Saturday night saw the inaugural concert of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers; the professional core of the much larger Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, at Trinity St. Paul’s with Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducting. There were four pieces on the programme; one very substantial and three shorter works. Things kicked off with a pleasant but essentially conventional arrangement by Dierdre Robinson of Steal Away. This was followed by an Arabic piece by composer-in-residence Shireen Abu-Khader called I Forgive where the choir was joined by soloist Raneem Barakat. This dealt with the short life and death of Egyptian LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazi and was rather beautiful with intriguing Arab influences especially in the solo part. Then came Elgar’s Lux Aeterna arranged for choir by John Cameron.
Opera Sustenida was started during the pandemic and came to my attention because of a couple of well produced on-line shows. Feeling very strongly that it’s time to move back to live performance, and not seeing much yet from the smaller opera companies, I could hardly overlook Opera Sustenida’s show, even if I might not have chosen Verdi’s Il Trovatore for my first go at a live production.
Confluence Concerts opened their season yesterday at 918 Bathurst with a concert featuring a new work by Ian Cusson and André Alexis. We’ll come to that because before it there was about 45 minutes of music doing what Confluence does; the relatively unexpected. There were arrangements for various combinations of voices and instruments of songs by the likes of Kate Bush, Coldplay and Neil Young. There was an instrumental version of Bruce Cockburn’s Pacing the Cage (Larry Beckwith – violin, Andrew Downing – bass) and a Mozart violin sonata (Beckwith and Cusson) plus an intriguing percussion solo by Bevis Ng and more. It featured the usual suspects; Larry Beckwith, Andrew Downing, Suba Sankaran, Dylan Bell and Patricia O’Callaghan plus Messrs Cusson and Ng and it was fun.
Soundstreams opened their season on Wednesday night at Koerner Hall with a concert of modern music for string orchestra, electronics, percussion and chorus. The first, and most substantial work, was Paul Frehner’s LEX, being given its world premiere. It sets diverse texts; quotes from Einstein, Newton’s laws of motion in the original Latin[1}, fragments of the Old testament in Hebrew, extensive passages from Michael Symmons Roberts’ Corpus etc.
The Shape of Home is a show about the life and works of Al Purdy currently being presented by the Festival Players in the Studio Theatre at the Streetcar Crowsnest. Actually I think it’s about a lot more than Al Purdy. It does tell his story and use his poems as song material but in the creative process something a bit magical happened. It was created during lockdown using Zoom with the creator/participants messaging back and forth with ideas, snippets of songs and (mostly dark) thoughts. The creative process must have been gruelling and at times disheartening but the final result is a show of high energy, and humour. But above all it’s life and art affirming. Performed in the tiny Studio Theatre it’s also very intimate. For the first time since the theatres reopened I felt I had got my old life back.
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is the sort of play that makes one wonder why the Russian Revolution didn’t happen much sooner. If the land owning class were living such miserable lives it must have been absolute hell for the peasants. Maybe they just couldn’t afford a guillotine? Anyway it’s playing at Crow’s Theatre right now in a production directed by Chris Abraham which runs until October 2nd.
Last Night at the Cabaret Yitesh is playing at the Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront. It’s a crazy mix of cabaret and other influences from the wild and wacky pen of Michael Wex. The back story is that it’s 1938 and the last night that the Yiddish language Cabaret Yitesh will perform in Warsaw before being, in effect, deported. So, no longer dependent for their continued existence on the whims of the censor’s office they can let rip.
Last night, as part of the Ashkenaz Festival, we got to see Henekh Kon’s Bas-Sheve. It’s the only known pre Holocaust Yiddish opera and there’s quite a saga involved in it getting to a staging. The work dates to 1924, when it premiered in Warsaw then disappeared. In 2017 Dr. Diana Matut unearthed an incomplete piano score version which was completed and orchestrated by librettist Michael Wex and composer Joshua Horowitz to create an hour long piece that premiered in August 2019 as part of the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival.
The season finale for the Music Garden this summer was a performance of Alec Roth’s Songs in Times of War. These are settings of poems by Du Fu translated by Vikram Seth. Du Fu was a Chinese court poet who lived through times (8th century CE) when millions died or were displaced by rebellion and civil war. Although more allusive than direct (most of the time), the poems are grim but have an elusive beauty which is reflected in Roth’s setting. Originally scored for tenor, guitar, harp and violin we got to hear a new version (by the composer) with violin replaced by erhu; a two stringed bowed instrument. Tnere’s no doubt in my mind that the erhu adds a really effective cross-cultural timbre that the violin version can’t quite match.
Tanya’s Secret is a queer-trans adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a production by Opéra Queens who seem to be a Montreal based group created during the pandemic and doing their first show in Toronto; in this case at the Betty Oliphant Theatre. Actually it’s not a particularly radical adaptation compared to, say, some of Against the Grain’s transladaptations. It’s sung in Russian (with some Ukrainian interpolations including a Lysenko art song) with subtitles on screens either side of the stage). The plot isn’t really changed at all though the ball scene in Act 3 gets a sort of drag queen competition element. The big change is that some roles are assigned to the “wrong” gender. Tatiana is sung extremely well and acted even better by Mike Fan. Catherine Carew is a strongly sung and impressive Gremin doubling as the very different Madame Larina. Christina Yun’s Lensky is ardent and she makes a nice fist of “Kuda, kuda”. (Who needs tenors?) Oddly this doesn’t really come across as all that radical. The necessary transpositions occasionally create the odd awkward high note but it’s very singable and generally well sung.