Month: May 2014

Sibelius, Shakespeare and The Tempest

How does one angry exiled duke stranded on an island with his beautiful daughter and deformed servant get revenge? A very big storm.

Shakespeare and Sibelius’ works combined, both titled The Tempest, illustrate the isolation of the sea in relation to the corruption traditional society of Milan.

"Miranda - The Tempest" by John William Waterhouse

“Miranda – The Tempest” by John William Waterhouse

The play The Tempest is set on a remote island where the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been stranded with his daughter Miranda on an island by his brother Antonio. Claiming father and daughter were lost at sea, Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio usurps his dukedom. Equipped with food and his precious sorcery books by a faithful servant, Prospero spends years mastering both his powers and the inhabitants on the island.

Through divine intelligence, Prospero sees that Antonio will be sailing close to the island and conjures up a furious tempest to overturn the ship and bring its survivors to the island. This will provide the setting in which Prospero will watch over, manipulate and work his way back to his rightful place as Duke of Milan.

Young composer Jean Sibelius

Young composer Jean Sibelius

The island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest represents the utopic world Prospero has built in place of Milan. Prospero, a godlike character in the play, maintains a manipulative hand in the characters’ lives, as he separates the shipmates from one another while they wander the island. The distance the sea creates between society and the island remains advantageous to Prospero as it provides a disconnect in communication between characters and renders prestigious name titles meaningless. In this vulnerable state, Prospero casts strategic spells and tricks using harpies, mythical food and deep sleeps to confront characters with their inherent folly.

Through the trials Prospero imposes on his islanders, every character in the play experiences a rebirth as they overcome personal corruption and return to Milan renewed. Even Prospero creates a news life for himself as he breaks his staff and drowns his book of spells before assuming the role of Duke of Milan.

Jean Sibelius’ suite The Tempest is an incidental piece which acts as background music in various stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. The suite paints a visual picture where each movement directly compliments each plot point. This suite differs from programmatic orchestral pieces, which symphonies often perform, as they invite audiences to picture a story or concept in their imaginations.

Sibelius’ piece enriches Shakespeare’s play through its evocative movements, from Prospero’s chaotic storm to the play’s concluding jovial court dance.

Can you hear the scene changes in Sibelius’ suite?


Reflections in the Sea: Britten’s Peter Grimes

"The Old Man and the Sea" - Winslow Homer

“The Old Man and the Sea” – Winslow Homer

Countless stories have been told documenting the trials and tribulations about journeying over water. Tales of sailors, fishermen and whalers talk about the draw they feel to the sea. But this calling doesn’t always lead to a romantic ending for the voyager. The sea remains unpredictable, unforgiving, unknowing.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi are only a small sampling of the plethora of stories attributed to the fury, torment and rebirth the sea imposes on mankind. In these tales, the sea is positioned as a tool of the fates and a place where we are confronted with our humanity.

This particularly reins true in Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Inspired by a second hand copy of George Crabbe’s book The Borough, Britten personifies the loneliness, isolation and psychosis of a fisherman living in a village beside the sea.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Peter is a single fisherman accused of killing his apprentice who at sea. The village lawyer claims the boy’s death was accidental and subsequently deems Peter innocent without the need for trail. However, Peter is advised not to take another helper until he marries a warm hearted woman. Widow and school teacher Ellen promises to assist Peter in making a better life for himself and agrees to fetch him a new assistant named John. Peter’s hopes of marrying Ellen are compromised when she discovers a bruise on John’s shoulder. Peter rebuffs her by declaring it was an accident. Growing increasingly aggravated at Ellen’s involvement and accusations, he hits her in plain view of some villagers.

"Peter Grimes" performed by Opera North at the Grand Theatre

“Peter Grimes” performed by Opera North at the Grand Theatre

A mob gathers around Peter’s home prompting him to instruct John to climb down the cliff to his boat in an effort to escape. John slips and falls to his death while Peter escapes in the boat. The next day, Peter’s boat is found with no sign of him or John, but Ellen discovers a jersey she knitted for John floating ashore. Another mob goes after Peter, convinced he has killed his second apprentice. Ellen finds Peter and urges him to come home, but he is convinced by a an old captain to take his own life at sea instead. In the morning, a coast guard reports a boat is sinking offshore, but is dismissed by the villagers.

Both audiences and villagers will never know whether Peter Grimes is innocent in the deaths of both apprentices. The sea either provides the means for Peter to escape the constant scrutiny of the villagers or presents an appropriate death sentence for a murderous fisherman. Whichever it is, we can never be certain.

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, is a suite written especially for an orchestral performance used in the scene changes within the initial opera. Experience the suite at Sea to Sea on Saturday, May 31 at 7:30pm in Hamilton Place.

Here’s a look at the mob scene from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes:



Harpist Erica Goodman on From the Eastern Gate

Toronto based Harpist Erica Goodman

Toronto based Harpist Erica Goodman

Canadian harpist Erica Goodman has seen her share of concert stages (and you’ve probably caught her over the years on our own stage at Hamilton Place). A professional performer in her teens, Erica played under the baton of Igor Stravinsky when he recorded in Toronto and, as a university student, was a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She’s played onstage with music greats like Tony Bennett and Henry Mancini, and won a JUNO in 1995 for her album of Canadian harp music, which featured the piece From the Eastern Gate by Canadian composer Alexina Louie.

Commissioned by Erica Goodman, with the support of the Ontario Arts Council, From the Eastern Gate is a rich and virtuosic piece for solo harp. “Alexina is very interested in her Chinese heritage. So most of her work is connected with it in some way,” says Goodman. Traditional Chinese music is often performed on plucked or bowed stringed instruments and Louie imitates these Chinese plucked instruments, like the guzheng, by experimenting with unique and interesting techniques on the harp.

So how does Louie use the classical harp to create the sounds of the Far East? “Everything [Alexina did] has meaning and makes interesting sounds and sonorities,” says Goodman. “She even uses ordinary techniques in just a beautiful way. [For example] the use of harmonics, that’s where we divide the string in half, creates a kind of bell like sound…It has some very loud, powerful spots, but at the same time some extremely delicate ones, too.”

Erica Goodman

Erica Goodman

Louie also wrote for Erica to use unique and extended techniques that you wouldn’t normally find in harp music. “Some of the effects are that we have to take a metal tuning key and vibrate it between two strings. That gives a very Oriental feel. She also bends strings, which creates a very Oriental sounding effect,” says Goodman.

From the Eastern Gate is divided into six movements with a musical Haiku interspersed between each movement: Ceremonial Music, Haiku I, On Importance, Haiku II, Birds at the Mountain Temple, Haiku III and The Mandarins. In the second movement, Louie took inspiration from the poem “On Impermanence”  by ancient Japanese poet Dogen.

We asked Erica how she thinks audiences will react to this distinctive solo performance. Here’s what she had to say: “They’re going to be feeling a whole gamut of emotions. I’m hoping they’re going to be feeling the power of the loud sections, which are kind of like a Chinese dragon dance. I hope that the gentleness of ‘Birds at the Mountain Temple’ is going to create a mood of peace and introspection…and repose. Even the places where you just listen to sound evaporate, I hope are inspirational as far as restfulness and meditation. To me it has a very wonderful palette of colour – emotional colour, as well. And I think it’s really a wonderful exploration of the harp as an orchestra unto itself, which is the way I like to look at the instrument itself. My love for it, that way, in the colours and the scope of it, I hope will transmit to the audience.”

Listen to harpist Erica Goodman  in her beautiful performance of  Gabriel Fauré’s Op. 78 Sicilienne:

Invoking Haydn and the Gypsies

What do Austrian composer Haydn and gypsies have in common? More than you might think. A good friend of HPO Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte,  Katarina Curcin, points out the correlations and differences between the two music types in her piece Gypsies.

Serbian-Canadian Composer Katarina Curcin

Serbian-Canadian Composer Katarina Curcin

Serbian-Canadian composer Katarina Curcin earned a Bachelor’s of Music in Serbia before completing her Masters and Doctorate degrees in composition from the University of Toronto. In honour of Haydn, CBC and the Tuckamore Festival commissioned Katarina to compose a piece in celebration of  the traditional classic composer. Her piece Gypsies is derived from Haydn’s Trio in G Major which is often referred to as Gypsy or Gypsy Rondo because of the Hungarian style present in the fourth movement. Yet, Katarina has composed a piece which is stylistically contradictory to Haydn’s original work. “There is a two-measure quotation from Haydn’s quartet thrown into the piano part of my piece as the only direct reference to the composer,” says Katarina.

Gypsies is influenced by traditional Balkan and gypsy music which can be discerned in the melodic lines of the piece. Katarina separates her piece from Haydn’s traditional sonata structure, which was very common in the late 19th Century, and evokes the rawness and passion of gypsy bands in her work. Abigail notes that “Katarina’s [work] is much more raw emotionally as well as the straight sound of it, without the restraint of the classical period.”

Katarina portrays the passionate playing of traditional gypsy bands through specific sounds such as snap pizzicati, fast glissandi and tapping on the wood of the instrument. HPO Second Violinist Elizabeth Loewen Andrews, who will be performing Gypsies this evening, mentions that “there’s a fantastic section where the violin and cello use Bartok pizzicato, which is when we pull the string hard enough that it hits the fingerboard, creating a snapping sound.  It’s a very grounded, heavy feeling section which morphs into a more frenetic dance, very effectively creating that image of these folk dancers as they move through the slow introductory steps of their dance, into something more rollicking.”

Austrian Composer Joseph Haydn

Austrian Composer Joseph Haydn

Another difference between the pieces lies within their titles. Katarina pluralized the title of her piece to refer to travelling gypsies that were influenced by music they stumbled upon in different regions which they came to make their own. In the same way, Katarina has made her composition unique by invoking her Serbian heritage in her writing: “My Serbian heritage is heard in my music and I like to incorporate some of the traditional elements of the Balkans as the starting inspiration. I have been living in Toronto since 1999 but my roots will always be present in my work. At least, this is how I feel about it today,” says Katarina.

You can hear Katarina’s composition Gyspies at tonight’s concert A Canadian Mosaic at Christ’s Church Cathedral as part of the HPO’s What Next Festival. Doors open at 7:30pm and admission is free. Feel free to purchase a glass of wine or beer while you enjoy the concert performance.

Here’s a look at Katarina as she discusses her Serbian heritage and its influence in her compositions:


Chinese Classical Instruments: The Erhu and Guzheng


The Erhu

As we await to hear the exciting program for we thought we’d share some of the history behind the traditional Chinese instruments featured in this Saturday’s concert From the Eastern Gate at Centenary United Church.

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument and is known in the Western world as the “Chinese violin” or a “Chinese two-stringed fiddle.” The use of the erhu can be traced back to thousands of years ago. The erhu has a long neck with two tuning pegs at the top and two strings that extend to the base of the instrument. There is a drum-like resonator body at the bottom of the neck which is covered in python skin. Used in contemporary and traditional music, the erhu has a range similar to that of the human voice and is featured in national orchestras of China. It’s most well known for playing melodic tunes, but lends itself well to a variety of musical styles and genres.


The Guzheng

The Guzheng

The guzheng is a 21-stringed zither, which is an instrument that has strings stretched over movable bridges across a long, flat body. Originally made with silk strings, contemporary guzhengs now have strings made from metal-nylon. The instrument is usually plucked with shells of hawksbill. There are many ways to play the guzheng, one of which includes using the right hand to pluck while the left hand presses on the strings on the other side of the bridges to produce a vibrato or slide effect. The guzheng plays an important role in Chinese folk music and was the precursor to many instruments in the Asian zither family.


Experience the erhu before From the Eastern Gate by listening to the Beijing Symphony Orchestra perform Ehru Concerto.


Mothers Behind the Music

Where would we be without the mothers of our beloved classical composers? These moms were on double duty tending to the family home and their children’s early musical talents. Here’s a look back at Anna Maria Mozart, Josephine Strauss and Anna Dvořák, as the mothers who raised some of the most widely celebrated classical music prodigies today.

Anna Maria Walburga Mozart

Anna Maria Walburga Mozart

Anna Maria Mozart accompanied Wolfgang and his sister, Maria Ann, on a three year tour to Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, The Hague, Zurich and Donaueschingen. While travel conditions and lodgings were less than ideal for the family, both children performed in royal courts and became recognized by European nobility. During this time, Wolfgang was exposed to works from other composers, perhaps most notably Johann Sebastian Bach whose influence can be noted throughout Mozart’s many works. Anna Maria again escorted 21 year old Wolfgang across Europe in search of employment for her son; however, she died from an unknown illness in Paris, which ended the tour.


Josephine Pschorr Strauss

Josephine Strauss was the daughter of Pschorr Brewery’s founding owner Joseph Pschorr. She was 16 years younger than her husband Franz Strauss and recognized her son Richard’s keenness for music at an early age. Richard mentions in his later memoirs, “My mother says of my earlier youth that I reacted to the sound of the horn with smiles and to that of the violin with tears.”  Richard composed Muttertändelei which is translated as “mother chatter.” Based on  Gottfried August Bürger’s poem, three songs speak of a new mother doting on her perfect child. Richard’s wife Pauline loved the piece so much that she refused to lend it to other performers.

Anna and František Dvořák

Anna and František Dvořák

Although little evidence of Anna Dvořák’s life can be found in history books, Antonin gave her an eternal presence in Songs My Mother Taught Me as the fourth piece of his cycle Gypsy Songs. Dvořák was strongly influenced by his parent’s Bohemian heritage and Roman Catholic faith. An instant success at its debut, Songs My Mother Taught Me sets Adolf Heyduk ‘s poem to music using both Czech and German lyrics. The English translation goes like this:

Songs my mother taught me, In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children, each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing, oft they flow from my memory’s treasure.

Listen to Dvořák’s melancholy, yet beautiful piece:


Coming back home to CBC

CBC HamiltonThe Idea of Canada was first broadcast on CBC Stereo on October 2 and 4, 1992.  Today it makes its return to the CBC…CBC Hamilton that is, in the form of a sound installation during Art Crawl as part of the What Next Festival of New Music.

Here are the cassette liner notes from the CBC’s original release of the piece:

The Idea of Canada is a new form of audio composition. Speech and music combine as equal partners, each enhancing the effect of the other. The words are the voices of Canadians, speaking from the heart about what Canada means to them. Some don’t believe in Canada at all. Some believe passionately in this country. Some see it as a good idea that has somehow gone wrong. The music complements and comments on these thoughts and is often actually derived from them using the pitch, rhythm and timbre of the spoken word. All this is supplemented by an aural backdrop drawn from the sounds of the Canadian landscape. 

The Idea of Canada is a counterpoint of music and ideas inspired by the experimental radio documentaries produced in the 1960’s and 70’s by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. It was produced in 1992 using the latest computer technology – wizardry that Gould could only have dreamed of! For example, one particularly effective innovation is a technique which allows the spoken word to turn itself into music by triggering its own distinctive ‘sound shadow’, giving the speech a haunting and compelling quality. Sometimes the ‘shadow’ is a single sound (a cello, a saxophone, or a synthesized sound), sometimes a combination of sounds. One voice, asking the question “do you believe in Canada?” was given a shadow made up of drums, bass and electric guitar. Gould’s vocal counterpoint, featured so strongly in his radio documentaries is greatly developed and extended in The Idea of Canada, thanks to computer sequencing and MIDI technology. By assigning phrases and words to notes on a keyboard, Christos Hatzis was able to compose elaborate polyphony; a clash of voices and viewpoints which is musically complex, but remarkably easy to follow and understand. The thoughts constantly re-appear in new forms and new contexts, giving them surprising twists and subtle shadings. 

The Idea of Canada was conceived by CBC producer Steve Wadhams as an attempt to express Canadians’ competing beliefs about what this country is. It does not argue one side or another in the national debate, it simply tries to reflect it in a powerful and poignant way. As voice and music flow around each other easily and dramatically, there are moments of chaos and quietness, anger and hope. There is humour too, with a comic cameo appearance by Glenn Gould himself, springing forth from the archives to comment on a national unity hotline!”


Guests can also enjoy The Idea of Canada over a latte and a treat at the Baltimore House, in a gallery setting at Hamilton Artists Inc. or in a unique outdoor experience at Hamilton Audio Visual Node, through a Scion car provided by our friends at Red Hill Scion.

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