In any season, I’m really interested in new works and premieres,” says Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director of Toronto’s Soundstreams. It goes along with the organization’s mandate, but for the 2018–19 season, there’s a little older new music in the mix.
Two of the season’s concerts revolve around works by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Steve Reich, pieces that premiered in the 1970s and 1980s. With Soundstreams’ emphasis on the new, the older pieces provide a link to the roots of modern music as a context for new compositions. “They never come out of nowhere,” Cherney notes. Reich is a contemporary of Phillip Glass, and likewise considered an icon of minimal music. “There are certain works that are milestones,” Cherney says, “like Reich’s.”
Six 6-foot grand pianos, in close proximity on stage. It’s riveting visually as well as audibly, and that’s the idea of Six Pianos, the season opener. The program is anchored by Steve Reich’s seminal piece of the same name. Six Pianos had its premiere in 1973, a kind of grandfather to a newly commissioned piece for multiple pianos by Canadian composer André Ristic that will premiere that evening. Works by John Cage, Lutosławski, Alexina Louie, and Colin McPhee — all of them involving more than one piano — will also be on the program. “It’s an excuse to showcase some pretty interesting repertoire,” Cherney says. The list of pianists and percussionists includes Russell Hartenberger, Greg Oh, Stephanie Chua, Ryan Scott, and Midori Koga.
Steve Reich’s Different Trains, a piece for string quartet and tape, serves as the keystone in a program of the same name in February 2019, as performed by the Rolston String Quartet. “They’re rising stars,” says Cherney. The young ensemble was recently awarded the Cleveland Quartet Award for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons, and is currently the Yale School of Music’s fellowship quartet-in-residence. Different Trains will be performed alongside the Toronto premiere of a video by Spanish filmmaker Beatriz Caravaggio. Works by Canadians Zosha Di Castri and R. Murray Schafer will complete the program.
Over its history, Soundstreams has brought many of the world’s prominent chamber choirs to Toronto, and next season marks the return of The Latvian Radio Choir in November. Noted for their precise choral technique, the choir will perform Rachmaninov and other Russian works, along with new repertoire. As with any of the choral groups Soundstreams has presented in the past, Cherney had a stipulation. “I invite them on the condition that they premiere or sing a new Canadian work,” he says. “No one has ever said no.” In fact, he reports that some of the international choral conductors have taken Canadian works back home with them to tour. This year, the Choir will perform new compositions by Canadians Omar Daniel and Gabriel Dharmoo.
Seven Deadly Sins, in April 2019, is an eclectic project Cherney says was inspired by the many musical meditations on the theme, including that of Kurt Weill. But, while the concept of deadly sins certainly comes from a Judeo-Christian philosophy, Cherney wanted to expand the definition to look at the idea of sin or taboo from the perspective of various cultures. Each of the sins will be explored in song and music by a different artist in a variety of genres from new classical to jazz to traditional folk music. As Cherney describes it, Greed is examined in an art song by Christopher Mayo that references Doukhobor culture as it was transplanted to Western Canada. The music incorporates Russian musical elements, with lyrics that revolve around the propensity of certain radical sects of Doukhobors during the mid-20th century. They would react to a neighbour’s show of ostentation in their homes and properties by burning them down. It was, as the proud radicals would declare in court, a reaction against materialism. It’s also a unique piece of Canadiana. Other performers include Argentinian-Canadian composer Analia Llugdar, whose work is inspired by traditional folk music, and singer-songwriters Elizabeth Shepherd, Aviva Chernick, and Robin Dann
Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, an opera featuring baritone Russell Braun and pianist Serouj Kradjian, has its world premiere in June 2019. It’s a Soundstreams production that took nearly a decade to formulate, based on art songs by Hanns Eisler, an Austrian composer best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht. Finding his work, along with Brecht’s, banned by the Nazis, Eisler fled Austria in 1933, eventually finding himself in Los Angeles. That’s where he wrote the Hollywood Songbook between 1938 and 1942, a song cycle that includes lyrics by Brecht and Goethe, among others.
As Cherney tells the story, English director Tim Albery approached him with the idea about eight or nine years ago. Both knew they wanted to Russell Braun and Canadian designer Michael Levine. It all came together in a co-production with Luminato and Opera North of Leeds, UK. Eisler led a life of tragic irony, welcomed by the United States at first, only to be tossed out again as a victim of the McCarthy era as a Communist in 1948. He died impoverished in what was then East Germany, after having penned its national anthem. His Hollywood Songbook aches with melancholic longing, with themes of immigration and exile as the perpetual Other that resonate today in the 21st century.
Touring, as Cherney puts it, “is closing the circle.” After bringing so many international artists to Canada, Soundstreams’ future plans include taking at least some of their productions on the road. Current and future productions are designed with touring potential in mind, which means keeping an eye on issues like size and scope. There are already plans in place to tour the production of Musik für das Ende by Québécois composer Claude Vivier that Soundstreams first staged in full in 2017 by 2020. In 2020, Soundstreams has two Indigenous operas in the works by director and longtime collaborator Michael Greyeyes, another production that he plans to tour.
In part, it’s within the organization’s mandate to promote new Canadian music. “Outside our country, unfortunately, Canadian music is still not well known,” Cherney notes. In September, Soundstreams extends their reach to the far east, sending Ensemble Soundstreams as artists-in-residence to the Shanghai New Music Week, bringing new Canadian music and composers to the festival for the very first time. “It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Cherney says.