The Hip’s Last Waltz

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

The Fairy Queen

Henry Purcell    (1659-1695)

The following program note was written in advance of Toronto Masque Theatre’s performances of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen this weekend (May 27-29, 2016) at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto:

How do you solve a problem like The Fairy Queen? One must begin by placing Henry Purcell’s music front and centre and making it the priority. One of Purcell’s masterpieces of the astonishingly productive last five years of his life, The Fairy Queen is known as a “semi-opera”, meaning that – in its original form – it is a full-length opera and a full-length play, featuring a separate cast of characters for each. The play is a plodding anonymous adaptation of two of the plotlines of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the opera amounts to a series of elaborate masques that meditate on the themes of the play: poetry, sleep, love, nature and marriage. The Fairy Queen was written and premiered in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London, and revived – with additional music – in 1693. After Purcell’s death in 1695, the original full score was lost and not rediscovered until 1901, just in time to be included in an edition of the composer’s complete works. From beginning to end, Purcell’s musical contributions to The Fairy Queen illustrate his genius at setting the English language, his masterful way with a melody, his imaginative instrumental writing and his true gift at capturing a ceremonial mood, whether solemn or celebratory. Each number in the piece is of such high quality – and so tremendously moving and entertaining – that it is well worth the effort to solve the narrative challenges of the piece and allow the deeply affecting power of Purcell’s music to shine through.

  • Larry Beckwith

Mummers Profiles: Terry McKenna


Of all the musicians playing and singing in The Mummer’s Masque, only guitarist Terry McKenna and I can say we performed in the first Toronto Masque Theatre show back in May of 2004. Since then, Terry has been a frequent guest of TMT and it’s always a treat to collaborate with him.

He’s equally at home playing Renaissance lute and guitar, Baroque theorbo, modern classical guitar and rocking out on various electric instruments. He teaches at Wifrid Laurier University, plays in the Toronto Consort, is a longtime and frequent performer in productions at the Stratford Festival and he has a busy solo career, as well.

In The Mummer’s Masque, Terry will be playing the Irish Bouzouki, a folk instrument close the guitar, that is used for the style of Celtic folk music that Dean Burry has served up in the show.

Aside from being a wonderful player, Terry is a great bridge-builder between styles and genres and he’s been a tremendous help when we’ve done cross-disciplinary shows, such as the Masque of Love a few years back. That show featured the sensational Patricia O’Callaghan, blues/gospel guitarist-singer Ken Whiteley and others and Terry so expertly navigated both the lute-songs and modern pop songs on the program.

He’s also got so many ideas that he makes any show he’s in better. I’ve learned to listen to him when he comes up and says “You know, Larry, I was thinking…..”.

Rock on, Terry. We’ll see you at the Mummer’s!

Alternate Messiah

I received an e-mail from Against The Grain Theatre the other day, with a video promoting their upcoming performances of a staged version of Handel’s Messiah. Against The Grain is an amazing company that has had great success in recent years re-imagining standard operas, especially the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations. They have high musical standards and a cheeky, modern approach to attracting new audiences.

This is all good.

Towards the end of their video, they state that they like to “stir the passions” and be a bit controversial with their approach.

This is all good, too.

I must say, though, that there were  a lot of pre-conceived biases in their ultra-cool promo that I would take issue with. These include:

“This is not your grandma’s messiah”

“Messiah is basically a very long piece with a biblical text….not very interesting.”

“The message that the New Testament represents, which is about half the piece, is about the secular….so Handel meant it to be for the guy in the pub.”

“Generally everyone in the audience will find The Messiah more approachable. It’s definitely a much more relaxed context. Hopefully they’ll hear something more different.”

“The fact that you can drink, the people who are there, the chill factor.”

“It’s not necessarily about that feel-good, happy Christmas memory”

I guess what I disagree with about these statements is that – apart from some of them just being wrong (the new testament one) – it implies that there’s something wrong with the time-honoured concert experience of communing with music and text in a direct and intimate way. And it’s a little insulting to oratorio singers, because they do use their bodies, their faces and, most importantly, all the myriad aspects of their voices to tell a story in a dynamic and unique way.

I wish AGT all the best for this upcoming show, but I wish they would dial down the denigration of other approaches and simply and positively promote what they’re doing: presenting a fresh look at classic repertoire.

For more information on Against The Grain, go to

  • Larry Beckwith

Mummers Profiles: Carla Huhtanen


It’s been a busy week, getting set for the beginning of rehearsals for The Mummer’s Masque today. In fact, our stepdancers had a number of great sessions this past weekend and we’ve been meeting in various configurations to work out costuming, props, schedules, etc. Any show is complicated to put together, but this one is a real jigsaw puzzle, involving as it does, 4 soloists, 6 band members, 2 dancers and a children’s choir of 12.

I’m looking forward to working with everyone, but I must say I’m particularly pleased to welcome soprano Carla Huhtanen to the Toronto Masque Theatre stage for the first time. Carla is one of those versatile, fearless, open-minded singers who throws herself into all sorts of repertoire and projects. She’s a mainstay with Opera Atelier and is a brilliant singer of “early” opera and she works regularly with Soundstreams and Tapestry Opera, forging new ground in contemporary opera and song repertoire. In addition, she sings as a soloist with a whole range of small and large ensembles across the country and all over the world.

One of the many great things about The Mummer’s Masque is the way in which composer Dean Burry uses the four vocal soloists. They are comedic characters, but they have – at times – some quite intense and tricky music to sing. And the singers are called upon to make it all look and sound as though it’s being made up on the spot. It takes a special singer with a great technique, quick sense of humour and excellent ensemble skills to bring this piece to life. I could not be happier that Carla is part of the team. She’s going to be great!

To learn more about this remarkable and profound singer, visit

  • Larry Beckwith

Mummers Profiles: Joe Macerollo


Larry Beckwith profiles the singers and instrumentalists of Toronto Masque Theatre’s upcoming production of The Mummer’s Masque

When composer Dean Burry and I chatted initially about the make-up of the instrumental ensemble for The Mummer’s Masque, Dean was quite specific about the types of instruments that would give the sound world and flavour of a traditional Newfoundland Christmas party. It also became clear that Dean was not interested only in recreating traditional songs and dances, but that there would be some challenging contemporary music interspersed throughout the opera/masque.

In considering who would play the accordion in the band, the first name that came to mind was the legendary Canadian accordion virtuoso, Joe Macerollo. I had never worked on a project with Joe before, though I had met him a number of times. Both Dean and I were thrilled when Joe immediately and enthusiastically said “YES!” and signed on the to project. We quickly came to realize that enthusiasm is Joe’s middle name.

Joe was born in Guelph, studied accordion privately, played for a while with Phil Nimmons and taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Queen’s University and Wilfrid Laurier University. For over 40 years, he has premiered new works for accordion, toured extensively, appeared as a soloist with countless symphony orchestras and worked closely with contemporary composers in creating a wide-ranging new repertoire for the accordion.

In addition, Joe has been an active administrator and board member, giving back in countless ways to the Canadian musical community. He was given a lifetime achievement award from the Toronto Musicians’ Association in 2009 and awarded the Order of Canada in 2013 for his “pioneering achievements as a musician and educator, and for bringing the classical accordion to Canadian concert halls”.

It’s a thrill to make music with Joe. He’s got a great sense of drama, is a brilliant collaborator and is in possession of a warm and winning personality. I’m so looking forward to our rehearsals and performances of The Mummer’s Masque and sharing Joe Macerollo’s outstanding talent with Toronto Masque Theatre audiences.

  • Larry Beckwith

A New Season

The calendar has been flipped to September, the month of new beginnings for teachers, students, artists…well, maybe for all of us. The weather continues sunny and warm, but thoughts turn to the year ahead,

I am overjoyed with the plans for our 2015-16 Toronto Masque Theatre season of events. It’s a balanced season that we are characterizing as “classic and contemporary”.

Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson

On the “classic” side, we have our first Salon – on October 20 – delving into the life and works of the Jacobean playwright and poet Ben Jonson. Jonson was one of the most important figures in the development of the masque in England, providing dozens of texts for court masques in the early 17th century. Our Salon will examine the significance and beauty of these works with a view towards introducing a Jonson Cycle that we will be pursuing in our programming over the next several seasons.

The Fairy Queen
The Fairy Queen

Staying with the “classic”, we will be producing Henry Purcell’s exquisite semi-opera The Fairy Queen. This is a profoundly beautiful work with close ties to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and featuring a magical musical score from the pen of England’s greatest composer.

Mummers (Roberta Pike)
Mummers (Roberta Pike)

On the “contemporary” side, we present The Mummer’s Masque, the rollicking Christmas classic, written for TMT by Canadian Dean Burry. Featuring step-dancing, carols, over-the-top storytelling and high-energy hijinks, this show will warm your heart and tickle your funny bone.

Composer Juliet Palmer
Composer Juliet Palmer

And we have a special introduction of our most recent commissioned work, The Man Who Married Himself, a South Asian-inspired work on the Narcissus myth by playwright Anna Chatterton and composer Juliet Palmer.

We will be launching our new CD on the Centrediscs label: a complete performance of The Lesson of Da Ji, by Alice Ho and Marjorie Chan. Stay tuned for details!

There will be other announcements and celebrations, as well, in what I know will be a stimulating and entertaining season of interdisciplinary art.

I would be delighted to have you join us, and please bring your friends! All the details are at