Two Extraordinary Concerts and an Announcement

There were two extraordinary musical events this weekend that provided equal parts intellectual stimulation and emotional depth.

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New Music Concerts presented “Celebrating Beckwith” on Friday night at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The concert – curated by the guest of honour – featured two world premieres: Calling (2016), a quintet for brass and double bass, and Quintet (2015), for a mixed group of instruments (flute, bassoon, trumpet, viola, double bass). These works commenced and concluded the program and were given excellent performances by the NMC ensemble. The rest of the concert consisted of three first-rate older works that are seldom heard: Igor Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954), John Weinzweig’s String Quartet No. 3 (1962) and Beckwith’s Avowals (1985). Tenor Benjamin Butterfield and keyboardist William Aide gave a sensational performance of Avowals, a work that I would describe as “classic Beckwith” for its originality, cleverness, theatricality and poignancy. In fact, each work on the program shone as a result of the commitment of each performer. I have, of course, long admired my father for his skills as a composer, writer, teacher and pianist. Friday evening was a strong reminder of his genius as a programmer. His program notes were extensive and illuminating and his presence in the room (occasionally bounding onto the stage to thank the performers) was powerful and charming. The whole event was unforgettable.

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Grace Church on-the-Hill was filled to capacity on Sunday afternoon for Stephanie Martin’s final performance, after twenty years, at the helm of the Pax Christi Chorale. For her “swansong”, she chose The Apostles, by Edward Elgar, first performed in 1903, but never performed in Canada, until these shows this weekend. Stephanie has focused on the works of Elgar with Pax Christi, giving memorable performances of The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom in past seasons. The Apostles is a remarkable work of huge scope, featuring six vocal soloists, various combinations of choral ensembles and intricate orchestral writing. From the opening passages, it was clear that Martin was in complete control and had deep knowledge of the piece. She was blessed with six of the finest singers in Canada as her soloists – Meredith Hall, Krisztina Szabo, Lawrence Wiliford, Brett Polegato, Daniel Lichti and Michael Uloth – each of whom were in great voice and distinguished themselves with powerful, communicative performances. It was a brilliantly paced performance and the final, ecstatic section had me wishing that time would stand still. Looking around the church, at all the members of the orchestra and choir and those sensational soloists, I marveled at the beautiful community that Stephanie Martin has created and sustained over those 20 years.

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It was announced from the pulpit at St Thomas’s Church Huron Street yesterday morning that the brilliant Canadian church musician Matthew Larkin will be the new Organist and Director of Music there, starting August 1. I was privileged to be asked to chair the search committee, last spring, and we had a fascinating journey of auditions and interviews, leading us to unanimously recommend the hiring of Larkin. He has a remarkable track record as a devoted, charismatic and prodigiously talented conductor, organist, pianist and composer, with a particular skill at inspiring and leading young people. We are delighted that he will continue his ministry at St. Thomas’s and we look forward to continuing the strong musical tradition in that special place.

  • Larry Beckwith

Century Song

I was pleased to catch up with the sensational, compact, innovative Century Song, last night at Crow’s Theatre. Nightwood Theatre presents the Volcano Theatre production at the new Crow’s Theatre: an example of a wonderful collaborative spirit between three companies.

At the centre of the show is the dynamic and multi-talented performance of Neema Bickerseth, who sings and dances in a sophisticated, immersive and at times cinematic setting, in a wide variety of fabulous outfits. The musical program of this brave dramatic recital is made up of wordless songs from a handful of 20th century composers (Rachmaninoff, Messiaen, Cage and others) culminating in a beautiful song written especially for Bickerseth, by Reza Jacobs.

Pianist Gregory Oh and percussionist Ben Grossman provide spectacular support and also play extended improvisations evoking the social, political and innovative progress of the century. This includes a clever mash-up of television themes from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

It’s a riveting and highly original concept and show, and Bickerseth is sensational.

I had hoped to hear more about the show itself in the talk-back session afterwards. Instead, most of the time was taken up with a jumbled and strange rejection of the history of opera and declarations about the many ways in which opera is way behind theatre in its depictions of stories of real and powerful women. I was confused as to how this had any bearing on the show we’d just seen and disappointed that it led Bickerseth – when she was finally given a chance to speak – to apologetically state that the composers of the songs in her show were men.

In this age of mainstream culture finally catching up to the realities of gender fluidity, surely we must acknowledge that – while they were technically both “male” – Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Cage were two very different people and had, of course, both male and female aspects to their inner lives. I did appreciate so many of the other points Bickerseth made about her show and she should be so proud of this amazing production. Every singer should see it…it’s liberating in so many ways!

  • Larry Beckwith

Century Song continues at Crow’s Theatre until Saturday, April 29. Click here for more information.

Louis Riel: some thoughts

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It was a great privilege to bring 28 students to the dress rehearsal of the Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Louis Riel, by Harry Somers, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The show opened last Thursday night and has several performances coming up over the next couple of weeks.

It’s a landmark production for many reasons and General Director Alexander Neef should be commended for programming this challenging and sweeping opera in this fraught year of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. The musical direction of Johannes Debus is absolutely first-rate. He has a deep command of this complicated and wonderful score. I know I’m in a significant minority, but I adore Harry Somers’ music and feel that the musical complexity of this particular work is profoundly beautiful. I have unending respect and admiration for all of the singers in this production, who have prepared and perform their roles with such commitment, integrity and poignancy.

Peter Hinton’s staging of the work is thought-provoking. His inclusion of some of the country’s most esteemed First Nations performers gives a powerful added dimension to this revival.

I have fond memories of Harry Somers, who was a family friend and a composer colleague of my father’s. He was ahead of his time as a creative artist and thinker and it’s wonderful that this work – his masterpiece – has been remounted in such a loving and generous way by all involved. I was reminded of one of his last exhortations, a few days before he passed away in 1997: “There’s no limit in this friggin’ country if it drops its colonial mentality. We’ve got marvellous talent in every field – stop bitching and get on with it!”

I know that surviving members of the original 1967 cast have been closely involved in supporting and encouraging this production and it was heart-warming to see the original conductor Victor Feldbrill at the dress rehearsal, having just celebrated his 93rd birthday! While chatting with him, Victor pointed in the direction of Johannes Debus and said “he’s a very fine conductor”.

Blessings and warm wishes to all involved in Louis Riel. I look forward to seeing it at least once more in the coming days.

  • Larry Beckwith

Louis Riel, by Harry Somers, continues at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts until May 13. Click here for tickets. It will the travel to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for performances June 15-17. Click here for more information.

May 1 Salon – The Vision of Delight

I hope that you have been enjoying the warmer weather and celebrating the beginning of nature’s annual act of renewal.
Four hundred years ago, the great English poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote an exquisite short masque entitled  The Vision of Delight that pays tribute to the coming of spring in an elaborate allegorical pageant of poetry, music and dance. Derek Boyes and I are hard at work adapting Jonson’s “vision” for our next Salon.
I am excited that a number of TMT’s good friends will be on hand — including soprano Shannon Mercer, lutenist Ben Stein, and a handful of students from the George Brown Theatre School — to give a staged reading, with music, of  The Vision of Delight. It all takes place  in the beautiful surroundings of the Atrium at 21 Shaftesbury Avenue.

A s always, there will be food and drink on offer and Derek and I will give an informative and entertaining introduction to the work before our performance. In addition, I will be outlining the details of our exciting 2017/18 season of events. Please join us for the last performance of 2016/17 as we welcome the coming of spring!
Larry Beckwith

Looking Ahead

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It’s that time of year when we put the finishing touches on our next season’s plans. Toronto Masque Theatre will be announcing its 2017-18 season plans at the World Premiere of The Man Who Married Himself (by Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton) next weekend. I do hope that you will join us for this very special show.

What will be different about this year’s announcement is that this past December, after much soul-searching, I came to the decision to step down as the Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre at the end of next season. In consultation with my associates and the Board of Directors, we have decided that the 2017-18 season will be the company’s final season. Reflecting on the pressures of fundraising, programming and grant-writing, and observing the changing trends in Toronto’s cultural landscape, it seemed to me a logical time for such a decision. We have always operated with a very lean administrative structure, pouring the majority of our modest resources into the work that appears on our stage: hiring top-notch performers and commissioning some of the leading creative artists this country has to offer.

I look back on the past 14 seasons with nothing but pride and joy. Over close to 60 programs, we have explored a wide repertoire and, I hope, have helped to inform our audiences about the great potential that the masque art form represents, existing as it does at the intersection of the performing arts of music, dance and theatre.

I am deeply grateful to all of the creative souls who have invested their time and talent in bringing each Toronto Masque Theatre production to life. Over a decade and a half, we’ve been privileged to present some of Canada’s most beloved and dedicated artists.

What is perhaps dearest to me are the major new works that Toronto Masque Theatre commissioned from composers James Rolfe, Dean Burry, Alice Ho, Juliet Palmer, Omar Daniel and Abigail Richardson, working with some of our best writers, including André Alexis, Anna Chatterton, Marjorie Chan and Steven Heighton. I hope these pieces will enjoy a life beyond the company and, together, will stand as a uniquely Canadian repertoire of “modern masques”

And it has, of course, warmed my heart every time we have been able to program anything by that genius, Mr. Henry Purcell!

The community’s support of Toronto Masque Theatre has been overwhelming. My thanks go out to our loyal subscribers, donors, sponsors and to the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for their consistent and inspiring investments in the company.

There is one more season to come once this one concludes. And our plan is to make it an ambitious and celebratory year, the details of which will be announced next week.

In closing, I want to thank the Board of Directors of Toronto Masque Theatre and my close colleagues – Vivian Moens, Derek Boyes and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière – for their support, counsel, friendship and tireless efforts on behalf of the company. At every turn, they have been an absolute dream to work with.

I look forward to celebrating in 2017-18. Please join us!!

 

 

The Hip’s Last Waltz

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Gord Downie

I joined with millions of Canadians on Saturday night, August 20, at 8:30 pm to watch the broadcast of what many are calling the final performance of the great Canadian band The Tragically Hip. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer and Saturday’s performance, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, was the final stop on this summer’s cross-Canada Man, Machine, Poem tour.

While I’ve been aware of the band for years, the only line I knew from any of their songs was “ahead by a century”.  But, a little sheepishly, knowing that Saturday’s concert would be heavy and significant – and with a great deal of empathy for Downie – I immersed myself in everything Hip for several days prior to the event. It was a supreme joy to discover this incredible catalogue of witty, poetic, catchy songs that celebrated so much of the Canadian experience that I have lived (Downie and I are basically the same age): hockey memories, political and cultural landmark references, as well as universal commentaries. I was amused, stimulated, pumped up and moved by these beautiful songs. I watched a few of Downie’s interviews – with Strombo and Ghomeshi, and a particularly poignant one with Wendy Mesley in 2012, where he discusses his wife’s breast cancer and the effect that had on his life and work. He’s articulate, cheeky and painfully honest. If you get a chance to see the 2012 Ghomeshi interview, it’s quite brilliant, seeing Downie fawn over the former CBC host with a twinkle in his eye: integrity meets phony.

So, I felt prepared for Saturday’s concert viewing, but I was unprepared for the emotional depth of the experience. From the first images of downtown Kingston – where it appeared that the whole town had come out to pay tribute to their brother – to the pre-show backstage sight of Downie kissing each of his bandmates on the lips and embracing them so warmly and intimately, it was clear that this was to be a concert like none other.

I don’t have to describe the rest. It’s been discussed and reviewed at length over the past few days. I will say – from a purely musical and performance standpoint – that it was a brilliant show. I was so impressed with the tight playing of guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay and absolutely floored by the communicative powers of Downie. His performance was part beat poetry, part crooner, part Shakespearean fool. He was cynical and yet totally heartfelt, fun and yet sad, full of energy and yet so fragile. And his “costumes” were so whimsical and ironic. It was a very painful to thing to watch, and yet so deeply beautiful at the same time.

I don’t know Gord Downie, and clearly I’m a very new convert to The Tragically Hip, but I am so grateful to him – and his bandmates – for teaching me (and probably others) about grace and courage and for further revealing the beautiful constellation of life on Saturday, one star at a time.

  • Larry Beckwith