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A happy start to a new venture

The Art Gallery of Ontario Walker Court
11/06/2015 -  & November 13, 20, 27, 2015
John Adams: China Gates
Luciano Berio: Feuerklavier
Franz Liszt: La lugubre gondola – Orage
Ludwig van Beethoven: Bagatelle Op. 126 No. 5
Franz Schubert: Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118
Georges Bizet: Carmen: "L’amour est un oiseau rebelle"
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: "When I am laid in earth"
Edward Elgar: Sea Pictures, opus 37: "Sea Slumber Song" & "Where Corals Lie"
Adam Sherkin: Shade and Darkness – Light and Shadow

Marion Newman (mezzo-soprano), Adam Sherkin (piano)

A. Sherkin (© Anka Czudec)

The Art Gallery of Ontario has launched a new series of Friday evening recitals with a thematic tie-in to one of its exhibitions, in this case a survey of the late works of JMW Turner called Painting Set Free. Michael Hidetoshi Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera (a long-established presenter of new works) has curated a program called Music Set Free, focusing on the post-classical loosening of musical form toward experimental forms and pictorial content, a trend with echoes in Turner's approach to painting.

Turner’s lifetime (1775-1851) is firmly within the long era during which England earned the description as a land without music. However just as Turner’s art stands apart from that of his time and place, there was no reason for the musical program to feature British music of his era.

The focus of Turner’s art was the handling of light and, along with that, other natural phenomena. Thus it comes as no surprise that pieces performed in the hour-long program portrayed rainfall (China Gates, a 1978 piece by John Adams evoking California rain), fire (Luciano Berio’s vivid 1989 Feuerklavier), and a storm (Liszt’s Orage of 1848). Pianist Adam Sherkin, a frequent performer of his own and other music at Toronto’s Canadian Music Centre, gave every piece its rightful due.

“Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has a direct connection with the exhibition as Turner’s four final works relevant portrayed scenes from Virgil’s epic. The notes state that Tuner was familiar with the opera, although this was during he period when it almost became a lost work. The two songs from Elgar’s Sea Pictures could arguably have used more preparation (perhaps this will occur as the program is repeated over the next three Fridays), but Marion Newman’s way with the words is top-notch. Her voice rings out thrillingly in the Walker Court, especially when she moved around during Carmen’s Habanera.

The venue does not have the pristine acoustic quality we expect in a normal recital hall as it is central to the bustle and hum of a large art museum on a busy evening. The cabaret-style set-up and the wine bar all contribute to an experience that is social as much as musical.

The final works on the program are two new songs composed by Sherkin with titles taken from two works in the exhibition with texts about them written by Turner, and using pitches in a chromatic (i.e., colouristic) way. “Shade and Darkness” rises to dramatic heights, while “Light and Colour”, with its tricky rhythms, ends frustratingly quickly. These two songs could well be the foundation for a longer cycle.

Judging from the full, enthusiastic house, this inaugural performance was a terrific success. Let’s hope it leads to more of the same.

Michael Johnson



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