My Canada, 34/150: New world takes on old world classics

Classical music, and its backward-and-forward siblings Renaissance and Romantic music, are firmly rooted in a European landscape. This music is now an international art form that reshapes as it melds with new worlds and new performers.

Canada has been particularly known for the singers it’s brought to the world stage. While few recordings of her exist,  Portia White, born in 1911 in Nova Scotia, became the first black Canadian concert singer to achieve world fame. Canada continues to produce opera stars such as bass John Relyea (whose mother once taught me a few voice lessons) and Isabel Bayrakdarian, who describes herself as an “Armenian Canadian.”

Measha Brueggergossman is a classically trained Canadian soprano who in her career, and flamboyant life, has refused to be contained within a classic corral. She’s become celebrated as a performer in a wide range of genres; in the photo with this post, she’s performing a jazz set as part of the  Stratford Summer Music festival.

Canada has some spectacular concert halls built in the past decades: The Chan Centre in Vancouver; the Winspear Centre in Edmonton; Koerner Hall in Toronto. The one thing those three have in common is a generous use of wood to shape how the sound travels and is reflected in the hall. I grew up in Waterloo Region and did my early concert-going at The Centre in the Square. While it wouldn’t win a concert hall beauty contest, the centre’s main auditorium, now named after long-time symphony conductor Raffi Armenian, has excellent acoustics, so much so that for many years major orchestras would use the space for recording sessions.

And while I love the embrace of a huge orchestra sound, I have a tremendous fondness for more intimate forms, normally catalogued as “chamber music.” For many years, I was a regular at the summertime Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario, which put on concerts in churches and the school gymnasium, the music being interrupted regularly by train whistles that penetrated buildings not built to block out external noise.

The Festival’s home is now in the Festival Hall of the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts, built on the edge of an inlet from Georgian Bay. It’s stunning: intermissions overlooking the water and sunset; local rock lining the hall walls. But in what has got to be an only-in-Canada twist, the concert hall is twinned with the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame that celebrates the career of the Hockey Hall of Famer who was born in this town.

Composers in the last 100 years have applied the forms of serious music to express Canadian stories. The opera Louis Riel, written by Harry Somers about the famed 19th century Métis leader, first was on stage in 1967  and returns in 2017 to the Canadian Opera Company for Canada’s sesquicentennial.

My favourite “Team Canada” story about classical music has to be the fact that pianist Glenn Gould’s version of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was selected to be on the interstellar Voyager recording (according to the NASA website, a “gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.”) When Canada’s in a bragging mood, we might aspire that we, too, present the sounds that portray diversity of life and culture on Earth.

Photo: John Lederman

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