Beckwith at 94

Canadian composer John Beckwith will be 94 tomorrow.  His son, Larry, under the auspices of Confluence Concerts webcast a trio of concert’s of Beckwith’s extensive song output yesterday on their Youtube channel.  There’s four and a half hours of music and interviews!  It’s extremely varied.  Composition dates range from 1947 to 2014 and the diversity of the music is equally broad though with a distinct personality.  The pieces range from a set of etudes for cello and voice written for his grand-daughter when she was nine years old to the the crazy Avowals which requires a gifted and slightly mad tenor and a keyboardist who can play piano, celeste and harpsichord; sometimes simultaneously!

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It’s very Canadian.  There are a lot of settings of traditional songs and still more setting poetry and prose by various Canadian luminaries.  It’s not just the usual East coast Scots or Irish material either.  Besides, unsurprisingly, traditional Québecois rep there are Dukhobor and Mennonite songs and other surprises.  There’s also a strong internationalism with texts drawn from Chinese, Polish, Welsh and US sources among others.  I think we hear songs in English, French, German, Russian, Lithuanian and Hungarian, maybe more.  What could be more Canadian than a humanistic internationalism firmly rooted in Canada’s various and varying cultures?  Beckwith deserves a blue beret to go with his numerous other honours.

It’s such a distinctive voice too,  A comparison with Britten as a song composer seems not inapposite.  He shares the fondness for setting traditional songs and is distinctly modern without taking on some of the more extreme experiments of the 1950s through 1980s.  Bur there I think the comparison ends.  Britten’s style of piano accompaniment tends to look back to the days when the piano supported the vocal line.  Even Beckwith’s earliest songs seem to lean more to the accompanist as collaborator and commentator on the vocal line.  And if Britten is a bit prone to histrionics (Our Hunting Fathers, Les Illuminations), Beckwith is all ironic humour.  It’s good stuff and I look forward to spending more time with it.  I’ll pass on further musicological ramblings and leave the field clear for Bradley Christensen!

The recordings are (mostly) typical covid era vignettes recorded in peoples’ front rooms and empty university halls.  The quality is good to very good with just a few sound glitches.  There’s even some highly creative videography from Natalya Gennadi.  The whole thing has been very competently stitched together by Ryan Harper.

And what a cast of collaborators Larry Beckwith assembled for this celebration.  They range in age from 8 to 94 and contributions came in from Victoria to Vienna and all parts in between.  There are “big names”; Barbara Hannigan, Russell Braun, Benjamin Butterfield and Krisztina Szabó plus an astonishing array of (mostly) UoT trained professional singers.  What a pleasure to see so many much missed friends.  There are grad students, undergrads and school children too.  There are interviews with many of John’s collaborators including the equally young and lively Mary Morrison.  Larry’s interview with his father displays the latter’s subtle wit and undiminished insight.

Larry Beckwith has conjured up something rather special here and I strongly encourage people to explore the three recordings on Youtube that will be available until March 21st.

And finally, Happy 94th Professor Beckwith!

Interviews and such

There are three new Youtube videos that aren’t performances but may be of interest.  On the Confluence Concerts channel there’s the John Beckwith Songbook Lecture.  I was expecting the usual sort of pre-show thing ahead of this weekend’s concert but it wasn’t that at all.  What we get is Bradley Christensen explaining his doctoral thesis research on developing an interpretive and pedagogical guide to Beckwith’s songs.  One might expect this to be rather dry and in a way it is but dry like a certain kind of British (or I guess Kiwi) humour.  It’s a sort of “Note the sheep do not so much fly as plummet” performance.  No sheep though.  One would have thought a Kiwi could have fixed that.  I shouldn’t joke really.  It’s a perfectly serious and valuable project but the deadpan delivery is curiously compelling.

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Mandala

Mandala – the Beauty of Impermanence is the latest on-line offering from Confluence Concerts.  It’s curated by Suba Sankaran and should have seen the light as a live show last May.  The programme is as eclectic as one has come to expect from Confluence and lots of fun.  In the spirit of impermanence it will be available on the Confluence channel on Youtube only until February 10th.

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Creativity and Aging – Confluence Salon

Does creativity follow an arc with age?  Is a period of peak creativity followed by inevitable decline or is there, perhaps, a qualitatively different, kind of creativity in the later years of life?  Linda and Michael Hutcheon; literary scholar and physician, explored this in their book Four Last Songs, which looked at the later works of Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten.  Last night they appeared in the Confluence Concerts Salon series to provide further thoughts with reference to the works of Messiaen and Leonard Cohen.  Their thoughts were interwoven with performances of works by Messiaen and Cohen performed by Robert Kortgaard, Patricia O’Callaghan and Larry Beckwith.  There’s no need to read my description of the show.  It’s freely available on Youtube.

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Confluence’s Purcell

Last night Confluence Concerts streamed their latest offering; a tribute to Henry Purcell, preceded by a pre-show interview between Larry Beckwith and Andrew Parrott.  There was beautifully played instrumental music from Victoria Baroque, songs from Lawrence Williford and Lucas Harris recorded at the Elora Festival and a couple of interesting takes on If Music Be the Food of Love plus Two Daughters of this Aged Stream featuring Daniel Taylor, Rebecca Genge and Sinéad White plus instrumentalists from the UoT Faculty of Music Historical Performance Department.  I was less taken with Duo Serenissima (Elizabeth Hetherington, soprano and David Mackor, theorbo).  I can’t tell whether it was the recording acoustic or a diction issue but the words were pretty much unintelligible which is a big problem with Purcell!.

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Confluence announces virtual 2020/21 season

Confluence Concerts have announced a five concert and two special event virtual 2020/21 season with their usual eclectic and enticing mix of repertoire.

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September 23rd 2020 – Something to Live for; A Billy Strayhorn Celebration

A detailed look at the story of the great 20th century classical and jazz pianist and composer. Best known for his long-time collaboration with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn composed Take the A Train, Lush Life, Something to Live For, Chelsea Bridge, and A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.

Curated and arranged by Andrew Downing

Featuring Larry Beckwith, Alexa Belgrave, Leighton Harrell, Aline Honzy, Drew Jurecka, Marion Newman, Patricia O’Callaghan, Alex Samaras, Suba Sankaran and more.

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Let’s Stay Together

Last night’s virtual salon by Confluence; Let’s Stay Together, featured an extremely, if unsurprisingly, eclectic selection of music and poetry and some serious techno-wizardry.  Two numbers featuring Suba Shankaran and her technical whizz husband Dylan Bell exemplified the techy side.  Come Together was an overdubbed. live looped, east meets west version of the Lennon and McCartney number in which the pair built up layers of sound incrementally.  Meditation Round, which rounded out the evening, was a moving new work by Suba dealing with how we need to move forward, not back, as life, perhaps, returns to some sort of normality.  There was an almost 16th century quality to the music and the performance in which pretty much everyone took part remotely.  Brilliant mixing and post production here backing up an extremely affecting work.

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Beckwith on Beethoven

Beethoven_door_LyserLarry Beckwith of Confluence Concerts has been using the plague quarantine to listen to the Beethoven string quartets.  He’s written up his thoughts on each piece and linked to his chosen recording on Youtube.  Here’s what he had to say:

Beginning on Friday, March 20, 2020 and continuing for seventeen days in succession – as the city was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic – I turned to a project I intended to engage in at some point in 2020: listening to and reflecting upon the magnificent string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born 250 years ago. Those reflections can be found on the Confluence Concerts Blog at https://www.confluenceconcerts.ca/new-blog

It’s as thoughtful as anyone who knows Larry would expect and the blog post for each quartet includes links to the appropriate Youtube recording.

 

Bullet Train/Witch on Thin Ice

Another unusual and interesting show from Larry Beckwith’s Confluence Concerts last night at the Aki Studio.  The first half of the programme was a reading of Madeleine Thien’s short story Bullet Train.  It’s sort of a double coming of age story that also looks at what we hang onto and what we don’t as we move through life.  It was beautifully read by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster with cunningly chosen piano interludes played by Gregory Oh.

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After the interval it was Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Yoko Ono inspired piece; Witch on Thin Ice.  At it’s centre was virtuoso percussionist  Beverly Johnstone who displayed great skill on a range of untuned and tuned percussion while executing parts of Melissa Bettio’s choreography and producing all but indescribable vocals!  She was supported by soprano Vania Chan and dancer Jessica Mak with a rap number by Gregory Oh.  Playing over all of this were really rather striking videos and electronics designed by Alice.  It was a bit overwhelming really.  Maybe like being in the middle of an immersive video game and a very complex percussion piece at the same time.  Anyway, great fun and totally unexpected!

There’s another chance to catch this programme tonight at 8pm at the Aki Studio.

King Arthur recast

purcell-title-page-of-king-arthur-published-1694-king-arthur-o-r-the-K0R9NKLast night various bits of the early music side of the UoT Faculty of Music, plus guests, put on a performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Trinity St. Paul’s.  I’m pretty familiar with the piece from both audio and video recordings (though this was my first time live) but it was clear last night that most people really don’t know the work and I suspect that the way the work was presented was not especially helpful for them.

The program contains detailed notes by director Erik Thor about his thoughts on presenting a “problem piece” without really explaining why King Arthur is a problem or why he made the choices he made.  We are told it’s about conquest and erasure but not how and why it differs from what most people seem to expect when they see the title King Arthur.  In short, it’s a highly fictionalised version of the very old Welsh stories about the resistance of the (Christian) Britons to the (Pagan) Saxons.  Forget Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson, TE White and Monty Python.  Oddly, Merlin, perhaps the one character anyone would recognise, is cut here.  The work itself is also a bit incoherent largely because Dryden (the librettist) tried to recast what was originally a court spectacular to the glory of Charles II as something that would work in the theatre and pass the censorship under William and Mary!

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