, Berkshire Choral Festival, and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Duncan’s recordings include Bach’s St. John Passion with Portland Baroque and a DVD of Handel’s Messiah with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony from CBC Television. On the ATMA label are works by Purcell and Carissimi’s Jepthe with Les Voix Baroque.  Issued on the CPO label is his Boston Early Music Festival recording of the title role in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis.

As he prepares to sing the Messiah in Toronto with Tafelmusik, I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Tyler Duncan ten questions.

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Baritone Tyler Duncan

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

I would hope that I am a good mix of both, I sure try to be. My Parents have no musical background whatsoever, yet I have wound up singing for my family’s supper so to speak. My parents have always been loving and supportive of my decision to pursue music, and I grew up in smaller places like Prince George and Port Alberni BC where music was a big part of the community. My parents are amazing individuals and an amazing pair, their optimism and kindness through thick and thin have helped me to keep a cool head and positive outlook.

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

To be able to love what you do is amazing, and I love what I do. Trying to figure out what that is exactly can be difficult. There are all of these labels that tend to be attached to who we are as singers. “Opera singer” “Concert singer” “Baroque singer” “Terrible Singer”. Each person is different, each voice is unique, and the craziest thing of all is that we don’t get to choose which one we are given, the divine slurry moulds itself into you and these teensy little vocal chords that have very limited infinite possibilities.

I sometimes jokingly call myself a light lyric coloratura helden bassbaritenor, because I don’t necessarily fit easily into any of the classical voice categories. What I love to do is a very wide range of repertoire. I love premiering new works, there are so many composers out there, especially in Canada, that need to be heard. I also love art song (lieder) and modern opera, and traditional opera, and baroque music and romantic music and jazz and folk songs and and and.

If I am asked to sing it, and think that I can somewhat pull it off, I will give it a try.

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

I really love listening to Podcasts, if you have any suggestions, please let me know. My guilty TV addiction is Poldark, plus I love anything to do with superheroes.

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

Because we now own a house, I really (and I mean really) wish I was more handy. I haven’t severed a limb yet and have only mildly electrocuted myself, but I could use a wee bit more skill in that department.

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

As singers we spend a LOT of time on our own, in hotel rooms, airports, stuck in traffic, because of this my favorite thing to do is spend time with my cute little toddler son and my amazing wife Erika.

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Baritone Tyler Duncan

More questions about singing in Messiah.

1) Please talk for a moment about the challenges of Messiah for the baritone.

The challenges of the Messiah for baritone is the range. If it says “baritone” in the program then some people will wish to hear more of the low bass notes, if it says “bass-baritone” or “bass” in the program then people wish to hear more of a clear high register in an aria like “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. You really can’t win… Other than that, keeping the music fresh after performing the work for over 2 decades is a challenge well worth accepting. The baritone arias are extremely varied in approach and register, showing a very large range vocally emotionally and technically.

2) Please tell us about working with Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel, and how he is in rehearsal and in preparation.

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Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

Ivars loves this music deeply. I respect so much that he removes his ego from the process and tries to just give you Handel’s music. He is highly detailed in rehearsal, but has a great ear and listens carefully.

His alter ego, Herr Handel is a huge surprise the first time you witness it, and gets better each reincarnation.

3) What is your favourite part of Messiah?

It is very difficult to pick a favorite part of Messiah, I first performed it singing bass in the choir with the Vancouver Cantata Singers under James Fankhauser (Colin Balzer was also in the choir). I remember the excitement of singing with the orchestra and soloists, and I was hooked. It is very difficult not to sing along with the choir the whole time. I love the fugue writing in “He Trusted in God” and the “Amen.” I also love the call and response between soprano and strings in “Rejoice,” and the ridiculous coloratura in “For Unto Us a Child is Born”

4) Messiah can be seen as theatre, as music, and for some so religiously inspired as to be genuinely sacred. Where do you place the emphasis among those three (drama, music & spirit) in preparation & in performance?

Heart, mind and body are all needed to sing this amazing music. No matter what your beliefs are and how strongly you feel them, this music demands, needs you to go all in. When you sing “I know that my redeemer liveth” If you don’t know it, the audience will know it, you know? Every single time that I perform this work it uplifts my spirit. It is not just tradition that keeps Messiah a relevant and lasting work, it is the fact that there is something bigger than all of us that Handel has channeled through these little dots on the music stand, something that leaves both the audience and performers with a sense of connection that goes beyond religion. We all need a message of hope and love, reflection on those we have lost, and those we are bringing into the world.

5) Is there a teacher or influence you’d like to acknowledge?

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Conductor & pedagogue James Fankhauser

The aforementioned James Fankhauser (or “Fank” as we called him) was not only our choir director at the University of British Columbia, and with the Vancouver Cantata Singers, but he was also my voice teacher during undergrad. He set the bar very high, especially with works like Messiah, or song cycles like Schubert’s great “Die Schöne Müllerin.” I still try to emulate his musicality in everything I do. His approach to phrasing, so focused, subtle and beautiful, and his use of language remain my foundation.

*******

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir present Messiah
Directed by Ivars Taurins
Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Tyler Duncan, baritone

Wed Dec 14 – Sat Dec 17 at 7:30 pm, Koerner Hall; and their annual singalong Messiah conducted by Herr Handel himself on Sunday Dec 18th at 2 pm in Massey Hall.

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Sir Andrew Davis’s big beautiful Messiah: on Chandos

Last year the Toronto Symphony revived a new concert edition of Handel’s Messiah, first heard in 2010, created by their conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis. At the time of the December 2015 concerts I declared that I wanted to hear it again.

And I’ve got my wish unexpectedly, as Chandos have released a new recording based on the TSO’s performances from last year. Excuse me for sounding uncertain. I don’t hear any audience noise so I don’t believe they were captured from those December concerts at Roy Thomson Hall although the Chandos website says it was “recorded live”.

I pored over the liner notes but saw no explicit clarification other than a cryptic picture of technicians with the caption “in the control room during rehearsals”. But were those rehearsals for the live performances or rehearsals for a recording without a paying audience?

They didn’t say, and come to think of it, I don’t care.  I love what they’ve recorded.

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Must we be limited to only one?  Great works are routinely interpreted and paraphrased, given to us in many guises, and Messiah is no exception.  For those of the historically informed persuasion –a group with whom I sometimes align myself–this recording may be a transgressive pleasure, a high-calorie feast you mustn’t permit yourself if you’re on a strict diet.  But that’s just it, why can’t I sometimes hear this approach?  We have Beecham’s quaint sound that seems older than baroque in its obsolete ambition to knock your socks off during the Hallelujah chorus.  Davis gives us something with many of the same muscular impulses, but in pristine 21st century high-def sound.

It’s more or less the same as what we heard in December 2015 –with John Relyea, Andrew Staples, Erin Wall and Elizabeth DeShong—and the same cuts I observed at the time. The one I miss most is the middle section of “He was despised”(i.e. “He gave his back to the smiters”), especially considering the richness of DeShong’s voice.

Davis’s orchestration is like a witty commentary upon Handel, a gloss, a self-aware adaptation that sometimes positions itself in the tradition of Beecham’s big muscular sound with brass and percussion to underline key climaxes & phrases.

And sometimes it’s at least encompassing if not entirely following historically informed performance practice; for example in the Overture Davis first gives us something elaborated, then in the repeat offers us the stripped down version to which we’re accustomed. In places he’s playing with us, those listeners who know this work inside out, who have craved something without knowing exactly what we wanted. In “All we like sheep” and again in “Thou shalt break them” there are unmistakable touches of whimsy, an understated humour, an innocent playfulness.  But the precise descriptor eludes me. And so as I struggle to put this into words, I’m borrowing from a friend.

Whimsy is a lost love that the world has tossed into the bottom of the toy chest of forgotten treasures of youth. The world is too full of itself and drowning in ego to rediscover the magic of whimsy. Perhaps one day it will open the chest and rediscover what has been lost.

If you can let go of your ego, you’ll enjoy the pure beauty of this recording, along with its witty touches.  There’s nothing odd about it even though we’re sometimes hearing marimba, snare drum, and combinations of instruments as you haven’t heard before in a Messiah. 

The difference between seeing this in Roy Thomson Hall and on CD? In the hall it was clear, although at times the solo voices were partly covered by the big orchestra. On the CD it has high-definition clarity, a crystalline and edgy sound to match the clarity of Davis’ new edition.

Sometimes when I’m listening to a historically informed performance, I’m flying on the wings of historicity, high on the druggy aura of accuracy, as my disbelief is suspended. My modern ear has to sometimes be checked at the door, making allowances, the same way we ignore infelicities in a staging or some other aspect of a performance that collides with the exigencies of what’s required by a modern audience. The trumpet we hear in period-instrument versions of “The trumpet shall sound” are often the most problematic perhaps due to my romantic idea (and i know i am totally wrong as far as the baroque understanding of the piece): that if this is God’s trumpeter (perhaps an archangel?), surely God would find someone who can play the instrument in tune? But alas I’ve heard period versions where you could see an entire audience wince together. Heresy or not, Davis gives us a trumpet that sounds properly divine, not merely competent but stunningly beautiful.

Is Toronto Messiahville? One can have so many diverse Messiah experiences, between the period one from Tafelmusik, the modernized versions such as the Against the Grain choreographed Messiah or the Electric Messiah from Soundstreams to be offered again this year. And to this group we can add the Davis’ orchestration that underlines all the key phrases and punctuates all the most dramatic sections with extra brass & drums. It’s as though the Beecham version has been updated for modern ears & recording technology.   I think you’d find it compelling, as it’s not hindered by some quest for authenticity, indeed it’s going in another direction altogether. Instead it aims for more basic goals: beauty and spirituality.  You’ll get no arguments from me. It’s now a permanent resident in my car, uplifting the saddest traffic jam.

TSO Messiah 2015_Sir Andrew Davis

The Toronto Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis, conductor laureate (photo: Malcolm Cook)

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Balancing on the Edge: of…(?)

At Harbourfront Centre I had the pleasure of attending a christening, for Balancing on the Edge is the tender infant resulting from a romance. Thin Edge Musical Collective met A Girl in the Sky Productions. New Circus and New Music flirted with one another. The immediate result? Balancing on the Edge, which might be understood as a series of children resulting from the encounter. It’s no shotgun wedding, indeed they don’t have a ring (excuse the pun).

By “new circus” I hope you understand the cluster of disciplines that used to be housed under the big top or perhaps clustered with Cirque du Soleil at a venue in Vegas or elsewhere. The animals are missing, possibly because that’s just too expensive to contemplate, but the aerial disciplines + clowns seem to be present and accounted for.

By “new music” I think we’re talking about something that’s sometimes not so new. Some may recall a television program from the last century on CITY-TV that co-opted the name from the conservatory-classical realm for the purpose of showing us new rock music: so the phrase is more than a quarter century old, and at least in romantic terms is older than the partner.

If my extended metaphors don’t drive you nuts, I hope you’ll see what I’m driving at. But let me quote the “message from the artistic directors” printed in the program to show you what I’m suggesting.

Welcome to Balancing on the Edge! Tonight’s synthesis of New Circus and New Music was inspired by an encounter where the producers of each discipline saw the creative work of each other for the first time and fell in love with the risk taking and visceral physicality being expressed. It sparked the recognition that these two unique art forms could come together to form a singular and powerful vessel with which to express transformative stories that are part of the human experience and investigate questions we don’t always have the answer to such as: What happens when we die? How do we cope? Are we alone? How can we connect in a world of technology? Where do we belong?

In a time of increasing precarity these concepts seem more pressing than ever to explore. We are so grateful to have had the chance to work closely with such an incredibly talented team of visionary artists over the past three years to realize this project! Tonight’s show will explore themes as diverse as motherhood, tectonic plates bicycle accidents, communication, helping hands, and deconstructing social formulas all underpinned and conversing with sound explorations on turntable, grand piano, string quartet, saxophone/bass clarinet, voice, live electronics and a batter of percussion instruments while breath-taking high-flying circus artists dance and juggle, on floating rocks, silks, rope, ladders & bicycles in columns of light against arresting images.

On behalf of the entire team, We’re thrilled to have you join us to experience first hand 6 incredibly personal expressions of what it means to be ‘balancing on the edge’!
Rebecca, Cheryl + Ilana

And so as a family outing we took in the six pieces. There were eight segments in all interrupted by an intermission. Each half consisted of three attempts at hybrid creation plus a “transition” from clowns Erin Ball and Sonia Norris:

  • Magma – Rebecca Carney & Diana Lopez, music: Phonengraphenlieder(2014) Nicole Lizée
  • Naked to the Sky –Manuel Cyr & Louis Barbier, music: Naked to the Sky (commissioned for this occasion) Scott Rubin
  • Transition (Ball & Norris hysterically funny cleaning up /getting the audience to clean up the mess from the previous item)
  • Underneath—Emily Hughes, music: Okho (1989), Iannis Xenakis

–INTERMISSION–

  • Ascension—Holly Treddenik, Angola Murdoch, Stacie Dunlop, music: Aria & Fontana Mix (1958/59), John Cage
  • Excavating Meaning—Brandy Leary, music: Amanha (commissioned for this occasion), Nick Storing
  • Transition (Ball & Norris diverting us while a bit of tidying occurs. I got to dance with Norris when she pulled me out of the front row)
  • Ghost Bicycle—Rebecca Leonard & Natasha Danchenko, music: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993), David Lang

The family outing was a huge success, I’m a hero for suggesting it. While their favourites were not my favourites we loved the clown transitions, and agree that Erin Ball is hugely inspiring to watch, an aerialist and clown who won’t let a little thing like an amputation come between her and performance.  And she was funny.

So forgive me as I do my usual perambulation through the dramaturgy question, as I ask myself just what I’ve seen and how it works, and in the process see if there’s anything that can be learned.

I am no expert by any means in circus, just an eager and omnivorous aficionado. No that sounds pretentious. I like circus in everything, whether it’s opera, music-theatre, or a la carte. My background in music is more secure, even if the realm of music is just so huge that it’s impossible to know it all. After the dance piece I saw last night at CanStage from Bill Coleman, I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s time to come up with new terminology. What Coleman did might not be recognizable as dance, and similarly, much of what I saw today might not meet the criteria some people usually assign to “circus”, new or otherwise. Let me say that I am a bit of an agnostic about names, that disciplines, as a set of rules & procedures, can sometimes be huge impediments to creation. Of the six pieces, some were more conventional than others, or in other words, some did not really seem to be a marriage of new music and new circus after all, so much as a bit of polite hand-holding or smiling from across the room. The ones I thought of as the most daring and radical for their brave and vulnerable submission to the invasive ways of that bold suitor, weren’t necessarily what my family liked.

Is the desire to be popular perhaps an impediment? But maybe I’m using the wrong word, when “popular” can sometimes be synonymous with “intelligible”. The most daring pieces today were the hardest to understand. Two pieces were lovely aerial solos that, as far as I could tell, could just as easily have been done with something picked out of the record collection at home: or in other words, there was no real marriage of the two disciplines, no penetration (and you can take that rude word any way you want).
Three of the six were most problematic when they were ambiguous: when they were neither this nor that. And at those moments they were genuinely daring because they were new, perplexing, and adventurous.

  • Louis Barbier (if I’ve identified the right artist) portrays something resembling a mad Tudor King, rolling and roiling about the stage, at one point furiously ripping the music from the performers music stands (I was the only one who laughed but wow what a funny moment of insanity, and what does it say that i identify?), eventually resolving our wonderment by becoming a juggler. The music going with this by Scott Rubin, one of the original works for this event, was at times, jazzy, at times soulful and subtle. For this piece we did seem to see symbiosis, something bigger than the sum of the parts, and an inter-penetration of the two media.
  • The fullest integration between disciplines was surely in Ascension, the only piece where the aerialists (Holly Treddenick & Angola Murdoch) made sounds, and a singer (Stacie Dunlop) did acrobatics and some aerials. We were in John Cage’s bizarre sound-world, sounds and phonation resembling a language or meta-language, presented with all the trappings of meaningful speech in a mysterious social context.Processed with Snapseed.
  • Ghost Bicycle was the one that raised the most questions for me, something I’m inclined to call an aerial dance piece, as I watched two performers do a pas de deux in the air. Again, I’m not sure if the music for this piece is really anything more than accompaniment, but the result is so magnificently inspired, I think it must be seen as a step forward.

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Is disciplinarity safety? Or in other words, when we recognize procedures and codes, when we know where we are and what’s being done, does that allow us to relax a bit, removing ambiguities by offering a predictable horizon of expectation? are we being in some sense protected, given a kind of safety by the creator? Their choice may indeed by designed to offer them – the composer, the scenarist, the musician, and/or the aerialist—the rest and not us, by allowing them to be predictable for a moment. I joked in yesterday’s review about dance that, in doing what dance usually does, for instance flaunting a physique, in moving in ways that dancers habitually move (and I cited The Producers great line´”one two kick turn”), that gives our minds a break. I have this insight, that as far as information theory goes, thinking specifically about music, that redundancy brings us calmness, and by that I mean for example, the repetition of a Philip Glass or the lyricism of a composer of bygone times. More information, as in surprise or discord or drama takes us away from calmness. The same sort of calm can be found in familiar procedures, in knowing what’s going on, whereas ambiguity can cause tension; indeed it freaks some people out.

And so, the ones where the music is predictable in seeming to be subservient –and need I add, doing what music usually does with dance or opera—were all beautiful, were the ones that my companions loved. And maybe I ask too much, hungering for that old chestnut of the 20th century, namely significant form.

Maybe I ask too much.

I was thinking back to Fred and Ginger. What was it that they said? “He gives her class. She gives him sex.” Perhaps something very similar is going on when you pair New Circus with New Music. New Music needs the physical appeal that circus brings, the half-clothed figures twisting in silks above our heads are at least as sexy as Ginger Rogers. And similarly, New Music legitimizes circus with its intellectual appeal, indeed with an audience of intellectuals likely hungry for beautiful bodies to stare at.

Forgive me if anything I say sounds cynical. I would love to see more such encounters. So far we’re still at the flirtation stage. I’d like to see if future experiments are as fertile as these. Read more about A Girl in the Sky (here) and Thin Edge Music Collective (here).

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Chaotic Dollhouse all too real

Here’s what I found on the Coleman Lemieux website concerning Dollhouse, their new work currently being presented by Canadian Stage:

Dollhouse is a work created for galleries, cross-disciplinary exhibitions, music centres, theatres, and all manner of other places of learning and discovery. One day set up, two performers, one technician.

Dancer/choreographer Bill Coleman inhabits the experimental music installation of avant-garde composer Gordon Monahan. Tap dancing, performance art and action intermingle with mechanical and electronic manipulated objects, handmade and found, rendering rhythms equally sonic and visual. Disruptive and surprising Dollhouse walks a unique line of Artaudan fiction and slapstick with the performer acting simultaneously as instrument and conductor.

Considering the situation we find ourselves in today the visual metaphor of a man drowning in his surroundings is timely. Bill Coleman, a master performer plays the role of modern fakir as he suffers through what at times are almost comic situations on his way to a symphonic chaos of sight and sound.

I am glad I didn’t see any of that until later, as I came without any expectations, wide open for what I experienced tonight.  It’s about an hour long, and yes it does straddle the boundary between serious and comical, a bit of a challenge to interpret, but in the best sense.  At times I felt we were experiencing Butoh, but without any Buddhism.  This is a very slow & patient examination of the here and now, sometimes slow and gentle, sometimes as urgently disordered and stormy (to insert a context onto something abstract in its disorder) as if we were out on the heath with mad old King Lear.

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Bill Coleman (photo: Paul-Antoine Taillefer)

We may tend to take for granted that music or sound functions in support of action or dance or singing, that the conventional aim is Gesamtkunstwerk, or in other words a total art that employs all media strategically together.  In a scary movie, the music tells you when to be scared, while in a romantic movie we can tell when to have warm fuzzy feelings.

But what if one disrupts or ignores those usual relationships & procedures?

What if the sound were generated by the performer’s movements?

What if the sound wasn’t easily amenable to explanation, but instead seemed to be a complex, even an independent phenomenon without any clear purpose or function, seemingly autonomous?

What if what you saw onstage resembled real life? It’s almost inconceivable in a world where dance is always purposeful, virtuosic, strategic.

I don’t want to give things away, as a believer in spoiler free reviews, but you should know that we’re in a realm of serious performance art, that for me was extremely powerful. The fact that we aren’t in the usual place of virtuosity means a great deal.  This is not one-two kick-turn dancing and pardon me if I invoke the director brought in for Springtime for Hitler, in The Producers.  But dance is sometimes so dreadfully unwilling to let go of its fetish for bodies and showing off.

Sure (to quote The Producers again), “if you’ve got it flaunt it”.  But dance can be so much more.

Or less.

The most important touchstone I can mention is one seen in Toronto in June 2012,  during Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven sonata marathon in 2012. You may recall that  Melati Suryodarmo danced on butter, deconstructing the whole idea of virtuosity.

Watching her you recognize a whole other set of co-ordinates for dance beyond Olympian ideals such as higher-faster-stronger, or the notion of beauty & elegance.  She’s falling down! ….and that is her dance.  Speaking as an older guy, who sat in a theatre full of older people, it’s fabulous to watch someone slipping and falling, struggling not to fall, or coping with real hazards and obstacles.  For a disabled person, for an older person (recalling my conversations recently with my mom about a friend who has fallen and hurt herself): this is the most urgent drama of all.

This is the most realistic and life-like thing I’ve ever seen danced.  Disability is something dance seems to hate (recalling the time I was trying to talk to a couple of choreographers back in the 90s and they seemed grossed out by my bad posture, which btw is caused by arthritis, and unable to even converse without trying to lay hands on me to adjust my stance….which is hysterically funny in retrospect), perhaps troubled fundamentally by the ultimate insult to the instrument, that the body breaks down.

But it does break down. It ages.

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Bill Coleman (photo: Paul-Antoine Taillefer)

And Bill Coleman was speaking to this older audience, in his struggles to move.  At the beginning I was shocked that he had his body making noises (I won’t tell you how, as this is something you discover, part of the magic of the show), reminding me gulp of my own joints that sometimes make crackling noises.  We are imperfect instruments all of us, and even those who are close to perfect are aging and losing their virtuosity to the ravages of Father Time.  Not me, i lost any notion of perfection a very long time ago.

There’s an image in this show that I will give away, because knowing about it can’t prepare you for the visceral experience of seeing it.  Coleman at one point steps forward in a jacket with a bunch of arrows in his back, as though he were Achilles the moment before death.  How does one take the stage, when riddled with arrows?  I suppose you’ll have to see the show to find out. But don’t expect one-two kick-turn.

Some of it is funny, some of it poignant, peaceful, painful.  It gets pretty loud at times.  For me this is the most genuine dance piece I’ve ever experienced, possibly because it isn’t really dance.  It’s music that is –to use composer Gordon Monahan’s concept—sculptural.  Some of the sound comes from noisy objects, some from the creations he’s put onstage, reminding me of Rowland Emett or Rube Goldberg in his gadgetry.  The stage is alive de facto, making its own noises and movements, and Coleman moves and makes sounds himself.

This isn’t the Nutcracker.

You may be put off if you dislike art or theatre that resists telling a story and instead requires you to think, as this is a challenging piece. I quite love it.  In places I laughed although it was nervous laughter from someone who saw fragile humanity onstage tonight.

Dollhouse continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre this weekend until Sunday November 20th.

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Looking back across the Bridge to the Future

It was a concert to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution as well as the 135th Anniversary of the Birth of Béla Bartók, presented by CHAMP: the Canadian Hungarian Association for Music Performance. While the title of the event was an optimistic “Bridge to the Future”, we were all looking back.

I couldn’t help wishing that some members of my family –both living and dead—had been able to attend, to hear and see performances that likely meant more to them, (Hungarians who had at one time lived in Hungary) than to me (a Canadian of Hungarian origin).
This morning I heard a very cute little promo as part of the regular morning conversation one sometimes encounters between Mike Duncan of Classical 96.3 FM and Tom Mihalik of “Tom’s Place” usually offering deals on men’s suits, but this time promoting the concert & pianist Mary Kenedi. The concert was under the patronage of the Consul General, Dr Stefánia Szabó who spoke at the beginning, also crediting Kenedi, who not only organized and promoted the event, but whose music presence recurred throughout the fascinating program.

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Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

  • Liszt –“Les Jeux d’Eaux a la Villa d’Este”: Mary Kenedi, piano
  • Von Dohnányi—“Serenade” (string trio): Sharon Lee, violin, Laurence Schaufele, viola, Sybil Shanahan, cello
  • Kodály—Four Hungarian songs: Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, William Shookhoff, piano

–intermission–

  • Kodály—Cello Sonata Op 4: Sybil Shanahan, cello, Mary Kenedi, piano
  • Lehár—“Vilia” from The Merry Widow, sung in Hungarian: Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, William Shookhoff, piano
  • Kálmán—“Luck is a Golden Dream” from Countess Maritza sung in English: Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, William Shookhoff, piano
  • Lehár—“Meine Lippen” from Giuditta sung in German: Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, William Shookhoff, piano
  • De Fries—“Honvágy” sung in Hungarian: Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, William Shookhoff, piano
  • Bartók—3 Folksongs from the District of Csik: Mary Kenedi, piano
  • Bartók—15 Hungarian Peasant Songs (No 6, nos. 7-15): Mary Kenedi, piano
  • Bartók—Roumanian Dance 8/a No.1 : Mary Kenedi, piano

While events such as this can be fraught with speeches and thank you’s, it was a genuine celebration, mostly music in the end, and a very full program.

champ-200x198I couldn’t help being intrigued by the evening’s title, thinking that however much some composers seemed to be A Bridge to the “Future” that’s all past now.

Kodály and Bartók were featured in Kenedi’s playing, wonderfully idiomatic sounds full of rhythmic life that seemed firmly connected to the folk music that underpins their compositions. The Dohnányi trio is new to me, a fascinating sound I will explore again.

Perhaps most extraordinary was the opportunity to hear Krisztina Szabó singing something in her native tongue. I spoke to her yesterday –via social media—when she very modestly expressed concerns about her accent, even though she seemed extremely authentic to me, especially in the way she played up the characterizations in the songs.

Hers is a voice that seems to straddle boundaries, as she is so much more than just a mezzo-soprano.

And the repertoire brought out a side in William Shookhoff that we don’t usually encounter when he’s playing in support of his colleagues at Opera by Request, as he was much more daring in his sound alongside Szabó’s voice. I realize now how much he usually holds back in his playing, but tonight he cut loose to wonderful effect.magyar_logo

There is also a free film festival, “Freedom First” offered by TIFF, commemorating the anniversary of the uprising.  Read more about it here.

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations, Reviews | Leave a comment