Saturday, 1 August 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 12: A Tapestry of History

Any time the Toronto Consort arrives at the Festival, we know that history is in the air.  This is because the Consort specializes in the re-creation of music of earlier centuries than the Festival's normal classical repertoire.

This year, although history was still in the air, it was in a different form than usual.  The Toronto Consort appeared along with the Brookside Festival Chamber Choir from Midland ON in a work commissioned by Brookside: Wendake/Huronia by Canadian composer John Beckwith.  The purpose of the commission was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the travels of Champlain into Wendake in 1615.  This ambitious work had its premiere on Thursday night in Midland, and was given again on Friday in Parry Sound and then on Saturday in Meaford.

(The area around Midland has long been known by the English name "Huronia" with the name "Huron" applied to the aboriginal people who lived there at the time of European contact.  Their own name for their people was "Wendat" and their ancestral lands they referred to as "Wendake".) 

Beckwith actually faced a rather challenging task.  Try to create a concert work covering all the implications and viewpoints of the tragic events which unfolded in Wendake in the 1600s, and you will end up with an opera rivalling the length of anything in Wagner!  The commission from Brookfield was, of course, for a choral work, which meant that there necessarily had to be sung texts, and there is a dearth of authentic textual material from within the Wendat tradition.  Thus Beckwith was forced to rely on French accounts.  Inevitably, of course, there will then be accusations of one-sidedness and worse.

Rather than wade into that kind of ethno-cultural debate, I simply want to take a look at the music as presented.

Beckwith chose to create a kind of choral/instrumental fresco in six "panels", highlighting six different aspects of the interactions between the Wendat and the Europeans.  He wisely made no attempt to narrate the long, sad story of the events which happened, confining his music and texts to a series of vignettes.  The result is a kind of musical kaleidoscope, which in the end leaves you with an overall impression and with the need to find out more about the history.  And that, I think, is a very desirable result.  As another audience member said to me after the performance, "It's a story that needs to be told."  I heartily concur. 

The detailed programme notes provided were very helpful as a guide, and the translations of Wendat and French sung texts projected on the screen in the hall were also valuable.

The musical means were nothing if not varied.  From the Toronto Consort, Beckwith drew on instruments that might have been used in New France at the time: viola da gamba, recorder, portative organ, lute, mandolin, and percussion.  Also used was a single native drummer.  This unusual selection of instruments will certainly militate against future performances unless alternatives are sanctioned by the composer.  (The programme, by the way, spoke of "First Nations singers and drummers" in the plural.  I don't know if that in fact happened at the Midland performance).

The choir play an important role, singing text in some passages, shouting out words in others, and creating various sounds such as the shuffling of snowshoes or the weeping of families at the Feast of Souls.  A solo part for alto and a narration for a speaker are also included.

The longest section of the work was the narration describing the Feast of Souls, but the part that affected me most deeply was the Lamentation, both sad and angry, which reflected the shattered state of the Wendat after the occupation.  This was followed by a final section entitled L'Avenir, setting a poem by Georges Sioui which looks forward to a more peaceful future.  This was a short epigraph, little more than a tag after the intensity of the lament.  Perhaps the intention was to remind the listener that hopes for the future can be tenuous things at best.

It's difficult to assess this music after a single hearing.  It certainly held my attention throughout, and my emotions and thoughts were engaged, both during and after the performance.  For reasons both musical and human, I hope it does achieve wider circulation.  At any rate, it was plain that all the performers felt keenly the importance of performing the work -- as did composer Beckwith, who was present and addressed the audience before the performance.

Beckwith's work was presented in the second half of the concert.  The first half began with the Toronto Consort presenting several secular songs such as might have been heard in France around the time of Champlain.  After that, the First Nations singer and drummer, Marilyn George, spoke briefly about her life and sang three traditional songs of her people, the Ojibway of Serpent River First Nation.  I especially enjoyed this segment precisely because George was plainly not a trained professional opera or concert singer.  This was the voice of a woman singing, not for a living, but in songs which mattered deeply to her as a human being. 


This concert marked the end of my Festival experience for 2015.  Although the Festival goes on for another week, I have another trip and another experience in my immediate future.

I want to wrap up with a few general thoughts.  I've found this year's Festival peculiarly tiring.  In part it's because I have never done this much writing during a Festival before, and all the writing -- much as I love doing it -- does take time.  Also, it's because the regular afternoon concerts interfere with my otherwise sacrosanct afternoon naps!  I don't think I fell asleep too often in the hall.  I certainly hope not, anyway, because my regular seat next to the stage would make it all too obvious that I had passed out!

Another reason I found this Festival tiring was because the evening concerts contained an unending stream of performances that were absolute blockbusters in quality, in intensity, every way you can imagine.  I would get so involved and wound up as a result that it could take me as long as an hour and a half to calm down enough to get to sleep!

But that's one of the yearly mysteries of this Festival: how Artistic Director James Campbell manages, year after year, to assemble a string of concerts that somehow exceed the quality of the previous year's Festival.  I have no idea how he does it, but I'm certainly grateful for his skill in that area.  Many of my most treasured musical memories are now associated with Parry Sound, and in particular with the musicians who appear here, year after year, until we all have become old friends.

And that's the other feature of this Festival which is so treasurable: the easy interaction between artists and audiences.  Musicians often come out into the lobby area to greet audiences after concerts.  Those who are here for extended periods will sit in during performances by their colleagues, and so there are almost always a selection of musicians in the audience area.  The whole affair has a comfortably informal tone.  You certainly don't have to dress up to come, or to play, and in fact the artists who do put on full formal concert dress are few and far between.

For all those who've been following my long string of Festival blogs, I hope you've enjoyed them and thank you for your feedback and comments.  Special tip of the hat to Kerrie for press-agenting so effectively on my behalf!  For anyone reading these blogs who hasn't been to the Festival of the Sound, I urge you to give it a try next year.  You'll hear some wonderful music, meet plenty of friendly people, and with any luck get to experience a few spectacular Georgian Bay sunsets.