Ian Cusson in the RBA

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”.

COC Free Concert Series - songs of Ian Cusson - 5Mar19-8634

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Quartet for the End of Time

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a work of astonishing power and unique provenance.  It was written after Messiaen’s capture in June 1940 at the POW camp Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz in what is now Poland.  First performed for POWs and guards in 1941 it is, most unusually, scored for piano, clarinet, cello and violin because that’s what the professional musicians among the POWs played.  What always strikes me about this work, familiar since my early teens, is how it combines Messiaen’s transcendent and deeply optimistic faith with a kind of passionate statement about the state of the world rooted in Revelations.  The contrasts are there throughout the work’s eight movements but nowhere more clearly than at the end when the power and even fury of Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes and the Fouillis des arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps dissolve into the lyrical serenity of Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus.  And, of course, there is birdsong in the haunting clarinet movement Abime des oiseaux.

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CD round up

My “to watch” pile now consists entirely of older productions of 19th century operas (pretty much the dregs of the Toronto Public Library collection) and the COC season doesn’t start for another six weeks or so. I have one other live performance booked before then; a rather peculiar Handel piece performed in various locations at a local hotel. I’ve been listening to some new CDs then at least partly as a form of procrastination.

The first two were part of an ENO “goody bag” that I scored on Twitter.  Songs of Muriel Herbert is a most worthwhile project.  Herbert, like so many women composers, has never had the recognition she deserves.  Not as “romantic” as a drug addled loon like Peter Warlock I guess.  The CD contains thirty six songs setting texts ranging from Peter Abelard to James Joyce.  I’d say they stand up well against other early twentieth century English art songs and would be well worth mining by anyone looking for some less well known recital repertory.  The works are most sympathetically performed by Ailish Tynan, James Gilchrist and David Owen Norris.  Continue reading