The word “new” is getting old pretty fast. It’s used every time we encounter something a bit different. Nowadays everything is either retro, new or some combination of the two. I am hesitant about using the word in the headline even though it’s probably apt: for once.
Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre presented a sampler from their latest project Death & Desire (coming June 2nd – 5th) under the auspices of the Canadian Opera Company’s free noon-hour concert today at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Death & Desire combines songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Messiaen’s Harawi in one program.
Some works are puzzles to be solved. Here for instance is a performance I found on youtube of one of the songs in Harawi to suggest that the puzzle has several solutions. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it pales alongside what I heard today, not so much a solution to the puzzle as a declaration of puzzlement.
“AtG” as they’re known have already partnered with the Canadian Opera Company at the Banff School the past two summers, and the distinction between the COC and AtG might be getting a bit blurry.
- We heard AtG Music director Topher Mokrzewski at the piano, so recently a member of the COC’s musical staff
- We heard introductory words from AtG AD Joel Ivany, soon to direct the COC’s Carmen
- It was a delight to once again hear Krisztina Szabó singing challenging 20th century rep. With one performance left in the COC‘s Erwartung, which I called “one of the strongest performances of any COC season,” her next stop is AtG on June 2nd.
AtG have a reputation for adventurous programming, having brought la boheme to the Tranzac Club, Messiah to a rock music venue including brilliant choreography, Pelléas et Mélisande to an outdoor courtyard location, among several forays into rethinking the ways and means of live performance. A few weeks ago I watched a workshop of Mozart’s Requiem that challenged the performers, leaving me wondering how it will look in its final form.
When I heard that Death & Desire would incorporate song cycles by Schubert and Messiaen I was eager to hear what they’d do, certain that the encounter between the old and new would serve to both invigorate the more recent work while refreshing the overly familiar older one. I am glad they decided to try interspersing the two works, which has the potential for the creation of a new genre.
Just as it’s said that all philosophy is mere footnotes to Plato (Google tells me Alfred North Whitehead said that), we have some interesting debts to the poets & musicians who came before us. In a real sense every song cycle seems to build upon the foundation laid by Schubert. I envisaged that when we began, we’d be exploring that debt, as indeed two of the first songs were “Das Wandern” and “Wohin”. The burbling waters created by Schubert in these songs seem to turn up in other compositions, Messiaen included. When Rachmaninoff offers his piano paraphrase of the latter song, it’s as a well-known tune that he puts it before us, an adaptation not so very different from a famous singer or musician’s cover of a jazz standard.
The two singers – Szabó in the Messiaen and Stephen Hegedus in the Schubert—begin far from one another. I didn’t expect they would encounter one another, perhaps because in my literal-mindedness I saw one piece as foundational of romance, the other as very daring and modern.
Silly me, I should have realized. Indeed the two do encounter one another. So far at least (in the sample I saw) Ivany & the AtG adaptation aka Death & Desire have an interesting way of putting these two people in the same world. Of course I should recognize that the narrative thread of the Schubert, while rooted in the early 19th century, is still a fairly reasonable description of male romance in the 21st century, whereas the subtleties of rational and irrational expression found in the Messiaen, that leave Hegedus and the archaic heterosexual males gasping in its wake? they are boldly contemporary.
For example Hegedus sings “Mein” whereby Schubert (or Ivany) would tell us what’s on his young lover’s brain.
If you weren’t already impressed with Szabó for her work in Erwartung, Messiaen seals the deal. Even the most authentic & officially authorized performance of “Doundou Tchil” (the same song I cited above) with a piano part played by Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod pales alongside what i heard today in Toronto. Yes it’s odd to cite other performances, but they’re not as good. You must go see what Ivany, an obstreperous Szabó and a silent, frustrated Hegedus make of this fascinating composition, as if giving an in-your-face reply to the innocent adolescent maleness of “Mein”. Just as the two COC works she’s concluding –Erwartung and Bluebeard—are essentially battles between male and female, so too with Death & Desire. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but as of this afternoon, the 21st century female seemed to be slam-dunking the 19th century male all over the basketball court, aka the RBA performance space.
The one i didn’t really mention is the key. Topher Mokrzewski doesn’t just play this music, he enacts it, playfully working with Messiaen. If someone can coax Peter Oundjian to see this perhaps he’d discover the logical soloist for the Toronto Symphony to play Messiaen’s Turangalila, which is where Topher’s brain was recently (out west). The meeting between Schubert & Messiaen begins at the piano, and it’s a loving encounter.
I’m curious to see what AtG does with the other songs, how they stage it, light it and dress it.
And I’m curious where this leads us. As with the “Doundou Tchil” that was so electrifying, the combination of works opens up all sorts of interpretive possibilities, for irony and self-reference, and all sorts besides. One could be very funny and/or parodic doing something like this, although I suspect that won’t be their first impulse.
Death & Desire is on June 2nd – 5th at the Neubacher Schor Gallery, 5 Brock Avenue.