Yesterday’s free concert in the RBA featured mezzo Marion Newman with pianist Adam Sherkin and violinist Kathleen Kajioka in a programme of contemporary Canadian works (all the composers were in the room!) mostly connected in some way with Canada’s First Nations and Inuit peoples. First up was Ian Cusson’s setting of E. Pauline Johnson‘s A Cry from an Indian Wife. It’s a long, highly emotional but not, I think, especially well crafted, text about an Indian woman sending her husband off to war (the language reflects the usage of its day) and the words are not easy to set or sing. Cusson’s setting is appropriately intense with a blistering piano part and a tough vocal line. It’s deeply affecting but hardly comfortable especially when sung in a manner that clearly (and rightly) privileged text and emotion over beauty of sound.
This was followed by Sherkin’s Two Songs after Turner, composed for the Turner exhibition at the AGO and first performed there. Less emotional themes perhaps but no less expressive and very evocative of Turner’s pictures. This was followed by a scene from a work in progress, again by Ian Cusson; Helen Betty Osborne, It was the recalling of a nightmare and had the same tough, edgy character as the earlier Cusson piece and was just as exprressively sung and played.
Next up were four Sherkin piano pieces from his suite Postludes from Adlivun based on legends about the Inuit underworld. This is the sort of music that takes conventional piano technique to the limit. It’s loud, tough, sinewy and very evocative. Also most expressive and athletic playing from Sherkin who I think was playing from memory.
Things lightened up a bit after that with Kathleen Kajioka joining Marion and Adam for Newman’s Kinanu, a rather beautiful and appropriately gentle lullabye and the tongue in cheek Appropriation Aria; a “commentary” on Ten Little Indians and Newman’s riposte to the inappropriate teatment of native culture in children’s music.
Last up was Sap’a; a piece by Dustin Peters setting texts in Kwak’wala; a near extinct language of the Pacific Coast which Marion pointed out would be her native tongue if her father had not lost it at residential school. It’s a lovely piece, very evocative of the grey sky and grey water of that weird and haunting coast.
So, a really well curated recital that needs to be heard again. The themes matter and the range of music was a fascinating tribute to the vibrancy of the Canadian contemporary music scene which is not afraid to grapple with difficult issues or to use musical styles and forms which challenge audiences without becoming overly academic or theoretical.
Photo credits: Lara Hintelmann