About Alison

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‘Breathe’

My regrets for such a long silence! Many posts have been started over the past weeks, only to be waylaid and left on the desktop…

Last night I was on the website for the Toronto-based new music organization Soundstreams, looking for info on their upcoming season, and I chanced upon a concert recording made back in March of 2011. It was a recording of ‘Breathe,’ a piece composed by James Rolfe and scored for three female voices with medieval instrumental ensemble, which in this case meant organ, recorder, nyckelharpa, lute and percussion. The words included texts from Hildegard of Bingen.

For the premiere, Soundstreams arranged for a collaboration between Norway’s Trio Medieval and the instrumentalists of the Toronto Consort, so lucky me – I was a part of it. Last night, listening, I was vividly reminded of how beautiful the piece was, and of the real fun it had been to rehearse and play it. Yes, there were some moments when we all thought we might come undone – but what a total pleasure it really was. Even if you think you don’t like ‘new’ music, give this a listen:

http://www.soundmakers.ca/soundstreams-commissions/breathe-james-rolfe

We rehearsed and performed in St. Anne’s Anglican, one of Toronto’s most historic churches. Built anew in 1907, the architect Wm. Ford Howland styled it after Byzantine models, and it has a beautiful central dome which dazzles with painted stars. Members of Canada’s artist collective the Group of Seven – MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley – were among the artists who decorated the new church in 1923 with spectacular paintings and sculpture. Worth a visit if you haven’t seen it!

I took some shots to remember the experience. Here are three.

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne's Anglican

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne’s Anglican

Around the organ - not the one we used! -

Around the organ – not the one we used! –

Pre-show setup.

Pre-show setup.

Acis & Galatea

Ah, the beautiful days of August are upon us. Avian Flight School is in full throttle and the backyard is a busy place, with fledgling robins, cardinals, sparrows and starlings all testing their wings and their vocal chords. And as they sing and squawk outside, I look forward to a couple of weeks in which my own music making will be also be mostly home-based, made up of practicing, writing music and playing just for the sheer fun of it. Fun will also be included in the ‘wood-shedding’ and writing too if I listen more to the muses than the Id, an ability at which I thankfully seem to be developing more skill.

And as I look forward in the spirit of fun, it’s also worth taking a look back at my most recent gig. It’s important to give a big nod to the happiest gigs!

In late July the Toronto Masque Theatre presented two summer festival performances of Händel’s Acis & Galatea. Already booked elsewhere and unable to participate in their first show at the Elora Festival, I was a part of the orchestra for the second performance at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, Ontario – and what a totally enjoyable gig that was. First of all, who would ever say no to a visit to Parry Sound? It’s such a beautiful place, on Georgian Bay and with all those trees that haven’t forgotten how they posed for Group of Seven paintings. The concert venue, the Stockey Centre for the Arts, is a handsome and intimate hall of stone and wood, and an acoustic delight.

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

The Stockey is also right down on the water and features a boardwalk patio with a first-class view of spectacular sunsets, which one can enjoy along with an intermission cocktail.

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

And then, there’s the music. Though it could more properly be called a masque or a pastorale, Händel described Acis & Galatea as a ‘little opera,’ which it certainly is; it It’s not like his other four- or five-hour extravaganzas which really ought to require catered meals for the audience and intermissions long enough for a nap. Händel created several versions of the piece, the first in 1718 and the last (and nowadays most familiar) one in 1739. Mozart made an arrangement of it in 1788.

A&G is a bit truncated, a two-act Reader’s Digest rendering of the myth in which a shepherd named Acis falls in love with a water nymph named Galatea. The story, based on the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is fairly uncomplicated but worth a short précis. Happily for Acis, his love for Galatea is requited, but the Cyclops Polyphemus loves her too and he fares far worse. Besides the fact that she’s already smitten with Acis, Galatea has a big problem with Polyphemus’s predilection for snacking on human babies and quaffing blood as though it were Beaujolais Nouveau. There’s a fourth character, another shepherd named Damon who occasionally drops in to give advice, like an 18th-century male Dear Abby. But his advice is of no use to Polyphemus who, saddened, furious, and with a big anger management problem, crushes Acis to death with a gigantic boulder. Before he’s reborn as a stream, Acis sings a final aria from underneath the massive rock. Depending on how a director chooses to play it, this ending is utterly tragic, completely ridiculous, or both.

My colleagues in the orchestra were all excellent musicians and lovely people, all of whom I wish I could see much more frequently. We were a very small band, much like what Händel had at his disposal for his earliest performances: two violins, one cello, a harpsichord and an archlute, two oboes and a recorder. As for the singers, not only the four soloists were outstanding, but also the other four singers who sang the choruses, sometimes with the others joining in and sometimes not. It’s not easy for singers trained as soloists to sing well as an ensemble, especially an ensemble that doesn’t regularly work together, but these folks made richly beautiful music. The opening chorus of the opera, ‘O the pleasure of the plains,’ is truly one of the happiest choruses ever, and that evening it was just glorious.

As you may have guessed by now it was a concert production rather than a staged one, but some deft blocking and clever use of audience entrances and aisles, as well as the space onstage, made for some great theatrical effects. A few audience members took it all in stride when Polyphemus selected to ‘harass’ them during his forays into the hall. From the looks on their faces and their standing ovation at the conclusion, the audience had a great time, and so did we. Who could ask for more?

For a brief overview of the piece, here’s a YouTube clip of snippets from the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2010 production:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu_2nVJonqA

Now from a recorder player’s standpoint, Acis & Galatea is a particularly fun gig because it includes two arias with energetic, charming obbligato parts for a sopranino recorder. Two alto recorders are also featured as part of the ‘burbling brook’ effect in the final aria of the show, but the sopranino parts are really what most of us love to get a chance at.

Very early on in the piece Galatea sings Hush ye pretty warbling choir, an aria featuring one of Händel’s brilliant bird-imitative obbligatos. Here’s a version from 2011, featuring Evelyn Tubb as Galatea, and a recorder player who sadly doesn’t get a mention. I’m not sure if this is a rehearsal or a casual concert performance; the aria is preceded by its recitative. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sFdkH77bsI

The second sopranino obbligato accompanies Polyphemus as he sings the praises of Galatea in O ruddier than the cherry. The musical lines are deliberately a bit lumpy but still sweet, suitable for an ungainly, bad-tempered character who’s nevertheless been made a little less boorish by love. (Or lust.) Here’s an audio version featuring Huub Claessens, including the preceding recitative: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwQ31TswVI

And here, to compare how very different productions can be, are two more versions of the same, this time with the video.

First, from 2011, featuring Matthew Rose and some canine taxidermy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTjksYe2KvI

And now for a Spanish production, with the best-dressed Polyphemus I’ve ever seen. He’s very well behaved too, considering that A&G are carrying on in their pyjamas while he’s singing. No wardrobe credit, unfortunately.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYHhO-a50C4

You can find out about the Toronto Masque Theatre and their upcoming shows here: http://www.torontomasquetheatre.com.

And here’s a bonus track: another Händel ‘birdie’ aria, this time from Rinaldo and featuring soprano Laura Whalen, the Aradia Ensemble directed by Kevin Mallon, and recorder players Kathryn Montoya, Colin Savage (altos) and yours truly (sopranino). The whole opera is available on Naxos (8.660165-67).

Sighting #5

slides8

Yet another rock and roll shot. I’d forgotten all about this photo and just came across it this evening. Anyone remember Jefferson Airplane? I loved this band. I think I even had the LP which featured this photo on the cover. This was a really intriguing bunch of musicians, and the instruments in this picture made me feel almost cool, what with Grace Slick holding a recorder and Marty Balin with a flute. Whoa.

More writing on its way.

Snowflakes, Recorders, and Country Style

While surfing the World-Wide Web of Quasi-Information a few days ago I happened upon an excerpt from Ricercata, a documentary made by Daniel Brüggen, formerly of Loeki Stardust Recorder Quartet fame and now a professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Daniel has also been making musical documentaries over the past few years and, judging from the clip I saw, does so in a thoroughly engaging way. Ricercata seems to be a unique tribute to the recorder by someone who knows the territory like the back of his hand, and I look forward to the arrival of the copy I just ordered.

The excerpt I saw featured an interview with Bob Marvin, that celebrated and long-standing maker of medieval, Renaissance and transitional recorders who was born in the USA but has lived and worked in rural Québec for decades now. I met Bob years ago, though I can’t exactly remember what on earth brought him from his secluded and rustic home to visit Toronto. Perhaps it was a workshop presented by the Toronto Early Music Centre, but I’m not sure.

Renaissance consort

It was winter when Bob visited Toronto that particular time. Walking beside him along the street one day, I remember watching snowflakes settle and slowly melt on a couple of his tenor recorders, which were sticking out of their undersized bag into the frigid air. When I expressed some concern about the negative effect this might have on the instruments, Bob pointed out that they had originally been trees, after all, and as such were probably used to all kinds of weather. Fair enough.

I also have a vivid memory of a meal shared with Bob and my partner Colin at Country Style, Toronto’s legendary Hungarian restaurant on Bloor Street West. We watched in astonishment as Bob finished off an entire Transylvanian Platter, a once-around-the-kitchen offering with enough food to feed a small bear. The restaurant had a special deal, too: if you could consume an entire Transylvanian Platter by yourself, you didn’t have to pay for it, so when we left the restaurant the only item on Bob’s bill was his tea. To this day, I’ve got no idea where he put it all. Maybe he was a camel in a former life, returned as a human with the ability to go for days without sustenance after an occasional refuelling. Honestly, that explanation is as plausible to me as any other. It was remarkable.

But there were many more remarkable things about Bob, including his fascination with 15th- and 16th-century music and his mastery of recorder making.  He loved early and mid-Renaissance music and was game to play it for hours, always from the original notation; and he would regale listeners with information from 15th-century writings of all kinds, not just musical ones.  As for the instruments he builds, they are faithful copies, magnificently made, and all imbued with the distinctive and thoughtful character of their maker. Thank you, Bob.

In Ricercata you can see and hear Bob Marvin at work. Check it out:

http://vimeo.com/vicenteparrilla/bob-marvin-interview

Bach from a height

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra recently launched their own CD label, and is re-releasing a number of their considerable catalogue of titles no longer available on the original labels. Some of those labels no longer exist at all – such is the classical recording industry, but that’s another story.

One recent re-release was their recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, originally recorded at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio. I was involved in the fourth concerto, the one calling for soloists on violin and two alto recorders. As some of you know well, the two recorders are a team, and soloists indeed, but not quite in the same exposed capacity as the violinist, who has many more (and some fiendishly difficult) notes to play. Sometimes the recorders play while the violinist doesn’t, but usually we back up, we echo, we play along –  if Brandenburg IV could be likened to a Supremes number, the recorders are  Mary and Flo to the violinist’s Diana Ross (but without the cool outfits).

The Supremes

Anyway, having the opportunity to record this wonderful piece of music, which I’ve played many, many times before and since, was a total pleasure and honour; and it was a particular delight that my partner in recorder land was the sunny and exuberant Marion Verbruggen. Also, the producer on the project was a highly celebrated German gentleman who had produced all the early groundbreaking LPs featuring Brüggen, Leonhardt, Bijlsma, the Kuijken brothers, etc. Though he could be tough and sometimes inscrutable, he was one of the best in the business – maybe being tough and inscrutable had something to do with that, along with his golden hearing.

As the recording sessions approached, Mr. Golden Ears began to express some concern that ‘the second flute is very small.’ After hearing this concern mentioned for a third time, the mystified music director finally asked him what he meant. Though our recorders might differ a bit in their appearance – type of wood, decorative turning of the wood at the joints, and other more subtle variances – Marion and I were both using alto recorders, the same size…so what exactly was the problem? Turned out that the producer was referring to my height. I was significantly shorter than Marion, and since the the plan was to use only one microphone on the pair of us, my shortitude was a source of concern. I would be further away from the microphone than Marion, which would create a real balance problem. What to do?

Let’s hear it for ingenuity, and for people who paid attention in cabinetry class. He might have made me buy and wear some ankle-breaking platform shoes, but no – Mr. Golden Ears had a personal riser built for me, about forty centimeters square and complete with a kickrail so I wouldn’t fall off. After a life spent as the shortest person in every group photo I’ve ever been in, I was instantly almost six feet tall. It was kind of great at first, a new and higher perspective on my surroundings but without nosebleeds or shortness of breath.

As usual, however, there was one little drawback. Marion and I had planned to achieve the required forte and piano ‘echo’ effects in the slow movement mostly by turning away from the microphone and back again; but, standing on my tiny Tower of Tallness, I couldn’t take a real step in any direction, let alone make 45-degree turns back and forth. Somehow or other I managed to move around enough for the desired musical effect, though it was a bit of a challenge. I do remember that when the three hours were up I wondered if a trip to the chiropractor might be in order…

Never mind. It was Bach. It was awesome, I got paid to play it, and  I was 5′ 10″ for an afternoon. And the CD’s out again!

bach_brandenburg

Background Music #1

In the unpredictably varied world of the freelance musician, the background music gig is often a staple of one’s experience and one’s bank account. Most of us have played at least a few of these, and some people make much of their living by playing them, the most common of which mark life’s typical rites of passage: weddings, funerals, birthday and anniversary parties, and such.

Some background music jobs are very fancy and rare: I have a colleague, for example, who played at Barack Obama’s first inaguration. Then there are the other, less impressive inauguration jobs, like when I played for the opening of the new subway station near my family’s home. Yes I did. But I’ve played in Carnegie and Roy Thomson Hall too, and it’s worth sharing that the acoustics in the subway station were better than at Thomson Hall, that is until the latter was renovated.

At some background gigs you spend a bit of time playing for people who listen to you, during a wedding’s register signing for example, but the rest of the time on the job is spent providing ‘wallpaper’ music for meals, receiving lines, arrivals and departures. Sometimes you spend the entire time noodling your way – almost inaudibly once the party’s in full swing – through your own gig book of tunes, or through one of the many published collections with names like Wedding Classics or The All-Occasion Fake Book. This can sometimes be tedious, it’s true, but if you’re fascinated with human social behaviour, have some new music you want to try out without necessarily being heard, and/or you get free food and wine as well as getting paid, it’s kind of fun!

But there are other more uncommon rites of passage, about which many of us have never had much reason to think. One of the most unusual jobs that I’ve ever played was for a Canadian citizenship ceremony. That’s not a gig that comes along very often, and perhaps not at all these days, but if you’re ever asked to play at one, I recommend accepting the offer. It’s an honour. For a brief while, your life connects with those of complete strangers who meet to celebrate a big decision, and they are all strangers to one another too.

I had no idea of what went on at citizenship ceremonies, apart from people perhaps taking an oath and receiving citizenship certificates, and I certainly never gave any thought to whether or not live music might be included in the event. But when I got the call, it seemed like a unique opportunity so I accepted, and on the appointed day I trundled by public transit out through deepest and most spacious suburbia to the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall and civic offices. This was prior to 1998, before the city of Toronto was amalgamated with several outlying boroughs, a union rejected by a majority in a referendum of city and borough citizens, but rammed through by the provincial government of the day. Here’s the Scarborough Civic Centre, designed by architect Ray Moriyama.

Scarborough_Civic_Centre

At this point my memories of the ceremony’s exact details aren’t great, but what I very clearly remember was a wooden-walled courtroom filled with people from all around the globe. There were families, couples and individuals, and their friends and relatives. Their countries of origin were listed in the opening remarks made by the Justice in charge, and these included places like France and New Zealand but also many countries known more for civil war, famine, poverty, genocide, religious strife or suffering of so many other kinds. I wondered what each of these new Canadians had lived through prior to arriving in this tastefully lit courtroom in Scarborough, how they’d gotten here, what they’d left behind or given up.

It was certainly moving to to watch all these people parade to the centre of the room to receive their citizenship papers and a congratulatory handshake, and to hear them sing the national anthem, some exuberantly and some a bit more shyly. As in a graduation ceremony, for each person it marked the end of a lengthy journey, though the challenge of some of their journeys would likely have made medical school seem like a walk in the park.

As for my contribution to it all, I played at the usual moments – some music while people arrived, some tunes during the certificate distribution, and something perky when it was all done. I can’t recall exactly what I played but I’m pretty sure some Telemann, van Eyck and some Scottish folk tunes made it into the mix. Very likely it wasn’t music that anyone in the room would have expected, if they’d expected live music at all. Even so, people listened, and afterwards several of them thanked me for the gentle wooden flute sounds that added an unexpected special something to the proceedings.

My pleasure.

Sighting #4

Well, shame on me. It’s been a very busy few weeks so although I’ve had some intriguing musical work, it’s been very hard to find time for writing about it. But in the meantime, here’s something seriously worth a listen/look: Frans Brüggen as a young man, putting Telemann fantasias and the recorder on the map.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQatlvFvGdM

I ask you, where would we be without YouTube?

Music’s virtue

Just thought I’d share a few lovely words from the preface to Humphry Salter’s The Genteel Companion, published in London in 1683 and one of the earliest recorder instruction manuals in English. The original spelling has been retained, purely for its charm.

“I might as well endeavour to perswade, that the Sun is a glorious, and beneficial Planet; as take pains to Illustrate Musick with my imperfect praises; for every reasonable Mans own mind will be its Advocate. Musick, belov’d of Heaven, for it is the business of Angels; Desired on Earth as the most charming pleasure of Men. The world contains nothing that is good, but what is full of Harmonious Concord, nor nothing that is evil, but is its opposite, as being the ill favour’d production of Discord and Disorder…”

whimsical-angel-pictures-6

Happy May Day!

Rant #1

During my undergrad years at university I was pretty delighted to be majoring on the recorder. It was the instrument that I felt was the most ‘me,’ my teacher Hugh Orr was just great, and I had lots of opportunities to play. But playing this instrument also made me a bit of an outsider. I was regarded by some of my fellow students and professors either as unusual – ‘dancing the to the beat of a different drummer’ was the polite cliché often used – or as a deluded loser. They couldn’t imagine how anyone could make a living playing the instrument. At the time, neither could I, but then none of the student pianists, singers, or anyone else had a clue either.
“I’m going to play solo recitals all over the world.”
“I’m going to be first flute in the New York Philharmonic.”
“I’m going to establish Starbucks on Neptune.”
Dream big. People did. You have to, especially when you’re 20. There are thousands of people already doing what you want to do. You have to think you can do anything, otherwise you’d never set foot outside your house.

Some people at the Faculty of Music were just plain incredulous that the recorder was permitted as a major instrument. One professor prognosticated that it would never be allowed as a major in the performance degree program at either undergrad or graduate levels. He turned out to be wrong on both counts (sorry, Sir). ‘Never say never’ is very wise advice.

There were other people who were more supportive, like the music education professor who told me I was ‘just the right size’ to play the sopranino recorder, whatever that meant, and got me to play solos in her pedagogy demonstrations. It wasn’t the best forum for altering the general perception of the recorder, but at least people heard the instrument sound a lot different than what they remembered from grade school.

My fellow students were mostly nice, though I heard the occasional comment about how any ‘real’ musical instrument wouldn’t have hibernated its way through the 19th century, or that if Beethoven and Brahms didn’t write anything for recorder why would you even bother with it, or that the recorder shouldn’t be a major instrument because anyone could play it, and had indeed done so, in grade four.
Such lines of reasoning always mystified me, and still do. You’re likely not surprised that I have some rebuttals, two of which go like this:

1) Granted, the 19th century is a big one for many people in the ‘art’ music world and the Western Conservatory tradition of musical education – but the recorder’s repertoire does span the 13th to 18th centuries, and then the 20th century onward. It’s true that the 19th century and the recorder suit each other about as well as Mahatma Ghandi and a hand grenade, but COME ON. The lack of just one century’s repertoire doesn’t mean you have no music worth playing.

(2) Like most people who’ve lived in a house with a piano, I can play Chopsticks and The Happy Miller, but I don’t take that to mean that the piano is easy to play or that its repertoire can usually be learned in just a few lessons. Nor do I believe for one second that the ability to play the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier gives me an understanding of the piano similar to that of, say, Alicia de Larrocha. (She can play all the preludes, and the fugues.) I passed a piano proficiency exam to get my Bachelor’s degree, and I accompany students to this day, but I don’t think of myself as a pianist, because I’m not one. Likewise, just because you can still play Go Tell Aunt Rhody like you did in fourth grade, and you still have the very same recorder, doesn’t make you a recorder player.

Or consider the mighty violin. People who attend a professional performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings don’t expect the violins to sound like a Suzuki class. Your average person understands that when little Billy plays Twinkle Twinkle, he isn’t going to sound like the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and vice versa. But despite all the good recorder playing going on in public around the world, there are still people out there who insist that Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg is for flutes, and modern ones at that. Recorders? No way, because using recorders would allegedly sound squeaky and out of tune, and that is surely not what Bach intended…

Mind you, as well as all the good recorder playing going on these days, there are also a lot of antics which don’t exactly help the instrument’s image or credibility, and at some point I’ll have to talk about that here. But for now, let me finish this particular rant with a little story to support a previous point.

I once had a telephone conversation with a man who told me he’d heard me on the radio that very morning, and how beautiful he thought my playing was. Very kind of him. I thanked him and out of curiosity I asked what he’d heard.

“It was Corelli,” he said, “on the flute.”

I did a mental scroll-down of the Corelli I’ve committed to CD, all of which was played on the recorder. Motivated by the habitual desire to stick up for this instrument which regularly gets such grief, I said something like, “Really? I think I played that Corelli on the recorder.”

“No, I’m absolutely sure it was the flute,” he told me. “The recorder could never sound that good.”

Sighting #3

Wow, a mid-20th-century hearthrob with a recorder. Talk about an unexpected prop. Judging from the hand position he didn’t really know how to play it; but I’m pretty sure that really didn’t matter…

Image

There are a variety of photos from this shoot to choose from. Wish I knew the photographer to credit.