Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) played the recorder!? I had no idea until my friend Frances sent me a link with this photo on it. Shame on me.
And not only did he play recorder, having been persuaded to give it a shot by his friend and colleague Imogen Holst, but from 1958 to 1976 Benjamin Britten was the President of Britain’s Society of Recorder Players.
Britten wrote a few pieces for or involving the recorder: Scherzo (1954), for recorder quartet (SATB); Alpine Suite (1955), a diminutive trio for a friend who broke her leg skiing in Zermatt (SSA); and there are recorder parts in two operas: Noye’s Fludde [Noah’s Flood] (1957); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960).
Noye’s Fludde is based on one of the 15th-century Chester Mystery plays, and was designed to make use of many levels of musical skill – it’s a very community-oriented piece, a musical manifestation of ‘it takes a village…’ First presented in Britten’s home base of Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1958, it has had hundreds of performances around the world since then. Scored for a big cast – as many children extras as you can find for the animals of the ark! – it calls for adult solo singers, a children’s choir, and some younger soloists; a professional-level string quartet, recorder soloist, percussion, keyboard; and a student string orchestra, student recorder group, and so on – and a conductor, one with immense patience, unflagging enthusiasm, and no fear whatsoever. True, projects like this are a bit of a nightmare to organize, but they are completely worth the trouble. This kind of show provides the wonderful but fairly rare opportunity for younger musicians to work with professional singers and players over the whole production period; and it offers a dose of ‘get real’ for the pros, who may spend a lot of their working life in a more rarified concert atmosphere…Everyone’s horizons get broadened, and it’s brilliant.
I’ve been involved in two Noye’s Fluddes, with the Toronto Symphony under Andrew Davis and at the Guelph Spring Festival under Simon Streatfield. Both projects were inspiring, heartwarming, and worth every moment of the lengthy rehearsals required to get everything working. There was also a very high Cute Quotient once the smaller members of the cast got their costumes on.
You’ll get an idea of what I mean by those last two remarks if you take a look at this excerpt from a Canadian production of Noye’s Fludde, filmed by the CBC. Stay to the end and you’ll hear the solo recorder accompanying the dove, as she flies out from the ark and returns with an olive branch. The recorder player is Avery MacLean.
The festive season of 2013, with its Messiahs, Nutcrackers, carol services, and musical chestnuts thumping from the sound system of every mall across the continent, has come and gone. December is over, and the days are a bit quieter for many of us, musicians included. Most people believe Christmas to be a very busy work time for musicians, but it’s not necessarily so. It depends on what you play, where you play, who wants you to play, and what people seek as balm for their souls after slogging through the Christmas shopping, decorating the tree, and the office parties.
Most popular on this playlist is Händel’s Messiah, with its Hallelujah chorus, He was despised, etc., etc. Because of what I play I’m never involved in performances of this piece, since the orchestration for the original version doesn’t include flute or recorder; and I confess, perhaps to your surprise and to my shame, that I’m not all that sorry about this. My apologies to all who adore this piece, but I’m not a big fan and the only reason I’d be willing to play it night after night would be for a paycheque at the end. Since this mercenary attitude doesn’t exactly jive with the true meaning of the season, I’m happy to avoid this moral dilemma altogether. A December Messiah cheque would certainly come in handy for paying the bills that arrive in January, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get to play a dozen Messiahs. Or thirty Nutcrackers.
Original costume design for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, 1892
Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and a year later in London, but during its life it’s been revised various times and what many people today hear as part of their Christmas tradition isn’t Händel’s original version. In 1789 Mozart was commissioned to rework it, and in so doing he added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. His version was published in 1803, several years after he died, and it’s this version that is used by many modern-practice groups these days. It could also theoretically be used by period performance groups, if they weren’t so busy being true to Händel’s original; though you may occasionally have the opportunity to take in a historically informed performance of Mozart’s version of Messiah, it’s quite rare. For players of the instruments Mozart added, it’d be fun to be involved in such a performance; but if you really want a make-work Messiah for flutists, then the best version to revive would be Hillers from 1788 which featured eight flutes (plus hundreds of other players and choristers). But does anyone really want to hear that?
What’s a recorder/historical flutes player to do at the festive season, then?
Well, you might get to play the Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz, dating from about 1660, which does have recorder parts. Or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which calls for flutes in the first three of six glorious cantatas which make up this piece. Well, sometimes I do get to play in those, but Canadian presenters don’t program these pieces anywhere near as often as their European counterparts, more’s the pity. But the other piece which can be often be heard at this time of year is Charpentier’s Messe de minuit, which calls for recorders in the simple yet beautiful settings of many lovely old French carols.
This festive season I wasn’t involved in any Charpentier, Schütz or Bach, but I did enjoy some concerts of a smaller, more independent but no less celebratory sort. In late November, for a recital at Islington United Church, Baroque harpist Julia Seager Scott and I combined arrangements of carol tunes from the 13th to 17th centuries with music by Corelli, Händel, Frescobaldi, Oswald and O’Carolan. In mid-December Toronto Consort and various guests gave three performances of Navidad, featuring festive music from 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Latin America. Here’s an example:
And between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Ensemble Polaris rocked out the old year with Definitely Not the Nutcracker. Our CD of the same program has been getting some great reviews and we’re already booked for some shows of the program next year, so perhaps we’ll create our own tradition. Here’s one of the tunes you may eventually recognize:
While looking back on the smaller and more personal gigs of the season I remembered playing a couple of Christmas pageants many years ago, at the downtown Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Cyprian. I was in high school and studied piano with the church’s organist. She must have thought that a flute would be a nice touch in the pageant music, and it was fun to drive from the suburbs into deepest darkest Toronto to play a random collection of suitable tunes while people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, angels, Wise Guys and barnyard animals to create some genuine community theatre. It was wintry, it was cosy, and it was genuinely friendly. I also loved the building, and thought that the church had a really cool name – second only to St James Bond United, so named due to the unification of two United Church congregations (St James and Bond).
Our rehearsals always took place in the evening and, it being December, it was always dark during our drives downtown so I never really saw the neighbourhood in which the church was located. Many years later I was entertained to discover that my husband and I had moved into a house only two blocks away!
The church has long since ceased to be active and has been the twinkle in many a developer’s eye for quite a few years now. Development projects have been started, cancelled, put on hold, and the building is surrounded by boards, fences and plastic sheeting, many windows gone, no doubt a home to urban wildlife. Last year I happened on a blog post by Jonathan Castellino, who taken a number of very moving photographs. Do have a look at them, they are beautiful:
Lately I’ve read several items on the World Wide Interwebs in which artists talk about being asked to produce Art without being paid for it. Ah, I thought to myself, it might be time to throw in my two-cents-worth.
One of these items was a Facebook post by a distressed colleague. She’d followed up on a lead for work as a community children’s music teacher by sending along her credentials, experience and her fee, which she calculates on a sliding scale to accommodate people of various means. She was unprepared for the response she received, which was, ‘Sorry but I think they mean free lessons.’
Ouch. My colleague was stunned and hurt. To be sure, those folks probably pay their babysitters, their school taxes and their hydro bills, but apparently an extracurricular music teacher isn’t even worth minimum wage. It’s a shock to run into people who think that the playing or teaching of music shouldn’t cost anyone anything. There are many people out there who seem to think either that we musicians all have money trees in our backyards, or that we don’t actually have to eat, pay for public transit or buy underwear like everyone else. Apparently, we are miracles – or freaks – of nature. Come to think of it, my aforementioned colleague has lived a blessed life if she’s only just run into this attitude.
I thought I’d share my most significant experience of this type, but before I do, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Firstly, as we already know, money isn’t everything (don’t I sound deep?). There are many times when musicians offer their services for free, knowing that paying a realistic fee would constitute a genuine hardship, or if the event is something of which one simply wishes to be a part. Every one of us has done this, and for me, over the years, such events have included certain funerals, wedding ceremonies, fundraising concerts and community events. For several years I played once a month at the long term care facility where my mother lived during her final years. I continued playing there for quite a while after she died, and I’ll take it up again soon after a break of a few months. The non-monetary rewards of playing there are many and diverse, and many such facilities just don’t have funds to provide artistic activities that their residents enjoy and deserve.
But I must also say that the organizations or people who can’t afford to pay their musicians usually offer to do so anyway, apologizing all over themselves for having so little to spare, and it’s that offer that means a great deal. There’s a recognition that music has value, and that a musician’s expertise and time is worth something. In my experience it’s often the people who can afford to pay that don’t recognize this. There are folks who will tell you they spent $10,000 on a wedding dress and then offer $200 for five hours of a quartet’s time, adding that the musicians won’t get served dinner either but are welcome to ask the wait staff for water. (“Great, thanks. Is it OK if I forage for berries in the country club garden on my break?”)
A country club with lots of green areas. Ideal for foraging.
And now for the story I said I’d tell.
Once upon a time, a member of a distinguished women’s organization called me on the touch tone phone. She asked me to put together a Baroque ensemble to provide music for a swanky fundraising event that her organization was putting on for the Alzheimer’s Foundation. The cause was very worthy, as they almost all are, and in hindsight this story feels even a little sadder than it did at the time. It was Alzheimer’s that felled my mother, reducing to a shadow a feisty woman whom not even cancer had succeeded in demolishing.
The woman told me that the ritzy restaurant Winston’s would be catering the event, that Very Important People would be there, and that it was bound to be an altogether scintillating event. “Well, it sounds very impressive, and thank you for calling me about it,” I said, or something like that. “May I ask what you’ve budgeted for the music?” She sounded a bit surprised. “Oh. We don’t have a budget for music,” she replied.
There was a moment of silence on both ends of the touch tone phone, and then I told her I didn’t really think anyone would be willing to play several hours of background music for free. “But it’ll be very good exposure!” she piped up. “Very Important People will be there! Please ask your colleagues. I’m sure they’ll be happy to support this great cause.” Wow. I’d heard that before, and I’ve heard it since, but it was particularly odd to hear such words coming from the representative of a women’s club linked to a local university, where people paid lots of tuition in exchange for professional training in medicine, law, engineering and – gasp – music. I told her that if musicians played for free every time we were asked to, we’d be living on the street, but she clearly didn’t understand what I meant. I suppose I sounded kind of rude, but she cheerfully asked me to check with my colleagues and get back to her.
To test my theory I called up one colleague and asked what she thought. She laughed uproariously, which is a great gift for a musician to have – way more fun than crying and much healthier than getting mad. I waited a couple of days and phoned the woman back. I surmised out loud that Winston’s probably wasn’t catering for free, nor would Canada Post deliver the invitations out of the goodness of their hearts, so why should any musicians should be expected to play for free? If the music was as significant and meaningful a part of the event as she described it, why was there no budget for it? There wasn’t even an offer of tax receipts in lieu of payment, which would at least have demonstrated an awareness of the value of the musicians’ services. As for exposure – and this part I didn’t say in my out loud voice – exposure at such an event is usually meaningless as far as career development goes. The best you can hope for is that nobody Very Important spills their red wine on you, your music, and/or your instrument. (Word to the wise re: gig outfits: always wear dark colours.)
I suggested that perhaps she could try hiring an ensemble of undergraduate students, who might actually appreciate the experience and exposure. Thanks for calling, but no thanks, and the conversation ended. Later on, I had to smile when I learned that the local universities and conservatory actually charge a fee on behalf of student ensembles who play at events like this. Go figure, it’s actually professional training.
Another time I’ll address the questions of payment and the recording industry…but this is enough for now. In the meantime, here are a couple of the many interesting posts I’ve came across:
I’m teaching a survey course in early music at Ryerson University’s Life Institute these days and in my preparations I revisited some music from the Eton Choirbook. It’s a wonderful, wonderful source. If you’re a player of early music and haven’t ever tapped into this music, you really ought to do yourself a favour and check it out.
The largest collection of English sacred music composed during the late fifteenth century, the Choirbook is something we’re very lucky to have. Not burned, bombed or destroyed – sort of miraculous, really, considering the ruination we humans often visit upon our world. Compiled in the very early days of the sixteenth century (between about 1500 to 1505), it features choral music by the likes of Robert Fayrfax, John Mundy, Nesbitt, Cornyshe and many others. Glorious stuff.
Here’s a lovely example by Fayrfax (1464-1521):
And here’s William Cornysh’s Salve Regina from YouTube:
I’ve used repertoire from this source in numerous workshops and people have always loved it, so if you’re looking for teaching material or for something to play for yourself, go to your nearest music library and have a look!
Every once in a while I do some CD reviewing for the Wholenote, one of Toronto’s go-to publications for finding out what’s going on in the city’s music scene. In the case of the Wholenote it’s the non-popular music scene that’s covered, and it’s pretty far-ranging, including concert listings, preview articles, CD, DVD and book reviews on classical, new, world, jazz, early and other kinds of music. A couple of weeks ago, while dithering about a review I was trying to write, I looked back some of my previous efforts, and came across a review of a recording of 20th-century English concertos, as performed by Michala Petri.
I thought the CD was very good, though I could have done without the slightly bizarre cover image of the Giantess Michala tootling in front of Stonehenge. But the photo got me thinking. It had been a long time since I thought much about Michala Petri but that night I visited her website, did some reading and some musing, and concluded that she actually is a bit of a giantess.
Danish-born Michala Petri played her first concerto in a concert at the age of 11, and not long after that – perhaps a year later? – I think she received an Honourable Mention at the Bruges Musica Antiqua recorder competition. When I was in high school and university, people in the regular classical music world who’d actually heard of any professional recorder player were most likely to have heard of her. Frans Bruggen was playing all around the world too, but not on the modern scene with symphony orchestras, or on typical chamber music concert series. On the rare occasion that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra hired someone to play a recorder concerto, it was Michala that they hired. She played at modern pitch, on modern-type recorders, had a modern performance style as opposed to a historically informed one – and had the kind of soloist’s pedigree that modern orchestras like to see.
As the period instrument movement grew in popularity, recorder players on the historically informed side of the fence were not great fans of Michala, myself included. I had played the modern type of baroque recorder while growing up and in undergrad studies, but when I first encountered historical instruments and in-depth performance practice in the summer after my third year, there was no going back. For me this style of playing and type of instrument offered so many more interpretive and expressive possibilities that I would sooner have quit than return to my former modus operandi. I thought Michala played brilliantly for a modern-style player but that just wasn’t my cup of tea any more. I remember a moment from years ago, following a Tafelmusik concert in St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, when an ex-pat Scots gentleman rushed up to me to tell me that my Vivaldi concerto had been so spectacular that I was ‘right up there wi’ Michala Petri!’ He meant it as a big compliment, I know, but I was mildly mortified. (‘If I’d known then what I know now…’)
Many years into her career, and when the historical performance movement was in full swing, an interviewer asked Michala Petri why she hadn’t gone the historical route. She replied that she really couldn’t have afforded to take off the time that it would’ve taken to learn to play in a new way. If she were to cancel performances, touring, recording and guest teaching for as long as it took, perhaps at least a couple of years, would that professional work still be there for her when she returned? In the same interview she was asked to name her favourite musical era, which she said was the Romantic, but that since there was no recorder repertoire from that period she just had to listen to it, or play arrangements of pieces for other instruments. Her preference for that musical era might also suggest why earlier historical instruments or playing techniques weren’t of much interest to her, and that’s fine – to each her own. But I found it poignant that this person was leading an impressive musical career on an instrument which didn’t jive at all with the era of music she most loved.
And as I explored Michala’s website I saw very clearly that despite not ever living on the ‘historical’ side of the fence, she continues to be a major player of the instrument. Here are some facts:
1) Between now and the beginning of December, she will play numerous concerts in Denmark, a few in Japan, and tour in Germany, and that’s just the performing, not the teaching or recording;
2) Already having inspired more new pieces for the recorder than anyone else on the planet, very fine new music continues to be written for her, by composers in various countries around the world, and this music is (or will be) available to anyone else who wants to play it;
3) She continues to put out significant recordings, which routinely receive reviews in all the big journals such as Gramophone, American Record Guide, Diapason, Classic CD, etc. CDs by other recorder players just don’t get that kind of consistent coverage.
These three things alone make Michala Petri stand out from the rest of the world’s recorder-playing professional musicians. On top of that, she’s been busy for years, shows no sign of slowing down, and lots of people want to hear her. The world’s early music schools may not pay much attention, but their inhabitants are far fewer in number than the people who attend symphony concerts where she appears as a soloist. And no recorder playing graduate from such a school has ever had a career to rival hers, nor is it likely that anyone ever will.
So this woman recorder player from Denmark, doing things her own way, really is a kind of giantess, and an inspiring one no matter what one’s approach to recorder playing might be. If one had to choose the player with the greatest positive impact on the general concert-going public’s perception of the instrument – that is to say, someone who’s not preaching to the converted – my vote would probably be for her.
If you want to read the CD review, have a look here: