Music News

TORONTO - Christmas celebrations are heralded by the senses, and none more so than sound, with music at the heart of almost all of our seasonal memories. Think Bing Crosby crooning “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or Judy Garland rending heart strings everywhere with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — it doesn’t get more quintessentially “Christmas-time” than that.

Catholic jazz pianist Dave Brubeck dies 

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WASHINIGTON - Dave Brubeck, the influential and prolific pianist whose composition "Take Five" became a standard in the annals of jazz, died Dec. 5 at age 91, one day before his 92nd birthday.

Choir school camaraderie continues with The Mistletones

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TORONTO - After years of singing together on a daily basis at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, a group of alumni came together to continue making music.

Called The Mistletones, their love of song and unique vocal blend have culminated in a sold-out Christmas concert on Dec. 13 at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio.

“The style of the group is a combination of choral and jazz,” said Gerry Litster, group member and choir school alumni, who is also joined in the group by his brother, Mike.

“We are definitely not barbershop as some have asked in the past, although for the most part our singing is a capella.”

The all-male voiced group, who sing in TTBB vocal formation, have been together since 1980 and have been friends since their days at the choir school — some even knowing one another for as many as 49 years.

“The group was formed to fill the musical void we experienced after graduation from the choir school,” said Douglas Tranquada.

The Mistletones currently consist of nine members: Pat Power and Rob Thomas (bass); Tranquada, Paul Townshend and Paul Kenny (baritone); the Litster brothers (second tenor); Dan Fantin and Leonard Tawaststjerna (first tenor).

Their rich blend and concise, complex harmonic aptitude form a unique and well-developed vocal style.

“We all had musical training during our years at the choir school,” said Townshend. “That included piano, organ, theory, harmony and music history.”

Their sold-out show will highlight the group’s dense vocal harmonics, all while showcasing favourite music of the Christmas season.

“The program is a mix of a few sacred songs along with some popular Christmas favourites, but not your typical Christmas carols,” says Tawaststsjerna.

The group has performed in some of the city’s most storied venues, places such as Roy Thomson Hall, Koerner Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre and Massey Hall.

This time around, The Mistletones are looking forward to bringing their sound to an audiences at a venue that has a unique atmosphere.

“The beauty of GGS (Glenn Gould Studio) is that it’s like singing in an intimate surrounding — not unlike being in someone’s living room,” said Kenny.

For more information on The Mistletones visit their facebook page at www.facebook.com/therealmistletones.

David Braid, a faithful performer

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TORONTO - Pianist David Braid originally got into jazz after developing a deep affinity for one of history’s greatest composers — Mozart. Indeed, it was once said of Braid, by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, “If Mozart played jazz, he’d be David Braid.”

Currently en route to Beijing to perform two concerts, Braid’s resumé boasts two Juno Award wins, Jazz Pianist of the Year in Canada and a SOCAN Composer of the Year award. He has composed more than 80 works for piano, ensembles and orchestras, and has released nine recordings. However, despite his lauded career and whirlwind of performance engagements, Braid cites a much more reflective inspiration for some of his work — one that comes from a Sunday evening student Mass at the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto.

“The students seemed particularly still in a moment of silent prayer while a particularly beautiful but irregular hymn with an atypical harmonic movement and meter was being performed. The feeling of that particular harmony, rhythm and meter at that particular moment impressed upon me a buoyancy and uplifting feeling which I liked very much,” said Braid.

“I wanted to capture that and recreate that feeling in a piece of my own to share with my audiences. Fifteen years later, my composition ‘Say a Silent Prayer’ is one of my most performed and popular pieces.”

This inspiration, drawn deeply from a lifelong involvement in the Catholic Church, presents itself in Braid’s prolific body of work — not always in an obvious sense, but subtly colouring his uniquely melodic compositions.

“In a general way, when I think about the largest quantity of music I was exposed to throughout my childhood, it must have been church music at Sunday Mass because music was not a big part of my culture at home outside of my piano studies,” said Braid. “In my opinion, the large body of hymns in The Catholic Book of Worship, which I hear every Sunday, never manifest in any of my writing, but I think there is a vocal or lyrical quality in my melodic writing which relates back to those songs.”

Born in Hamilton, Ont., Braid attended Regina Mundi Elementary School followed by St. Thomas More High School. After moving to Toronto, where he is a faculty member at the University of Toronto, Braid began attending St. Basil’s parish as well as St. Vincent de Paul, due to an increasing interest in the Tridentine Mass.

Despite his accomplishments in jazz, a field that boasts a select number of stars, Braid is quick to highlight the integral role that his faith has played in his overwhelming achievements.

“I can not honestly take any ownership of whatever success I might have had. This is because I feel I am just trying my best to live out a vocation with enough sincerity that I can continue to grow,” said Braid.

“On another level, I can say that experiencing the Catholic sacraments throughout the weeks and years of my life lead me to understand that my faith does not exist as ‘a role’ but rather intrinsically changes who or what I am fundamentally. In this way, I would say that at my best moments of creating music, I am certainly not the creator but a kind of instrument able to respond to a mysterious inspiration.”

Braid is certainly a prolific creator. He writes for solo piano, jazz ensembles, chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras — a well-rounded composition portfolio that certainly augments any pre-conceived notions of jazz composition.

“In my opinion, writing traditional jazz music is more like ‘song writing.’ A song becomes interesting when the performer is spontaneous with the melody, harmony and rhythm… good quality song writing, or good quality jazz writing inspires interesting improvisation,” said Braid.

“Contemporary jazz composition does essentially the same thing, however the composition’s elements such as melody, harmony, rhythm and form are typically more complex.”

Additionally, Braid has found some specific elements of his Catholic practice that work their way into his writing.

“Direct inspirations include my composition ‘El Castillo Interior,’ inspired by the book of the same title written by St. Teresa of Avila in 1577,” said Braid.

“Another popular piece of mine, ‘Reverence,’ was based on the first four chords of a folk hymn that I heard a lot growing up called ‘Though the Mountains May Fall.’ I am a bit ashamed to admit that I always felt a little embarrassed by a kind of sentimental feeling I felt from that song, but I later used the opening chords to launch a new piece of my own.”

Braid’s upcoming performances on Dec. 5 and 6 in Beijing, which he has been doing annually since 2006, will be a solo piano recital at the Forbidden City Concert Hall as well as a premiere of music he has written for string quartet and piano at the Beijing University Centennial Concert Hall with the Peking Sinfonietta String Quartet. Braid has also just released a double CD album of two live recordings for the CBC radio broadcast The Signal.

As a man with such a wealth of performance and musical moments under his belt, Braid finds it difficult to pinpoint one particular moment that he cherishes best.

“Without trying to be facetious, my favourite performance and moment is definitely the next one. I feel that my work is always on an incline where I am always looking up ahead at where I am going. Whenever I feel like I am looking behind at what I was involved with before, I have stopped growing.”

Organ enjoying a renaissance in Canada, in and out of the church

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TORONTO - The pipe organ has held an inimitable place in Western musical canon since the 16th century. However, the instrument that is the cornerstone of the Church’s sacred musical practice is in the midst of an undeniable renaissance, both in Canada and abroad, in and out of the Church.

An indicator is the appointment of several internationally revered organ masters to prominent appointments in Canadian institutions — most notably Hans-Ola Ericsson, Swedish organist, composer and technician who has been appointed to the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. Ericsson will be reaching Toronto audiences on Nov. 23 when he performs at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

“I’m obviously looking forward, very much, to performing in Toronto since it’s one of the big centres of Canadian music, and a very respected school of music,” said Ericsson of his first engagement outside of Montreal since his appointment at McGill.

Ericsson will be performing works from Bach and Messaien amongst others at Holy Trinity. He is also hosting a master class for some of the University of Toronto’s organ students. He notes the pedigree of young organists in Canada is laudable.

“I have been very impressed, I must say. The undergraduates that I teach here at McGill, they are very fine and they know their way around (the instrument),” said Ericsson. “They’re very capable… They are very eager at the ages of 18 and 19 and have a great working capacity.”

The trend towards an emerging talent pool of organists is blossoming across the country and outside the spectrum of the universities as well.

“We have had several young pianists introduced to the organ over the past decade and they are all doing really well in their careers as professional organists,” said Gordon Mansell, founder of the ORGANIX organ festival and member of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.

This interest has thrown weight behind, and perhaps fostered, a number of new organ-related projects in the country.

“Here in Montreal… due to the fabulous work of my predecessor John Grew, we have the Montreal Summer Organ Academy… which is a great thing for reaching out to young people,” said Ericsson. “Also of course, the CIOC (Canadian International Organ Competition), which is happening next year for the third time in Montreal. I see a lot of initiatives happening.”

In addition to the organ’s prominence in Canadian academic study and performance, the instrument is moving up in the liturgical landscape as well.

“We had a vibrant organ culture through the mid- to late-1970s,” said Mansell. “However, as the demographics of Canada changed with many people coming from places where either Western art music or organ music are foreign to their practise of faith — such as the case of people arriving from hot climates — then the preferred instrumentation for church services is more likely to be guitars.”

Ericsson also stresses the organ’s vitality within the liturgical context. His own achievements and compositions with the instrument are also highly regarded in the church. He was an integral part of the Project Studio Acusticum in Pitea, Sweden.

“It’s everything as an instrument within the service, within the Mass,” said Ericsson.

“An instrument underlining the worship and the service, as such, that can give colour, but also be able to be an instrument that can stand on its own, this is so important.”

With local innovators like Mansell already established in Canada, the hope is that the injection of international credential will only further the already prolific field of organists.

“Their experience is different from ours. Perhaps a bit exotic,” said Mansell of his European contemporaries.

“They are confident, well balanced in their musical tastes and can deliver an exciting program. They are quite accustomed to large audiences and know how to reach out to them to make them feel welcomed and entertained.

“Likewise, when an institution settles on a talent that has a more international base of experience, that institution is saying that they are serious about the future of the organ and they are interested in developing an organ culture of high international status.”

Ericsson echoes this sentiment.

“I hope, and I think, that there will be a great future for organ music. There are many wonderful young players that reach out to an audience that perhaps is a new audience.”

Sacred music can attract lapsed Catholics back to God, pope says

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VATICAN CITY - Sacred music can bolster people's faith and help lapsed Catholics rediscover the beauty of God, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"Sacred music can, above all, promote the faith, and, what's more, cooperate in the new evangelization," he told participants attending a conference and pilgrimage sponsored by the Italian St. Cecilia Association. St. Cecilia, whose feast day is Nov. 22, is traditionally honored as the patron saint of musical performers.

"Music and singing that are done well can help (people) receive the word of God and be moved in a positive way," the pope said in his address Nov. 10.

Many people, including St. Augustine, have found themselves attracted to God because of some profound experience prompted by the beauty of liturgical music and sacred song, he said.

In the church's missionary outreach, he said, it urges Catholics to recognize, respect and promote the musical traditions of the local people.

Traditionally Christian countries, like Italy, have a rich heritage of sacred music which can help lapsed Catholics rediscover God and be drawn again to the Christian message and the mystery of faith, he said.

Because of their important role in new evangelization, he urged church musicians to dedicate themselves "to improving the quality of liturgical song, without being afraid of reviving or emphasizing the great musical tradition of the church, which has two of its highest expressions in Gregorian and polyphony."

"Show how the church may be the place in which beauty feels at home," he said.

"Sacred song united to the words, form a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy," he said, quoting from the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium."

The reason why sacred music is "necessary and integral," Pope Benedict said, isn't simply for aesthetic purposes, but because sacred song "cooperates in nourishing and expressing the faith and, therefore, in glorifying God and sanctifying the faithful."

Sacred music "is not an accessory or embellishment of the liturgy, but is the liturgy itself."

The pope thanked the men and women musicians and singers for helping the faithful "praise God and make his word sink deep in their hearts."

That evening, in the Sistine Chapel, the pope attended a concert with his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, who was the director of the Regensburg Boys Choir for decades.

They listened to music from a Mass composed by Msgr. Ratzinger, as well as to pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Msgr. Massimo Palombella -- the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir -- and Colin Mawby, a contemporary British composer who has served as director of music at Westminster Cathedral.

Supportive Catholic community helps Toronto singer become a star with The Tenors

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TORONTO - Victor Micallef, a member of the internationally acclaimed singing group The Tenors, began his successful musical career with a stroke of good fortune.

“I was always attracted to music,” says Micallef. “My sister was taking piano lessons when I was about three or four years old and my family couldn’t afford both of us taking lessons, so I just watched her take lessons and she hated it. She just couldn’t stand it,” he laughs.

“One day she turned to our parents and said she didn’t want to take lessons any more… that was victory for me!”

After his fortuitous piano incident, Micallef was led by his late father to the opportunity that would one day become his career and passion: singing.

“I was a very shy boy… I didn’t like singing in front of people. One day (my father) went to my parish priest (at St. Paul the Apostle in Toronto) who was Fr. Jimmy Zammit, and he just said: Vic wants to sing. I did a double take! I was petrified,” says Micallef, who soon afterwards began working as a cantor at the church.

“That was my early childhood education… Fr. Jim and my father influenced me to sing. It was good because, from a young age, I was singing in front of a large audience.”

Now, Micallef sings with The Tenors (formerly The Canadian Tenors) in front of much larger audiences that have included Celine Dion, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth II. Much of his success, attests Micallef, comes from his Toronto upbringing in his Catholic parish and high school, Michael Power-St. Joseph in Etobicoke.

“MPSJ always seemed like an arts school,” says Micallef. “It was a great school to be at. The memories that were the fondest for me were the after school and the pre-school things… it was something that I loved to do — to stick around after school with my friends and make music.”

Micallef credits his experiences and teachers during his high school years as an integral factor in his current success. And the Toronto Catholic District School Board has since honoured Micallef, awarding him the TCDSB Alumni Award last year.

“I was totally blown away. I was absolutely honoured to be recognized in that way,” says Micallef. “Singing for the Queen and meeting all of these stars and being in those circles — it has its drawbacks too. I love my family, but I’m away a lot. When they came to me and said we recognize you as being a good representative, I was like, really?” he laughs.

“I do practice going to church and educating my four-year-old son in the same way… even more than that just trying to be a good person… As an alumni winner, you have a responsibility to be a good example,” says Micallef.

“Even with the other Tenors, they know me as the family guy who goes to church,” he laughs. “I try my best to be an example. I’m still that shy boy — we’ll be at a big event somewhere… and they’ll be like, ‘OK, Vic, lead us in prayer, we love when you do that!’ ”

Despite his grounding in faith and family, Micallef and the other members of The Tenors are in the midst of a whirlwind tour across North America as they rebrand not only their name, but also seek to create a strong image on which their group is based.

“Part of the rebranding was learning about what we represent as a group, and part of that is inspiring people and trying to give a message,” says Micallef, who also noted that dropping Canadian from the name was not a matter of being unpatriotic, but was done to retain their international appeal.

The Tenors released their newest album on Oct. 30, and that will be followed up with a December DVD release of the group performing live from Las Vegas.

“We’re really excited about this album — it’s like the next step. We have writing credits on it, and we’ve written with world-class writers,” says Micallef.

Particularly evocative of their image and mantra is the name of the album, Lead With Your Heart, which almost came too late.

“This one song came to us really late in the game and we already had all of our songs for the CD. It was written with us in mind and it was called ‘Lead With Your Heart,’ ” says Micallef.

“It appealed to us right away and the words were just so right… that’s what we represent. So we called the album that.”

Looking forward, Micallef hopes that the same programs that nurtured his love of music and performance will continue on in high schools and create opportunities for other TCDSB students.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate, because it could have been the exact opposite where people didn’t care… or if I didn’t have teachers who persuaded me to go sing in musical theatre,” says Micallef. “The people around me, like Fr. Jim and my teachers at school and my father, they all fed me and led me to doing what eventually would become my life.”

For young people and any others hoping to pursue a career in the arts, Micallef offers a simple piece of advice.

“Always follow your heart… it does tell you a lot. It’s that instinct. When you’re singing, or making these choices always try and ask yourself who you are and what do you feel happy doing.”

For more on The Tenors go to www.tenorsmusic.com.

Paying the piper

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TORONTO - For an organist, preserving an instrument’s sound is like maintaining a relationship. It calls for strict attention to atmosphere, communication and a whole lot of listening.

“You try as hard as possible to keep the air in the church as consistent as possible,” said John Paul Farahat, organist at St. Basil’s Church in downtown Toronto. “When you have changes in humidity, when you have changes in temperature, it really affects the pipes because they are all either made of wood or some combina tion of metals.”

In Grade 12, after playing the piano since childhood, Farahat began studying the organ. Now pursuing a masters of music and performance at the University of Toronto, Farahat, 23, has worked with the National Catholic Broadcasting Council’s Daily Mass since 2007.

Farahat took over as the principal organist at St. Basil’s in May 2011, meaning his relationship with the church’s 93-year-old pipe organ had officially become serious.

“What essentially I try to do as the principal organist here is try to maintain it,” said Farahat. “One of the things an organist can do, when you have a pipe organ, is you always make sure, first and foremost, that those expressive pedals are in an open position so that the shutters are opened. Gradual (temperature) changes ... have far less of an effect on how far the instrument goes out of tune.”

This allows air to flow freely around the pipes ensuring that when the temperature inevitably changes in the church it also changes in the boxes that enclose selected pipes.

During the summer months Farahat admits efforts to ensure a constant temperature are often in vain, though it hasn’t discouraged him from trying.

“In a church like this where there is no air conditioning, in the summer you are kind of at the mercy of the weather and the most you can do is just open the windows and hope for the best,” said Farahat. “In the winter (the University of St. Michael’s College’s) heating system is what runs this church and so you have a certain degree of control over the heat.”

But keeping things comfortable is only part of the equation. Like any relationship, the key to preserving an organ’s sound is communication.

“The second way to maintain it, really, it’s the one thing I know a lot of organists have, is a log book (to) record whenever you find something wrong,” said Farahat. “So when the maintenance crew comes in the next time, they look at this book. They don’t look at the organ and say what’s wrong because they would never get the job done... you essentially point them in the right direction.”

Farahat also goes through every note in every stop regularly — at least once between the three to four annual maintenance services.

It’s a practice veteran organ technician Robert Hiller encourages organists to do.

“It’s very important to have more detailed instructions (because it takes) less time to find the problem,” said Hiller, of Alan T. Jackson & Company, which has maintenance contracts for more than 200 organs, including St. Basil’s. “If it is only misfiring the odd time it is difficult to find where the problem is until it happens right in front of your eyes. Sometimes it is just a certain combination of stops that makes the problem happen.”

At an average cost of $500 per fourto five-hour visit, keeping troubleshooting short and sweet is the aim of the game. While many parishes, such as St. Basil’s, hold fixed rate contracts, it is those that try to scrimp and save who often lose out.

“If we don’t go regularly then the list of troubles will take more time and you are spending more money,” said Hiller. “If you don’t maintain your organ regularly, if you are someone who calls only the odd time, then you won’t get that kind of service. We’ll have to bill by the hour.”

St. Peter’s Church on Bathurst Street is a parish without a maintenance contract and it shows. Built in 1927, the open concept church was acoustically designed to maximize the potential of the organ, which has since taken a turn for the worse.

“The organ has been here since the church was built in 1927 and the organ has been very much a part of our tradition,” said Fr. Jim Haley.

“We would love to have it up to par.”

It’s a matter of dollars and cents which prevents the much needed restoration — not to mention a tuning.

“If I had some extra money I would gladly put it into the organ to see if we could build it up,” said Haley. “Right now we have some other priorities in the parish that we have to attend to.”

This is the story for many parishes where a once enchantingly booming organ now screeches off key, if it makes any noise at all. Hiller said full restorations of traditional electro-pneumatic organs, which often means converting them to digital-console organs, costs between $50,000 to $150,000.

Finding a balance between liturgy and performance in music ministry

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TORONTO - Those involved with the music ministry at their parish are often faced with a difficulty that comes from the intrinsic duality of their role — how to maintain a balance between the performance aspect of their craft and the importance of being liturgically sound and engaged with your community.

Fr. Ricky Manalo, CSP, is a highly regarded liturgical musician, Paulist priest, teacher and composer. He will be in Toronto Nov. 3 to host an all-day interactive session, “Sing to the Lord: Liturgical Music in Today’s Church,” at downtown Toronto’s St. Peter’s Church examining the dual role.

“The first part of my talk will be focused not on music and not on any pastoral suggestions, but more on the deeper, ecclesial identity of the Church,” said Manalo. “In other words, how do we ground ourselves to first understanding that when we celebrate liturgy it’s a celebration of the whole community.

“From there we can go into some official documents, particularly what emerged out of the second Vatican Council, that called for more full, conscious and active participation.”

Manalo, whose 2007 hymn “That All May Be One in Christ” won the national hymn competition sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in the United States, feels that the skills and talents of ministers can be used as a way to promote participation during the Mass.

“When I studied as a musician at the Manhattan School of Music, the goal there was art for the sake of art: musica pro musica. Whereas, in liturgy, it’s not art for the sake of art itself, but for the worship of God. All things should point to that,” said Manalo.

“This also doesn’t mean that they should pay less attention to the performative skills that they have already; that’s also important. But, it’s a difference between a liturgy and, say, performing in Carnegie Hall,” he laughs.

Manalo also points to the challenges that come from our secular society, in that we are awash with myriad musical styles and cultural influences. However, these challenges may also yield favourable results.

“The liturgical theologian Anthony Ruff has pointed out that even during the Baroque era, a lot of the musical styles that were sung and/or performed during Mass came from secular styles that were occurring outside of the Church,” said Manalo.

“There will always be various musical styles — whether they be a particular culture, a traditional repertoire that Catholics hold dear or whether they be styles that come from Africa or a generational culture group. What followed after Vatican II was an openness towards various musical styles.”

For more information on Sing to the Lord: Liturgical Music in Today’s Church, contact sbossi@ paulist.org (tickets are $30).

St. Hildegard’s living light

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TORONTO - St. Hildegard of Bingen was a mystic prophet who challenged the status quo of her medieval society with her vast written legacy of medical and theological texts, musical repertoire and a penchant for challenging her superiors in the Church. One could be tempted to argue that Hildegard was the original feminist.

Now, in addition to her being named a Doctor of the Church on Oct. 7 (only the fourth woman to receive the recognition), she can also add film and theatre star to her impressive resume.

Linn Maxwell, internationally recognized mezzo-soprano, is coming to Toronto on Oct. 23 and 24 with her one-woman show, Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light, which has also been recently released as a film adaption. The show tells the story of Hildegard and her mystic visions which ultimately led her to leave a profound mark on the history of the Church.

“She (Hildegard) kind of directed the whole project — I am convinced that this wonderful saint has been behind this the whole time,” said Maxwell of her show, which has now reached audiences across the globe. “When I was writing it... I always felt like there was this little voice behind me saying, ‘no, just tell my story, be truthful, and be chronological.’ ”

In her production, Maxwell has interspersed the life story of St. Hildegard with her original compositions, which she sings and accompanies on traditional medieval instruments.

“It was a journey... I chose the chronological order of things, and I chose her words as much as possible,” said Maxwell. “The first hurdle was choosing the seven songs that I use in the play — the music should carry the action forward.

“The next challenge was to do dialogue and then a song, and then dialogue again so that it’s seamless and organic.”

Born into a noble family in present-day Germany, Hildegard’s parents had a religious disposition and promised their child to the service of God. Invested with the habit of St. Benedict, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, she was appointed superior of her order in 1136, eventually moving the order to Bingen on the left bank of the Rhine.

In her journey to capture the spirit of Hildegard’s story, Maxwell found herself in Bingen, Germany, and eventually Disibodenberg where the ruins of Hildegard’s first monastery are located.

“It was just incredibly amazing. I was there all alone — I think she arranged it so that there would be no one else there. I stayed two or three hours until it got dark and I finally had to leave,” said Maxwell. “I just felt her presence... I felt like, ‘ah, I’ve gotten in touch with her.’ ”

The challenge in performing the show comes not only from Maxwell’s embodiment of such a powerful and unusual woman, but from the interpretation of musical texts that are devoid of rhythmic notation.

“The Sequentia recordings were somewhat of an inspiration for me,” said Maxwell, who is a colleague of Ben Bagby, director of the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music. “You go with the flow of the phrase,” Maxwell added of her own interpretations.

Hildegard’s music holds a certain relevance today, as it defied conventional structures of the time to some extent.

“Hildegard was unusual. She was an extraordinarily learned person at the time,” said John Haines, a professor of history and culture at the University of Toronto and a scholar of medieval music at U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies.

“It is chant — it looks like plain chant in that it’s just one melody, but, generally speaking, compared to... most of the chants that survive from that time period, it’s very wide in range,” said Haines. “Her music is very compelling... it’s difficult to perform too.”

Haines notes that only about one per cent of the population at the time would have been able to write, so the fact that Hildegard’s compositions survive, and are written by a woman, is somewhat remarkable.

Additionally, he points out that Hildegard embraced unusual choices in modality and in the textual and musical relationship, where she employs the use of melisma more than her contemporaries may have done.

“Hildegard tended to favour this one mode on E, which features a half-step from the first tone to the second — it’s very easy to recognize,” said Haines. “Which for us gives a kind of eerie sound to her music, but it’s a very specific type of sound that makes it even more idiomatic.”

Maxwell said Hildegard’s message is “more urgent today than ever before,” and perhaps so; her position as Doctor of the Church means that her theological contributions are still teachable and important today.

“She was a trumpet, proclaiming the word of God,” said Maxwell of her muse and inspiration. “When I’m done, hopefully the audience will know Hildegard.”

For more on the Toronto dates for Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light or to purchase the film, go to www.hildegardofbingen.net.

A reworked Sister Act still packed with laughter

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TORONTO - Sister Act, on stage at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, will awaken your urge to boogie like it’s 1978.

In Philadelphia, we find wannabe star Deloris Van Cartier in thigh-high purple boots and a short leopard print dress. She’s just seen her married lover murder a man and now, under witness protection, the police have hidden her in the last place anyone would think to look — a convent.
Whoopi Goldberg, one of the musical’s producers, who first played Deloris on-screen, made Sister Act the film popular in 1992. And it is with this memory that many theatregoers walked into the performance. But with Ta’Rea Campbell as Deloris on stage, it’s easy to forget anyone else donned the black and white habit.

Campbell’s transformation from nightclub diva to divine singer was believable, while never losing the boisterous (in the best sense) personality of her character.

“She lacks a bit of self-control,” Campbell said about Deloris in an interview with The Catholic Register. “Not in a bad way. Just in a way that she only knows how to be one person and that’s herself. And sometimes, we as adults get to modify our behaviour when we’re in certain situations, and I don’t think Deloris Van Cartier is able to do that.”

It’s this freedom of spirit that comically conflicts with the convent’s Mother Superior, played by Hollis Resnik.

“I have to embody this very stern, rigid, pious nun,” said Resnik. “There’s a stoicism about her, there’s a strong belief system in her.”

An entire musical number is devoted to Mother Superior attempting to put Deloris in her place. Mother is traditional where Deloris likes change, stiff where Deloris is flexible, quiet where Deloris is loud and conservative where Deloris is anything but.

Though the characters are butting heads, the actors are in sync, finishing each other’s sentences during the interview.

“Deloris Van Cartier would like to take a bedazzler and bedazzle the habit if she could,” said Campbell. “Maybe I can jazz this outfit up a little bit,” she said mimicking her character’s attitude.

“It doesn’t cry out for accessories,” replied Resnik instantly in Mother Superior-mode.

The cast has great chemistry, but the music remains the main draw. If patrons expect songs from the movie, they will be slightly disappointed. Though productions such as this attract patrons who hope it will be a nostalgia-fest based on the film, the audience will still get value for their dollar because the show includes an original score by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Hits such as “My God” from the film have been replaced with “Take Me To Heaven” where the nuns belt out cheeky lines, such as “I’ll take any vow, just take me now” and “I’ll get on my knees, just take me please.”

In “Sunday Morning Fever,” the sisters encourage the faithful to “shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene.”

Breakout musical performances also include Kinglsey Leggs as Curtis Jackson, Deloris’s mobster boyfriend, singing “When I Find My Baby.” Effortlessly switching from a sinister to a sweet tone, he promises to never let his baby go. Jackson’s clueless henchmen, played by Charles Barksdale, Todd A. Horman and Ernie Pruneda, also deliver a completely satisfying performance when they brainstorm via song ways to tempt the celibate nuns. In “Lady In The Long Black Dress” they promise to give the sisters something to confess.

Opening night was filled with plenty of laughs, including from the nuns in the audience. But there is a take home message in Deloris’s unexpected journey from sin to redemption, from loneliness to discovering the joy of sisterhood.

“Just be good to each other, no matter what the circumstances are,” said Resnik. “There’s always something to be learned and found in every relationship.”

No matter your religious beliefs, said Campbell, “It’s important to be good hearted, it’s important to respect other people, respect their journey, respect their path (and) respect their soul.” Amen, sister.