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Toronto Montreal

Preview: Alison Mackay and Toronto Consort reach back in time with women's voices in music

By John Terauds on May 23, 2013

An illumination of writer Catherine de Pizan handing over a copy of one of her books to the Queen of France 600 years ago.
An illumination of writer Christine de Pizan handing over a copy of one of her books to the Queen of France 600 years ago.

Tafelmusik double-bassist Alison Mackay has demonstrated her remarkable multimedia musical storytelling skills in House of Dreams and the Galileo Project. Now she lends her talent to Toronto Consort’s season-ending concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

In conversation earlier this week, Mackay describes the programme, A Woman’s Life, as a celebration of female voices from Medieval times through to the end of the baroque era.

As we can imagine, the chants of 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen are on the the Toronto Consort bill, led by Mackay’s husband, David Fallis. Other, later prominent names are Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, two more women who managed by skill, talent — and likely no small dose of wile — stand out in a male-dominated world.

Mackay’s most potent inspiration for this programme has come from the writings of Christine de Pizan, born in Venice in 1364 and who died in France around 1430. She could easily have been Europe’s first self-employed woman writer.

An illustration from City of Ladies.
An illustration from City of Ladies.

As she speaks, Mackay holds a paperback translation of Pisan’s Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), which dates from 1405. It is the first volume in what became a trilogy celebrating the history of individual women’s contributions to history and a call to find a place in the working world and in public discourse.

In Medieval Europe, women either bore and raised children or retreated into convents. Interestingly, Mackay mentions how convents were largely populated by women who had come from wealthy or aristocratic families.

“Hildegard’s parents were wealthy. But she was the 10th of 10 children, so her father offered her as a tithe to a Benedictine monastery,” Mackay relates.

Pizan, living 200-or-so years later, was lucky enough to get access to the French court of Charles V when her father became the king’s physician and alchemist. At 15, she married another court employee, who soon left her a penniless widow with a mother and children to support.

This resourceful woman took to writing love ballads for other courtiers, soon earning enough respect and admiration to make a fine living as a poet and author, even in a sphere where most men heaped scorn on what she was trying to do.

Mackay says the core of the Toronto Consort programme dates back to 1990, and included the release of a CD, Full Well She Sang. That album is being reissued by Marquis Classics in time for this week’s concerts (the Marquis site should eventually show this album alongside the Consort’s other releases here.)

“We thought we were so cutting-edge because we had a screen and a slide projector,” recalls Mackay with a smile.

Now, with two decades of experience creating multimedia shows for Tafelmusik under her bow, Mackay tore the programme apart, rebuilding the spoken-word sections with excerpts from a number of period sources, including Pizan’s City of Ladies. There’s a full stage lighting design by Raha Javanfar (who, among many other projects did the lighting for Opera Atelier’s Freischütz last fall).

And the Consort has rented Tafelmusik’s giant projection screen.

Mackay describes how recent advances in high-definition photography have allowed libraries and collections to offer images with incredibly rich detail.

“We can zoom in on individual lines and brushstrokes on the illuminations” says Mackay of the work on Pizan’s book, for example. “You can see where the ink bled through the page. It makes everything so, so [her voice trails off for a second] personal.”

The touch of a real person’s hand on a 600-year-old piece of yellowed paper becomes the thin, fragile strand of humanity that ties us to a time that we can’t really begin to imagine.

In a way, it’s a wonderful metaphor for what Toronto Consort does so well, adding a personal touch to worlds and sounds that are so far away, yet somehow a part of who we are today.

The Consort has enlisted actors Maggie Huculak and Karen Woolridge to help with the spoken portions of the programme.

For the season’s final outing, the group has added a Sunday matinée performance to their schedule. You can find all the details here.

If you want to know more about the remarkable life and writings of Christine de Pizan, you can start here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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