NACO Songs for Murdered Sisters

Every year at this time, the Toronto Symphony and National Arts Centre Orchestras visit one another as part of a tour. NACO and Joshua Hopkins brought the cycle Songs for Murdered Sisters by Jake Heggie and Margaret Atwood to Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto last night, a special program that has been in the works for years, but delayed by the pandemic.

It was a concert of considerable emotional impact. If the NACO sought to impress their Toronto neighbours, they succeeded.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins (photo: Dario Acosta)

In the Dedication in the program, Hopkins explained a bit about the creation of the work.

One week after my sister Nathalie’s murder in September 2015, my wife and I met with Daphne Burt and Stefani Truant at the NACT Orchestra to discuss the development of a new musical work that would both commemorate Nathalie and address the worldwide epidemic of gender-based violence.

Margaret Atwood wrote the words, a series of poems that Jake Heggie set to music as a cycle sung with piano and then orchestrated. The orchestrated version of the work received its world premiere earlier this week at Southam Hall in Ottawa.

Hopkins told us that he created the cycle to “both commemorate Nathalie and address the worldwide epidemic of gender-based violence,” again raising a question that has dogged me all my life. If art moves people, can it change their hearts and their behaviour? I grew up listening to the protest songs and rock music of the 1960s and 70s. I’d like to think that the culture of that period changed how we understand racism, war, inequality. Music, film and theatre have been powerful to awaken awareness of injustices even though the problems don’t vanish. This cycle similarly opens up questions for us. We’ve seen how Kent Monkman’s paintings have been powerful tools to help us understand the experience of residential schools. Atwood’s poems and Heggie’s music aim to be part of the bigger conversation that follows.

I wonder how this process changed Hopkins, the idea for the cycle growing with the NACO, Shelley, Atwood and Heggie. We listen to the songs, able to read and re-read the texts in the program, and see Hopkins enact a response. I have to think this was a healing act for the singer, reconciling him in some ways to the loss of his sister, a cathartic exercise at the very least, that becomes almost like a sacrament, a ritual bringing her back every time he sings the songs. I think we bring our loved ones back when we celebrate them.

Poet, novelist and lyricist Margaret Atwood

Awood’s song texts offer a variety of opportunities to Heggie the composer. His sound world reminds me at times of Mahler, possibly because of the darkness of the texts but also because he’s tonal, going back and forth between major and minor, sometimes dissonant in his response to pain, sometimes sweetly lyrical. In the songs where the text takes us away from the brutality of murder, Heggie seemed best able to get Hopkins to sing, as in “Bird Soul” (exploiting bird sounds from the orchestra) or as in the second song, “Enchantment” seguing directly out of the first song into a magical exploration of how his sister might be brought back. The text of “Dream” was one of Atwood’s deepest explorations, suggesting an image where the singer sees his sister when they’re younger, and then when they’re older she’s further away; Heggie made this a very simple but powerful song. I wished for something stronger from Heggie in the song “Lost”, the song that seems to step outside the cycle to comment upon the many sisters lost, although Heggie makes it a very simple and direct statement from Hopkins: which might have been what they wanted to do (excuse me for second-guessing). The closing Coda: Song addressed the catharsis idea as a healing act for Hopkins, and that this performed ritual serves to revive Nathalie. It’s a wonderfully positive way to finish the cycle.

Composer Jake Heggie

It’s hard to comment upon Hopkins’ performance when the entire event was so personal, so far beyond the usual parameters of performance. To say the baritone showed commitment would be absurd. At times I thought Hopkins was looking out into the auditorium and perhaps seeing his sister. It was very moving, a stunning experience. I don’t really want to call it a performance, as it seemed so genuine and authentic, rather than the outcome of vocal skill and acting, which we’ve seen from Hopkins in happier roles such as Papageno. At the end when Shelley and Hopkins embraced before the rapturous audience, it seemed like the culmination of their journey rather than something performed.

Songs for Murdered Sisters deserves to be studied and performed. A couple of the songs are strong enough to stand alone outside the cycle.

There were two other works on the program. We began with Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Overture, a work that was a decent warm-up although not really a peer to the other sizzling works on the program. In addition to the song cycle, which was very well-received we heard Brahms’s Fourth Symphony after the intermission. As we watch the TSO gradually become accustomed to Gustavo Gimeno, their new music director, it’s a fascinating experience to watch a conductor like Alexander Shelley leading the NACO in a work he conducted from memory: and seeing how well an ensemble can follow.

NACO music director Alexander Shelley

For the first movement I was surprised at an opening phrase that was so slow and gentle as to almost sound like a loving caress. It was so different from any version I’ve ever heard, that I wondered if this was even intentional and how it could work for the rest of the movement. But gradually, inexorably they got faster and faster, one long gradual accelerando, a phenomenal display of interpretative control, as the players took Shelley’s direction, perfectly coordinated at any tempo. When we came to the recap, wow there it was again, that slow approach, as gentle as a remembered dream, before we start to get serious, more intense, again accelerating, building.

For the second movement Shelley and the NACO did the opposite to how they began the opening movement as the horns powerfully put out the motto we would hear throughout, quickly and boldly stating it: and then the orchestra joins in oh so gently. Throughout the movement we experienced several tempo changes and a broad range of dynamics. The third movement was a delicious roller-coaster ride, quick yet controlled. The final movement again showed us extremes, Shelley taking some passages as fast as I’ve ever heard them, the orchestra precise and accurate. It was the most exciting live experience of the work that I’ve ever had.

The NACO tour offers this remarkable program again in Kingston, February 14th at the Isabel Bader Centre. (click for tickets & further information)

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