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Preview: Tenor meets eight cellos in James Rolfe's setting of Archibald Lampman's winter poems

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James Rolfe

Toronto composer James Rolfe is currently the city’s best hope of seeing new homegrown work from the Canadian Opera Company. In the meantime he is adding a new song cycle to the repertoire on Sunday evening, thanks to a commission from New Music Concerts.

Winter Songs gets its premiere at the Betty Oliphant Theatre (at 404 Jarvis St) tomorrow night in a concert that revolves around the cello — the instrument usually credited as being closest to the sound and expressiveness of the human voice.

Larence Wiliford

Tenor Lawrence Wiliford will be accompanied by eight cellos as he sings Rolfe’s settings of four cold-weather poems by 19th century Ontario poet Archibald Lampman.

One of the poems turned into song is “Winter Uplands,” which displays all sorts of opportunities to conjure colour and mood in music:

The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound;
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blew
Across the open fields for miles ahead;
The far-off city towered and roofed in blue
A tender line upon the western red;
The stars that singly, then in flocks appear,
Like jets of silver from the violet dome,
So wonderful, so many and so near,
And then the golden moon to light me home–
The crunching snowshoes and the stinging air,
And silence, frost, and beauty everywhere.

Rolfe says he was given carte blanche by New Music Concerts, and was attracted to the solitude in this poetry — the same kind of bleakness that’s behind Franz Schubert’s great song cycle, Winterreise.

Using eight cellos to accompany might seem like a bit too much of similar range and timbre, but Rolf likes how using the same instrument mirrors the visual sameness of the season. “Things get blurry,” he says. “The contrasts are gone, and the colours overlap.”

He was also encouraged by the success of Worry, a piece for solo violin and eight cellos premiered 10 years ago. That work will be heard again on Sunday night.

Rolfe worked closely with Wiliford in crafting the vocal lines, “phrase by phrase,” he explains. “It’s like a tailor, who has a basic suit but everyone has a different fit.”

There is a pointillistic, angular quality to much of the Ottawa-bred composer’s work. But through his extensive work in opera, Rolfe’s melodies have soften and flattened over the years, taking on a poetic grace that should be a nice fit with the old poems.

It may seem like jumping the seasons a bit to celebrate winter during the first weekend of fall, but there is enough heat on the rest of the programme to stave off the chill winds to come.

The audience will also hear Quebecer Gilles Tremblay’s solo cello work Cendres en voiles (Ashes in veils), Bruce Mather’s Pommard for cello quartet, 103-year-old New York City composer Elliott Carter’s year-old Double Trio and, in a change of atmosphere, Toronto composer Michael Colgrass’s Mystic With a Credit Card, a piece for solo trombone that dates from 1980.

The music is played by the New Music Concerts Ensemble led by company artistic director, flutist Robert Aitken.

There is an introductory chat at 7:15 p.m.; the concert starts at 8 p.m. Tickets run from $10 to $35, and will be available at the door.

For more details on New Music Concerts and the first night of a seven-concert season, click here.


I couldn’t help asking James Rolfe about the state of the opera he an librettist Anna Chatterton were commissioned to write for the Canadian Opera Company four years ago.

Rolfe says he has just put the finishing touches on the score of Donna, a 21st century response to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The COC has given a verbal okay for a future premiere, but that scheduling the premiere depends on finding a co-producer.

John Terauds

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