Monday, 22 August 2016

Tuckamore 2016 ends with a flourish!

Last night, August 21, 2016 the 16th Tuckamore Festival concluded with a splendid finale featuring this year's crop of young talent.   The Festival regularly features world-class quartets like the Shanghai Quartet, which (I believe it was) the New York Times described in glowing terms like "exquisite".  And so St. John'a audiences go into the concert hall brimming with expectations of excellence and are not disappointed.  Can you imagine how intimidating that must be for those Young Artists who take the stage for largely the same audience in the same week?  Talk about a tough act to follow from the 19th: the Shanghai Quartet, Duo Concertante with Vernon Regehr in a Schubert Extravaganza!.

The two weeks leading up to the finale must be something of a pressure-cooker for the young musicians participating in the masterclasses and mentorship program.  Listening to the six performances last night, you would never guess that these quartets and trios were newly minted ensembles.  The timing, the cueing, the balance of instruments was there.  My hat also goes off to the artistic directors, Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves for their crafting of these ensembles.  It takes insight in how to match skill levels, musicianship and then the all-important programming.  The diverse selections of music by Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven made for a pleasurable evening of musical experience that ended on a highpoint with a flourish of Fauré.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

How to Charm an Audience: Suzie LeBlanc and/or The Gryphon Trio

The second week of the musical marathon that is the Tuckamore Festival is upon us.  But before week one fades from our memories I wanted to salute the soprano talents of Suzie LeBlanc.  Whether it was for her varied programs, Music From the 45th Parallel North or the lieder the following night, she completely charmed the audience.  LeBlanc has an enthusiastic way of inhabiting the music that is infectious and pulls the audience in as if they were co-conspirators along with Robert Kortgaard on piano or her other fellow performers.  Suzie had said that in preparation for the late night concert she was selecting some of her favourite pieces to perform.  It was only after she reviewed her list did the geographic denominator of the 45th Parallel become apparent.

It could be suggested that another theme was possible–and that would be the complimentary nature of opposites.  It was there in the call and response that she coaxed the audience into, the interspecies dating of "l'alouette et poisson", the bittersweet of "si dolce, il tormento" and the American celluloid, blue-eyed doll that is alternately loved and then hated.  And what better role for music than to convey the seemingly impossible, to stretch beyond the logical and literal?  And if you can, as LeBlanc did, give us a lesson in Canada's own musical heritage from Acadia all the better.

Jamie Parker of the Gryphon Trio has a similar way of making music approachable, of knocking the stuffing out of classical music repertoire.  The audience warmed to his comments that likened Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 as to "a Mission Impossible half an hour" complete with a car chase, romantic hotel scene, a trademark quasi presto and concluding with the special effects of a Bach chorale quote that ranged from the pious to the flashy and heroic. 

What was striking was that whether it was Debussy or the compositions of our very own Andrew Staniland the Gryphon Trio has an unusually, cohesive sound.  Never do you hear one lead instrument with a back up of two others.  Rather, it is one integrated sound.  Staniland was represented by two selections:  14 Seconds from the Dark Star Requiem and the Solstice Songs.  14 Seconds started without fanfare but became more insistent and grew more urgent.  The composer in his opening remarks told the audience that he wanted us to be left with a feeling of hope in the face of the world's disasters (the title was sparked by the statistic that at one point every 14 seconds someone had died of a HIV/AIDS). 

Given the program notes that described Solstice Songs by Staniland as "lively, dance-like" the audience might have expected something pleasantly common.  Instead, we were delighted with a composition that ascended and cascaded with vigor, tumbling and at times turbulent!  How many memorable evenings can our memories accommodate?

Friday, 12 August 2016

Satisfying Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget –The Tuckamore Young Artists Concerts

The concerts featuring the Tuckamore Festival's Young Artists have to be one of the best values in town.  These concerts are held at the historic St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, affectionately known as "The Kirk", which has lovely acoustics, carved interiors and original stained glass windows.  It is a perfect setting for an aesthetic experience such as the lunchtime concert series.  This Wednesday, I attended the first in the young artists series and wow did we get a whole lot of music for a suggested donation of $5!

Five musicians, from four provinces and the United States, each played.  No one in the audience knew in advance what was going to be on the musical menu.  We were just there because we knew we could count on the quality of talent and skills.  No to mention, it is exciting to be a part of nurturing tomorrow's classical musicians. Afterwards, I asked several people in the audience what their favourite pieces or performers were and everyone picked differently.

One woman said that she favoured Jade Ley's lyrical interpretation of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu.  Another was impressed by the stage presence of Nina Weber, who played Bach's Sonata for solo violin in A minor.  One gentleman pointed out that Noah Schuster on cello, who played Tchaikovsky's Variation on a Rocco Theme was the toughest act to follow while another Tchaikovsky fan thought highly of Amanda Cassano's rendition of Mélodie.  I picked Luis Ramirez and his committed performance of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.7 because I think it is fiendishly difficult to play well as it twists and turns between the playful, brooding and unsettling moods.

Watch for the upcoming Saturday night concert Young Artists at Play at the Suncor Energy Hall ($15/10) and more 12:30 afternoon concerts at The Kirk next week.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Tuckamore's Opening Night Brought the Riches

Evelyn Hart's dramatic stage presence makes for a potent mix.

To describe "Riches Brought" by its title would be an understatement.  The evening's program by Duo Concertante reminded me of why we so love and so need music.  It was a veritable bumper crop of enveloping emotions.  We were uplifted, engaged, soothed and satisfied.  The program was wide-ranging from Bach to Broadway (via Ira and George Gershwin) for the first half and Maples and the Stream, which comprised the second half of the evening, was soul stirring.

Earlier in the evening, the composer of Maples and the Stream, Vincent Ho, was interviewed by Andrew Staniland.  This was a rare opportunity not just to hear a composer speak about his music but an opportunity to ask questions as well.  Members of the public commented to me during intermission that they came away from the discussion with a greater appreciation of the creative process.  Ho speaks in very down to earth ways about his conceptual work that invites the public into his creative world of contemporary music.  The give and take of discussion makes a greater impact than more formal presentations.

Maples and the Stream was commissioned by Duo Concertante from Vincent Ho and was first performed in Ottawa in 2013 with Evelyn Hart as narrator.  Hart brings a potent mix of narration and gesture to the stage that I would call docu-dance.  Along with the poetic text the performance on Monday night had a profound expressiveness that did not shy away from its difficult, and at times painful, topic.

Here's what Ho has said about his selection of theme and poetry:
When I discovered Lien’s poems, they immediately resonated with me. As a 2nd-generation Chinese Canadian, I knew all too well the struggles my own parents went through when they immigrated to Canada. So when it came to composing the music, I already had an experiential foundation to draw from.

Each poem depicts a scenario from differing points of Lien’s journey – beginning with her early experiences in China, to the change in the country’s political atmosphere, and finally to her arrival in Canada. My aim was to capture the emotional and cultural transition Lien had made in musical form.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

How to Survive a Juried Show- a short guide for artists

The first question you should ask yourself is:  What is the focus or goal of the exhibition?  In other words, do I fit in?  Will it serve my interests as an artist?

Not surprisingly, different shows attempt to do different things.  Study the call for entry.  Does it have a mandate?  Check: location of venue, size, time and duration of show: are they appropriate for you?  Think about traffic to the area; high traffic areas and locations and times are necessary to shows geared for visibility and sales, while a prestigious location is useful in promoting legitimacy.

One of the reasons you should study or assess the show is that it hopefully clarifies two things: the organizers expectations and your own motivation for entering or applying to the show.  Notice they are not necessarily the same thing!

Identifying and if possible coordinating motivations avoids compromise, conflict and disappointment.  It is worth your while.

So, what do you want?  To be discovered by the public, collectors, dealers and the press?  Is it simply wider exposure or do you require the company of the best of your peers?  Do you need to beef up your resume or are cash and awards the real motive?

How does this dovetail with the organizers' objectives?  Try thinking about objectives such as: to spotlight quality work to stimulate informed discussion, to enliven the association and its image, to fulfill its membership obligations.

Meanwhile the jurors are praying that good work will be submitted, that they will pick the best pieces to form a consistent show within the mandate.  Jurors do not set the mandate.

If you didn't get in (it can feel personal when your work is turned down), check to see how well your work fit the theme of the show.  Ask yourself the hard question about quality of the work, how it was represented in terms of photography.  Look at your written support material. Were your application complete and your ideas clear?  Even a title can make a difference.  Was the technique or materials a significant departure from your previous work. 

Be philosophical and submit the piece someplace else.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The tattoo trail takes me to Toronto

Silicone body parts were giving to tattoo artists to "embellish" for the show.

You know you are obsessed with tattoos when it shapes your vacation.  I spent last week in Toronto to visit the tattoo exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.  This is a traveling exhibition from France, the Musée du Quai Branly to be exact.  It has had various titles in its tour.  It is a relatively modest show in physical metres or feet but it feels big.  The research is deep and spans antiquity to modernity, from religion to art, from circus to tattoo studio.  Oh, and the globe!  Japan, Thailand, and U.S.A., continental Europe– you name it.  Sadly, not Canada.  They do list Yann Black from Montreal in their Acknowledgements page but perhaps people will participate in the #ROM ink and that would be a whole other dimension.  And I will give the ROM full points for its day of lectures that did include Canadian scholars working in tattoo culture.

This from the circus component of the show.  It is a tattooist's travel case.
The biggest treats for me in the show were the videos.  Nearly each component or thematic area was complemented with touch screens featuring videos.  So, for example, you could see the pandemonium of a Yantra ceremony in Thailand.  One woman commented over my shoulder "what the heck is going on there?"  And so, I found myself explaining how yantra tattoos are forms of protection, sacred texts and the wearers go once a year to this spot to get them blessed, recharged if you will.  Their energy builds up and then the wearers go into rapture, exhibiting the animal spirits tattooed over their heart chakras.  Saffron robed monks are spraying them down with hoses.  Think of it as a combination of crowd control crossed with holy water.  The two teenagers my co-visitor was with thanked me and asked if I could give them a tour of the exhibit.  I was tempted.

After spending hours in this exhibit and a lunch break, I camped out in the bookstore.  The ROM has put together some pretty good reads on the topic of tattoo culture.  My favourite was a book about traditional tattooing among aboriginal peoples of North America.  But I didn't buy it because my meagre budget was going on the hard copy version of the exhibition catalogue - at $85.  I will admit that I spent the afternoon reading the books I didn't buy.  That's why there are benches in the gift shop, right?

The experience that I found most amusing on this trip, which had many delights, was a completely random event.  I was striding crossing a park the next day in TO.  I was going to read in Allan Gardens under the palm trees in the greenhouse.  I had the catalogue riding on my hip (it is 303 pages) and someone sings out to me, "Do you like tattoos?" Long story short:  I end up looking at "warrior ink", this man was inked in a penitentiary (he named two of them but frankly I am not up on my prisons) as a member of the "Indian Brotherhood"; he was Cree and born on nearby Regent Street. We talked for several minutes before I excused myself.  I got the feeling that the man had been able to turn his life around for the better.  Brian seemed disappointed that I didn't have a tattoo of my own to show him.  I explained that I studied tattoos.  I laughed when he said that I should take his photograph at no charge.  I really never know what my day will be filled with on the tattoo trail.  And no, I didn't take his photograph.
The catalogue is worth the $85.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

An opera without music?

From time to time, I am asked for advice as a professional writer and curator.  When asked for a tip by a junior writer, someone struggling to get published or their parent, this is what most frequently comes to my mind, "focus on content over style" or another version " be clear rather than being clever".  Functionality is key to my writing and career.  So, you can imagine how pleased I was when I was stopped in the post office this week and someone told me that a review I had published in the daily newspaper had helped them understand a local theatre production.  Here's the review:

A Poetic Script Produces Powerful Performance

When Graham Hunt, producer of Beats Around the Bush, characterized the play script as "like Shakespeare with a fresh twist of Hollyood", I thought now there's a lofty goal.  Consequently, I was surprised to discover several soul stirring moments when an extended soliloquy nearly achieves that goal. The play is written by Riley Palanca, who is originally from Manila, and he clearly has a flair for contemporary spoken word.  It was wonderful to be swept up in the melody of the language and sentiment.

The play's subtitle is "The Word Opera."  When I asked Palanca why he chose the term "opera" he explained that when the characters are at their most passionate, when emotions were running high, it was like music to him.  Don't be mislead, it is not a musical.  Opera refers more to the larger-than-life quality of the play and its characters.  And there are plenty of epic meltdowns, lover's quarrels and reunions between the millennial characters.  If this is opera, it is the unconventional opera of the Beat Generation like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who found creative riches in the shadowy underside of society.

Riley Palanca is active in the spoken word community of St. John's.

 For his St. John's debut as playwright Palanca has created a fictional setting called Malate based on the treacherous streets of Manila's gay community.  The Factory's interior with its brick walls and rowdy, street art seamlessly take on the urban character.  Stage lights bathe the actors in bright washes of hot oranges or moody blues helping the audience to focus on the alternating speaking roles of monologue or soliloquy. 

The central characters are four gay couples and the play deals with their complexities and issues. One man has a pregnant wife at home ("who glares at him like an anorexic looks at a buffet table"); another a violent partner; the list goes on.  Diversions abound. They are beating around the bush, avoiding answers and words like homophobia. But in dwelling on the specific the universal is uncovered.  Their stage world is Asian Malate but it might as well be the tragic site of the Orlando shootings.

All eight of the cast held nothing back with their performances but it will be the poetic script that I will remember most.  Streetwise but unschooled, Chance solicits Miguel to teach him how to write a poem. In response, we are treated to a parody of "it is a summer's day" as if it was written in turn by Shakespeare, ee cummings, Pablo Neruda, E.A. Poe, Ezra Pound, Kahil Gibran, Sylvia Plath and those are just the ones I can recall.  Or achingly simple lines like "I find my mother in crosswords, in cross stitch, in too much salt in my pasta, in the front row of my shows…"