Creepy COC Macbeth

On a dark rainy day in the midst of Toronto’s traffic chaos I was rendered speechless by the new Canadian Opera Company production of Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Sir David McVicar. I never knew this opera could move me so much. In the last act each scene was better than the last, building inexorably to the conclusion. I don’t want to give too much away.

Verdi would have been impressed.

Some of that is the work of a director making only a few changes from the original. While I try to go with the flow of directors updating and even revising operas, I’m always thrilled when they manage to bring it off without losing the essential thread of the story.

This was a team effort. Perhaps the single most important aspect is the magic running through Shakespeare’s Scottish play. If the chorus of witches Verdi created doesn’t persuade you in the first scene, there’s no point. The creepiness underlying this story of a husband and wife tempted to perform evil acts begins with witches making prophecies. The COC Chorus as a musical entity are led by Sandra Horst and sounded great, but they are usually the dramatic backbone of any good COC show too. The last time I saw this opera the witches were picturesque & well-sung, but never for a moment had me believing they were magical, let alone scary. This was different, better, scarier.

The designs from Set Designer John Macfarlane and Costume Designer Moritz Junge work with McVicar to take us deeper into a pit of gothic horror, employing additional non-singing performers. Here’s a photo plus a close-up showing something disturbing. But it’s disturbing in a good way.

Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Macbeth, 2023. Directed by Sir David McVicar, set design John Macfarlane, costume design Moritz Junge, lighting design David Finn (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Notice the children! (detail from photo by Michael Cooper)

And Shakespeare would have liked it as much as Verdi.

While Macbeth is a virtuoso vehicle for two singers, without the visceral groundwork laid in the first scene, it wouldn’t matter. So yes we were watching and listening to a thrilling pair of singing actors, namely Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth.

Pendatchanska was announced as indisposed (aka unwell), but went on anyway. There were a few moments when I thought I detected a bit of extra care as she went for high notes, especially in her first scene. As she went on wow she got better. The sleep-walking scene in the last act was marked by an astonishing pathos, as the relentless monster who pushed her husband into acts of murder had become someone you could pity: which is the ideal. Amazing. Brilliant.

Kelsey brings the secure baritone with him that we’ve seen in previous Toronto appearances, a sound that reminds me a bit of Louis Quilico; in other words, he sounds like one of the greatest baritones of all time. Kelsey gave us lots of jagged edges, a portrayal that’s not very subtle: but then again that’s not how it’s written. His bel canto is superb, his tone beautiful almost every moment except when becoming so tormented as to cry out in pain.

Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth (Photo: Michael Cooper)

There are many other wonderful performances I could mention, a big and mostly Canadian cast of strong performers. Adam Luther –aided by his beautiful costume—brought genuine star quality to his appearance as Malcolm. He and Matthew Cairns’ sweetly sung Macduff take over the opera towards the end. Clarence Frazer was a nasty murderer. Tracy Cantin made a solid impression in her scenes as lady in waiting to Lady Macbeth, including the sleep-walking scene alongside Vartan Gabrielian as a sympathetic doctor.

We were in capable hands with our conductor Speranza Scappucci, drawing electrifying sounds from the COC orchestra and chorus, while solidly keeping us rooted in a stylish bel canto reading.

I’m looking forward to seeing the show again. The run continues until May 20th, with soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska singing three of the remaining five performances as Lady Macbeth.

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Surprising Chevalier

How could I resist seeing Chevalier, the new film about Joseph Bologne?

He’s been called the “black Mozart”. He was given the title Chevalier de St Georges by Marie Antoinette, composer of operas, symphonies, a virtuoso violinist and master swordsman.

Let me be clear. His actual life story is so spectacular as to defy filming, more unlikely than something Hollywood would create. His father was a plantation owner who had sex with a young slave in the West Indies, a servant to his wife. The father would provide for his son’s education in France, where the boy grew up to become a great violinist and swordsman.

If you don’t believe me, go to his Wikipedia entry.

There are some departures from the truth, as the new film takes liberties. Sticklers may object to how Mozart or Gluck are portrayed. The French Revolution looms over them all like a threat.

I recall some of the things I heard when Amadeus came out in the 1980s, the objections to Mozart’s hair or his conducting or his laugh. That was of course a film of a play, not reality, yet it came to be the way many people have understood Mozart let alone the misrepresentation of poor Salieri, caught in the crossfire of Shaffer’s play. I bring that up because in this case it’s a relatively unknown figure whose story has not been told before.

I’m grateful that I saw his opera L’Amant anonyme just over a month ago that brought this composer to my attention. I recall saying something in the review that may have sounded prophetic. I said “His life story would make a great opera: but that’s a tale for another time,” not realizing that they were busily preparing a film. But the story of his life is actually even more remarkable than what they presented. His father, we’re told (tiny spoiler coming), left neither him nor his mother any money. But that’s not true, his father actually provided for both of them. A distant father is perhaps better for Hollywood yet the truth is subtler. There are other discrepancies. But his story is a new one. Director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson likely won’t be taken to task by anyone in the film world for infelicities, while those of us from the operatic realm aren’t their biggest concern.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes the most of the starring vehicle. We saw him in Elvis and Cyrano, two of the few recent films I’ve actually seen. The film looks and sound splendid. It’s entertaining even if it bends the truth a bit. But I don’t think any harm is done in the process. See it, and I’m sure you will enjoy it whether or not it’s accurate.

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Spring Renewal: Scarborough Philharmonic with Ventanas

If it seems as though spring has suddenly come back, thank Scarborough Philharmonic and Ventanas for their concert “Spring Renewal” on April 22nd.

The first half featured popular classical pieces.

We began with Rossini’s Silken Ladder overture, followed by Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto from the Four Seasons including Concertmaster Corey Gemmell’s brilliant violin solos.

The first half concluded with music from de Falla’s El Amor Brujo featuring mezzo-soprano Veronika Anissimova. Although we recently heard a version of the same composition from the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall (that seats over 2600), the SPO playing in the intimate confines of the Scarborough Citadel (whose seating capacity might be 500 or so) raised the roof in comparison, and no wonder. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again. While an ensemble like SPO or Kindred Spirits Orchestra may not have the virtuosity of the TSO, the trade-off is in the rich sound you hear in a tiny hall, immersing you in the music for a truly sensuous experience. The solos from Anissimova, from Gemmell, from Gillian Howard (oboe), Samuel Bisson (cello), and Anthony Reyes (trumpet) were overwhelming, stunningly passionate. Full marks to conductor Ronald Royer for his bold leadership.

The de Falla led easily to the multi-cultural textures we would hear in the second half from special guests Ventanas, the six-piece Toronto-based world music ensemble fronted by powerhouse vocalist and dancer Tamar Ilana, who took the stage for a series of world premieres.

Tamar Ilana

In addition to Tamar, vocalist and dancer, we listened to Demetrios Petsalakis (oud), Jessica Deutsch (violin and vocals), Derek Gray (drums/percussion), Tyler Emond (upright bass) and Benjamin Barrile (flamenco guitar).

The five pieces they played took us through a broad range of styles and dramatic possibilities. We began with a traditional Greek melody from Demetrios Petsalakis, then Benjamin Barrile’s new Columbianas, flamenco-flavored guitar music to which Tamar added dance. The orchestra sat out the first two, but returned for the fuller textures required in the next three pieces.

Ronald Royer (left) and Tamar Ilana

I understood from the spoken introduction that “The boat was empty” by Tyler Emond was a romantic tale of love and heart-break, although I’m just happy to have enjoyed the melodies and the complex textures he asked of the orchestra. Azadi from Demetrios with orchestrations by Ron Royer was an understated composition concerning the plight of women in Iran, that I found very effective. Aurea composed and played by violinist Jessica Deutsch, vocals by Tamar, was an intriguing piece full of energy with dense layers of sound.

Ventanas and the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra

We would happily have heard much more from this fascinating group and their committed music-making, whose music worked beautifully with the SPO.

I understand that the premieres we heard this weekend are only the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between Ventanas and the SPO. I’m hoping we will hear more either on record or in future concerts.

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Bud Roach’s provocative new recording Affetti Amorosi

Although I listened twice through to Affetti Amorosi, Bud Roach’s new CD of 17th century songs in his light tenor voice accompanying himself on the theorbo, I took a break for holy week as I turned to his other recent recording, Worship in a Time of Plague a joint project of Capella Intima (of which Bud is Artistic Director) and the Gallery Players of Niagara, something I found easier to process and understand.

I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so overwhelmed by “Affetti amorosi” (Italian for “loving affections”), songs about love, sometimes exuberant, sometimes plaintive, often playful: and why I needed to step back for a moment.

What I did do is read the liner notes, trying to get a bit of a sense of where Bud was coming from.

Let me explain my context. During my MA at the Centre for Study of Drama, I took a course with Professor Domenico Pietropaolo concerning the Commedia dell’Arte (or CdA). We read the scenarios of Flaminio Scala, with the understanding that CdA was more of an improvisational practice among travelling artists, not something really scripted. By the time we get to Goldoni (1707-1793) or Gozzi (1720-1806), we’re looking at plays that recorded lazzi (improvised routines) of performers representing long-established traditions. Arguably –as Professor Pietropaolo insisted—this is no longer true CdA but a remnant, a series of plays employing the older tradition of improvised theatre.

I mention this to suggest the way CdA likely worked in the period from 1400 – 1700. You had the masked performers, who for most people are the emblem of CdA, for instance servants such as Arlecchino, or the Dottore (nota bene, a doctor not of medicine but a learned doctor from a university) or the bullying Capitano (Don Giovanni being an example of this type). These players would be masked and would be expected to improvise of course.

And then there are the lovers, who often were in some sort of conflict with a parental figure. My remembrance of what we knew of these figures was that they would sometimes sing amorous songs: which immediately came to mind with Bud’s CD. Affetti amorosi or loving affections, would be expressed by the lovers in these scenarios. While I recall being told by Professor Pietropaolo that the lovers had songs they sang, I never heard any mention of the precise texts. I can’t recall whether that was something to be speculated / debated between scholars, or simply another of the mysteries that come with performance studies. While we know that Shakespeare wanted music at certain points in his plays, as to what’s played? That’s not recorded, just a word such as “tucket” in the text, to indicate a fanfare. Similarly I remember knowing that there were songs, but having a blank in my head for the actual music.

And that’s where Bud’s CD and its liner notes had me wondering, as a door opened for me, now excited rather than perplexed. The recording offers songs by Giovanni Berti, Alessandro Grandi, Carlo Milanuzzi, Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Stefani. Bud explains that these songs would have been introduced to the public through the various companies of CdA players. Yet there is scholarly controversy, as usual. I read these notes as a defence of a bold series of choices, as for instance this (and I quote):

The decision was made to realize a bass line on theorbo or follow alfabetto symbols with the baroque guitar were made according to my sensibility of each aria—a completely subjective preference. Where I saw a walking bass line or structure that offered rhetorical amplification of the text, I have opted for theorbo, such as in Berti’s “Ohime”, and yet for Stefani’s verion of the jaunty patter song “Ecco Lidia” any accompaniment beyond simple strumming would seem superfluous.

Let me pause for a moment to insert Berti’s Ohime. While the word “ohime” might be translated as “alas”, we’re in a realm where the pain is the suffering of a lover, and observed in the performance as a matter that’s fun rather than truly painful.

Ecco Ecco Lidia (here is Ecco Lidia). Exuberance. Fun. The only thing i might lament is that I will never meet this Lidia (that is if she was ever an actual person).


Bud continues:
Neither conclusion would diminish the suitability of other choices, just as adding instruments to a continuo grouping sets no singular standard for performance. There remains, however the inescapable fact that despite its “popular” roots, this music is the product of a rhetorical, highly oral culture, and I would argue that a self-accompanied presentation offers the most flexibility for the expression of rhetorical invention in both poetry and music. One historical bias that played no role in decisions regarding accompaniment was Nigel Fortune’s dismissal of the guitar as being “wildly inappropriate” for songs of a serious nature. I can only hope that my work in this genre serves as an adequate rebuttal.

As you can probably tell, I’m entirely sympathetic to Bud Roach’s approach in this conversation. I’m set off by words such as “popular” and “highly oral culture”, recalling that groundlings heard & understood Shakespeare far better than we do, not just due to the changes in language but especially as we’ve lived through a shift away from an oral culture. Here I am on an electronic device, relying often upon google, when people used to employ something called “memory”. When we imagine the performances of the CdA, meaning the range of possibilities with players traveling all over Europe, we can’t expect them to have orchestras or boom boxes. No, they were portable companies doing things on the cheap on the fly, and changing it up when a player got sick (ha can we imagine a theatre in time of plague?) or had quit the troupe. We have studied the improvisation in the text – coming at this from the drama side of the equation—while the improvisation in the music isn’t necessarily given the same latitude. The study of CdA is as multi-disciplinary as Bud Roach’s work, requiring language, drama, music, and so much more. Need I mention: Bud’s accompanying himself, arrangements that are often very clever, brilliantly supporting the text. Many of these songs can be imagined in multiple guises (as Bud has implied when unpacking the choices he made in his arrangements/ realizations), possibly more serious, possibly more parodic or satiric.

I’ve been listening to this CD a lot, especially now that holy week is over. It’s brilliantly original.

You can find the tracks here from Presto Music.

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Philadelphia pairs from Jonathan Demme

We watched Philadelphia (1993) last night for the first time in awhile. I’m just writing this to call attention to a pattern I think I’ve observed in the work of director Jonathan Demme.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but did devour several upon their appearance, notably Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993) and more recently Rachel Getting Married (2008).

The concept I keep grabbing onto with Demme is pairs.

In Philadelphia I’d point to the juxtaposition of two lawyers you see on the film’s poster and the cover of the video, who are at the heart of the story, namely Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington).

Near the beginning of the film there’s a great scene shot with the two in an elevator with a third person between them, a shot with such symmetrical composition as to be worthy of that compulsive symmetrist (is there such a word?) Wes Anderson.

Beckett has AIDS, has been fired from his firm and will die before the end of the film. Miller is a black man who also faces discrimination even as he utters some of the same homophobic bigotry as the partners in Beckett’s firm. After initially rejecting the case Miller agrees to represent Beckett.

We are seeing displays of loving kindness from two different families, both Beckett’s extended family, (all of whom are supportive of Andrew’s ordeals) and Miller’s family, that has just recently enjoyed the arrival of a new baby. One of the most magical oppositions is set up when we first see Hanks’ response to the Maria Callas aria as he speaks of love, then the same music underscoring Miller’s return home to his sleeping baby, whom he seems to embrace with a new appreciation of mortality, a new level to his love. While much was made of Hanks’ performance (winning an Oscar) I am as impressed with Denzel’s nuanced portrayal of a man whose character arc begins with bigotry and a rejection of homosexuality, growing towards something like acceptance.

The other pair I’d like to point to in this film is musical. Demme frames the movie with a pair of songs.
We open the film with Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar winning song “Streets of Philadelphia”, a song I’ve struggled to hear in the multiple times I’ve seen the film.

Okay! This little blog is as much about me deciding, hey let’s look at those lyrics! This song opens the film with a series of shots of people in various settings.

I was bruised and battered
I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
Saw my reflection in a window
And didn’t know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away
On the streets of Philadelphia?
I walked the avenue, ’til my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Just as black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia
Ain’t no angel gonna greet me
It’s just you and I my friend
And my clothes don’t fit me no more
A thousand miles just to slip this skin
The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake
I can feel myself fading away
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the streets of Philadelphia?

I find this first song perhaps a better composition than the other one, a perfect creation that stands alone. Yet it’s the other song, Neil Young’s Philadelphia, that always stays in my head, that usually reduces me to a wet lump of tears and sobs, and for days afterwards has me running the song and scenes of the film through my head.

Sometimes I think that I know
What love’s all about
And when I see the light
I know I’ll be all right.

I’ve got my friends in the world,
I had my friends
When we were boys and girls
And the secrets came unfurled

City of brotherly love
Place I call home
Don’t turn your back on me
I don’t want to be alone
Love lasts forever.

Someone is talking to me,
Calling my name
Tell me I’m not to blame
I won’t be ashamed of love

City of brotherly love.
Brotherly love

Sometimes I think that I know
What love’s all about
And when I see the light
I know I’ll be all right.

I have to ask, is that academy award for “best song” to be understood as best song in some absolute musical sense? or the best song in the dramaturgical sense of how it functions in the film? Because for me the first song, good as it is, has little connection for me to the film, the second one however completes the movie for me, one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever seen to a film. Howard Shore, who composed the film’s score might deserve some credit for this as well, as he segues smoothly from the song to the music in the credits. Indeed I think Shore’s score was written with this song in his head, a very accomplished and under-rated piece of work.

Young’s song hits me in combination with the home movies of children playing at the film’s conclusion, the words sounding as though we were hearing from the protagonist. Oh it’s absurd really, Neil Young doesn’t sound like Tom Hanks, but he does sound like a child full of questions. What does Andrew feel after death, as all these loved ones celebrate his life? I feel the song speaks as though Andrew is between lives, contemplating the meaning of the life that’s to come (meaning in that future from the old films, of growing up to become the adult Andrew) and perhaps looking back after this life asking what it all meant.

Neil Young’s child-like delivery plays into this, seemingly struggling to understand the meaning of love and life.

It gets me every time I see it, which might be why I don’t see this film too often. I don’t want this song to lose its power to move me.

That pattern of pairs that I think I see may strike you as overly reductive. But I see it in other Demme films. In Something Wild there’s a kind of walk on the wild side by both of the protagonists, although the significance is different for each, as each one confronts their identity. In Married to the Mob too, we can’t help noticing the crooks who wear guises and the police too who pretend to be something they are not. In Silence of the Lambs we watch a criminal held in jail assist the police to catch another criminal, even as the incarcerated criminal gets away and causes more mayhem himself.

Maybe Demme was interested in pairs because he was born February 22, 1944, or in other words 22-2-44.

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Resurrection Again

Handel’s oratorio The Resurrection received its belated Canadian premiere in Opera Atelier’s production brought to Koerner Hall, an early work long neglected.

Although the production had been prepared in 2021 it had to be filmed because in-person performance wasn’t possible due to the pandemic. This is, excuse the expression, the second coming of this production, and starring the same principals as in the film.

The timing adds a layer as I chose to see Resurrection on Easter Sunday, thinking that would be the best timing, as opposed to earlier in Holy Week. After seeing it I’m not sure about my choice. While I quite love the work and this production, it’s a piece of theatre, and not to be confused with something religious like a mass.

While there is much to admire in this presentation I’ll begin with the set, as it conditions our experience before the show even starts, calling attention to resident set designer Gerard Gauci’s creation. You will notice that there are matching pulpits downstage left and right.

The one to our left serves for the Angel, soprano Carla Huhtanen while the one to our right is home base for Lucifer, bass Douglas Williams. For some of us this is a profound echo of our lives in church even if there’s nothing churchy about the set.

The set is a perfect conceptualization of the antagonism in Handel’s score between the Angel and Lucifer, whether the insight originates with Gauci or Stage Director Marshall Pynkoski.

The Angel (Soprano Carla Huhtanen) at the pulpit (photo: Bruce Zinger)
Lucifer (Bass Douglas Williams) at the other pulpit (photo: Bruce Zinger)

The other key locus for action is concealed by that mysterious golden curtain under the stairs. It’s the sepulchre of course, where Jesus’s body lay: and then at the key moment, stood up and departed. While we don’t see it, that’s the drama, the absence that has been witnessed by the two women in this oratorio (Mary Magdelene–soprano Meghan Lindsay and Cleophas–mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy). Gauci has captured an extraordinary amount in his set design.

Opera Atelier resident Set Designer Gerard Gauci

While I was smitten with the production in its film version, the impact of the voices and Tafelmusik Orchestra is that much greater. All five vocal soloists are superb with brilliant moments.

Carla Huhtanen was a properly stern presence as the Angel, yet capable of ironic mockery for her debate opponent, Lucifer. Douglas Williams sounded splendid, boastful but beaten. Meghan Lindsay continues to develop her big dramatic soprano sound, with Allyson McHardy’s smoky mezzo-soprano as a delicious contrast. Colin Ainsworth’s tenor sounded effortless, fluid and clear.

As I said back in 2021 when viewing the film, there can be no objections to an unorthodox production philosophy when applied to an unknown work such as this. Pynkoski and Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg employ a great deal of dance throughout to release tension in crucial moments. Jeannette herself dances one of the key moments, a very bold vulnerable choice on her part.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene, and Mezzo-Soprano Allyson McHardy as Cleophas, with Artists of Atelier Ballet and Alexis Basque, Trumpet (photo: Bruce Zinger)

The dramaturgy is a hybrid that works especially well in the intimacy of Koerner Hall. Tafelmusik led by David Fallis sounded especially good in the warmly welcoming acoustic.

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Worship in a Time of Plague: Capella Intima and the Gallery Players of Niagara

Worship in a Time of Plague is a recording project by Capella Intima and the Gallery Players of Niagara.

The title seems especially fitting for Holy Week in 2023, three years into our own pandemic.

The scholarly side of the undertaking can be understood as an exploration of the possible influence of Venetian composers upon Heinrich Schütz, due to his nine month residency in the Republic. As they put it “We have assembled a selection of music to which Schütz would have been introduced in 1629.”

Schütz’s travels clearly made an impression on him. How much?

In this recording juxtaposing the influential Venetians with Schütz, they’ve created a remarkably cohesive whole, as if to suggest that the Venetians’ style was imprinted upon Schütz.

1–Laudate pueri: Giovanni Rovetta
2–Paratum cor meum: Heinrich Schütz
3- In te Domini speravi: Alessandro Grandi
4- Bone Jesu verbum Patris: Alessandro Grandi
5- Dixit Dominus: Stefano Bernardi
6- O quam tu pulchra es: Heinrich Schütz
7- Veni de Libano, amnica mea: Heinrich Schütz
8- Credidi, propter quod locutus sum: Giovanni Rigatti
9- Benedicam Dominum in omne tempore: Heinrich Schütz
10-Exquisivi Dominum: Heinrich Schütz
11- O beate Benedicte: Alessandro Grandi
12- Exultavit cor meum: Heinrich Schütz
13- Angelus ad pastores ait: Antonio Cifra

The liner notes remind us of the challenges church musicians faced in such times, as larger scale performance became difficult or impossible. Smaller scale motets represent a clever solution.

The line notes say
“Schütz returned to Dresden just before the outbreak of plague to which one third of the Republic’s population succumbed.”

The team includes Sheila Dietrich & Lindsay McIntyre, sopranos, Jennifer Enns Modolo, alto, Bud Roach, tenor and Artistic Director (Capella Intima), David Roth and Paul Winkelmans baritones, Julie Baumgartel & Andrew Dicker, violins, Margaret Gay cello and Artistic Director (Gallery Players of Niagara), Jonathan Stuchbery, theorbo, Borys Medicky, organ.

It’s stunning music done with wonderful attention to every detail, every note, every syllable. The music may be new to me but it’s now played every chance I get, in the car or at home.

To obtain click here.

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Visions of Spain, Glimpses of Gimeno

This past week’s Toronto Symphony concert offering “Visions of Spain” also gave a few interesting perspectives on their new Spanish-born music director Gustavo Gimeno.

After two rather obscure pieces before intermission, we proceeded to three of the most well-known pieces associated with Spain, in a concert drawn entirely from compositions of the 20th or 21st century.

First came selections from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo that furnished the opportunity for the TSO to play alongside members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, including some superb solos from the young players. When Gimeno took the microphone to speak of the lessons learned on both sides (teachers and mentors as much as the students) his sincerity was evident. I sat beside a mother watching her child playing, encountering other family members in the lobby and being greeted by an especially enthusiastic little one in the washroom.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra sharing the applause

Next came Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra featuring soloist Juan Manuel Cañizares. I’ve been in love with this piece since it grabbed me back in my days working in a record store in 1980. The second movement with its stunning English horn melody is the most famous part, leading the guitar eventually to a stunning cadenza exploring the implications of the melody, before leading us back to an explosive orchestral tutti giving us the melody in its boldest version. Cañizares took us to the biggest dynamic extremes, so soft but growing until eventually so powerful.

The first movement used to be my favorite at one time with its rhythmic energy, its clever use of a melody that is barely more than a couple of notes. But nowadays the one that stays in my head most (all three movements containing passages that can be like delightful ear-worms, to be honest) is the last one with a playful approach to keep you guessing until the last phrase sneaks away into the darkness. One of the great joys of this piece was to watch the interplay between Cañizares and Gimeno, in a respectful dialogue between orchestra and virtuoso guitar. And then Cañizares blew us away with a superb encore (no idea what the piece is called), the orchestra sitting respectfully in place while Gimeno bobbed around in his seat like a kid watching his hero in action.

Gustavo Gimeno: one of the many admirers of soloist Juan Manuel Cañizares (photo: Allan Cabral)

Finally we heard Ravel’s Boléro, watching Gimeno watch the orchestra. Did he conduct? Not at first. Boléro is remarkable for its uniform template of verse after verse of a melody, over a rhythm laid down by the snare drum playing as steadily as a metronome. Of course that’s easier said than done, and likely appreciated by Gimeno, the former percussionist.

TSO playing Bolero (photo: Allan Cabral)

We went through verse after verse while Gimeno watched, sometimes moving his focus of attention given that in a real sense he’s the audience for whom the TSO are playing. Only when we came to the verses using the full orchestra more than halfway through the composition, with strings playing the melody, did Gimeno take up his baton to lead.

And while we’re told in the program that they’re to play as loudly as possible I swear this was an organic build-up that didn’t strike my ear as loud or offensive. I recall performances where the final phrases (with those wacky sounds that tell you it’s ending shortly) jar and jolt you, noisy and edgy. Not so Gimeno’s TSO. We started very softly, and as always this orchestra tends to be softer than any I can recall. And I like it.

We began with the Canadian premiere of Aqua Cinerea from Francisco Coll, a young Spanish composer Gimeno has championed. What struck me about this piece was that it does not sound like the output of a conservatory musician trained in the usual procedures but rather something strikingly original, almost like crossover: where we see someone new to the discipline unafraid to break rules. Frequently the piece includes small details and barely audible decoration that colours the whole without overpowering it.

No the program was not all Spanish music. Surely Gimeno wouldn’t want to overdo it. The second piece on the program was Henri Dutilleux’s First Symphony, a work sounding far less radical than its composition date of 1951 might suggest. This Dutilleux work gives the TSO opportunities to shine, colourful moments in each movement without being noisy or dissonant. There’s a clever scherzo, eventually a peaceful ending.

I suspect Gimeno won’t be pressured to program works he doesn’t like, and will find beauty in any piece they undertake. In about a month, the TSO will play and then record Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. Is this to be their identity, I wonder: fearlessly undertaking works of the last century, as they did this past week? We shall see.

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Being Legendary at the ROM: Kent Monkman confronts Colonialism and rethinks History

Kent Monkman’s current show Being Legendary at the Royal Ontario Museum continues for a couple of weeks more until April 16th. Art Canada Institute have created a book that helps preserve the show and its impact.

I’ve been pondering the combination of displays, words in three languages (Cree, English and French), artifacts and art in the installation. One can understand it as much from what it is not as from what it is.

The ROM installation performs some of the same sort of reframing seen in the two big paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, that reference art in their collection. Similarly this is a chance to address images of the world as seen in the ROM. It’s not just art and the representation of Indigeneity, as at the Met.

Our focus shifts this time from the preoccupations we’ve witnessed before in his work. The art Monkman presented in his Shames and Resilience show that came to the UC Art Centre in 2017 as part of a national tour was galvanizing in showing us the experience of Residential Schools, especially The Scream (2017), while raising the question of Indigenous representation. The show includes a 2016 painting Death of The Virgin (After Caravaggio) , that reframes the original composition, as though to begin to address his concern, as he stated in the Foreword to the show’s brochure:
I could not think of any history paintings that conveyed or authorized Indigenous experience into the canon of art history. Where were the paintings from the nineteenth century that recounted, with passion and empathy, the dispossession, starvation, incarceration and genocide of Indigenous people here on Turtle Island?

That ironic reframing of old images, that was so prominent in the two massive works at the Metropolitan Museum in NY from 2019 to 2021, takes a new form this time at the ROM. We’re not to worry so much about art history and the representation of the Indigenous experience in art as we’re to focus on colonialism and history. The ROM’s collection takes a role similar to the one taken by the Met Museum. Where the art in NY that could arguably be called “the canon” by being the collection in the biggest museum in the greatest city in the western world, furnishing the context for Monkman’s reframing, the ROM’s collection stands in for the broader world of nature, the dinosaurs and the natural world in which we live, a snapshot of western cultural assumptions that go with histories as part of the colonizer project that Monkman interrogates.

While I’ve had powerful responses to the artist before (especially recalling the way I was impacted by his 2017 show) I did not expect the experience I had at the ROM. I’m not an art critic, nor am I Indigenous, so I think that qualifies me as a typical Canadian. Full disclosure: this is a description of my emotional experience at the ROM instillation, struggling with what I saw & experienced.

I felt that he softened us up with the first part of the show before delivering a gut-punch in the second half of the show, eliciting more tears than I’ve ever shed for art in a gallery. I experienced Monkman’s work in a kind of dramatic tableau, a sequence of scenes curated for us, and recall Monkman at this moment as an artist who was worked in film and theatre, not just the art gallery. Indeed I’d like to see him make something for the theatre. Here we begin with something light & positive, a joyous series of images featuring spirituality alongside science, without the kind of disciplinary divisions we normally crash into in museums or universities. A world with stars and rocks, little people and dinosaurs, Miss Chief’s high heels and handmade moccasins coexist happily: because at least for the moment his art and the installation present a vision of the world before the fall (if you can forgive me for inserting a peculiarly Christian metaphor, apt for the time of year), aka before the settler invasion. And this merging of spirit and science and culture are refreshingly free of the sort of second-guessing by the positivistic scientists insisting on the primacy of that which can be proven and known with photographic proof. Myth and science co-exist for the moment in this first part of the installation.

Then things turn abruptly: as they did in history as we arrive at what felt like the climax of the show, the drama of the room with three powerful paintings of children. This segment of the show (and the book) has the title “When they tried to break our spirit”.

The first is in a darker recess of the room, immediately suggesting its importance. I believe the picture is titled “The Sparrow”, although the book reproduces “A study for The Sparrow”, possibly because the painting was not yet finished. A child reaches towards a sparrow just out of reach in a residential school room, that I almost think of as a prison cell, what with its windows covered in bars, the rows of beds and the crucifix on the wall. I’m conflicted speaking of that cross –especially at this time of year—when of course that image reads different to someone embracing a religion without any awareness of the oppressiveness with which these children were treated.

Jesus himself must blush at the thought.

We see a child hiding from pursuit by a distant Mountie, shushing the little people who watch from among the flowers. The painting is titled “The Escape”.

And the one that really got to me is the picture where we see children, as viewed from the point of view of the ones being executed in the 1885 conflict.

The signage identifies the painting as “Compositional study for The Going Away Song”, although in French it says “Le chant etc” so perhaps the painting is “Going Away Song”. I don’t know for sure.

I didn’t understand this at first, only that I was crying and upset. Later I figured it out. The viewpoint of this painting looks out between armed Mounties from underneath a scaffold as where one might end up when executed by hanging. I was also very moved by the text in the signage, in three languages.

I found it impossible to continue happily going through the installation when I’d seen this painting, looking at the group of boys in the centre of the painting, and retreating out of the room to gather myself together. Once again (recalling The Scoop or The Scream) Monkman shows us the impact upon the children.

I’ve included a photo I made of a detail of this painting, from the book, to try to show you some of the power of Monkman’s painting. I put it sideways because I wanted to make something a little bit as monumental as what he’s made.

At the ROM show, I came back briefly to look around, but I was still too upset to really digest anything. I only really took in the rest of the installation through the retrospective views offered by the book. I did look at the moccasins in the next part of the installation, silent testimonials to heroes and I realized later, a disturbing echo of the museum specimens, of lives lived.

Being legendary indeed.

There’s more to the show but for me this was the part that reverberated with me over the next days, as I couldn’t get the images out of my head.

I’ve looked through the book several times since going to the ROM during March Break. Being Legendary at the Royal Ontario Museum continues for a couple of weeks more until April 16th.

To obtain books on Monkman as well as recommended reading from the ROM Boutique click here.

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Mass in B minor from Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Last night’s performance of the Bach B minor Mass by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Koerner Hall with a baroque orchestra led by their new artistic director Jean-Sébastien Vallée has put us on notice, that maybe Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are changing.

Yes they were already the big choir in town, employed by the Toronto Symphony for their annual Messiahs or an occasional Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a high-calibre amateur ensemble, with a professional core.

But Vallée’s creative input seems to alter the equation.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée

For starters, that aforementioned “baroque orchestra”, populated with recognizable local stars such as John Abberger or Alison Mackay, raised the stakes for our experience of JS Bach, under Vallée’s capable leadership.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (photo: Taylor Long)

And then there’s the way the chorus sounded. I did a few double-takes, as I was frankly a bit surprised at how gentle the big choir sounded, especially in the intimacy of Koerner Hall. I think the problem for years was that this was an ensemble who were regularly played like a powerful car that’s driven with the gas pedal to the floor. The power was the priority, not the subtlety.

But Vallée has them singing softly, and even in the climactic numbers, will allow a forte only for a moment here and there, while surrounding a louder note with softer ones. Rests are properly observed, offering silence around the music. Diction is crisp and clean. They sounded precise, musical. The voices are thereby saved rather than spent. No wonder that we saw smiles.

The soloists came from among the professional ensemble. Yes there were tremendous performances, especially countertenor Simon Honeyman, tenor Nicholas Nicolaidis, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Claborn and soprano Lesley Emma Bouza. But I especially love the politics implicit in using their own talented voices, both in the dramatic moments when they come walking forward from among the choir and when we watch the soloists participate in the big numbers with the rest of the choir. It changes the way I see the work. And it likely changes the relationships within the choir: in a good way.

Today TMC announced their 23-24 season, including
September: In Time, a fusion of music and dance
October: Carmina Burana
December: Festival of Carols
March: a new choral adaptation of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise performed by the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, with baritone Brett Polegato, and pianist Philip Chiu,
April Verdi Requiem

For further information click here

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