Welcome to Art Song Canada, an online “magazine” to cover various aspects of the art song world.
By John Gilhooly, O.B.E
Artistic and Executive Director of Wigmore Hall
Since 2005, Wigmore Hall has expanded its song recital series from 42 recitals a year to just under 100 a year. The COVID-19 health crisis has silenced some of our song recitals this year, but since 13 September we have been open to a live public audience and live streaming online. It was a huge joy to welcome Dame Sarah Connolly with Malcom Martineau back to the Hall in September, and Gweneth Ann Rand’s performance of Messiaen’s Harawi, with Simon Lepper, was truly exceptional. It has been interesting to see how our live streaming has attracted a new and young online audience for the song recital. During concerts, online comments from the public are coming from a worldwide audience of every age and demographic. Wigmore Hall easily has the world’s biggest song recital programme in terms of sheer numbers, however it is heartening to know that song thrives outside London, in the Ludlow English Song Festival, Leeds Lieder and the Oxford Lieder Festival.
Some commentators insist that the song recital is living on borrowed time. They point to ageing audiences, patchy programming at leading concert venues, and the incompatibility of narrowing attention spans and deep listening to refined settings of poetic texts. Promoters do not always know the song repertoire or understand what it takes to bring song to life. They may not value song as highly as instrumental music or, if they do, believe that song recitals are a hard sell. There are clear challenges for song recital audiences around language, where a programme might easily contain songs in German, French, Spanish, Italian and English. These can present genuine barriers to people who want to understand what they are listening to without having to decode poetic texts in foreign languages or even in translation. But it is the promoter’s job to overcome and not dodge those challenges, to provide audiences with the highest quality experience of song and open minds to this vast imaginary world.
Song has been part of human life since early times. It remains central to every culture, civilisation and community, and holds the power to touch our deepest emotions, more a spiritual necessity than a garden variety of entertainment. Art song belongs to this vast legacy of expressive communication, combining words and music in ways that so often exceed the sum of their parts. As Chairman of the Song Prize for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, I am always reminded of the enormous value of this great tradition and of the pressing need to keep it alive and well for future generations of singers, song pianists and audiences.
Last-minute cancellations due to travel restrictions have enabled me to introduce new artists to the Hall in debut recitals: for instance, Elizabeth Llewellyn with Simon Lepper in a programme of Coleridge-Taylor, Strauss and Mahler; a significant debut for the German-Romanian baritone Konstantin Krimmel with Malcolm Martineau; and Ema Nikolovska, an outstanding Canadian YCAT and BBC New Generation Artist. These are people to watch.
I am now looking to post-pandemic times and how we can celebrate song with major festivals and themes. Next year’s programme will probably be confirmed on a month-by-month basis, and I don’t imagine huge thematic threads for song until 2021. But rest assured, Wigmore Hall will always remain the home of song.
Tunes Behind the Keys
By Rachel Fenlon, soprano and pianist
“I was only a folk singer for about two years…. By that time, it wasn’t really folk music anymore. It was some new American phenomenon. Later, they called it singer/songwriters. Or art songs, which I liked best. Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, … the word art has never lost its vitality.”
– Joni Mitchell
Sometimes I like to call art song the endangered species of classical music. No one wants to see it go extinct — it is beautiful and miraculous, yet keeping it alive feels like a mode of preservation. Its lack of fiscal power within the music industry has banished its relevance to the past: mummified, rather than relevant. For many years, as a lover of the hypnotic union of music and poetry that is art song, I watched with deep objection as exactly this happened: an increased institutionalisation of the art form, leaving it feeling outdated and stale, unable to evolve. And of course, the inevitable happened: I began to break traditions, and rules, to see, listen to, and experience the results.
I began accompanying myself and singing song recitals from the piano 5 years ago. I was already based in Berlin, and was doing an artist residency in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I was equal parts pianist and singer, always have been, and until that point I’d always felt that I could never entirely inhabit a musical space, for feeling I was leaving a part of myself behind. At this residency — breathing in salt-water air, the beckoning of timeless hours — came my first urge to sit and play my own accompaniment for a Schubert recital. From this moment, the rest is history. That performance was a revelation: I felt so free, so truly at home with the songs, despite not yet having a developed technique for self-accompanying, and not really knowing what I was doing.
The path thereafter was performing recital after recital with a total experimental attitude. Which repertoire worked, how did the audience react, what are the technical limitations and freedoms? For example, I had to address purely technical questions such as projecting text clearly from behind the grand piano — how to angle the piano to achieve this best, how much the audience wants eye contact with the singer (not as much as you’d think). I did art song young artist programmes with figures like Malcolm Martineau in Scotland and the Oxford Lieder festival as a singer and pianist, and was in both places the first ever to be invited as a self-accompanying singer. My idea was to get to the heart of the tradition, in order to break free from it. I began to commission composers, and perform contemporary music in every recital. More and more, I believe firmly that giving voice to the composers of our day is crucial to the vitality of this art form. I am excitedly awaiting four new song cycles currently being written for me to self-accompany. One cycle is being composed to my poetry, two are with electronics, two are written by Canadian composers.
Spontaneity is an operating word for me. It’s where I feel the spirit is free. Accompanying myself allows me to be very spontaneous with interpretation, and tempo, and I am very inspired by the singer/songwriter and folk singer approach to song. It has always felt very natural and unaffected, and that is what I’m striving for as a performer, especially of “classical” music. I perform everything from memory to further this freedom: from Schubert, Debussy, Britten cycles to modern songs of Crumb, Ligeti, Gubaidulina. The freedom of memory is an amazing place to inhabit, and I can enjoy spontaneity right up to the point of deciding to play a certain song instead of another on stage that night, and chatting with the audience about it — because, why not?! Spontaneity is intimate, risky, and vital, and it requires a relationship with the audience. Spontaneity allows the songs to take on their own lives, their own stories.
The quest for accompanying myself, questioning tradition and preconceived notions of what song should be, puts me in constant conversation with the music, in communication with text, sound, and spirit. I’m certainly not the only artist right now to traverse new paths of the art song, and I encourage all of us to question where the limitations of the genre serve us, and where they hold us back. That can only be done by breaking a few rules.
Berlin, November, 2020
A Postcard from London
By Iain Burnside, pianist
Ah, Covid. The gift that keeps on giving. As I write this in rainy London howls of pain are uniting the music community: how crap it is that most concerts are cancelled; how our Government, happy to receive our taxes, undervalues the arts, and freelancers in particular; how we miss the buzz of making music together; how we miss our mates.
Silver linings pale into insignificance in the face of such dark clouds, and yet glimmers of far-off silver do fall on us workers in the song mines. Our collaborative music-making defines social distancing – it’s the length of a grand piano. We personify Small Is Beautiful. While opera companies agonise trying to fit orchestras into pits, the song recital can sail serenely on. We also live, thank God, in the era of the portfolio career. How many singers and pianists do you know, living on concert work alone? So let’s hear it for teaching, coaching, writing, presenting, ducking and dodging. I recently went for a long dog walk (another silver lining) with an old conductor friend, who enjoys a flourishing international career. His problems put my own into sharp perspective. I nearly suggested that the music industry might now question its orchestra-centric pyramidal structure, with conductors at the pinnacle — but I thought better of it, and we walked on happily with our dogs.
Another socially distanced activity is recording. From the ashes of this season I was lucky enough to salvage three song CDs: two neglected mid 20th c. composers, one Scottish (Erik Chisholm), one Irish (Ina Boyle), and the rather less neglected Viennese composer Franz Schubert and his Winterreise. Covid cast its evil spell on the Chisholm sessions, two years in the planning. Our mezzo was travelling back from the Salzburg Festival. Four days before the recording, the UK Government slammed a quarantine ruling on Austria and boom! Bang went fourteen songs in often impenetrable Scottish dialect. The next silver lining appeared with the first manic phone call I made, to a Scottish soprano friend. Out of work actors say, my greatest asset is my availability. So the soprano in question was thrilled at the opportunity, turned up immaculately prepared and sang brilliantly. (Note to pianists, as mezzo morphs into soprano: you just never know when those transposition skills will come in handy.)
Winterreise posed a different Covid-accentuated problem: imposter syndrome. Lord, I am not worthy. A couple of days before those sessions I felt stale in the face of over-familiar piano parts, staring into the abyss of impossible beauty. I decided on some internet surfing, dipping into the kazillion existing recordings in the hope of epiphany. But that way madness lies. I unplugged and went back to the piano, determined to find my own way through.
I was reminded of that feeling last week at the Guildhall School, in rehearsal for a group student recital featuring tricky, off the beaten track repertoire. An aspiring baritone caught me off guard, enthusing that what he loved about this project was not being able to find recordings. It’s so liberating! What I decide to do is valid in its own right! Er, yes indeed. My challenge is to encourage them in the same direction, whatever they sing. Imposter syndrome alert!
Curses, challenges, the occasional silver lining. These are hard times for all of us, individually and together. I send my best to all my Canadian friends and colleagues. Stay healthy. Chins up. See you on the other side.
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By Françoise Sutton
Past President, Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation; Honorary Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
In June 1970, my husband, our 12-year-old son Philip and I arrived in the small, seafront town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. We had come to investigate the music festival which had been established there in 1948 by its native son, Benjamin Britten and his partner, Peter Pears. Stricken with jet lag, we headed out for a walk on the Crag Path amid a gale along the shingle beach to try to revive ourselves. Sea and sky were the same steel grey colour and we met not a soul. A world-famous festival, mid-June and nobody around? Then I noticed a man, alone with his dog by the lifeboat, looking at the sea. As we drew nearer, I thought “could that be…?” but dismissed the idea as a mirage due to lack of sleep. The man then suddenly turned back towards us and it was indeed Britten himself. We could not have hoped for a better welcome to Aldeburgh!
Our first event was a stunning performance of The Rape of Lucretia starring Janet Baker with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford. This took place in the Maltings Concert Hall (810 seats), a converted Victorian malt house. The red brick walls and the seats of blond wood and cane chairs combined to offer perfect acoustics.
The hall is situated 5 miles from Aldeburgh in the village of Snape, which later became also the site of the Britten-Pears School for Advanced for Musical Studies in 1972. Situated in the middle of a vast field of marshes and reeds, near the estuary of the River Alde, this peaceful setting is unique for audiences, performers and students alike.
For the next 20 years, the last 2 weeks of June were firmly reserved for the Aldeburgh Festival. We got to meet other regular visitors, artists and personalities involved in the running of the Festival. A great many concerts followed, including the first performance of Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice in 1973, with Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk in the major roles and conducted by Steuart Bedford. It got a triumphal reception which, alas, the composer missed due to failing health. The opera includes an important piano part, brilliantly played by Stephen Ralls, at the time the repetiteur of the English Opera Group. Little did we all know that, a few years later, Toronto would become his home and that, together with pianist Bruce Ubukata, they would start an outstanding recital series aptly named The Aldeburgh Connection. They both had been on the Faculty of the Britten-Pears School for many years.
The 1975 Festival was a turning point for our family. One day, out of the blue, the Treasurer of the festival handed me a large envelope with the instruction to look it over. To my stupefaction, it contained the Letters Patent of a new foundation named the Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation. That same day, I was asked to become its first president. The goals were to encourage cultural exchanges between Canada and the UK and, most of all, to provide financial assistance to talented young Canadian singers (and originally string players) enabling them to attend the summer masterclasses offered by the newly established Britten-Pears School.
In 1977 the first contingent of Canadian students (3 singers,1 pianist and a string quartet) landed in Aldeburgh. Over the following years, more than 340 young musicians followed, eager for the rare opportunity of concentrated study with the great names of the music world: Souzay, Schwarzkopf, Hotter, Ameling, Vishnevskaya, Johnson and, of course, Peter Pears himself who taught a Bach course right up to the day before he died, in April 1986. Rostropovich came to coach and conduct Onegin and Murray Perahia did the same for Così fan tutte. In the cast, a Canadian student named Gerald Finley sang Guglielmo.
Forty years on, after the deaths of both Britten and Pears, many changes inevitably occurred. The CAF was particularly affected when the School decided to cover tuition, as well as travel and living expenses for the students. We then decided to recast ourselves as The Art Song Foundation of Canada focusing on singers and collaborative pianists accepted to any song programme of their choice worldwide. As such, our work continues.
The last words belong to one student: “For me, the richest musical experience I have had to date. The word ‘magical’ comes to mind”.
It was a great privilege to have been a small part of it.
Song is a Fragile Genre
By Martin Katz, pianist
Professor of Music, University of Michigan
I write in response to an article in Art Song Canada’s recent issue by my esteemed colleague, Graham Johnson. There certainly is no one more knowledgeable or passionate about the world of song than he. His name has become synonymous with historical detail, with sound advice about program planning, and fascinating anecdotes about poets, composers, singers and their pianist partners. If Google were exclusively about art song, it would surely be called Graham.com.
All that being said, I find I must disagree with some of the points he makes in the aforesaid article. Yes, song is a fragile genre much of the time, but at the moment — at least in North America — the art song recital is dangerously close to requiring resuscitation. Our concert halls are too big; only celebrated singers can fill them, and too often these are singers with international operatic careers but lacking experience and identification with the more modest gestures which songs require. And Graham is correct: few people spend time with poetry these days. The concentration “muscle” of today’s public is not being exercised; we are so bombarded with stimuli that the notion of watching two performers standing still for the better part of two hours has become almost inconceivable.
But are we prepared to allow the experience of a song recital to die? I, for one, do not want it on my tombstone that I aided its becoming extinct by doing nothing. The question is: what is appropriate and beneficial? How far is too far? When is the genre no longer recognizable? I remember a recital featuring Mussourgsky’s Nursery cycle where the singer (in a long gown) straddled a broom and galloped around the stage for the hobby-horse song. I think Graham and I would be in agreement that such behavior overwhelms the song and presumes that the composer and poet have not done an adequate job, and is therefore completely unacceptable.
For me, the texts in a recital are no less important than the music they inspired, perhaps even more important sometimes. Graham does not discuss the fact that modern audiences are not polyglots, nor that advocating the study of the texts in advance is a lost cause. He writes of the pianist becoming invisible as the activities on the stage increase, but I wonder if that is the worst of the results when a concert becomes a “show” (Graham’s term). For most of my five decades of performing, I was unaware of any obstacle to the communication my partners and I were offering the audience. We were making good music, the texts were being pronounced correctly and delivered expressively. I shared Graham’s opinion about adding surtitles to the experience. I was convinced that the experience would lose its identity, that the Art would be diluted. I argued long and loudly against the texts being displayed.
Along came a series of song concerts where the auspices convinced me to at least try surtitles once. I find it difficult to articulate here the amazing change in the atmosphere, the palpable connection between stage and public that I experienced. The energy flowing back and forth was something I had never felt, and as I said, this was after hundreds of concerts all over the world. My conversion was immediate and complete. The genre was not ruined, corrupted, nor diminished in any way. Quite the opposite, actually. I did not feel I had become an invisible pianist, and many post-concert comments I received confirmed this. The singers expressed pleasure in seeing the audience’s faces, rather than the tops of their heads as they read the printed texts.
Most important is the idea that art song is the marriage of music and text. If the audience does not understand the poem, line by line in real time, that marriage is incomplete. As a result of my recent experiences with surtitles, I am now a firm believer that a contemporary audience is more in touch with this wonderful fusion of words and music with the addition of these visible translations. The price of not understanding the words far exceeds the small distraction of a screen over the singer’s head.
Der Jüngling an der Quelle
By Steven Philcox, pianist
Head of Collaborative Piano Studies, University of Toronto Faculty of Music; Co-Artistic Director, Canadian Art Song Project; Director, Toronto Summer Music Art Song Program
In my heart of hearts, I am a singer. My most vivid childhood memories are underscored with music, and song in particular. Whether the lullabies sung by my grandmother, songs sung in grade-school music circles, or the classic country ballads that seemed to ceaselessly emanate from our stereo, the enchantment of words and music took hold of me at a very early age and has never let me go.
I had always expressed a certain envy of the children in our neighbourhood who took piano lessons. Unfortunately, we didn’t own a piano nor did we have the means to purchase one. At the age of ten, I returned from school to find a piano sitting in our living room. A distant relative had passed away and the piano needed a new home. My uncle, an amateur pianist himself, helped haul the piano from northern BC to our place in Penticton. It was a low-back upright, a little worse for wear, but she had 88 working keys and two pedals. I was beside myself as my uncle spent the better part of that afternoon teaching me the 1945 classic Sentimental Journey (Homer, Brown and Green). Imagine the thrill. Within hours I was playing what felt and sounded like music. I was on cloud nine (not to mention singing!). I was enrolled in piano lessons immediately, I think mostly to stop me from playing this incessant tune which for those around me had become a little less than sentimental.
I was introduced to Art Song through our annual Kiwanis Music Festival — a rite of passage for most young Canadian musicians. When I was sixteen, I was paired with a young soprano to play for her classes. She had a crippling stutter in spoken interactions but sang with one of the most fluid and luminous sounds I’d ever heard (made all the more expressive by a soul set free from the bondage of its spoken counterpart). For the first time I became aware of music’s power to heal. I understood that playing for her was an extraordinary experience, one that would change me forever and plant the seed of my love for the human voice.
Upon graduation I was unsure about my future direction. I adored music but also had a passion for mathematics and debate. I needed time to reflect and get away from small town living. I needed to see the world…
And so, I lived as an exchange student for one year in Naga City, Philippines. I experienced unforgettable things: earthquakes, erupting volcanos, unspeakable poverty, unfathomable wealth, civil rebellion, cultural celebrations, and through it all a resilient people with very deep musical roots. Folksong, pop music, and dance were part of my daily life, and in the evening, karaoke was king! I played regularly, learning the songs we were singing socially, lifting music from the radio, immersing myself in the music around me. Song became the language that connected me with the people and my surroundings, the thread that tied everything together. At the end of my year I was sure of two things: a) I was changed, and b) I wanted to pursue music.
The title of this article is borrowed from the poem by Salis-Seewis, set so beautifully by Schubert when he was 20. As I look back on these formative years, I see that I was very much the youth at the spring, constantly renewed and guided by music and song. How incredible then, on that fateful day a piano arrived in our home, that the name engraved above middle C in ornate gold script would be…
Seeking an Old Truth
By Monica Whicher, soprano
Head of Voice Studies, University of Toronto Faculty of Music; Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
I originally wrote this piece in February, well before we found ourselves in this current state of isolation and uncertainty. My thought was to encourage support of Song, and of all who convey and generate this wonderful art form. My thought was to nudge us all towards experiencing the remarkably rich assortment of song recitals available to us, thanks to professionals and, especially, I wrote, thanks to student performers and composers:
“Song — reports of its demise notwithstanding — is everywhere. Scour, for example the Wholenote or La Scena magazines and you will see recital listings featuring established and up-and-coming artists in mainstream and unique venues. Go! You will see that well-known and emerging composers are presenting their most recent commissioned works. Go! Go! But where you can really take heart is with the young musicians who are creating — because they can and they must — new Songs, even as I sit here typing. Look at your local university Concert Calendars and you will be amazed. Go! Go! Go!”
Reading that paragraph now, I feel I have passed through a portal, leaving a whole world of expectation and excitement and experience behind. As we all know, just now there is no going to anything. Reading those words of encouragement, I feel almost foolishly naïve. Suddenly, there are no performances to attend. For the seasoned artists and for those starting out; for the listeners, for proud parents of young recitalists, for partners and teachers; for all of us, this loss of shared music — of so many songs — is like a blow to our collective being.
As we simply try to stay well and safe, to feed our families, to thrive in whatever ways we can, it is hard to imagine a return to the musical worlds we have inhabited, and have very often taken for granted. So, unmoored, I am searching for old truths — for the musical memories that might steady me.
I am remembering the comfort of being sung to. I am remembering working hard to play a tricky passage in “Parade of the Giants”. I am remembering the magic of church music.
I am remembering one particular song, something I used to sing as child with my friend Christina; every visit found us, side-by-side on the piano bench and happy as clams, singing and playing “With a Smile and a Song”, often recording ourselves on a portable cassette player for posterity.
I am remembering the first time I heard Robert Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht” (my mom was singing it) and Gerald Finzi’s “To Lizbie Brown” (my dad was singing it); when all might not have been exactly right in my world, these songs overtook my teenaged heart the same way James Taylor’s ballad, “If I Keep My Heart Out of Sight” — the background music to many a doleful evening — always managed to do.
I am remembering my years at the University of Toronto, surrounded by songs and the friends who were singing and playing them. Our teachers, each in a different way, guided us to meet this music’s challenge, honour its beauty and expose its stories; ultimately, this process revealed everything about a relationship with music. Did I ask, then, as I struggled to become myself, “Is song relevant? Is music relevant?” No, I certainly did not. I simply sang and played and knew it to be so. I think we all did.
Now, in the midst of this changed world, I feel forced into asking myself that very question. I ask it because now, more than ever, I need the answer to be yes, and yes for everyone, musician or not. In this uncertain pause, when those of us who are often noisy together are forced to be noisy (or quiet) alone, it emerges ever-more-clearly that music is the thing which brings solace and inspiration and comfort to a world in isolation, a world of music-makers and, so importantly, music-receivers.
Remote voices and instruments are miraculously converging to generate music for hungry listeners; countless songs have been offered for countless online listeners — songs that provide meaning, or a laugh, or express political disgust; songs that meet us where we are and challenge us to discover more; songs that are old treasures or new friends; songs that make us cry because they are so alive with possibility… songs that feed us.
And there is the old truth: because it provides nourishment and hope, music is relevant — before and after this unprecedented moment in time.
For sustenance and solace and inspiration and companionship, we must look for this truth wherever we can presently find it. And then, when it’s time again, look for it out in the world, where all of us will have returned to what we hold dear — the collaborative ritual of singing and playing and striving and listening. And with particular joy, we will witness those young musicians exploring their old truths — and, finally, sharing — because they can and they must — their brand new songs.
Live Arts in 2020: The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre Free Concert Series — Past, Present, and Future
By Liz Upchurch, pianist
Head of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio
As I write this article from self-isolation, arts venues across the globe are closed with the regrettable words “cancelled until further notice due to COVID 19”. I wanted to find a way to celebrate live arts rather than grieve the lack of them. I cannot think of a better way to do this than to describe one of the greatest live performance phenomena of the last decade. That is the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre Free Concert Series. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the venue it is a breathtaking space that is part of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. It is nestled, fittingly, in the heart of downtown Toronto.
It is the home of a huge and remarkable free concert series that reflects the thriving and diverse community that surrounds it. It is the largest free concert series in Canada, with over 70 concerts a year.
It has provided a showcase for the COC’s Ensemble Studio recitals. This has given our young opera singers and pianists the exceptional opportunity to make chamber music and connect with an audience in an intimate setting. Performing there is now a big component of their training and one close to my heart. It is through my capacity as Head of Ensemble Studio that I have had the privilege to programme countless concerts as well as being involved as a performer and educator.
A few months before the building opened, Nina Draganic (the first director of programming for the series) asked me “what would you like to do and how many concerts would you like to participate in?’ I knew I wanted to frame the Studio concerts with “meet the artists” and then bid a fond farewell to those graduating with their “les adieux”. This arc has remained. The rest of the recitals encompass a huge variety of repertoire, principally art song, as well as chamber music with members of the COC Orchestra and Academy.
However, it is not just the Ensemble that fills up the vocal series. The series also highlights other Canadian vocal talent, including Ensemble alumni. In addition, artists from the casts of the COC season volunteer to give a recital during a run of their performances. Featured in the picture below is the British soprano Sue Bullock performing in the 1000th concert last year. Sue had opened the FSC with the Ring in 2006, the same year that I played the very first concert in the RBA. Celebrating this milestone was monumental.
I wonder if Richard Bradshaw (director general, music director and visionary of the COC ) and Jack Diamond (architect of the Four Seasons Centre) had any idea what a legacy they had left us. Since 2006 we have had: 1,081 concerts in total, 198,084 audience members, 6,657 artistic appearances and 52 world premieres.
Richard Bradshaw died in 2007 one year after the FSC was built. This article is a thank you to all the sponsors, artists, administrators, volunteers and audiences who help to keep music live everywhere. We all eagerly await the time when arts organizations everywhere will once again be able to open their doors.
The Vocal Arts & British Columbia’s Coast Recital Society
By Frances Heinsheimer Wainwright
Artistic Director of the Coast Recital Society, Sechelt, British Columbia
The Coast Recital Society is a classical music concert society located on British Columbia’s beautiful Sunshine Coast. How does a small, classical music concert organization thrive in a small BC community accessible only by ferry? The roster of outstanding performers over the years is surely part of the formula, as is our committed and loyal audience. The vocal arts have long occupied a significant place in our programming, with a wide range of repertoire – from Purcell and Schubert to Butterworth and Mussorgsky.
A New York native, I was truly fortunate in my early twenties to work at the “old” Metropolitan Opera House on 39th street in Manhattan. Night after night I heard unforgettable, great singers: Price, Rysanek; Callas; Gobbi; Vickers, London, Corelli, Schwarzkopf; Nilsson, to name but a few. Moving the clock forward, I moved to Canada in 1967, and began a 30 year career as a music producer for the English network at CBC Montreal. In 1997 came retirement and the move to the small community of Sechelt, BC.
The vocal arts are well represented in our concerts, with an impressive roster of singers and collaborative pianists: Karina Gauvin with Rena Sharon; Suzie Leblanc with Robert Kortgaard; Russell Braun with Carolyn Maule; Christianne Stotijn with Josef Breinl; Isabel Bayrakdarian and Serouj Kradjian; Richard Margison with Kinza Tyrell; Danill Shtoda and Larissa Gergieva; Susan Platts with Rena Sharon; Tyler Duncan with Erika Switzer; Philippe Sly with Michael McMahon; Patricia Hammond with Robert & Ellen Silverman; and only one (most regrettable cancellation): the lovely Layla Claire. Repertoire is varied and frequently a journey of discovery for our audience: from Schumann, Grieg, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, to Glinka, Balakirov, Viardot, Duparc and Raminsh.
Concerts take place in Sechelt’s Raven’s Cry Theatre, a 276 seat multi-purpose theatre that serves as an excellent concert space. We own a fine, reconditioned 9 foot Steinway concert grand most suitable to vocal recitals. Concerts are preceded by pre-concert chats, with commentary about repertoire, and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions about the music and the musicians. The 6 concert subscription series is sold out annually, with a significant waiting list.
Our audience consists of music lovers with a long history of concert attendance, many of whom have moved to the Sunshine Coast to escape those brutal Canadians winters. Yet, more than a few members of our committed audience are newcomers to the classical music concert setting. The CRS series is extended through our CRS Artists in the Community program, bringing our artists to eldercare homes and schools. Looking toward the musical future of our youth, we offer scholarships for local students, school concerts, and master classes by the wonderful CRS artists.
In our increasingly intrusive cyber world, our concerts connect music lovers who value the importance of live performances. The Coast Recital Society is living proof that a significant audience for classical music in all forms, — and vocal music in particular — exists not only in major centres, but in small communities as well.
Since everyone is spending more time at home than usual, we thought we’d let our subscribers know about a wonderful new online video series from Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. Here is a link to her ‘Some Thoughts on the Heart of Art Song’.
Das Kind und das Badewasser
By Graham Johnson, O.B.E., pianist
The title is not that of a forgotten Schubert song, although I admit to having thought of Der Vater mit dem Kind D906, and of the father in Erlkönig who tries in vain to protect his child. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is a hazard faced by all those whose admirable enthusiasm for enhancing and rejuvenating song performance leads them to forget what makes song unique in the first place.
There is a limit to human concentration and the lied, at its multum-in-parvo best, was designed to stretch listeners’ brains and ears to the limit. There is little room for distraction. As the singer stands next to the piano, the interaction between voice and accompaniment is like the enmeshing of delicate gears, each cog in this complicated loom having been oiled by countless hours of work, first on the part of the composer and then by the performers. This interaction, singer and pianist weaving between them a very special magic, takes a lot of listening to appreciate, (one gets slowly better at listening, just as one gets better at playing).
But there now seems to be a determination to “help” the cause by inventing as many distractions as possible: lighting, sets, dancing, costumes, back-projections and intrusive surtitles that seem, at a distance, to be bigger than the singer’s face. The twentieth century employs technology foreign to the nineteenth in order to make the song experience more palatable. In these troubled times, listening to anything in more than one dimension seems an impossible ask. A sad by-product of this is that it lets young performers off the hook in searching for ever greater depth and subtlety in their own performances.
Art song is very vulnerable; its import can very easily be unwittingly destroyed with the best of motives – and what often gets lost is the close interaction between voice and piano. Putting on an ersatz musical or a fake opera using songs can be mildly diverting, but it is forcing square pegs in round holes. The verdict will inevitably be that Schubert & Mayrhofer are not as captivating as Rogers & Hammerstein. Even talented theatrical producers able to bring off a cleverly-wrought song evening, as well as those choreographing songs into ballets, have seldom, in my experience, been remotely interested (I can think of one exception) in listening to two people, standing side by side, making music on an otherwise empty stage.
The hidden drawback in such song “shows” is always the lack of pianistic presence and equality. For all the pianistic detail (or lack of it) that the audience can actually hear, there is so much else going on that listeners simply don’t have the bandwidth to take it in: the pianist might as well be a worthy repetiteur at a Sitzprobe, or a continuo player in the pit. One also requires a certain stillness in order to be able to concentrate, whether as performer or listener. In the end these new solutions will not make enduring friends for the medium because they give the listener no opportunity to experience the form as it can be at its sublime best, and where an equal amount of attention is paid to both artists. Remember that in most art songs it was the composer himself who first played the accompaniments.
Imagine the unimaginable: a modernizer seeking to broaden interest in the ancient Noh drama in Japan and saying “Well, those masks are great but they don’t communicate with people. Why not get rid of the masks? The whole thing is so slow, let’s speed it up a bit! And it doesn’t have to be so long, does it?” In the end you will have something that is no longer anything like the Noh drama, no longer of interest to the real enthusiasts while failing to grab the passing market for those looking for a merry night out. Go to the Kabuki instead! The Japanese are a remarkably clean nation, but in this instance I doubt whether they would entertain throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Speaking up for tradition is a tough call in a world of faint fame and dwindling finances; no one can deny that art song is hard to sell to a public less and less interested in poetry. It is an art form that celebrates the education and refinement of the library rather than the raw and timeless theatrical appeal of the stage. You can deny and fight this notion, sometimes very ingeniously, but given the actual material at our disposal, superbly geared to its original (mainly nineteenth-century) purpose, it is a losing battle. Art song was a Cinderella from the beginning, as it was in Schubert’s own time, and will remain so, whatever we do.
This is not, however, to shrug and accept that Cinderella will never go the ball. My whole life has been spent in fighting for song. Over the last forty-five years I have put my mind to the making of hundreds of multi-singer programmes and anthologies that can somehow draw the audience into what songs mean and how they relate to a wide range of themes, including the lives of the composers and poets. The song repertoire is a vast and complex cultural treasury, and there is huge scope for delightful enterprise in its presentation and performance. But we should never forget the true miracle of song: one singer without a microphone, one piano without plugs attached to it, no costumes, no theatrical lighting, the evoking of magic in the imaginative hands of singer and pianist whose conjuring deserves to be, must be, unimpeded by competitive attention-seeking side-shows.
Programme planners! Place individual songs in whatever context you like, stun us with new repertoire artfully juxtaposed, juggle the sequences, interpolate spoken material, employ actor-collaborators, create an atmosphere that is quasi-theatrical if you must. I’ve done all these things, and more. But at the moment the song is actually being performed. the entire focus must be on its duality, the pianist playing a major and equal role, the singer concentrating on communing with her partner, a dialogue where each inflection of music and poem matters, and is heard to matter.
If not, you might as well rinse your oily broad brush of show-business in the same bathtub in which you have attempted to wash your baby. You have certainly meant no harm to the vulnerable infant; it is a real shame that the apple of your eye, now doused with a colourful coat of paint (that does little to enhance the delicacy of its complexion), has disappeared down the plug hole. Call the plumber. The next time the child is spruced up for a public appearance, keep a sharper eye on its welfare; remove it carefully from the tub. And even if you decide to throw out the water it is your responsibility to keep the baby, the heartbeat of our profession, safe from harm.
And one final thought: this precious child, in a fitting reflection of the twin roles of composer and poet, is not from a single parent family – sorry singers, the pianist is equally responsible.
Lieder at Lunch
By Harald Krebs, Ph.D., pianist
Professor, University of Victoria
In 2001, Sharon and I, eager to share our passion for the Lied with students, colleagues, and interested folks from the town, started a series of 45-minute noon-hour Lied recitals at the University of Victoria. We give three to four recitals during the academic year. Admission is free, and attendees may bring their lunch. We provide informative and entertaining commentary, and a PowerPoint presentation showing texts (in German and English) and images. We perform some familiar repertoire, but our primary mandate is to surprise our audience with little-known songs, including songs by women. Occasionally, we repeat our shows at senior residences, schools, and academic conferences.
We start each season with a recital titled “Unterwegs” (On the Road), in which we recount our Lied-related travels and perform relevant repertoire. We travel to Germany and Austria each year to do research (on Lieder!) in libraries in archives, and of course take in any available Lied recitals, master classes, and competitions. We also frequently give conference talks and guest lectures on the Lied. It is therefore no problem to fill a recital with songs that we found, studied, performed, or heard while on the road.
Whereas “Unterwegs” is, inevitably, a mixed bag, our other recitals focus on a particular topic or composer. Some recitals that we particularly enjoyed putting together are: “Bug Songs” (an insect in every song—and lots of buzzing around in the piano parts!); “Stormy Weather” (another tough one for me as pianist); “Fish Special” (two menu items were Mahler’s “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes” and “Rheinlegendchen”); “Cuckoo Songs” (again, Mahler yielded some great ones); and “Mom and Pop Songs” (we included one French song—Poulenc’s “Nous voulons une petite sœur”, in which only mom is specifically mentioned, but the presence of pop can be inferred from the size of the family!).
Composers on whom we have focused include Hanns Eisler (whose distinctive Lieder are sadly neglected in Canada); Johannes Brahms (only a fraction of his song output is regularly performed); Josephine Lang (1815–80 — we call her “our” composer because we wrote a book about her); Fanny Hensel; and Clara Schumann (we celebrated her 200th birthday with a party to which we “invited” some of her friends, all of them represented by a song that they composed or that they performed with Clara).
It is an immense amount of work to create these recitals. Learning the repertoire occupies some time, of course, but Sharon spends even more hours crafting stunningly beautiful PowerPoint presentations, and we both work hard on honing the commentary.
Our audiences like the format and the content of our recitals, and keep coming back for more. Recently, after a rehearsal in a church where we were performing a few days later, a woman who was working there said, “I don’t actually like Leider [sic], but maybe I’ll come to your concert.” She did come, and she changed her tune after our recital: “I’ll never again say that I don’t like Lieder!” We won her over — and she even knows how to pronounce the word now!
Art Song Report from British Columbia
By Robyn Driedger-Klassen, soprano
Head of Voice, Vancouver Academy of Music
Suzie LeBlanc and Dorothée Mields were featured in a concert celebrating the 400th anniversary of 17th century composer, Barbara Strozzi. They were joined earlier in the week by Alex Potter and Samuel Boden in a performance titled Song of Songs, music by Palestrina, Monteverdi and more. There was also a standout performance of Handel’s early cantatas with Amanda Forsythe.
The 2019 Fall season in Vancouver was marked with numerous exciting performances of Art Song. Music in the Morning presented Dichterliebe with Russell Braun and Carolyn Maule. The always innovative series, Music On Main, presented Iestyn Davies with Fretwork in Music After a While which juxtaposes the music of Henry Purcell with the contemporary, minimalist works of English composer, Michael Nyman. Also in October, Sandra Radvanovksy appeared in a special benefit recital for the UBC Opera which was followed the next day by a masterclass. Finally, the Vancouver Recital Society opens its season on November 17th with a recital given by Measha Brueggergosman and Justus Zeyen.
Looking ahead to April 1st, the Vancouver Academy of Music hosts the city’s first SongSLAM. This unique event gives composer and performer teams the opportunity to premiere new art song and compete for audience prizes. For more information visit: http://www.sparksandwirycries.org/songslam
Probing the Seams
By Catherine Robbin, O.C., mezzo-soprano
Professor Emeritus, York University; President of the Art Song Foundation of Canada
I recently read a novel by Sebastian Faulks called A Possible Life. Perhaps some of you have read it, too. It raises some very interesting possibilities about human consciousness and human connection. How connected are we, really, to other individuals, generations and cultures? To what extent are we all living a shared life, taking part in one universal story? It got me thinking about how these questions might relate to the art of song. Do we, could we, tap into these possible connections every time we step on the recital stage?
Our art form offers us access to some of the greatest poetry in a number of languages from writers of many generations before our own as well as that of our contemporary poets. These writings, these resonant thoughts have been set to music by some of the world’s finest composers. How many hearts and minds and throats and ears have these songs passed through over all these years, and still when we gather and share them every one of those people is inside of us. We still respond to the same emotions, fears, anxieties and joys. The style of the music and the poetry changes, but the urge to share it does not.
Every song begins with a breath. The quality of that breath is everything. It indicates that something of ourselves is about to be shared. The manner of taking a breath can indicate a wealth of life messages. Each phrase of a song must be anticipated, not just technically, but emotionally. We’ve all heard the maxim: think — breathe — sing. We have the thought, then we breathe and immediately we turn that breath into speech, a living thing, moving breath until there is silence, with no break at all where something is not being said. That is what my teacher, Diane Forlano used to say, and that is how you grab the audience by their shirt fronts and tell each one of them, “I have something to say, and you want to listen.” Our breathing and the way we use it as singers, is one of our most valuable tools for communication. As the inhalation initiates the communication of a thought, the exhalation completes all the nuance and energy of its message.
In the singing of songs, we want to be able to share our vitality, our life force. In singing we are using both sides of the brain simultaneously, both in a physical act and an intellectual coordination. What could be more human than that? What defines our humanity? Is it our superior intellect, our self-reflective abilities? Certainly, it includes our knowledge of our own mortality, which does distinguish us from other animals. How much of our human thought is engendered by that knowledge alone — not just our fears, anxieties and loves, but even our humour!
Our goal is to make the song inhabitable by both the singer and the listener by our honesty and openness to the music and the poetry. With that achieved, we truly can begin to probe the seams between us.
New Art Song Composers’ Recommended Checklist
By John Greer, composer
(with thanks to Richard Hundley)
1.) Delve deeply into the world of singers and singing. Join a choral group. Engage the singers you most admire in discussion and conversation. Pianists, accompany singers both in and out of the vocal studio, soaking up all of the vast store of accumulated wisdom of master voice teachers you can. Learn the subtle peculiarities of every tessitura (strengths, challenges, endurance) the similarities and differences of every vocal fach. Discover the importance of transposition to the singer, even by as little as a semitone — something unknown to the routine of the instrumentalist. Learn and observe the particular rules of lyric diction in whatever language(s) you choose to set.
2.) Develop a curiosity for folksong and popular song. There are important reasons that songs capture the popular imagination and ear without music notation. The great song composers knew/know of this wealth of literature and were/are able to channel it when necessary. If you think writing a strophic song is easier than a through-composed one, try it sometime! The complex art of writing one single vocal line that fits numerous strophes of a narrative text like a glove is largely a lost one. Setting folk song for performance on the formal recital stage is a valuable creative service, putting its practitioners in the distinguished company of greats such as Brahms, Mahler, Cantaloube, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Copland and Benjamin Britten
3.) Choose you song text carefully. Text can be anything: old or new (with sometimes complex copyright considerations!), light or weighty, literary or vernacular, short or long but, regardless of the language one is writing in, a lyric text should be one that is intended to be recited or declaimed, not pondered on the page. A universally successful song text is understandable in a single hearing. Study your text in full detail before you even begin to think about musical setting. Translate or research all words in the text that may be unfamiliar to you. Memorizing your text before you set it (an easy and pleasant task with most short, single-song texts) can only make composing more fluid and effective. Speak and repeat each line to discover which words phrases need to remain together, then ensure that you don’t break these up in your musical setting in a way that will make fluid communication/comprehension a more difficult task for your singer/listener. Some composers want to explore creating their own song texts. Historically the vast majority of the world’s most beloved song is the result of a poet/composer collaboration excluding theatre geniuses the likes of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. Speaking of the latter, one of the best and most eloquent examinations and verbalizations of the creative process of the lyricist is Sondheim’s two-volume collection of complete lyrics Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. I cannot recommend them too highly.
4.) If writing a song cycle, observe the wise advice of Francis Poulenc: contrast each song in a cycle from its neighbours as much as possible. (Experienced performers already know to do this when constructing their own song groups so as to best represent the composer’s creative range.)
This learning curve may seem steep but hopefully the rewards will be proportionately great. Thank you for taking up the torch. Best wishes and happy composing!
American Art Song: A Genre in Transition
By Martha Guth, soprano
Co-Director and Co-Founder, Sparks & Wiry Cries; Assistant Prof. of Voice, Ithaca College; Faculty, SongFest
From the vantage point of someone who has spent her life performing, producing, and commissioning song, as far as the amount of music is concerned, American art song is entering a renaissance. The composers are many and prolific, and they are being commissioned. The texts are enthralling and generally of the ‘now’. Small organizations are proliferating and there are some genuine attempts to add seats to the ever-growing table of composers and performers. Organizations are also trying new venues with different ideas about etiquette and social behaviour. While all of these things are worthy and important, the audience, with few exceptions remains small.
Art song is the only genre in classical music that wasn’t 100% birthed by the church or the nobility, making it somewhat unique in classical music. Though there were rich patrons a-plenty, art song was meant to be performed in the home, where within, secrets clothed in metaphor were spilled in the secluded living rooms of artists and family. Evenings were about collaboration, communion, and a soul’s recognition of our collective humanity. A place in which poetry, that most solitary recreation, could be appreciated and turned outward through conversation and performance.
But while stories of loss, longing, love, and death are universal and can be appreciated by all, there is a problem with telling these same ones over and over on their own. Why should the ‘Miller’ immediately resonate with women, people of color, and those of us from different socioeconomic backgrounds other than highly privileged? Does it make a difference that one can explain or update them, showing how all are alike so that “anyone” can appreciate them? Is the solution to stop telling the stories of Schubert or Fauré or Apollinaire or Goethe? Perhaps not. Instead, equal room must be made so that those with different perspectives and backgrounds may be the storytellers, if more people are to join us in the concert hall as audience. For a century we have failed to find a living definition for American art song, closed off as we have been to real change, and attached to programming as if in a cultural reenactment. Classical music as a whole suffers this issue, beginning with how we define ourselves. The very words ‘Classical musician’ lets the public know in a not so secret code who we are referencing with every breath. However, we do have an opportunity here. Art song is a nimble art, and the possibility for change can be almost immediate because of the ease of production and a format that need not favor one culture over another. Since the music is texted and each piece is relatively short, the stories can be specific, and an evening can be both expansive and deep. Let the poets, composers, performers, and the producers be a better reflection of the broader public, and let us take advantage of the format of the Schubertiade to invite a wider array of ‘Song-Makers’ (continuing and acknowledging the debt we owe to the great Graham Johnson who started this conversation with his brilliant programming). Those teams of artists will each bring their following, allowing this beloved art form to flourish, grow, change, and multiply. Then the floodgates can open to a true renaissance, where interest grows because the music is an accurate reflection of the population.
Listen to the Aldeburgh Connection!
By Stephen Ralls, C.M., and Bruce Ubukata, C.M., pianists
Directors of the Art Song Foundation of Canada
In July 1977, two pianists, one Canadian and the other English, met at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh, England. Just over a year later, the Englishman emigrated to Toronto and has lived there ever since. Looking back after all these years, the partnership of Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Ralls began remarkably expeditiously. Stephen began work as a coach in the Opera School at the University of Toronto and he and Bruce continued their careers in the art song world that they both loved. A major step was the creation in 1982 of the Aldeburgh Connection.
During 32 seasons, we engaged more than 250 Canadian singers, from the newly launched to the most established and distinguished — many leading soloists gave their first public recital appearances with us. Usually, we presented a number of singers at a time in a concert centred around a specific theme, with carefully prepared narration linking the songs. Bearing in mind where we came from, it was inevitable that there should be a certain attachment to the music of Benjamin Britten; but, again following Aldeburgh’s lead, the largest number of songs by any one composer which we performed were those of Schubert — notably in our annual “Greta Kraus Schubertiads”, presented in honour of our beloved mentor and friend.
Our concert career climaxed in 2013 with a Britten Festival of Song. Immediately, we rolled up our sleeves and began organizing our vast archive. Piles of large manilla envelopes, one for each concert, were hauled out of our basement; we are indebted to Massey College for the use of two library carrels where we could sort our papers. Forty boxes are now deposited and will be available for consultation in the University of Toronto’s Music Library. At the same time, we created an online archive which holds a great deal of information — the accumulated legacy of more than three decades “Celebrating the Art of Song” (as our motto puts it).
Our site is easy to access; just go to www.aldeburghconnection.org and click on “Archives”. Here you will find details of all our concerts since February 1982 in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario, across Canada and in the USA and the UK. Search by title, date, artist, song, composer or poet. Look at the house programme, with complete notes, from the day of the concert and, finally, browse the large selection of recordings of about a quarter of more than 300 concerts. Again, it’s easy to listen to these. On the Archives page, go to “Concert Recordings”, then click on the concert you want to hear. The “Listen” button will give you a SoundCloud column of items, including any spoken material; you can go to an individual piece or, indeed, listen to the concert straight through.
We are sure that this internet resource will be of great benefit to singers, students, teachers and audience members alike. Happy researching — and do spread the word!
What does it mean to make contemporary song accessible to audiences?
Education, Diversification, and Presentation.
By Ally Smither, soprano
As someone who sings a lot of contemporary music, and as a visible minority in the classical music world, I am often asked about issues of accessibility and diversity. When thinking about these topics, I often begin by focusing my thought processes through an empathetic lens: who are the people in my concert hall? Who are the people that I wish were present, but are not? How do they or how would they feel about the art I am presenting? Would it foster closeness? Joy? Best of all, would they leave my concert feeling understood, inspired by, and reflected in the art I created?
At its absolute best, art facilitates empathy and human connection; it is an incredible tool to explore and share not only our own feelings, but those of the people around you. Song is the ultimate mechanism for communication and celebration. Every culture has song, every person has a voice.
Unfortunately, through its long-standing ties to wealth and whiteness, classical music (and by proxy, art song) has manifested as an exclusionary and elitist activity. Many of us who are inclined to see art song as being inherently accessible have been blessed with an education that allowed our ears to be primed for it. This combination of a somewhat necessary education for entry and content that reflects only a privileged niche of the population creates a twofold wall between new audiences and our art.
I think the path ahead of us is difficult, but straightforward. First, we need to be investing in music education at the earliest, but also all levels. Recommitting ourselves to outreach, especially to minority or under-served communities, is not only a moral imperative, but an act of pragmatism: it serves to cultivate a future base of audience members. Secondly, we need to commit to telling diverse musical stories. This does not mean putting a “token” minority composer on concert programs and calling it a day; it means continual and thoughtful programming throughout the year to make sure that the stories being told reflect the population of your area. It means delving deep into what our preconceived notions of “art music” are, and whether those notions are a reflection of systemic bias. The population is hardly comprised of old or dead white men, so why should concert programs overwhelmingly feature their works? Last but certainly not least, concert presentation needs to be warmer and more inviting. There can never be too much human connection. Take the extra steps: speak to your audience, project your text, contextualize the music before you perform, ask who is new and tell them how excited you are that they joined tonight. Let’s be real humans and communicate that why we love this music is that is lays bare our humanity in a way nothing else does.
This work will be and should be challenging. We need to ask ourselves honestly if we are comfortable with the status quo and, if not, actually do the work to change it. If that reflection leads to the realization that we just secretly want more of the exact same, then we have even more difficult work to do. Our discipline, art song, offers endless ways to adapt and connect; shouldn’t we aggressively be doing exactly that? Let us not underestimate the intelligence of our potential audiences, but rather always overestimate how much we should do to give the public what they both need and deserve.
Art Song in Alberta
By Shannon Hiebert, pianist
Summer in Alberta is marked by long days spent outdoors, road trips, camping and of course festivals, festivals and more festivals! Whether it’s opera at the Banff Centre, Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Edmonton Folk Festival or Opera NUOVA’s yearly festival, there is a song experience for everyone! This romantic ecology beckons to winter weary Albertans, inspiring the journey into nature unfazed by the possibility of high gas prices, mosquitos, wildlife, hail and yes, even snow!
The history of art song and singing in the regions of Alberta is rooted in education. The province has eight public universities, eleven colleges and seven private universities, most offering training in the vocal arts and theatre. Recent years have seen professional singers return to their home province to share the benefit of their experience singing, performing and teaching around the world.
University of Alberta voice faculty John Tessier, Elizabeth Turnbull and Sherry Steele present innovative recitals with repertoire from Canadian premieres (Bright Winter,Gil Shoat) to staged song cycles (La Bonne Cuisine, Bernstein). The Edmonton Recital Society continues to bring in international and homegrown artists. The 2018/2019 season featured Jihwan Cho, Baritone and Viktoria Reiswich-Dapp, piano in a performance of Schuberts Die Winterreise. The 2019/2020 season welcomes Tracy Dahl, coloratura soprano in recital with Shannon Hiebert, piano. Edmonton’s vibrant theatre community has given life to numerous cabaret performances in small immersive venues, in coffee shops, theatres, diners and intimate recital spaces, students and professional offer a wide range of song experiences. Mercury Opera, founded by Alberta native Daricia Parada, continues with their mandate of presenting “opera in unexpected places”. This summer’s production of Carmen begins in Edmonton’s historic Commodore Diner and ends at the iconic Chez Pierre, Edmonton’s first and oldest bar and strip club. Variety is the spice of song in this northern city where there’s a song recital experience for every age.
University of Calgary voice professor, Laura Hynes joined the performing arts faculty in 2015. Her recital programming focuses on innovation in art song recital through social justice issues (Raise your Voice), transgender voice transition and collaborative performance. Mount Royal College and the Calgary Pro Arts Society offer a variety of masterclasses and concerts. Cowtown Opera, under the direction of Michelle Minke continues to present cheeky, English-language versions of opera classics. This young vibrant company provides opportunities for young artists who have completed their training. The Mountain View International Festival of Song welcomes baritone, Brett Polegato with pianists Charles Foreman and Kathleen van Mourik for a recital of English song featuring composers Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi, Samuel Barber and John Ireland.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Alberta’s song community is the plethora of summer training programs. The Southern Alberta Vocal Experience (S.A.V.E.), Cowtown Opera’s Summer Academy (COSA), and Opera NUOVA’s Opera and Musical Theatre Festival all offer intensive training in the art of song performance with international faculty.
The art song experience in Alberta is as diverse as the landscape. From lieder to opera and cabaret, the hills are alive with the sound of music!
Circle of Life, Circle of Music
By Adrianne Pieczonka, O.C., soprano
Honorary Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
I recently spent a month in Vienna, a city very dear to my heart. I began my career in Vienna over 30 years ago and whenever I return, I always feel a deep connection to this wonderful city – to its music and to its traditions.
A few weeks before my rehearsals started at the Vienna State Opera, I received a message that my beloved Viennese voice teacher, mentor and friend, Hilde Zadek, had died at the amazing age of 101 years old.
I had visited Hilde exactly one year earlier. It was a lovely occasion where we reminisced about teaching, performances, old friends etc.
I had often worried that I would not be in Europe when Hilde passed away but the timing was indeed serendipitous. Her state funeral at the Staatsoper would be held on March 27th.
I was in Vienna to sing The Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier. Our first performance on March 21st would mark the 1000th performance of this opera at the Wiener Staatsoper.
A few days before the first performance, a symposium was held and many wonderful singers were in attendance — Christa Ludwig, Gwyneth Jones, Reri Grist and Gundula Janowitz to name a few. These grande dames spoke about performing various roles in this iconic, very Viennese opera and they also discussed favourite conductors — Kleiber, Bernstein, Karajan and Böhm were all fondly mentioned. The original manuscript was on display and an historian spoke about the often contentious relationship between Strauss and Hofmannsthal.
There of course were several “current” Octavians, Sophies and Marschallins in attendance as well. I felt very honoured and humbled that it was I who would sing the 1000th performance.
My teacher, Hilde Zadek, also loved the role of The Marschallin and she sang it many times in Vienna and internationally. We both shared this particular love of Strauss — I studied my first Arabella, Ariadne and Kaiserin with her. When Hilde was in her late 20’s she sang a concert in Zürich under Richard Strauss himself at the podium. I believe the year was 1947 and Strauss was in his 80’s.
This circle of life and of music is so incredible to me — that Hilde sang under Strauss and that we both shared this great love of Strauss’s music — including his Lieder as well, natürlich!
On March 27th, Hilde’s funeral was held at 11am at the State Opera. The Wiener Philharmonic and the choir of the Staatsoper performed parts of Mozart’s Requiem. I was asked to say a few words in her honour and I spoke about Hilde as a voice teacher and mentor. Christa Ludwig eulogized her by reciting a wonderful poem and telling some touching anecdotes. That evening I would sing the third performance of Der Rosenkavalier and again I felt the circle of music and circle of life touching me deeply. I kept Hilde close to my heart all evening and it was a very special experience for me.
A few days after the final performance, I gave a solo recital at the State Opera. The wonderful German accompanist, Wolfram Rieger, was my partner.
The final group of songs on my recital were songs by Richard Strauss. The very last song I sang was “Zueignung” (Devotion or Dedication) which has long been a favourite of mine. Written when Strauss was just twenty-one years old, published as part of his Opus 10 (the first ever group of songs he published), it was dedicated to Heinrich Vogl, a principal tenor at the Munich Court Opera.
Opus 10 was conceived originally for the tenor voice but I think it has become especially well loved by sopranos over the years. The short three-versed poem (text by Hermann von Gilm), with its mantra-like refrain after each verse of “Habe Dank”, roughly translated to “for this I am thankful”, is very powerful and affirming. It is often sung at the end of a recital or as an encore and is usually rapturously received.
At my recital, before starting this final song, I spoke briefly to the audience, sharing with them briefly my history with Hilde Zadek. I ended by dedicating “Zueignung” to the memory of Hilde Zadek.
Isn’t life amazing? Isn’t music equally as amazing? As singers of opera and art song we are blessed with the opportunity to tap into our life experiences — to plumb the depths of despair and pain and soar to the heights of happiness and love. What a blessing indeed!!
Innovation Born of Isolation: Art Song on the Prairies
By Mel Braun, baritone
Vocal Area Coordinator, University of Manitoba
With collaboration from Laura Loewen and Sarah Boumphrey
When you grow up in a small Prairie farming town, you quickly learn a few essential things. The sky is vast and the wheat fields are beautiful. When the Red River floods, everything slows to a standstill and you’re stuck at home. Most importantly, you learn that the music which surrounds you at home, school, church, and social functions, is what knits the community together. Singing and playing together (let’s not forget hockey and curling) is more than a way of life. It’s how you survive against the elements, collaborating imaginatively with others to create something new: innovation born of isolation.
The history of art song on the Prairies is not unlike my experience growing up here. The last seven decades have seen a succession of wonderful performers, teachers, and composers leading the way in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, many trained in larger centres and bringing the fruits of their musical education back to the Plains. Building on the foundation provided by standard Art Song, these musical mentors have encouraged their students to explore new work and new ways of working together. The result has been a huge outpouring of new art song and a real dedication by artists in both provinces to exploring new ways of presenting art song. All these efforts have been supported by the many regional Arts Councils, Festivals, Competitions and Recital Series active on the Prairies.
Desautels Faculty of Music professors Mel Braun and Laura Loewen are committed to commissioning new works. Along with collaborators and fellow Manitobans David Klassen and Rosemarie Vanderhooft they have created innovative concerts, often in unusual settings. A Schubert/Lightfoot concert in a village barn in Neubergthal, Randolph Peters’ “Violinmaker’s Lament” (John Weier), and John Greer’s “A Prairie Boy’s Life” (William Kurelek) are a few of the highlights from recent years. Flipside Opera, led by Desautels graduates Lisa Rumpel, Judith Oatway, and Dawn Bruch has specialized in staged art song, with programs like #nofilter, featuring Gabriel Kahane’s “Craigslist Lieder” and Richard Pearson Thomas’s “Hair Emergency”. Living Room Live, led by collaborative pianist Nicola Davies, has created a series of House Concert Tours for Classical Artists with recital circuits in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and BC. New Music specialists Sarah Jo Kirsch and Maddy Hildebrand will be touring the BC circuit next Spring. Kirsch recently returned from Sweden, where she premiered a new work: “A Ghazal” for soprano and live electronics by Desautels composition professor Örjan Sandred. Innovative pairings have also extended to the local choral community where Indigenous song-makers like Andrew Balfour and Jeremy Dutcher have collaborated with Camerata Nova.
In Saskatchewan, University of Regina professor Helen Pridmore is focusing on the solo human voice, creating performance through improvisation. University of Saskatchewan professor Gary Gable, an adept crossover artist, assembles and performs programs in multiple languages and styles with pianist Kathy Gable. A frequent performer in China, he uses song as a tool to bridge cultures. Saskatoon Opera Artistic Director Barbara Montalbetti, a long-time song-maker and innovator, includes new art song collaborations like Danika Lorèn’s Collectif in Saskatoon Opera’s yearly programming. Robert Ursan, who scores theatre productions and composes musicals and art songs, is currently at work on a new staged song cycle about PTSD. Pianist David L McIntyre, composer of many song cycles including the delightful “Creek Bistro” which he wrote for Lynn Channing, will be presenting “Edibles” (Ogden Nash) and “Psalms” (Joanne Gerber) with soprano Adria Mcculloch in the coming weeks at Saskatoon’s Gustin House. For both Ursan and McIntyre, living on the Prairies is a marvelous adventure as an artist. You never know what will inspire you, but when inspiration hits, you run with it.
Many cultures inhabit the Prairies, and the Prairie way is to welcome new cultures, adding their stories to the fabric of the ever-growing Prairie Songbook. In a place where isolation is a big factor, to say nothing of the weather and the mosquitos, collaborating is how we get by and the big sky under which we live presents us with the endless inspiration and creative freedom to act on these impulses. Long live art song on the Prairies!
Report from Beijing
May 20, 2019
The First China International Music Competition (Piano) 2019 in Beijing, China
It has been my distinct pleasure to be a jury member for the First China International Music Competition here in Beijing, China, which began on May 4, 2019, and which finishes tonight with a performance of three large Romantic piano concerti with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the leadership of their Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Our time here in Beijing has been revelatory, to say the least: we have heard much beautiful piano playing through three rounds of solo recitals and concerti. But perhaps the most revealing section of the competition has been the inclusion of a song recital in the semi-final round, with three singers who were engaged as singer/collaborators for those concerts: soprano Meigui Zhang, from the Lindemann Program at the Metropolitan Opera; Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone from New Zealand, who was a prize winner last year in the song division at the Montreal Competition; and Xiaomeng Zhang, baritone from China who just completed his Artist Diploma at Juilliard.
The two imposed programs consisted of songs by Schubert, Debussy, Poulenc, Hahn, and Strauss. They were selected for their intrinsic lyric qualities as well as their challenging piano parts, which demanded the widest range of technical and interpretive abilities, from the liquid, flowing “Liebesbotschaft” through the complexities of “La belle jeunesse” to the outgoing exuberance of “Cäcilie”.
It was a daring gesture to devise a round in an international piano competition in which a solo pianist was paired simply with a singer, the better to discover that pianist’s originality of musical concept (tone, phrasing, texture, articulation, etc.) and flexibility in approach with different artists, in the most exposed of all collaborative music making, that of a song recital. The audience was most appreciative night after night, and the jury was given the opportunity to examine the great number of diverse aspects of music-making that are amplified by this format.
All of these details were worked out collaboratively by Richard Rodzinski (the General Director of the competition) and me over several months. It has been extremely gratifying for me to have listeners of all nationalities (including some of my pianist colleagues!) thank me for introducing them to the tenderness of “Im Frühling” and the kaleidoscopic rush of emotions and colors in “Le printemps” by Reynaldo Hahn. One audience member told me that she simply could not wait for each evening’s different rendition of “A Chloris”, as it had become her obsession since she heard it on the first recital here. Proof again: the richness of our beloved art song repertory never fails to engage new feelings of wonderment in new ears!
I sincerely hope that the competition in Beijing has boosted both the profile of the song recital across the world (the entire competition has been live-streamed globally through Chinese and Italian services), and the understanding in the public’s mind of the complexity of interchange and dialogue and expression that happens when pianist and singer collaborate together on song repertory. A big note of thanks to all the people who made the entire project possible.
UPDATE May 21, 2019 CANADIAN TRIUMPH!
Since composing the above, we now have the result of the First China International Music Competition, and the winner is the young Canadian pianist, Tony Siqi Yun, who is a native of Toronto, has studied in China and is currently enrolled in the Pre-College Division at Juilliard. He has performed wonderfully throughout the contest, in all the rounds, and his young professionalism, musicality, and technical and interpretative abilities have been a joy to hear, including his account of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in the medalist round. His talents were especially on display in the round with singers. Congratulations, Tony Siqi Yun!
All best to everyone,
By François Le Roux, baritone
Author, Le chant intime and L’Opéra français : Une question de style
Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Winner, 2004 Prix René Dumesnil
In three of the six songs singers often miss the true meaning of each poem, and how Berlioz totally respected their complexity:
#3 “Sur les lagunes” has for its original title Lamento-La Chanson du pêcheur (“Lamento-The Fisherman’s Song”). Almost all songs from the repertoire of fishermen or, even more, sailors, are traditionally somber and sad (their job was always full of danger). Both Gautier and Berlioz knew that tradition. The song is actually but a working song used by a fisherman to help him catch fish with a net. Why over-sentimentalize it? It is a beautiful barcarolle by its rhythm, and one should just have the pleasure of singing all’italiana (the Italian way). Gautier used the Italian term Lamento; the French word is Lamentation . By the way the song ends without words, on Ah! which is added by Berlioz to the poem… By all’italiana I mean sing for the beauty of the sound, the phrasing, the tessitura, the sheer pleasure of singing…
In #4, the text seems more traditionally romantic: “Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée” (“Come back to me, my beloved”); however, the “refrain”  comprises a long sustained “mute e” at the end of bien-aimé-e (with a crescendo) that is almost sinful for experts of French prosody . Why would Berlioz do that, if not to break a rule? And it is not the only one: the classic octosyllabic verses are reworked in this way:
Reviens, reviens / ma bien aimé-e (4+5: 9 syllables instead of 8, the ending e does not count normally in French poetry), Comme une fleu-eur / loin du solei-eil (5+5: 10 instead of 8), La fleu-eur de ma vi-i(e) est / fermé-e (8+3: 11 instead of 8), Loin de ton souri-i-re vermeil (9 instead of 8). The “-re” of souri-re is placed on a strong beat, which is not allowed in classical French prosody.
The other two strophes are more classically set to music, with nothing overlooking the classical prosodic rules.
How should a singer perform this daring prosody? With “good taste”, of course, while being conscious of what is unusual!
#5 Au Cimetière (In the graveyard) is also for Gautier a Lamento. Berlioz chooses a vocal floating line that does not go towards lyricism, over a repetitive piano part; a question it is (Connaissez-vous la blanche tombe – Do you know the white tomb), and it has to stay like a magical, almost dreamy fantastic experience one recalls with a feeling of danger and pleasure mixed together. No fear of death there, but the attraction of a “Lorelei”, or siren, or ghost… The voice should attract, suggest, evoke, not more. The music coming back as a souvenir in the text (Sur les ailes de la musique / On sent lentement revenir /Un souvenir – “On the wings of music / It seems a memory / Is coming back”) is a waltz for Berlioz. Another dance!
To sum up, I would say that, in order to pay a real tribute to Gautier and Berlioz’ revolutionary minds, and to keep the cycle fresh and alive, it is important to sing it as a creation, a new work, as if the singer would be inventing it “on the spot”, although all the uncanny elements described above are well studied, and all clear to his/her mind. Should it not be the case for all the songs in a recital? Even more so for a well-known cycle like this one!
 As a winner of the prix de Rome in 1830, Berlioz spent 2 years in Italy, and enjoyed it very much. He came back with a lot of musical ideas that will appear in in the symphony in 4 parts with viola solo Harold en Italie (1834), and in his first opera Benvenuto Cellini (1838), among other works.
 Of the 8 strophes of the poem Berlioz set only the first 3, the first one serving as a “refrain”.
 As the term suggests, a « mute e » should not be accentuated. And there is in the poem the traditional alternating between “feminine ending” (the penultimate syllable is accentuated: ai-mé-e) and a “masculine ending” (the last syllable is accentuated: so-leil). Which Berlioz dismounts totally.
 The waltz is quickly becoming the favorite dance in balls and salons at the beginning of the 19th century. Berlioz wrote some wonderful ones in almost every major work of his (i.e. “Un bal” [A ball], the second movement in the Symphonie fantastique composed in 1830).
Parts 1 and 2 of Berlioz’ Nuits d’été appeared in the Winter and Spring issues of Art Song Canada, available on the website.
By François Le Roux, baritone
Author, Le chant intime
Winner, 2004 René Dumesnil Award
The title invented by Berlioz for his cycle may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (published in 1600). Berlioz was a lover of Shakespeare’s theatre, and its general “fantastic” (or fanciful) atmosphere: he composed in 1839 a dramatic symphony with choir and soloists entitled “Roméo et Juliette”, and his last opera “Béatrice et Bénédict” (1862) is deriving from the play Much Ado about Nothing. French romantic movement loved the bizarre, the uncanny; Gautier’s title for the book La Comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death) is already provocative, for death was in his days, and still is generally perceived as tragic.
And that is the reason why a lot of misunderstanding about Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été is common; maybe because of the perception of romantic music, as it appears in German Lieder, that express personal feelings, questioning the place of man on earth, more than anything else. In French romantic songs based on Gautier’s poems, fantasy is very important; Gautier himself claimed that art had to live for itself (L’Art pour l’art – Art for the sake of Art), without sentimentality, or connection with earthy reality. It was in reaction against the generally sentimental poetry used by the former generation, so easy to perceive in many famous romances (see, for instance, the most famous of all “Plaisir d’amour” (1784) by Martini on a poem by Florian, which Berlioz orchestrated in 1859). And, as is generally admitted for a new generation, there was a desire of transgression, to shock, or at least to question the public. Here, all 6 songs comprise elements of derision:
To begin with, at least 3 of the 6 Nuits d’été have strongly erotic (or sexual) connotations: #1 (Villanelle), #2 (Le Spectre de la rose), #6 (L’Île inconnue):
– In #1, the erotic elements (all taken from the nature: blackbirds, nests, rabbit, deer, moss, strawberries, woods, lilies-of-the-valley…) are light and connected with the evocation of spring. A Villanelle is a kind of pastoral poem, very much in favor in 16thcentury France (see what poets Passerat, Desportes, etc. produced); in the 18thcentury it became also a rustic dance (in 4/4), comprising some frivolous elements, emphasized by the music itself. If Gautier’s original title for #1 is “Villanelle rhythmique”, it is certainly to refer to that dance. On his part, Berlioz uses that element very clearly. The tempo should stay alive and joyful.
– In #2, the phantom of the rose (Le Spectre de la rose) is at the same time masculine (phantom) and feminine (rose); in its address to the lady he/she haunts, all the words used are double-meant, for instance: Tu me pris encore emperlée / Des pleurs d’argent de l’arrosoir: “You took me while I was still impearled / With the silver tears from the watering can” (no further explanation needed, I hope…). Or later Et j’arrive du paradis: “And I am coming from Paradise” (j’arrive – “I am coming” – repeated 4 times by Berlioz, in a growing crescendo!). This phantom is, with his/her long breathtaking sung lines, and the shortened breath for the verse Mais ne crains rien, je ne réclame (“But fear not, I am not asking”), very much alive… The use of many octaves (i.e. paupiè-ère close) should be very fluid, accentuating the low note (paupiè-ère) and going up as with a swing, like a Viennese waltzer would seem almost to fly. Again a dance!
– The “unknown island” of the last song (#6) is mocking the idealized eternally faithful love, unachievable… Berlioz respectfully does a Barcarolle (Gautier’s original title of the poem), but some elements are almost grotesque, like the accents of the accompaniment before Est-ce dans la Baltique… And who is inviting the lady for a trip? If it were a travel agent, the Mephistopheles kind it seems, with his sarcastic tone (La brise va souffler – “The wind is about to blow”…).
Part 3 of Berlioz’ Nuits d’été will appear in the Summer issue of Art Song Canada. Part 1 is available in the online Winter issue.
A Brief Atlantic Overview: Fall 2018/Spring 2019
By Caroline Schiller
Professor of Voice and Opera, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Song continues to thrive on the East Coast. Art song, whether performed with piano as sole collaborator or creatively fused with dialogue, media, and theatre is being performed throughout Canada’s Atlantic provinces. In venues, ranging from university and local concert halls, to performances in pubs, galleries, and libraries, we seem to be singing everywhere and about everything. Based on recent performances, musicians in this area are actively working to connect with our colleagues, our audiences, and our world through our programming choices. This year’s concerts explore the old and new, they reflect our culture, our climate, and our lives, present and past.
We are fortunate in Atlantic Canada to have a strong art song tradition and many communities still maintain a thriving concert series. While impossible to single out every performance, recent recitals have included Pascale Beaudin and collaborative pianist Simon Docking as part of Halifax’s The Music Room Chamber Players Series, whose program featured Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées; Cecilia Concerts included Julie Nesrallah in recital with collaborator, Robert Kortgaard in a varied program including Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana; and MusicUNB hosted a programme inspired by folk songs with Sally Dibblee, joined by UNB Musician-in-Residence Nadia Francavilla, and collaborative pianist Stephen Runge featuring John Greer’s, My Fancy Early and Late. Paula Rockwell with collaborative pianist Jennifer King performed Nocturnes, Serenades and Lullabies for a Winter’s Evening with Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies as its centrepiece for Dartmouth’s Community Concert Series; and The Music Room features Dalhousie University faculty members Marcia Swanston, Michael Donovan, with collaborative pianists Lynette Wahlstrom and Greg Myra in a program that includes Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Interpretations of a Life, written by David Warrack for Maureen Forrester.
Atlantic Canada’s universities continue to be a source for art song creation, performance, and training. Concert programming at universities throughout the region has included visiting artist recitals, faculty performances, and varied themed recitals. Concerts highlighting the works of Claude Debussy and Leonard Bernstein have been performed by faculty and students at a number of schools during the 2018 centennial, including Mount Allison University and Dalhousie University Fountain School of Performing Arts. While a concert of art songs with the ocean and water as its theme, was presented by soprano Jane Leibel and collaborative pianist Laura Loewen to the Royal Society of Canada as part of the “Future of the Oceans Symposium” at Memorial University. We are fortunate to have university voice programs dedicated to the training of 21st-century musicians. Through these programs, university students actively and creatively explore art song repertoire in study and performance and then, connect to their communities through a variety of outreach and concert initiatives.
Contemporary repertoire, new art song works for voice, and first performances have been the focus of a number of concerts this year. Newfoundland composer, Andrew Staniland’s Execution Songs with Erika Switzer, piano and Martha Guth, soprano are one example of the east coast’s vibrant composition scene. Performances focused on “demystifying” contemporary vocal repertoire were presented as part of Newfangled Music and a recital of contemporary vocal works presented at Halifax’s The Music Room. The latter program of Canadian repertoire with Janice Isabel Jackson and Barbara Pritchard has as its title, Canadian composer David Scott’s Disordered Songs. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Newfound Music Festival and Gala concerts typically include a number of firsts. This year’s concerts included a new comedic art song entitled “I Really Don’t Understand Why Everyone Looks at Me Like I’m Crazy” by composer Clark Ross written for soprano Jane Leibel and pianist Ian Sutherland. Reflecting on contemporary song repertoire, performers and composers are exploring ever more creative options in concert presentation from the use of multimedia, spoken dialogue, to staging. One such example is Suzie Leblanc and composer Jérôme Blais’ work, Mouvance, which was presented as part of the Open Waters Festival in Halifax. This multimedia, poetry, theatre, song experience based on contemporary Acadian poems, and other concerts of this kind, are suggesting new boundaries for art song-related performance and presentation.
Programming the Art Song Recital
By Brett Polegato, baritone
Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
Many years ago – when I was one and twenty (or thereabouts) – I had the temerity to put together a programme of solely English art song and mélodies for a prestigious recital series in a major Canadian city. I was exceedingly proud of the programme and was excited for its debut. Ah, the folly of youth! Although the recital was well received by the audience – I believe we got a standing ovation for our efforts – we were roundly taken to task by the critic. While he thought it was a valiant attempt on our part to present a programme in both official languages, he made the point that the English and French repertoire wasn’t “strong enough” to support an entire evening of song.
Thankfully, times have changed.
In the three decades I have been giving recitals, I have enjoyed watching the art form adapt and evolve. Many say the recital is dead. And in some ways they are correct: fewer are the formal and “serious” concerts – those evenings of Art in which a singer and pianist performed songs by mostly dead composers, in chronological order, to a roomful of respectful listeners who quietly followed both texts and translations in a printed programme. Lieder dominated the proceedings. In those days singers, by and large, did not talk to the audience and applause was reserved for the ends of groups.
We recitalists are a tenacious lot and we quickly understood that this model could not last and so…we changed the model. Today’s recitalists have become extremely inventive in their programming choices – rarely do recitals begin in the Baroque and end with Strauss. “Modern” music no longer stops at Benjamin Britten or Francis Poulenc, and we are lucky to have many marvellous contemporary composers whose contribution to the repertoire ensures that the breadth and scope of a programme is limited only by the imagination of the performers. Musical theatre and popular song have also found a place in the repertoire, and I have sung Sondheim, Porter, Novello, and even Billy Joel alongside the likes of Vaughan Williams and Charles Ives.
But it is the form of the recital itself that has undergone the greatest transformation. The old rules that defined what constituted a recital no longer apply and performers are finding new ways of making the art form their own. Like our musical theatre counterparts, we have begun interacting with audiences; often poems are read, personal anecdotes are recounted and visual imagery such as slides are incorporated in an effort to make the experience more personal and inviting. It is not uncommon to share recitals – recently, I have performed with instrumentalists, cabaret singers and actors – in an attempt to appeal to our “multi-tasking” audiences. Pianists also step out from behind the keys to talk about programme elements, and our recitals regularly include piano solos. Groups of songs are more loosely structured and spontaneous applause is welcomed. More than ever, we strive to be storytellers and are willing to bend the form to achieve our goal.
In July of this year, I am proud to be making my Wigmore Hall recital debut with pianist, Iain Burnside, in a programme of English song entitled, A Transatlantic Voyage: English Songs from Here to There. The programme includes the usual suspects – Britten, Vaughan Williams, Barber and Ives – but joining them are Rebecca Clarke, Marc Blitzstein, Craig Urquhart, and Canadians, Healey Willan and Harry Somers. I have many wonderful stories to tell, and the immediacy and power of the English language to tell them all.
Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, Part 1:The Birth of French Mélodie
By François Le Roux, baritone
Author, Le chant intime
Winner, 2004 René Dumesnil Award
To commemorate Hector Berlioz’s death 150 years ago, recitalists in 2019 will certainly not miss his quintessential song cycle Nuits d’été (Summer nights) H.81. Often seen as an orchestral suite for big voices, it is less known and less performed in its earlier piano version, and many people among both the public and performers miss almost completely the poetic elements that both poet and composer elaborated, and cherished, as new. Let us have a look!
The birth of French mélodie is considered to date from the composition of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (completed in 1840-41), even if this opinion is a bit arbitrary. It is true that Berlioz deplored the artistic level of the romance, which was, at that time in France, the contemporary song style that wedded text (often poetic) and music. It seems that the use of the term mélodie was inspired by the book title Irish Melodies by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Several excerpts from this book were set to music. To make a long story short, things evolved when the 19th century composers of romances wanted to give more independence to the melodic line in relationship to the poetic text. Their goal was to “stick” to the poetic suggestions as much as possible and not to be too constrained by a form that was completely closed, cyclic, or “blocked,” as a succession of couplets interspersed by a refrain could be. Calling Les Nuits d’été the first cycle of mélodies is not completely accurate, since the first song of the cycle, “Villanelle,” is still a strophic romance, as is the fourth song, “Absence.” On the other hand, in “Sur les lagunes” (“On the Lagoons”), we notice a change, even if there is a sort of refrain: Que mon sort est amer! / Ah! Sans amour s’en aller sur la mer! (“How bitter is my fate! / Ah! Without love, to go to sea!”).
Another element makes Les Nuits d’été an important marker: the cycle is the fruit of a direct collaboration between two artists: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), who knew each other personally. It is even possible that Gautier gave his poems to Berlioz before their publication. One can also imagine that Gautier wrote his poems with the idea that music could accompany them as some of the titles of his poems are clearly oriented towards music: “Villanelle rhythmique” (“Villanelle” for Berlioz), “Lamento-La Chanson du pêcheur” (“Sur les lagunes” for Berlioz), “Lamento” (“Au Cimetière” for Berlioz), “Barcarolle” (“L’île inconnue” for Berlioz). It is also interesting to note that La Comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death), the collection of poems that Les Nuits d’été comes from, include many more pieces than just the six in the cycle. Gautier probably gave more texts to Berlioz, who only chose six.I would like to advocate the original piano version of the score (not the usual reduction from the orchestral one) published by Catelin in Paris in 1841 (the complete orchestral version dates from 1856). It is easy to download from the website Gallica of the French National Library: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3119544?rk=364808;4.
What better way of being faithful to the composer’s intentions? If the original piano version exists only in one key (with the indication “for tenor or mezzo-soprano”), at least it will be the basis for a true pianistic interpretation, instead of a mere reduction. Some differences are really striking if one compares the orchestral versions and the piano one (e.g., no prelude to “Le Spectre de la rose”). Let Berlioz ask us the true question: Où voulez-vous aller?
 Berlioz composed in 1830 “Irlande, neuf mélodies imitées de l’anglais” (“Ireland, nine melodies imitating the English”), published only in 1863. All songs are in French. Moore’s poems were published in Paris by Chassériau in 1823 in a French translation by Louise Swanton Belloc (1796-1881) under the title: “Les Amours des Anges et les Mélodies Irlandaises”, where Berlioz found some of the translations he used.
 However, a precedent exists in the romance: the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, (1786-1869) and the guitarist and composer Pauline Duchambge (1778-1858) wrote together more than thirty published romances.
 All 6 belong to the chapter “Poésies diverses” in the book La Comédie de la mort, published by Desessart in Paris in 1838. 2 were first published in a magazine: “Le Spectre de la rose” in Don Quichotte (May 7, 1837), and “L’Île inconnue” in Le Rameau d’or, a keepsake published at the end of 1835.
Part 2 of Berlioz Nuits d’été will appear in the April issue of Art Song Canada.
Rediscovering Healey Willan’s Art Song Legacy
By Steven Philcox and Lawrence Wiliford
Founders, Canadian Art Song Project
Since its founding in 2011, Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) has been recognised largely for its commissioning activity and numerous concert presentations dedicated to Canadian song, both old and new. Many readers will also be familiar with our recording library housing five titles, with another scheduled for release this summer. While our mandate is strongly tied to breathing life into the present and future of the art form, our audience may not be aware of CASP’s efforts to revitalize and reconnect to the song traditions of our past. One such initiative has been our Healey Willan project.
Willan was born in the south of London, England, in 1880 and from a young age would be rooted in a musical education very much tied to his rigorous Anglo-Catholic upbringing. As such, the name of Willan generally invokes a deep response to his liturgical compositions: masses, motets, and choral works—the music for which he remains best remembered. His devotion to the musical traditions of both church and country would follow him as he settled in Toronto in 1913. At this time, when the musical world was seeing a tremendous shift towards the serial and atonal experimentation espoused by the composers of the Second Viennese School, Willan would be steadfast in his own ideals of beauty: “I’m a lover of beauty. I love beautiful things, I love beautiful poems, beautiful pictures, beautiful music, and of course beauty is one’s own conception of beauty . . . but I find so much music written today is unbeautiful and it sounds to me uncouth.”
When CASP started to research Willan’s song output, we were aware of his nearly 100 published songs and arrangements. Drake’s Drum, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and Ae Fond Kiss, still regarded as some of his best in the genre, were frequent recital offerings of artists including Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall, and George Lambert. Unfortunately, performances of Willan’s solo songs have waned, almost to the point of obscurity. Imagine our surprise and thrill when, at the recommendation of one our supporters that we look through Giles Bryant’s record of the Willan archive (now held in Ottawa as part of the collection at Library and Archives Canada), we discovered nearly 100 additional song manuscripts that had never been published. Dated throughout Willan’s lifetime, the collection includes mostly original compositions along with his hallmark arrangements of ballads and folk-songs.
CASP has slowly chipped away at transcribing these handwritten manuscripts into digital, edited scores, an enormous task when you consider that many of the songs had two and sometimes three versions, all in Willan’s hand and often with the same date! After numerous play-throughs, analysis, and much friendly editorial debate, CASP, in collaboration with the Estate of Healey Willan and the Canadian Music Centre, has recently published Songs from the Healey Willan Archive in two volumes. These feature twenty-two previously unpublished songs that set poetry by Herrick, Browning, Tennyson, and Hood, among others.
On November 18, 2016, CASP presented a concert celebrating the songs of Willan including many of those recently discovered. In attendance was Willan’s ninety-year-old daughter Mary Willan Mason, who told us that it was the first time she had heard O Littlest Hands and Dearest, a song her father had written when she was just three weeks old. It was a profoundly touching moment, a testament to why such work is important and a reminder of the power of song to transcend time and connect us all.
For more information on Canadian Art Song Project, please visit our website canadianartsongproject.ca.
When a person knows and can’t make the others understand, what does he do?
By Lara Dodds-Eden
Doctoral student in Collaborative Piano, University of Toronto
I performed Winterreise for the first time in 2008, in a church close to London’s Sloane Square. As my colleague and I rehearsed beforehand in the nave, a man sat resting in the pews. The church had been his home for a few hours, but he left as he sensed the imminent arrival of a paying crowd. I had been moved by his presence, but did not know how to invite him to stay. Though I felt this music was for him, maybe even about him, I didn’t know how to share that with him.
After all, we were performing 180-year-old German songs, in affluent Chelsea, at the beginning of a millennium straining with anxiety around national borders, social media fame, increasing disparity, and acceleration in the pace of living. Art song’s interiorised subjectivity seems vulnerable in this context and complicated further when its language is different from the vernacular. Of course, the archive is richer for its diversity of language, and yet Simon Keenlyside describes the tendency to ‘mum and mug meaning’ when singing in a language you don’t speak — an admission that highlights the compensatory burden on many of our current linguistic strategies.
So we experiment with printed programmes, surtitles, spoken summaries, digital materials. Of course, the obvious ‘solution’ is to sing in translation — to transmute the archive in order to extend its reach. In literature, preliminary debates about gain, loss, and authenticity have expanded to embrace radical approaches and an increasing affirmation of the role of the translator. But in art song, the fundamental question of whether it is conceptually reconcilable at all has largely stalled its use in performance practice. When words and music are in symbiotic relationship, any addition is assumed superfluous, while any change is deemed destructive. Our community’s fidelity to that tenet makes any attempt to translate for singing a fraught undertaking.
Song scholar Eric Sams proscribed against translating Lieder, but his son Jeremy has found himself unable to resist doing so. He has reworded all three Schubert cycles, alongside Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer and Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch: the latter will have its premiere at London’s Barbican Hall in February 2019. Of course, Sams is just the latest in a long line of would-be translators for art song — I have collected thirteen singing translations of Der Leiermann alone — but his efforts, supported by his interdisciplinary aptitudes, have found an exceptional niche of acceptance and advocacy in comparison to his predecessors’. Some view his ingenious solutions as one-offs. But what would happen if we were to encourage more translators to explore this repertoire?
In advance of the first airing of Winterreise, Schubert reassured a friend who was concerned about his state of mind, saying, ‘Soon you will hear and understand.’ Müller, too, famously expressed a desire that his poetry might be received by eine gleichgestimmte Seele — a like-minded soul. Though these men dared hope for one or two empathetic listeners, I suspect we all believe they deserve more — and that more of us deserve to hear what they had to say. Neither man could have imagined their work perforemed on stages in London, New York, or Tokyo nearly two centuries later, let alone know to make provisions for that outcome. What would have happened that night in Chelsea had the man heard my colleague sing ‘I came here as a stranger, a stranger I depart’? And what might have been the effect on that audience, had they been asked to acknowledge their complicity in the final encounter of the cycle, in which ‘no one seems to notice, no one seems to care’?
 Quoted in https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/3602564/The-singers-dance-of-death.html
 Such as those by Anne Carson and Alain Badiou
 The Booker International Prize for literary fiction is a significant example, honouring both translator and author since its institution in 2016.
 Including Leslie Minchin, Frederic Kirchberger and Arthur Fox-Strangways
 See Katy Hamilton’s blog discussing her experience tackling Die Erlkönig https://katyhamilton.co.uk/2016/07/31/and-in-english/
 Susan Youens quotes Spaun’s account of that time https://hampsongfoundation.org/resource/horrifying-songs-schuberts-winterreise/
 These quotes are taken from Jeremy Sam’s Winter Journey translations (songs I and XXIV), which can be found in full in the booklet that accompanies Christopher Glynn and Roderick Williams’ Signum Classics release: https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_SIGCD531
LET’S TALK ART SONG
By Catherine Robbin
President, Art Song Foundation of Canada
The Art Song Foundation of Canada thinks it would be good for art song to have a more public voice.
Our friends in opera have a fine magazine, Opera Canada, which keeps opera- lovers well informed.
With this first issue of Art Song Canada, the Foundation is starting an online “magazine” that will cover various aspects of the art-song world. There will be articles by important people in the field of art song, reports from the various regions of our country, and more.
The material can be accessed directly on the Art Song Foundation of Canada web site and by e-mail via our mailing list, and will be advertised on social media.
If you wish to be on the mailing list for Art Song Canada, please click here.
We hope you will enjoy the following articles by Michael McMahon, Gerald Finley, and Olivier Godin.
Please feel free to be in touch with us. We would be happy to hear your comments and any suggestions for future articles.
In Memoriam — Dr. Max Deen Larsen
March 6, 1943 ~ January 12, 2018
By Michael McMahon
Associate Professor, Piano and Voice, Faculty of Music, McGill University
Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
With the passing of Dr. Max Deen Larsen on January 12, 2018, the world of art song lost one of its greatest mentors.
Forty years ago, Deen Larsen and his future wife, German cellist Verena Göthel, founded the Franz Schubert Institute in Baden bei Wien, Austria. After attending various masterclasses in German lieder, Deen realised that there was an important element missing in the training of singers and pianists in the performance of the lied and that element was the attention to the poem itself. In creating “Poetry and the German Lied” at the Franz Schubert Institute, Deen brought together not only some of the world’s greatest singers and pianists, but also actors and diction specialists.
Since 1978, singers and pianists from all over the world have spent at least 12 hours a day every day for five to six weeks learning about poetry and lieder in the classroom, sharing wine and food in the local Heurigen, and hiking in the Vienna Woods. Each day would begin with a poetry class given by Deen Larsen in which he would share his passion for German language, its poets, and its composers. He would encourage everyone to search for honesty in his/her interpretation and to remember that what we do is not about us. It is about communicating in a truthful way what the poet and the composer have given us.
It was not only in the classroom that learning took place. Deen would take the participants on hikes in the same woods that many of the poets and composers had visited. He would have everyone stop, be silent, and listen to the sounds of nature. This was followed by a reminder that we are all a part of nature and that the sounds we were hearing were the same sounds that Beethoven and Schubert had heard.
Deen lived and breathed poetry, and generously shared his vast knowledge with all who would listen. He was always so pleased when a former participant would write asking for help in understanding the meaning of a poem, and he would write back with well-considered responses that would undoubtedly shed light on what had otherwise been elusive.
Thinking back to 1978, when I first saw a poster advertising the Franz Schubert Institute, I can still visualise exactly where it was on the wall at McGill University’s Faculty of Music and remember the excitement I felt when I saw the list of artists who would be teaching there. On it were the names of legends in the world of German Lieder, including Elly Ameling ( who has taught at every course since the beginning), Hans Hotter, Kim Borg, Jörg Demus, and Erik Werba. I applied with a singer, was thrilled to be accepted, and found my voice as an artist during that summer in Baden. What I learned has stayed with me and nourished me throughout my career.
Distinguished alumni include Cheryl Studer, Delores Ziegler, Donna Brown, Tyler Duncan, Erika Switzer, Philippe Sly, Jordan de Souza, Gordon Bintner, Rihab Chaieb, Colin Balzer, John Brancy, Ammiel Bushakevitz, Jonathan Ware, Che Anne Loewen, Rena Sharon, and Kathleen Lohrenz Gable.
The Franz Schubert Institute is making plans to continue and will find new ways to pass on the great tradition that Deen so loved. I will be forever grateful to my dear friend and mentor, who helped connect me and so many others to the essence of German Romanticism.
The Voice is the Song
By Gerald Finley, baritone
Honorary Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
While learning my latest program of Schubert and Brahms for concerts and a recording, I came across an Italian version of Schubert’s Staendchen sung by Giuseppe di Stefano on YouTube. We live in an age where the great singers of the past can entertain and bring us great pleasure. How is it that a great Italian singer can bring such depth of feeling through his beautiful voice to a German song?
Knowing that a full program of German song is a rarity, I need to come to a peace with myself that fewer and fewer people will be giving up their precious time to come and hear it. Thankfully, in Hamburg there was a full house, 550 in the small Hall of the Elbphilharmonie, certainly all completely familiar with the repertoire that I was performing.
In the early 1980’s in London when I was a student, song recitals would fill the Royal Festival Hall, some 2,100 places, and then standing room for young ones like me to take up, wanting to hear the great masters like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Just a few years earlier, the Albert Hall would fill for similar artists, some 5,000. It is reported that John MacCormack and John Charles Thomas sang for audiences in the many thousands.
Now, the Wigmore Hall (545 seats) does quite well with song recitals, but even the ’stars’ have their programs vetted by the director to ensure that there are not too many similar programs. When I plan a tour to North America, the word from promoters is, “Please sing something in English.” Should I not sing the repertoire that brings the greatest pleasure?
Note the difference between these paragraphs. One is about the singers; the other is about the programs. We are in an age where the simple art of singing without a microphone is under threat. The “X factor” generation wants to be discovered at 18 and then be promoted by the wheels of industry. This discussion is more suited to a great treatise than a reflective article, but it is the crux of the problem, for both singers and promoters.
Singing is a craft that takes devotion and diligence. The great Eva Turner said to me, “You cannot have a career without application and dedication.” And I believe it to be so today: that there are few great artistic lives of leisure and general conviviality. Fischer Dieskau was notorious for his lack of socializing after a concert, even though his home was a haven for chamber music and musical get-togethers. The use of artists in general promotion is a burden that no previous generation has had to endure, and the fatigue and distraction that encircles the singer is taking its toll on those who are amenable.
Singers need to perform and also to husband their resources for the perfection of their art. In their early years, they need extended opportunities to work just with their teachers, the actual masters of the voice. There are legendary stories of the hard taskmasters of Beniamino Gigli, Edita Gruberova, Monserrat Caballe, and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The ability to sing a song with the most intimate sound is a long-sought and difficult task, when opera houses are demanding louder and more pushed voices to get over those rich orchestral sounds in those enormous auditoriums.
“Opera is where the money is.” Is this the threat for the song recital? Singers need to survive, and expenses in travelling and accommodation are not insignificant. Famous halls in great cities pay an artist and accompanist less than 40% of the ticket sales of a recital. However, a fairly priced recital with a few hundred people can also make economic sense for the artist, and any artistic opportunity should be seized. But agents don’t make so much money, and the burden of logistics can make agents decline engagements. They do not necessarily nurture the “artist” on their roster. Promoters also need to have a keen ear and a loyal audience to present the up-and-coming voices that both need to be heard and need experience in recital. They are rare, but they do us a service.
Song is the vehicle through which the audience can have a direct communication with and from the performer. The performer can offer their own voice in all its wonder, not that of a character. Most importantly, the richness of the composers’ treasury can be explored, and the satisfaction of music lovers and artists can be nurtured.
Singing can be the most satisfying of endeavours, and the challenge faced by young ones who grasp the long, thorny road is great. It is not about loud. It is about discovering the best of one’s own resources, of the liberation of sound and of honest communication, of the composer’s deepest reaction to poetry. Then we might start again to connect with the music lovers in an intimate setting and begin to fill the big halls once again.
Art Song in Quebec
By Olivier Godin
Collaborative pianist and vocal coach at McGill University
As an art song pianist and vocal coach in “la belle province”, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several projects and the privilege of discovering great events and artists over the years, both as a teacher and a performer. In Quebec, we are very fortunate to have festivals, concert series, and venues that are presenting high-quality art song recitals featuring local and international artists, as well as quite a few schools and summer workshops to pass on this refined and unique tradition to younger singers and pianists.
Beginning with local artists: I believe that Quebec holds a unique place in the world when it comes to great singers. Over the years, so many great voices have started international careers and gained worldwide renown. Several singers are frequently performing art song recitals in the province and across the country, as well as throughout the USA and Europe. Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Philippe Sly, Marc Boucher, Michèle Losier, Lyne Fortin, Donna Brown, Aline Kutan, Dominique Labelle, and Karina Gauvin, to name a few, always have recitals planned in their calendar.
As for pianists, I feel very lucky and privileged to work around fabulous colleagues such as Michael McMahon, Esther Gonthier, Marie-Ève Scarfone, Pierre McLean, Francis Perron, Martin Dubé, and other fantastic collaborators who are essential to and inspiring for all the singers they work with.
When it comes to venues and festivals, we have so many art-song allies that it would be impossible to be exhaustive, but around the province, I can think of the Arte Musica Foundation/Salle Bourgie in Montreal, which always presents high-calibre recitals (including Sylvia Schwartz, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Thomas Dolié, and Donna Brown), the Société d’Art Vocal de Montréal, which is presenting one of the best annual art-song series (Gerald Finley, Susan Platts, Michèle Losier, Mariane Fiset), Domaine Forget, which invited Jose Van Dam and Sophie Koch this past summer, the Lachine Festival and Richard Turp, its director, who is one of the reasons why art song is still so alive in Montreal, the Club Musical de Québec, which will be presenting a recital by Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau in November, and the Musique à Ste-Pétronille Festival, which also offers at least one beautiful art-song recital every summer.
To conclude this short report, I need to mention education, which is the key to the future of art song. Of course, voice faculties of the key establishments all have teachers and coaches who care deeply about art song: Schulich School of Music of McGill University, Université de Montreal, les Conservatoires du Québec, and Université Laval). But we also have many summer programs offering art song as a main discipline for both young singers and pianists. Among them, the new Lachine International Academy, which had its first session last summer with guest teachers François Le Roux, Liz Upchurch, Lena Hellström Färnlöf, and Marie-Ève Scarfone comes to mind. There is also Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, which holds a leading place in the training of young singers and pianists during their summer program, with guest artists such as Jose Van Dam, Sophie Koch, and Wolfgang Hozmair, and Orford Musique, with Francis Perron, Nathalie Paulin, David Lutz, and others.
I cannot end this report without mentioning three Quebec-based record labels that have done wonderful art song projects over the last couple of years: ATMA Classique, Analekta, and Disques XXI-21. These three labels released many recordings featuring recitals by high-level Quebec artists and also recordings of complete songs by various composers (Fauré, Poulenc, Duparc, to name a few). Many of these recordings have won prizes and gained international recognition in specialized publications.