This afternoon we said goodbye to Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in the same manner we’ve known them, namely through yet another premiere of a new work. QPMT’s finale under the auspices of the Canadian Opera Company’s free noon-hour series in the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium in the Four Seasons Centre gave Chris Paul Harman’s song cycle La selva de los relojes (the Forest of Clocks) its debut.
How apt that the ending of this era should be signified through a work intimately connected to time & its observance.
And it felt like a special time. As is fitting for the last scene of a play or opera, everyone seemed to take the stage. Dáirine Ní Mheadhra and John Hess, Artistic Directors of QPMT, each had their moment; she conducted, he gave the introductory talk, and afterwards they shared a bow for their 2+ decades of work. Onstage we were again treated to the subtle artistry of Krisztina Szabó, who had previously sung in Svadba. Nearby in the audience I saw Wayne Gooding of Opera Canada, critic Robert Everett-Green, and fellow partners-in-bloggery Joseph So & John Gilks. And I was thrilled also to see at least one of the key QPMT board members, namely University Professor Emerita Linda Hutcheon; I can’t help but think that the whole phenomenon of these concerts, which feel like a kind of artistic outreach, seems to continue the tradition of multi-disciplinary explorations that she started in the COC’s Opera Exchange.
Harman’s cycle, which uses texts by Federico Garcia Lorca, reminds me of something Mallarmé said. When approached by the composer Claude Debussy who meant to set Afternoon of the Faun to music (and in the original version, a much more elaborate setting than the eventual tone-poem) the poet said “but I’ve already set it to music”. No wonder that Debussy chose to leave the words alone and write music without words. Perhaps Harman felt some of the same sentiments coming to Lorca, whose poetry is full of dream imagery, let alone the musical colours of the words. In his introduction to the concert, co-artistic director John Hess said he’d hoped to persuade Harman to compose an opera: which hasn’t happened yet.
But who knows..?
Harman gives us a composition that’s very respectful of Lorca, as though we were hearing the poems read with a kind of subjective gloss, the music (both the instruments of the chamber ensemble as well as the singing voice) super-imposed over the text as though we were hearing something like Blake’s illuminations. The words came through clearly, but radiant with the colours of the ensemble Harman chose: flute/piccolo; clarinet; cello; harp; celesta or piano; percussion, and the human voice in two variants (sung & spoken). In addition we had sounds of wind blowing through instruments, the ticking of metronomes, and perhaps other sounds I am not recalling. I am not sure what Lorca would think of the various sounds rendering his subjective landscape (pardon me, the phrase “magic realism” lurks in there too), but then again, Mallarmé recanted once he’d heard the magnificence of Debussy’s rendering.
I was surprised at the accessibility of this work. Harman’s language is mostly tonal, which may partly be an implication of the occasion, our celebration of the passage of time.
I couldn’t help observing that for all the personnel, for all the timbres on display, that we did not end in a complex place. Why more instruments? I am thinking there’s a very good reason that has more to do with celebration than with complexity. I wrote something a few weeks ago, that you can read if you have lots of energy, observing the way we perceive additional instruments. It’s a social thing too –one I equate with Spain btw—where we think of dance music and party music; while additional players may seem redundant musically they add to the sense of occasion. More instruments can mean more celebration, both in terms of volume (even if Harman’s dynamics are under-stated throughout) and in the visual impression of all those bodies on a stage.
I don’t have much to offer on the performances, other than to observe that Krisztina Szabó was once again front & centre, a singer whose readiness to explore new material places her in a select group. Although I was sitting very close, Szabó sang so softly at times that I don’t know how many p’s would be needed to notate such delicacy.
And so I wonder. Are Queen of Puddings really gone? Or will they (and/or their key players) reappear in a new recipe / guise? Will we hear Harman’s cycle again, or indeed, will he finally write that opera?
That’s a question for another time.