Whither the CBC?

CBC logo

On a recent trip to Stratford, I noticed that Globe and Mail music critic Robert Harris is giving a talk next week at the fabulous Stratford Summer Music series entitled “Whither the CBC?”. Given that the SSM is a classical festival and Harris writes and speaks often on various topics to do with classical music, I assume that the talk will centre around the role that our national broadcaster plays in promoting and supporting the musical life of the country. I’m hopeful that Harris maintains a degree of optimism, but, to be honest, it’s difficult to know where to start in describing the colossal way in which the CBC has failed the classical music community in Canada. Those with institutional memories – including Harris and the current Senior Director of CBC Music Mark Steinmetz – will remember a time not so long ago when concerts were recorded in small towns and large centres across the country and broadcast on one of over a dozen programs hosted by knowledgeable broadcasters, supported by a team of producers. They will remember the Young Performer competition, the Young Composer competition and the CBC Choral competition all of which made significant and intelligent investments in encouraging talented young Canadians and giving them a platform to grow as young artists. They will remember CBC Records (or the SM5000 or SMCD series) which recorded, promoted and distributed performances by excellent performers and composers across the country, providing them with wider audiences and investing in their careers in a tangible way. They will remember live-to-air broadcasts of special musical events across the country, hosted by knowledgeable, articulate broadcasters and connecting the country to its many creative centres.

In short, there was a time – not so long ago – when CBC Radio played a central role in the development of serious musicians, giving them a platform, connecting them to an audience and enabling them to grow and deepen into mature artists.

There have been great recent initiatives, of course, that do benefit Canadian artists: streaming services of theme channels, This is My Music profiles of brilliant performers, Sunday afternoon concert recordings of a few Canadian ensembles.

But for the most part, the “support” that CBC Radio offers young, talented Canadian classical musicians is a shell of what it once was. And that is lamentable.

I am very proud of the young people that appear on the “30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30” list that is compiled annually – and I suppose it’s an honour – but there doesn’t appear to be any value to that honour. Why doesn’t CBC Music profile each of these musicians in a detailed way, both on-line and on-air and record them in concert so the country can hear why they are “hot”? This would represent a meaningful investment in their careers. Otherwise, it amounts to an empty list worthy of People Magazine.

The argument against the kind of promotion I’m writing of is that it costs too much money and budgets have shrunk and there isn’t the organizational infrastructure anymore to support the kind of support CBC used to give to musicians. This sounds believable, but CBC Radio has always operated on a shoestring budget, a fraction of its television counterpart. Where there is a will, there’s a way: new agreements between the broadcaster and musical institutions and unions could have been negotiated (still could) and we could once again enjoy great Canadian performers in concert on the radio and know that our tax dollars are contributing to the encouragement and exposure of our cultural life.

This is not to diminish in any way the diversity of Canada’s musical life in the 21st century, nor to negate the fabulous and talented jazz, indigenous, hip hop, soul, pop and r&b musicians that are heard on shows like q, metro morning, shift and drive. This is “all good”, as they say.

However, at this very moment there are musicians of the calibre of Glenn Gould, Ben Heppner, Jane Coop, Andrew Dawes, Leopold Simoneau, James Campbell and Stewart Goodyear in studios and schools across the country, putting in their 10,000 hours and discovering the profound musical truths and possibilities, preparing to share them with listeners.

Why can’t our national broadcaster once again play a significant role in their development?

I’ll eagerly await Robert Harris’ answer.

  • Larry Beckwith

Who will write Omar Khadr: The Opera?

khadr

The editorial pages of Canada’s newspapers (and a few in the US) are filled these days with a wide range of opinions on the recent apology and $10.5 Million government payment to Canadian Omar Khadr. Partisan points are being scored on both sides of the issue. To some, Khadr is a terrorist, responsible for the death of U.S. soldier Christopher Speer and the wounding of another. To others, he is a victim of brainwashing who went to war far too young, was subject to despicable conditions as an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, was forced to confess to five war crimes and received absolutely no protection from the Canadian government.

Khadr is an emblem of the messed-up international struggles that have dominated the headlines since the beginning of the century and it seems to me that his story would make a brilliant subject for an opera: political and religious tensions, easy solutions substituting for the real truth, complicated family dynamics and, at the centre, a controversial, tortured, polarizing larger-than-life hero/antihero who has survived war, savage treatment, the court of public opinion and – at age 30 – tries to make sense of life in a country that turned its back on him when he needed it most.

Who will commission such an opera? Who will write it? We wait with bated breath.

  • Larry Beckwith

Two Extraordinary Concerts and an Announcement

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

beckwith

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.

pax

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.

larkin

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

Image result for louis riel images

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