Competing icons at the RCM: Gould, Liszt and others

It’s a branding exercise to give a building a name. Roy Thomson has his hall. Both Rogers and Four Seasons have Centres.

They already have The Glenn Gould School in the Royal Conservatory of Music. So why not also give him a wall?

Or so I’m thinking since seeing Gould’s Wall, a site specific opera Tapestry Opera premiered for the Royal Conservatory on Bloor Street West with music composed by Brian Current and a libretto by Liza Balkan.

At the most literal level it would seem to christen the inner Atrium wall. After seeing this show will we ever look upon that bumpy old surface again without thinking it’s in some sense Gould’s wall?

Although come to think of it, for me it will be Lauren Pearl’s Wall. She’s the one risking her life flying up and down on wires. I hope that isn’t heresy.

Lauren Pearl as Louise in Gould’s Wall (photo: Dahlia Katz)

To be truthful, I’m aware that it’s an illusion that she was truly risking her life. Yes it seems dangerous, indeed that perception of danger is a goal. But the reason you have careful rehearsals is to ensure that the aerialist is not truly in danger.

There was a magic moment when Lauren seemed to “whoops” and everyone leaned forward in terror, reminded of the danger she faced, hanging above the floor so far below. I’d have to think this was a contrived moment, not a genuine slip with real danger. We watch stage-fights where actors seem to die, we see all sorts of things simulated that are not real. Creating that illusion of danger is a big deal.

I recall hearing an anecdote from a friend, telling me of a time when safety personnel watching her practice (aerials using silks), who decided that she must be in danger. But that is what practice is for, to ensure that what seems dangerous is not truly life-threatening.

As if that weren’t enough Lauren faces additional challenges singers don’t usually encounter. Ever notice how singers will carefully plant their feet, set themselves up to sing? It’s rare for example to see someone sing while lying down or while walking or while moving. That’s because the act of singing is already a physical activity involving our muscles, especially the diaphragm. To sing while also moving about throws things into flux, undoing the careful foundation of support that singers usually want to establish for their vocal production.

I remember a workshop (I wish I could recall the singer who led it) at the Festival of Original Theatre (aka FOOT) in 2005 at the University of Toronto. We were rolling round on the floor in a rehearsal room while trying to sing. For those of us who thought we knew how to sing? It was humbling, a shock to discover that wow it’s so much harder to sing steadily when the tumbling action screws up your support, your vocal production, as though suddenly you’re a beginner. The workshop leader could do it. I suppose with practice we also might have learned how to do it, to practice this new discipline.

Clearly Lauren Pearl knew how, singing Brian Current’s score including some remarkably high notes while flying around on the end of a wire.

As I was thinking about the space I remembered another powerful presence from musical history whose spirit informs the downstairs corridors of the RCM, not far from the site to be used for the performance of Gould’s Wall.

There’s a seven foot tall sculpture of Franz Liszt, aka Liszt Ferenc as we Magyars might like to say it.

Statue of Franz Liszt by Géza Stremeny, donated by Tamás Fekete,

It’s common for Hungarians to adapt. It was never Solti György, but rather Georg Solti. I suppose in the music business it has always been a better career move to use the German version of a name. For Solti and Liszt that seemed to work better.

Liszt is an artist who might seem to signify the direct opposite sort of persona to Gould, which is why I spoke of “competing icons”, at least in my mind.

In an article from 2014 Hungarian Free Press by György Lázár reports as follows:

A whole-figure statue of Ferenc Liszt has been inaugurated at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Jeff Embleton the Manager of Public Relations mailed me the photo of the 7 feet (2.25m) tall sculpture which was generously donated by Mr. Tamás Fekete, a Canadian with Hungarian roots, who arrived to Canada after 1956… The sculptor is also Hungarian, Géza Stremeny.
(link to report )

At this point no one is nominating Liszt to compete with Gould as the spirit of the RCM. I’m simply a huge fan, and believe Liszt is under-rated. If you only know him from his most famous pieces (the Mephisto Waltz, the 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, the well-known Liebestraum melody) you’d probably roll your eyes at my assertion. Liszt championed Berlioz & Wagner (to name but two composers) who would have had a much more difficult time without the piano transcriptions that helped popularize their music.

I couldn’t help noticing that while these two will share the same space inside the RCM, Gould and Liszt are opposites. Gould refused to perform in public, while Lisztomania (his reception by the public) was the prototype for the modern media frenzy of super-stardom.

Speaking of that wall, I think Current’s music resembles the architecture.

Brian Current

The RCM buildings combine old and new styles into a whole, in a style we might call “post-modern”. I doubt that Current was consciously imitating the eclectic mix, but his musical choices vary broadly, at times offering us a romantic sound-world, at times dissonant. There’s a moment when the libretto speaks of dodecaphony (if I recall correctly), a word I would assume means the twelve-tone approach to music we know from composers such as Schoenberg: but I couldn’t be sure whether that’s reflected precisely in what Current composed. My understanding of po-mo is a refusal or even a repudiation of modernism, including a willingness to recycle and repurpose the old, to combine and mix, to be pluralistic and eclectic rather than adhering to a single objective.

Opera by Wagner or Richard Strauss would be the modernist prototypes, with unified styles supporting the aim of Gesamtkuntswerk, or total art. The post-modern would turn from their ideal indeed Gould’s Wall is not at all like something from Wagner or Strauss. It’s more meditation than story, what Pirandello might have titled “a series of scenes in search of an ideal”. This is a pragmatic score, the music serving its purposes much like the different parts of the RCM building.

I was very grateful that Tapestry offered us a printed copy of the libretto.

The last page of the libretto. Notice that it says
“PLEASE RETURN ON YOUR WAY OUT”

Being a nerd I followed along dutifully, as I wanted to be sure I knew what was going on.

Is that crazy? Greg Finney, who was seated beside me, seemed to be watching the action: which is arguably the sane thing to do especially when a performer seems to be risking their life in front of you.

Greg would be the first person to tell you: he knows how to enjoy himself. Indeed he’s the life of the party.

Three writers, namely Greg Finney, moi and Lydia Perović

I wanted to be sure I knew what they were singing, especially if I was going to presume to offer comments on Current’s and Balkan’s opera. I wish I could see the score.

I am going to repeat something I keep saying over and over. Projected titles are a huge asset. RUR (in May) worked really well because we knew what they were singing, thanks to the projected titles. Perhaps there was no place to project titles at the RCM so that we could all see them (recalling the very wide but narrow audience). Too bad, as the ideal would be to watch the aerialist instead of staring at the printed libretto.

Gould’s Wall continues until August 12th.

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