COC’s New Opera: Hadrian, Coming in 2018/2019.

The official announcement is tomorrow, but today, there was a generous amount of news spilling forth about the Canadian Opera Company’s first new opera commission in years. Canadian-American singer, songwriter, and composer Rufus Wainwright, along with Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, have been commissioned to a new opera for the COC’s 2018/2019 season titled ‘Hadrian’.

I’m going to hold any judgement until I’ve heard more about the venture, however it will be interesting to see if Wainwright (who is known more for his pop and songwriting than his composing) and MacIvor can breathe some life into the new opera scene in Toronto. Yes, we have Tapestry Opera, a group that does brilliant work involving emerging and established Canadian composers. We also had, until August 31st of this year, the Queen of Pudding Music Theatre. However main stage opera in Canada seems to be a rarity. The COC’s last production was James Rolfe’s Swoon (2006).

So, as I said, I’m withholding judgement until I hear more about the project, but in the meantime, let’s sit and watch what happens.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Week of November 25th

There are three events happening this week. All are worthwhile viewings.

Tuseday November 26th:

7:30 PM: The Toronto Arts & Letter’s Club will be holding a memorial concert for American-born, Canadian composer Larry Lake, who passed away earlier this year. Larry founded Canadian Electronics Ensemble, and worked with the CBC for almost 30 years.

8:00 PM: Music Toronto and Eve Egoyan put on a concert at the Jane Mallet Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The program contains music by Americans James Tenney, Piers Hellawell, and Linda C. Smith (who is based out of Toronto), as well as a work by English composer Michael Finnissy.

Thursday November 28th:

7:00 PM: The Canadian Music Centre’s yearly project ‘New Music for Young Musicians’  comes to a head with this concert; Featuring works by Canadian composers chosen to write educational new works for young musicians. Also sharing the stage for this concert is Toronto-based composer/pianist Heather Schmidt and cellist Shauna Rolston who will be launching their new Centrediscs CD ‘Icicles of Fire’. Works by Schmidt, Nick Storring, Patrick Horn, Darlene Chepil Reid, and Monica Pierce will be played.

– Paolo Griffin

Review: Music & Drinks on the 13th.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the ‘On the 13th’ Piano Series at the CMC. The series, which started earlier this year, pairs a short concert (usually lasting just under an  hour), with wine or beer tasting and occurs on the 13th day of every month. This week, the 13th Street series hosted the junctQín Keyboard Collective and the Junction Craft Brewery.  junctQín is one of those exciting ensembles that not only consists of an instrumentation not normally found (in this case, three keyboard players), but also has a knack from programming thoroughly entertaining Canadian music. Consisting of Elaine Lau, Joseph Ferretti, and Stephanie Chua, the group is celebrating their fifth year together, and last night, they performed  four works that occupied the spaces of serious and fun music: Aaron Gervais’ Disney Princess Disasters (2011) (2nd movement: The Little Mermaid), Alex Eddington’s Grasslands, Badlands, Spirit Sands (2013), a series of movement for the piano that, according to the composer, is ever expanding. Toy Piano Composer Monica Pierce also had an offering: it plays (because it plays) (2013), and Alfred Schnittke’s Homage à Stravinksy, Prokofiev, & Shostakovich (1979). 

Gervais, a composer with a great deal of international experience (receiving schooling at the Hague Conservatory, and in San Diego), is a composer whose music I have always enjoyed, mainly because it eschews the normal dry seriousness of a lot of contemporary music and wanders into the part of town where music doesn’t take itself too seriously. This piece offered exactly that. Disney Princess Disasters retells the story’s (by way of narrator) of the Disney princesses with a twist. In this case, the Little Mermaid. Long, flowing lines of music, with just the right about of dissonance for the situation, along with a few squeak toys (yes, squeak toys), resulted in a very charming piece of music. Any child would love it, I think, and it had all the adults in the concert space chuckling with amusement too.

Eddington’s Grasslands, Badlands, Spirit Sands, was written while the composer (who also acts in theatre), was on a theatre tour through the prairie’s of Canada. He said that the tour took him up to different places (different than the more commonly seen ‘flat’ sections of the prairies anyway), and so it inspired him to write a  piece.  Dogtown, the first movement,  was an homage of sorts to a prairie dog colony. The piano was paired with a recording of a prairie dog colony, and the result was an incredibly busy piece, where lines melted into each other and sometimes, all you could hear was the sound. Big Muddy and Devil’s Punchbowl, the second and third movements, followed a similar pattern, though, without the recording. Both were very compelling movements that contained wave after wave of sound through lines in the lower register of the piano. Devil’s Punchbowl I enjoyed in particular.

Monica Pierece’s it plays (because it plays), was to me, the highlight of the night. It had all those moments you look for in music. It was energetic, rhythmic, a lot of fun, but it had sections that were sweet, almost sorrowful. I wouldn’t mind hearing this piece again. The Schnittke had a similar feeling to sections of it plays, especially in the area of rhythm. Combining the three styles of these three great Russian composers, this work was fast, fun, and incredibly difficult.

Get out to one of these concerts. Their odd time space (5:30 PM-6:30 PM) actually benefits them, as most people listen to the music, stick around for a drink and to mingle, and then head off to another engagement. It’s also worth going for the music, and, of course, for the drinks.

– Paolo Griffin

Guest Review – We Will Be the Ones…

Sometimes It’s a Good Thing to Be a Fish Out of Water.

After a harrowing streetcar trip on a gridlocked Queen Street, I power-walked my way up to the Array Space for *We will be the ones*. The concert was organized largely by Sammy Bayefsky, a current member of the University of Toronto’s composition program who also played piano for the night, and friends: Bryanna Petrie on vocals, Kintaro Akiyama on bass, Rosy Zhang on cello, and Erick Oliver Wawrzkiewicz on violin.

The premise of the concert was a bouquet of popular songs arranged for this ensemble as sung by Petrie, interspersed with some original compositions by Bayefsky and Akiyama. They professed to draw inspiration from The Art of Time Ensemble, who also do effective infusions of the art music world and the popular music world, and much like that Ensemble the two aesthetics were well-balanced.

The concert opened with a short, invocative original composition by Bayefsky, aptly named The Invocation, for four hands piano with the third and fourth hands skillfully played by Zhang. It was a great opener, meditative and expressive. It also was a fantastic lead in to the next piece, also composed by Bayefsky, and the concert’s namesake, *We will be the ones*. It began with a soothing ostinato in a curious little instrument called the mbira, which , while known by many names, I knew by kalimba, and you may be most familiar with the term thumb piano. It’s a little wooden box with stiff wooden bars suspended over a little soundbox, and in this case, thankfully amplified. I suppose it makes a sound that is hard to describe, but it’s a cool sound. I suggest you look for the instrument on YouTube.

This was also our first listen to Petrie’s voice; again, this is showing some of the aforementioned popular music ignorance, but Petrie’s voice is through-and-through possessed of that sort of folk/indie nostalgic twang that lends her performances a lot of character. I’m sure it is very reminiscent of an artist you, dear reader, are familiar with. It remained effective and idiomatic throughout the evening.

The piece after this was, incredibly, an arrangement of a song I actually know! Unprecedented, it was Harvest Moon by Neil Young, and a pretty nice arrangement by Akiyama too, who also played a great improvised solo in the middle of the tune, showing off his McGill Jazz graduate chops. After this was Succexy by Metric arr. Bayefsky, and closing with an original composition by Akiyama. This piece had some great colour and showed his jazz chops off yet again, but I feel as if Petrie’s voice could have been handled a little more effectively here. Maybe she was getting tired by the end of the first half, but she seemed to have a bit of a hard time with notes that seemed a bit too low or high, although as she displayed later in the concert her range gets pretty far up and sounded great in Case of You, a Joni Mithcell song arranged by guest arranger Britta Johnson. Hard to say what happened, but regardless, it did not seem to be a permanent problem.

I won’t go into heavy detail for the also solid second half. It opened again with another original composition for violin, cello, and piano by Bayefsky, followed by an arrangement by Bayefsky of, apparently, Petrie’s favourite Hey Rosetta! song, Bandages. Petrie also played some guitar for this one, and there were some great colours as a result of this uncommon pairing on instruments. Another original composition after this by Bayefsky entitled Say Nothing, with lyrics by Petrie. Then came the aforementioned Joni Mitchell arrangement by Johnson. The quality of the arrangement, which was a more upbeat take on the melancholic original, came as no surprise considering she’s had her music played at festivals like Stratford, Blyth, and Shaw.

The highlight of the program was the closer, In The Bachseat (more on that in a second). This arrangement of the Arcade Fire song In The Backseat was the most effective use of this weird infusion of popular and art music, new and old, arrangement and composition as it where, as it more effectively displayed a higher involvement in the craft of these infusions and a greater balance between all these different elements. The piece opens with what seemingly is Prelude in C Major from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach. It’s a direct transcription, but slowly, some new notes pop up. You might almost think Bayefsky played the wrong note. Different harmonies creep in, different melodies. Before you know it, you’re listening to an Arcade Fire song, with that great way-less-static-than-it-looks-on-paper figuration from the Bach prelude as it’s groundwork. And, as quickly or as slowly as it came in, the song sinks back into the background where it came from, and you’re hearing the end of the prelude. I even got a little uncomfortable when he didn’t play the fugue right after it. At any rate, there is something to the interaction between idioms and aesthetics done in this way that is very compelling. Mixing classical music and popular music has long been like mixing water and oil, and it is tricky to find a way to represent both simultaneously. While I’d hesitate to say this was the key to a long locked-up new idiom, considering I don’t know the Arcade Fire song (obviously) and was looking at the arrangement/composition from the perspective granted me from the Bach prelude, it was clear to me this was the entry in the program that most revealed a greater purpose in the program. Keep going with this idea, Sammy!

In closing, some more janitorial remarks. The ensemble played confidently and cleanly, they were all solid players, especially for current students and recent graduates, and although I’ll pretentiously claim the character of Petrie’s voice isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, it’s obvious she does the style well. The Array Space is a nice, live little room that fits about 50 quite comfortably with lots of Array’s toys in it to play with, including what I assume was their microphones and amplifiers. A place to consider hosting your next chamber music event at, most certainly.

Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking surprise for me, was the alarming quality of the brownies offered during intermission, which were almost unbelievably gluten free. Now, I have no need for gluten free baking, and nor do I have the desire to conform to a gluten free diet, but this recipe must acquire greater publicity. The moistness and flavour easily rivaled those of gluten abound brownies that I have consumed. I was completely taken aback. I have friends with gluten intolerances ranging from grossly inconvenient to debilitatingly severe who would clamour for this recipe. Bryanna Petrie, and so for this fact it must be mentioned she is also a friendly and patient individual, said that she would send it to me, and I intend to hold her to that.

If you liked this review and thought this concert sounded cool, and it is still before 7pm on Thursday October 24th, well you’re in luck; the collective will be repeating this concert tonight again at the Array Space, so get over there!

– Jay Caron

Review: New Music Concerts Entertains

New Music Concerts’ 2013-2014 season got underway last night at the Betty Oliphant Theatre with a genuinely entertaining night of music by Morton Feldman, John Cage, Stefan Wolpe, and Anton Webern.

For those who don’t know (and I myself didn’t until a few months ago), Edgard Varèse, Wolpe, Cage, and Feldman were members of the Eighth Street Artists Club of Abstract Expressionist Painters (Varèse and Cage were both visual artists as well as composers ). The 1950’s was a time when the arts flourished in New York, and these men were at the forefront of it, both as composers and as artists and being members of this club brought them into contact with intellectuals, artists, and all other manner of people.

Wolpe had been a student of Webern’s in Germany for a number of years, but had to flee in 1933 when Hitler seized power. Feldman was Wolpe’s student, and so you can see the line of musical tradition that both Wolpe and Feldman were a part of and that Webern helped create. Upon Wolpe’s return to Europe he gave a series of lectures on changing musical styles in the United States that had a profound impact upon musical development in Europe; Particularly in the area of stylistic integration and the opening up of the imagination of European composers and musicians to ideas not belonging solely to the Western art tradition.

This concert was a tribute to that period of time from the 1930’s to the 1960’s when the music of these men changed the face of music itself. The threat of a program such as this is that it would repel audiences due to the complex nature of the music. Twelve-tone music, serial music, and mid-1900’s ‘avant-garde’ music have a bad reputation among  the general public as being incredibly inaccessible, hard to listen to, and really not that fun. However what I heard last night was a successful attempt at making this music really entertaining in a way that would have the potential to attract greater audiences. I don’t want to say too much about the music and the structure and nature of the music itself, since it is old enough to have been raked over with a fine-tooth comb already, however I will speak generally about the concert and what I enjoyed.

The highlight of the night was without a doubt Wolpe’s Chamber Piece No. 1 (1964). Originally commissioned by The Koussevitsky Music Foundation and performed at the Library of Congress, this piece was filled with instrumental colour and was a great reminder of how entertaining Wolpe’s music can be. The combination of jazz inspired moments on the trumpet, with interplay between the winds and the violin, and the number of ideas all deriving from a single original thought was a delight to listen to. Credit too is due to Robert Aitken and the musicians for successfully pulling off a no doubt challenging piece.

On the other end of the spectrum was Feldman’s Structures for String Quartet (1951), and John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50), both of which were much calmer, longer, and flatter than the Wolpe. These pieces too were played with a great amount of delicacy, as they require, and the string players delivered mesmerizing music with an equally mesmerizing performance.

Webern’s Konzert, Op. 24 (1931-1934) was played twice, once at the beginning of the concert, and again in the second half. I enjoyed the piece far more the second time, though that may be because one time is not enough to take in everything that a Webern piece has to offer.

This was an enjoyable concert, and a truly great way to kick off a promising new year with NMC. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

– Paolo Griffin