Music News

TORONTO - The idea to capture the voice of “the weeping prophet” Jeremiah came to composer Peter Togni back when he was 19 and listening to Jeremiah’s lamentations as composed by Orlando di Lasso.

“It just blew me away, and I had this idea tucked way in the back of my brain that maybe one day I would end up writing that,” said Togni.

“No matter what religion you are or aren’t, the message of Jeremiah, to me, is a universal one. It’s really about somebody who tells the truth, and is disregarded. That’s the whole piece, in a way.”

In his work Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, Togni, who was recently the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth medal, has charted the journey of the prophet in a four-movement concerto for bass clarinet and choir, the third of which will be showcased during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche art festival on Sept. 29-30.

“It’s the personal journey of Jeremiah through various stages of his experience of being a prophet. Imagine waking up one day and discovering that you’re called by God to be a prophet; it’s a rather difficult thing to have to assume,” said Jeff Reilly, renowned bass clarinetist, who is on both the original recording with the Elmer Iseler Singers and will be performing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale during Nuit Blanche.

The composition has a profound effect on Reilly, as Togni (a long-time personal friend and musical collaborator) wrote the piece for Reilly specifically.

“For him to write something for me was probably a very natural extension for him of our working relationship, and, for me, probably the greatest gift I’ve ever received from any human being in my entire life was that piece,” said Reilly.

“I still look at it as an act of grace — that that piece exists.”

The four movements of the concerto act as a vehicle for Jeremiah’s suffering, contemplation and eventual acceptance of the task set before him. Togni deftly weaves the Latin text of the choir with the bass clarinet as the voice of Jeremiah — both areas work as a counterpart to the other to advance the plot and emphasize the prophet’s journey.

“In one way, it’s a virtuosic concerto… it stems from the early meanings of the word concerto which means to play together,” said Togni. “Sometimes the choir is kind of like a Greek chorus, like an architect of the space. The bass clarinet is Jeremiah, speaking in that space.”

Togni also notes that the concerto is reflective of a 21st-century paradigm, wherein he is able to allow Reilly a great element of creative control in his own right.

“The piece is 75 per cent composed, and 25 per cent improvised. Jeff is 25 per cent improvised, so he feels things in the moment. It’s kind of as if I would write a concerto for Miles Davis,” said Togni. “There’s an awful lot of trust.”

“That’s a hard thing to do,” said Reilly of the juxtaposition of sung phrase, to the instrumental evocation of Jeremiah. “They’re singing words… and they have a certain way of working and thinking as an ensemble. There is a real challenge there.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music, and it’s an amazing performance piece.”

The original recording of Lamentatio was on the renowned ECM label, and was the first work by a Canadian composer to appear there. At Nuit Blanche, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (which was founded by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, artistic director) is working the movement into their set titled Oblivion, which is an exploration of silence.

“The third movement is Silentio, the one that I’m playing this weekend, and that’s his acceptance of grace,” said Reilly. “It’s a very powerful and a very beautiful movement. He takes refuge in the silence of the Lord.”

Lamentatio will also be featured at the opening gala of the Winnipeg New Music Festival in January, where it will be performed again by the Elmer Iseler Singers.

“The truth of the matter is that we’re all called upon to certain roles in our life that we don’t necessarily want to take on. But, by the grace of things beyond yourself, you have found yourself in a position to take on responsibilities, and assume a part of yourself that is bigger than the way you looked at yourself before,” said Reilly.

“It’s a beautiful story and it’s something that I think we can all relate to in a personal way. We all have to take on roles that we don’t particularly want to.”

For more information on the Nuit Blanche performance, see www.scotiabanknuitblanche.ca.

Music ministry perfect fit for folk hobbyist

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Women at Carmelina Home find joy in the 
experience

Every Wednesday night, Deacon Philip Allard drives through rush-hour traffic across Toronto to Carmelina Home, a long-term care residential program run by the Passionist Sisters for women recovering from addiction, substance abuse and emotional issues.

Allard takes with him his guitar.

A social worker by trade and a folk musician by hobby, Allard joined the diaconate 12 years ago and has held a ministry position at Carmelina Home for seven years, playing his guitar and leading a sing-song with the women who live there.
Before that, he dabbled in ministry work at a hospital and at Providence Centre, but found those placements to be too similar to his profession.

“I was looking for a unique and different experience,” Allard said.

Allard admits he didn’t know what a deacon was before he looked into becoming one himself. He did, however, feel compelled to do more.

And his ministry at Carmelina Home has turned out to be the perfect fit for Allard, who on top of playing the guitar has performed in community theatre, even playing lead roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

“I didn’t go there with any specific agenda,” Allard said of how his ministry at Carmelina Home came to be one of music.

“I thought music would be nice, (and) they really took to (it). I’m building my repertoire and having a lot of fun.”

Carmelina Home boasts a strict and intensive two-year program, so Allard tries to keep Wednesday evenings light and enjoyable. The songs are not strictly religious, though Allard said he tries to pick ones with uplifting and positive spiritual messages.

One crowd favourite is “Lean on Me.”

“It’s not a religious song, but it’s very inspiring and encouraging.”

But he said the most encouraging songs of all are ones that involve everyone.

“Musically, it’s always nice when you’re including other people,” Allard said. “Some of the women really like to sing so it gives me an opportunity to throw in a couple harmonies.”

For Allard, one of his best experiences at Carmelina Home is singing with the women for their annual gala several years ago.

“All the women there really wanted an opportunity to sing, with me leading the song,” Allard said. “Just the excitement in the home the weeks leading up to that, that’s probably the most memorable.

“It seemed to be a very happy time for the women, to share joy in that experience.”

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A Dutchman’s love of organs is transplanted to Canada

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Klaas Bos, the founder and owner of the Classical Organ Centre in Norwich, Ont., first fell in love with the instrument in his native Holland.

“When I was back in Holland, I immigrated (to Canada) in 1989, I got interested in organs. A lot of times, like on a Saturday afternoon, we’d go to an organ dealer and play a couple songs,” Bos told The Catholic Register.

While there, he got to know an organ dealer who, being wheelchair bound, would ask Klaas to assist him with deliveries and in fixing small parts.

“I got acquainted with the organs, like the ‘guts’ side of it,” said Bos.

After moving to Canada, Bos wanted to get back in the organ business, and decided to start up a market for European-style organs.
“I bought myself a ticket, went back to Holland and met with seven of the dealers that I knew personally and I knew wouldn’t ‘pull the skin over my nose,’ ” laughs Bos.

So, in 1992, the Classical Organ Centre was born, with an emphasis on the Content brand of instruments — a make of pipe organ from the Netherlands that was not common in the Canadian market.

“It was not known here, so this was a big step for me to do,” said Bos.

“Obviously, trying to market something that people know is a lot easier than trying to market something that people don’t know about. But, I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to stick to my guns.’ ”

That attitude has paid off, as Classical Organ now exclusively sells the Content brand, a move Bos feels secures his company a certain niche in the organ industry.

“The capabilities that are in the Content organs, they go far beyond what any other organ in the industry can do at this moment, especially with the new Cantata series,” said Bos. “Everything is totally adjustable.”

The Content brand, while digital, allows for a user-friendly set up that can be easily modified to suit the needs of the setting or player. The style of play can be adjusted to suit different voicing, such as a more European-style Baroque sound to a Romantic sound, from a symphonic pipe organ to a cathedral pipe organ.

Additionally, the Classical Organ Centre will also accommodate existing manual pipe organs by creating a hybrid instrument — the melding of some the original pipe work with an electric instrument so that both components can act together.

“We set it up for the customer — we ask them what do they like, where do they want to be. From there we follow up a bunch of times to see if that’s exactly where they want it,” said Bos.

“For all these extra features and options, the price doesn’t go up.”

From a performance standpoint, Bos also notes that the sheer adaptability of the Content organ can allow the player a multitude of different musical experiences that he may not have previously been able to have.

“When I started, I was always a more Romantic-style player,” said Bos. “Now, because it’s just a matter of hitting a button and you have a totally different organ, I’m getting more interested in Baroque music and symphonic music.

“Because it’s on here, I practise with it and see the value of the different organs.”

For more information go to www.classicalorgan.ca.

New musical Mass settings remain a work in progress

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Sept. 25, 2011 marked the launch of the newly minted musical settings that followed the complete liturgical overhaul of the Roman missal.

In parishes around the archdiocese of Toronto, congregants were greeted with the small, floppy Celebrate in Song hymnal — a book that contains three freshly commissioned musical settings of the Mass. Much like the often overlapping of the spoken “and with your spirit” with the erstwhile “and also with you,” the musical settings presented congregants with a fresh challenge — adapting responses that had been previously learned en rote to a completely different, and sometimes complex, vocal line.

“I think that for people, change is death. Change is a metaphor for death. Nobody likes change,” said Peter Togni.

Togni is one of Canada’s most noted composers, and his choral works are heard in parishes across the world. Having set the Mass to music before, Togni provides an interesting view on the musical tradition that some congregants are still adapting to.

“I think the language that they’re using, in many cases, is more elegant and more directly translated from the original Latin, which goes back to what Paul VI really wanted,” said Togni.

“But, I understand the paradox, because in some ways there’s kind of a wooden link to Latin for some people — the sacrilization of Latin, almost, just for its own sake and I understand that this gets in the way of ecumenism for some people. But, from an artistic standpoint, setting the text to those words is in some ways easier and prettier, you know? ‘Lord, God of Hosts’ is easier than ‘Lord, God of Power and Might.’ I like that from a purely artistic standpoint.”

However, the adaptation, despite what may seem a more poetic version, hasn’t necessarily lent itself in all cases to the accompanying musical line. Thus, there lies an imperfect synthesis of text and music which is crucial to the participation of the congregants.

“One of them that I’ve heard, I find very awkward,” said Togni. “In the congregation that I go to now, the congregation doesn’t sing very much with one of the Mass parts because there’s so much for them to do that I find it’s overwhelming for them, and frankly, most people don’t sing.

“I think it’s the integration with the music and that text,” Togni said of what may be the inherent problem with the adjustment to the changes.

“I think different composers might have done different things with that text. Not that the text is perfect… you can get in sort of a dualistic all or nothing thinking — this is totally right, that’s totally wrong. I don’t think you can do that.”

Togni does note that the textual changes certainly serve to unite the Church across the country.

“You’re talking about universality, right? The beautiful thing about the new text, if we’re asked, is, for the French they always say ‘avec votre esprit.’ We now say, ‘and with your spirit,’ but the French have been saying it for years. So, it links us up with them,” said Togni.

Looking forward, Togni suggests that perhaps the music will adopt a more Gregorian tradition and create a solid chant-like structure that would accommodate and highlight the textual changes.

“Even if you read the Vatican documents, the chant is supposed to have lots of room. We had an opportunity to write an English setting that I think could have been more people friendly and more chant-like,” said Togni.

“No matter what you do to ‘people of goodwill,’ it’s hard to set. But, then, English is cumbersome anyway,” he laughs. “I get the sense that there’s something sort of artificial with what they ended up with.”

It’s not entirely unsuccessful, though. In particular, the Angeles “Agnus Dei” has been particularly well received by congregations that Togni’s witnessed, and musically well executed.

Despite that, perhaps the root of any musical problem in the liturgy lies with what could be described as a lagging musical culture in the Catholic tradition.

“Church choir attendance is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, in some places,” said Togni.

“In our culture, we’re not a singing people. We’re just not… I think we need to find a Mass setting that’s more people friendly, melodically; simpler rhythmically. Let’s face it — not many people sing any more.”

Another factor of the tradition that could be remedied is a less performance-like aspect to the melodic line, which would allow the cantor to interact more thoroughly with the congregants, some of whom may be averse to singing entirely, he said.

“In the Gloria, for example, I don’t know why there isn’t more refrain for the people and then the cantor or the choir can do the rest of it,” said Togni.

“It’s just so much easier. If you’re going to have the entire text, then you better make it singer friendly, and it’s not,” said Togni, who notes that some of the song selections in Celebrate in Song lend themselves well to congregant participation.

Hopefully, the new settings will entrench themselves in the musical tradition. That, or adapt to what the congregants need.

“What is that Latin phrase? ‘Lex orandi, Lex credendi’:  the law of prayer is the law of belief — what we say in prayer expresses what we believe. That’s really the crux of it,” said Togni.

“It doesn’t sound like an entirely successful experiment, artistically, so far. Not yet.”

A serious musical you can blame on Rio

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The history of American musical theatre has served up plots and song lyrics so brainless they could make opera blush. But a new Canadian musical set among the homeless children of Rio de Janeiro takes on serious issues as it dances, sings and jokes its way across the stage.

Rio: The Musical is getting a critical test run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival this month. If it passes the test it could wind up playing to New York audiences on Broadway, telling a story of murder, homelessness and family to a samba beat.

“There are certainly frivolous musicals,” veteran musical composer Joey Miller told The Catholic Register. “I save my money.”

From South Pacific’s take on racism to Cabaret’s exploration of Nazi rule, there are plenty of examples of serious theatre in the guise of musicals. Miller and his writing partner Mitch Magonet want to fit their musical into that tradition.

“There has to be a theatricality to it, but it has to be truthful,” said Miller.

Miller and Magonet have worked on Rio off and on for eight years. Getting into both the New York Musical Theatre Festival July 9 to 29 after having already been in last year's National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival Oct. 11 and 12, both in New York, gives their project a certain cachet among new musicals.

Miller frankly admits he and Magonet stole the plot from Oliver Twist. Twelve-year-old Pipio arrives in Rio from Brazil’s poor northeast during Carnival on an impossible quest to find his mother. He falls in among homeless children who steal for an older master thief and he befriends a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship. A murder right off the top sets things in motion.

Musically, Brazil was the right place to set the story, said Miller. A percussionist by trade, Miller has spent decades studying samba, bossa nova, forro, choro and countless Brazilian rhythms.

“They say about Brazilians, without music they can’t exist,” said Miller.

Miller and Magonet use rhythms as leitmotifs, signature music attached to each character.

“It was the music that drove us. It’s like an inspiration,” said Miller.

But Brazil is also right culturally, he said.

“There’s something special about Brazil. It’s the samba, it’s the favela, it’s the whole culture with the importance of family,” Miller said.

Once in the New York festivals, Catholic University of America chose Rio as an ideal challenge for students of its Benjamin T. Rome School of Music musical theatre division. Dark, gritty subject matter set in a very different culture was part of the attraction for Denise Puricelli, Catholic University assistant professor of music. For Puricelli, serious intent fits with a Catholic university.

“One of the things we’re charged to do, actually, is to encourage people to contemplate social ills and contemporary problems,” she said. “It is a question — what kind of material should we do? You can either hide from it and only do things that are very wonderful or you can talk about things that make people stop and ponder... Schools that hide these strong, ugly parts of life are doing the students a disservice.”

Puricelli was musical director for a two-week workshop of Rio. It was opportunity for students to be part of the process as the writers and director edited, pruned and added songs and dialogue.

“For the kids, being able to have the composers right in the room, being able to ask questions from them — it was a great experience all the way around,” said Puricelli.

Crowdsourcing on Kickstarter.com raised $40,000 to mount a bare-bones production for the NYMF festival, along with $80,000 from a private backer. Very early in its development Mirvish Productions in Toronto workshopped the first act. Miller doesn’t yet know what will happen to the play after the New York festivals. Miller would love to see a full production on stage in Toronto, in New York, even in Rio.

“This is where we turn to prayer,” he said.

Priest and musician brings his music to Canada [w/ video]

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For Fr. Robert Galea, music is the language of the heart.

“And what better way to preach the Gospel than through the language of the heart?” asks the 30-year-old Maltese singer, songwriter and priest serving in Shepparton, Australia.

Sponsored by Salt + Light Television in collaboration with dioceses across Canada, Galea will be on tour in Canada in early July with stops planned in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Specific dates were not yet confirmed by press time.