Two years ago when Harry Somers’ Louis Riel was revived in Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec there was considerable debate about the appropriation of a traditional Nsga’a morning song; the Kuyas. Basically in the culture the song comes from transmission and use of songs are regulated by the traditional owners. This particular music had been used to set the text of a lullabye that Riel’s wife sings to their child, originally without attribution. In 2017 the decision was made to use it again though not without consultation, debate and acknowledgement. See my comments about the issue on opening night here.
It’s fair to say that I don’t think anybody thought the status quo was really acceptable and a great deal of discussion has gone on leading to an announcement this morning that the music will be replaced in the opera by new music composed by Ian Cusson, who is of Métis and French-Canadian descent. The whole story; whats, whys and wherefores, is contained in the linked COC press release. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the right composer.
It was the last concert of Confluence’s inaugural season last night. The theme was “At the River” and the venue the rather splendid (if somewhat popish) St. Thomas’ Anglican on Huron Street. It rather epitomized what I have come to expect, and love, from this series. The musical styles on display were eclectic; classical, folk song, pop/rock, jazz with East and South Indian, Middle Eastern and Indigenous elements all well to the fore. There was also some poetry including an unintentionally hilarious piece in praise of the idyllic Don River. There was also a large and accomplished ensemble and a lot of joy and sheer fun.
Ian Cusson, soon to be composer in residence at the COC, is one of Canada’s most interesting composing talents. Yesterday we got to see both sides of his heritage; Métis and French-Canadian, displayed in a lunchtime concert in the RBA. The first piece up was Five Songs on Poems by Marilyn Dupont. I had heard some of these in a version for piano and voice before but this was the first time I had heard the whole piece in an arrangement for voice and piano quintet. Marion Newman was again the singer with the composer on piano and Amy Spurr, Sarah Wiebe, Emily Hiemstra and Alice Kim on strings. I really like this piece. I find Dumont’s spiky, bitterly ironic poems very thought provoking and moving (though clearly not designed to be sung). Cusson’s accompaniment is fascinating. My overall impression is that he doesn’t write notes that don’t need to be there. If the instrumental playing is sometimes dense, at others it’s sparse to non-existent. He’s especially restrained with the piano. There’s a lovely passage at the beginning of “Helen Betty Osborne” where the low strings create an atmosphere before the violins and then the voice come in. The vocal line is singable, just, which is in itself skilful given how difficult to set the words are. The performances were terrific by all concerned. Look at the words for yourself. At the end of this post I’ve reproduced the words of the first poem; “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald”.
There have been a series of interesting announcements about composers and commissions from the Canadian Opera Company recently. First is the announcement that Ian Cusson is to become composer-in-residence from August 2019. Cusson is part Métis and, readers may recall, featured as half of a memorable evening kicking off the new Confluence concert series in October. There’s an initial commission announced too. He will work with Colleen Murphy on a piece for “families and young people” that weaves elements of myth into a contemporary urban setting.
Last night’s Confluence concert in the intimate space of the Ernest Balmer Studio; Sovereignty Voiced, was a fascinating mix of material celebrating various aspects of Indigenous culture and its interplay with Western arts. Marion Newman and Ian Cusson performed excerpts from two of his song cycles; Five Orchestral Songs on Poems of Marilyn Dumont and A Breakfast for Barbarians. Marion also gave us a few of her own songs including the wicked Appropriation Aria and the Kinanu, which she wrote for her sister; given here with Marion on hand drum, Larry Beckwith on violin and Ian at the piano.
But this was much more than a concert of Indigenous themed art song, enjoyable though that part was. There was also singer and drummer Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone with some of her own songs and actor Cole Alvis with stories about discovering his Métis roots. Poet Armand Garnet Ruffo read from his poems inspired by the paintings of Norval Morrisseau.
If the rest of the Confluence series is this thought provoking it will be a notable addition to the Toronto music and arts scene.
The current Tapestry Briefs is one of the most satisfying I have attended. Briefs is the performance edition of the LibLab; an intense where composers collaborate with librettists to create new opera scenes. Some of these disappear and some go on to be the starting point for new operas. The current crop is strong. There were eleven scenes in the show; sung by various combinations of Teiya Kasahara, Stephanie Tritchew, Keith Klassen and Peter McGillivray with Jennifer Tung at the piano and other keyboards. As a bonus, at intervals Keith appeared to sing a parody of a famous aria describing the tasty little tapas which were offered around.
Voice of a Nation is a Métis inspired collection of works that has been touring Ontario as part of the Canada 150 thing. Last night the Toronto leg of the tour happened at Grace Toronto Church. There are three pieces in the program. Different Perspectives is a setting by Ian Cusson of a text synthesized from the sometimes surprising reactions of a group of young people asked “what Canada meant to them”. It was designed to be sung by community choirs on the tour and last night was given by three (uncredited) female singers accompanied by the thirteen player Toronto Concert Orchestra under Kerry Stratton.