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Canadian Art Song Project stakes future of the artform on the living rooms of the nation

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Aldeburgh Connection art song concert alumni at the organization's 30th anniversary gala last season at Koerner Hall.
Aldeburgh Connection art song alumni at the organization’s 30th anniversary gala last season at Koerner Hall.

We can see it in our concert halls. Presenters can see it in ticket sales. And I see it in my readership statistics on this blog: art song is yesterday’s pleasure in Toronto. But while the pragmatic consider taking the patient off life support, the truly enterprising are hard at work stirring and grinding up a natural remedy.

On Friday evening, the 31-year-old Aldeburgh Connection, known for the impeccable quality of its concerts, did not sell out the 340 seats at the Glenn Gould Studio. That’s with a starred list of soloists, a programme of works in English and everyone’s clear knowledge that this was the first of the presenter’s three final concerts, ever.

It’s perplexing that, in a metropolitan area of 5 million people, only 250 people could be stirred to buy a ticket to what was a sure thing (and turned out to be even better than that).

I’m told that Allyson McHardy, one of the country’s finest younger mezzos, attracted about 60 people to the Glenn Gould in the last of Roy Thomson Hall’s Canadian Voices recitals a few weeks ago.

Even Roy Thomson Hall, three decades-old and possessing one of the largest arts customer contact lists in the country, couldn’t find art song takers.

But rather than throwing up their hands in frustration or moaning into another martini, the gang at the Canadian Art Song Project are marshalling their fledgling forces.

Toronto-based tenor Lawrence Wiliford is co-artistic director of the Canadian Art Song Project with collaborative pianist Steven Philcox. The tenor was at Friday’s Aldeburgh recital, and we had a chance to catch up a bit during intermission.

Although the Project is barely more than a year old, it has already premiered three song cycle commissions, with a fourth due next season. Wiliford told me that, this summer, he will go into the studio with soprano Shannon Mercer to record four song cycles by Toronto composer Derek Holman.

The tenor is also working hard on pulling together resources to create a practical performance catalogue and clean copies of Canadian art song scores from the hundreds and hundreds of works found in the library at the Canadian Music Centre on St Joseph St.

But all of this is wasted effort if art song is passé.

“That’s why we’re taking back into the living room,” replies Wiliford boldly.

The Canadian Art Song Project did, after all, have its first concert in the living room of authors and ardent opera lovers Linda and Michael Hutcheson.

“Art song was born in people’s houses,” Wiliford reminds. “So that’s how we need to build it up again.”

It’s the ultimate in grassroots — or carpet-fibre, in this case — audience-building. It’s extremely labour-intensive for what I can only guess is not a lot of money. But that’s the degree of commitment involved — from the artists as well as the people who will hopefully fling open their doors and invite their friends in welcome.

You can find out more about the Canadian Art Song Project here.



Coincidentally, a new release of ensemble art songs by Franz Schubert from Harmonia Mundi has so totally seduced me that it made me hunger for a cozy little space in which to experience this music live (much in the way the Aldeburgh Connection presented and Off Centre Music Salon continue to present this music at its annual Schubertiades).

The title of the album is Licht une Liebe — light and love — both of which radiate from the music and interpretations much in the same way as in the painting on the CD cover, an 1897 work by Julius Schmid entitled Schubertiade dans une maison de Vienne.

Four of Germany’s finest singers — soprano Marlis Petersen, mezzo Anke Vondung, tenor Werner Güra and bass Konrad Jarnot — bring a startling intensity to 13 pieces that span Schubert’s short, prolific, professional life.

To give this studio recording a touch of authenticity, the fabulously elegant Christoph Berner accompanies on a Rönisch fortepiano (the smaller and less dynamically rich ancestor of the modern piano).

Some of these songs, like Der Hochzeitsbraten (The Wedding Dish, from Schubert’s last year, 1828) is an extended comic scene for three voices complete with growling animals. It’s more miniature opera than art song.

Gott im Ungewitter (God in the Storm), also a late work, uses the quartet as dramatically as any operatic tragedy.

The album’s title song, which comes immediately before, is a right-sized dose of Romantic bittersweet, as melancholy is rescued by love. Aww.

Although Elisabeth Söderström was no longer in good voice, I want to share a concert performance of the piece with Swedish-Trinidadian baritone Krister St Hill and pianist Geoffrey Parsons:

Love is a sweet light.
As the earth aspires to the sun
And to those bright stars
In the distant blue expanses,
So the heart aspires to love’s bliss,
For it is a sweet light.
See how, in solemn silence,
Bright stars twinkle up above:
From the earth flee the dark,
Dull, gloom-filled mists.
Woe is me! How melancholy I feel
Deep within my soul,
Which once blossomed in joy,
And is now desolate without love.
Love is a sweet light.
As the earth aspires to the sun
And to those bright stars
In the distant blue expanses,
So the heart aspires to love’s bliss:
Love is a sweet light.

For all the details on the album, click here.

The album’s promotional copy is totally true when it states: “These brief vocal ensembles composed for gatherings of friends, the famous Schubertiads, display a skill and a taste for freedom that hold an immediate appeal for today’s listener — for here one sings purely for pleasure.”

Here, in another sample of the gorgeous ensemble music on this album, is another wonderful quartet — soprano Diana Damrau, mezzo Angelika Kirschlager, tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Christopher Maltman, with Julius Drake at the piano — singing Gebet (Prayer):

Imagine that in our living rooms.


Off Centre Music Salon is literally giving away tickets to this afternoon’s (2 p.m.) concert at the Glenn Gould Studio. Call 416-466-1870 and mention the code Welcome2013 to get two free tickets as introduction to their wonderfully eclectic, friendly and always entertaining programming.

John Terauds

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