A full house for Canadian art song at 21C

A full house for Canadian art song at 21C

Jenna Simeonov

In his introduction of the Canadian Art Song Project’s Songs of our Time: Canada at 150 in association with 21C Music, CASP co-founder Steven Philcox quipped that the subsequent morning headlines should read, “Contemporary art song sells out in Toronto”.

He said it to a crowd that was indeed packed; the light-hearted comment had within it some of that Canadian humility for which we’re famous, but Philcox also spoke with a justified level of pride. Whether the audience turned up as pass-holders for the RCM’s ongoing 21C Music Festival, as fans of the up-and-coming singers featured on the Songs of our Time programme, or as champions of Canadian art song itself, a full house is a full house.

The Canadian Art Song Project itself has an unblemished history of presenting concert events that are thoughtful, wisely collaborative, and beautifully executed. No doubt, their high standards of concert-giving would extend beyond the realm of Canadian music; yet a trustworthy entity like CASP is a valuable tool in the large challenge of getting Canadian music written and heard. Simply put: if there’s quality to the work, a sold-out crowd is no mystery.

The programme’s first half featured baritone Iain MacNeil and pianist Mélisande Sinsoulier performing two 21st-century song cycles. Lloyd Burritt’s Moth Poem (2010), set to poetry by Robin Blaser, brought out colourful sounds in MacNeil and Sinsoulier; both artists took big risks, and MacNeil seemed to shine some light on the evocative texts, full of unexpected imagery. Andrew Staniland’s Peter Quince at the Clavier (2008), to text by Wallace Stevens, is a charming nod to the rough-around-the-edges playwright in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sinsoulier took some spectacular spotlight at the piano, and MacNeil seemed to find a lovely balance between an awkward wordsmith and a poet with earnest love for expressive art.

In what Philcox dubbed, “the world premiere, II”, we also heard Ana Sokolović’s new song cycle commissioned for Canada 150 by CASP, dawn always begins in the bones. We were lucky to hear the first performance last week in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre; here in the RCM’s Telus Centre, singers Danika Lorèn, Emily D’Angelo, Aaron Sheppard, Bruno Roy (all members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, and pianist Liz Upchurch performed the hour-long musical coup for SATB, piano, and various percussion/toy instruments.

The piece retains its magic, even after two hearings within a week. The space at the RCM allowed for more visual details, adding lighting and projected text to director Anna Theodosakis’ ingenious work with the cycle. The artists seemed settled, which is not to say they were on edge earlier this month. It’s an impressive piece that isn’t for the faint of heart or voice, and it must have been a thrill for Sokolović to hear the laughter and murmurs of awe rippling through the crowd.

The RCM’s 21C New Music Festival continues until May 28. For a line-up of the remaining concert events, and to grab your tickets, click here.

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