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PREVIEW | The Yensa Festival Celebrates Black Women In Dance August 13-28

Yensa Dance Festival (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Yensa Dance Festival (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

The new Yensa Festival is dedicated to showcasing the work of Black women dancemakers, drawing from Toronto’s rich talent pool as well as beyond. The biennial festival, launching Aug. 13, is a labour of love for Artistic Director Lua Shayenne, who has become a fixture in the city’s dance community.

Her work has been featured in Fall for Dance North, Dusk Dances, and she was co-choreographer for National Ballet School’s Sharing Dance 2021, among other projects. We caught up with her to talk about putting the festival together, and its particular focus.

Lua Shayenne, Artistic Director

The Yensa Festival came about as the end result of a process. “In 2018, we had the first iteration — the Wassa! Wassa! Africa Dance & Drum festival,” recalls Yensa’s Artistic Director, Lua Shayenne. That festival, held at Crow’s Theatre, showcased African dancers. “I think how it rallied the community together was really wonderful.”

Based on feedback, she was encouraged to look for funding for a new dance festival. After presenting her piece Kira the Path / La Voie at the Luminato Festival in 2019, (excerpts of which will be performed in the festival), and a successful tour, COVID put a pause on all things dance. However, in the meantime, Shayenne consulted with a wide spectrum of professionals in Toronto’s dance community, and got planning for the festival underway. “I got a lot of encouragement,” she says. In particular, she names Ilter Ibrahimof, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Fall for Dance North. “Ilter has been mentoring me.”

Lua Shayenne (Image courtesy of the artist)
Lua Shayenne (Image courtesy of the artist)

The result, Yensa Festival, is an expression of community as well as artistic excellence. “It was really the result of deep, deep conversations,” she says. “I believe that any endeavour has to come out of deep listening.”

Eventually, her goals focused. “I came to the idea of highlighting Black female dancers,” she says. It’s a group whose contributions to the dance world have “too often been relegated to the background,” as she points out. Along with performance, she believes it’s important to showcase the underpinnings of dance as well in talks and workshops.

“Black women leaders in dance have a unique approach to their practice,” she notes. In her programming, she was aiming to explore the diversity in that approach. She’s included both local and international artists. “To me, it was important that it starts with us.”

From the artists’ statements…

“I am a spontaneous creative and I pull from what is happening in the room. I love to listen and take inspiration from whoever is there and what they are working with; and guide a process of collaboration to find the language and choreography/movement and sound.” — Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone (Toronto)

“My background is in African dance drama and storytelling which continues to be the basis of my somatic-based inquiry. My solo performances are stories which take various forms from movement-based theatre to dance improvisation, performance poetry to promenade theatre. My performances tend to have a psychological edge as they emerge at meeting points between spiritual and philosophical contemplation, internal and external pressures.” — Funmi Adewole Elliott (UK)

“My medium as an artist is amalgamating my knowledge in Afrofusion which is a blend of traditional and contemporary West African dance with Urban, Modern, Latin and Caribbean styles of dance alongside my knowledge as a movement director. Spending years in theatre, I became intrigued about bringing intention into the world of movement. Movement as storytelling is a way to dig differ into the why. Why do we move? Can we be specific with our questions to bring clarity in how we can unlock the possibilities in our body.” — Esie Mensah (Toronto)

“Through dance, we can share a story, culture, and pieces of oneself with others. It allows for a connection with the here and now, the tangible and intangible. There is an unparalleled power and transmission of energy when sharing with a community. Dancing allows for the creation of experiences. Being able to communicate through dance is an honour.” — Aika Mathelier, Executive & Artistic Director, Ekspresyon (Montreal)

The Festival at a glance

The festival will culminate in two performances, each with a unique program.

On August 26:

  • Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone Open Light (Toronto) — a solo work from an artist steeped in theatre, Carnival, contemporary dance and spirituality;
  • Artists in Motion (AIM) Our Stories extract of Ashes (Toronto) — hip hop and fusion dance with a strong message;
  • Lua Shayenne Dance Company (LSDC) Kira the Path / La Voie excerpt (Toronto) — a work informed by West African traditions in a contemporary mode.

On August 27:

  • Funmi Adewole Elliott The Blind Side (UK) — a scholar, mentor and sought after dramaturge in a solo work;
  • Esie Mensah A Seat at the Table (Toronto) — an explicit solo work by an artist with a message;
  • Ekspresyon Contraste (Montreal) — dancers travel through their mixed identities, European and African, through dance.

In the weeks leading up to those performances, the artists will conduct a series of workshops on various dance forms and movements through the lens of Black women and the African diaspora, from dancehall to hip hop and Afro fusion. Dancers at all levels can participate. The workshops take place Aug. 13, 14, 20 & 28; more information here.

After the workshop on the 28th, the ATSIA Circle invites everyone to come together to sing, dance and drum with a roster of the festival’s artists such as international guest artist Ranzie Mensah (Ghana/Italy), and local artists Collette ‘Miss Coco’ Murray, King Chino, Cécé Haba, N’deré Headley-Lindsay and others.

A public talk on Aug. 19 will feature visiting UK artist and scholar Funmi Adewole in a discussion of the issues faced by Black women in dance.

Making connections

For dancers in the city, there will be spaces for conversations and healing. But, the focus will also be on how the public can be involved via education. “It’s important to create spaces where audiences can find out how they can be involved in growth,” says Shayenne. That includes learning how to recognize racism, and what is often called misogynoir — the particular barriers that Black women face. “Everyone is invited to ask questions, to raise questions.” As she points out, being part of the conversation sometimes means listening as well as talking.

Making connections with the local community is important too. It’s important to be conscious of where the festival takes place, and who is involved. That’s why Shayenne chose to hold the performances and some workshops at Daniels Spectrum in the Regent Park neighbourhood.

Black women & decolonizing dance

Looking at dance through the lens of Black women dancemakers necessarily involves decolonizing the notion of dance itself. As Shayenne points out, it’s only in Western cultures that a separation is made between dance, theatre, and other art forms. In most cultures, they belong to the same world.

“I think Black women in dance are no longer just in dance,” she explains. “They’re in theatre, music. What we are presenting is art. We want to showcase that diversity.”

There is a tendency to relegate Black women into a narrow kind of box of expected behaviours, and dancers don’t escape those imposed limitations. “This festival is definitely a big response to that,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a chance for healing and reconciliation if a large part of humanity is left out.”

More information and tickets available here.

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PREVIEW | Taking A Dive Into Ottawa Chamberfest With A.D. Carissa Klopoushak

Ottawa Chamberfest Artistic Director Carissa Klopoushak (Photo: Alexander Vlad)
Ottawa Chamberfest Artistic Director Carissa Klopoushak (Photo: Alexander Vlad)

The Ottawa Chamberfest is back for summer 2022 with a full slate of in-person concerts and events, along with online offerings from the festival’s premiere venue.

Carissa Klopoushak is the Artistic Director, having taken over the role in March 2021. When Roman Borys of the Gryphon Trio made the decision to step aside, Klopoushak was invited into the role.

“I think that part of the reason that I was tapped was because of who I am as a musician,” she says. The Ottawa-based violinist is a member of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and an active chamber musician with the Ironwood Quartet, and as a member of the Ukrainian band ТутіТам. Along with classical music, she performs folk music. “I’m interested in all kinds of music,” she says.

“I had started a chamber music festival in Saskatoon where I grew up,” she explains. “I love to curate, I love to plan. I think chamber music is a special thing, and my favourite aspect of music making.”

After last year’s all-Canadian version, Klopoushak’s looking forward to a full-scale festival. “I at least had the one year to build in my approach,” she says of the challenges in planning events during the period where openings and lockdowns were uncertain. “First of all, I have a fabulous team,” she acknowledges. “I’m the one that gets to dream and imagine. I think I always had faith that this would be possible.”

Planning is an ongoing process, one that took the disruption of the past couple of years into account. Along with new artists, German pianist Hinrich Alpers, for example, will be back after his acclaimed 2019 Chamberfest debut to continue his cycle of Beethoven’s solo piano sonatas.

Ottawa Chamberfest 2019 - ART OF TIME (Photo: Andre R. Gagne)
Ottawa Chamberfest 2019 – ART OF TIME (Photo: Andre R. Gagne)

Even a casual glance at the Chamberfest program reveals a diverse selection of both music and performers.

“I can only speak to my philosophy,” says Klopoushak. “I think that at the core, what I’m trying to do is design a festival that is for everybody.” As far as she is concerned, everyone likes chamber music — they just may not know it.

Chamber music has an intimate appeal. Without a conductor, it relies on the connections between performers, and between the performers and the audience directly. She underscores the importance of including new music, and genres like folk along with classical offerings in her programming.

“I don’t think the music is the problem. We don’t have to get rid of anything, we just have to make room for others,” she says. “You don’t need prior knowledge to enjoy it,” she continues. “I try to create a festival that I would enjoy, and the people that I know would enjoy.”

“It’s making sure we have people on stage who reflect the society that we’re in. That’s who this is for, and that’s who we need to see on our stages.” Beyond that, it goes to the make up of the organization itself. “Who’s in our staff? Who’s in our board?”

The festival has a theme this year. “It kind of came to me as the festival was developing,” Klopoushak explains. “It’s about being part of the community, part of society. A theme found me, in a way, considering the year we’ve been through.” The invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic weighed heavily on her mind. “I’ve landed on this theme of light overcoming darkness.”

The various concerts develop that theme, some in subtle ways, others more obvious. The opening concert on July 21 is entitled First Light, with Finnish pianist/composer Olli Mustonen’s Nonet no. 2, and Mendelssohn’s famous Octet on the program. “We’re going to be performing music that, to me, evokes the sunrise,” she says.

“This year, we’re introducing some sunrise concerts,” she says. They’ll take place outdoors on the historic grounds of the Beechwood Cemetery. Other concerts, towards the end of the festival, will be sunset related, including Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, performed by Tunisian-born mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb.

All in all, it’s good to be back. “I think this summer, we’re presenting the magnitude that I think people are expecting from us,” she says. “I think people will be really excited to have that live music experience for real.”

Imani Winds (Image courtesy of the artists)
Imani Winds (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

The Festival

The festival includes more than 70 concerts, with several world premieres, in both small and large venues.

  • Signature Series: five concerts and collaborations between musicians with an international reputation, with the Canadian Brass, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, among others at Ottawa’s Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.
  • The Rest is History: a concert celebrating 50 years of the Kun Shoulder Rest for violins, pioneered in Ottawa. Marina and Joseph Kun sponsor an evening showcasing artists such as Lara St. John, the Gryphon Trio, Afro-Cuban ensemble OKAN, and Carissa Klopoushak herself in an eclectic program.
  • Beechwood Series/Sunrise Concerts: outdoors at the historic grounds of Beechwood Cemetery, including GRAMMY Award-winning musician Johnny Gandelsman playing the Bach Cello Suite at sunrise, and others.
  • New Music Now: a celebration of brand new music at Chamberfest’s annual miniseries.
  • Marina Kun Series: featuring core string ensembles, solo piano, and opera amidst folk influence, with outstanding chamber musicians, including the innovative Imani Winds, the Verona Quartet, and Toronto’s own Tafelmusik.
  • Chamberfringe Series: a late night cross genre concert series, with the Cris Derksen Quartet, Moskitto Bar, and other innovators.
  • Midday Matinées: this new series features both renowned musicians and newcomers at local venues, including Brahms Horn Trio and Berlin-based Canadian soprano Rachel Fenlon’s first performance of Winterreise — the artist has made waves by both singing and playing piano accompaniment.
  • Steinway Series: naturally, celebrating the piano at the Steinway Piano Gallery Ottawa with artists Ruby Jin and Meagan Milatz.
  • Other offerings include free family-friendly and interactive programming, and The Record Centre Series of concerts at the legendary Ottawa venue.
  • Livestream Content: online content broadcast live from Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre in Ottawa.

The Ottawa Chamberfest begins July 21, and continues until August 4. Tickets and more information available here.

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PREVIEW | Critic’s Pick: 2022 Toronto Summer Music Festival

Clockwise fr left: Karina Gauvin (Photo courtesy of TSMF); Benjamin Appl (Photo courtesy of TSMF); Dover Quartet (Photo: Roy Cox)
Clockwise fr left: Karina Gauvin (Photo courtesy of TSMF); Benjamin Appl (Photo courtesy of TSMF); Dover Quartet (Photo: Roy Cox)

After a very challenging two years due to COVID-19, the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSMF) is returning this month, with what promises to be a delectable lineup of great music. For Toronto music lovers who have been deprived of live, in-person concerts, the 2022 TSMF will go a long way to fill that need.

The Festival runs from July 7 to 30, 2022.

First founded in 2006 under the directorship of Agnes Grossmann, the TSMF torch was passed in 2010 to violist Douglas McNabney, who in turn was succeeded by violinist Jonathan Crow, who’s also the Concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. TSMF is made up of two complementary parts, a Festival wing featuring top Canadian and international artists, and an Academy wing that offers high-level training and performance opportunities for aspiring musicians.

Due to COVID, the 2020 Festival was delivered online only, while the 2021 edition was a mixture of online and in-person events. The streamed concerts from last season can be accessed free of charge here.  Thankfully, the 2022 Festival events will be all in-person, under the theme of Inspirations.

This year’s Festival offers a mix of returning TSMF artists and ensembles the likes of the New Orford String Quartet, the Gryphon Trio, and the Dover Quartet, or artists appearing for the first time, like German baritone Benjamin Appl. Given the continuing challenges travellers are encountering, what a luxury to enjoy great music right at home!

This preview is a very personal take on the concerts that are of particular interest to me. As a classical music omnivore with a special interest in the singing voice, the 2022 lineup is perfect for me, and I intend to attend as many as possible. Here are ten that really caught my eye, all mainstage concerts. Don’t forget the many Regeneration Concerts featuring Academy Fellows and Mentors that are well worth attending. To be sure, taste is a very personal thing and I encourage you to explore the complete lineup.

L-R: Pianists Tony Yike Yang & Nicholas Namoradze (Photo courtesy of TSMF)
L-R: Pianists Tony Yike Yang & Nicholas Namoradze (Photo courtesy of TSMF)

1) The Folk Influence is this year’s opening night concert. It features chamber works and songs by Schumann, Ravel, Dvořák, Lysenko and Cecilia Livingston, performed by a stellar cast of artists, among them pianist Nicolas Namoradze, violinist Martin Beaver, soprano Mireille Asselin, and pianist Steven Philcox. July 7, Koerner Hall

2) Nicolas Namoradze The Georgian-born pianistburst onto the scene by winning the 2018 Honens Piano Competition in Calgary. He gives a wide-ranging program of Bach, Rachmaninoff, Alexina Louie, as well as his own compositions. July 8, Walter Hall.

3) Benjamin Appl & Wolfram Rieger. The German lyric baritone sings Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin in a Liederabend, with Rieger at the piano. July 11, Walter Hall. They are each giving a free public masterclass (Rieger July 8 / Appl July 15) at Walter Hall.

4) Dover Quartet (Joel Link, violin; Bryan Lee, violin; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello) returns to TSMF to perform a program of Haydn, Mozart and Ravel. July 14, Koerner Hall.

5) Kleztory (Airat Ichmouratov, clarinet, bass clarinet and duclar; Elvira Misbakhova, violin and viola; Mark Peetsma, double-bass; Mélanie Bergeron, accordion; Raphaël D’Amour, guitar; David Ryshpan, piano) perform an evening of Klezmer music, a genre of the Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe, full of lively tunes drawn from traditional dances and folk music, infused with virtuosic improvisations. July 18 Walter Hall.

6) Tony Yike Yang, the Chinese Canadian pianist won Fifth Prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 16, the youngest laureate in that Competition ever. He plays a program of Mozart, Ravel, Prokofiev, Liszt and Chopin. July 19, Walter Hall.

7) Echo Chamber Toronto (Aaron Schwebel, violin; Sheila Jaffé, violin; Keith Hamm, viola; Rémi Pelletier, viola; Leana Rutt, cello; Julie Hereish, cello; Philip Chiu, piano; Anisa Tejpar, dancer; Jarrett Siddall, dancer; Christian Lavigne, dancer; William Yong, choreographer) combines chamber music with dance, in a program of works by Vaughan Williams, Debussy, Fauré, and Schönberg. July 21, Isabel Bader Theatre.

8) Two Canadians in Paris Violinist/TSMF Artistic Director Jonathan Crow and pianist Philip Chiu join forces in a program of French music, by Massenet, Faure, Milhaud, Debussy, and others. July 25, Walter Hall.

9) The Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano) are joined by mezzo Marion Newman and the Nordic Voices, an a cappella ensemble, in a wide-ranging program from Mahler to Dvorak plus a world premiere. July 27, Walter Hall.

10) Inspirations Any performance of the Mahler Fourth is an occasion, and when it features the beautiful voice of Karina Gauvin as the soprano soloist, it’s not to be missed. The TSM Festival Orchestra performs this divine piece in a special arrangement for chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon. July 28, Koerner Hall.

There you have it, lots of great music to nourish our soul. For the full program schedule and ticket information, see here.

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INTERVIEW | A Conversation With Mohawk Choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

Images from 'Skydancers' (Photos courtesy of Harbourfront Toronto)
‘Sky Dancers’, A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)

The Quebec Bridge is the furthest downstream crossing of the St. Lawrence River, running between Sainte-Foy (a suburb of Quebec City) and Lévis on the south shore. Its centre section is the longest cantilever bridge span in the world.

In 1907, four years into construction, the bridge collapsed, killing 76 workers, 33 of whom were Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve. Only three Mohawk ironworkers survived the disaster.

Acclaimed Mohawk choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s 2021 multidisciplinary work Sky Dancers explores what that enormous loss of life meant to the people of Kahnawake. Kaneratonni Diabo’s great-grandfather Louis D’Aillebous was one of those 33 ironworkers who died. The bridge took just 15 seconds to crumble.

Sky Dancers debuted in Montreal in September 2021 to great acclaim, hailed by one reviewer as “an epic film, dance and theatre show”.

Kaneratonni Diabo’s choreography embraces a wide range of dance forms including contemporary, breakdancing and Indigenous hoop dancing, along with stunning video projections, an elaborate set design, and an evocative original score by the choreographer’s brother, Michael Tekaronhianeken Diabo.

As a side note, and as impossible as it may seem, the bridge collapsed a second time in 1916, killing 13 workers, none of whom were Mohawk.

The Quebec Bridge was completed in 1919, and was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1987 by the Canadian and American Society of Civil Engineers. It was declared a National Historic Site by the Canadian government in 1996.

Sky Dancers, however, does not celebrate the feat of bridge building. Rather, Kaneratonni Diabo wanted to give a human face to the tragedy, particularly to the women and children left behind. And memories are long. In 2007, the 100thanniversary of the tragedy, a memorial with the victims’ names was dedicated on the Lévis side of the Quebec Bridge, while a steel replica of the bridge itself was unveiled in Kahnawake.

Kaneratonni Diabo, who is 52, and a seasoned, award-winning dancemaker, was connected by Zoom for this interview.

I’d like to start with your background, Barbara.

I was born on Kahnawake, but after my parents split, I grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia when my mother remarried.

I started to study classical ballet when I was 4, so I do have a dance background, but when I was 18, I moved to Montreal to study theatre at Concordia. Because I still felt the need to dance, I started to study at different dance schools, and I became interested in all forms of dance, like hip hop and waacking, and various traditional Indigenous dances. I still train whenever I can.

How did you rediscover your Native roots?

I had a messy past. My dad was Mohawk, and my mother was French and Irish, yet I still had the label of Mohawk. But, just what did that mean? I started teaching theatre on the reserve to get closer to my roots. Because I was also a dancer, I discovered traditional music and traditional forms of dance like powwow.

When I was 19 and 20, I attended the summer program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre where I was surrounded by young people who looked like me. We lived in the bush and rehearsed in a barn. The program also integrated Indigenous rituals like sweat lodges and powwow. CIT introduced me to traditions from my culture, which is why I mix cultures in my dance pieces.

It’s part of Canadian folklore that Indigenous peoples have the ability to cope with great heights, like working on the Empire State Building in New York. Do you know how this fact was discovered?

Apparently, we were new to the iron culture in the 1800s, but when a bridge was built south from Montreal, it was noticed that the Indigenous people were fearless about jumping and climbing on the bridge, so the company thought we would make good ironworkers. That’s how a lot of Mohawk men were sent to work on various projects.

The official report on the bridge failure cited errors of judgment on the part of the chief engineers as the cause of the collapse.

That’s true. All the things that went wrong were caused by mistakes or poor choices. For example, the trusses were curved to look more aesthetic, and that became a major flaw. As a result of the collapse, in the 1920s, the various societies of professional engineers were formed, with their motto stressing their obligation to remember their duty to society.

How did the piece ‘Sky Dancers’ come about?

It was a suggestion by my brother, probably because of the bridge memorial in Kahnawake. I didn’t know about the bridge collapse until I returned to the reserve as a teenager. That’s when I became personally invested because my great-grandfather was one of the dead, and my own father was an ironworker. I envisioned a piece about real people, and not just a historical event.

I created a short work-in-progress and presented it at the Prismatic Arts Festival in Halifax and everything snowballed from there. People, including engineering students, were telling me to bring the piece to a greater audience.

Apparently you did a great deal of research for this project. What are some of the interesting facts that you discovered?

When I talked to families who lost someone, I began to realize how deep this story goes. It literally changed the community to lose so many men at the same time. Everyone on the reserve — it had about 1000 people then — had a connection to someone who died. Shockingly, the news about the bridge collapse came to the post office because it was the only phone on the reserve.

I learned really sad things, like it was the women who had to go and bring home the bodies. Even more tragic is that not all the men were found — only those who were working on the land side. About half fell in the river and were never recovered because the rescuers couldn’t get to them before the tide came in. The wreckage of the bridge is still in the water.

The women also made the decision then and there that the Kahnawake men would never again all be sent on the same job, so that’s what started them looking for projects in the States like the Empire State Building. Mohawk women have a reputation for taking charge. It’s a matrilineal society.

Reading a record of the company letters about compensation is infuriating. The discussion was to give the widows just a little bit of money that was enough to keep them happy. To compound the tragedy, the church and the government stepped in to send the kids to residential school because there was no breadwinner.

'Sky Dancers', A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)
‘Sky Dancers’, A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)

It’s such a big concept — the collapse of a bridge. Where did you even start?

I have always said that my focus was to put a human face on the story. I wanted the audience to understand who these people were and what they went through. It is the most narrative piece I have ever done. I also wanted to integrate community and aspects of Mohawk culture — to see Indigenous dances and songs being integrated into the story. The eight dancers play characters and we get to know them.

A big part of the piece was to see the men and the ironwork — to showcase their spirit as fearless daredevils. We even brought in a parkour coach to train us how to jump around on the truss structures.

And then the bridge collapses, and we see what happens to the women after — searching for bodies, how some of them lost children, seeing their memories from before the collapse, but always keeping the human touch in the forefront. The takeaway is that these Mohawk women survived. They were resilient.

I should also point out that the news stories about residential schools and the unmarked graves of the children gave a whole new weight to the piece. We had to stop rehearsals and smudge everyone. You have responsibilities in pieces like this — talking about a tragedy in our culture. I was so affected that I actually had to call the residential school hotline and speak to someone.

‘Sky Dancers’ seems to have quite elaborate production values.

I wanted to create a world, and invite the audience to come into our world. I wanted them to feel they are there when the bridge collapses. I call it a 4D show. That’s why we have such an elaborate set, video projections, and live music. Emotionally, it is the largest scale show I’ve ever attempted. I usually work on my own, but for Sky Dancers, I needed a team. The scope of the show was a big learning curve for me.

Can you give me more details about the actual stagecraft?

The set is made of movable trusses, and can be many things such as a long house or a bridge. There is even some water representing the river. The projections are behind on the cyclorama wall and showcase images such as the bridge, before and after, and the Kahnawake reserve, as well as atmospheric stuff. We also include a film showing me dancing outside. As for the costumes, we were very particular to be accurate about the period.

What about the cast?

There are eight dancers and a live guitarist. The four men are the ironworkers and the three women represent the community. I am the storyteller who is the spirit of the story as told through dance, although I do relate the story briefly in the Mohawk language with subtitles. All the performers are professional dancers, about half of whom are Indigenous.

Talk about the music by your brother.

Michael has done the music for all my dance pieces. He is also the live guitarist on stage. The other instruments are on the computer. Like me, he likes to mix styles, but his major influence is surf music. I tell him what I need and he sends me stuff so it’s a very back and forth relationship. He has also incorporated traditional and cultural songs as well.

What was the impact of COVID on the show? It was supposed to premiere in Toronto in May, 2020.

COVID made it longer. The extra time also allowed the dancers to reveal their characters more and deepen the stories.

Have you performed the show in Kahnawake?

Unfortunately, there is no venue on the reserve where the show could be performed. Place des Arts did find a grant and offered free tickets to Indigenous people to come to the show in Montreal. The most important reaction for me was what my Indigenous peers thought, especially the elders.

For example, some women told us that the shawls we have as costumes were the very ones that were worn whenever a women left the house. Another elder told us how moved he was to see our Mohawk dances on stage. One elder related the fact that nobody thought about the women after the bridge collapse, so the focus of Sky Dancers was a revelation for him. Apparently people cried.

The best remark by someone was that the fearless ironworker in me allowed me to tackle the huge job of creating the show.

‘Sky Dancers’ seems to have a deep significance for you.

It does. In my culture, dance is medicine, and has an important place in our lives. We are not just giving a show. Sky Dancers honours the men who died. It is for the Mohawk community. It is also educational.

I’d love to tour the show everywhere. Our goal is to have a scalable show so it can fit any size venue.

I am in a place in my life where I want this show to build bridges with the audience. I envision a global society. The pendulum has to swing to where it has never been allowed to go.

Harbourfront Torque/Sky Dancers, A’nó:wara Dance Theatre, choreographed by Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, Fleck Dance Theatre, May 20 to 22. Tickets are available here.

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PREVIEW | Opera & Tech Explored In Tapestry Opera/OCAD Collaboration ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’

R.U.R. A Torrent of Light in rehearsal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
R.U.R. A Torrent of Light in rehearsal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Tapestry Opera and OCAD University, Canada’s largest art, media and design university, have teamed up for an innovative opera experience enriched by clever technology. The world premiere of R.U.R. A Torrent of Light will be performed in OCAD’s Great Hall from May 24 to June 5, 2022.

The production will blend dance, music from a 100-piece chamber orchestra, projections and other multimedia design elements, and opera of course, based on a Czech play from the 1920s.

About the play

R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum’s Universal Robots, a science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The work, published in 1920 and first performed in 1921, is credited with introducing the word “robot” into the popular lexicon.

A huge success in its day, the play was translated into 30 languages, and became enormously influential. Essentially, it’s a play about robots (or androids, as we now call artificial people), uprising against their human masters.

R.U.R. A Torrent of Light takes the premise and gives it a feminist lens. It jumps ahead just a little to a near future where AI is even more inextricably intertwined with modern life.

The new work was written by Governor General award-winner Nicolas Billon, and composed by Nicole Lizée in her full-length operatic debut. The performances are directed by Tapestry’s award-winning Artistic and General Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori. Wearable tech designed by OCAD’s Social Body Lab enhances the story and the experience.

About the cast:

  • Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó stars as Helena, a Steve Wozniak-level coder and designer;
  • Newfoundland baritone Peter Barrett stars as Helena’s husband and business partner Dom;
  • Countertenor Scott Belluz plays [Alex], Helena and Dom’s prototype human-form personal-assistance robot;
  • Soprano Danielle Buonaiuto, Canadian-American baritone Micah Schroeder, and Canadian mezzo-soprano Alex Hetherington are cast as human-form AI enabled robots;
  • Sopranos Maeve Palmer and Anne-Marie Ramos, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Routhier, and dance artists Sofi Gudiño, Katherine Semchuk, Emily Spearing and Brayden Jamil Cairns form the robot chorus.

The creative team includes Dora-nominated music director and conductor Gregory Oh as Music Director, and award-winning choreographer Jaime Martino.

Dr. Adam Tindale in OCAD University's Social Body Lab, demonstrating a cello bow that produces sounds when glided across any surface (Photo: Martin Iskander)
Dr. Adam Tindale in OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, demonstrating a cello bow that produces sounds when glided across any surface (Photo: Martin Iskander)

What is wearable tech?

Tapestry Opera went to OCAD University’s Social Body Lab to develop tech that singers and dancers could wear, that would also be intertwined with the performance. The Social Body’s Lab has a mandate to explore the relationship between humans and technology; it seems like the perfect fit.

Digital Futures Associate Professor Dr. Adam Tindale, who is a drummer with a Masters of Music Technology from McGill University, and an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Music, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from the University of Victoria has worked on the project.

“They were looking for some unusual folks to collaborate with them,” Dr. Tindale notes. “I got invited to one of the early meetings.”

What he saw in the early stages was a bit of the music and a sketch of the scene, “and a whole lot of enthusiasm”. It was enough to get him involved. The full score came later in the process. “I was originally classically trained in percussion,” he notes. “That was my undergrad.”

Tindale and his team worked on about 30 pieces of wearable tech. “There are a couple of different pieces of technology that we’ve been developing in the Social Body Lab,” he says, noting that development has been ongoing for the better part of a year.

What will audiences experience?

“You get all these lighting cues that comes from a lighting rig above,” he explains. “What we’ve been working with, with Tapestry, is to embed lights with performers.” That will include both illumination and colour. “Instead of lights shining on the performers, lights will emanate from the performers.”

There are some challenges inherent to the space in OCAD’s Great Hall, and a lot of prep to make sure it runs smoothly.

“It’s been complicated, but a lot of fun,” Dr. Tindale says. “There’s also going to be speakers embedded in some of the performers,” he says. That includes the dancers. “As they move, it’s going to animate the sound.”

Dr. Tindale says that working with Tapestry, including discussions with Artistic and General Director Michael Mori about the nature of opera, has been inspiring. He points out that the new production only continues in opera’s tradition of being at the cutting edge of stagecraft and spectacle.

“We’re not introducing any technology that’s new,” he says, “but, putting it on a dancer in the middle of an opera gives it a different set of expectations.”

While Karel Čapek’s original story is something of a cautionary tale (spoiler alert: the humans lose), the new collaborative production takes the robot’s perspective, turning the moral on its head. “It’s a beautiful story,” he says.

He’s also impressed by the score. “You might love Nicole Lizée,” he adds. The score is composed for four percussionists, two bass, and two cellos. “It’s sort of like a double rock quartet playing opera. The performers are all virtuosi,” he describes. “There’s also going to be live electronic sounds. The lighting design’s going to be incredible.”

The performance also offers modern dance, and may interest tech enthusiasts just for the stage magic. Delivered outside the usual opera hall atmosphere, creators hope the production will strike an innovative note overall.

“We’re really excited about it,” says Dr. Tindale.

Tickets are on sale now here.

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PREVIEW | Voices Of Spring: Joyce DiDonato & Bryn Terfel Visit Koerner Hall

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (Images courtesy of the artists)
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (Images courtesy of the artists)

Da strömt auch der Liederquell, der zu lang schon schien zu schweigen
(A fountain of songs is rising, which has been silent for too long)
— From Frühlingstimmen by Johann Strauss

After a long, dark winter, made more trying by restrictions of in-person performances, Toronto’s voice fans can now rejoice. Among the tempting lineup of singers to grace our stages are two of my personal favourites: American mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

Just reading the news that they are coming brings back a flood of memories. I caught each at the start of their respective careers, have seen them live and in broadcasts multiple times over the years. They are no strangers to Toronto audiences, have sung here on a number of occasions. All I can say is — Toronto fans, you are in for a treat!

I first heard American mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Cherubino (2000) and Annio (2002), both at the Santa Fe Opera. Even in those early years, her high mezzo with terrific coloratura facility and uncommon musicality turned heads. Ideal in the “trouser roles” of Mozart and Handel, she was unforgettable as the love-struck Cherubino, swooning at the sight of the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, or as the bouncy and cute Annio, hopelessly in love with Servilia in La clemenza di Tito. Since then, DiDonato’s career has taken her to many great opera houses in the world, in Baroque, Classical, Bel Canto as well as contemporary repertoires. No more young pages for her these days, but as a brilliant Rosina, Sesto, Maria Stuarda, Adalgisa, and Agrippina.

Thanks to the Met Live in HD series, DiDonato was featured in many transmissions, the most recent as Handel’s Agrippina, where she showed off her sparkling coloratura and formidable acting chops. Her ability to weave a story also makes her a superb recitalist. The upcoming Koerner Hall show, Eden, on April 19 can best be described as one of a kind. With its theme of celebration of nature, it fuses music, movement and theatre, with an eclectic musical program from Handel and Gluck to Mahler, Wagner and Ives. She is joined by the ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

And, to top it off, a surprise gift to everyone. “To ensure that the Eden experience continues to grow outside of the concert hall, each audience member receives seeds to plant as Joyce asks: ‘In this time of upheaval, which seed will you plant today?’”

Compared to the new-fangled programming of DiDonato, Terfel’s recital may appear rather old school. But, rest assured that it will be equally entertaining from this consummate showman.

My first exposure to the Terfel voice was none other than a broadcast of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World. That year was remembered as an epic battle of the baritones, namely the Siberian Dmitri Hvorostovsky versus the Welshman Bryn Terfel. They were both phenomenal, and in the end, Hvorostovsky was declared “Singer of the World” while Terfel won the Song Prize. Since then, I have heard Terfel a half dozen times in person, each time marvelling at the sound coming out of him. Now that the beloved Dima has sadly departed for the chorus in heaven — as a soloist of course — Terfel, thank God, is still going strong.

After his Cardiff success, Terfel made a huge splash at the Met as Figaro, Don Giovanni, Wolfram, Falstaff, Scarpia, and Wotan. The past few seasons, his preference to stay closer to home meant we had fewer opportunities to hear him on this side of the pond, so this Koerner appearance is all the more special. If memory serves, this marks his fourth concert appearance in Toronto.

The Welshman’s Koerner Hall program underscores what he does best: a felicitous mix of German Lieder of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, with selections of songs by three great British composers — Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gerald Finzi. The chosen pieces are almost all “chestnuts,” including selections from Vaughn Williams’s Songs of Travel, Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs, and Finzi’s wonderful cycle Let us Garlands Bring Op. 18.

I say, bring it on!

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PREVIEW | Missed The Philip Glass Premiere In Toronto? You’re In Luck

Philip Glass

It’s hard to think of a more popular (and polarizing) composer than Philip Glass. It’s for this reason that last week’s world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall attracted a lot of attention from Glass fans.

The bad news

If you didn’t go, you missed it. For proof, you can read our review here.

The good news

The fine folks at NACO are offering Ludwig Van readers exclusive free access to watch the NAC Orchestra performing live in Ottawa, on April 14, 2022, 8 p.m.

The concert will include:

    • Nicole Lizée: Zeiss After Dark
    • Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9
    • Erich Korngold: Violin Concerto In D Major, Op. 35; (James Ehnes, Violin)
    • Philip Glass: Symphony No. 13 (National Arts Centre Premiere

The promo code is GLASS13 for a complimentary livestream pass. ($15 ticket).

  1. Use this link, sign in to Ticketmaster or create an account
  2. Enter promo code here first (see screenshot here); not at checkout
  3. A complimentary ticket promo will appear

Why it matters

Glass’s Symphony No. 13, was commissioned by the Orchestra on the theme Truth in Our Time as a tribute to Canadian journalist Peter Jennings. Jennings was not only a highly respected news anchor for ABC News, he was also a founding director of the American chapter of the Friends of the NAC Orchestra, and served as a lifelong champion of Canadian artists.

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PREVIEW | Amplified Opera Returns To Live Performance With AMPLIFY 1.0

Marion Newman (L) and Jonathan Adams sing along with musicians in rehearsal for AMPLIFY 1.0 (Photo: Madison Angus)
Marion Newman (L) and Jonathan Adams sing along with musicians in rehearsal for AMPLIFY 1.0 (Photo: Madison Angus)

Amplified Opera returns to live stage performance with AMPLIFY 1.0, which will be performed within Jeffrey Gibson’s installation I AM YOUR RELATIVE at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto from March 17 to 20, 2022.

It’s a follow up on the AMPLIFY beta concert of pre-COVID 2019 from the company now designated as the official Disruptor-in-Residence at the Canadian Opera Company. AMPLIFY 1.0 presents opera and art song from a diverse range of voices and stories.

Each performance date offers a different double bill, mixing it up from three pieces.

  • MisogyME — A look at toxic masculinity and what it truly means to be a man in today’s world with actor/singer Jonathan Christopher, pianist and director Topher Mokrzewski, and theatre and opera artist Dr. Michael Mohammed
  • Spotlight: Out on a Limb — Exploring the ways that disabled persons navigate identity and the world with singer Megan Miceli, musician Jennifer Pos, and opera director Bridget Ramzy
  • Wreckonciliation — with Kwagiulth and Stó:lō mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, Two-Spirit, nêhiyaw michif (Cree-Métis) baritone Jonathan Adams, and Algonquin playwright and director Yvette Nolan

Three of the artists shared their thoughts on AMPLIFY 1.0 and their involvement in the performances.

Marion Newman (Photo courtesy of Domoney Artists)
Marion Newman (Photo courtesy of Domoney Artists)

Mezzo-Soprano Marion Newman, both a co-founder of Amplified Opera and a performer in Wreckonciliation, talked about the upcoming program.

What led to founding Amplified Opera?

Teiya and Aria started Amplified Opera in order to create a space in which they felt they and artists like them would be able to be their authentic selves and tell stories from a lens not otherwise supported in the opera sector. Asitha and I jumped at their invitation to join as Co-Founders in early 2020, right before the pandemic really hit us here. We are here to create space for diverse voices to express themselves and share the stories they feel represents them authentically. We want to create opportunities for conversations with audiences so that meaningful connections can be made.

What can you tell us about Wreckonciliation?

The title Wreckonciliation was born out of frustration at the way the word reconciliation is uttered so often, framing leaders as people who care and want to make a difference, when in actual fact they keep pushing the DOING part of reconciliation onto others and into the next election cycle. The desire to sing a break up ballad to Canada was where it all started. Out of a wish to be more hopeful, Yvette Nolan, Jonathon Adams and I have worked on a narrative that starts out with truth and hopefully leads the audience to contemplate their own responsibility as individuals in bringing about reconciliation minus the “Wreck”.

Do you think there is progress being made towards inclusivity and diversity in the world of opera?

I do. Not long ago there was no such thing as IBPOC led projects. Works that fell into the category of “diversity” were conceived of, brought about and usually led by non-IBPOC people. This meant our stories were not necessarily the ones we would want to tell about ourselves and largely trauma or romanticization-based. Now I see more understanding of the importance of diverse leadership in what stories we tell and how and who we invite to tell those stories with us.

What would that look like in real terms?

This isn’t quite answering the question but… I hope that this moment of allowing the circle to widen so that diverse creators, leaders, players can join in is much more than a moment. I would like to hold the world of opera accountable to the door they’ve opened at the moment so that we can continue to grow trust and partnerships and an audience that reflects the diversity of this country.

In your own career, how have you juggled/balanced the world of classical music and opera and your own heritage? Clearly, Amplified Opera is part of that, but I’m imagining it was part of a longer journey towards this kind of organization.

In navigating my way toward balance I have sometimes reached either end of the spectrum. Feeling off-kilter is what has brought about the learning and courage needed to push me forward and to finding ways that I can be my whole self in this world of classical music. Ultimately that journey has also led me toward considering leadership. The opportunity to co-lead with artists I respect and can learn from, rather than taking on all of that responsibility by myself, made me jump in with Amplified Opera.

I’ve also been accepting invitations to find many other ways of expressing myself and making space for a more diverse range of opera adjacent artists. Sharing the work and joy of being a diverse artist in this industry is one way to create balance not just for me, but for all artists I have met who juggle the jobs of creating/performing and teaching. The teaching part — bringing colleagues and companies up to speed on what is appropriate and why can take up a lot of time and energy and leave little for the more creative and joyful part of being an artist.

I have a very supportive family (and that extends to my close friend group) who have always held me up in rough times and celebrated with me in good times. Their enthusiasm and council has helped to maintain my confidence and feet-on-the-ground balance.

I don’t believe my culture is far removed from opera. Potlatch ceremony takes place in a sort of theatre. Masks, dances, songs, stories, costumes, truth, history and honouring all in a room full of witnesses. I think most if not all cultures of the world have a history of telling story through song, so we are all in a way connected to opera from our roots. Classical music has always been a way for me to express the emotion that I can’t put into words. A rich vehicle for reaching hearts.

Megan Miceli (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Megan Miceli (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Soprano Megan Miceli has sung with Tapestry Opera, Opera in Concert, and was a resident with the Banff Centre for Performing Arts’ Opera in the 21st Century digital program for the 2020-2021 season. She performs in Spotlight: Out on a Limb.

“The creation of this concert has felt special to me right from the beginning and I truly believe it is a small but important step in how disability is represented in art,” she said in a statement to Ludwig.

“It started as just a spark of an idea that first came about from a conversation myself and Aria had a number of years ago about why no one wants to talk about disability. Why is it seen as a “bad” word? Why is there so much negative stigma around something that is part of so many people’s identity? We so often view disabled persons in a sense of isolation and disability itself as something that should be hidden away. Disability is seen as a hindrance, a burden, an insurmountable obstacle, and a costume that we wish we could remove given the chance; something that is limiting and constricting. Disability is almost never allowed to be part of the expression of someone’s identity in a positive and empowering way, especially not in art.

“We so rarely see disabled persons on stage, let alone truly celebrated or represented as powerful, as leaders, as athletes, as creators, as having relationships, as having fulfilling and full lives, as being proud of who they are and worthy of respect. It has been incredibly meaningful to craft this concert and shape it with our own lived experiences and our own stories. We have been on a journey together to discover what art means to each of us. We have reimagined and adapted music for this concert and melded styles and genres throughout. The entire process has been filled with a spirit of collaboration and creativity. It has enabled us to highlight our own journeys through musical pieces that bring us joy, that help us tell our story, that make us feel strong and we hope that you love this music as much as we do.

“My hope is that this concert will resonate with every person who has ever felt like they have had to hide a part of themselves to try and fit into a box that was not made for them; that being their most authentic and truthful self wasn’t enough. You are more than enough. And personally, and maybe selfishly, I have never had the opportunity to perform with another disabled artist so this experience has been really special for me. To be able to perform with Jennifer and Bridget has felt like a celebration of my full self, a feeling that is rare for me, and I am truly honoured to have shared this moment with the both of them.”

Jonathan Christopher (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Jonathan Christopher (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Bermudian-Bostonian baritone Jonathan Christopher is based in NYC, and has performed at the Lincoln Center, Signature Theatre, and Brooklyn Playhouse Theatre, among others. He will be performing in AMPLIFY 1.0‘s MisogyME.

“The cultural and societal reckoning we have experienced the past few years compelled me to deeply reflect on my own faults, failures, and identity — as a queer man, as a black man, as a man,: Jonathan says in a statement to LVT. “MisogyME asks questions of the roles men play in our contemporary world — How do we claim responsibility for our actions? How does toxic masculinity seep into the government, the court of law, and the court of public opinion? When should men use their privilege to amplify the voices of women, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities?

“But, more importantly, when do men need to step back and make space for societal healing? Stepping away from explaining (or ‘mansplaining’) these questions and ideas, we turn to quotes from prominent historical feminists including Angelina Grimké and adrienne maree brown.

“Musically, we perform passages of vengeance, power abuse, and bigotry in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni, look at racial and class injustice through the musicals Ragtime and Sweeney Todd, and dig into the theory of toxicity and ‘The Manosphere’ through “Monster” from Dave Malloy’s Octet. Other composers on the program include Terence Blanchard, who asks the question “What makes a man a man?” in his opera Champion, and Michael Schachter, whose setting of the Langston Hughes’ poem The Black Clown promises “No! not forever like this will I be.”

MisogyME does not attempt to answer questions, but strives to incite conversation and connection between the performers and the audience.”

Tickets for AMPLIFY 1.0 are on sale here

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PREVIEW | The Shoah Songbook Spotlights Music Lost To The Holocaust

The_Shoah_Songbook_Part_Two-_Kovno_Vilna

The Shoah Songbook Part Two: Kovno/Vilna. A concert by the Likht Ensemble featuring music from the Holocaust, streaming Jan. 27, 7:30 pm. Free tickets available here

You have to hand it to David Eisner and Avery Saltzman, the co-artistic directors of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. When they see the main chance, they take it. When the Likht Ensemble proposed a program of lost music by Holocaust composers, Eisner and Saltzman just didn’t go for one concert, they commissioned five.

The first recital, streamed last April, featured music by Czech composers incarcerated in the Terezin concentration camp. Three of the four lost their lives at Auschwitz, while one died during a forced march to a slave labour camp. This time, the Ensemble has set their focus on the two Lithuanian ghettos of Kovno and Vilna. Only one of the composers on this program survived the war.

It is important to note that the debut of the recital, Jan. 27, is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the date which coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.

The Likht Ensemble

The members of the Likht Ensemble, (which means “light” in Yiddish), include co-curators Jaclyn Grossman and Nate Ben-Horin, and creative directors, Ilan Waldman and Madison Matthews. Soprano Grossman performs the music, while pianist Ben-Horin functions as accompanist, arranger, and composer of original music. Waldman and Matthews are responsible for design and filming the 20-minute concert.

Grossman is currently an artist with the Rebanks Family Fellowship and International Residency Program at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Glenn Gould School in Toronto. Ben-Horin is resident artist and principal pianist with Opera Columbus in Ohio.

While Grossman and Ben-Horin are following their own career paths, they nonetheless have dedicated a good part of their time to finding this lost music by Holocaust composers and disseminating it to the world. For the co-curators, uncovering this music is both a mission and a passion.

In the case of the Kovno/Vilna program, this recital (with subtitles) is the first public recording of these songs on this side of the Atlantic. Apparently, there is a CD in Europe of some of this music, but Grossman and Ben-Horin couldn’t find it. There also was a recital in Berkeley, CA, but no recording was made.

Score by Edwin Geist
Score by Edwin Geist

Edwin Geist (1902-1942) — The Centrepiece of the Recital

Grossman and Ben-Horin were put on to Geist by Bret Werb, staff musicologist at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. As Ben-Horin says, the composer had a Hollywood-worthy life story, although details are sketchy.

Geist was half German, half Jewish, and did have a post at the Berlin Conservatory at one point. When the Nazis came to power, he was banned from composing, so he moved to Kovno, Lithuania, where he married Jewish pianist Lyda Bagriansky. When the Jews of Kovno were rounded up, the Geists were put into the newly created Kovno ghetto.

The composer and his wife attempted an escape but were caught and brought back. Geist was shot and Bagriansky poisoned herself. After her death, violinist Vladas Varcikas saved Geist’s music by breaking into the couple’s sealed apartment and stealing his manuscripts (which are posted on the US museum’s website).

Apparently there is a biography of Geist in German. Says Ben-Horin, “We need someone who reads German to do a book report for us, so we can find out more about him.

Geist’s Music

The showpiece of the recital is Geist’s Three Lithuanian Songs. Was the poetry by the composer? No one knows.

Geist’s art songs are hard to categorize, say the co-curators. He was definitely influenced by the post-romantic Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, but also by French impressionistic harmony and colouring post-Debussy, although definitely Germanic by weight.

His music is described as meaty, dramatic, and filled with exciting colours and imagery, playful yet dark, dissonant but with tonal moments, shifting major and minor chords, some up and down harmony, with a jagged piano line. Or as Ben-Horin says, “The music has extreme crunch.”

Needless to day, the three art songs, with German text, are very dark. “Dynamics of Spring” talks about rising above a great storm to find the sun. “Heavier Evening” describes starlight as hardened as tar. “Sea Ballad” describes a shepherd waiting for the body of a drowned king’s daughter to appear.

“I’m a dramatic soprano,” says Grossman. “Geist is perfect for me because I’m used to performing Wagner, Strauss and Berg. He is a stylistic fit.”

And Ben-Horin adds, “Geist is hard core classical music, as opposed to the Yiddish songs on the program. With its pounding rhythms and high drama, it’s like crazy Stravinsky.”

Score by Percy Haid
Score by Percy Haid

Other Holocaust Music in the Recital

Knowing that not everyone is a diehard Second School Viennese fan, to lighten the mood, so to speak, the co-curators have included additional Yiddish songs, arranged by Ben-Horin, all with connections to Lithuania, or as he wryly says, “Pulling Geist’s punches.”

Two they discovered on the Yad Vashem website. (Yad Vashem is the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.)

“Sing and Dance in Circles” is by an unknown composer from the Kovno ghetto. After the war, someone made an archival recording of the song in Kovno. While it could be regarded in the style of a nursery rhyme, the heavy lyrics talk about making your life happy despite the dark omen (the Nazi guard) at your door. “It’s very Jewish to find joy in darkness,” says Grossman.

The other Yad Vashem song is “Spring” written in the Vilna ghetto. The poet, Schmerke Kaczerginski, survived the war and made an archival a cappella recording. The composer, Abraham Brudno, did not. He died in 1943 or 1944 in the Klooga concentration camp. The lyrics beg spring to give the poet back his happiness after the death of his beloved wife. It is in Jewish tango style.

Percy Haid (1913-1977) survived the war and settled in Chicago where he became a writer of pop songs, best known for “I Remember When”, a hit for singer Eddie Fisher in 1952. His song “A Dream”, also in the Jewish tango tradition, is about a lost love. The song was first sketched in the Kovno ghetto, but completed in the Dachau concentration camp.

The Inclusion of “Oyfn Pripetchik” (“On the Hearth”)

“Oyfn Pripetchik”, in a new arrangement by Ben-Horin, is one of the most beloved of Jewish folksongs, composed by Mark Washawsky (1848-1907) who was born in Odessa. The lyrics describe a rabbi teaching little children the alphabet. One verse contains the words: “When you grow older children, you will understand by yourself how many tears lie in these letters.”

For Grossman and Ben-Horin, the song represents the history of the Jewish people, and was probably sung to the children in the ghetto. Its vale of tears, its lament for anti-Semitism through the ages, seemed to be a perfect introduction for a concert of Holocaust composers.

The Last Testament and the Musical Interludes

It was important for the co-curators to include text about life in the ghettos as a document of the Jewish experience, as it were. They found the words in the Kovno Ghetto Diary by Avraham Tory who had been head of the Kovno Jewish Council.

Apparently Tory kept a journal where he wrote down every detail related to ghetto life, no matter how small, between 1941 and 1943. In 1943, the ghetto was converted into the Kauen concentration camp.

Tory also wrote a Last Testament for his children who were safely in England, when the ghetto was closed down. This moving passage is spoken by actor Tal Shulman and begins the program.

Ben-Horin has composed original music which plays as the three text passages are displayed on the screen. The music, beginning with the melody of “Ofyn Pripetchik”, becomes more dissonant as description of life in the ghetto becomes more bleak, sliding into themes from the Geist pieces. These interludes, dispersed throughout the program, are placed after “Ofyn Pripetchik” and two of the Geist songs.

The first text describes the rules and regulations imposed on the Jews in the early stages of Nazi occupation, including wearing the yellow star and the creation of the ghetto. The second describes the worsening conditions, such as being taken from their homes and forced into the ghetto, as well as being tasked with forced labour. The third contains the stark facts of Geist’s death in the statement put out by the Nazis at the time.

The stream also includes a 25-minute interview with Grossman, Ben-Horin, Eisner and Saltzman to give context to the concert.

Final Thoughts

Says Grossman, “As we keep digging deeper into this lost music, we realize just how good the pieces are, and this means we’ll continue the hunt.”

And from Ben-Horin, “These concerts are sharing stories about the resilience of the Jewish people.”

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PREVIEW | Met Opera Live In HD Winter/Spring 2022 Returns With Delectable Lineup

Isabel Leonard in the title role and Emily D’Angelo as Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cinderella at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: Karen Almond Met Opera)
Isabel Leonard in the title role and Emily D’Angelo as Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cinderella at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: Karen Almond Met Opera)

If I may borrow a line from Dickens, his famous “It was the worst of times…” is a fitting description of 2021 when it comes to the performing arts. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has shut down or severely curtailed in-person live performances worldwide. Here in Toronto, a Canadian Opera Company in-person performance last took place in February 2020, nearly two full years ago. And, its resumption in February with Madama Butterfly is very much dependent on the Omicron situation.

For long-suffering opera fans, the Met Live in HD Series offers some solace. No, it’s not quite the same as attending in person, but these real-time live transmissions to cinemas come as close to being there as possible. This season marks the 15th anniversary of the Series, which began in December 2006 with the now iconic Julie Taymor production of the abridged, English language The Magic Flute. The 2021-22 season included earlier Cineplex showings of Boris Godunov, plus two contemporary operas, Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Eurydice.

The 2022 Winter/Spring lineup is terrific. All performances begin at 12:55 p.m. on Saturdays, with encores sometime later. Details [HERE]

Due to the ever-changing situation with the ongoing pandemic, audiences are advised to check with their local theatre for restrictions, health and safety measures near the date of the screening.

  • Jan. 1 Cinderella An abridged, 90-minute version of Laurent Pelly’s gorgeous production of Massenet’s Cendrillon, here sung in English. It stars American mezzo Isabel Leonard in the title role and Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo as Prince Charming. Emmanuel Villaume conducts. I saw this wonderful production at the Santa Fe Opera some years ago — not to be missed. Encore: Feb. 5
  • Jan. 29 Rigoletto In this new production by Bartlett Sher, the time/place shifts the work to 1920s Europe, with gorgeous Art Deco sets by Michael Yeargan. Quinn Kelsey is Rigoletto, with soprano Rosa Feola as Gilda and tenor Piotr Beczała as the Duke of Mantua. Daniele Rustioni leads the Met Orchestra and Chorus. Encore: Feb. 26
  • March 12 Ariadne auf Naxos This production boasts a great cast, led by Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, hailed as the “New Kirsten Flagstad,” as Ariadne. Incidentally, Davidsen sang a wonderful Sieglinde with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Act One Walkure a few years ago. Isabel Leonard is the Komponist, and Brenda Rae sings Zerbinetta. Brandon Jovanovich is Bacchus. Marek Janowski conducts. Encore: April 9
  • March 26 Don Carlos This 5-Act French version, at 4 hours 55 minutes including two intermissions, is a true marathon, but it’s worth every minute. Three Canadians — conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, bass John Relyea (Philip II), and baritone Etienne Dupuis (Rodrigo). The wonderful cast also includes Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Elisabetta) and American tenor Matthew Polenzani (Carlo). Encore: April 23
  • May 7 Turandot Given that there are fewer and fewer realistic productions these days — yes, even at the Met, this Zeffirelli extravaganza is worth experiencing before its inevitable retirement. Russian superstar Anna Netrebko is Turandot, Korean tenor Yonghoon Kim is Calaf, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is Liu. Marco Armiliato is at the helm. Encore: June 18
  • May 21 Lucia di Lammermoor This bel canto gem receives a new staging by Australian Simon Stone, conducted by Riccardo Frizza. Soprano Nadine Sierra is Lucia, tenor Javier Camarena, with his spectacular top register, is Edgardo, and baritone Artur Rucinski is Enrico. Encore: July 9
  • June 4 Hamlet This contemporary piece based on Shakespeare had a successful Glyndebourne premiere in 2017, and now comes to the Met. Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Brenda Rae (Ophelia), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), and Rodney Gilfry (Claudius). The venerable baritone John Tomlinson makes a cameo appearance as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Nicholas Carter makes his Met conducting debut. Encore: July 23

There you have it, a great lineup. As in previous years, it’s being shown at selected Cineplex locations in Canada. The theatres have strict anti-COVID safety guidelines, and attendees are required to show vaccination proof and photo ID. For details of cinema locations and ticket information, see [HERE].

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