TSO Maundy Thursday matinee

Today I had the pleasure of hearing the Toronto Symphony in an afternoon concert, repeating most of last night’s program. The energy is different in the middle of the day especially mid-week. The matinee extends a win-streak of wonderful playing with guest conductors over the past few weeks, as Andrey Boreyko seemed to know exactly how to inspire this orchestra.

The program of four pieces was augmented by a wonderful bonus:

  • Mark Bélanger’s Wink from Drummondville to Toronto
  • Christos Hatzis’s The Isle is Full of Noises
  • Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto #2
  • The bonus: a brief encore composed by pianist Lucas Debargue, sounding like a soft-rock Rachmaninoff prelude
  • Johannes Brahms’s Symphony #3

Although not in strictly chronological order, the concert felt like a gradual trip to the past.  The newest piece on the program in its TSO premiere was Bélanger’s Sesquie, a two minute romp full of whimsy and broad gestures that made me giggle aloud. As the title suggests, the composer was having a lot of fun and thank goodness this was one of those times when the joke was totally intelligible. Bélanger seemed to be colouring with big fat crayons, employing a brass choir then an answer from the woodwinds, and something subtler still from the strings. What I think we’re seeing with these two minute gems is that the limitations of the commission –a two minutes fanfare after all—serve to inspire the composers rather than limiting them.

Andrey Boreyko, Christos Hatzis (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor Andrey Boreyko with composer Christos Hatzis (photo: Jag Gundu)

Christos Hatzis’s The Isle is Full of Noises was premiered about 4 years ago by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal as part of a Shakespeare-themed program, this piece inspired by The Tempest. I don’t know about you, but I love encountering program music where the composition is intelligible as an expression of the idea it is meant to signify. Hatzis begins with the sounds of human breathing, an activity that naturally comes first in this kind of organic sound-poetry. We work from darkness to light, from abstract to concrete, from disorder to order, as seemingly random or dissonant sounds organize and cohere in a buildup towards a melodic and tonal affirmation at the end. And just as Prospero’s island is sometimes a bit threatening but ultimately a safe place for good people and not so terrible even to those who are evil, so too with the sounds, that never threaten but do surround us safely. I can’t help feeling that for Hatzis –especially after his Juno-award (just a few days ago) for Going Home Star—the possibilities are unlimited. Much of the time we seemed to inhabit a sonic world reminding me of early Stravinsky –perhaps corresponding to his word “impressionistic” in the composer’s program note—as in The Firebird ballet score, but with the occasional addition of unexpected sounds from a different rule-book just to keep us honest. I was thrilled to see how well the audience received Hatzis’s music.

I am not cheating the proper chronology in portraying Liszt’s 2nd piano concerto as the next newest sounding piece, given that Brahms, who came later, always seemed to want to cheat the calendar and emulate a more conservative style & sound; more on Brahms in a moment.

Before I speak of Liszt, let me say simply that Lucas Debargue is an extraordinary and charismatic pianist. Yes, he played the concerto accurately as far as I could tell; as it’s not a concerto that I’ve ever played through—because I don’t like the music very much—I couldn’t tell during some of the thunderous sequences whether he was really playing it right or not. But the sound was magnificent, a big full sound whether in slow forte passages or fast ones. In the lyric middle section we heard an achingly beautiful sound, the legato dripping from his fingers.

Lucas Debargue, Andrey Boreyko (@Jag Gundu)

Pianist Lucas Debargue, conductor Andrey Boreyko and the TSO (photo: Jag Gundu)

I said “charismatic” because a big part of his appeal lies in his body language, a head that bobbed so much it verges on self-parody, although when you play this well: you can move any way you like! At times he gave us that Glenn Gould style liquid body language, where he is channeling the music without regard for anything else, and totally in the moment of the creation. Boreyko met him halfway with a powerful sound from the orchestra. And I can’t help mentioning a magnificent solo from cellist Joseph Johnson, perhaps just a bit bolder in his playing after his showcase last week in the Schumann concerto, perhaps precisely the kind of payoff one would hope for.

After the interval came the most moving reading of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony that I have ever encountered. Boreyko’s approach was deliberate, understood in a very good way. The conductor’s baton was used to begin and end, but was set aside for the subtler places, namely the two inner movements and the conclusion of the symphony: where we had a chance to hear inner voices in a transparent series of solos. In the big moments the orchestra were wonderfully tight, very clear in their articulation. In the places where the orchestra pauses, Boreyko fully indulged those moments as though for a big collective breath. In additional to so much wonderful solo work in the brass, woodwinds & percussion, we heard exquisite yet restrained sounds from the trombone choir invoking the mystical implications of the instrument that Brahms likely sought, particularly at the end.  The TSO faithfully executed Boreyko’s lucid reading, a profound interpretation of this the most elusive and difficult of all of Brahms’ symphonies.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Leave a comment

Dialogue on use of Indigenous Songs in Canadian Compositions, hosted by COC

In a press release, the Canadian Opera Company have announced a closed meeting on April 19th –the eve of the premiere of their new co-production of Louis Riel—to discuss “First Nations song protocol and the use of Indigenous songs in Canadian compositions, such as Harry Somers’ Louis Riel.”

The meeting has been organized by Dr Dylan Robinson of Queen’s University.

Dylan Robinson

Professor Dylan Robinson, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts

The press release goes on to say the following:

Those who have been invited to the April 19 gathering are members of the Nisg̱a’a, Métis and other First Nations arts and music communities, members of the 2017 Louis Riel production, representatives from the Canadian Opera Company, National Arts Centre, Canadian Music Centre, and Canada Council for the Arts, as well as advisors and executors to the estates of Louis Riel’s composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore.

“One intention of the gathering is to begin the process of developing policy related to Indigenous protocol for new music involving Indigenous participants, and music that misuses Indigenous song,” says Dr. Dylan Robinson, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts. “This work of creative repatriation is essential in the ongoing process of reconciliation.”

There is a small but essential part of Louis Riel that underlies this dialogue, as mentioned in the press release:

The score of Somers’ Louis Riel includes the “Kuyas” aria, which opens Act III and is sung in Cree by the artist in the role of Marguerite Riel, Louis Riel’s wife. The music for the “Kuyas” aria was based on a Nisg̱a’a mourning song called “Song of Skateen” that was recorded by Marius Barbeau and transcribed by Sir Ernest MacMillan on the Nass River in 1927.

Fast forward to Harry Somers’ composition in the 1960s.

The “Song of Skateen”, a Nisg̱a’a mourning song, was used by Harry Somers without knowledge of Nisg̱a’a protocol that dictates that such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times, and only by those who hold the hereditary rights to sing such songs. To sing mourning songs in other contexts is a legal offence for Nisg̱a’a people and can also have negative spiritual impacts upon the lives of singers and listeners.

The press release makes the following important announcement:

With respect to both the Nisg̱a’a and Métis peoples and in recognition of how the songs of one nation are not the same as another’s, the COC and NAC co-production of Louis Riel acknowledges the current holder of the hereditary rights to this song: Sim’oogit Sg̱at’iin, hereditary chief Isaac Gonu, Gisḵ’ansnaat (Grizzly Bear Clan), Gitlax̱t’aamiks, B.C.

In recognition of the Nisg̱a’a people and to correct the attribution of “Song of Skateen,” the COC’s opening night performance of Louis Riel on April 20 will begin with an oratory and musical address from G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli and Wal’aks Keane Tait of the Nisg̱a’a First Nation with the Git Hayetsk and Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers, two internationally renowned dance groups from Vancouver, B.C.

The use of the key word reconciliation can’t help but remind us of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and its goals.  For a composer seeking to create, the protocols that might be generated in such conversations are very important, in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, however inadvertent they might be.  In 2017 there is no excuse for composers to simply appropriate music, even if this might be more in keeping with the European colonial tradition. It is to be hoped that the ambitions of the TRC lead to a genuine conversation on this occasion, including some directions for composers and producers.

The concluding statement of the press release says the following:

The purpose of the April 19 consultation event is not to reach a conclusive decision, but to open a dialogue between relevant parties and organizations that will clarify these issues in the future.

The press release concludes with the following:

About Dylan Robinson
Professor Dylan Robinson is a scholar of Stó:lō descent who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University, located on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. His research has been supported by national and international fellowships at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, in the Canadian Studies Program at the University of California Berkeley, the Indigeneity in the Contemporary World project at Royal Holloway University of London, and a Banting Postdoctoral fellowship in the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book, the edited collection Arts of Engagement (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) examines the role that the arts and Indigenous cultural practices played in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools. His forthcoming book, Hungry Listening, focuses on collaboration between Indigenous performers, composers and artists and classical music ensembles.

About the Canadian Opera Company
Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the largest in North America. The COC enjoys a loyal audience support-base and one of the highest attendance and subscription rates in North America. Under its leadership team of General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus, the COC is increasingly capturing the opera world’s attention. The COC maintains its international reputation for artistic excellence and creative innovation by creating new productions within its diverse repertoire, collaborating with leading opera companies and festivals, and attracting the world’s foremost Canadian and international artists. The COC performs in its own opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, hailed internationally as one of the finest in the world. Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. For more information on the Canadian Opera Company, please visit coc.ca.

Posted in Opera, Personal ruminations, Politics, Press Releases and Announcements | 1 Comment

Questions for Evan Webber: Other Jesus

Evan Webber is a writer and performance maker who lives in Toronto. Evan’s work considers the relationship between time and text, and between narratives and institutions.

Evan is an Associate Artist of Public Recordings, a collaborative operation that conjoins artistic research, performance creation, learning, and publication. And he is curator of the HATCH performance residency at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. His work’s been shown across Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan. Evan is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, where he is now a guest instructor.

And In May Evan Webber’s play Other Jesus will receive its Toronto premiere through Public Recordings.  I took the opportunity to find out more about him and the project.


Evan Webber (photo: Sarah Bodri)

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I can’t muster any objectivity on the subject of parents. My mom and dad have both lived what I would call difficult lives–lives that have taught them a lot about the difference between loneliness and being alone. They are spiritual people, however, and their practices provide them with powerful sustenance. I suppose I am like both of them in the respect that I also look to be sustained not only be material means.

What those other means are I don’t know but presumably art has something to do with it.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Public Recordings’ ongoing project is to make time-based artworks in order to learn about the nature of togetherness, on the ways that groups of people might work collectively, and how they come to share in the projects and feel agency to change them. My own way into this practice is through writing and I take special pleasure in continually re-discovering how this putatively solitary act is, in fact, most lively as a collaborative one. Creating and producing and trying to reach a public through collective means is a lot of hard work but there is nothing bad about it. There’s no worst thing.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I really liked listening to Fred Moten and Robin Kelly speak with each other last Wednesday. The hall, which at least three people said was like a Harry Potter set, was packed with people. Moten and Kelly were talking about black studies & indigenous studies & ecology, joy, counter-mapping, the State of Israel & the People in Israel, anti-intellectualism, and how scale is the enemy of the renewal of sociality.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I would be a better accountant–an accountant in the first place. I really appreciate specialized knowledge, especially of mechanics. But I don’t know much about this.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

I like cooking and doing the dishes.


More questions about the creation & presentation of Other Jesuspicture

Other Jesus is being produced in collaboration with St Matthew’s United Church and will be presented inside a church space. Please talk about your relationship with the church, both in their role in the creation and how your text places you in- or outside a church with all its politics.

We didn’t want to do the play in a church. I was worried that if we performed in a church people would think the work is about religion or rationalism or atheism or something. We thought that if people walked into a church then they wouldn’t be able to read any metaphor in the story. In the play, religion is a cypher for the way stories produce power in and among people with precarious lives, which, sooner or later, is everyone.

I guess we were imagining some kind of archetypal church when we developed this opinion; some patinated, vaguely sinister old institution. When we visited St. Matthew’s we encountered a very different reality. It’s a community space in flux; it’s in a process of becoming and its future as a ritual space is far from certain. Most places like it in Toronto are being sold to condo developers. Inasmuch as it’s space where people just experiment with doing things together the church feels very familiar. (There are probably about as many people who regularly attend the United Church services as people who regularly attend experimental theatre and dance, another common point.)

The text of Other Jesus is about institutionalizing practice and the role that performance plays in the process. It’s about how things come together and how they fall apart. And the church itself offers a beautiful and complicated example of this process.

I read that your director Frank Cox O’Connell, said this about you Evan:

“Evan began the process by trying to write an adaptation of the Gospel – but what he ended up writing was a very personal text about trying to believe in something and belong to something when you feel like you’re living at the end of the world. I loved it. I found it strange and fun and ambitious and heartbreaking. I’ve been working with Evan for almost 15 years – this is his strongest work. –”

Please elaborate on this

I was interested in appropriating the “creative strategy” of divine inspiration as a system for writing because to me this is actually the official doctrine of whatever part of capitalism we’re in right now: if you don’t have a lot of capital already, you really need to hope for the best and trust the system to disclose its inscrutable truths. I wanted to really commit to that and see what it produced. So my version was to simply sit and write a gospel, word by word, without any editing, beginning at the beginning and ending when I had to stop, which was usually about fourteen hours after I started. (I repeated this process four times with a lot of research and planning in between.) It’s really a record of my attempt to stay present and receptive to my own imaginative or regurgitative capacities. Incredibly, my collaborators on the project were not only committed to staging the work, but to extending the logic of my formal writing constraints: learning, word for word, this halting document of material experience and trying to act as though it were a kind a naturalistic launch-pad into the supernatural.

I think Frank is wrong in saying it’s my strongest work. It’s absolutely the weakest by the measures of originality and coherence and it’s full of things I would normally consider to be errors. In this sense I would say that it’s authentic, however. I’m curious about how that will feel.

Is there anything you would want the audience to do to prepare for Other Jesus, anything we should read or study? Would it be better to look at the Bible, to forget anything we ever knew about religion: or somewhere between those two extremes?

Matt Sergi, who is theatre scholar at U of T, said at a talk before a performance the other day, “Think about what you know about this story, about what it means, and as you watch the show, try to see how it articulates a contrary meaning.” I found that suggestion widely applicable.

Could you quickly place this in a religious context for us, and how Other Jesus is in some respect a response to your spiritual crises, or the result of your spiritual evolution?

It feels absurd to say that Other Jesus isn’t about spirituality but, for now, I will. I would say it is a response to material that is shared, the story of Jesus and his disciples. And I would say that my community and perhaps my society are presently enduring a crisis of sharing.

Are there any shows you’ve done or seen that now seem to have laid the groundwork for what you’re doing in Other Jesus?

The groundwork is in Public Recordings’ big collaborative works and especially an ongoing writing project I co-created with Ame Henderson called performance encylopaedia which we last did in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’ve worked with Frank Cox-O’Connell for many years too, and we have a shared interest in the problems of canonical western narratives–this work resumes our conversation on that subject. Shows I’ve never seen exert probably the greatest influence because I’ve had to imagine them: Brecht’s unfinished God of Happiness, for example, and Fassbinder’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck. Through the wonderful writer Stephen Mitchell, I discovered that Thomas Jefferson wanted to make a Bible that scrubbed out any mention of magic. He thought the young United States of America deserved no less. The complications posed by magical powers in Other Jesus reflect on this–the potential of the unwritten.

Please talk about how you came to be involved in this project.

I was invited to join the Tarragon Theatre’s playwrights’ unit by Andrea Romaldi. The playwrights’ unit is a yearlong commitment for a group or writers who share their work and have it read publicly at the end. It was interesting to be invited. I never imagined that my work aligned with the Tarragon’s interests. But the context gave me a lot to push against, and the constraints produced the work over the course of the year. In the end I found I had a lot more in common than I had initially supposed.


What’s the difference between a person and a story about a person?

Toronto’s award-winning Public Recordings stages a new play by Evan Webber. In the occupied territories of ancient Judea, a group of spiritual workers consider what’s real while trying to break even–until one of them turns out to have the magic touch. Other Jesus is a performance on the risk and reward of believing and belonging. 

Text & Dramaturgy by Evan Webber. Direction by Frank Cox-O’Connell. Scenography & Costumes by Sherri Hay. Music & Sound Design by Christopher Willes. Lighting Design by Ken MacKenzie. Production Management by sandra Henderson. Additional collaboration and performance by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Ishan Davé, William Ellis, Thom Gill, Ame Henderson and Liz Peterson. 

Produced by Public Recordings and EW & FCO. Co-Produced by Festival TransAmériques. Created with the support of Tarragon Theatre’s Workspace, Videofag and St. Matthew’s United Church.

Toronto Premiere
May 6-14, 2017
Tuesday-Sunday, 8pm
St. Matthew’s United Church 729 St Clair Avenue West, Toronto

Box Office Information:
$25 General
$20 Arts Worker/Student/Senior/Under Employed
Advance Sales: 416-531-1827 // publicrecordings.org/otherjesus

Tickets available at the door
or here.

Posted in Questions, Questions, Spirituality & Religion, Theatre & musicals | Leave a comment

Robert Lepage speaks white in 887

Although I missed Robert Lepage’s 887 the first time it came to Toronto in 2015 (during the Pan Am Games) I’m glad I was able to see it today with Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel, in a short run that ends Sunday April 16th.

Don’t miss it.


Robert Lepage and Ex Machina: 887 (Photo: Érick Labbé)

887 has been all over the world, but speaks with a particular edge to a Canadian audience, especially in 2017. Last night I saw the latest Sesqui: 2 minute compositions in the Toronto Symphony’s Canadian Mosaic series. While the Truth & Reconciliation Commission has shifted the consciousness in this country, to at least make some gestures in the direction of the Indigenous peoples and their cultural holocaust, 887 is a treasure trove of memory to remind me of an earlier version of the national dialogue, comprised of two founding cultures.

887 is a play that is at once, a meditation on memory, an auto-biographical testimonial by Robert Lepage himself, a funny two hours, and a highly political study of recent history. Several times I thought I saw the kernel, the main well-spring of Lepage’s inspiration: and yet so thoroughly are the different threads sewn together that I can’t really say for certain.

  • There’s the poem “Speak White” by Québecoise Michelle Lalonde, a text with which we’re teased throughout as Lepage shares the challenge trying to memorize the poem (and we wonder just how much of it he will eventually retain), which he has been invited to read at an event. As we shall discover, the poem is like the cri de coeur of an underclass seeking equality. This year especially the poem is must reading for any Canadian.
  • There’s the Québec motto inscribed on their license plates, namely “je me souviens”, or I remember. But what do we –or does Lepage—actually remember?
  • I couldn’t help thinking that at one time separatism was such a threat to confederation that every day we heard something in the news, about possible referenda, about the polling numbers for the Parti Québecois. As Lepage gives us his one-man show, I felt the subtext could have been that collective memory lapse, as the once powerful and threatening movement seems to have faded away to nothing.
  • And memory is personal for Lepage. The set is ostensibly a model of his childhood apartment home, but in a real sense it’s a model of himself, of his brain and his influences (and while this thought may seem wacky or strange to say, at one point Lepage made it literally so, allowing the diagram of the apartment to morph into cerebral hemispheres, complete with a bit of explanation about what the different mental apartments might be good for).
  • When he briefly alluded to his grandmother and her struggles with dementia, I wondered if I was the only one in the place suddenly uncontrollably crying –stifling sobs actually—in the way we were suddenly at a bedside. It’s still killing me hours later that the ambiguity of what we were seeing and discussing let the association come up. I thought I heard someone else audibly crying too at that moment. Mercifully we segued to a childhood scene of theatrics, the study of memory both enacted and analyzed.
  • And there’s probably more.  Lepage joked about the whole process of memorizing, which may have been a personal subtext for the show.

The whole question of how and what we remember makes up 887, from the beginning as Lepage muses over phones and phone numbers, how he can’t recall his own phone number, to questions of future memory –posterity that is—in the question of how he will be remembered via “cold cuts”, the pre-made obituaries for famous people.

logo_em_130pxLepage is of course the consummate theatre artist, one of the country’s great exports, thinking of opera productions via his company Ex Machina, with whom he collaborates on this occasion as well for a total theatre experience. The literal design concept underlying 887 reminds me a bit of what we’ve seen in Needles and Opium the Met Opera Ring and Damnation de Faust. In Needles & Opium we watched a rotating box, the addict inside struggling to cope with a moving horizon that simulated the altered reality. For the Ring we saw a big expensive machine that both simulated and symbolized a world in flux, protean, changeable.  In Faust Marguerite sings of the flaming ardor of her love, as we watch her image begin to turn into flames on a huge screen behind her.

In this instance we’re in the presence of memory, watching Lepage go down memory lane with his family, with his neighbours, his city and his explanation of the memories: which is who he has become and who he continues to be. It’s fabulously rich and rewarding.

One could easily underestimate this man who captivates us with his deadpan story-telling skills, who kept me and everyone else laughing for much of the show. He’s up there for the whole show, joking about his ability to memorize lines, while he speaks for two hours. Maybe there’s some sort of prompter (recalling his joke about a prompter’s box, one of the great things he may have wanted to borrow from the opera house), but even so on a purely physical level this is a magnificent display. As I write this it’s, oh, 6:46 pm, and Lepage will be getting up there again at 8 pm, for another two hours in two languages (have no fear, when he starts speaking French he mercifully offers surtitles, or in other words he does indeed “speak white” for most of this show in an anglo city).

For those of us as old as Lepage or older, certain moments will push buttons differently from those who are younger or those who aren’t Canadian of course. Seeing the moment when De Gaulle says “vive le Québec libre” from this perspective is illuminating. The flag debate is also there.

We are less than two weeks from the opening of Peter Hinton’s revisionist take on Louis Riel with the Canadian Opera Company. While Riel was Métis –half French & half indigenous (perhaps Cree, I do not know)—the opera’s focus reflects the cultural assumptions at the time of its composition; the chief anxiety was Québec, an increasingly alienated francophone culture providing the subtext for Mavor Moore’s libretto. As far as I can tell Hinton is seeking to redress the balance –to reconcile the French side of Riel with his Native side—but it’s very important to recognize just how volatile Canada’s conversation was in the 1960s and 70s. Now, when the PQ are dead in the water one could easily forget.

I’m grateful that Lepage reminds us.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Theatre & musicals | 1 Comment

Dausgaard leads TSO

Judging by the way the Toronto Symphony are responding to their current series of guest conductors, I have to wonder. Are they better than we realize? Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect so much excitement from a resident music-director. Or then again, maybe this is a glimpse of what’s possible. Tonight I was again blown away, and I don’t know if it’s fair to credit the visitor or the people in this orchestra.

Thomas Dausgaard was the latest guest conductor to work magic on the podium of Roy Thomson Hall tonight in a program including Schumann’s cello concerto, Mahler’s 10th Symphony & another Sesqui (the two minute fanfares commissioned especially in celebration of Canada’s Sesquicentennial), this time by Christine Donkin.

2_Thomas Dausgaard_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard (photo: Jag Gundu) leading the TSO

We began with the most accessible Sesqui yet, at least among the ones I’ve heard. I was reminded of the Simpsons theme by Danny Elfman, an upbeat and vibrant two minutes of pattern music and broad melodies from the brass. Nevermind conservatories and academic approaches. And I wasn’t the only one blown away by Donkin’s direct and crowd-pleasing approach to music.

Joseph Johnson, the TSO’s principal cellist, then took the spotlight playing Schumann’s cello concerto.

1_Joseph Johnson, Thomas Dausgaard_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Cellist Joseph Johnson, conductor Thomas Dausgaard and the TSO, joyfully finishing (photo: Jag Gundu)

It’s unfortunate that the comments in the program –calling the piece “enigmatic in its refusal to embrace virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity”—put such a negative spin on a piece of music that was and is decades ahead of its time. You may as well mock a person for not being a conformist, even though the originality of this piece is surely part of its charm. Johnson brought his gleaming honey sound to the lyrical moments, a performance that was unmistakably popular with his peers in the orchestra. Aside from the joy he brought to the performance, I believe these concerts employing the TSO soloists –for example when principal horn Neil Deland plays a horn concerto or concertmaster Jonathan Crow plays Scheherazade—are wonderful opportunities to build the chemistry of an ensemble, with benefits far beyond what we hear on that occasion.

After intermission came Mahler’s 10th in Deryck Cooke’s realization, the major work of the evening if not of the year so far. This is the first time I’ve heard the piece played live, although I’ve heard a few recordings over the years.

I prefer Dausgaard’s approach, which is to say, fast rather than slow, transparent –with inner voices showcased—rather than opaque, and only moderately loud most of the way, making the climaxes much more dramatic. If you give us too much loudness too soon, you have nowhere to build. And so for example in the first movement, when we get that unforgettable loud chord, a passage roughly ¾ of the way through the first movement, one that’s imitated if not repeated in the last third of the last movement, Dausgaard gave it to us softer than I’ve ever heard it played. Oh I’m not saying it was pianissimo, it was still powerful and forte, but not the ear-splitting loudness we sometimes get. In fact, the sound built from there, to the most dissonant sounds in that movement that were genuinely ff or even fff. The dance-rhythms, though, were very light, very clearly accentuated, the pace quick and energetic. And so we dodged the lugubrious depressive effect some get with Mahler, even if their performances are also legitimate and fascinating to hear, thinking especially of Klemperer, who was my Mahler conductor of choice during my youth. I listened to a recording of the opening movement this morning conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who has been my favourite Mahler conductor; Dausgaard gave us a pace every bit as energetic and vibrant.  For over an hour we were treated to bold confident attacks and precise playing with nary a fluff or mistake, wonderfully together and often at a breakneck pace.  To repeat what i said already, this was among the most impressive playing I’ve heard all year from the TSO.

Wonderful as this reading was, there were times when I thought I detected places to quibble with Cooke, places where I thought Mahler must be cringing if he were listening. The middle movement is stunningly beautiful: but seems to end so abruptly I can’t help thinking that Mahler would have added something or repeated something. The simple tonalities we hear in places during the final ten minutes of the work seem to me to be sketches rather than Mahler’s last word, which is troubling when this movement IS supposed to be Mahler’s last word. Here perhaps the problem is that –for one little stretch—Daugaard gets the orchestra to play in a way that –for better or worse–calls attention to something that’s missing in the score.  I believe it’s inevitable that we notice some shortcomings in this, which is in effect a kind of paraphrase, and only genuine Mahler in the first movement. After so much complexity, after an hour that kicks down the door to the 20th century and stomps all over conventional tonality, it seems so odd to suddenly step back from the brink, to be employing harmonies less adventurous than anything since perhaps his first symphony. I have to think that in these passages Cooke’s version shows us that Mahler had sketched but not really finished his thinking, that if he had heard it, he’d change it. But this symphony is at a disadvantage, because it hasn’t been programmed and played for a hundred years like the other symphonies, but only was completed by Cooke in the 1970s; orchestras likely will find other options, other ways to play through this score that seem more coherent. Or maybe the fault is mine and the way i am listening..? Yet I didn’t notice so much of a disconnect at the end of Nezet-Seguin’s recording, although now i need to re-listen to it. But I think the wonder of Mahler –any of this symphonies—is how many different good interpretations are possible in the same work.

I look forward to Dausgaard’s next visit.

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Othon: au revoir à Straub et Huillet

The mystery of Straub and Huillet has not been solved by watching their films.  This afternoon TIFF presented the final screenings of Not Reconciled: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet. And while the TIFF series may be over I will have to investigate further on my own.

This is the 9th in a series of pieces. Everything I’ve been seeing or reading over the past two months has been informed by their politics, their rigor, their aesthetic.


Gustav Leonhardt conducts players of Concentus Musicus, Wien and (I think) a young Bernd Weikl (photo: Barbara Ulrich)

And finally, today’s program of Proposition in Four Parts (the film with the SHORTER title of today’s films) followed by Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Permit Herself to Choose in Her Turn.

Maybe it’s the mood I am in today, but I found today’s selections disappointing: as I shall explain.  I suppose I was hoping for something especially powerful to close the retrospective: an unreasonable expectation on my part.

We began with Proposition in Four Parts, a 40 minute film that re-purposed or more accurately re-visited images I had seen before in other Straub – Huillet films.  The program guide says this:

Straub-Huillet fashion a caustic critique of capitalism,
suggesting that not much has changed since Griffith’s analysis.

I was more of the opinion that maybe it’s more that not much –or not enough—has changed in film-making since DW Griffith. Their zen approach that can be so tranquil, full of lyrical beauty is at times puzzling, for instance in using an excerpt from Moses and Aaron.  I don’t mind that it’s obscure. I just don’t think it accomplishes very much.  I find myself hungry for pointed commentary, for writers or film-makers willing to take a position.

The main item on the program—the film with that impossibly long title—is an adaptation of Corneille’s late tragédie Othon.  I know I wasn’t the only one puzzled, as I heard others in the audience, exchanging questions as they exited the theatre.  We saw some of the same curious dramaturgy seen in Moses and Aaron and Too Early/Too Late—both operas by Arnold Schönberg –even though we were watching an adaptation of a spoken play rather than opera.  I hope I can be forgiven for calling these Brechtian devices, in their tendency to call attention to artificiality, for example

  • personages in classical costuming even though we could hear traffic noises and see modern buildings
  • quirky camera work as we’d zero in on one person in a conversational exchange while we would only hear the replies and not see the person speaking those replies.
  • Personages (both in Othon as in the two operas) delivering their lines without eye contact, standing still while firing out their lines, sometimes with extraordinary speed

I’d felt strange about the delivery of the lines in French.  I saw a curious remark in the closing credits from Straub & Huillet, (ex-pat French living abroad, largely because Straub had avoided the draft during the 1950s, during the Algerian War) , dedicating the piece to those who had not had the opportunity to hear the glory of the French Language (and excuse me that I may not be quoting this accurately, as I grabbed this quickly from the credits –in French—as they zipped by).

But the colossal irony of all this? The cast were not French. Adriano Aprà (Othon) is Italian.  Anne Brumagne is Belgian, and almost everyone else is also Italian.  At times the lines are being delivered in accented French, and often very quickly.  It is the most curious thing, this sense of alienation brought about by a sort of frozen delivery, from people making no eye contact, even when speaking of love and loyalty.

While there is a musicality to the delivery, it’s the music of Rossini, as though the lines are being delivered mechanically without empathy or emotion.  I wonder what Corneille would make of it.  I believe the result is very reified in the manner of our own reading, where we are deep inside the text and its implications and not distracted by the personages performing: even though some of them were very beautiful to look at.  I am sure Brecht would approve.

But this is most emphatically what one must encounter in a retrospective. Not just the greatest hits. Not just the famous parts, the popular moments.  To properly explore any artist we must see the extent of their work, whether we like it or not whether we get it or not, and attempt to reconcile all these parts.


Cover of the Columbia University Press book edited by Ted Fendt. Click on the link to see more about this book.

Yes I am very much reconciled to Straub & Huillet, even if I have a project ahead of me: to find books about the film-makers, and to dig up their films. As James Quandt told us (in the interview)

“The best possible primer on Straub-Huillet is the new volume edited by Ted Fendt, published by the Austrian Film Museum.”

Thank you James Quandt.

Thank you TIFF!

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TSO’s Beethoven & Stravinsky

There are several different currents flowing through Roy Thomson Hall right now, and each one is inspiring the Toronto Symphony and their audience in different ways.

  • We’re hearing two minute Sesquis: original little jewels to commemorate the Canadian Sesquicentennial.
  • We’re encountering core classics alongside new pieces
  • We’re meeting brilliant young artists to inspire both the orchestra & the audience, possible candidates to lead the TSO in the future.

In the first half we were treated to Karen Gomyo’s precise & passionate reading of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Karen Gomyo, Robert Trevino_ 2 (@Jag Gundu)

Violinist Karen Gomyo with the TSO conducted by Robert Trevino (photo: Jag Gundu)

Gomyo pushes the envelope with her dynamic range, beginning some of her phrases very softly, letting her tone crescendo through phrases, sometimes seeming to erupt with emotion. Her commitment was hypnotic drawing the audience into the drama of this titanic work.

For the second consecutive week I watched a new face lead the TSO. Last week it was conductor Hannu Lintu, leading a Beethoven symphony and a brand new work. Tonight it was Robert Trevino as the conductor, ably leading the TSO through the newest of the 2 minute fanfares to Canada’s birthday—a contrapuntal piece with palindromic tendencies from Cheryl Cooney—to lead off. Trevino followed Cooney’s Sesqui with the Beethoven violin concerto and concluded with the 1947 version of Petrouchka.


Conductor Robert Trevino (photo: Irene Haupt)

Where Lintu let his baton do his talking –leading a stirring performance—Trevino showed us the most affable podium manner this side of Peter Oundjian, explicating the Stravinsky score in such an unpretentious way as to highlight the comedy in the story of this ballet.

Robert Trevino, speaking (@Jag Gundu)

Robert Trevino, the charismatic story-teller, before he picked up the baton to conduct (photo: Jag Gundu)

Dare I say it, that this is what the TSO desperately needs?! I wasn’t the only one laughing, but more importantly, when the various comic bits came up in the score, people guffawed and giggled with genuine recognition.

And the performance! This isn’t easy music. Recalling the google doodle that you may have seen a couple of days ago, commemorating the 150th birthday of Sergei Diaghilev, there were three consecutive important ballet premieres from Stravinsky with the Ballets Russes:

  • Firebird in 1910, with a big romantic score that was mostly tuneful and caused no scandal
  • Petrouchka in 1912, where the edginess of the music corresponded to a grotesque story of puppets and magic. For my money this is the most surprising and original of the ballets from Stravinsky, with its use of folk music and mechanical patterns suggestive of non-humans moving, apt for the humans portraying puppets in this ballet
  • Le Sacre du printemps in 1913, famous for its riot, although the riot may have been as much for its actions & dance as for the music, admittedly a bit noisier and more dissonant than Petrouchka

I should perhaps also mention that Sunday’s concert for the TSO also includes Debussy’s Prelude á l’après-midi d’un faune: an 1893 composition that was also made into a ballet by Diaghilev in 1912. In tonight’s concert Debussy’s piece was not included. I’m not sure why they give us the shorter program Saturday. Petrouchka is full of amazing solos, much of it highly challenging music. I wish I knew who the piano player was, as their playing was especially good, one wonderful soloist among many (in the slower section resembling a piano concerto): but the others get their names listed in the program. Trevino was undaunted by the varied time-signatures, keeping the orchestra together, while gradually building the intensity and tempo to a scintillating conclusion.

I hope we see him again.

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