Toronto Consort’s Utopian Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters

I totally loved what I saw tonight from Toronto Chamber Choir in collaboration with the Toronto Consort led by their artistic director David Fallis, so much so that I’m taking a moment to double-check. I’m writing about something very complex, likely to omit something, in the small account I offer.

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As I’ve said more than a few times, I especially admire and appreciate ambition in the arts. I was excited by Götterdämmerung last night, a massive work, very difficult to stage because the people who can sing it are rare, and expensive too because of its scale & scope.

I’m even more impressed if I think I see that ambition applied towards something activist or transformational. Lately I am finding politics in unexpected places, seeing activism in simple things like concert programming, possibly because everyone I know including my mom, keep talking about a certain newly elected person whose ubiquity seems to hijack all conversation. I don’t doubt that my taste & preferences are all distorted.

Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters is the title of the program presented tonight and to be repeated tomorrow at the Jeanne Lamon Hall at the Trinity St Paul’s Centre. There are two parts to the program, both of which were quite remarkable. The second half might be understood as the raison d’être for the concert, being a work commissioned a few years ago, namely John Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia. First performed in Midland, Meaford & Parry Sound in the summer of 2015, here’s the first paragraph from Beckwith’s program note:

“Late in 2013, John French, founder and artistic director of the Brookside Music Association in Midland, conceived the idea of commissioning a special work to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage to the region of Huronia (known as Wendake to the natives), the first encounter of First Nations people with European explorers in what is now Ontario. The commission was supported by the Ontario Arts Council and I was asked to take it on. I decided to compile a text from various sources, aiming for a sort of chronological summary of the Wendat experience, before and after Champlain. It is mostly in French, with a few insertions in Wendat. The result is a “choral documentary” for choir, alto soloist, narrator, and an early-instrument ensemble including First Nations drums.“

The result is also a surprisingly political piece of art. The de facto texts make it genuinely like a documentary even as the music takes us into something more celebratory and even spiritual.

The evening for the 2017 presentation by Toronto Consort, however, framed the Beckwith work with an opening half curated to offer a proper context, and by that I mean to avoid any sense of exploitation or cultural appropriation, and instead to honour all the peoples represented: a tall order indeed. Can one experience the first encounter without preamble or prejudice? The ongoing drama surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline is a factor. And then there’s the plethora of memes in social media with classic images of aboriginals, spouting ironic lines such as “Immigrants threatening your way of life? That must be tough” or “Let me get this straight, you’re afraid of refugees coming to America, killing you and taking your property?” So for better or worse, the first encounter narratives –real, bogus, or satirical—are close to the surface of our consciousness.

I think there’s a hunger for something redemptive, a utopian dream that might be best understood by going back in time to avoid the unfolding of history. What if we could go back and avoid what happened? And so the concert takes us back to a special time, offering  a vision of a peace conference from back around 1700, when the atrocities hadn’t happened yet, when it was possible to imagine a dignified coexistence between Europeans and Indigenous peoples.  Where the first half of the concert gives us something stunningly beautiful in its vision of peaceful co-existence, Beckwith’s six-movement piece does take us into the lamentation for the European takeover. It’s a tiny hint, not proportionate to the massive tragedy / holocaust that is to come. But at least it was created in collaboration with George Sioui, a scholar of Wendat descent, who grants a legitimacy to the project.
The first half reminded me a bit of a folk music concert from the 1960s, in its idealism, and perhaps also because the music did at times echo that gentle directness.

The Toronto Consort were joined by:

  • Sioui –not just a contributor to the second half, but a performer in the first half, speaking as a narrator and singing
  • Jeremy Dutcher, a young vocal artist on the boundary between aboriginal and European in his creative idiom. He builds on old aboriginal recordings from roughly a hundred years ago, a bit like a 21st century Bela Bartok in his anthropological cataloguing, but taking us instead towards something at times resembling blues or new age pattern music.
  • Marilyn George & Shirley Hay, singing & drumming

I’m going to listen to more of Dutcher’s music, an intriguing mix of styles.

I can’t help thinking that Fallis and the Toronto Consort may have been influenced by the highly original programming of Alison MacKay, in seeking to go beyond authentic instruments & performance practices, to capture the cultural context surrounding the music in concerts with Tafelmusik such as “House of Dreams”.

Don’t let my failure to unpack its complexities stop you.  This wonderfully rich & rewarding concert, Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters is repeated Saturday February 4th, including a  pre-concert discussion with panelists David Fallis, Georges Sioui, and John Beckwith at 7 pm, an hour before the 8 pm concert.screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-1-41-17-pm-300x109

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One Response to Toronto Consort’s Utopian Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters

  1. Pingback: Kent Monkman: Our Shame, Our Prejudice, Their Resilience | barczablog

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