I’d like to call the Canadian Art Song Project a recent initiative, but I think the truth is that they’ve been around since 2011 and so I’m late to the party. Today was my first encounter with CASP. They were kind enough to invite me to an earlier event, on a date when I was busy.
Their mission statement is impressive:
To foster the creation and performance of Canadian art song repertoire by commissioning Canadian composers to write for Canadian singers; to facilitate a collaborative process between the composer and the performer; and to promote artistic excellence and the Canadian experience in the living art of song.
Who is CASP? As far as I can tell, they’re artistic directors Lawrence Wiliford and Steven Philcox, who saw a need and have found collaborators on several sides:
- In the community of singers
- In the community of composers, including SOCAN, who have contributed funding for some CASP events such as today’s concert
- In the Canadian Opera Company, whose noon-hour concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre had previously provided one of the venues for CASP
While I can’t comment on what’s gone before, today’s outing at RBA seems to fit nicely with that mission. Three established singers sang a varied program by four composers, giving a hint at the breadth of songs that have been and are being written by and for Canadians. Today’s program can be seen here:
As you’ve probably heard me say in this space before, we come to encounter the work and the performer, both objectives being encompassed in CASP’s mission & in today’s concert.
Forgive me if I keep asking existential questions as I go. I’ve been having conversations like this with a friend over the past 24 hours (he asked what makes a score operatic, as opposed to just being a musical theatre piece), so I find myself pondering…
- What if any is the difference between an “art song” and any other sort of song?
- Is that difference—if there is one—apprehended in the song or the singer?
- Just as there are better or worse texts for libretti, are some of these texts more suitable as songs? …what makes a good song text?
And are we really as literate of the ins & outs of art songs, compared to other media such as opera or ballet? I’m hesitant even if I’ve come at these questions from several angles: as a composer, as a performer, as a scholar, and yes, as a listener. Each of the composers, and each of the performances can be understood as answers to such questions.
The concert began with Dissidence (1955), three songs by Pierre Mercure setting trois poems de Gabriel Charpentier. I found it ironic that Mercure leads off with the oldest compositions of the day, when I’m sure I’ve encountered his work leading off in the more normal place for Canadian compositions (at least in a conservative symphony program) but as the newest work to be played, serving as what R Murray Schafer called a ‘piece de garage’. That allusion is not the only sign that I’m perhaps out of touch. Mercure’s three songs are very tonal—as are all composers heard today—employing accompaniments that are often brilliant. Soprano Monica Whicher did not conceal the irony of these songs, which is another way of saying that the texts mean much more than I could glean from a first encounter.
The next group was for me the highlight, four selections from A Play of Passion (2012), by Derek Holman to texts from diverse sources sung by tenor Colin Ainsworth. On this occasion I felt we were coming at art song from a quasi-dramatic direction, reminding me of recent dramatic presentations such as Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba and Against the Grain’s Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág program, each built from songs. And come to think of it, Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág features Ainsworth singing Janáček. The fact that Ainsworth employed a style that was the most operatic of those on display might explain my preference. Ainsworth’s voice showed phenomenal range –and I don’t mean his high notes, although those were on display too—in colour and mood. I think he sang the quietest and the loudest notes heard, or maybe that’s just because the music had me listening so intently. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Ainsworth recounted how the work had been presented previously, likely a factor in his mastery of the texts. I can’t forget how Canadian music has often been consigned to the scrap-heap, performed only a few times; that Ainsworth comes back to the texts—as opposed to merely premiering the work—gives his performance added depth & insight. I mean, yes Mozart & Puccini are wonderful, but one reason they’re so remarkable is from decades of interpreters adding nuances, singers growing up on these works. Would that someone in this country could write something that could become common currency (thinking of everything from “caro mio ben” to “Down by the Salley Gardens”).
Different again were Whicher’s next group, three recent songs by Matthew Emery. I was moved by Whicher’s words of introduction, acknowledging Emery’s unique voice, which was fulfilled by his songs. He has a gift that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in a Canadian composer, a gift that is sadly all too rare. Emery is simple and direct. His melodic lines often go exactly where you expect them to go, rising to the high note that crowns the accompaniment, rather than fighting it. Many lines end on the tonic. It’s maybe a little thing but oh my, in a program full of precious composers showing how clever & artsy they can be, he’s a breath of fresh air. Whicher is absolutely right, and I agree with her that Emery’s voice is one we need to hear in future.
The program’s last set was world premiere of an intriguing group from James Rolfe, with texts from André Alexis, and is a genuine cycle. Titled Moths, we’re taken through a night-time of associations, a poetic flight of fancy that sometimes also comes to life musically. I was more delighted by Brett Polegato’s loveliness of tone –one of the nicest baritones to be found in this country—than the actual songs. There’s so much going on in the texts that at times they’re almost upstaging the music. Considering the subject, I believe this cycle of six songs could easily be twice as long, half as fast. The delivery is at times so frenetic as to bely the sleepy world that purports to show itself to us.
For this last cycle we heard CASP artistic director Steven Philcox at the piano, a strong collaborative effort. The previous three sets were ably played by Kathryn Tremills.