If you don’t know the name James Ehnes, you should.
The lively Canadian violinist is currently on a tour that brings him to Toronto on Sunday, May 29th, where, along with pianist Andrew Armstrong, he’ll close the eclectic 21C Music Festival at Koerner Hall, a beautiful performance space attached to the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Lest you think any concert that takes place within the proximity of a conservatory is fusty, stilted, old-fashioned, or (shock!) outright boring, Ehnes’ concert will feature one Canadian debut, one Ontario debut, and one Toronto debut. All the composers for the respective works are living: Aaron Jay Kermis is a Pulitzer Prize winner who studied with (among others) John Adams and electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick; Carmen Braden, based in Yellowknife, integrates the sounds of nature within her work; Bramwell Tovey is a Grammy and Juno Award-winning conductor and composer who was once described by Leonard Bernstein as a “hero.”
21C, launched in 2014, was created by Koerner Hall ‘s Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, to, as he puts it, present “artists and composers I think have distinctive voices. […] I want to give audiences music, not medicine.” The danger with contemporary composition is, of course, that audiences might find it too cerebral, not melodic, odd, discomforting. The Ehnes concert, like so many others in the 21C program (including the kickoff concert, which featured Tanya Tagaq), mixes the old and the new with aplomb, and, in addition to the works of Kernis, Braden, and Tovey, will also feature the music of Beethoven and Handel, as well as a piece by James Newton Howard, perhaps best-known for composing the scores to The Hunger Games movies, along with numerous Hollywood hits. Oh, and it’ll be live-streamed. The online world is something many classical organizations are still coming to grips with, though some (and I’d include the Royal Conservatory here) recognize its potential and are doing very creative and unique (for the classical world) things in order to make the medium more friendly, and less daunting for newbies.
Making this world less daunting feels like an M.O. for many artists and arts administrators the last decade or so. Having interviewed Mehta prior to the start of last year’s 21C Festival, I wanted to speak with a performer at the tail-end of this year’s edition; since I’ve seen Ehnes perform many times (though I’ve never seen him perform contemporary work), I was curious to get his thoughts around the program, the role of modern music, why he uses Instgram (and makes it fun!), and what new audiences want and expect when it comes to classical music and culture.
(And for the record, yes, this new audio format is something I’m experimenting with; it may expand over the next few months. Stay tuned!)
One of my strongest childhood memories involves being assigned to draw of a truism of life. The teacher was seeking a visual representation of folkoric wisdom that might illustrate our understanding of Something Really Important. I chose “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth.” It may have been a tip-off to my future passion for the culinary arts – or perhaps my impatience with throwing too many things in one small space.
I drew a long line of chefs standing across a gleaming counter, a large, bubbling soup pot placed in the very middle with orange flames tickling its bottom. Each chef, with tall white hats pointing like spears, had large, goggly eyes and anxious “O”-shaped mouths. The further the chefs from the soup pot, the longer their spoons. The chefs at each end had absurdly long, spindly spoons, with handles like spider’s legs. In another panel, I drew a lady with fat round pearls and grey curls making a face, red tongue hanging over a green pallor, as she, spoon in hand, samples the chefs’ offerings. Too Many Chefs indeed. I got an A.
I thought of this drawing, along with the first time I ever tried curry, when I attended a concert recently. The second experience happened at the home of Indian friends of my family’s. Plied with naan and dahl, I initially kicked out at the strong tastes and colors, my eight year old palate not accustomed to the blend of spices or how to properly handle the spiky shock of chili on the tongue. Conversion to being a curry devotee was gradual, its progression running parallel to my curiosity and experience of Life Itself. Taken together, these two experiences, of drawings and preliminary taste tests, are the perfect metaphor for a concert I recently attended one rainy, warm night in Toronto. Titled “Andalusia To Toronto“, the show was the season-opener at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, a space built right into the creaky old Royal Conservatory building. No food, but lots of mixed stuff for the ear, some with too many chefs, some with spicing just right.
Koerner Hall is a beautiful, acoustically perfect venue that seamlessly blends old traditions with new visions. That old/new integration might well describe the show, curated by musician David Buchbinder, the Canadian musician behind the Odessa/Havana music project and, more recently, Diasporic Genius. Buchbinder is an active presence in the Toronto music scene, having founded an assortment of busy, popular jazz ensembles in the last two decades, including the celebrated Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band in 1988. He was joined by a myriad of musical talents, including Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Duran, Palestinian oud playing and vocalist Bassam Bishara, and Syrian-American violinist Fathi al Jarrah. The nine-man ensemble – violinists, percussionists, a reed/flute player, all told -produced a gloriously uplifting sound that drew upon Jewish, Arab, and Spanish musical traditions, performing music several centuries old and updating much of it with a modern, urban sensitivity.
It is unquestionably a matter of personal taste as to whether or not you jive with Buchbinder’s mad drive to integrate sounds from diverse (and distinct) traditions into a kind of pan-cultural sonic hybrid. I’ve never been entirely convinced melding Ashkenaz shtetl sounds with Cuban jazz works – not all minor chords are created equal to my ears -but that’s also because I have a penchant for enjoying and celebrating sounds as distinct entities. I don’t like too many chefs around my broth -but I do enjoy a good curry. And sometimes the blends Buchbinder oversaw were very beautiful. His skill as an arranger and bandleader can’t be discounted. The concert’s first piece, “Billadhi Askara (The One Who Intoxicates)”, a beautiful Muwashahat that offered a solemn start but soon shimmied into a luscious, lilting piece that recalled the best of Hossam Ramzy and His Egyptian Orchestra. ‘La Mujer de Terah (The Wife Of Terah)”, a Sephardic folk song, featured Israeli-Yemeni vocalist Michal Cohen, who, with her clear strong voice and perfectly-pitched high tones, cast a speel across the Hall as she sang of a woman “roaming on the fields and in the vineyards” and giving birth to “the servant of the blessed God” in a cave.
That’s not to say all the pieces were from a religious tradition. In fact, most of what was presented at “Andalusia To Toronto” were creative adaptions and re-workings of traditional folk pieces. Hilario Duran re-arranged two of the pieces featured, including Sephardic folk songs “Landarico” and “Conja (The Shell)”, and Buchbinder himself providing several adaptations and original compositions. It’s obvious he wants to demonstrate connections between cultures of the past, and to show how those connections can instruct us in the present, and possibly future. But some portions were lengthy and felt far too didactic. “Cadiz”, an original composition, was sonically frustrating. It sounded like a highly rhythmic effort at fitting square pegs into round holes, its “broth” a muddy mix that made appreciation of its influences damn near impossible. “Next One Rising” fared somewhat better, with its influences more fluidly integrated between instruments, but there remained a strange whiff of didacticism mixed with over-exuberant creativity. Too many chefs? Or too much spice? Either way, not my favorite dishes.
Buchbinder’s curious curry-paella-tagine mix did, however, offer a good metaphor of the Hall’s programming choices. Buchbinder’s choice of showcasing the sounds of Andalusia was an ideal symbol of the sheer breadth of vision at work here. Yes, the Conservatory Orchestra have dates (November 25th, February 17th, and April 13th), and there are other classical performers featured as part of the season; the lineup includes classical artists Louis Lortie, Angela Hewitt, and Emanuel Ax.
But Koerner Hall doesn’t stand solely on its classical music laurels. I was witness to the closing concert of Hugh Masekela’s last tour there in November of last year. And in 2012, the Hall will feature yet more great international artists: gospel great Mavis Staples in January, Mexican chanteuse Lila Downs in February, Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjjo in March, and German cabaret performer Ute Lemper in April. This is the kind of delicious curry I can get behind. Too many chefs? Not at Koerner. Their programming is simple: eat what you can, draw while you wait, and take the rest home in a doggy bag. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Amidst all of this, the gorgeous, babbling trumpet of Hugh Masekela has been reigning like some supreme being, dancing and swirling with magical silvery notes and the soft-sheen of hand-claps and rising voices. Masekela’s music is rich but spacious at the same time, and he gives a show like no other; his warm smile and funky dance moves leaves a trail of inspiration, and I think I can say with some confidence now that seeing him here a few weeks back marked the beginning of my musical renaissance of late.
It was a miserable Saturday night when Masekela came to Toronto to complete his latest North American tour. Cold rain fell hard and noisy across the concrete slabs and high scaffolding dotting the city-scape. Crowds huddled together under the tiny awnings outside restaurants and shops, barely daring the wind and the wet, and I arrived at Koerner Hall with pant legs soaked and in a slightly chilly mood. The new space put me somewhat at ease, though. The architecture is so… pretty, all glass angles and soft colours and grand open spaces. The hall has been creatively fused with the rambling old architecture of the old Royal Conservatory building, a place I shuddered to enter as a child.
It was in the fusty old Conservatory building that I would take my dreaded yearly piano exams, and it’s there I have an ashen collection of singed musical memories. Between the glaring, smile-adverse examiners, the creaky floors, the yellowed keys of ancient pianos, and the sheer terror of waiting outside a closed door as piano-playing way, way better than mine emanated from within, it’s a spot I was convinced I’d always despise. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Conservatory system pounded out whatever sonic creativity I had in favour of more rigorous, “proper” sounds. Stop fooling around, play what’s in front of you, technique over emotion, no improvising allowed, ever. Don’t do that to Bach/Beethoven/unheard-of-people-I-didn’t-give-a-toss-about-anyway! Hardly worth mentioning: I don’t play the piano anymore.
The building itself, which I remember as a fusty, cold, old space, has been fused with something warmly modern and welcoming; the regal (if equally cozy) Koerner Hall has top acoustics, comfy seats, and a nice smattering of old instruments in the basement, museum-style. Along with featuring Masekela that particular night, the Hall also hosts classical concerts (duh) a well as local groups like the excellent Art of Time Ensemble. Next year’s lineup includes jazz, Indian sounds, and blues shows. That eclecticism is a great reflection of not only the city, but the approach the Royal Conservatory is now taking to shape the nature of cultural experience in the 21st century. It’s not all poe-faced, serious, miserable, head-down-and-shut-up-ness stuff. Gosh, I almost wish I was playing piano again. Almost.
So what to say about Masekela? The term “legendary musician” feels incredibly trite for someone so multi-talented. Human rights crusader, politician, artistic ambassador, showman, loverman… where to begin? With a mellow touch, of course. Hugh and his five-man band gave one of the most beautiful concerts I’ve ever seen. Liberally mixing old and new favorites, Masekela proved himself a master of many sounds and emotions, from the sexy growls of his famous trumpet to yowling imitations of a steam whistle, and even to his funky dancing, Masekela proved he’s a supreme entertainer and musician of the highest order.
With the accompaniment of a strong, intuitive five-man band, Masekela worked the crowd with a gentle wit and highly watchable style. He took the time to include Toronto in his roll-call of cities in “The Boy Is Doin’ It”, and chatted to the audience with much familiarity and warmth, easily blending humour and politics. Between quick comments on the rainy weather (which seemed, to my ears, to be a chide to the numerous latecomers) and amusing references to the G20 debacles of earlier this year (“I hope we’re safe here?”), Masekela appeal to the collective conscience of his spellbound audience, wondering aloud if the natural calamities of this year were the result of the Mother Nature taking revenge against an ignorant populace. He then spoke about the history of “Stimela (Steam Train)”, how it referenced South African coal mines, and how the numerous troubles of his home continent require the world’s attention.
“Stimela” is a powerful evocation of time, place, and circumstance, and its live version was a wholly moving blend of sound effects, native South African rhythms and … frankly, rock and roll. I couldn’t help but think of how much the middle instrumental section resembled various favorite rock tunes (especially favorite live tunes), and I marveled at this spry, funny, smart, accomplished 71-year-old for being able to channel so many different energies and styles simultaneously, via his innate, if finely-honed ability to integrate dance, voice, and presence.
But perhaps that’s the special magic of Hugh Masekela. The second half of the program was chalk-full of fun, upbeat numbers, which inspired much dancing of the onlookers in the cheapie seats, located directly behind the stage. There was something wholly encouraging about watching the skinny-tied/ironically-bearded/thick-framed-glasses hipster set sway, swivel, and shake to the earthy, sexy sounds of “Happy Mama” and the famous “Grazin’ in the Grass” (which he played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Music makes the people come together indeed. Masekela and his band acknowledged the dancers as well as the numerous audience members familiar with his numerous references to South African culture. During “Kauleza” Masekela instructed us to call back the song’s title (which translates to “Police!”), noting it was what he and his siblings would shout growing up in illegal drinking establishments. “You’re not shouting loud enough!” he chided, “The police are coming!” My favorite moment was during the legendary Fela Kuti song “Lady”, when Masekela imitated a haughty woman, shaking his hips, pursing his lips, cocking an eyebrow. It was a hilarious, playful blend of satire and musical mastery, and completely spellbinding.
Indeed, the whole evening seemed to be a balm to soothe my awful Conservatory memories. Musicality takes all kinds of forms, of course, but it’s hard to flush bad energies away in one go. Attending Masekela’s concert in my old horror-movie stomping grounds felt like a good first step toward creative musical rehab. 2011 could be the year of Koerner Hall, both for me and many others seeking the kind of inspiration -and liberation -only music can provide.
Photo credits: Top photo of Hugh Masekela originally published in The Telegraph. Second photo of Hugh Masekela courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors.