Hooty, yappy, warm, bright: Camerata Nova in rehearsal for the WNMF

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Earlier today (January 7th) we had our second rehearsal of Meredith Monk’s music for our upcoming Winnipeg New Music Festival performance on January 30. What a delightful exploration the rehearsal was. Every page of music called for new vocal colours. How wonderful to have the freedom to venture outside the normal realm of choral tone, text setting, and articulation. Rounded, balanced tones were replaced with tones by turns nasal, hooty, yappy, warm, bright, somber, or silly. Made-up syllables replaced words. Smoothly sung sensual phrases gave way to angular yips or vocal shouts. Playfulness became the order of the day. The music unfolded in layers, the emotion in each voice counterpointing the colours and articulations of the other. How did we know when the right sound had been achieved? I doubt that there is a definitive answer, but when it all worked, it sounded as if the complete menagerie of human and animal sounds had been loosed in the room.

Meredith Monk

For decades now Meredith Monk has led the way in playing with vocal possibilities and the sounds her music calls for are an endless source of delight. Instead of setting poetic or narrative text, she tells her stories by using sounds from all parts of the aural world that surrounds us. Oddly enough, these familiar sounds are considered to use “extended vocal techniques” when sung, even though they reflect the world we know so well. It’s sometimes a challenge for the singers to use these sounds. They have all been so well trained to strive for vocal “perfection.” Opening up the vocal paradigm to new possibilities can feel risky. The key is to ground all these sounds in the breath, to let the sounds be an honest expression of our world. When that happens, the result is vibrant, stunning, fully human. What might be considered ugly in another context takes on an extreme beauty here.

How should the audience respond to Meredith Monk’s music? Camerata Nova audiences have come to expect colourful, bold performances and these performances should be no exception if we do the music justice. Our wonderful singers are used to pushing the envelope and we hope the audience feels free to laugh, cry, or ponder as the music washes over them. We are so happy to share several of the Monk performances with Polycoro.

Andrew Balfour’s Bawajigaywin and Francisco Feliciano’s Pamagun will round out the performance for Camerata on January 30. Both pieces reflect Indigeneous traditions, Andrew’s piece using Ojibway text to honour the

Mel Braun, conductor.

preparation for a vision quest, Feliciano’s piece using a Maguindanao (Indigeneous Philippine) text to relate the story of a sparrow and a hunter. Andrew’s score is full of vocables (Hey-ya’s) while the Pamagun score is filled with bird calls. Like the Monk scores, both of these composers use syllables, layers, and repetition to build their stories. Feliciano’s score brings us back to the menagerie, the sounds of the birds rendered in brilliant technicolour. Andrew’s piece moves us deep inside the vision quest preparation ritual, at times hypnotic, at times pulsingly rhythmic.

Over the years, Camerata Nova has premiered numerous pieces, and it is a task that we relish. Giving voice to new work is essential for us. Is it risky? Always. Will we do the piece justice? Will we understand and communicate the essence of the composer’s intent to the audience? Will the audience respond? Innovative collaboration is the key to Camerata Nova’s music making and again and again, we have found composers to be generous, willing collaborators. Whether it’s new work by Andrew Balfour, Meredith Monk, Barbara Monk Feldman, David Lang, or Caroline Shaw, all composers whose works we’ve premiered at the New Music Festival in the last few years, the collaboration has always been a joy. As a choral community, we thrive when we combine our gifts with the vision and talents of others. This keeps our music making and community building ever new. Can you imagine a world where everyone had to sing and explore together each day as part of their daily routine? How much more sharing and peace might there be in the world? When we share our stories and work together, even if it’s just using syllables ala Monk, Balfour, and Feliciano, we change the world for the better.

Program for Songs of Ascension (WNMF3, Sunday, January 30, 7:30 p.m.):

Other Worlds Revealed – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova and Polycoro)
Pamagun – Francisco Feliciano (Camerata Nova)
Bawajigaywin (Vision Quest) – Andrew Balfour (Camerata Nova)
Jewish Storyteller Dance/Dream – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova)
Plague – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Traveller’s 4/Churchyard Entertainment – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova)
INTERVAL
Earth Seen from Above – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Fields and Clouds – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Dring Dring – Ana Sokolovic (Polycoro)
Mass from Lilies – Mychael Danna (Polycoro)
Qu’avon-nous oublie – Nicolas Gilbert (Polycoro)
Panda Chant 2 – Meredith Monk (Polycoro and Camerata Nova)

– Mel Braun

 

A Euro Nova Christmas

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Vic Pankratz

Vic Pankratz

This year, the Camerata Nova Christmas concert is EuroNova and will be held at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church on November 26 and 27. Our 2016 holiday performance features lovely and unusual twentieth-century European Christmas carols, as well as a merging of old and new sounds from special guests, The Uncalled Four. I asked conductor Vic Pankratz and local composers Kenley Kristofferson and Michael Schellenberg to walk me through some of the soundscapes the audience will encounter at EuroNova.

While the program includes music from Sweden, France, and England, Vic Pankratz will highlight in particular five carols by early twentieth-century German composer Hugo Distler. I asked what he admires about Distler’s work.

“I find his music remarkable, his way of writing truly innovative. The choir will be singing five of his Christmas motets, the most well-known probably Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (“Maria went through a spiny forest”). His music is quirky yet beautiful, tonal yet chromatic.”

Hugo Distler

Hugo Distler

Distler was a church musician during the Nazi regime, trying to devote himself to sacred choral music. But he eventually felt unable to find a way to serve God in the difficult war years in Germany, and took his own life in 1942. Vic continues: “My own introduction to Hugo Distler was singing his setting of Lobe Den Herr’n (“Praise the Lord”) when I was in college. I loved the way the melody danced around in the different parts, and also the rhythmic complexity. His music is very popular amongst church musicians in Germany, and I’m so pleased to present some of his Christmas music to our

At EuroNova we will hear work by accomplished composers who are surprisingly young. Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977) is the writer of the ethereal Stars, during which the choir will play crystal glasses. Slovenian Gašper Jereb (born 1985) provides the hauntingly beautiful Magnum Mysterium, a Christmas cantata, which will also feature harpist Samantha Ballard.

Camerata singer Michael Schellenberg (born 1987) is the arranger of the brand new Presence of Christmas Mourning, a stirring amalgam of no less than nine European carols. The work was inspired by the complexity of emotions faced by those who experience grief and loss during the Christmas season. Michael says, “My arrangement is meant to lift people’s spirits through its progression and rich harmonies, not to dwell on the pain of loss.”

Another young composer is Kenley Kristofferson (born 1983), who teaches music at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School. Born in Gimli, and proud of his Icelandic heritage, Kenley has written a new version of Jólakötturinn for EuroNova. Icelanders will know this story of a gigantic and scary Yule Cat, but the folk tale will be new to others. It is a weird but welcome addition to the usual stock of Christmas tales.

Although the Jólakötturinn on the Icelandic Yule stamp pictured here looks benign, the Yule Cat is formidable. One verse of the poem by Icelandic author Jóhannes úr Kötlum describes the cat this way:

He walked about, hungry and mean
in hurtfully cold Christmas snow
and kindled hearts with fear
in every town

Asked what drew him to the story of Jólakötturinn, Kenley says, “The cat is the pet of Grýla, the Icelandic Christmas witch, and lurks to find children who haven’t received any new Christmas clothes. I know the tune is kind of eerie, but there’s a message here about making sure that those around you have enough.  If you have a sweater, make sure to give it away as a gift so the Jólakötturinn doesn’t claim another victim!”

The choir has many languages to master for the concert, and will rise to the considerable challenge of the Icelandic words (consulting, perhaps, a version of the piece by Icelandic pop star Bjork). Kenley says we should notice the “dynamic level of the piece, which nicely exemplifies the coming of the Jólakötturinn, first in shadows, and then drawing nearer and nearer.” He continues: “This music took almost every tool I had in my compositional toolbox.”

Camerata Nova is thrilled to have The Uncalled Four as guests for Euronova. The Uncalled Four are an electro-acoustic music ensemble exploring the fusion of live vocal expression in the choral tradition, with computer-generated atmospheric sound and light. The Four are electronic sound producer Jakob Weirathmueller and vocalists Claire Fast, James Magnus-Johnston, and Al Schroeder. Claire and Al are both singing in this concert with Camerata, while James has been a member in the past.

The Uncalled Four will be opening the second half of the concert and Camerata Nova will join on two songs. A unique twist to this set is that the Four are going to record the audience singing a well-known Christmas Carol earlier in the evening and then incorporate this into their set of music. “I am very excited about all the different elements of this collaboration,” says Vic Pankratz.

Months of preparation go into a holiday concert this original, with so many new arrangements and special combinations of instruments and voices. As curator of this concert, Vic is full of eager anticipation, and especially happy to bring local compositional talent to the fore. “I know,” says Vic, “that the audience will love what they hear.”

– Sue Sorensen


 

Out of Bounds: Camerata Nova’s 2016-2017 Season


Still glowing from its 20th anniversary, Camerata Nova starts a new decade with a season that goes out of bounds and delves into the deep heritage of choral music while taking daring strides with new material. As usual, Andrew Balfour and the Camerata Nova team colour vibrantly outside the lines. Highlights include three very different and exciting concerts:

Euro Nova (November 26 and 27, 2016 at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church): This concert runs the gamut: interesting, beautiful 20th-century European Christmas music (including works with harp and glass choir), arrangements of well-known European carols by five different Manitoba composers and European electro-acoustic carols featuring Camerata Nova with the local Winnipeg group The Uncalled Four, led by James Magnus Johnson with synthesizer whiz Jakob Weirathmueller. Not exactly the Christmas we know, but a Christmas that stirs the imagination, evokes the familiar and renews our spirit. Note: While we simply cannot afford to make this a free concert, we wish to continue the tradition of making our holiday concerts highly accessible. The compromise is a nominal charge of $10 per person; children under 12 free.

Taken (March 4 and 5, 2017 at the Ukrainian Labour Temple): Meet Jeremy Dutcher, a Maliseet originally from New Brunswick, one of 500 people left who speak his language. Dutcher is a composer and performance artist who has a Masters in Voice (Lieder) and Piano from Dalhousie University. Camerata Nova has commissioned Jeremy and other Indigenous artists to compose works on the theme of “taken.” For Jeremy, the subject is his language while for Lindsay Knight (performance name Eekwol), the theme evolved to the other ways we can be taken, by addiction and suicide. Lindsay is a passionate, brilliant hip-hop artist from Saskatoon. Conductor Mel Braun is writing a beat-box choir part for us – hang on to your seats! Last but not least, our own Andrew Balfour is writing a fascinating work on the explorer Frobisher taking Inuit back to England as “curiosities.” The fabulous Madeleine Allakariallak from Iqaluit will perform the part of a shaman while Jeremy Dutcher sings the role of a young kidnapped Inuk. Not to be missed!

Isolation (April 8 and 9, 2017 at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church): John Wiens has selected an exceptional array of a cappella early music on this theme – the Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso isolated by writing music 50 years behind his times; Robert Carver, a Scotsman geographically isolated from his Renaissance colleagues, or Stabat Mater Dolorosa by John Browne whose music expresses deep feelings of isolation. A beautiful, contemplative start to Easter week.

Other gigs
We will be performing our usual free Christmas concert in the atrium of Manitoba Hydro Place (360 Portage Avenue) ahead of the Santa Claus Parade. Get in the festive spirit with this light holiday concert that features Christmas classics and a sing-along, on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 2:30 pm.

Also, thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO), we will be returning to the New Music Festival on Choral Night on January 30, 2017, at 7:30 pm, at Westminster United Church (745 Westminster Avenue). This time, Camerata Nova conductor Mel Braun has collaborated with Polycoro director John Wiens and the WSO curators to guarantee spice, surprise and serious fun in true New Music Festival fashion!

Year Two of our Northern Manitoba Outreach Program
Following last year’s success of the Four Directions pilot project, Camerata Nova is delighted to continue its partnership with Frontier School Division – Canada’s largest – and offer musical outreach to northern Manitoba communities for the 2016-17 school year. Camerata Nova music specialist team, Andrew Balfour and Michael Thompson, will once again work with K-12 students using voice, didgeridoos, percussion and other innovative techniques to encourage the children to express themselves through soundscapes that culminate in end-of-day group performances.

 

About Andrew, my brother

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Andrew (on the left) with his sisters Shelagh (centre) and Alison.

Andrew (on the left) with his sisters Shelagh (centre) and Alison.

What does it mean in the political climate of 2016 that Andrew Balfour is my brother? Andrew is a First Nations man of Cree descent. I, along with the rest of our family, am white, of Scottish descent. That is not insignificant, as Andrew’s work Take the Indian so poignantly highlights. I know that openly acknowledging our relationship, and how deeply I love my brother, may cause pain to some who were harmed by the unjust and cruel policies of our country, anger to others. It was those policies that brought him to us, after all. But Andrew is my brother; no qualifications, no going back. And I would not have it any other way.

Nineteen sixty-seven, the year I turned eleven, our parents decided adopting a child would be a suitable centennial project. It wasn’t a random thing – they had wanted more children for a long time – but, by adopting, they thought they could fulfill their wish in a way that made a bigger difference. It was not a matter of adopting just any child, they would welcome and love a child who was considered “unadoptable.”

Yes, in 1967, at least according to the adoption agency, Aboriginal children were labelled “unadoptable”. Bizarre, really, when looked back at from this point in the life of our country. Whatever the specific circumstances of my brother’s birth and adoption, the “Sixties Scoop” was in full swing. Aboriginal children were being adopted out by the thousands into white families all over North America. I knew of two other families in our neighbourhood alone where one of the children came from a First Nations background. But these children weren’t the lily-white newborns that parents unable to conceive dreamed of. They were somehow second best.

Not to us, however. Our parents felt they were doing something important in bringing Andrew into the family; something important, but not something noble or sacrificial. Andrew was simply Andrew, the newest child in the family, our baby brother. Which is not to say they denied his heritage. From the first, it was important that Andrew know where he came from, who his people were. Of course, in those days, with adoption records closed, they could have only a general understanding of Andrew’s background. I know it pleased them when, as an adult, Andrew was able to learn more and his Cree identity became part of his life and his music.

I wonder now if the adoption agency promoted the children they put forward in a way that would appeal to prospective parents. It isn’t just that “unadoptable” label which would appeal to the altruistic. Our parents were courted as the ideal parents for this child whose birth parents were university students and musicians. We would give him the background he needed to develop his gifts. (I recall even some mention of Scottish blood in the ancestry as well.) Of course, it was apparent almost from the first that Andrew was, indeed, musically gifted, and our family was a good place to foster those gifts, so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily cynical.

I am not unmindful of the deep systemic changes needed in our society to bring justice and equity to First Nations. Over the years, I have read and listened, perhaps not as widely as I could, but enough to grasp some sense of the horrible cost of the mess we have made and the complexity of correcting it. Most recently, in reading the summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and attending the play Reservations (for which Andrew did the music and sound design), I have once again been presented with the history of the “Sixties Scoop” and the damage caused by adopting First Nations children out of their communities. And I have to be honest; my first reaction is “but, he’s my brother.”

I want to understand as best as I can, given the limitations of my location. I know I come from the position of privilege. It is not possible for me to grasp in any deep sense what it means to live the systemic racism of our country. It is not possible for me to gain more than a limited, speculative sense of what it means to lose your culture, your children. But, even though I can view it only dimly, I do know it is a deep and a profoundly important thing. And yet, Andrew is my brother – no qualifications, no going back – and I cannot carry that with shame or guilt. He is my brother and I cannot honestly say that I would have it any other way.

– Shelagh Balfour

Music and Mysteries of the English Renaissance


John_Wiens_colBy John Wiens

Musicians hold a special place in history because they are often revealing about life and thought in a fairly audible way. England’s rulers were consistently kind to their musicians. Taverner, Tallis, and Byrd all had their run-ins with the law, but none were found guilty. Back when not being the right religion led to severe penalties and even death, Taverner was tried for Lutheran leanings, Byrd was accused of not attending his local church enough (that was a crime back then) and Tallis was openly Catholic. And it’s a good thing the monarchs spared them – we have an extraordinary wealth of music as a result.

England was well ahead of its musical time from 1350 to 1470. Music by composers whose names we don’t recognize now wrote stunningly beautiful melodies that made continental musicians take note. Visitors remarked on the “sweet sound” they heard, of overwhelming textures and music on a massive scale that they had never heard before. Although music for more than 7 voices was very rare in England (there were really only a handful of compositions for more before 1500), their music was considered the most impressive.

What is so strange about 1470 to 1540 is that English music seemingly made so little headway, and that we know so little about it. There are just a few treatises that survive, and not enough for us to speak in a definitive manner on why they seemingly slowed. There was hardly a bold new direction to be found during that time; instead there was a steady refinement of existing style. Amongst the treasures that remain from that time (Henry the 8th had agents who burned the bulk of the scores and treatises), we view a vibrant style meant to overwhelm. The English had a wide view of the cadential model, used intensive rhetorical symbolism, and proportions of surprising scope. The consistency of English composers embracing these elements makes one suspect they were living up to some sort of challenge. There are tantalizing hints about the nature of that challenge, but nothing we can say with certainty. We can only speculate.

John Taverner, 1490-1545

John Taverner, 1490-1545

From that era, John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas stands out as one of the most popular choral works in history. It was published quite often in its day and a fairly recent Canadian survey pointed to it as one of the 10 most popular choral works among Canadians. That’s quite a feat for music written nearly 500 years ago, and speaks to our uncommonly good taste in music.

Symbolism was a central part of the composing challenge for Taverner’s generation. It was common for numbers to be applied as symbols and to musical proportions. The perfect time signature was, for instance, triple time. In Taverner’s mass the number 3 is everywhere – from the number of voices in each section to the proportions of the time signatures, the cantus firmus, and the symbolic gestures within the music. Exactly why these proportions were used so pointedly is the question we have no satisfying answer to and therein lies part of the mystery. The other is this: how can a piece that we know so little about practically be so satisfying to listen to?

In 1534 Henry the 8th changed everything with The Act of Supremacy. The Act dissolved the Catholic infrastructure in England. That infrastructure had developed a great many of England’s composers and singers. Some, like Taverner, left music behind entirely. Despite this, the influence of John Taverner can’t be overstated. Both Byrd and Tallis used his compositions as models. And a new genre of composition – the In Nomine – was born of this mass. This four-part section was viewed as so perfect by other composers that they began writing their own In Nomine, a practice that lasted so long that even Purcell tried a time or two more than a century later.

Thomas Tallis, c.1505-1585

The Act was actually killing two birds with one stone – Henry rid himself of Catholic rules, and he increased the annual crown budget of roughly 15% from resulting rents and sundry on the lands he confiscated. He employed some worthy additional musicians at court as a result, like Thomas Tallis. The Chapel Royal the best post available to Tallis and gave him access to many of England’s best singers. We could even speculate he knew he was getting the post – when his monastery was dissolved he purchased a treatise by Leonel Power (a manuscript a century old at the time) which would have cost a small fortune. It is not believable to think he would make such a purchase if he didn’t feel good about his chances. This purchase is also an important signal. Tallis intended to look back to find his new path, rather than forward. And he did just that with his compositions for Mary Tudor like Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater.

Despite Henry’s Act, England was still essentially Catholic in 1534, and 20 years changed little amongst an affluent and determined Catholic community. In the Mary Tudor years, Catholic themes were renewed, especially the Votive anthem, which has a song in praise of Mary the Virgin Mother. The freedom to write in an old style for Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater must have come as a real opportunity to Tallis – who did some of his best and most inventive composing, leaving behind the simpler style he employed for Henry.

The intention to praise Mary Tudor simultaneously can hardly be more obvious. Many Catholics thought her their saviour from persecution. The music takes on a joyfully beguiling tone, at some points nearly flirtatious. Tallis, by removing the cantus firmus, created a heavier, denser texture he uses to highlight crowns, ascending to the throne, the Tudor Rose, angels, the rod of justice, and other symbols associated to both Mary’s. There are also a few moments when he references Taverner.

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

We know far more about William Byrd than the other two combined. Byrd was a recognized genius very early – but he was much more than a musician. He was also a businessman who read law voraciously. He died a very wealthy man, having paid careful attention to many aspects of his business and acting as his own lawyer in many disputes with neighbours and ne’er-do-well family members.

Byrd had skill and ambitions. Byrd studied with Ferrebosco, an Italian composer and spy, and inspected the works of Lassus, Cipriano da Rore, and Clemens non Papa. He knew the current continental trends. When he published his first volume of music with Tallis in 1575, you can hear him sorting out those new problems within the English framework. If that volume had been more popular on the continent, it may be that he would have left England like many of his compatriot composers, but it sold only a few copies and Byrd stayed put.

The Mass for Five Voices was published using little identification on it, and nothing to point to William Byrd except the music itself. Printing a Latin mass 60 years after the Act, even for England’s greatest living composer, was still a risk. It was printed for private use in Catholic homes, in three volumes for three different arrangements of voices. Each was small and easily concealable. The mass for five voices was the last of the set to be written, after he had sorted out certain technical issues that he wasn’t certain about when composing his four- and three-voice masses. You will hear Taverner’s influence in the In Nomine section, and while the sections might be much shorter, they still adhere to the conventions of the time preceding Taverner.

When we consider William Byrd, there is a parallel with Bach – he let others update their compositional styles while he did not. How he wrote his music in the 1590s was very similar to how he wrote in 1610 – he had found his solutions and he was going to use them regardless of the style of the day.

And when he left court to live in Stondon Massey in 1594, one asks why. He still had access to fine musicians there through his networks, but fewer of them. He was clearly capable of writing glorious music for six or more voices. Someday I anticipate certain suspicions will be confirmed, but until then it remains a mystery…


John Wiens is guest conductor for Camerata Nova’s British Mysteries concert. He is also Director of Music at St. Matthias Anglican Church, in Montréal, and an early music specialist.

Nortendluvsongs: a wonderful and diverse choral sampling of North End cultures


Mel Braun, conductor and curator of nortendluvsongs.

Mel Braun, conductor and curator of nortendluvsongs.

By Mel Braun

Our next concert, nortendluvsongs*, celebrates Winnipeg’s North End as a gateway for immigrants, a place where so many immigrant cultures have flourished, a place which has very much shaped the soul of our city.

We open both halves of the program with First Nations voices, Katherena Vermette/Andrew Balfour (Selkirk Avenue – a premiere by Andrew based on a poem by Katherena from her Governor General’s award-winning book of poetry called North End Love Songs) in the first half, and Vince Fontaine (Eagle and Hawk, Indian City) in the second half. Katherena is Métis/Mennonite in heritage and carries the voice of her people, the loss, the sadness and the hope. Vince has done it all as a musician, but also has many stories about life as a taxi driver and hockey player. His is a voice that celebrates the First Nations. One of his pieces, Sundancer, is an arrangement for Camerata Nova, Vince and two singers.

The “Immigrant Suite” that follows Andrew’s Selkirk Avenue combines Ukrainian, Philippine and Russian folksongs with selections from Danny Schur’s musical Strike! Because the Ukrainian Labour Temple (where we are presenting this concert) was such an integral part of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and because the immigrant experience was completely tied up with the strike movement (as comes through in Danny Schur’s libretto), it made sense to include these pieces.

The Ukrainian Labour Temple, on Pritchard, was a rallying centre for the trade union movement during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

The Ukrainian Labour Temple, on Pritchard, was a rallying centre for the trade union movement during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

The Ukrainian folksongs, courtesy of the Koshetz library, are by Olexander Koshetz himself, and are long-time favourites of the Koshetz community. One is about moonlight, the other about dancing. The Philippine folksong arrangement (in Tagalog) comes to us from Philip Lapatha, a young Filipino who teaches high school choral music in the Maples area and is starting to make a name for himself as an arranger. It is a lullaby sung by an adult son to his mother, or figuratively, to his motherland. The Russian folksong Kalinka is at the top of the list when it comes to favourite Russian folksongs and is featured at many a hockey game as well as sounding a lot like the Tetris theme according to the gamers in the Camerata Nova family. My arrangement explores the sounds of the Russian Steppes while celebrating the wooing of a young maiden. Kalinka means “snowberry”, a reference to the beloved? The idea of the “Immigrant Suite” is to juxtapose a few of the many North End cultural or folk-music genres with the story of the 1919 strike to show, in a small way at least, some of the identities that shaped the North End and our city.

The organization Sistema Winnipeg makes its own very significant contribution to the North End, providing opportunities for inner-city children to experience the power of music and art to shape lives. They will end the first half our program with a few or their own pieces and two short collaborations with Camerata Nova (our Red River Valley arrangement by Andrew Balfour and an arrangement of Siyahamba by Marcelline Moody).

A choral account of a curling exploit by Canadian Jennifer Jones in 2005.

A choral account of Canadian Jennifer Jones’ curling exploit at the 2005 Scott Tournament of Hearts.

After Vince’s second half opening, the Curler’s Lexicon (or the Curling Cantata in 10 Ends) explores one of the big Scottish contributions to athletics: curling. The other is golf. Both of these are beloved by Winnipeggers, and curling in particular has brought Winnipeg to world prominence. I’ve always been fascinated by curling, both the game itself and the many new words and expressions it seems to have spawned. I went around collecting all the curling terms I could find and came up with a cantata in 10 ends that shows various parts of the game. The opening and closing melodies sound vaguely like a commercial that was featured during the TSN curling broadcasts of the early 2000s. Like many cantatas, this piece features a narration that tells the story of curling and ties the whole piece together. To honour the Scottish roots of the game, the narration (two women singing in fourths) takes place over a bagpipe drone in the men’s voices. Other movements of the cantata include a list of shots, a description of the “house”, a ribald conversation overheard at a mixed bonspiel, and to close, an exact choral replay of the famous curling shot by Jennifer Jones at the 2005 Scott Tournament of Hearts, the one that propelled her to prominence and eventual world domination. The audience gets to make the sound of her final rock coming down the ice.

We close the program with a few klezmer numbers by The Mayors of Sambor (Danny Koulack, Victor Schulz, Myron Schulz), followed by two arrangements that I put together for Camerata Nova and klezmer band. If Ukrainian, Philippine and Russian folk songs are the soul music of the North End, klezmer adds rhythm and dance to the soul. The first song, Shterndl, is a touching letter home from a political prisoner to his family. The second is a famous Yiddish Song, Undser Nigndl, which celebrates families singing together. I’ve combined this song with another Yiddish song, Bulbes, which is all about eating potatoes every day of the week because that’s all there is to eat. Yikes! These two songs should bring the program to a rousing finish.

nortendluvsongs is but a small sampling of the wonders brought to the North End by all the many ethnic groups that have informed it, but what a diverse and wonderful sampling it is. Now all we need is all the food and drink that goes with it (we’re serving red velvet cupcakes at intermission)!

*Camerata Nova presents nortendluvsongs on Saturday, March 12, 2016 at 8:00 pm and on Sunday, March 13, 2016 at 3:00 at the Ukrainian Labour Temple (591 Pritchard Avenue). There will also be a pre-concert by the Winnipeg Mandolin Orchestra at 7:15 pm on Saturday and at 2:15 pm on Sunday.

The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 2


By Ross Brownlee

In Part 2, we explore more of the weird and wonderful instruments that Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) himself would have used and that will be part of the concert Praetorius Christmas Mass that we are presenting. The woodcuts that accompany this article were published in his book Syntagma musicum, published in 1619.

Crumhorns

The crumhorn family.

Crumhorn – These curious instruments are another in the amazing wind section. Unlike the dulcian, shawm and rackett, these double reed instruments have their reed enclosed in a sealed “cap.” When the player blows at the top of the cap, the air chamber pressurizes and forces air through the reed, without it ever touching the player’s mouth. This makes for a very different kind of sound and tuning control! I have spent a week at Amherst Early Music trying to learn the crumhorn, and never have I experienced such intense pressure in my head! It takes amazing control to play these instruments, and enormous core strength to power them!

The shape is also very unique. Crumhorns are wooden and have a straight body, much a like a recorder. It is under the finger holes that they break away from the norm. The bottom of the instrument curves forward, away from the player, ultimately sending the sound soaring upward. Check it out on the Praetorius woodcuts! With a cylindrical body and no bell, the crumhorns also have a nasal, buzzing sound that is gorgeous and unique. Be sure to listen for their feature moment on verse 3 of In Dulci Jubilo!

Gut Strings – Our five wonderful string players have modified their instruments to play this performance. Rather than use their normal, steel core strings, our WSO players have removed the modern iteration and replaced them with strings made of spun gut. Yes! This is how all strings were made up until the advent of machinery that could spin steel into thread-like consistency! Poor animals! The difference in sound is remarkable and many people, upon hearing period performances have commented on the warm, earthy sound produced. This is due to the natural, gut core of the strings, and also from the style of bow and hand position used by the players to accommodate the natural strings. Why change to the steel strings in the 19th century? Mostly for projection. With large orchestras and newer, stronger brass, woodwinds and percussion, the orchestral strings had to play with a more potent sound to be heard. So, inventors learned to spin steel and make tighter, more powerful sounding strings. Here though, we will go back and hear the lovely and warm vocal quality of the original sound.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo – The original hybrid! This amazing instrument is half lute, the precursor of today’s guitar, and half bass lute, essentially a bass guitar. This was pure genius for the omnipresent continuo lines of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Rather than have a separate bass player, who would give the fundamental chord tone, and a high lute player, who would fill in the chord and rhythmic interest, by adding a long neck for the bass strings, one highly skilled musician could do it all! Theorbos were routinely paired with a small portative organ to fill out the chord structures to accompany singers and players alike.

This is another of my favourite instruments! It has a magical, almost other-worldly bass sound, unique to any instrument, but can strum and create rhythmic drive like any modern guitar! I often wonder why a modern version of this instrument hasn’t found more favour in today’s bands and singer-songwriters? The ability to play with such a wide range seems very appealing!

Recorders

Recorders

Recorder – This beautiful instrument has been largely relegated to elementary music rooms in North America. But it is so much more! Like the cornetto, the Renaissance recorder is designed to allow skilled players tremendous virtuosity! Renaissance recorders have a larger bore diameter and larger whistle than the modern instruments, resulting in a rich, full, woody sound, ideally suited for singers and other period instruments. Listen for the soaring high notes of the sopranino, and notice the incredibly rich and gentle sounds of the larger tenor and bass instruments. The largest 8-foot recorders require a metal bocal to direct the players air to the top of the instrument.

Organ – The mighty organ at Westminster is the heart of this program! Such a marvel of engineering, the organ offers a range of sounds, dynamics, colours and combinations unrivalled in any other instrument! Using ranks of pipes, ranging from tiny flutes to mighty bass trombones (or shall we say sackbuts?), the organ can gently accompany a solo singer or instrument, or lead an entire audience of hearty singers! The skill required of the player is astounding. Not only must they be able to play the hand keyboards (there can be up to 5 of them!), but they must also operate the pedal board with their feet, change the ranks of different sounding pipes by adjusting the stops (controls for which type of pipe will sound), and spend hours beforehand, figuring which combinations of sounds and colours best suit the style and effect of the music they are playing. It is daunting and wonderful! Erik will adjust this Winnipeg organ to best recreate the colours that Praetorius, himself an organ builder, would have imagined for this wonderful Christmas Mass.

The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 1


By Ross Brownlee

Black and white portrait of Michael Praetorius

Praetorius published the Syntagma musicum in 1619.

Michael Praetorius was not only a fine and masterful composer; he was also a virtuoso organist and instrument builder. The woodcuts that he published in his book Syntagma Musicum, which depict with scientific accuracy the dimensions of the common instruments of his time, have become invaluable in the modern recreation of these instruments. The book is also a beautiful resource for performance practices such as the ones you will hear in our upcoming concert, Praetorius Christmas Mass. Given that most of the weird and wonderful instruments he would have used will be part of the show, we thought it would be fun to give an introduction to their look and sound!

Sackbuts and cornettos

Sackbut and cornetto families.

Cornetto – One of the most beautiful and enchanting of instruments, the cornetto is often compared to a fine singer! Cornettos are a curved, wooden instrument, conical in shape and fingered much like a recorder, but played with a tiny mouthpiece that is still used in modern brass. Having tried to play this thing on numerous occasions, I have tremendous respect for those who play it with virtuosity and delicacy. This thing is really tricky! The cornetto comes in many sizes, mimicking the voices of a choir. The bass cornetto is often seen in museums and photos as the giant, twisted, black instrument known as “the Serpent,” for its striking resemblance to a monstrous, black, coiled snake! There are also straight cornetti with built-in mouthpieces that play with a gentler sound and are known as “mute cornetto.” Played in combination with voices, strings and winds, but especially with the sackbut, the cornetto was a staple of all 15th, 16th and early 17th century ensembles. For an unknown reason, the instrument lost favour in the 18th century and virtually disappeared until its renaissance by music historians in the 1960s.

Sackbut – Clearly an instrument with a name one doesn’t forget, the sackbut is a direct predecessor of the modern trombone, and looks strikingly similar to the instruments used in bands and orchestras all over the world today. Featuring a double slide, a new technology in the 16th century, the sackbut changes its fundamental harmonic easily by adding or subtracting its length, thereby making it a fully chromatic instrument. Sackbuts had less physical rigidness, thus making it gentler in sound than its modern counterparts and well suited for playing with voices, the cornetto (its favourite partner), and all manner of wind and string instruments. Like most instruments in the Renaissance, sackbuts range in size from soprano through to bass and even contrabass. The largest of these have slide-extending handles to allow the player to reach the lowest positions. Most common are the alto, tenor and bass versions. Its curious name comes from the old French words “saquer – bouter,” meaning “push – pull.” The English changed this to sackbut!

Dulcians and racketts

The dulcian and rackett families.

Dulcian – Also known as “curtal,” these are the direct predecessors of the modern bassoon. Without the complex mechanical apparatus of modern instruments, these lovely, buzzy double reed instruments had a limited range of just a couple of octaves, again requiring many sizes to cover the full range. The largest is 16 feet long, and the smallest, just one foot! Dulcians add tremendous warmth and colour to any ensemble and have been one of my favourite instruments to pair with while playing my sackbut. Added to an a cappella choir’s bass line, dulcians are an integral anchor for perfect tuning and rock solid bass lines!

Rackett I’m so delighted that we will have three, yes three, wonderful bass racketts in this performance! I don’t believe Winnipeg audiences have ever heard one, let alone three, of these magical instruments before. Racketts are essentially “pocket bassoons.” There are 16 feet of cylindrical tubing wrapped in foot-long lengths inside a larger wooden casing that is one foot long. A large, double reed, attached to a copper bocal, provides the sound. The resulting peppermill-looking instrument plays the same range as a bass dulcian, but its small size and cylindrical shape mean that the fundamental harmonic is very thin and thus they sound very buzzy. The effect is magnificent and will be heard in one of the gentlest motets of the Praetorius Christmas Mass.

In Part 2, we will explore more of these weird and wonderful instruments!

Ross conducting

Ross Brownlee

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An early music specialist, Ross Brownlee conducts Camerata Nova’s period concerts. While at McGill University, Brownlee was mentored by Dr. Douglas Kirk, a world-class expert on historical instruments and early music repertoire. In 2000, Ross continued his studies in early music in Vancouver, investigating the performance practice and history of the Renaissance trombone (sackbut) with leading musicians from around the world. For many years he has been a teacher and coach at the Amherst Early Music Festival in New London, Connecticut. Initially a singer in Camerata Nova, Brownlee now acts as a co-conductor, designing and conducting early music concerts while also acting as a member of the Board and of the Music Committee.

The Hermetic Ode: A fusion of many arts

Michael McKay

 

by Michael McKay,
curator, conductor, narrator
of The Hermetic Ode

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A few years ago, I was sitting in a friend’s car. (The friend is Camerata Nova tenor Michael Schellenberg.) We were having one of many long discussions about esoteric matters after rehearsal—as was our wont at the time. He proposed a concert idea he wanted me to present to Camerata Nova’s Programming Committee: a concert inspired by alchemy. The idea was approved, but I was told that I had to take the project on myself, since it was I who presented the idea.

I knew very little about alchemy, except that it was connected with chemistry and seemed to be the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical substance that has the power to transform lead into gold. Originally the initial discussions were to present a concert in which music had been pulled apart and put back together in different combinations: for instance, Gregorian chant might be recast with an modern accompaniment drawn from avant-garde choral music. The concert was at first called Fission and Fusion: Choral Alchemy. But that was to change…

About a year ago, visual artist Margruite Krahn expressed interest in getting involved in the project. She had conceived an art exhibit in which she would tell the story of personal transformation in a series of paintings based on the symbolism of birds in alchemy, and wanted to contribute a number of these paintings to accompany the music in our concert.

The Hermetic Ode on May 8, 2015With this as a starting point, I began to delve into the maddening world of alchemical research. Wading through the cryptic, surreal, and often contradictory sources, a new concert idea started to take shape. Instead of the notion of fission and fusion, I began to conceive an overall narrative that gives a glimpse into the heart of alchemy.

I also wanted to conceive a concert in a very different way from the usual approach to concert programming. Most programming involves arranging pieces of music in a pleasing order, but not necessarily with any large structure in mind; however, I wanted to try using the musical selections to tell a story. Therefore, the pieces were chosen not only for their own merits, but also how well they fit into the overall narrative, their order being crucial to the story.

But this is a story that cannot be told just by choral music; it needs a fusion of many arts. The concert had developed as a multimedia experience, with composers Andrew Balfour and Mike Schellenberg writing for choir and electronic sounds, with accompanying artwork by Margruite Krahn and others, with the use of coloured light, and with me writing narrations for myself to recite to put the story in context.

So what is this story? The truth behind alchemy, as my research began to uncover, had nothing to do with turning base metals into gold; rather it is a process of personal transformation on a psychological and spiritual level. The “base metal” is really the base mettle of the alchemists themselves, who transform themselves into gold in a metaphorical sense. There certainly was a chemical element to alchemy, but the physical process was seen as a guide to the spiritual process.

The story of The Hermetic Ode presents a progression of ideas traveling through the alchemical process known as the Great Work. I won’t discuss the Great Work here; you’ll have to come to the concert to see for yourselves.

Art by Margruite Krahn
Coloured light on Margruite Krahn’s artwork.

Take the Indian: A vocal reflection on missing children

 

Andrew_Balfour_bw_cropped
by Andrew Balfour,
ward of the state #1389
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Composition by Andrew Balfour
Conductor, Mel Braun

Performed by Camerata Nova
Cello – Yuri Hooker
Alto solo – Angela Neufeld
Wounded Indian – Andrew Balfour

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Take the Indian is a work that has been on my mind for some time. The history of our nation’s treatment of the First Nations peoples of this land is a shocking and deeply disturbing legacy that is only now receiving study and daylight.

The most troubling aspect to many is the hunting, the preying upon First Nations children, in particular the hundreds of young Aboriginal women, who have gone missing, with no trace. Occasionally we open the paper to hear that the body of another young woman has been pulled out of a river, usually badly beaten and abused.

To many, including myself, this is an unacceptable state of affairs in a so-called civilized society. Since European settlers arrived, there has been a continual state of genocide of the First Nations peoples, particularly their children. Think of residential schools, diseased blankets, government sponsored “testing” of Aboriginal children that sent many young ones to their deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a sad legacy that sounds more like what happened to Jews in the Holocaust rather than what Canadians to do fellow Canadians.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Winnipeg a few years ago, I witnessed an incredibly disturbing afternoon of testimony from the survivors of the Residential School legacy. I’m sure the hundreds of people there listening to the sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness of these people will never forget it. I know I never will.

The text for this work is taken from the words of an assortment of survivors that testified that afternoon. I have decided to keep them all anonymous. So much of what they were sharing was so personal that I did not want to single out any one individual out of respect for their deep inner grief.

I make no apologies for the harshness of this work or these words. It enters into the deep discomfort of our collective society. It speaks of the darkness of our so-called nation-building and the debris that it has created.

The First Nations of this land have been deeply wounded. It is time to sing, to talk, to heal.