On September 10th, which was World Suicide Prevention Day, when the lights dimmed in Walter Hall and soprano Monica Whicher explained to the audience that the Toronto Mysterious Barricades concert, over which she was presiding, was a “cog in a musical wheel” running for 21 consecutive hours throughout Canada, I became aware of the ambition and scale of this musical undertaking. In less than two years, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull has rallied the Canadian musical community from coast to coast to devote their hearts and talents to the cause of suicide prevention by giving concerts in their local communities. By the time Carolyn Maule played Les Barricades Mystérieuses by François Couperin at 12:03, concerts had already been performed and livestreamed on the web in St. John’s, Halifax, Sackville, Montreal, and Ottawa. Toronto’s concert, which Whicher managed with military precision in order to bring the performances in during their allotted time, was followed by Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. In addition, Victoria livestreamed a concert in the early hours of August 22nd EST.
If all the concerts were of the caliber of the one in Toronto, then it was a day on which Canadian musical talent really shone. The Toronto program was a sensitive selection of works that expressed consolation, hope, and a sense of community—all themes that are relevant to the struggle that suicide poses. These included several compositions by Canadian composers, each drawing on their own base culture to give musical expression to the challenge of the mental despair that leads to a person ending his or her life. Especially powerful for me was the performance of Srul Irving Glick’s composition for solo harp, David and Saul, by Canada’s stellar harpist, Judy Loman. Capturing the dialogue between Saul, in abject despair, and David, staying with him and attempting to soothe him by playing his harp, the composition is to me, the essence of what suicide support is: ensuring that the suffering individual is not alone, and knowing that someone is there. This was followed by Out on the Mira, a richly lyrical song composed by Allister MacGillivray, and arranged for piano by John Greer who accompanied mezzo-soprano Norine Burgess in this deeply touching tribute to the warmth and healing powers that community can provide. The words “and if you come broken they’ll see that you mend,” were particularly meaningful. It was one of many musical contributions from Canada’s eastern provinces, a demonstration of the spirit that is also captured in Come From Away, and which Torontonians ought to emulate.
In keeping with the Mysterious Barricades Concert Society’s mission to “raise awareness surrounding the mysterious barricades between mental illness and health, …(and) to encourage public discourse about the prevalence of suicide and measures for suicide prevention,” each concert included presentations by educators and mental health practitioners working in this area. In Toronto, Dr. Ivan Silver, Vice President of Education, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, wisely observed that suicide is as “complex as life itself.” Though it cannot be easily explained, what grabs our attention is the fact that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness or an addiction. One of the most unbreachable barricades to helping those with mental illness is the stigma that surrounds it, making it desperately difficult for those experiencing it to acknowledge that they need help. These musical performances, according to Silver, “help to break the silence.”
Somber a subject as suicide is, the mood at Walter Hall, and across the country, was far from despairing. Lighter pieces were on the program, including a vivacious performance of Sing For Your Supper by Lorna MacDonald, Nathalie Paulin, and Norine Burgess. Elsewhere there were renditions of The Sounds of Silence, a full-hearted embodiment of Tevye singing If I Were A Rich Man, and more than one tango. Each city put together their own program, many complying with the request of the founder of the Mysterious Barricades Concert Society, Elizabeth Turnbull, that the namesake Les Barricades Mystérieuses piece be included, in commemoration of her husband Chris Kubash, who died by suicide in 2015, and who loved this piece for its harmonic cleverness and melodic beauty.
Ideally, a mission to raise awareness should raise a lot of questions, and the Mysterious Barricades concerts certainly raised many for me, not only concerning suicide, but also about the possible link between music and suicide prevention. Music is indispensable in times of bereavement, and the Mysterious Barricades concerts offered everyone who has ever experienced loss, by suicide or other causes, a day of consolation and uplift. Could music therapy, and more fundamentally, music making, help the beleaguered souls who are struggling with the excruciating pain that summons thoughts of suicide? Could music enrichment protect vulnerable groups from considering suicide as a solution to their plight? There are no simple answers to these questions but it seems timely to observe that music’s healing powers needs to be taken all the more seriously and that includes recognising the value and cost of making musical resources, including musical education, available across society.