L’Histoire du Toronto Summer Music

It was all there tonight, on the stage of Koerner Hall.

Sometimes concerts are microcosms that allow you to see and grasp everything in one lucid moment. It’s the second year of Jonathan Crow’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and already I’m seeing some wonderful indications, portents of what’s in store.

The progam was yin and yang, really, two contrasting items. We began with a lovely bit of music that functioned like the straight man, contrasting to what was to follow. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was warm, alternatively playful and sentimental. I suppose at one time this score was a cool surface, but in context with what was to follow, this was the softer gentler part of the evening.  While the second half would involve staging, the first half was a concert of music only.

We were listening not just to Crow & colleagues from the Toronto Symphony Chamber Soloists –especially Miles Jaques clarinet & Kelly Zimba flute—but Summer Fellows from the Festival sharing the stage: Katya Poplyansky, Jennifer Murphy & Samuel Park, violins; Cassia Drake & Damon Taheri, violas; Francesca McNeeley & Rebecca Shasberger, cellos, and Ana Manastireanu, piano.

How many hats does Crow already have? He’s the TSO’s concertmaster, the artistic director of the TSM Festival, but tonight we watched him also mentoring a group of wonderful young players.

And after intermission, things went in a totally different direction, as Crow turned to his colleague Alaina Viau for a production of L’Histoire du Soldat by Igor Stravinsky. Viau works on the production side of the TSO when she’s not also creating works as artistic director of Loose Tea Music Theatre.

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(l-r) Derek Boyes as the narrator, Suzanne Roberts Smith, the Soldier, and Jennifer Nichols, the Princess.

I don’t know whose idea it was to program these works, as part of a festival whose theme is “Reflections of Wartime”. The title of Stravinsky’s work links it to war, although there’s not much actual soldiering or war in the piece. But it’s exactly the centennial of the work from that amazing decade when Stravinsky burst upon the world stage particularly with the Ballets Russes & the ballets premiered with Diaghilev. L’Histoire contains lots of moments that almost echo passages you’ve heard in Le Sacre du Printemps. But this is a work whose edginess pushes wonderfully against the safer sounds we heard in the first half (which is why I suggested Copland played straight man to Stravinsky). And it’s a delightful work of theatre, possibly anticipating the kind of things you could see in a cabaret  in Germany years later.

And so, after the intermission we watched six players sharing the stage with Derek Boyes our devilish narrator, Suzanne Roberts Smith, as the actor portraying the Soldier, and Jennifer Nichols, who joined in partway through as dancer & choreographer, portraying the Princess. It’s a version of the Faust story, the hero mostly at the mercy of this devil, naïve & innocent & largely helpless, but heroic nonetheless. Smith filled the stage with her persona, especially eloquent near the end. The unexpected gender of soldier is a welcome choice from Viau, one that made the work feel very new to me. As for Nichols, I think it’s astonishing to watch this eclectic work, listening to narration as though in a storybook or melodrama, and suddenly watch the romantic dancing between Smith & Nichols. The fact that one is a beautiful & accomplished dancer, while the other is not? A very theatrical element, actually. Instead of watching virtuoso dance, we were watching an encounter between two people. Boyes, Smith & Nichols were ably supported by Crow –especially in his wonderful solos playing the violin on behalf of Smith—and the TSO Chamber Soloists: Jaques, Zimba, Gordon Wolfe trombone, Jeffrey Beecher bass, Andrew McCandless trumpet, Michael Sweeney bassoon, Charles Settle percussion.

Part of the magic is in the knowledge that each of these programs is a one-shot deal. No further performances, alas! But that does make the ones we see that much more special.

TSM Festival continues until August 4th .

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