Perhaps the most interesting concert of the Toronto Summer Music festival so far took place at Walter Hall last night. The main event was the presentation of Sounding Thunder; a work about the life of Francis Pegahmagabow, Canadian war hero and First Nations activist.
Pegahmabagow was of the Ojibwe nation; born and brought up in Central Ontario before joining the Canadian Army early in WW1. As a soldier he went on to win renown as a sniper (over 300 kills) and scout and won the Military Medal and two bars. Before, during and after the war he experienced condescension and discrimination as an Indigenous person which sparked his career as chief of Wausauksing Ojibwe and founder of various national Indigenous organizations. Sounding Thunder tells the story of a deeply spiritual, proud warrior who believed in a Canada that had little room for him or his people.
A lot has been written about how Indigenous people should be included in framing and telling their stories and there have been more than a few examples of really rather patronising and exclusionary approaches. This one, I think, seems to have got it more or less right. The music was mainly written by (non Indigenous) Timothy Corlis but with the collaboration of, and contributions from, Jodi Baker (Ojibwe) and Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora). The libretto was pieced together from written records and family history by Ojibwe poet Armand Ruffo. The result was very effective.
The work was presented with a narrator and actor/singers standing front of stage with the seven or so musicians of the Festival of the Sound Ensemble and conductor Larry Beckwith behind them. Atmospheric projections played above the stage throughout.
Again, the performers were a mix of Indigenous and Settler. Most of the band were the latter while Jodi Baker and Jennifer Kreisberg contributed as singers, with Jennifer doubling up on a number of speaking roles. Ojibwe actor Waawaate Fobister played Francis Pegahmagabow and Pegahmagabow’s great grandson Brian McInnes narrated. Larry Beckwith contributed as various “white” characters.
The music was essentially atmospheric but much more than just a background. It’s a colourful and occasionally challenging score with Indigenous elements well integrated. It concludes with a song by Jodi that had the audience on their feet joining in. The instrumental performances were high calibre and the speaking roles effectively on the understated side. The overall effect was moving and deeply thought provoking and one of the best pieces created as a conscious contribution to Truth and Reconciliation that I have experienced.
Sounding Thunder was preceded by performances of Bernstein’s jazzy and very Bernsteinian Clarinet Sonata performed engagingly by James Campbell and Glen Montgomery. They were joined by Mark Fewer on violin for Bartók’s spikily atonal, dance inspired, Contrasts. They made a well chosen first half in keeping with the theme of Reflections of Wartime.