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Welcome to the ‘Art Song Canada Summer Festival’ issue.
As a performer and lover of art song myself, I am excited that summer programmes for young singers, pianists and — yes — composers are thriving in Canada.
In the first of our articles, my good friend and pianist, Julien LeBlanc discusses the exceptional art song training that he and soprano, Nathalie Paulin, offer at the Barachois Summer Music Academy, where young singers and pianists study and perform while surrounded by the beauty and hospitality of their home province, New Brunswick.
The Canadian music scene has benefitted greatly from our immense cultural diversity. In 2004, the British bass-baritone, Pavlo Hunka, founded the Ukrainian Art Song Project in Toronto with the aim of recording and publishing Ukrainian songs. Five summers ago, as Melanie Turgeon explains in her article, ‘Giving Voice To Forbidden Song,’ the Summer Academy was created to introduce today’s young artists to this beautiful but neglected repertoire.
Creation is at the heart of Vancouver’s (Art) Song Lab. Since 2010, co-founders Michael Park and Alison d’Amato have been focusing their energies on the creation of new (Canadian) art song. Next summer, for the first time, they will introduce a performance stream and invite young singers and pianists to collaborate with living composers and poets. Read their article and learn how, through their shared passion for art song, these talented artists will help shape its future in the 21st century.
Editor, Art Song Canada
The Barachois Summer Music Academy: An Exploration of Poetry and Art Song in a Nurturing Environment
By Julien LeBlanc, Pianist, Co-Artistic Director and Faculty Member, Barachois Summer Music Academy
The oldest Acadian church still standing is found in Grand Barachois, New Brunswick, in the heart of Acadia. It is a charming, small wooden building with wonderful acoustics. Build in 1824, it is an important witness of the vibrancy and richness of Acadian culture. This historical landmark was saved from destruction in the early 1980s by devoted local residents who decided it should have a cultural vocation. Over time, they have founded a classical music series, a museum and an art gallery. Thousands of visitors have seen art exhibits, visited the museum devoted to local history and listened to wonderful performances since its reopening in 1980. In 2016, soprano Nathalie Paulin and I founded an Academy for singers and pianists devoted to art song with a focus on Canadian music.
We both have been involved as students and later on as mentors in different summer festivals around the world. We wanted to create our own program so we could share our knowledge with young aspiring musicians and share the beauty, warmth and hospitality of our home province with Fellows from across Canada and abroad. Our desire was to create a small and nurturing program in an idyllic setting where the Fellows would get very personalized attention but also have the liberty of exploring their own artistic voice, experimenting with repertoire and growing as performers in the process.
The first summer we started with four singers and two pianists but by 2017 we decided to add faculty members and to partner with the Music Department of l’Université de Moncton. This allowed us to host two programs running in parallel: a ‘Student Artist’ program for singers and pianists at the undergraduate level and an ‘Emerging Artist’ program for more seasoned young artists. Upon completion of the program, the latter would be ready to tour the Maritimes with a polished program of pre-chosen art songs. Since then, we have usually accepted twelve singers and three to five pianists.
We have chosen to give a voice to lesser-performed composers, choosing the repertoire from among Canadian composers, women composers and BIPOC composers. Fellows attend daily private voice lessons and coaching sessions, workshops on poetry and diction as well as some informal talks with key actors in the music business. Fellows from both programs perform a main concert in the historical church where the Barachois Summer Music concert series usually takes place. Those Fellows from the ‘Emerging Artist’ program perform several concerts in other locations in the Maritimes. They have delighted audiences in cities such as Fredericton, Saint-John and Charlottetown.
Faculty members have varied over the years. We have had the pleasure of welcoming soprano Chantal Dionne, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and pianist Pierre-André Doucet in the past. Our faculty for 2023 will be sopranos Nathalie Paulin and Monica Whicher, pianist Laura Loewen and me. Fellows have had the opportunity to explore thousands of noteworthy and inspiring compositions such as John Greer’s Liebesleid-Lieder, Schumann’s Spanishes Liebeslieder, song cycles by David Bontemps, Lili Boulanger, Dean Burry, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jean Coulthard, Denis Gougeon, Jacques Hétu, Mathilde von Kralik, Frédéric Lacroix, Libbie Larsen, Danika Lorèn, Pierre Mercure, Norbert Palej, Julia von Webenau and many more.
On top of spending time in the wonderful world of poetry and music making, Fellows have an opportunity for sight-seeing, enjoying the nature and the beaches of the Maritimes as well as being fed a huge variety fresh bake goods graciously and lovingly prepared by my mother and her partner. The rhubarb-custard pie is usually a great success!
Programming at Barachois this summer will run from July 28 to August 8,
culminating in four concerts throughout the region.
Giving Voice to Forbidden Song: The Ukrainian Art Song Project’s Summer Institute
By Melanie Turgeon
In the 19th century the art song genre flourished in many parts of Europe, and was a means of expressing culture and identity with a deep sense of national pride. It quickly gained popularity in Germany and spread to various other parts of Europe, including France, Russia, Bohemia and Poland. Its ability to flourish in Ukraine, however, was stifled and impacted by two things: Ems Ukase (1876) and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917). Ems Ukase is a decree that was issued in 1876 by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, banning the use of the Ukrainian language in print, in performance, and in scores. Ukrainian composers were forced to break the law in order to write an art song. Despite this sanction and other future censorships, Ukrainian composers still persevered and secretly wrote art songs ‘for the drawer.’ Additionally, Soviet society did not support the development of the Ukrainian art song because they disliked the fact that it was a Western tradition imported to the East. Any higher art was condemned as formalist, aristocratic, bourgeois, and intellectual. Instead, folk music and propaganda music sung by semi-professional musicians was endorsed. Anything with artistic merit was considered threatening. Despite these conditions, Ukrainian poets still wrote poems and Ukrainian composers still set these poems to music, often in the form of art songs. More than 1000 art songs by Ukrainian composers have been collected to date!
The Ukrainian Art Song Project (UASP) was founded in 2004. The driving force behind it is renowned British bass-baritone, Pavlo Hunka. Together with Canada’s leading opera singers and an exceptional committee of volunteers, Hunka has recorded and released over 16 CDs of Ukrainian art songs. Recording the music is merely the first phase of the project. The second phase is making all the scores available online for free (www.ukrainianartsongproject.ca), where singers can download the music in any key. The original Cyrillic texts have also been transliterated, making the songs accessible to all. The third phase involves outreach: presentations, interviews, concerts, the publication of anthologies, and most importantly, the annual Summer Institute, an initiative that began in the summer of 2017.
In late August 2023, the Ukrainian Art Song Project will host its fifth Summer Institute at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. The purpose of the Summer Institute is to give eight selected singers and two pianists the opportunity to collaborate with accomplished faculty, who are eager to share their experience and expertise in a supportive atmosphere. Participants gain the necessary knowledge and understanding to successfully perform Ukrainian art songs, and the inspiration to serve as ambassadors for this music. The program is augmented this summer as we are including a collaborative pianist component for the first time.
This year’s faculty will include Benjamin Butterfield (co-director and vocal coach), Andrea Ludwig (vocal coach), Steven Philcox (collaborative pianist), Leanne Regehr (collaborative pianist), and me, Melanie Turgeon (co-director). I am the only faculty member of Ukrainian descent. It is very moving to witness my non-Ukrainian colleagues embracing and celebrating this music. They respect and appreciate Ukrainian art song and are energetic and passionate about advocating for this previously forbidden music. They share the belief that Ukrainian art songs deserve to be performed alongside the art songs of other highly-regarded composers.
Dr. Leanne Regehr shared this reflection on the 2022 Summer Institute:
It was such a privilege to be a part of the 2022 Ukrainian Art Song Project’s Summer Institute. There was a wonderful spirit of collaboration between the young artists and faculty as we discovered this repertoire together through coachings and masterclasses. There has been a significant shift in music in the last couple of years with respect to uncovering composers whose voices have been silenced, and Ukrainian songs certainly fall into this category. The Summer Institute was a unique opportunity for us all to immerse ourselves in Ukrainian art song: to delve into the historical context of the poetry, work on our Ukrainian diction, and to discover the musical nuances of each composer. The commitment of the eight singers was remarkable, and the final concert was certainly a highlight that demonstrated their artistic growth. It’s fantastic to see these young artists excited about sharing Ukrainian songs in their communities; these are beautiful and rich songs that simply need to be heard, now more than ever, to literally ‘give voice’ to and celebrate Ukrainian culture.
For more information on the Ukrainian Art Song Project and its Summer Institute, go to: www.ukrainianartsongproject.ca
Michael Park, Composer and Pianist, Founder and Co-Director of (Art) Song Lab
In June 2024, (Art) Song Lab will add a performance stream to its groundbreaking summer program. Selected singers and pianists will collaborate directly with composers and poets on the creation of new art songs. The program will be presented in partnership with the University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music. Innovative composer Andrew Balfour, of Cree descent, will join as guest composer.
Michael Park (MP):
Picture it: Vancouver, 2010 in the salon of the Canadian Music Centre (CMC). Around me was an eager audience of creators, performers, and lovers of art song… and they were all alive. Let’s face it – when it comes to art song, creators and performers are rarely on the same terrestrial plane, let alone the same room.
Alison d’Amato (AD):
And yet, here we were gathered together: creators, performers, and audience sharing our experiences in real time! It left us all wondering, why was this such an uncommon occurrence for the very people who are most passionate about collaboration?
Months before, poet Ray Hsu and I had unsuccessfully tried to convince Vancouver International Song Institute (VISI) artistic director Rena Sharon to assign our art songs to all the students in her program. Our hopes temporarily dashed, it led to me facilitating a connection between VISI and the CMC which resulted in this unprecedented gathering.
At that time, VISI was a mecca of joyful collaboration for faculty and students alike. Teachers came from around the world to work together and watch colleagues in action. This CMC session was no exception; there was great curiosity in watching each other explore new songs, and witnessing the immediacy of expression and craft as it launched into the audience.
It was how we all interacted that was so special. In front of the audience, composers asked poets about their interpretations, and how their setting might have altered that. Within minutes, they had negotiated changes with the performers that allowed for a completely different interpretation.
I always remember the surprise and gratitude the composers had for the performers. So many of my projects up to that point were centred on older works, and my ‘collaboration’ was based on deciphering printed instructions from long-dead composers. To have my commitment seen and deeply appreciated by the authors was beautifully affirming, and it gave me a real boost as a working artist.
Cultivating that level of mutual appreciation remains the driving force behind (Art) Song Lab. Since 2011, we’ve hosted the creation of 117 new art songs by hundreds of composers and writers from around the world. They have been guided through the process of rehearsal, workshop, and performance by our faculty of singers and pianists with decades of experience performing and studying art song.
It’s fostered an amazing experience and professional development for our participants, but we’ve long wanted to engage performers on an equal footing so that everyone benefits from new collaborative experiences.
That’s why we’re so excited to bring performer participants into the fold. It’s been beyond rewarding to see the next generation of composers and poets influenced and forever changed by their experiences at (Art) Song Lab, but it feels incomplete without including the next cohort of performers.
We are witnessing an explosion of the song repertoire canon these days, and artists are advocating for music that reflects their own cultural and linguistic vernacular. At (Art) Song Lab, duos will collaborate directly with composers and poets on a world premiere song, working on the immediacy of text and music written expressly with them in mind.
In addition, duos will be coached by (Art) Song Lab’s performance faculty on other contemporary songs, take part in workshops and group discussions, perform at least two public concerts, and help shape the future of art song.
(Art) Song Lab changed the ways I make music. I always enjoyed working with composers on new works, but the inclusion of writers at (Art) Song Lab was a mind-opening experience. I remember how moved poets were by the close readings of their work by composers and performers – the words mattered deeply to all of us, and the expressive immediacy of our work was how I always knew music should be.
To learn more, be sure to visit the website and subscribe to the newsletter so you don’t miss details about next summer’s program.
While you’re there, be sure to listen to the catalogue of songs written for (Art) Song Lab, and learn more about the incredible artists who’ve participated.
Please consider making a contribution to the Foundation today.
Welcome to Art Song Canada’s Spring Issue, ‘Operatically Speaking’.
It is a curious truth that few opera composers have been successful composers of art song. In this issue, we focus on three who have managed to wear both hats: Richard Wagner, Francis Poulenc, and Benjamin Britten.
In ‘The Wesendonck Lieder: Intimacy and Intrigue’, British soprano (and Wagner interpreter), Rachel Nichols, offers us a fascinating look at the creation and structure of these iconic and intimate songs, written by one of opera’s most expansive composers. Canadian pianist, Rachel Andrist, brings her extensive expertise as both a recitalist and coach to her article on Francis Poulenc, in which she examines the influences that Tel jour, telle nuit — perhaps Poulenc’s greatest song cycle — had on his opera, Dialogues des Carmélites. Canadian tenor, Michael Colvin, has been making a name for himself in the music of Benjamin Britten. In an article inspired by his personal connection to Britten’s music, Michael explores the humanity of the composer which he feels is at the heart of his success in both opera and art song.
Editor, Art Song Canada
The Wesendonk Lieder: Intimacy and Intrigue
By Rachel Nicholls, Soprano
The Wesendonck Lieder were written for soprano voice and piano by Richard Wagner between 1857 and 1858. In themselves they are beautifully simple — each song a perfect scene in itself, with text that is clear and easy to understand with none of the opacity of Wagner’s own libretti. But what these songs give us, as well as being important works of art in their own right, is a window through which we can look in order to grasp some of the intrigue and motivating forces which resulted in Wagner’s masterpieces. As someone who composed epically huge operas based on towering themes, it’s very surprising how successful these intimate songs are. Although they have since been orchestrated more than once and are often performed this way, Wagner himself conceived them for piano and voice. Many opera composers can’t summon the necessary subtlety and nuance for chamber music, but Wagner is careful not to overpower the text and I feel that the intensity of the interplay between singer and accompanist without the intermediary of a conductor gives us a flavour of the intimacy he shared with his muse.
The songs were the result of an artistic collaboration between Wagner and his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, and were first performed in Laubenheim on 30th July 1862 by soprano Emilie Genast, accompanied by Hans von Bülow. Wagner was still married to Minna, his first wife, and a year after the first performance, he was to embark on a long affair with Cosima Von Bülow — the wife of the accompanist. Cosima and Wagner went on to have three children together, and eventually married in 1870. Interestingly, Hans Von Bülow’s admiration for Wagner’s music was said to be undiminished by Wagner stealing his wife. But it was Mathilde Wesendonck, not Cosima von Bülow, who was the muse for Wagner’s heroines: Eva, Brünnhilde and Isolde.
The letters written by Wagner to Mathilde are passionate, expansive and fervent. Sadly, those written by her to him were destroyed, so we can only guess at the whole substance of their relationship. Wagner claimed that it was unconsummated, and it is clear that the intense suffering and melancholy at the heart of Tristan und Isolde is an expression of Wagner’s frustration and unhappiness. Wagner tells Liszt in one of his letters, that by getting to know Tristan, he would come to understand the intimacies of Wagner’s relationship with Mathilde, so perhaps the writing of Tristan was a way for Wagner to express his deepest feelings to the world while at the same time keeping the identity of his muse and great love clandestine.
The Wesendonck songs are all expressions of love. The first, Der Engel, describes its redeeming quality and ability to save from suffering. This first song is gentle and intimate. It lies low in the voice, making it easy to articulate the text without losing the beauty of Wagner’s mellifluous melodic lines. It always seems to me absolutely appropriate for a performance in a smaller performing space, drawing the audience in and inviting them to come on a spiritual and emotional journey. Wagner’s word-painting of the hovering angel on a piano top G is simple but beautifully effective.
Stehe Still begins with “stop the world, I want to get off” but invokes a storm of movement with the lovers at the calm centre, gazing blissfully into each others’ eyes. Wesendonck was seemingly as big a fan of alliteration as her lover, giving the singer the gift of consonants that you can almost taste as you produce them.
Im Treibhaus was one of the two songs described by Wagner as ‘studies’ for Tristan. The music uses the moody thematic material from the tortured beginning of Act 3, and the song describes the suffering of displacement — perhaps Wesendonck is referencing Wagner’s forced exile following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848-49, or perhaps the unhappiness of two souls yearning to be together but forced to live apart. The melody is chromatic and the setting syllabic which needs carefully handing, impeccable tuning and a flawless legato. It’s a big challenge and once again requires the most delicate colours in the Wagnerian’s paintbox.
Schmerzen has an altogether more heroic quality. It’s short, fabulous and gleaming.To understand joy we must first understand pain is the message, and the song ends with a triumphant motif from The Ring which seems optimistic. Here Brünnhilde can be vocally unleashed in all her glory.
Finally, Träume (the second Tristan study) encapsulates the exultant joy and terrifying fragility of the Act 2 love duet in one perfect song. The introduction is so beautiful I am always terrified of spoiling it, but the indulgent harmonies and rich texture make it rather like resting on a sumptuous feather bed of sound.
Singing the Wesendonck Lieder is about as far away from Hojotoho as it’s possible to get, and reminds me that Wagner’s heroines in real life and in his operas are multi-faceted, subtle and full of intrigue.
References and further reading:
Millington, Barry. The Wagner Compendium. (Thames & Hudson: 1992)
Rieger, Eva. Richard Wagner’s Women. tr. Chris Walton. (The Boydell Press: 2011)
Spencer & Millington. Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. (W.W. Norton & Co.: 1998)
By Rachel Andrist, Pianist
“I have always adored singing,” stated Francis Poulenc, an avowed lover of the human voice and one of the few composers equally at home in art song and opera. He attributed his musical influences to Mozart and Debussy, among others and was also clear in attributing the lyricism in his works to Pierre Bernac, whom he accompanied for years. Through Bernac, Poulenc learned how the human voice worked and developed his skill for perfect melodic setting of text.
This lyricism and understanding manifests itself in a natural vocal writing, always completely attuned to the nuances of the text and the rhythm and flow of the words. Whether poetry or libretto, slow or fast, his music always serves the words in a deeply lyrical way.
Poulenc composed everything from the piano, and even though his opera Dialogues des Carmélites and the song cycle Tel jour telle nuit were written twenty years apart, they both represent watershed moments. Tel jour was his first real song cycle, with the two slow outer songs Bonne journée and Nous avons fait le nuit, forming a frame for the rest with the quick ‘trampoline songs’ that get us from one slower song to the next. Carmélites has a similar ebb and flow: short bursts of energy that propel us into the next scene.
My first encounter with Carmélites was to prepare it for a production in Copenhagen in 2007 with the wonderful French conductor Marc Soustrot. I was learning it the during the summer at a festival whilst working on a different French opera and was lucky to have one of the best French language coaches ever as a colleague. We had many discussions about Carmélites — the text, the transfer of grace and also where to liaise, always an issue with French opera. 🙂 (By the way, the higher class characters like Blanche and Mère-Marie do more liaisons than the lower class characters… one way to solve the inevitable arguments.) By that time in my life, I had played many of Poulenc’s song cycles, and when I first began to play the broken octaves in the speech he Old Prioress gives to Blanche in the fourth Tableau, I was struck by the similarity to the outer songs of Tel jour — not just the octave figure, but the themes of profound humanity and compassion, the themes of love and faith, and how incredibly intense ‘calme’ can be.
As a coach, I don’t distinguish between art song and opera. You must sing both with your voice fully connected to the core of your sound and on the breath and consistently legato all the time. Only with a true legato will the text be clear and the musical phrasing natural and organic. I too have “always adored singing.”
A Profound Perfect Union
By Michael Colvin, Tenor
The music of Benjamin Britten has been a constant throughout my career. From my early days as Johnny Inkslinger in University of Toronto Opera’s Paul Bunyan to a memorable run as Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia with the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, it didn’t take long for me to recognize a special affinity for Britten’s music.
My debut with English National Opera soon followed and with it came roles like Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw, Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bob Boles in Peter Grimes and Red Whiskers in Billy Budd. There were also two hugely memorable ‘jump in’ performances as Peter Grimes himself, substituting for an ailing colleague; a dream come true. This year I’ll make my Teatro alla Scala debut as Bob Boles in a new Robert Carsen production of Peter Grimes — another dream come true.
I vividly recall my first encounter with Britten’s music. I was researching opera in English when I stumbled upon Tarquinius’ Ride from The Rape of Lucretia.
This music was so different from opera as I understood it. Opera was ‘The Three Tenors’, Puccini and Verdi, Nessun dorma and La donna è mobile, large bel canto voices and long legato lines. But here was something altogether different. Here was music that spoke to me on a visceral level. I remember listening in rapt attention as The Male Chorus recounted Tarquinius’ harried and sexually charged ride towards Rome. I could hear the pounding hooves, cracking whips and snapping tendons as Tarquinius pushed his steed to the breaking point, the image of Lucretia burning a hole in his brain.
It wasn’t just his operas that caught my attention. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to perform many of Britten’s most celebrate works: from folksong arrangements like Sally Gardens, canticles like Abraham & Isaac and Still Falls the Rain, song cycles like Winter Words, to his oratorios and chamber works. His Serenade for tenor, horn & strings remains one of my favourite pieces of all time and one I revisit whenever the opportunity arises.
So what is it about Britten’s music that made him so successful whether composing for the massive forces of grand opera or intimate songs for voice and piano?
Britten’s intellectual rigour (he was incredibly well read) pushed him to explore subject matter far beyond conventional operatic tropes, and his innate sensitivity coupled with a keen insight into the human condition gave us some of the most psychologically complex characters in all of opera. He also had a deep love and respect for the rich history of English song which gave us his Purcell Realizations and his stylish arrangements of Folksongs of the British Isles. It didn’t hurt that he was also a noted pianist and conductor who enjoyed performing his own works.
However, if I had to choose one thing that stands out, it would be Britten’s profound and enduring love of the voice… and not just any voice!
The voice of Peter Pears is something of an acquired taste and has been described by some as nasal and reedy, not necessarily the ideal of a traditional operatic tenor. Comedian Dudley Moore’s irreverent but affectionate parody of Britten and Pears is sure to put a smile on your face.
Despite such characterizations, Pear’s artistry was beyond reproach and his ability to vividly interpret Britten’s music made audiences sit up and listen. The voice was sizeable, easily heard over a large orchestra, and yet Pears could pull it back into a hushed pianissimo which he could spin forever, like threads of vocal gold. Take, for example, this excerpt from Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo.
Here is Britten in his own words from 1974, reflecting on Peter’s voice and artistry:
My darling heart… I do love you so terribly, not only glorious you but your singing. I have just listened to a re-broadcast of Winter Words and honestly, you are the greatest artist that ever was — every nuance, subtle & never over-done — those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sound you make, full but always coloured for words & music. What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?…I love you, I love you, I love you, B. —Letters from a Life, Vol. 6
I believe it was the flexibility and versatility of the voice he was writing for that inspired Britten to move so effortlessly between art song, chamber music, opera and oratorio. Conversely, Britten’s originality and inventiveness pushed Pears to develop and mature as an artist, exploring vocal colours and timbres he may otherwise never have found.
Together, these partners in life and music gave us so many magical moments. They brought out the best in each other, creating a profound, perfect union, and our world is much the better for it.
Please consider making a contribution to the Foundation today.
Welcome to the Art Song Canada’s Winter Issue: Beginnings.
The New Year is almost upon us and, for many, it brings with it a renewed sense of purpose, a list of resolutions for the coming year, and the hope that we can leave the past behind and start afresh. In this issue, three of North America’s highly acclaimed musicians share with us their ‘beginnings’.
American composer, Ben Moore, gives us insight into his compositional process and the various ways in which a song cycle comes to fruition. Canadian pianist, Cole Knutson, who is currently making waves across Europe, describes his journey from saxophone soloist at Carnegie Hall to collaborative pianist with many of today’s finest young singers… including mezzo-soprano, Ema Nikolovska. Ema, in our final article, Art Song As an Anchoring Element of Singing Life: Each day is Its Own Beginning, discusses the importance of art song as the cornerstone for both a healthy technique and artistic growth. One need only look at her meteoric rise to international recognition to understand the truth of what she writes.
Editor, Art Song Canada
Beginning a Song Cycle
By Ben Moore, Composer
I’m fascinated with beginnings, especially the beginnings of musical compositions. So I’m delighted to discuss how I began each of my five song cycles, pieces I believe contain some of my best work. These include So Free Am I, Dear Theo, Ode to a Nightingale, Love Remained and And Another Song Comes On. Listeners, I find, want to believe there’s a common, predictable pattern to how I began each of these cycles but that’s not quite true.
My first cycle was So Free Am I for soprano and piano. I was commissioned by the Marilyn Horne Foundation in 2005 to write the work for their annual song festival at Carnegie Hall and was paired with the wonderful soprano Monica Yunus. The choice of texts and subject matter was left entirely up to us. Finding an inspiring theme or framework for a cycle can be a difficult process but in this case it came together quite naturally. Monica’s father is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed Yunus, and my conversations with Monica inevitably touched on the monumental work her father was doing to help lift oppressed and disenfranchised women out of poverty. After only one meeting we had decided to choose texts written by women concerning issues around oppression.
When I work with librettists (or when writing my own lyrics) I usually prefer to write music first. For these cycles, however, the words almost always came first. The exceptions include certain songs within the cycles to which I applied existing melodies to the chosen texts; melodies I’d created years earlier in some cases. This may seem surprising to some, but I make the point that, like music, structured poetry has repeating patterns and cadences that quite often fit existing melodies and vice versa.
Having established the theme for So Free Am I, I set about combing through poems by women. These are the questions I was asking: 1.) does the poem address women’s oppression in some way? 2.) is it compelling emotionally? 3.) is the language accessible and potentially singable on first read? 4.) is it of a reasonable length?
After the selection of texts comes a most onerous, but necessary, step: making sure the texts are either in the Public Domain or obtainable by permission. It’s terribly frustrating to fall in love with a poem only to find out it’s not available. I have many stories to tell on this subject but the most surprising is as follows: I had fallen in love with two poems which I had hoped to make the first and last songs of So Free Am I. They were writings of Indian Buddhist nuns from the sixth century B.C.E., translated by the Indian scholars Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum Roy. In trying to gain permission from Ms. Roy, I was dismayed to discover she was residing in an undisclosed location in Bangladesh, evidently fearing for her life because of her religious and feminist views – a sad reminder of the continuing injustice that women suffer – and certainly ironic for a translator of So Free Am I.
After the hurdle of securing the texts, the next step was to memorize each poem, recite it aloud (often on my walks in Central Park) and let my subconscious, over time, suggest the musical elements. I recorded these on staff paper, on my phone, or at a keyboard. Thus began the lengthy process of working and reworking toward a final product.
In later cycles I used a similar process but with some substantial differences. Dear Theo sets passages from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. I consider it one of my most successful cycles. Yet it began, not as a cycle, but as a choral piece for the Hobart College choir. Its musical themes were later developed into separate songs. Nightingale is the only cycle of mine that is a setting of a single, timeless poem: Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ each stanza constituting a separate song. One of the songs, ‘Darkling I Listen,’ was written some ten years before the others. The premiere recording was released by Delos productions featuring Art Song Canada’s own Brett Polegato in a stunning performance.
As I consider the beginnings of each of these works, there is one indispensable element I must mention: a passion for the text. For me, if there’s no emotional enthusiasm for the material, very little of value can be accomplished. That passion was certainly there for my last two cycles Love Remained and And Another Song Comes On. Both are comprised of songs in support of the LGBTQ community and the ongoing fight for acceptance.
From the Prairies to the Concert Platform
By Cole Knutson, Pianist, Saxophonist
My music studies began on the piano when I was twelve in my hometown of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. I come from a modest background of typical prairie folk and had the privilege of always being in nature as a child. I remember long summer nights camping and enough inconceivably cold winters to make me shiver at the mere thought.
I first played for a singer in the same year I started piano lessons, and I knew then that I needed to do whatever that was for the rest of my life, blissfully unaware that the idea of conventionality would be fantasy henceforth.
The following month, I began independently learning the saxophone to better understand the nature of the accompanist-soloist relationship. I suspected many similarities between singing and playing the saxophone. I took three years out of high school to intensely focus on both disciplines, finished my high school studies online in four months, and continued my studies on the saxophone with Allen Harrington in Winnipeg.
During my time in Winnipeg, I had the privilege of playing as a soloist with several orchestras, touring with various ensembles — always as principal saxophonist — and winning second place at the National Music Festival of Canada, having learned and memorized the repertoire on the plane ride from Austria. I made my Carnegie Hall debut at twenty. Despite my activities and studies as a classical saxophonist, one of the most influential relationships I formed during my undergraduate degree was with voice professor Robert MacLaren. Our relationship was forged during our extensive two-year study and performance of Die Winterreise, by Franz Schubert. At the age of twenty, with the support of Bob and various other individuals, I spent the summer at the Franz Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, Austria, as part of the last class taught by the founder, Deen Larsen.
The Schubert-Institut changed my life in ways I could not have conceived and I felt my world expanding every day. Through this experience, the path to studying piano in Europe was paved, interrupted only by the final year of my undergraduate degree and a year recovering from a life-changing car accident. I suddenly found myself going from playing at Carnegie Hall to selling knickknacks at a pharmacy in my hometown, not knowing if I would be able to play the piano again.
Ultimately, I found my way to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on full scholarship. My time there felt like an extension of the Schubert-Institut. Enduring and thriving under intense pressures allowed me to expand in all directions. At the Guildhall, my needs were exceeded thanks to the programme, the immense support of the school, the incomparable Pamela Lidiard, and my teachers, Julius Drake and Eugene Asti. In addition, Rudolf Piernay was a considerable influence. The support was almost uncanny, in many ways the opposite of past educational experiences.
After graduating from the Guildhall, I began investigating the underlying principles of musical programming in the context of the art song recital format, supported by the Sylva Gelber Music Foundation. I am also beginning to perform more, now that COVID has come to feel like a faint memory in most of Europe.
Performance-wise, I have been fortunate to pick up where I left off pre-pandemic and have managed a relatively busy schedule throughout Europe and Canada. Recently, I was selected as a pianist for the Heidelberger-Frühling-Liedzentrum Liedakademie, a programme led by Thomas Hampson which takes place over the year and includes performances and masterclasses at the Boulez Saal in Berlin. I start there in the New Year and then fly to New York for Renée Fleming’s SongStudio programme at Carnegie Hall. Then off to Montréal for some performances and coachings. I head back to Germany and Switzerland for rehearsals, and a short rest period in London followed by an intense rehearsal period. Germany is next with a couple performances and a competition, and then on to Iceland for a small recital. Then a bit of a break! As a general trend, my life cycles between periods of preparation and study, and periods of rehearsal and performance.
Upon reflection, I realize how privileged I am to embark on this rich and fulfilling journey. In my constant pursuit of knowledge and understanding, I have become increasingly aware of how much I don’t know; it is a simultaneously rewarding and aggravating experience – like an itch that feels good to scratch. Above all, I cherish the humanity I feel in all my encounters and exchanges, both on and off the concert platform.
Art Song As an Anchoring Element of Singing Life: Each Day is Its Own Beginning
By Ema Nikolovksa, Mezzo-Soprano
www: Ema Nikolvska
My love of art song is a natural extension of a longing for musical intimacy — as a violinist, I connected most with chamber music, especially violin/piano sonatas, so when I began voice lessons with Helga Tucker at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto as a sixteen-year-old and she would give me songs by Schubert, Schumann and Gounod even in the earliest weeks of my journey as her student, I felt like I was working on violin sonatas that had words. I was enchanted by the power of the standard three- to five-minute length of most songs: a pocket of adventure, colour, a vignette, an atmosphere, a whole world in such a small space of time. What’s more, one could juxtapose these micro-universes endlessly, creating new contexts through experimenting with different aesthetic combinations.
My beginnings in my voice journey were very much influenced by my adventures in song, repertoire research and programming during my studies for various purposes, and then as I was offered different platforms to be creative, either through song competitions or my work on the BBC New Generation Artists scheme. At the moment I’m excited to be working on a programme to be presented on 14 December with pianist Kunal Lahiry at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg – an evening juxtaposing songs by Copland, Schubert, Prokofiev, Crumb, Héloïse Werner, vocalises by Prokofiev, Messiaen and Emily Doolittle, and a song cycle I commissioned by Nahre Sol through the BBC, which Kunal and I premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival this past June.
I believe art song is the basis of developing healthy vocal technique, imaginative flexibility, and increased stage experience; as we research song repertoire, we get to know our voice by trying out several aesthetics, languages, phrasing styles, and by extension we question and challenge our preferences and resistances. In the midst of this there can be many opportunities to perform, whether it be in 20-minute increments (as in some rounds of competitions or a slot in a larger concert with other musicians) 30-min slots for an ‘exam’, or sharing a recital with a colleague, and building up to 60–70 min for a full-length recital. One takes on an almost directorial position (in contrast to playing a specific character in opera), because in a song performance of any length, you must curate the dramatic pacing, the energy between songs and sets, and the contrasts among the poetry and other aural textures, with an awareness of proportioning all these mixing aesthetics. Logging in stage time with these sorts of challenges is another way to take ownership of one’s musical identity, build confidence and observe how it changes over time, not to mention the incredibly enriching experiences of rehearsing and performing with pianist partners, engaging in exchanges about the words and music and challenging one another’s perspectives.
I am now at the beginning of a full-time freelancing career, and I find that in all the years before this moment, when I belonged to various learning institutions, art song was my anchor throughout. An outlet for self-discovery and creativity, one which had a bit less pressure than opera: smaller units of stories led to experimenting with many composers in whatever performance length emerged, and so this encouraged relaxation and playfulness, whereas with opera we may often feel the legacy of a role as we work on some intimidating arias, and also to be overwhelmed by such intense stimulation onstage and backstage even when one sings a few sentences in a large production. Of course there is playfulness in opera as well! Its different stimulatory challenges – learning to follow a conductor while inhabiting a character, for example – are important to the development of our stage craft; however, I believe the song and opera elements in one’s vocal life go very well together — song is opera, opera is song, and they need one another. The scale is different in these forms and navigating the variation of scale and stimulation is an important part of one’s creative practice. Meanwhile I think one of the healthiest and most essential elements of one’s vocal life is to sing song regularly: connecting to the poetry, reciting it, is like meditating, and then binding the voice to this state is a further meditative extension. This intimacy reminds the voice that, no matter the scale of the form, human connection/singing is born of intimacy, of small units of tenderness which exist even in the root of the most blustery and heightened emotions.
A song is one of the oldest units of human expression; beholding it is simultaneously like standing in awe at the foot of a great mountain and connecting with the most casual feeling of humming to a baby, bursting out in folk music at a gathering of friends, or being pulled into reminiscing on a dance floor by a song from another period of your life. I often wonder, Isn’t everything a song? What a gift to feel like each day of practice is a new beginning in discovering what songs will emerge, an adventure in confronting oneself and getting in touch with a stillness and gentleness which are always there to access — little universes at the ready to be explored!
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Welcome to the Art Song Canada’s Fall Issue: The Art (Song) of War.
With the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the world is once more in a state of upheaval. In times of conflict, humanity seeks solace and understanding through music and song, and much great art has been given to us by those most closely affected by the horrors of war. In this issue, we explore the art songs that wars have inspired and the composers who sought to make sense out of the tragedy.
John McKeown, Irish composer, director and tenor, turns his attention to the sorely neglected composer and poet, Ivor Gurney, who fought and survived the Great War, and who ultimately spent much of his life in psychiatric hospitals. Randall Scarlata, American baritone and educator, takes us ‘behind the scenes’ of one of Ned Rorem’s greatest song cycles, War Scenes, written at the request of the great French baritone, Gérard Souzay. Drawing on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Rorem dedicated this poignant work to all those who died in the Vietnam War. In our final article, Songs In The Time of War, Canadian tenor and co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project, Lawrence Wiliford, writes of those composers who would attempt to convey the experiences of those displaced by war, violence and persecution. Artists, he insists, have a musical and moral obligation to keep these stories alive.
Editor, Art Song Canada
Ivor Gurney: An Appreciation
By John McKeown, Opera Director, Composer, Tenor
The Songs I Had
The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,
And there grow flowers
For others delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.
I first came upon the poems and songs of Ivor Gurney in my early career in music. What appeals to me so much about Gurney is his equal facility as a wordsmith and composer. His sensibilities as a poet mark him out as particularly finely-attuned to the craft of being an art song composer. Gurney, himself, considered music to be his higher calling. “The brighter visions brought music; the fainter verse.”
Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester in 1890. He was a lover of nature and long walks in the countryside helped fashion a lifelong joy in God’s creation. His clear talent in music was evident from an early age. Also evident was his eccentricity and frailty of nerves. He marched to his own drum, and it would ever be thus. His father enouraged his musical ambitons which led to a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. While there, the musicologist Marion Scott became a great champion and lifelong friend. Young Ivor was aware of his talents and had an ego to match. Charles Villiers Stanford, his composition tutor, observed in later years that Gurney was, of all his pupils, (Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Bliss included), potentially “the biggest man of them all.” But, he added, “he was the least teachable.”
Inevitably, Gurney’s studies were cut short by World War I, and he enlisted as a private in the Gloucestershire regiment in February 1915. He did compose while in the trenches of The Somme. However, the horrors of war prompted an even greater outpouring of poetry. There were many emerging poets and composers who fought in the trenches of World War I. Francis Ledwidge, Wilfred Owen, George Butterworth, and Ernest Farrar didn’t survive. Gurney, at least, returned, and had a chance at life again. He did return to his music studies, and had a new tutor — one much more suited to his particular talents and personality: Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Gurney actually set very few of his own poems to music — Severn Meadows being a striking exception.
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn Meadows.
This poem was written while Gurney was cowering in the shadows of the mausoleum of a ruined chateau in Caulaincourt in the bitter cold of January 1917. The song is beautiful… in a wistful longing elegiac way. It seeks beauty and celebrates beauty in the way that only a wanderer, a loner, can appreciate. The key lines here are “And who loves joy as he/That dwells in shadows?” For all his life, Gurney was moving in and out of shadow, his extreme sensitivity and rare genius marking him out for a troubled passage through life. He was not possessed of social graces, and while he had a quick wit and keen intelligence he was forever an outsider, and most ‘at home’ in his own company.
Another song worthy of consideration is Gurney’s setting of John Fletcher’s poem, Sleep. One of the ‘Five Elizas’ — it is Gurney at his best, and was composed in 1912, before the rigours of World War I. Youth, exhuberance and self-confidence are matched by an effortless mastery, and inspiration comes from a deep well. Indulge me, please, in setting out verse two of the poem. I would like the reader to see and hear the brilliance and depth of Gurney’s setting.
Though but a shadow, but a sliding,
Let me know some little joy.
We that suffer long annoy
Are contented with a thought
Through an idle fancy wrought:
O let my joys have some abiding.
We come to that word ‘joy’ again. It seems to me there is a haunted quality about the best of his songs. A troubled soul, intense joy and deepest despair were keenly felt, always. Sadly, the last 15 years of his life were spent in and out of psychatric hospitals, and he died on 26 December 1937. He was 47 years old.
Vaughan Williams and Marion Scott remained champions, to the last. The great tragedy is that whole swathes of his asylum manuscripts were destroyed as ‘incoherent.’ He wrote fewer and fewer songs the older he got and it must have been the most dreadful pain that he could never experience his music in the live setting of the concert hall during all of these years. For now, though, let us celebrate the man and his genius, and be thankful for all that his legacy has bestowed on us.
Ned Rorem’s War Scenes: Tough, Sad Words That Make a Sharp Point
By Randall Scarlata, Baritone, Professor at The Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Tanglewood Music Center Faculty
When Ned Rorem was asked by the great French baritone, Gérard Souzay, to write a new cycle for a recital tour later that year, he seemed a bit unsure. In the publication of his The Later Diaries: 1961–1972 we read that “twenty years ago when his voice flowed smooth as warm caramel and my inspiration reeked like musk, I could have whipped up something in half a week, probably on the verses of Musset. Now we’re other people. Now his art concerns me only as a steely wail through which some tough sad words could make a sharp point. What words? For never again will I write in French.”
In 1969, the Vietnam War was certainly front and centre in the minds of many. Rorem, a Quaker and therefore pacifist, dedicated War Scenes to “those who died in Vietnam, both sides, during the composition: 20-30 June,1969.” He chose for his texts, the wholly American voice of Walt Whitman, using excerpts from Specimen Days, a poetic memoir of his time as a Civil War nurse. Indeed, Rorem found the tough, sad words he needed, and they inspired him to make a very sharp point indeed.
After a rehearsal with Souzay and pianist Dalton Baldwin, Rorem wrote, “Gérard, haunted… sounds marvelous, if insecure in English. My cycle, meant for him, indeed sounds meant for him. If they practice hard, and they will, the piece will work.” The cycle was premiered at Constitution Hall on October 19, 1969. Rorem was pleased with the reception, writing in his diary that the reviews were “the best I’ve ever had.”
The first song of the cycle, A Night Battle, thrusts us immediately into the stark horrors of war. The vocal writing is declamatory and free, while the piano writing alternates between a bombastic motive (incorporating the full range of the keyboard) and chordal figures embodying the transparent calm of night, a moon gently lighting up the horrors of the battle. The second, third, and fourth songs focus on individuals rather than battles: Specimen Case captures a short, heartbreaking connection between a handsome, young soldier and his battlefield nurse. With a slow, gentle progression of chords, Rorem uses his wonderful sense of line and prosody to create a sense of intimacy.
An Incident begins with the piano pounding a brutal theme from the first song, in retrograde, yet the singer reports on the incident matter-of-factly and atonally, as if to keep from getting too close to the material. Inauguration Ball presents a waltz gone wrong. Fiendishly difficult piano writing and a jaunty vocal line work together (and against each other) to tell of the poet’s invitation to a ball, so very different from all the sights and smells of the battlefield earlier in the day. Beautiful men and women dance the night away, seemingly unvexed by the pitiless toll of war. The final song, The Real War Will Never Get in the Books, has the following marking by Rorem: Flexible, declamatory, slower than speech, but rich and full, supple and grand. It sounds like a description of Whitman himself! Using intervals from the first song, the voice sings for the first two pages largely unaccompanied, allowing the full weight and intimacy of the words to be delivered. When the piano joins again, it is supportive with open chords and a descant that trails away until a final, subito, forte chord is rolled in the piano and held with pedal until the end of the piece, allowing the voice to trail off in thought.
I worked with Gérard Souzay on many occasions in the 1990s as a young singer. Early on in our relationship, he suggested I look at War Scenes, but “not yet.” It wasn’t until a few years after his death in 2004 that I picked up the score and considered the songs for a performance. I regret that I was unable to work on these songs with Souzay, for surely, he would have had many wonderful insights.
Rorem wrote War Scenes for a singer who could no longer rely on the absolute beauty of his voice, but still had a remarkable gift for connecting with an audience and delivering text. There are certainly moments for beautiful singing, but these songs demand total commitment to delivery of text. If a singer and pianist embrace all the sounds in their arsenal – the good, the bad and the ugly – they can deliver an affecting account of Whitman’s words as interpreted by Rorem.
Songs in the Time of War
By Lawrence Wiliford, Tenor, Co-Artistic Director, Canadian Art Song Project
Part of our collective obligation as artists and performers of recital and concert music is to present programs that speak to diverse audiences and connect to current societal concerns. In North America this has recently been demonstrated through the (long overdue) highlighting of Black and Indigenous composers along with other systemically underrepresented voices in the canon of art music.
In addition to these important voices, the world has also recently turned its attention again to the horrors of war in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Not long ago, in recognition of the 100-year anniversary of World War I, numerous concert programs featured the works of war poets and composers who suffered or perished at that time. Indeed, the songs and chamber works of Finzi, Butterworth, Gurney and others from this period that speak to the early 20th-century war experience are staples of the repertoire. However, as artists respond to the human suffering and loss that we are witness to (and many directly impacted by) in this moment, I am struck by the limited scope often represented in much of the ‘war song’ canon.
Although war has touched and continues to touch every corner of our globe, art music usually depicts a white, male perspective. However, war more directly impacts those less privileged than this one group. Indeed, in our contemporary context, the most vulnerable have endured unprecedented hardships in the midst of global instability and war. In 2017 a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) report declared that “War, violence and persecution worldwide are causing more people than ever to be forcibly displaced.” More recently, a June 2022 UNHCR report states the even more disturbing reality that “the number of people forced to flee their homes has increased every year over the past decade and stands at the highest level since records began.” Forced migration, displacement, trauma and loss are realities of war passed on from generation to generation. Artists have an opportunity and responsibility to convey these human experiences and reflect the voices of women, children and other diverse perspectives, in addition to those most often presented.
I do not have an exhaustive knowledge of all of the repertoire that can speak to these questions, but I can point to examples of works that I am aware of that might help broaden the scope of the recognized canon. One of the works that I am drawn to in my exploration of these issues is Songs in Time of War, a 2006 cycle by British composer Alec Roth that sets the poetry of first-century Chinese poet Du Fu as translated by Indian novelist and poet Vikram Seth. I find this work incredibly effective in conveying an experience that touches on forced migration, familial displacement and personal loss in war. Songs in Time of War was composed for Mark Padmore and was originally scored for tenor, violin, harp and guitar. I am looking forward to premiering a new version of these songs in Toronto for tenor, erhu, harp and guitar this summer.
Another example that speaks to displacement and the refugee experience is the 2019 cycle by Canadian composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte entitled Another Day. Here, texts by children wrestling with these issues published in the UNHCR collection entitled A Book of Poems: Expressions from our Youth are set for soprano and piano. Commissioned by Canadian Art Song Project in the wake of the 2016 Syrian refugee crisis, the songs were recently premiered by Anna-Sophie Neher and pianist Carl Matthieu Neher.
Finally, He’s Come Home Again, an excerpt from Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan’s Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, sets Suzanne Steele’s poetry in witness to the sacrifice of those who go to war. Written for soprano, (cello) and piano, this piece is a unique example of a woman war poet’s voice observing the repatriation of a soldier’s body.
As we continue to advocate for the connective power of the recital repertoire, it is also our responsibility to ensure that the stories and music that are offered reflect the past as well as the current realities of human experiences… in peace and war. To this end, I urge artists to continue to broaden the canon of song that expresses the diversity of stories told of war, through research and in the commissioning of new works.
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Welcome to the Art Song Canada’s Summer ‘Oh Canada!’ Issue. Canada can be duly proud of its historic and ongoing contribution to the world of art — especially in the areas of words and music. In this issue, three of Canada’s eminent musicians share stories about their contributions to the Canadian art song repertoire.
In ‘I’se the B’y that Sets the Songs,’ John Greer explores the rich heritage of Canadian folk song and its inspiration for him and other composers. Last summer, we spoke with Canadian soprano and voice teacher, Mary Morrison. In this article by Suzanne Vanstone, our second from that interview, Mary discusses the history of Canadian Art Song composition and her role in bringing that music to life. Finally, the poetry of Canadian writers as a source of inspiration is the focus of Jeffrey Ryan’s article, ‘The Right Words at the Right Time.’
Editor, Art Song Canada
I’se the B’y that Sets the Songs
By John Greer, Pianist,Vocal Coach; Composer; Retired Professor/Director of Opera Studies (Eastman, New England Conservatory); Instructor at the Glenn Gould School, RCM, Toronto
Looking back, it is no surprise that folk song played such an important part in my musical and creative life. Music was still part of our standard Winnipeg Elementary School education and singing Canadian folk song was the core of that class. The first volume of vocal music in my library was Edith Fowke’s Folk Songs of Canada. I was soon to learn that many of my favourite art song composers (Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Wolf, Vaughan Williams and Britten, to name a few) were also deeply steeped in these rich cultural traditions connecting us to time immemorial. (As a youth I wrongly assumed that Die Forelle and Linden Lea were folk songs themselves.)
There is not a theme, emotion or social situation, sacred or profane, that has not been captured somehow in traditional folk song. Canadians are lucky as our collective ‘ocean of folk song’ has four vast contributing cultural rivers, each a multi-faceted tradition in itself: Indigenous Canada, France, Great Britain and the United States. The superb music library at the University of Toronto has floor-to-ceiling shelves, dozens of feet long holding nothing but anthologies of folk songs transcriptions of all these kinds, carefully collected and preserved. In the countless contented hours I’ve spent combing these shelves, my favourite discoveries were always the unique songs of my inherited colonial world — the songs that only could have been written in Canada by Canadians proud of what differentiates them from other nations. By far the largest number of these best ‘prize songs’ come from Newfoundland, ranging from the plaintive pathos of She’s Like the Swallow to the high-spirited I’se the B’y that Builds the Boat.
Folk song is responsible for my professional creative entry into the world of vocal art music. Once an undergraduate composition student at the University of Manitoba, as a young professional fresh out of graduate school I found myself arranging Trois chansons folkloriques du Canada for vocal duet and piano shortly after moving to Toronto to save myself having to ‘improvise something fun on the tambourine’ (!) at the National Arts Centre, no less (!) at the request of the vocal duo Marks Dubois and Pedrotti, my fear of humiliation doubtlessly fuelling my creativity. Soon I was doing a great deal of arranging, realizing that many of the folk songs so many singers most wanted to share with an audience often remained un-programmed simply because a setting suitable for performance alongside a Schumann Lied or Fauré mélodie wasn’t available.
I have written dozens of song cycles since then, but the inspiration of folk song continues to offer two main creative challenges. The first, to write successful strophic songs, is one that, regretfully, I have rarely felt inspired to meet. The second, however, is always foremost in my mind; to unite text, melody and harmony in a way that is both instantly compelling and memorable, yet that a listener will want to return to again and again, each time finding something new, fresh and inspiring.
Mary Morrison: The Canadian Composer Connection
By Suzanne Vanstone, Former Senior Communications Manager, Editorial at the Canadian Opera Company, Freelance Arts Consultant
We interviewed acclaimed Canadian soprano Mary Morrison last summer about the Banff Academy of Singing and soon realised that we had additional material that reflected upon her advocacy for contemporary Canadian song, and its composers, during her career.
Mary not only collaborated with some of the world’s most innovative international composers, she also performed numerous Canadian vocal works, many of which were written specifically for her, by John Beckwith, Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, John Weinzweig and Harry Freedman. Mary helped shape a national identity to our music. She was awarded the Canadian Music Citation for Outstanding Achievement in the Performance of Canadian Music in 1968.
Mary’s time at the Banff Academy made her acutely aware of the differences in art songs from various cultures, notably the American one. She says, “What the Banff program initiated for me was more knowledge about American composers. The Canadian experiences seemed to be so different from the American ones – something to do with the vastness of Canada, the isolation, perhaps.
“There was a different flavour, a different colour, in Canadian music. Definitely more eclectic. Canadian composers didn’t follow the same kind of patterns or rules. Their creative impulse was very individual, and more organic to them as people. They used nature and all those elements that were available to them.”
Not only was Mary drawn to the beauty of the music but she had another important reason for championing Canadian music and Canadian composers. “Well,” she said with a smile, “They were all my friends!” And in one notable case, her late husband, Harry Freedman.
Similar to the Group of Seven in painting circles, Mary describes the meeting of the minds. “Living with a composer, we naturally had a circle of friends who were also composers. Harry Freedman, Harry Somers, John Weinzweig, John Beckwith and several others used to meet often. And there were writers like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and poet Miriam Waddington who would join them. They called themselves The Loons. They used to meet at the Park Plaza for lunch. It was a fantastic time.”
Mary took great joy in bringing new compositions to life and seeking out what made each composer shine. “I loved trying to find something of the composer that I knew, in his music. We were all such close friends. I was trying to show them through their music: what I thought of them personally; my thoughts about them as people.”
In her career, Mary sang many new Canadian works of which she was proud. One of the works that remains a highlight for her was by composer Serge Garant. “His Cage d’oiseau, based on the poem by Saint-Denys Garneau, was a work that I sang very often. He was a student of Buddha, and I liked that pointillistic, very direct colouring of his compositions. I used to go to Montreal to do a lot of their concerts. We had the new music group here in Toronto (Lyric Arts Trio), and in Montreal they had Serge Garant, Gilles Tremblay, Bruce Mather and Pierre Mercure.” Mary performed numerous new works over her lengthy career and when asked what she hoped audience members understood from her performances she quickly responded. “Oh, I would hope it would be the genuine love of music. Of all music.”
Mary has been long-time educator and has worked with countless young singers and pianists. She hopes, and trusts, that the future of contemporary music in Canada will be a healthy one. “I think singers have to really know something about the lives of our Canadian composers. For instance, Harry Somers not only wrote the opera Louis Riel. He wrote many art songs, too. [Twelve Miniatures, Evocations]. I encourage all my students to have Canadian work on their recitals. I don’t hear enough of it at the university. And it is vital for our international readers, in particular, to understand a little more about Canadian music. Our Canadian composers are not well enough known. If our singers don’t look for those compositions, then what are our composers supposed to do?”
She continues with determination, “In your article, please encourage young singers, all singers, to look for the Canadian composers. It is important. It is part of our culture. Composers have very definite ideas about what they want to say.” And we need to listen.
The Right Words at the Right Time
By Jeffrey Ryan, Composer
Where would we art song composers be without the wordsmiths? As a lover of songs and singers, I’m always on alert for poems that speak music to me. When one appears, the book gets purchased and Post-it notes get attached, to wait on my bookshelf for the right commission.
Poems that speak music tell stories that resonate through an image, an emotion, a moment in time. Canada’s rich poetic diversity reflects the country’s diverse population with its diverse experiences and perspectives. Canada abounds with marvellous poets!
The music springs from the words. But each project is unique — there is no single path to finding those words. Everything Already Lost, commissioned by baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer, had a particular brief: evoke nature, a sense of home, and their British Columbian roots. I remembered meeting BC-based poet Jan Zwicky at a reading that was part of a Vancouver concert. I had been so taken by her poems, which spoke to environmental issues and referenced music, that I immediately bought one of her books, read it, swooned, attached many Post-it notes, and put it on the shelf. Now, I went back to Zwicky’s book—then to the library for all of her other books! Together, Tyler, Erika, and I settled on four poems that touched on jazz (Tyler’s early studies), the sounds of insects in late summer, a richly-detailed remembered moment, and Schumann’s Piano Fantasy and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (the latter a long-meaningful work in the performers’ partnership). As a trained violinist, Jan herself is no stranger to music, so when I requested permission, she understood exactly, and we talked about the poems, why they were chosen, and how I was imagining the music. One of the joys of setting the words of living poets! It was the moment I had hoped for when the book first went on my shelf—a perfect match in every way. Everything Already Lost won the 2021 NATS Art Song Composition Competition, and will be recorded this summer.
During the pandemic, tenor Colin Ainsworth asked me to write a cycle on the theme of ‘darkness into light’ for an upcoming Pacific Opera Victoria filmed recital. In spite of all my Post-it-noted poems, there was nothing suitable on my bookshelf this time! With a short turn-around, I searched for suitable public domain poems. Nothing. Thankfully, POV’s Rebecca Hass knew a local Victoria poet, and upon reading the first poem on Cree Métis poet Michelle Poirier Brown’s website, I heard the ‘inner ding.’ Michelle sent me her collected work to give me a sense of her voice. I was struck again and again by the vivid emotional immediacy of her words. We talked about her possibly writing new poems, but so many of her existing poems spoke music to me that together we settled on four that expressed the theme’s dramatic arc from withdrawal to re-emergence. Colin too could hear the music in Michelle’s words, and heartily approved our selections. Another perfect match — by a different path — and The Length of a Day was born.
In 2017, Canadian Art Song Project commissioned me to write for mezzo Krisztina Szabó. That was the whole brief. With Krisztina as inspiration, I went to a book that had waited on my shelf for twenty years: Canadian painter Emily Carr’s published diary Hundreds and Thousands. Carr died in 1945, so obviously I couldn’t talk with her. But reading her diary entries, I felt a connection with her struggle to find both her creative voice and practical success. As prose, not poetry, her words had a conversational naturalness perfect for the art song monodrama I was envisioning, and I set about distilling that prose into the ‘libretto’ for Miss Carr in Seven Scenes. CASP celebrates Canadian stories in song, and this one resonates universally—anyone trying to make a go of something can see themselves in it. That’s a kind of story that art song tells so well: one in which we recognise something of our own experience. Miss Carr is now available on CASP’s latest recording Found Frozen, where Krisztina and pianist Steven Philcox perfectly embody Carr’s journey.
Sometimes the words have to wait for the right time. Or the time arrives and has to wait for the right words. Either way, when they align, magic can be made.
Everything Already Lost
Slow and Praise from The Length of a Day
Miss Carr in Seven Scenes
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Welcome to the Art Song Canada’s Spring ‘Valentine’s Day’ Issue. Perhaps we are a few weeks late, but I’m sure we all can agree that, in the midst of this ongoing pandemic, stretching our celebration of love a few weeks longer is most welcome.
In this issue, two of Canada’s finest recitalists, pianist Erika Switzer and baritone Tyler Duncan, discuss the joys and pitfalls of making music with the one you love. In his article, ‘The Britten-Pears Recital Duo,’ Stephen Ralls, pianist and co-artistic director of the Aldeburgh Connection, shares his impressions of the collaborative work of one of the greatest couples of 20th-century music.
Editor, Art Song Canada
In Embrace of Complexity
By Erika Switzer, Pianist; Artist in Residence & Director, Collaborative Piano Fellowship, Bard College Conservatory of Music; Co-Creator, Sparks & Wiry Cries
Making music is an organic expression of love. Where poetry joins music, the fragile beauty of our communal nobility is celebrated with vulnerable eloquence in kaleidoscopic colours capable of expressing the vast range of the soul. I have found no better haven to hope or to risk than within the listening and responding spaces of collaboration. This is especially true when we collaborate with trusted friends. So it has been for me with many cherished partners, including especially my 27-year-long musical and life partnership with Tyler Duncan.
Our shared life is a beautifully complex pilgrimage. When I think of Müller and Schubert’s proto-lost soul, departing on a Winter’s Journey, I recognize elements of the person I was twenty-seven years ago, not knowing the purpose of my path but always seeking connection and understanding. I truly arrived a stranger to our first rehearsals — never having played for a singer or having deciphered foreign language poetry, and feeling utterly yet wonderfully overwhelmed by the intensity of collaboration. Gradually over many years, through close listening, experimenting, joking, arguing, and a myriad of learning experiences musicians encounter as they evolve, we built our own secret musical language — the literacy of sounds and gestures inherent to each other’s imaginations.
It’s fun having a secret language. Sometimes it feels like I can read Tyler’s mind — and perhaps that’s exactly what I am doing, reading the gestures of his artistry, phrasing so familiar that even in moments of surprise I anticipate the unfolding path. The pacing I glean from his breath speed and the dynamic structures I shape, mapped specifically to his resonance, are thrilling to me as I play. I wonder if pilots feel a similar thrill when flying light aircraft, responding to nuances of air pressure and wind direction. For the brief duration of a shared performance, I experience as close to a perfectly executed formational flight as I can imagine. To be clear, such so-called mindreading has not yet permeated our everyday household life. One can dream…
I often get asked about how we communicate in rehearsal — curious folk like to hint at the potential pitfalls of blended marital dynamics and musical conversations — and it makes me laugh, almost every time. We are imperfect humans who strive side-by-side and when you strive, you fail regularly. Failing doesn’t typically feel great and all kinds of behaviours arise to address or sidestep discomfort — some more helpful than others. So yes, conflicts arise and this is, of course, not unique to life partners. Thankfully, we can laugh at ourselves and learn from our mistakes.
The truth is, the rewards of a shared life in music far outweigh the challenges. I love making music; there is nothing more restorative or inspiring for my spirit. Together, Tyler and I have cultivated a joyful appreciation of curiosity and learning. I’m grateful for the beauty of his artistry and for the precious gift of witnessing his journey, no matter the weather and in full embrace of life’s complexity.
“It must be so nice having your wife play for you.”
By Tyler Duncan, Baritone; Professor of Voice, Longy School of Music, Bard College
This is a comment that I hear often after song recitals with the incredible and empathic pianist Erika Switzer. Sure, we have grown to inherently feel each other’s phrasing, musicality, emotional intent, and enhance each other’s musical super-powers, but we just as often disagree over tempi, rubato, programming, keys, and occasionally remind each other of our super-limitations. In short, our work together isn’t just ‘nice,’ it is complex and absolutely wonderful.
In collaborating for over a quarter century Erika and I are still evolving with our rehearsal etiquette. As our lives are ever-changing, along with our needs as musicians and humans (not always in that order), we have the additional task of muddling our working relationship with marriage. From time to time we forget our professional filter, and things get said that would normally be fine, but on that particular day our defences go into overdrive.
Yet when we are on that stage, we can do anything we dream up (within the context of the poem and music, let’s be reasonable here). Rehearsing prepares us for the performance, but our knowledge of each other gives us complete freedom to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life in each and every song we perform, thus making each performance unique. Art Song is about the dialogue between the voice and piano as equals, something that reviewers can sometimes forget. So an offhand post-concert comment about our relationship, or a review that says, “His wife played admirably at the piano”, can feel that our work together is somewhat devalued, and further points a spotlight on the gender disparities in our field (though this is a topic for a much different article, any volunteers?).
We met at the University of British Columbia and were duo-ed in Professor Rena Sharon’s wonderful song class. Since then, we have witnessed every step in each other’s musical development. Early on, the great soprano Elly Ameling invited us to Europe for a number of inspiring masterclasses (including one in Florence, Italy, where we witnessed her being rescued from the third floor of a burning building, immediately falling from the fireman’s arms into teaching the rest of the masterclass in her nightgown and slippers, crooning “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”).
Through Miss Ameling’s guidance and a seven-year sojourn in Germany, we were able to study under Art Song nobility such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Brigitte Fassbaender, Hans Hotter, Rudolf Jansen, and Helmut Deutsch, among others. This ‘old-world’ tradition in our musical upbringing has always been enhanced with our Canadian identities (and now dual U.S. identities). We are so fortunate to have worked together to create new art with our composer friends and colleagues, fiercely believing that North American Art Song deserves an important place in the canon.
Erika sings through her fingers. She has a vast palette of colours at her disposal and I am constantly in awe of her ability to coax so much character from the piano.
She is not a self-serving player, but one whose refined sound welcomes the audience in. Her thoughtfulness, drive, and dedication to her craft inspire me every day. We have shared the stage for many memorable performances, and now, with the generous help of the Canada Council for the Arts and Bard College, we will record our second album on the music and poetry of Canada’s breathtaking West Coast. Erika’s husband shall attempt to sing admirably by the piano. It will be so nice.
The Britten-Pears Recital Duo
By Stephen Ralls, C.M., Pianist; Co-Artistic Director, Aldeburgh Connection; Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada
One afternoon in the summer of 1977, Bruce Ubukata and I sat in the recital room of the Britten-Pears School in Snape, just outside Aldeburgh. After a masterclass on Schubert and to round off the day, Peter Pears sang for us Die Taubenpost; Roger Vignoles was accompanying. Suddenly — as Sir Peter reached the words “Sie heisst… die Sehnsucht!” — he appeared momentarily to choke, then walked away from the piano and out of the room, in tears. To see him, normally the master of any occasion, in such a state was shocking; but Rae Woodland, vocal consultant on the course, sympathetically defused the situation: “Don’t worry; it’s just too soon, that’s all.” Britten had died less than a year earlier.
Those words, set by Schubert, take us to the heart of the love affair which was their recital duo. And it was words which were key to their performances. I would say that Britten never set a text without literary merit; furthermore, the same acid test governed what the duo performed, quite as much as musical values. Their repertoire was actually quite limited: Britten’s own songs, of course, and a fair number by other English composers; otherwise, they chose Schubert, Schumann and Wolf among Lieder composers, some Fauré, Debussy and their friend, Francis Poulenc, among the French (although Britten claimed to find much of Poulenc’s piano writing too difficult). Out of the public’s eye and ears, they would occasionally venture into more popular material — Cole Porter’s Miss Otis Regrets was a hit at parties.
Always, for these men of high literary culture, the expressive delivery of words was a paramount aim. After my rehearsal for a recital with Sir Peter, in a rare conversation with the composer, he asked me (with a twinkle in his eye): “Does he know his words yet..?” In addition to the recitatives in Death in Venice, I was lucky enough to accompany the tenor in several recitals. They were joyous experiences — not only for Sir Peter’s supreme musicality, but also because he was the easiest to perform with of anyone I had hitherto encountered. Rhythmically and expressively, his intention was always crystal-clear and, at my relatively young age, the fears and uncertainties from which I suffered melted away. I realized that, with other singers, the shortcomings hadn’t necessarily all been mine..!
Fears and uncertainties were, amazingly, what Britten himself suffered. He was assailed in the wings with tremendous self-doubt, which only several tots of brandy could relieve. On stage, however, all changed. I never heard them live, alas; I began work in Aldeburgh just after their final recital in September 1972 — that included a tremendous Winter Words, preserved, fortunately, on disc. The other highlight, for me, was their Winterreise, which I first heard in a broadcast from Edinburgh. Peter was the traveller and Britten had the uncanny knack of convincing one that he was the composer. Such magic was created by the highest art of this very great recital duo.
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Diversity is one of Canada’s greatest assets, and we are fortunate to live in one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. A large part of a people’s culture is its music. In this issue, we highlight the art song of Hungary, China, and the Jewish people. I trust that these fascinating articles by Leslie Dala, Jialiang Zhu, and Jaclyn Grossman and Nate Ben-Horin will encourage you to explore further this repertoire which, for many of us, is unknown.
Editor, Art Song Canada
Expanding the Germanic Canon: Songs of the Holocaust
By Nate Ben-Horin, Pianist, Composer, Co-Curator
Jaclyn Grossman, Soprano, Co-Curator
Our first venture as a duo was a performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. We were paired in a song interpretation class during our graduate studies at McGill, and our mutual attraction to German late-Romanticism as well as Jaclyn’s dramatic Fach made the Wagner an obvious choice.
As we probed these intimate confessions of love and longing, we were captivated by a quality one might call ‘artistic unabashedness’: a willingness to go to extremes of expression which has surely contributed to Wagner’s enduring appeal. Unfortunately, his unabashedness also extended to his contempt for Jewish musicians (like both of us), as per his colourful declaration: “Just as insects eat only dead flesh, the Jews swarm over the corpse of dead Music, destroying it as surely as worms destroy a carcass.” (On Jewishness in Music, 1869). This lingered uncomfortably in the back of our minds as we prepared the songs. What choice words would he have applied to our collaboration? And moreover, by performing his music, were we legitimizing his prejudice? But the pieces themselves are unquestionably beautiful, and, after all, canon… indispensable.
Our work together took on a new dimension in early 2020, when we were introduced to Holocaust music by way of Anne Sofie von Otter’s remarkable CD, Terezín – Theresienstadt. It’s a vast subject; for all the luminous talents extinguished in gas chambers during the war, there are present-day scholars and performers all over the world dedicated to reviving them. As our research and fascination deepened, we formed the Likht Ensemble in order to share the music we were learning about, and released our flagship project — the first of five digital recitals entitled the Shoah Songbook — in April 2021.
Though an in-depth survey of repertoire is beyond the scope of this article, we would like to briefly introduce two artists who feature heavily in our first recital (and on von Otter’s CD): Viktor Ullmann and Ilse Weber. They were held in the Bohemian ghetto Terezín — a kind of ‘show camp’ — a repository of leading artists and intellectuals with marginally better conditions than some of its equivalents, through which Nazi propagandists were able to display ‘happy, productive’ Jews. Like most of its residents, Ullman and Weber were deported to Auschwitz and murdered a few months before the camp was liberated.
A student of Schoenberg and friend of Berg, Viktor Ullman developed a highly original and polished musical language that is at once contrapuntal and drivingly rhythmic, synthesizing elements of serialism, polytonality, late-Romanticism, and jazz. His song Wendla im Garten, an incendiary setting of an excerpt from the original German Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), will blow your hair back. His collected songs are published by Schott, and there is no reason they shouldn’t be programmed alongside his Second Viennese School compatriots, or indeed Strauss and Wagner.
Ilse Weber was a poet, playwright and folk musician whose letters and poems have made her one of the more celebrated and researched personalities to emerge in the field of Holocaust studies. Her songs from Terezín combine stark realism with tender humanism and lucid poetry, set to haunting, unforgettable melodies. Her collected wartime documents are published in an English translation by Michal Schwartz (Dancing on a Powder Keg, Bunim & Bannigan Ltd.). Her Terezín songs are published by Boosey & Hawkes, and, given an idiomatic piano arrangement, there is no reason they shouldn’t be programmed alongside Volkslieder by Brahms or Schubert.
This music is only just slightly off the beaten path – both Weber and Ullmann identified culturally and artistically as German, and their output is every bit equal to that of their non-Jewish contemporaries. More to the point, the problem of anti-Semitism (and other forms of racism) in classical music is not limited to Wagner; he is merely its bombastic poster child. The key is to expand our sense of what can be considered canonical, and to whom. While we don’t regret performing the Wesendonck Lieder (and in fact plan to do so again, soon,) we also wish we had been exposed to Ullmann, Weber, and others of their ilk much earlier. They have given us a point of identification that allows us to confront our precarious position within the classical tradition, and ultimately reembrace it on our own terms. To us, they have become indispensable.
Singing Classical Chinese Poetry
By Jialiang Zhu, Pianist, Co-founder of Bedford Trio, Doctoral of Musical Arts Candidate, University of Toronto
As a native Mandarin-Chinese speaker, my encounter with European-language poetry is mainly through studying art song. In Debussy’s Fêtes galantes and Ariettes oubliées, I experience the colour and symbolism of Verlaine; through Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig, I live the heartache and drama in Goethe’s words; and in Florence Price’s Four Songs from the Weary Blues, I revel in Langston Hughes’s depth and spirituality. In a word, my experience with Western poetry is through songs.
In contrast, my relationship with Chinese art song and Chinese poetry is completely the reverse from that above. Growing up in China, I started memorizing classical poetry as early as kindergarten without fully grasping its meaning. Throughout my public school education, my fellow students and I studied the history, the grammar and the aesthetic of classical Chinese poetry in more depth. I have always been fascinated by how such a succinct poetic language can explore so much depth; and I have revelled in how musical the recitation sounds with its tonal inflection and rhythmic pattern. Here is an example of a five-syllable quatrain A Morning in Spring 春曉 by Meng Haoran 孟浩然 from the Tang Dynasty.
(Click here to listen to Jialiang’s recitation of the poem.)
Spring dreams unconscious of dawning,
Not woke up till I hear birds singing;
O night long wind and showers –
Know you how many petals falling?
(Translation by composer Chen Yi)
Compared to my immersion in classical Chinese poetry, I only began studying Chinese art song five years ago, and it has been a journey of revelation. Through the imagination of the composers, I get to rediscover classical Chinese poetry from a fresh angle; I also dive deeper into the meaning of the poetry as an interpreter of the songs. Chinese art song just celebrated its centennial. Around the turn of the twentieth century, China (called the Qing Dynasty 清朝 then) was forced to open its doors to foreign states and increased interactions with Western culture. Some affluent families embraced Western ideology and sent their children abroad to study. Some of the earliest Chinese art songs were composed by these early Chinese international students, such as Xiao Youmei 蕭友梅, Chao Yuen Re 趙元任, Huang Zi (also known as Huang Tzu) 黃自, and Qing Zhu 青主. Freshly exposed to Western classical music, these composers began writing art songs in the fashion of Lieder and in the harmonic language of the late-Romantic period. Many of them turned to classical Chinese poetry as a source of inspiration. Let us now hear one of the early Chinese art songs, A Flower in the Haze 花非花 (1933) by composer Huang Zi 黃自 on the text of Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易.
In bloom, she’s not a flower; Hazy, she’s not a haze.
She comes at midnight hour; She goes with starry rays.
She comes like vernal dreams that cannot stay;
She goes like morning clouds that melt away.
(Translation by Chinese literature translation professor Xu Yuanchong)
Throughout the following century, Chinese composers start to incorporate a bigger variety of harmonic language and form in their song writing and infuse elements from both Western and Chinese culture and arts. For comparison, I’d like to share with you a much more recent art song Know You How Many Petals Falling? (1999), a setting by Chinese-American Chen Yi on the same five-syllable quatrain quoted in the beginning. Chen employs aleatoric writing for the piano in the opening, while borrowing the chanting practice 说唱 from Peking Opera for the voice, where the sung pitch roughly imitates the spoken pitch.
A century ago, Chinese art song began by imitating Western art Song; over time, the art form integrated more aspects of Chinese culture and evolved into a unique genre of its own. I’ve presented only two points on the Chinese art song timeline—the beginning and the modern day, and there is much to discover along the path connecting those two points. A few recommendations to help your next steps of exploration include the comprehensive guide book, Singing Mandarin: A Guide to Chinese Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire, by pianist Katherine Chu and soprano Juliet Petrus; bass-baritone Shen Yang’s Chinese art song recital with pianist Yang Liqing, beautifully captured in the music documentary Stories of the Forgotten Chinese Melodies; and Jialiang’s recent lecture recital with both native and non-native Mandarin speaking vocalists Singing Classical Chinese Poetry: 100 Years of Chinese Art Song.
Magyar Melodies: A Brief Survey of Hungarian Art Song
By Leslie Dala, Associate Conductor, Vancouver Opera, Music Director, Vancouver Bach Choir
When one thinks of the most celebrated Hungarian composers of the past 200 years, the names of Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág come to mind. All of these composers have contributed to the genre of art song, some more so than others. All of them except for Liszt have composed songs based on Hungarian texts. In Liszt’s case, he composed some 80 songs and many of them have found their way into the standard repertoire and for good reason: among the songs set to French, German, and Italian texts there are many gems that are wonderful settings which use the voice and piano to full effect and capture the romantic ethos of the time.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Béla Bartók and Zóltan Kodály did extensive research by travelling throughout Hungary to study and preserve authentic Hungarian folk music by recording it and notating it. This led to extensive collections of folk songs with original piano accompaniments from both composers which also influenced their wholly original compositions. Bartók himself wrote:
“We had no traditions whatsoever in the Hungarian art music to serve as a basis on which we could have advanced further. The declamatory attempts in vocal works of our predecessors were nothing else but imitations of Western European patterns which were inconsistent with the rhythm of the Hungarian language. […] We Hungarians have nothing but our parlando peasant melodies as the means of enabling us to solve this question.”
As a footnote, in Hungarian the main stress is ALWAYS on the first syllable which sets it apart from all the Romance and Anglo Saxon-based languages. Finnish and Czech also share this unusual characteristic which gives their languages a distinct flavour.
While Bartók published only two sets of original art songs, his Opus 15 and 16 respectively, Kodály contributed hundreds of vocal compositions for solo voice, and choral works. One can hear in them a kind of ‘folkiness’ clothed in various forms of tonality, some with a modal flavour evoking long-standing traditions and others with a spikier and more modern polytonality or atonality.
Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century and composers György Ligeti and György Kurtág are among the most celebrated and respected composers worldwide whom I was fortunate to meet at the Bartók Festival in Szombathely, Hungary when I was still a student. Each of these giants has contributed to the art song medium. Most of Ligeti’s contributions were written in the 1940’s and 1950’s when he was still very much in the early stages of his musical idiom which continued to go in a more avant garde direction in the 1960’s with his vocal/instrumental works Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures and his opera Le Grand Macabre completed in 1977 and revised in 1996. Meanwhile, Kurtag has written extraordinary song cycles like the Kafka Fragments for soprano and solo violin, and the Three Old Inscriptions for Voice and Piano both from the mid 1980’s.
Of course, these are but a handful of Hungarian composers who have contributed to the genre of art song, but I believe their contributions to be among the most significant and influential. For a sampling of some contributions of Liszt and Kodály, (as well as Berg and Léhár) here is a link to a recital I was fortunate to perform with my amazing fellow Canadian/Hungarian friend and colleague, Krisztina Szabó:
Leslie Dala: www.lesliedala.com
For more in depth of analysis I would recommend the following theses on Kurtág and Kodály:
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Our fall instalment of Art Song Canada appears just in time for the start of the academic year. In this Back-To-School issue, three of Canada’s eminent university professors share their knowledge for guiding and inspiring the young art song singer: Stephen Hargreaves (Schulich School of Music, McGill University), Jason Nedecky (University of Toronto Faculty of Music; Glenn Gould School, RCM Toronto), and Benjamin Butterfield (University of Victoria, School of Music).
The Wabi-Sabi of Art Song: Perfection Isn’t the Point
By Stephen Hargreaves, Conductor, Pianist, Professor at Schulich School of Music, Music Director of Opera McGill
Art song presents unique challenges for performers. It’s focused and intimate and there’s nowhere to hide. When a singer and pianist step on the stage, lack of technical or intellectual preparation are blatantly apparent. Without passion, the performance lacks soul. Worse still, that running commentary most of us have on our work — those moments of self-doubt, self-criticism, self-congratulation — shows clearly in the body and the voice. Where other forms of performance allow singers to lose themselves (and their insecurities) in the collaborative energy of the group, art song can feel almost naked.
To be so highly visible requires psycho-emotional stamina, and building that stamina requires a very different approach from the perfection-oriented training most musicians receive. Wabi-sabi, a philosophy of embracing imperfection and impermanence can provide a useful counterpoint. Here are three strategies I use with my students, and myself, to get the best performances possible.
Be kind to yourself. We have all experienced negative reactions to our artistic approach. Don’t let them stifle you. When we censure our choices while creating, it fundamentally interrupts our artistry, taking us out of the moment and into subjective analysis. Remember your objective: not perfection, but the communication of something great or intimate, something unique and beautiful, something lingering and transformational. Understand that the creation of art is full of small, unexpected steps. Instead of punishing yourself for a seeming misstep, accept the mistake as an interesting turn or, even better, find the humour in it and laugh. Mistakes are an essential wabi-sabi element of authentic expression providing an indelible humanness to what we do.
Set achievable objectives. If you possess the musical and emotional understanding of a song but cannot support your ideas with technical skill, identify what you need to work on physically to allow the technique to become secondary to the expression. Then break it into manageable bites. Conversely, if you have easy technique but it is not backed with authentic emotion and thoughtfulness, your performance will lack the artistry to truly move people. Dig deep and don’t be afraid to push boundaries. Most people will bounce back and forth between the need for technical and artistic work. This is normal and healthy! Be content with general forward progress instead of instant perfection. Worries will arise. Let them come, but let them go too, conscientiously replacing them with the mindset that you are capable of artistically saying what you want while continuing to strengthen the skills that allow you to do exactly this.
Let your body do the work. I sometimes liken the conscious mind to a navigator, reader of maps and plans, and the subconscious to a driver, the executor of the plan. The conscious mind can drive, but the results are usually abrupt and jerky. The subconscious can more easily make smooth lines, effortless melismas, and natural delivery of text. I often feel when things are going well, I am aware of what is happening, but not controlling it. Know your text and music inside and out so it transcends your short-term memory. Remember that practice occurs not only in the practice room. While on the train or walking, any time you can think about the text, build the backstory of your performance and envision the atmosphere of the song. Your subconscious will allow your body to do what you intend but it digests in jumps and starts, more mysteriously than we often expect. Give yourself as much time as you can to absorb the pieces that you are learning. When you’ve done this integrated kind of work, trust that your body will support you the same way it does when you are speaking and moving.
Your voice is valuable because of its individuality; it is this quality you must identify and hone. There will be days when your internal critic is deafening and it’s hard to focus and clear your mind… continue to experiment and breathe through the negative to find an open way forward. The pursuit of song is a choice. Reaffirm this choice by returning daily to your pursuit with humility, compassion, and humour. Enjoy the small victories and the feeling of being present in the moment. The more comfortable we are with this daily work, the easier it will be to share our vision.
Defining ‘Good Diction’ in Singing
By Jason Nedecky, Baritone, Instructor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Author of French Lyric Diction: A Singer’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2022), Administrator of the Art Song Foundation of Canada
Young singers at universities and conservatories in this country and abroad are about to resume in-person studies, which will most likely include requisite diction courses in multiple languages. For some students, this will be the key to unlock the door to endless possibilities for expressive singing.
The students who get the most out of their language training tend to be the ones who push beyond learning the phonemes of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). They also aim for something more to their diction than simply ‘spitting out the text’. Of course, the basics are indispensable. It is essential for a singer to know the pronunciation rules for each language in which he or she performs. Unlike popular music or folksong, a highly traditional accent that is free of regionalisms is deemed the gold standard in art song, as in opera. Likewise, clarity and precision of the text is paramount. To be sure, there is no communication or expressivity if the words themselves cannot be understood! Notwithstanding, the acquisition of these skills is the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to defining ‘good diction’ in vocal music — especially in the poetry of the art song repertoire.
It is said that all music is comprised of three basic elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. In vocal music, it may be argued that a unique ‘fourth dimension’ also exists: the text. This additional layer renders vocal music inherently something ‘other’ than instrumental music. Between the music and the text, then, which of the two is most important? The response from many composers to this age-old question has in fact been that the poetry is most important, not their own writing. After all, the words came first. Without them, a musical setting could not exist.
It is an undeniably heavy burden to satisfy the intentions not only of the venerable composer, but also of the esteemed poet! Nevertheless, it is from the commitment to the whole work — both to the music and to the text — that many performers draw great inspiration. When both are handled well in recital, the results can be thrilling.
Reynaldo Hahn famously commented on these topics in his Parisian lectures, delivered in 1913–14, and compiled soon after under the title Du chant. A few years ago, I was very lucky to be gifted an autographed first edition of this work by my friend, tenor Emile Belcourt (1926–2017), who had acquired it long before. Occasionally, I leaf through the well-worn book. While many of the opinions put forth by the composer and one-time director of the Paris opera now seem dated, the passages on diction fully stand the test of time. Here are a few lines from the English version of the book, translated as On Singers and Singing by another French-Canadian tenor, Léopold Simoneau (1916–2006):
Diction is, so to speak, the esthetic of articulation. […] It is through diction that one confers variety and expression to discourse. […] It is diction that punctuates, that stamps the voice with nuances of strength or sweetness. […] It gives life to spoken discourse, it injects ideas and feeling into the structure of speech itself. […] The very words [a singer] pronounces must be imbued, saturated, with the thought he wishes to convey. […] His brain and his heart must bestow upon […] the sound enough thought, enough psychic virtue, that this sound so subtly produced will move, exalt, desolate, enrapture or intoxicate by the combined effect of the music and the word.
Hahn endorsed the notion that ‘good diction’ entails more than pronunciation or enunciation. He argued most convincingly that it consists of artistic, interpretive, creative aspects. To have ‘good diction’ is to be in command of these elements. It is to deliver the text in a refined manner that may convey an infinite array of complex emotion and thought. This requires both skill and taste that amount to an art form unto itself — a challenging, but most worthy pursuit for all singers. Indeed, when such careful attention is devoted to the sung word, that fabled marriage of music and text may become a match made in heaven.
Art Song’s Truth
By Benjamin Butterfield FRSC, Tenor, Head of Voice and Music Graduate Advisor, University of Victoria School of Music
Our world changed dramatically in 2020–21, and although music and the arts were hit hard by the pandemic, students of singing did not let that deter them from their studies.
With limited options for large scale opera or choral works at the university level these past 17 months, art song found more leg room at the table. They say that singing opera is painting with a big brush. But the converse is true of art song, whereby singers are encouraged to paint in detail with a small brush. In art song we have only the text to exhibit in three minutes all the elements of an opera, so developing a vivid imagination is key.
I became reacquainted with two books this past year: The Dictionary (Concise Oxford 1982 edition!) and Vocal Wisdom, the maxims of Giovanni Batista Lamperti. The dictionary provided the greatest pedagogical ‘aha’ moment of all…
1. utter words, utter (words), in tuneful succession, esp. in accordance with a set tune.
2. produce vocal melody, utter (song, tune).
3. make inarticulate melodious or humming or buzzing or whistling sounds, be affected as with buzzing sound.
4. compose poetry, celebrate in verse.
1. emit audibly (cry, groan, sigh), express in spoken or written words (one’s sentiments, a lie, the truth, etc.).
To me, this set of definitions brought Lamperti’s words into even sharper focus. William Earl Brown, the student who compiled Lamperti’s teachings between 1891 and ’93 suggests that that time (a slower time) was the Golden Age of Song. He suggested that the teachers in those days, “made few rules, but insisted on obedience to natural laws, which were physical, not anatomical”. I pass on to my students the wisdom of my own teacher as well, Selena James, who might as well have studied with Lamperti. She would insist that I must not listen to myself (shoving toilet paper into my ears to drive the point home…) so that my developing musical and artistic soul would lay down the path for my technique to respond to. Selena always reminded me that I must know where I’m going before I head out on my trip: i.e. know my song (and have a point of view — thank you Stuart Hamilton) before starting to sing. This is where the art song miniature comes into its own. “Dear, how can you even think of singing an aria before you can sing an art song!”, she would fuss.
The miniature of the art song affords us the opportunity to develop our instrument and artistry by emotional and physical reflex to ideas and words. My job as a teacher is to help guide and inspire this voyage of discovery. Bruce Ubukata of the Aldeburgh Connection told me once that singing is just speaking beautifully. Using the sounds and shapes available to us in words are what guides our breath thereby producing a supple tone with vivid colours. When a student feels silly or embarrassed by playing the fool with those shapes and sounds (as per the entry for ‘utter’) they are closer to learning how to truly sing.
Art Song is a flower, which has the potential to unveil the truth to all. It lives in the stillness of a singer’s soul with avid listeners prepared (or not) to hear that truth. The fast paced opera singer of tomorrow training through the intimate medium of art song today has a golden opportunity at their feet: “Vai per la qualità e la quantità verrà.” (Go for quality, and the quantity will come.) — Léopold Simoneau.
The Summer Issue of the Art Song Canada e-magazine pays tribute to the Banff Academy of Singing which closed its doors in 1993. In the following articles, soprano Mary Morrison, soprano Tracy Dahl and pianist Susie Allan reflect on their summers in Banff and the lasting impression that the Academy made on them and their music making.
Mary Morrison: Reflections and Reverberations
By Brett Polegato, Director of the Art Song Foundation of Canada, Editor of Art Song Canada
The Banff Academy of Singing was a major turning point in the development of many young artists. Under the directorship of Martin Isepp, pianist, and Mary Morrison, soprano, two dozen young international singers and pianists would descend upon Banff each summer to immerse themselves in five intense weeks of art song, and coach with some of the finest performers in the business.
Says Mary Morrison: “Our mission was to share our knowledge and experience in performing vocal repertoire, to make singers aware of the possibilities for a professional career in music, and to offer them the opportunity to perform with instrumentalists from the other programs at Banff.”
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mary who continues to inspire a new generation of young singers at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music with her love of words and music. We reminisced about the Academy of Singing – now almost 30 years gone – and the impact it had on so many.
I wonder if George Ross, Associate Director of Operations at Banff, knew then the artistic synergy he created when he paired Martin and Mary for the Academy. To those of us fortunate enough to work with them, it was abundantly clear. “I was inspired by Martin’s genuine love and knowledge of the concert repertoire for singers and pianists, and by the humanity which came through in his music-making,” says Mary. “He had a wonderful curiosity about contemporary music. He was unfamiliar with Canadian music, but he did know some American contemporary music. And of course the European contemporary scene he knew well.”
Mary’s vast knowledge of the Canadian music scene and her years as a performer complemented Martin’s expertise, and she was keen to introduce young artists – especially foreign ones – to our music. “Martin knew so much about European composers, their music and their style of writing. And sure, I had sung a lot of that repertoire also, but my knowledge of the Canadian composers we represented on our concerts was deeper because of my personal connection with them. They were all my friends.”
I suggested that it must have been both challenging and rewarding to work with musicians from such diverse cultures and training. “Did you find that the experience of young people performing for each other expanded their concept of what performance could be?” I asked. “Oh, definitely,” she enthuses, “because I think the students that we attracted to our program came from such different musical backgrounds. We would have people from the States who had studied at Peabody Conservatory, say, and then there’d be somebody from England from the Royal College of Music. The students at Banff came to us from many different countries and they all brought some of their culture with them.” Both Mary and Martin tapped into this diversity to enrich the performances of these young artists and to bring out the very best of the individual through the music.
For more than a decade, Mary Morrison and Martin Isepp mentored many of today’s finest art song interpreters. We artists were inspired by their passion for music, their humility in the face of great poetry, and their joyful commitment to opening our hearts and minds to the treasures of the art song repertoire. So much of me as a recitalist can be traced back to those five glorious weeks atop Tunnel Mountain where much music was made and many friendships forged. And Mary?
“I have many fond memories of the Academy: the stunning location, the association with Martin, our classes and concerts, and of course the gifted participants, some of whom still keep in touch. It was a meaningful and unforgettable part of my life-long experience as a musician. How very fortunate I feel to have been part of the Banff program!”
Beginnings in Banff
By Tracy Dahl, soprano
When I was 21 years old, I found myself in the crook of a grand piano singing Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen with clarinetist François Houle, and Martin Isepp at the keyboard. Looking back on that first experience in song, I realize how much influence the people in that program had in my professional life as a singer, and now, as a teacher. The well is deep with the benefits I gained in Banff — in fact, they have become the wellspring that has nourished my career. No one could have been trained through the Banff program and not have been changed. There were new challenges each day: singing in front of your peers, voice lessons, coachings to prepare for the next composer or concert.
Martin had wonderful stories to tell, experiences he wanted us to live, and hemiolas to find — he was the ‘King of Hemiolas’! It wasn’t all work, though; once a week we would go to Lake Minnewanka, to be in nature. Martin wanted us physically connecting to the world that poets ask us to inhabit in song. We talked about poetry and listened to the birds sing and the brooks murmur, and we felt the wind on our faces. This tactile learning and its benefits were taken back into the basement studios at the Banff Centre. Nature was always near; I remember a particular elk that liked to lie near the window well where Mary Morrison taught. It was surreal.
My strongest memory was when Martin asked me to sing Vergebliches Ständchen, but with my hands in my pockets! He had a lesson for me to learn — that the story-telling had to begin in the sound and word. He determined that this was going to be my journey, and assigned me songs that required absolute stillness. He knew what I could bring to a story as an animated communicator, but the growth he knew I needed was being still and finding the expressivity in my sound.
This challenge would have been an impossible task had it not been for Mary Morrison. Meeting Mary changed my life. She is my life-long teacher, mentor and friend. I will never forget the support she freely gave, that met all of us after a concert or a masterclass, and the instruction that always followed. I learned from her that a ‘performance’ doesn’t mean that the journey is done. Every moment in music, whether it was a lesson, a performance, or simply observing a colleague, was an opportunity for me to grow as a musician and a storyteller. To describe the significance of my technical learning from Mary would need another whole article. Suffice it to say: I became passionate about technique under her guidance.
These two people, Martin and Mary, taught me about a marriage that should never end; the marriage of sound and word. The sounds made by the human voice, emanating from the soul, coupled with the rich musical world of the composers, through the skilled hands of
pianists, in the dance of notation and word. These two elements are so intertwined that the one who observes cannot tell which element is leading. In Banff, we marvelled at the beauty of it daily… what a blessing.
Reminiscences of Martin Isepp and Banff: Summer, 1991
By Susie Allan, pianist
I was first coached by Martin during my second year of postgraduate study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Being a green and inexperienced student, I confess to having known nothing of his artistic esteem. He appeared kindly, gentle, unassuming and modest. But when it came to the music, what passion, discipline and uncompromising care he took over it. Thanks to him I was invited to audition for the ‘Banff Centre for the Arts’. The institution was unknown to me, and I’d never been to Canada before — but five weeks of fully funded study of the Art of Song was more than enough for me to realise it was an opportunity worth fighting for.
The audition turned out to be an unforgettable occasion in more ways than one! As the candidates arrived at Martin and Rose’s beautiful Hampstead home, we were shown into an elegant drawing room in which we milled about nervously. After a few minutes, I was called through to the music room with my singer to perform our short programme. We returned to the drawing room only to be met by a most unexpected scene: clouds of dust and panicky commotion, with singers yet to audition frantically covering their noses and mouths with scarves, coat collars, jumpers, darting hither and thither to escape the plaster dust billowing from a large portion of the ceiling which had evidently detached itself on to the floor! Despite the small (but I imagine rather expensive) calamity, nobody was hurt, and the auditions continued, regardless of the possible effects of the dust!
So it was an enormous privilege to have been accepted on to the song programme, and to study with Martin, and Mary and John Hess, in the stunning setting of the Rockies. In a masterclass situation, Martin was an absolute master of the form. He had an exceptional way of enabling both singer and pianist to find a clearer path to the essence of a song. Interpretations became deepened, enriched, sometimes quite transformed, whilst still maintaining the musical integrity of the students in the spotlight. And this would happen in front of our ears and eyes in a time-slot of around thirty minutes. He was simply the best in this regard: the song itself was always planted firmly at the top of the pedestal, 50% voice, 50% piano. He helped singers to understand the piano parts better, to listen more keenly, to develop a deeper awareness of the entire composition; and such was his understanding of voices, he would help us pianists to aim towards bringing out the best in a voice, through the way we might use colour and rubato, so to reveal a song’s secrets more fully.
The five weeks of study culminated in two concerts. In preparation for this article I dug out both the programme and recording, and have had such pleasure listening to the young Jenny Wollerman, Rosalind Jones, Connie-Lin Chmura, Nathan Berg, and Brett Polegato to name but a few. It was gratifying to appreciate we are all still making music across the world. I’m sure I will not be alone in acknowledging the debt of gratitude we owe to the great Martin Isepp (1930–2011).
A Winter Journey Through a Pandemic
By Kathleen Van Mourik, Pianist and Artistic Director, International Festival of Song and Chamber Music Society
The concert halls are still closed. I started a small recital series in April called ‘Isolation Point Virtual Concerts’. It was inspiring to see the beauty musicians were creating, so I decided to expand the idea when we cancelled a summer festival. The pandemic encourages wanderings into uncharted emotional territory. I feel as if I am inside a winter journey, isolated, the poetry resonates wildly… the inner drama of the individual.
COVID-19 continues to haunt musicians. We don’t know what the future holds for us, but I saw a window of opportunity, and it looked out onto the landscape. We could still be creative — an artist, a baritone, a small group of pianists, a recording engineer, a videographer and a resiliency grant along with a good old prairie winter in the great white north. We are used to isolation. I ramble around on a farm that has put the pandemic on the backburner for much of each day, until I sit down at the piano to practice — how blessed am I, all the piano masterpieces at my disposal — but I’m used to collaborating. I miss the intensity of working together. Art song has always been my first love, and covid torpedoed the creative forces of humans when they come together to create art.
Eveline Kolijn is a phenomenal artist. Her work reflects the intertwining of art and the environment. I asked her if she might be interested in a project for Schubert’s Winterreise, and it became an obsession, just as it does for all musicians. It draws us into the darkness, paths to insanity and despair, questions our relationship to nature — a signpost of our times. Were we all headed to the poorhouse? Were we all delusional, seeing sun-dogs on the harsh prairie landscape, or were we doomed to be broken like the Leiermann?
„Eine Straße muss ich gehen, die noch keiner ging zurück.“
We musicians are in uncharted territory — isolated and alone. The words of Wilhelm Müller resonate as deeply as the music. When I talked to Brett Polegato about singing a Winterreise that would be portrayed within an Alberta winter landscape, I hoped he would take the risk. I wanted to create a film that shows our fragility, our homelessness when art is lost. Two young pianists, Cindy Zhang and Jack Olszewski, believed in my wanderings and were excited to be part of this project. The audio/film crew, the musicians and artist were willing to get together, masked, distanced, the only intimacy of contact through the music.
The experience was surreal. The cities had returned to light-lockdown, but the rural areas were still relatively unrestricted. Masking was not yet a provincial mandate, and indoor gatherings not yet illegal. We were inspired. It was, after so many months, a true collaboration. I’m looking forward to viewing all our efforts that went into creating the Winterreise film, a product of COVID-19, a phoenix rising from the ashes, a tribute to Alberta landscapes.
The music and film were recorded in rural Alberta. Logistics were challenging. We recorded over a week, isolated, masked when not performing, distanced, and we lived. In fact, we lived like there was no tomorrow.
The release of the Winterreise film is scheduled for spring, 2021. Please visit www.mountainviewfestival.com for future updates.
American Composers at Play
By Stephen Powell, baritone
My first experience working with a living composer at the piano was with the American Composer Lee Hoiby. We performed his song cycle I Was There in 2001 at Weill Recital Hall in New York City, and this event remains one of the highlights of my career. Ever since that day I’ve had the dream to record an album of contemporary American Art Songs with composers that possessed the pianistic skills to play their own music. That dream came to fruition in 2020, culminating with the release of my first solo CD, American Composers At Play (Acis Productions).
William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, and John Musto are giants in the world of contemporary music. During the beginning processes of choosing repertoire from each composer, I had the wonderful opportunity to rehearse their music in their own personal spaces, which was simultaneously an artistic revelation and a musical education. Whether it was in Bill’s Michigan home on a crisp autumn afternoon, Lori’s grand and spacious Manhattan apartment, John’s comfortable living room in his high-rise condo, or standing next to Ricky and his upright piano with his sweet little dog Lucy lounging nearby, listening to their thought processes, stylistic choices, and underlying purposes in creating these songs made me feel like the luckiest singer on earth. Having the ability to lean over the piano and ask questions about their ideas, reasons, feelings, intentions, text choices, diction preferences, and emotions, was extraordinary. To then have the excitement and vitality of being in the moment with the creators present and performing their own music was both inspiring and thrilling.
We were fortunate to finish recording all the tracks before the Covid pandemic hit in March of 2020, but we still had the arduous task of editing, tracking and mastering during the pandemic, which proved quite challenging. Yet through all those moments of difficult decisions and delays, when I thought about postponing the release because of all the hardships the world was facing, one thought kept me going — the world needs Music. The world needs Art.
And even more importantly — we need each other — especially now when live performances are unavailable. Composers need us, more than ever, to give voice to their ideas. Performers need them, for without them we are but empty vessels. And we both need an audience of people yearning to be fed, who hunger to feel and hear and absorb and be filled with the joy of sound and vibration. Until we can all gather again safely, seek new ways and opportunities to perform new music. Help those who are struggling to create find ways to be heard. Give voice to others’ hopes, dreams, creations, desires, wherever and however you can, and do so without fear or concern, worry or dread, but with an earnest belief that Art is the highest calling, the greatest example of our humanity, and the worthiest cause to which we offer our hearts and souls.
We need each other.
Peace. Love. Joy.
To purchase a copy of American Composers At Play please visit https://stephenpowell.us/recordings.
Mahler: When Art Song Becomes Orchestral
By Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano
“In its beginnings, music was merely chamber music, meant to be listened to in a small space by a small audience.”
– Gustav Mahler
One of my first experiences performing with an orchestra was with the Victoria Symphony about 25 years ago when I was hired as the alto soloist for Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. My relationship with Mahler’s music began a few years earlier when I performed Urlicht, the 4th movement from his 2nd Symphony. This performance was with piano in the very small setting of my voice teacher’s living room. In some ways, I felt great comfort in having already performed Urlicht, but stepping onto a stage with a full orchestra in a big concert hall was a far cry from that living room. I had to learn to express deeply intimate music in a larger space whilst navigating the orchestral forces. No matter how softly the musicians played, a greater direction of my sound was required to be heard in the concert hall. It was a learning curve and something that, to this day, constantly needs attention due to the various factors involved, including repertoire, acoustic characteristics of the hall, and the conductor’s sensibilities.
Taking music from a small space with a piano to a grand stage with an orchestra can be challenging. Typically, before the first orchestra rehearsal, a soloist will have a piano-vocal rehearsal with the conductor. This serves many purposes, from interpretation and tempi to diction and dynamics. During this rehearsal, you might feel that your sound is as strong or as loud as needed or extremely soft and tender for the most intimate moments in the score, but those perceptions might dramatically change when you are on stage with the orchestra. It is a balancing act. Where are you standing on the stage? How far down can the orchestra’s dynamics be taken whilst still delivering the wave of sound the music requires? Is there someone in the hall that can speak up if the balance is off? How can I be heard more clearly?
My time spent mentoring with Jessye Norman was priceless in many ways, but the biggest thing she helped me with was the intention and direction of my sound. This is my most valuable tool when moving from intimate Lieder with piano to the orchestral stage. Jessye worked to bring out my more “innerlich” sound, allowing me to more easily project into the concert hall whilst maintaining the integrity of the dynamics. To this day, I still see her sitting in front of me “pulling the sound out”, constantly giving my voice the feeling of a forward flow into all the corners of the hall. The intention of direction is not necessarily singing louder, but rather directing the sound more efficiently whilst still giving detailed attention to diction. Whether performing in a living room or a large concert hall, maintaining the intention of your voice’s direction is key to a good performance and greatly contributes to vocal longevity.
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
By Warren Jones, collaborative pianist
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,
Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, Part 3: Form and Meaning Wedded as Never Before
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.
Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, Part 2: Novelty in Style and Expression
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.