Taking up Lance’s nationalist challenge to the CBC #Canada150

Lawrence Wiliford (AKA Lance Wiliford) posted the following on Facebook today:

I challenge @CBCMusic @CBCclassical @CBCArts to air 15 mins/day of music by Canadian classical composers during 2017. Not film or crossover.#Canada150. Canadian Music Centre Canadian League of Composers/La Ligue Canadienne des Compositeurs The Huffington Post Canada Canada Council for the Arts | Conseil des Arts du Canada Canadian Art Song ProjectJustin Trudeau Mélanie Joly Canadian Heritage (I urge others to issue this same challenge to the CBC).


Tenor Lawrence Wiliford (photo: Bruce Zinger)

Lance has been putting his money where his mouth is as co-artistic director of the Canadian Art Song Project,  whereby Canadian composers (let alone singers) are encouraged and supported through concerts, commissions & recordings of new vocal compositions: unlike the CBC.

I don’t know whether anyone has issued the same challenge, but I’m jumping in here.

2017 is significant as the 150th anniversary of Confederation aka the sesquicentennial. A few important promises have been made:

  • The Toronto Symphony begin in January 2017 with “Canada Mosaic”, a celebration of Canadian music including 20 unique programs, over 40 newly commissioned orchestral works, in a co-operative venture partnering with 40 other Canadian orchestras, and including an e-learning platform

  • The Canadian Opera Company are programming Somers’ Louis Riel, one of two operas originally commissioned for the centennial.
    • Tafelmusik offer a new multimedia concert—Visions & Voyages: Canada 1663 – 1763 —by Alison Mackay (she’s the one holding the double-bass)

And yet the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation / Radio Canada is arguably a much bigger richer institution than the three Toronto institutions I mentioned.

What are you going to do CBC? I think we have a right to know what – if anything—you’re planning. How about it, CBC..!?

I had a look through my google-lens. Here’s something they announced, which doesn’t mention Canadian composers or music as far as I can see: but it’s still only the end of August. Perhaps there’s time for some kind of response?  I remember a CBC that used to be the steward of music in this country, encouraging and funding all sorts of creativity.

It could be so once again.

Posted in Essays, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations, Popular music & culture | 2 Comments

Ariodante DVD

One of my objectives in my popular operas course (to begin in September at U of T) is to survey the operas being presented by the local companies. In anticipation of the Canadian Opera Company’s fall season production of Handel’s Ariodante –an opera that’s new to me—and one set to open in a few weeks’ time, I found a video at a library, a recording that’s still available.


You could do worse than to watch this erotically charged interpretation directed by David Alden, an English National Opera co-production with Welsh National Opera, from the London Coliseum, featuring the ENO chorus & orchestra conducted by Ivor Bolton.

Although the story is from Orlando Furioso it has some similarities to one of the romantic plots of Much Ado About Nothing. But where the Shakespeare plot sees a woman slandered to a fiancé denouncing her to a father who refuses to believe the slander, in this tale the betrothed is her champion to a condemning father.

This is a relatively simple plot to follow. Polinesso is an ambitious schemer, plotting against the happiness of a royal couple in love, Ariodante and Ginevra. Ginevra’s father is a king who approves of Ariodante both as a suitor and as his successor. The opera unfolds as a happy celebration for the first act, until a conversation early in the second act between Polinesso and Ariodante on the eve of the wedding, when Polinesso boasts he has been Ginevra’s lover. Polinesso enlists the aid of  Dalinda (a woman who pursues him), who disguises herself as Ginevra.  Polinesso fools Ariodante as well as his brother Lurcanio. The storyline turns from celebration to tragedy, as Ariodante despairs and then tries to kill himself, unsuccessfully. Ginevra is imprisoned, her fantastic dreams enacted in dance to end the second act. The last act leads to eventual redemption for all, as Lurcanio avenges his brother (whom he believed to be dead) by killing Polinesso. Ariodante re-appears, not dead after all, proclaiming Ginevra’s innocence and asking that Dalinda be forgiven. The story progresses from darkness to light and eventual celebration.

Ann Murray is very sympathetic in the trouser role of Ariodante, singing fabulously, as believable as one could wish in some very tight camera work. Joan Rodgers as Ginevra is especially good, whether as the joyful bride or the wronged woman going mad in her lonely cell surrounded by hallucinatory images.

Christopher Robson, counter-tenor, brings a genuine menace to the role of Polinesso, the evil genius at the heart of the story. Robson embraces the evil possibilities of the role, and invited by the direction to go a bit over the top. Lesley Garrett makes a great deal of the role of Dalinda, the one who obsesses over Polinesso and does his bidding in the conspiracy, and is later forgiven: a full night of singing and acting for any performer.  Tenor Paul Nilon as Lurcanio brings a wonderful bright sound to his arias, including lots of interpolated high notes. Gwynne Howell as a solid and sympathetic King anchors the production.

I’m eager to see the COC production (a co-production with Féstival d’Aix-en-Provence, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam and Lyric Opera of Chicago), set to open October 16th.  Conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Richard Jones, we’ll see Alice Coote as Ariodante, Jane Archibald as the wronged Ginevra, Ambur Braid as Dalinda and Varduhi Abrahamyan as the ambitious Polinesso (here’s a video from the young singer’s website).  Given that the plot requires us to believe that Polinesso is irresistible to Dalinda, I think this will be very interesting.

I can’t wait.

Posted in Opera, Reviews | Leave a comment

Love, Marilyn

Ever notice how patterns may appear around you?

The two films I saw this week (one on the big screen, one, seen now at least 3 times this past week at home) couldn’t be more different, at least on the surface.

Last night I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, a dramatization of the life of a rich woman who liked to sing. The performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg were wonderful, exploring something that’s never really been explored in film. We’ve got a society that seems to make a hierarchy of everything, evaluating, competing, judging.
A week before I turned on TVO at the right moment, catching some of Love, Marilyn, a documentary from 2012 by Liz Garbus. I hunted it down at the library, permitting me to see it another 3 times.

Because my first time I came into the doc having missed the first few minutes, I didn’t hear the key sentence concerning the film’s premise. I was bewildered to encounter a documentary that was full of performances, full of stars reading lines: lines apparently written by Marilyn Monroe!


And so later—watching the film in its entirety—I saw that premise explained in a little note at the beginning, that recently a couple of boxes of MM’s notes had been found. This is a documentary like no other.  We’ve watching a study of performance, of all life as performance.

It is repeatedly explained in different sorts of illustration throughout the doc that Marilyn created Marilyn, her persona was a creation. We see Lee Strasberg speak, we also see an actor portray Strasberg. We see some of those notes projected hugely on the back, and then an actor steps before us to read those words. Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Ellen Burstyn give us very under-stated versions of MM, Uma Thurman and Marisa Tomei are much more histrionic. There’s quite a large group of performers, including some very clearly influenced by MM such as the surreal Lindsay Lohan (so weird to see someone looking exactly like Marilyn speaking Marilyn’s lines, and someone so young). We are reflected back upon the process of signification, of getting inside words and speaking them. We encounter authorities, some like Strasberg or Billy Wilder, or Jack Lemmon from the realm of acting, others like Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer, commenting on the MM phenomenon.

And magically we are seeing not just the phantom film clips of dead people, but living actors performing those fascinating diary entries and poems.

So I guess you can see the connection. I felt that the Florence Foster Jenkins film was a profound meditation on what we do when we seek to make art. And here was Love, Marilyn probing the same interface, between the self and art. It’s hard to imagine two more different people than MM and FFJ, one the sexual icon, the other so damaged by syphilis, in a sexless marriage. Yet they both defied convention. If you accept the studio fiction that I heard as a child —that MM was sexy but talentless—it may be heresy to be presented with the evidence that she’s a key agent of the sexual revolution, a brilliant creator. I hope this isn’t news to you.

It’s a fascinating coincidence to observe ways that both MM and FFJ were exploited. FFJ’s record was the top-seller for that label. MM’s nudes, for which she was paid $50, make Hugh Hefner’s fortune, and that’s only the first in a series of times she is underpaid, unappreciated.

I see them both as powerful women, who were in other ways, victims.

And there is a huge mystery at the core of both of their lives. I alluded to the mystery of FFJ – wondering just how much she knew, whether she was afflicted with syphilitic dementia, or safely ensconced in the cocoon of a loving husband – and of course the last hours of MM are a mystery.

I think one of the things I love most about both of these films is how they honour the mystery and don’t push one simple interpretation. That makes me want to go back, see them over and over, to pursue the snake that eats its tail, to enjoy the unfolding of these lives, and for a few moments to believe they’re still alive.

Posted in Cinema, Theatre & musicals | Leave a comment

Florence Foster Jenkins, everywoman

When I was a child I was introduced to the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, on a record called “The Glory (??) of the Human Voice”.


There was a kind of illicit pleasure in listening to her singing, because

  • She did not sing well
  • She did not seem to notice that she did not sing well

Ours is a society of sophistication. Whether you paint or dance or sing or play golf, we aspire to do these things well, and usually are aware of our handicap / limitation.   When we fail to perform well we suffer, we are ashamed, we have stagefright.

The astonishing thing with FFJ: how much conviction she seemed to bring to her singing.

The great mystery with FFJ: did she sing this way without any inkling that she was not successful? that people were laughing?

Usually singing teachers discourage singers from undertaking repertoire that is beyond their capabilities.  Indeed, a teacher who does not stop a student from over-reaching can damage a singer’s confidence and even ruin a voice.

And so, in our adoration of the virtuoso, our aspiration to excellence both for ourselves and what we enjoy, the Florence Foster Jenkins mystery is profound.  Did she know that people laughed?

Florence Foster Jenkins is Stephen Frears’ new film with Meryl Streep as the singer and Hugh Grant as her devoted boyfriend, an actor who didn’t quite make it.  Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg is FFJ´s pianist Cosme McMoon, another virtuoso who didn’t quite make it.  I always thought that the pianist’s bizarre name suggested that it was a pseudonym, a good piano player who refused to be identified, but the story we get in Frears’ film tells quite a different sort of story.

I can’t help thinking that this might be the most profound meditation upon performance and art that I’ve yet encountered, precisely because, as far as FFJ is concerned there but for the grace of God, could go you or I.  Some of us are more talented than others.  I grew up in a household with a stunning voice –not my own but a sibling—that has forever got me thinking about such things.  We can be very harsh critics of ourselves.  FFJ is the other extreme, perhaps someone who was overly enabled by loving and supportive friends & loved ones.

How much did FFJ really know?  I think this film offers one set of answers, even while displaying other possibilities.

Along the way we also encounter a very enlightened film about relationships, about unconditional love.  For most of the film Streep is doing a remarkable impersonation of the messed up interpretations of opera arias I recall from childhood, although we get a tiny glimpse as if from FFJ’s perspective: as Streep suddenly gets to sing in tune, a poignant moment near the end.

In this electoral campaign where one of the candidates has ridiculed a disabled person’s speech, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about the topic.  In the darkened theatre I confess I giggled a few times even as I watched Grant as the boyfriend express outrage that anyone could laugh at her.  Why is this kind of laughter okay and sanctioned by our sophisticated attitudes, while we disapprove of what Trump did?  We go into a church or a school and when the little children in sunday school or kindergarten sing out of tune we think “aw isn’t that adorable” and withhold judgment.

But we judge ourselves harshly, because we expect too much of ourselves.  Competence and sophistication seem to be the rocks upon which we wreck ourselves as we age, as we become progressively less competent. For some reason we forgive some, while judging others harshly.  Florence Foster Jenkins is a delicate examination not just of this quirky story, but of the predicament of every performer, aiming to be great and squirming in the presence of failure.

Posted in Cinema, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations | 5 Comments

60th Anniversary of Hungarian Revolution: Two Commemorative Concerts


This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.  The influx of approximately 40,000 Hungarians in 1956 influenced society so much that it was declared a Canadian National Historic Event, and is part of Canadian heritage.

To commemorate this occasion two large-scale concerts with the title “A Bridge to the Future” are being organized by CHAMP:

Thursday, November 17, 7:30 PM.     —      Tuesday, November 29, 7:30 PM.

Trinity-Paul’s United Church, Toronto — Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau

Tickets available: www.champ1956.com  —  Box Office of Museum

The concerts will also commemorate the 135th anniversary of the birth of Béla Bartók with the performance of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Works by Kodály, Liszt and Polgár  (North American Premiere) performed by Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, Daniel Warren, trumpet, Peter Cosbey, cello, Mary Kenedi, piano and a chamber orchestra led by conductor William Shookhoff.

The concerts are under the sponsorship of Stefánia Szabó, Consul General of Hungary, and Bálint Ódor, Ambassador of Hungary. Both events will be attended by both Hungarian and Canadian dignitaries, and will be followed by a reception.


The Canadian-Hungarian Association for Music Performance (CHAMP) was founded to present professional concerts with a repertoire of Hungarian and contemporary Canadian composers. The music bridges the two countries, reflecting the assimilation of the Hungarian refugees of 1956. Music is a universal language communicating equally to all.

Contact:   Mary Kenedi, Founder, Pianist  —  Website: www.champ1956.com

                   info@champ.com  —  416-272-4904


“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.

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A Tale of Two Cities: the opera

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (shall we call it TTC for short?) has now been adapted by composer Victor Davies and librettist Eugene Benson as an opera, and given its world premiere production by Summer Opera Lyric Theatre and Research Centre (known as “SOLT”). That’s the same team who gave us Earnest, The Importance of Being (or EIB) premiered in 2008 by Toronto Operetta Theatre and revived just last year by TOT. When I say “the same team” I am loosely conflating TOT and SOLT, given that Guillermo Silva-Marin is the driving force & artistic director of both organizations. I’m hoping that history repeats itself; just as TOT premiered and then revived EIB, perhaps we’ll get to see TTC revived as well.


SOLT Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin

After seeing their work presented, Davies & Benson may make revisions. Hopefully we’ll get to see another version of the work. Silva-Marin continues to be an important broker for new work in this city. Although SOLT,  TOT and Opera in Concert (all run by Silva-Marin) are three companies where one expects to see classic works from past centuries those organizations also occasionally venture into new work. Last year we saw the World Premiere of Isis and Osiris by Peter Togni and Sharon Singer via Opera in Concert.

The final performance was Saturday night at the Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto, an educational opportunity for all concerned. While SOLT is a kind of training program for young singers (whether they’re undertaking an older opera such as Handel’s Julius Caesar or a new work like this one) this is an especially glorious opportunity for Davies & Benson to explore the strengths and weaknesses of their new work. I chatted briefly with Silva-Marin, who described the six week workshop process.

For a creative team, getting the chance to try out a new work in front of an audience is invaluable. The theatre becomes a kind of laboratory, a place for genuine experimentation. Given that theatres usually aim to make money, an unknown and untried work is particularly risky. It seems to be an excellent partnership. SOLT used Davies & Benson as the context to teach young singers unique lessons about opera performance (world premieres don’t happen every day!), while Davies & Benson got the chance to try out their new work with live audiences.

I think TTC is a much more ambitious project than EIB. With the Wilde play you start off with a well-tested and stage-worthy play, whose setting as an operetta aimed to hit the same high-points as the play: and mostly succeeded. TTC however is a novel, which makes the adaptation process much more difficult. Lines that are spoken as one reads to oneself are not necessarily lines that work when spoken aloud in a theatre, a hurdle that is further heightened when the line must be sung rather than spoken. There’s also the question of the incidents of the plot for an entire novel, which can make for a much longer work (as in one of the long serialized TV adaptations) or a more condensed account of the story, depending on the choices made in the adaptation.

Listening to Davies’ music, I saw different possible directions as far as the understanding of genre. Sometimes the music was more dissonant, particularly when the events of the story were most fraught and upsetting. Sometimes the music was aptly sentimental for romantic scenes. Davies exhibited his melodic gift at times, although I felt the work is still not finished, as it still could be tightened up. In places the work seems operatic, in other places it’s more like a musical, reminding me at times of Les Miserables. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though, as some musicals are wonderful pieces of theatre, that are sometimes undertaken by opera companies. I don’t invoke the genre question to judge (negative words especially) so much as to discover new opportunities, to better understanding the direction of a work and the best ways (and personnel) to exploit those opportunities.

Davies & Benson were well served by SOLT and Silva-Marin. For the most part characters were portrayed in a direct or sentimental way, sometimes resembling the melodrama of the mid-19th Century, their hearts on their sleeves. The exception was the barrister Carton, whose more conflicted emotions were subtly captured by James McLean, one of the seasoned professionals SOLT sometimes brings in to work alongside the students, an important part of their learning experience.

Michael Rose as music-director and pianist gave a stirring account of Davies’ score, while keeping things tightly organized even when the chorus was singing from far offstage. Davies sometimes threw lots of notes at the pianist, but the rhythms were mostly regular, the harmonies mostly tonal, and the singing rarely too difficult. As a result the singers were very easy to understand. I was pleasantly surprised that I understood almost every word without surtitles.

Posted in Opera | Leave a comment

CBD, part the second

After writing two pieces last night (one about the AGO, one about a trip to a dispensary to get CBD), I decided to take one of the pills, a gel capsule containing cannabidiol (aka CBD).

Please note, this is just the testimony of an average guy. I’m no expert, cerrainly nor a medical practitioner. I’m just a citizen trying to find the best way to live, and sharing my observations, which shouldn’t be generalized as a prescription. Anyone else thinking about alternatives needs to decide for themselves.

When I took the pill last night I had no alcohol in my system, just the caffeine from a strong coffee after dinner, plus whatever residue remains from the 2 coffees I’d had earlier in the day. I felt something within fifteen minutes of taking the pill.  It didn’t get me high, not one iota. As it was bedtime, it worked beautifully that I began to feel relaxed. This was ideal preparation for what I was doing first thing today  (Thursday morning), namely a dental hygiene appointment.

My arthitic symptoms include neck stiffness, tightness in the jaw, numbness and/or pain in various places such as my legs, my shoulders & my arms. In past years my dentist told me to take a valium before my appointment to help me combat that stiffness.   It’s a practical concern because it’s hard for a dentist or hygienist to work when my mouth doesn’t open all the way.  That inability to open can make the appointment quite uncomfortable, so in addition to the valium for muscle relaxation, I’d also take a Tylenol to lessen the pain.

This morning I went to the clinic for my 8:30 hygiene appointment, still feeling the effects of the pill I took last night. I remembered what I had read in the paperwork I was asked to sign by the clinic, that had admonished me to be mindful, that if I was in any way intoxicated: I must not drive.

But there was no intoxication, no altered reality. I woke up briefly in the night, thinking again about those concerns about driving if I was impaired. But I was fine. I woke up very well- rested this morning, having had a deeper than usual sleep. I had my usual breakfast, and took the recommended Tylenol in case I had any pain. When I brushed my teeth after breakfast I noticed that my jaw was looser than usual, that i could open my mouth quite wide.


So that’s the first thing to report. When I began the appointment, I felt quite a bit different than usual. As I was being lowered back in the chair by the hygienist, I felt ten years younger, with none of the discomfort –or pains– I usually experience at this moment.

None whatsoever.

When we began the cleaning and I opened up, it was noticeably different. My usual is to be reminded sometimes to open wider. Today I was looser than last time, looser than any recent time I’ve been.

I thought of the times when I took the valium (which I didn’t do the last couple of appointments, having run out of the prescription and not bothering to re-fill it), which made me feel a bit dizzy. I hated the sense of being drugged, not fully there in the moment.

How ironic that something based on cannabis would help me to be more in the moment and less intoxicated.

The outcome of the appointment was much more positive than usual, as I enjoyed the experience rather than cringing.  Afterwards, talking to friends, I must have sounded euphoric with the unexpected sense of freedom.  I felt taller, although that may simply have been because i wasn’t hunched over in pain, wasn’t limping or aching.

Maybe part of what I felt is a placebo-effect, but even so, i felt amazing.

This is the beginning of a conversation with my doctors, as I will want to discuss how to use these pills and to make informed choices, to learn from the experience. I know that I will always want to take CBD before a dental appointment, but perhaps there’s more, given CBD’s supposed anti-inflammatory properties.

It’s nice to have options.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception | Leave a comment