Pathways to the past with TSO Carmina Burana

Some concerts are put together so well that you can’t help admiring the clever curator, combining compositions.

Ai caramba I didn’t mean to be so alliterative.

But even so they made magic at Roy Thomson Hall tonight in a Toronto Symphony program featuring different approaches to the past. Korngold’s Violin Concerto (premiered in 1947) was followed by Orff’s Carmina Burana (premiered in 1936). To hear the pieces you might never guess which is the more recent composition. While Korngold wrote a three movement concerto using stunning melodic moments that the composer had employed previously in his films (his recent past, if you will), Orff set a series of medieval texts, in music that for me never gets old and never sounds old.  I feel as though the middle ages come vividly to life.  Each piece might be what we would identify as “popular”, whether in the lush melodies in the Korngold or the crowd-pleasing sounds of Orff’s piece.

Speaking of past, I know I’m not the only one who gets nostalgic listening to the Orff. I ran into Joseph So after the concert, who reminisced about his associations from his undergraduate days listening to the piece. It has multiple associations for me, whether in the nerdy Latin scholars I recall from high-school who loved its bawdy text, or the room at St Hilda’s College I recall vividly from my undergrad, where we smoked up to one of the finest pieces of stoner music ever written. As I looked around at the audience, I saw at least a few people tapping their feet and jerking their heads as though they were at a rock concert.

And maybe I should talk about the concert.

James Ehnes gave us a stunning reading of the Korngold from the very first note of the piece.  Conductor Donald Runnicles kept the orchestra’s sometimes thick texture completely out of Ehnes’ way, enhancing a spectacular performance. There was a bit of additional drama in the last movement when for some reason Ehnes & concertmaster Jonathan Crow traded instruments (tuning problems?

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Jonathan Crow (left) and the TSO sharing the applause after the concerto with soloist James Ehnes and conductor Donald Runnicles. Photo: Nick Wons

A string needing to be adjusted or fixed? I can only guess, but will ask and if I find out I’ll let you know: see below) for about a minute. While I’m sure Ehnes plays an exceptional instrument, Crow’s violin ain’t chopped liver, from what I heard last week when he played a gorgeous Meditation from Thais at a benefit concert next door in St Andrew’s Church. The drama –concluded when Crow & Ehnes traded back shortly after—suited the high spirits of the concerto’s finale.

Donald Runnicles close up (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor Donald Runnicles leading the Toronto Symphony (photo: Jag Gundu)

I’ve heard a lot of versions of Carmina Burana and must recommend Runnicles’ distinctive interpretation. He connects the sections together rather than making big pauses, he pushes the tempi in the quicker passages, which is especially electrifying if you get your percussion & brass to opt for clear & crisp attacks. You won’t hear a better performance. This orchestra is in fine form coming towards the last few concerts of the year (this week & next).

Credit too must go to David Fallis, who has the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir matching Runnicles’ requirements for clarity. The text was pristine, the dynamics sometimes beautifully restrained except in the big climaxes, so that the performance had more shape than usual (more than last time certainly). The soft singing still had great intensity, diction and consonants and energy but without being loud all the time. As a result? Extraordinary. If I could go see every concert this week, I would.

The TSO will be playing the Korngold Violin Concerto with James Ehnes followed by Orff’s Carmina Burana, including the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Youth Choir & Toronto Children’s Chorus, baritone Norman Garrett, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla & soprano Nicole Haslett: 8:00 pm Thursday June 20th and Saturday June 22nd plus a 3:00 matinee Sunday June 23rd at Roy Thomson Hall.

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Tenor Sunnyboy Dladla (seated at left) and baritone Norman Garrett (singing), photo: Nick Wons

Posted in Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Reviews, University life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making a FUSS

Last night there was a big fuss downtown about a big sporting event. Traffic may have been slow but there was jubilation in the air. And although the game and championship were milestones for Toronto, yet that’s not the FUSS I am talking about in the headline.
“F.U.S.” also stands for focused ultrasound (FUS). The focused ultrasound at Sunnybrook Hospital is FUSS, where several different projects are underway.

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Ann & Errol

The concert last night, titled “LET’S MAKE A FUSS!” was a fund-raiser for research at Sunnybrook, organized by Ann Cooper Gay, whose husband and life-partner Errol Gay has ALS.

ALS may be known to you as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, an ailment that so far has been incurable. It eventually claimed the life of physicist Stephen Hawking. Errol Gay, pianist, conductor, composer & Toronto Symphony librarian has ALS. Recently we’ve heard that conductor & radio personality Kerry Stratton has ALS.

Dr Agessandro Abrahao spoke to us briefly about the exciting research that I’ll attempt to describe with the help of text I have borrowed from the Sunnybrook website:

Transcranial MR-guided focused ultrasound has been approved as a therapeutic alternative for treatment-resistant essential tremor. This noninvasive technique is being tested clinically as a drug delivery platform in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and brain tumours, by safely and temporarily opening the blood-brain barrier in targeted brain regions.
In collaboration with the Centre of Excellence in Focused Ultrasound at Sunnybrook, Dr. Abrahao’s research aims to expand the clinical testing of MR-guided focused ultrasound to treat neurological diseases.
Dr. Abrahao’s research interests also include clinical trials and epidemiological studies of ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases. He is also interested in the development of biomarkers for motor neuron function using transcranial magnetic stimulation and motor unit count techniques.

The concert was an uplifting & inspiring event.

Members of the Toronto Symphony began the event with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

Richard Margison sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” accompanied by pianist Monique de Margerie.

Lauren Margison sang “Tu che di gel” from Turandot accompanied by pianist Monique de Margerie.

Nora Shulman, Julie Ranti and Winona Zelenka played Haydn’s Trio I for two flutes & piano.

The Canadian Youth Opera Alumni Men’s Chorus, accompanied by Gergely Szololay sang first “My Funny Valentine” –showing us an arrangement by Errol Gay—followed by the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord, an opera composed by Errol Gay.

Russell Braun sang “Sure on This Shining Night” by Morten Lauridsen, accompanied by pianist Carolyn Maule.

Then we heard from Dr Abrahao.

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Dr Agessandro Abrahao

Peter Barcza sang “The Impossible Dream” accompanied by Ann Cooper Gay at the piano.

Pianist Linda Ippolito played Arlequin et Pantalon by Pierre-Max Dubois.

Adi Braun sang the “Cheeky Little Swing Tune” composed for her by Tony Quarrington, and accompanied by him as well on his guitar.

Jonathan Crow played the “Meditation” from Thais accompanied by members of the TSO.

And to close we heard “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide, sung by Tessa Laengert & Paul Williamson, plus the Canadian Youth Opera Alumni Chorus & Friends, accompanied by members of the TSO.

While the concert was very inspiring, so too was hearing about this research, that holds great promise.  The link is still live for you to make a contribution to support this exciting project: in search of a breakthrough.

Posted in Music and musicology, Press Releases and Announcements | 3 Comments

Isaiah Bell: The Book of My Shames

Should I have said “The book of HIS shames”? Isaiah Bell’s one-man show is about his shames, right?

But no. He is everyman, every-person, and so these are your shames & my shames too.

I couldn’t imagine a more apt show for PRIDE.  While I was all gung-ho to suggest that one should go see The Book of My Shames presented by Tapestry Opera, it’s over, tonight was the last performance. Sorry about that.

As I sat there watching & listening, I did what I often do when reviewing a show, trying to create a mnemonic to remember everything I might want to say. This fell into a perfect A- B – C.

A for Antinous, B for Book, C for comparison, D for dead.

And early on I was again thinking of G, as in Grand Opera and its dramaturgy. For the second consecutive night I’m feeling that Grand Opera is almost D-for dead. Bell was Antinous in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian, a courageous and expensive attempt to make a grand opera, yet so stiff and limited when compared to the works I’ve seen over the past year that are done on a smaller scale, such as Pomegranate last night or tonight’s The Book of My Shames. I was reminded of my petty irritation at Hadrian when Bell gave the name a four syllable pronunciation (An-tin-o-us), even though some in the cast plus the chorus gave the name a three syllable pronunciation (An-tin-oose). Back at the time, I asked myself “When you’re spending all that money shouldn’t somebody make sure you’re all pronouncing the name the same way?” But now I am just sad as I speculate that it’s all so complex and so big, a grand opera is so impossibly detailed of a thing, a vast machine that’s difficult if not impossible to control.

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Composer & tenor Isaiah Bell

Yet with this one-man show? Okay, nobody said Book of My Shames is opera. Bell’s writing is confessional text with some music, supported ably by pianist Darren Creech & Director/dramaturge Sean Guist. The flexibility on display, the ease with which Bell could connect, have us laughing our heads off? very impressive.

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Pianist Darren Creech

But maybe what Bell originally roughed out at his piano was then taken up by Creech in rehearsal before Guist’s observant eye / ear. The 80 minutes of this piece, some spoken, some sung, some accompanied by piano solo are all coherent minutes, emerging from a clear-headed objective.

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Director / dramaturge Sean Guist

B is for Book. It took me awhile to decide that the book we see is actually a metaphor and not literally true as the book in Bell’s life: because Bell’s presentation was so authentic. For awhile I was persuaded (like the Ghostbusters… my slogan could be “i’m ready to believe you”… and yes maybe I’m gullible) that this funky old book full of pictures was a real album from the youth of this person presenting his life to us, telling us horror stories and silly stories, and laying himself bare. But wow, what a brilliant image, this idea that our bad moments could be collected this way. Forgive me for hitting you over the head with the impact of the show, but it was very effective. This book is us, who we are and where we have been. The opposite of Pride is Shame. To get to self-acceptance one must at least begin the journey through self-judgment and on towards making peace with oneself and one’s past.

C is for comparison, as in, what’s the difference between last night & tonight? Eros (okay we’ll do E in the same paragraph with C) was surely there last night in the lesbian opera, as it was tonight, in the gay man’s one-man cabaret show. I was struck by something I didn’t properly air last night (when I alluded to Erlanger’s operatic setting of Pierre Louýs’s Aphrodite), namely that it’s a huge difference when a man writes an opera about lesbians, and women (lesbian or otherwise) undertake such a project as we saw last night. And when we watched the opening of Act III of Hadrian (if I am remembering correctly… Act III is after intermission, right?),  we see Hadrian & Antinous are in bed together. There were similarities between what we saw last night between the lesbian lovers and what we saw in Act III of Hadrian. Tonight’s solo show had some very intensely erotic recollections, even if there was a great deal of ambiguity in what we were hearing about. I think the key to all of these examples is what happens in our heads, that beauty & eroticism is in the eye/ear of the beholder/listener.

This was the closing performance of The Book of My Shames at Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District . I hope there will be another opportunity to see/ hear Bell’s fascinating creation.  Whatever show he might bring to town, I’ll be sure to go see it.

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Pomegranate

Less is more.

Pomegranate, bearing the epithet “a lesbian chamber opera,” is the latest specimen suggesting that grand opera is all but dead. Small is beautiful whatever your sexual politics, both for the lower price-tag and the ideal connection you make in a smaller space such as Buddies in Bad Times Theatre where the buzz is genuine, the enthusiasm palpable. Working with a seven member ensemble led by Jennifer Tung, Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori created a powerfully dramatic evening.

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Teiya Kasahara in her modern incarnation as a bartender (photo: Dahlia Katz)

It was interesting to see mention in the program of the rarity of a lesbian opera. I was reminded of the only one I could think of, Erlanger’s adaptation of Pierre Louýs’s novel Aphrodite. Louýs also wrote the Chansons de Bilitis, adapted a couple of times by Debussy. There are some parallels between the stories for Aphrodite and Pomegranate. Besides the lesbian content, both stories go back to classical times, both concern a power struggle between male & female, that can also be seen as a kind of contest between two different faiths or cultures (for instance when the oppressive centurion Marcus keeps blustering about Apollo). As one might expect, the political aspect is front & centre.

At two hours long Pomegranate is a full meal. Composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale created two very different acts. For the first act, when Hale & Marshall were establishing a ritualized sub-culture of Isis worshippers in Pompeii at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption, the back and forth between characters did not have the usual discursive alternation of dialogue, but instead was more like two people telling the same story together, as though they were both staring in wonderment at the same beautiful sunset. I’m reminded of a term Keir Elam used to describe the discourse of Maeterlinck’s plays (and emulated in Debussy’s setting of Pelleas et Melisande), namely “monological”. That’s what we were hearing, the rapturous exchanges between members of the same cult as though one person was singing. While it was not very dramatic, but why should it be? The effect was largely hypnotic, spell-binding and other-worldly.

Where the first act takes us to a magical world of ritual in the second act the magic has faded, as we’re very close to home, a fallen modern world that feels more like a musical than opera. The exception was a tight ensemble among family members that was the most interesting music of the night.

As I said, less is more. The text was completely intelligible, the score allowing space for the performers to act & interpret with ease. Teiya Kasahara was the most impressive presence of the night, even if her powerful voice was rarely exploited, in a score that never sounded difficult. Aaron Durand made the most of his part, especially in the modern sequence. I was intrigued by Marshall’s choices, especially in orchestration featuring a big cello sound from the small ensemble, making for a wonderful soulful effect, especially when she turned Dobrochna Zubek loose for several powerful cello solos, the nicest music of the night. Librettist Hale opted for recognizable phrases such as “My heart broke in a thousand pieces”, so that it was easier for the listener to anticipate what was being sung.  I’ve seen some choices in other libretti recently that highlight the wisdom of Hale’s choices.  I recall the longer and more poetic lines from Yvette Nolan in Shanawdithit and Sky Gilbert in Shakespeare’s Criminal, had me wishing for surtitles, because there was just too much to take in all at once. Hale’s directness is more in the tradition of Meredith Oakes in her bold adaptation of Shakespeare in The Tempest (daring to shorten iambic pentameter into brief little lines that are ideal to sing). I’m inclined to think that too much poetry in a libretto gets in the way, given that we’re listening to voices, words, instruments, watching a performance. The choice to be simple and get out of the way of your collaborators is the one that usually works the best.

For me the most important aspect of the work is underlined by the space (Buddies) & the time (Pride), namely the political implications of the work, showing the struggle against oppression in different centuries.  That’s the most compelling aspect of the work.

Pomegranate continues until Sunday June 9th at Buddies.

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Mikolaj Warszynski—Piano Solo

As I’ve been listening to a 2015 solo piano studio recording by Mikolaj Warszynski, I’ve found myself wondering about the process, about how music is made and how it comes to be heard.

If a pianist plays brilliantly and no one hears: is there a career? Is there even music?

Not for the first time, I’m pondering how it all works. I’ve heard stories of singers walking into auditions, knocking it out of the park but being ignored ultimately because they’re not famous. In an industry that needs stars the arrival of an unknown can be a destabilizing force, a threat to those big names. While there was a time when recording labels & publishing companies were custodians of art, stewards of excellence, lately I wonder whether anyone cares.

But these thoughts came later. First came the CD, a series of performances to raise such questions.

  • A Haydn Sonata
  • A piece by Szymanowski
  • Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz #1
  • Four pieces by Chopin

We went from the unknown (unknown to me that is… meaning both the Haydn & the Szymanowski) to the familiar (the Liszt & Chopin), all the while making something fresh & new. When I looked more closely inside the jacket, the label is Anima in Paris, but I saw that there was a crowdfunding initiative to make the recording happen. Warszynski has roots in Poland (where he was born), Alberta and Québec, and has performed all over the world. While I may have missed something what I didn’t see was even one mention of anywhere in Ontario: relevant only because I ponder this question of process. Ontario is sometimes perceived as vainly self-important by the rest of the country, and no wonder when—for example—the operas we see downtown are from the “Canadian Opera Company”, shows that then get reviewed by The Globe & Mail who proclaim themselves to be Canada’s National Newspaper. While I laugh at the idea we are the centre of the world (especially when we endure mockery not just from Canada but Americans, particularly New Yorkers), I wonder about the career process, and whether Warszynski would be advised to appear in Toronto, where we’d all be lining up to proclaim his brilliance to anyone who’s listening.

Warszynski

Okay enough about the process, and yes I can’t deny I am mystified when I listen to a CD that’s so original and so excellent that seems to have come and gone without fanfare, under the radar.

The Haydn Sonata is a glowing advertisement for the composer. A good performance should be like a speech in a courtroom advocating for the immortality of the piece & its creator, if not a testimonial to the player’s love of the music. Haydn and Mozart sometimes give us phrases that sound like people laughing aloud, full of the visceral pleasure of youthful beauty. Warszynski makes me think of Haydn on a late-night talk show, the composer’s comic phrases sounding new in the moment. The middle movement—especially in Warszynski’s pointed phrasing—makes me appreciate early Beethoven slow movements in a new way (because I should have realized the influence, made clear in Warszynski’s fascinating program note). I should have known:  that Beethoven isn’t quite as original as I thought, that maybe he’d heard something like this already from Haydn.

Warszynski could have spoken up at the keyboard and said aloud “and now for something completely different”. Perhaps in Polish?  as we went from Haydn to the first movement of Szymanowksi’s op 34 Shéhérazade. As in Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune or Le sacre du printemps we begin with something almost improvised, like a preamble to what’s to follow, a delicate provocation to be elaborated with commentary & complication, both of the dramatic and harmonic as well. At times there are suggestions of what might in later decades be called “jazz”, even though I think it’s Szymanowski’s playful approach to sonorities & voices that takes us to that place. Need I add, where the Haydn is far from easy to execute, with Shéhérazade complex & virtuosic pianism suddenly rears its dazzling head. We are in a realm that is at times exotic at other times terrifying, which is only befitting an adaptation of this life & death love story. I wish I knew the piece better (and I’ll chase it down and attempt to play through it to see for myself), to have more of a sense as to what’s usually asked of the interpreter, and what’s original / added via the magic fingers of Warszynski.

But Shéhérazade is a very different sort of work from the Mephisto Waltz #1, not just because one was brand-new to me and the other is among the most well-known, well-worn, frequently programmed and if truth be told, critically under-estimated pieces. I put this piece in the same category with la boheme and the 1812 Overture, namely pieces so well-loved & overplayed that it’s hard to get back to the music sometimes and see it objectively. It’s in that context especially –where the music is almost like an aging movie queen in need of a makeover, turning up on late-night TV (uh oh I am repeating myself in my metaphors… perhaps this is the same show that had Haydn, as a guest? and the old dowager is on in the last 10 minutes), when the audience is all shutting off their TVs. It’s not Liszt’s fault that this piece became like the Sabre Dance or the flight of the bumblebee, an ear-worm haunting your head like Mephisto himself.  Although I suppose if you’re going to write an ear-worm (no mean feat!… what composer wouldn’t dream of this?), could the haunting ever be more purposeful? more symbolic?

What Warszynski gives us in his performance of the Liszt is counter-intuitive in its originality. Yes he plays it perfectly (like everything on this CD, regardless of its difficulty). But it’s not about the circus act element we sometimes see in a virtuoso performance, aiming for higher- faster – louder- wilder. Where I was mostly lost in the sound & fury of Shéhérazade shenanigans, again because I don’t know the work yet well enough to really experience it as a text or as a tone-poem with a story or scenario underlying its structure, Warszynski is story-telling with the Liszt. It’s a very segmented piece that can seem very wooden when there is no sense of an organic flow from one segment to the next, like a skater going from their double lutz to their triple axel double toe-loop combination. If the skating / dancing / piano-playing is really serving Liszt it must not be a series of stunts but a flowing story, a sound that serves to seduce us rather than impress us. I’ve heard a great many versions of this piece, and frankly became immune to the work for awhile: until hearing Warszynski.

And then we come to the four Chopin pieces that Warszynski would have you think of as a sonata, according to the program notes:
• Polonaise op 26 #2
• Scherzo #1
• Nocturne op 48 #1
• Polonaise op 53

It’s an interesting idea, one I don’t quite buy, but still: I love the ambition behind it. For recordings, for concerts, for church services: we are curators. Music is selected & organized for an effect. When I read the program note I don’t necessarily agree with what the music is doing, because of course we’re different people. Funnily enough I align the Chopin more with Haydn, for its neoclassical elegance & symmetry, for the delicate lines & clarity of composition, in sharp contrast to the density of the Szymanowski & Liszt. And of course the more obvious contrast is that Szymanowski & Liszt offer us program music or at least a romantic music with literary associations whereas the Chopin & Haydn are much more absolute in their conception, pure music not music seeking to tell a story. Being a Magyar I am also disinclined to see Chopin as a revolutionary, and more as an exile –not so very different from Liszt actually—which means I hear the Heroic Polonaise differently. I hear torment & conflict & celebration, as one finds in some of Liszt’s works, such as his Hungarian Rhapsody #15 (the Rakoczy March, a tune you would have heard orchestrated in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust). After Byron, the romantic sensibility is always a painful mixture of passions.

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Pianist Mikolaj Warszynski

There are four performances here, all fascinating for different reasons. I’m especially moved by the Scherzo. Chopin’s four scherzi are a funny set. As with so many of these compositions, one may open the book and play through them, but one doesn’t necessarily encounter them that way in recital. The four scherzi are all stunning pieces, but the first is a quantum leap in difficulty beyond the other three. Warszynski plays what I am fairly certain is the most impressive reading of this challenging piece that I’ve ever encountered. It opens with a wild gesture that could be like a paroxysm or the grunts of animals having sex, one of the most passionate things ever written for the instrument. Warszynski makes the most of this. It’s in some ways the most frustrating piece (all four scherzi really, although for the first one, especially true), because Chopin puts his most beautiful music, bar none, in the middle of these phenomenally challenging passages. I was thinking of Brunnhilde, placed on her mountain surrounded by fire that can only be reached by a hero who does not know the meaning of fear. What did Dryden say? None but the brave deserve the fair? One must scale this rough mountain to come out into the serenity of the mountain peak where Chopin has placed his beautiful melody in all its pristine clarity. Of course the Ring cycle wouldn’t appear for decades after Chopin. But it’s the same. We can’t get to the serenity of that stunning melody in B major without transgressing the fire of the outer section in B minor, and if you just CHEAT and play it out of context it loses much of its beauty, because it is that drama, that struggle that makes that calm serenity meaningful. I’m grateful that on top of everything else Warszynski gives us a program note telling us where that charming tune came from, its associations for Chopin in his exile.

So there you have it. Warszynski is a young piano player and a professor of performance who deserves to be heard, whether in a master class or in recital. I hope he comes to Toronto sometime. He has another CD (a live performance) that I’m working at acquiring and I’m sure there will be more, as he’s yet young. The solo piano CD can be found via Amazon (click link).

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LET’S MAKE A FUSS: A concert to benefit ALS research

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SAVE THE DATE!
June 13, 2019, 7:30 PM
St. Andrew’s Church
73 Simcoe St., Toronto

LET’S MAKE A FUSS!

A concert to benefit ALS research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Sunnybrook is pioneering the use of focused ultrasound to treat brain disorders and cancers. With donor support, Sunnybrook is healing previously unreachable parts of the brain, and reducing risk of life-altering side-effects – no cutting required. With the most clinical trials in focused ultrasound of any site in the world, Sunnybrook scientists and clinicians are leading the application of focused ultrasound to diverse areas including ALS, Alzheimer’s, brain tumours, Parkinson’s disease, major depression and more.

OUR STORY
My husband, Dr. Errol Gay, and I want to share our journey with you, but more importantly we want to make sure that other families won’t have to make this journey, if at all possible. This concert has been a journey of love together with members of the TSO, COC, & various musical groups we have served in the past 35 years. All donations will go towards ALS Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a progressive nervous system (neurological) disease that destroys nerve cells and causes disability. Presently there is no known cure, but the ALS research team at Sunnybrook is on the brink of a possible treatment for the disease and we want to help spread the word and enable the team to continue this vital research.

“Research really is hope, and collaboration is the only way we’re going to find a cure for this horrible disease. Philanthropic investment will help break down silos and facilitate academic collaboration.”
– Dr. Lorne Zinman

ABOUT ERROL & ANN

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Ann & Errol

Errol worked as a music librarian for 24 1/2 years with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, earned a doctorate from Stanford University (CA) in instrumental conducting, taught music at various universities in Canada and the USA, served as music director-conductor for the Canadian Opera Touring Company, conducted various community and university orchestras, and is the composer of three operas written for the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. I was an organist, opera singer, conductor, taught music at the university, community, and public school levels in Canada and the USA, founded two children’s choirs in Toronto, & was Executive Artistic Director/Conductor of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company from 2000-2015. Because music has been such an important part of our lives, we are grateful to all our musician friends for their willingness to present this concert for such a worthy cause. Errol was diagnosed with ALS in July of 2016 and the journey has been a challenging one. We are grateful to be in Toronto near family and dear friends. We have recently welcomed a second baby boy into the family, so this is a joyful time in spite of the challenges. There was a sign burnt into a piece of wood in the Texas ALS clinic and it serves as a good mantra…”Keep on keeping on.” ❤️Ann & Errol

As we “Keep on keeping on,” we ask you to join us for this concert and/or make a donation to support world leading research in ALS. This will not be a ticketed event, but we do suggest a minimum $20 donation.

If you are unable to attend, donations can be made online (click here)

Please feel free to share our story and the event details with your friends and family — every bit counts.

*****

“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Shanawdithit in Toronto

Who would expect a new opera to affirm the value of the artform?

Shanawdithit is a new opera co-produced by Newfoundland’s Opera on the Avalon and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. There was a workshop a few months ago, a tantalizing glimpse not so much of the work we would see so much as the process in play during the creation. Telling the story of a European encountering a vanishing Indigenous culture is in some ways a perfect microcosm for the entire settler enterprise, although usually the images are so brutal as to be unbearable. This is a gentler story because most of the slaughter is in the past at the time of this story. Shanawdithit as the last of the Beothuk could calmly answer the questions of an eager historian, whose curiosity parallels the attitude of many of us in the audience, with all our good intentions & ignorance, with most of the harm and violence left out.

Opera sometimes has a bad reputation among theorists, a medium for affirming & celebrating power, a way for nobles to lord it over the not so noble, to demonstrate class difference by forcing people in the cheap seats to sit through messages from the gods telling you that the nobles deserve their divinely ordained advantages and are really better than you.

But what if it could be re-purposed, employed to tell a different sort of story? We know opera to be a Euro-centric form often employed to celebrate the assimilation of other cultures. That very history works to its advantage in the collaborative venture that is Shanawdithit. While this may be a story of cultural imperialism & genocide, it doesn’t aim to teach the superiority of a way of life.

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Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan & Dean Burry are the two main creators of this new opera that premiered last week. I am reminded of the Mahler 7th symphony that I saw last week, that employs various objects to make noise as part of a musical score. Burry starts us in a borderline realm, not quite silence nor noise, but with breath and the clicking of stones against one another, before slowly leading us into music of greater conviction.

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Dean Burry

I have to think that Burry’s experience is an archetypical demonstration of the anxiety of influence. But no it’s not the usual version of one afraid of copying, fearful of sounding like Puccini or Wagner, so much as the concern he might seem to be appropriating a cultural artifact (for instance, thinking of the song sung during Louis Riel), or at the very least, suggesting something aboriginal. Not only do we have the real music but also the offensive musics that turn up in films or sports stadiums to signify something understood as “native”, and so also needing to be dodged like explosive mines hiding under the surface.

And so no wonder that Burry’s score seemed to lean more heavily on his orchestra for expression than upon his vocalists, who often seemed to proceed with great caution through the aforementioned minefield.  Nolan sketches a story that is very generous in some ways, painting a portrait of William Cormack that verges on sainthood. I think he’s maybe too good to be true, a version of a man with great compassion and empathy alongside other settlers who are more typically bigoted.  Shanawdithit left us a series of pictures, and Cormack wrote on top of these images. Perhaps the key is to recognize that while this might be a story of an Indigenous encounter with a European who seems too good to be true in my eye, it’s told from an Indigenous perspective, which means my experience does not apply here.

Among the interviews between Shanawdithit and Cormack, we see a climactic encounter that almost made me burst out laughing at the wonder of what we saw. I don’t think I’m being a spoiler to describe the growing enthusiasm with which Cormack listens to Shanawdithit tell of her people, as the stage is filled with life. He even seems to see them all and dance along with them. And abruptly they all stop and stare at him, even though we were really watching the memories of a culture inside her head. It’s pure magic.

I am reminded of a premiere I attended back in the 1980s, a bewildering new piece that was castigated by one critic because it didn’t do what music & opera usually do. I mention this because it’s important to carefully see what the piece is trying to do and how it works, rather than taking it to task for not being what we want it to be. There is not as much conflict as some people might expect in a piece of theatre. But Shanawdithit is more celebration than tragedy, and more spiritual than theatrical.

Nolan & Burry take us back in the classical direction in sometimes employing their chorus as a greek chorus. At times I suspected that when Shanawdithit is addressing her people, whether in her family or the Beothuk people more generally –all of whom she believes to have died out—her thoughts and their thoughts are echoed in the chorus: as though we hear the spirits, the souls of those who are still alive in another realm. The opera would challenge that assumption –that the Beothuk have died out—and affirms that in some respect they live on.

I have only one small complaint, which concerns the intelligibility of the text. Often I was guessing at the meaning of lines, perhaps due to the acoustics. I would recommend surtitles especially in those moments of passionate singing, or when more than one person sings at the same time. Nolan created a wonderful libretto that I wish I could hear in its entirety. Perhaps earlier –on opening night? in rehearsals?—the cast were paying more attention to their enunciation, whereas tonight I feel they were committed to their portrayals, totally into character. The surtitles would help, as I think their singing was superb and wouldn’t want them to restrain themselves for the sake of a few consonants.

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Marion Newman

Marion Newman was very powerful, in recreating Shanawdithit, in all the poignancy we might expect for someone who was the last of the Beothuk people and aware of her legacy. Nolan gives her the role of a kind of commentator or spokesperson, larger than life.  Clarence Frazer brought Cormack’s fervent curiosity to life, a portrayal of great compassion. Aria Evans plays a huge role that’s perhaps a bit difficult to describe, except to say that via dance we are given another pathway to the story, both what came before and what might yet come to pass.
(morning after: I realize belatedly that I have struggled so hard to come to terms with the piece that I omitted the conductor, the director, as well as several performers & collaborators, needing to get to bed….  If the piece works–and it does– they deserve credit)

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Aria Evans

Shanawdithit articulates Cormack’s interviews, his desperate attempt to capture a culture before it vanished in the last person alive. The opera takes us beyond the face to face encounter of two persons to the encounter of peoples that might lead to reconciliation, the dream of peace and acceptance.  While it may seem like an impossible dream, an artificial construct: it can work perfectly in the realm of opera.

Shanawdithit continues at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, 227 Front St East on
Wed. May 22,  Thurs.May 23, and Sat May 25, all at 8:00 pm. , and then on June 21, 2019
St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre.

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Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments