blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Canadian selection

This year's Music and Beyond festival advertised five events at which exclusively Canadian music was performed, entitled 150 Years of Music in Canada, i.e. since 1867; I went to two of these.

On the afternoon of Saturday July 8th, the concert at the First Baptist Church began with four Canadian pieces sung by Hélene Brunet, the soprano who had made such a good impression on me last year (we'd also heard her sing most beautifully in Bach's St. Matthew Passion this year, on Good Friday), accompanied here by Valerie Dueck. The first was Le Jeu des Citations, miniatures of just a few bars duration, each a setting of a single phrase in French by Denis Gougeon of Quebec. There followed Alea by the same composer, sung in Latin! Then a setting of the translation of a 9th century Chinese poem about two souls Weaving Love-Knots, by Sarah Quartel. The fourth item was in Latin again: Amore by Jocelyn Morlock, the words meaning "There is nothing more tame ... nor wild ... than love!"

Reporting this 13 days later, I confess I find it hard to remember how this new music sounded, exactly, but have found a recording to share:

However, the next item, added to the programme, made a more lasting impression, partly because the composer was sitting a couple of rows in front of me with his family: a shy looking, extraordinarily gifted 17 year old, Philip Przybylo. He had composed an atonal piece for solo saxophone called Spectres ErrantsAmazing! I wonder what his music teacher had made of it. The young man seemed pleased with our applause.

Then we had a Vocalise by Carole Portelance, which had the singer going O - ah -- ee -- oo and clapping intermittantly.

The saxophonist came back on stage to be joined by the Quatuor Despax siblings of Gatineau, plus an extra cellist, a guitar player, and Hélene Brunet once more. Together they performed Fly So Far From Me. The composer Roddy Elias was on stage: he was the guitarist! Hélene Brunet was then replaced by the versatile jazz singer Kellylee Evans, and the ensemble minus the string quartet gave us I've Been Where The Water Is Deeper And Darker. Both songs are from a jazzy "chamber opera for puppets" to be performed in its entirety next year, because this is a work in progress, telling the story of a homeless man and his interaction with the social workers. Read more about it here!

During the second half of the concert, the Quatuor Despax also performed a Fantaisie composed by their own father, Emmanuel Despax, in 2005. "He wrote it for our mum!" (and for them, of course). I very much like watching this proud and musical family in action. They are good role models besides: they have helped tutor the children of the Orkidstra.

The other two items on the programme were compositions by Marjan Mozetich, currently based in Newfoundland, who was also in the church to hear our applause, and who talked about his music. The first one was El Dorado, a piece written for string orchestra and adapted here for the quartet plus harp and double bass. The composer admitted that he wrote this "minimalist" piece under the influence of Philip Glass, so it had many repetitive motifs as in Glass' music. This style doesn't appeal to me very much, I'm afraid. The last item on the programme was more appealing, Mozetich coming to the microphone to announce "It's me again!" and to introduce his Angels In Flight for flute, clarinet, harp and strings in three movements which he called a Tryptych --- "not movements, but panels", where the middle section, Song of the Eternal began with lovely arpeggios on the clarinet and viola with the cello playing in the background. And yes, Mozetich said it was inspired by Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for the same combination of instruments.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Haydn, Bartok, Brahms

The Friday evening Music and Beyond concert that Chris and I attended on July 7th was one of the best in the festival. It was the Auryn Quartet's third appearance during their visit to Ottawa and the title of the concert was Hungary! La Hongrie! because there was a link to Hungary in all three of the quartets that they played.

In the case of the first one, Haydn's B minor quartet, Op. 33, No. 1, the link was somewhat tenuous, and not explained at the event, but if you look him up you'll find that for a long time (1766-90) Haydn was the chief musician in residence at the Esterháza Palace, which is in Hungary, near the Austrian border. It is satisfying music, during which you can follow the composer's serene train of thought, especially if you have access to a score:

A musical friend of ours once prophesied good things in life for our young son George (also musical) because "He's a Haydn man!"

After this, the second piece on the Auryn Quartet programme came as a shock: Béla Bartók's Quartet No. 2 in A minor. This composer was definitely Hungarian, and far less serene than Haydn. He was inspired to write this one during the 1st World War; it was angry, mournful and intense and not easy listening. My husband Chris was bowled over by it. As you can imagine, the musicians grew very warm, playing this, and must have needed large glasses of water to restore themselves after the standing ovation we gave them before the intermission.

For the remainder of the concert the quartet was joined by Kimball Sykes, first clarinet player in Canada's NACO, to perform Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. The Adagio movement incorporates Hungarian gypsy-style flourishes. I remember learning about that in my music lessons at school. No surprises during this music, because Chris and I know every note of it. We were sitting close enough to observe how Mr. Sykes fought to keep his clarinet in tune in the hot and humid atmosphere (he managed to do so).

Here's the Bennewitz Quartet (whom we were to admire in the second week of the Music and Beyond festival) playing the first movement with a 14 year-old Korean prodigy, seven years ago:

Opera, the ultimate art: Monteverdi to Bernstein

Having heard the Yukon singers in the morning of July 6th, as described in my previous post, I went to something very different in the afternoon, at the First Baptist Church, further west along Laurier Avenue, having munched at a homemade sandwich half way there, on a bench by the fountains outside Ottawa's City Hall.

* My sketch
This Music and Beyond concert was entitled 400 Years Of Opera and was repeated at an evening performance on that same date. Four young and professional opera singers took part, accompanied by Maxime Dubé-Malenfant at the piano and hosted by the animateur, the musicologist Pierre Vachon. They had all dressed up for the occasion, looking glamorous. I sat near the front and sketched them *, during the performance. They were all excellent singers, but I thought the baritone, Max van Wyck, had a particularly lovely voice.

Monsieur Vachon was francophone, but for the benefit of the Ottawa audience spoke mostly in English. He called opera "the ultimate art" and commented that the big "opera voice" was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the singers had to make themselves heard in big halls unassisted by microphones. The introductory item was a rendition of Verdi's very familiar Libiamo quartet from La Traviata and indeed the four voices were so loudly resonant that perhaps I should have chosen a pew further back.

Then we started on a potted History of Opera. The first two examples, from the 17th century, were a baritone aria from Orfeo and a love duet from L'Incoronazione de Poppea by Monteverdi (1642). Thrilling music! The animateur said that the message of Orfeus, who lost his girl in the Underworld, was that "the way to overcome obstacles is to sing," a notion I heartily agree with. The Italians called opera musica favole (legends in music) and the castrati employed by the opera companies "were the Céline Dions of their day" --- adored pop stars.

Two 18th century arias followed, first a virtuoso performance of Vivaldi's florid Agitata da due venti from La Giselda (1735) sung by the mezzo-soprano, Marjorie Maltais, libretto by Boccaccio. Later in that century came Mozart (Gluck was mentioned as being the link composer between the Baroque and Classical style) and we heard as an example of his achievements one of Donna Anna's arias (sung by the soprano Myriam Leblanc) from Don Giovanni, where she pleads with the noble Don Ottavio to wait a while before they get wed, because she is still in mourning for her murdered father. When I hear this one, I always think that it's really because she has a subconscious yearning for the attractive murderer, Don Giovanni, but that's just my reading of it. Anyhow it is subtle music. We heard how Mozart's intention was to "bring real life into opera" and how subversive that was, in those days.

Some more Bel canto: we heard a Rossini aria from La Cenerentola (i.e. Cinderella), Rossini being the composer who brought a sense of fun into music (according to Pierre Vachon) followed by another Verdi quartet, this one from Rigoletto, so skillfully portraying the feelings of all four characters simultaneously. "Verdi wanted to be a musical psychologist." The facial expressions and gestures of the performers fitted their roles.

After this, a much needed Intermission. The performance continued with three further 19th century items, the first being Bizet's famous La fleur que tu m'avais jetée from Carmen, emotionally sung by the tenor, Danny Leclerc. The two female singers then gave us the equally famous duet, Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour by Offenbach: girls in a gondola on Venice's Grand Canal. By contrast, we then heard O du mein holder Abendstern, very well performed by the baritone, from Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845), a 13th century Germanic tale. We learned about Wagner's ambition to create Gesamtkunstwerke in his operas and about his use of the Leitmotiv. It seems Wagner included more than 100 Leitmotive in his works.

For the last section of the programme we had a series of lighter, 20th century music that stuck in my head for several days afterwards, so much did I enjoy it. Summertime from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess is always easy on the ear, but M. Vachon made a mistake in telling us, to a sharp intake of breath from the audience, that Porgy and Bess was the more acceptable face of racism. He apologised immediately for this embarrassing slip. Myriam Leblanc made the most of her moment by wandering up and down the aisle during her Summertime and holding a beautiful high pp note at the end. (I have tried that myself, and admire singers who can do it.) Finally we heard the tenor singing Maria from Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Sondheim --- which, when you come to think of it, is a sort of opera --- and finally an adaptation of the full-company number, Tonight, Tonight, which comes at the climactic mid-point of the original show, by all four singers, together with their hard-working accompanist. Brilliantly composed music! I heard a lecture about it once, long ago, on BBC Radio 3. This also brought back memories of an ambitious performance that we once attended at the Croesyceiliog Comprehensive in Cwmbran, Wales, with my son as lead cellist in their orchestra and his school friends singing on stage, their music teacher Mr Appleby conducting. Full of nostalgia when I got home, I wasted time watching YouTube clips from West Side Story, and singing along.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Songs from the Yukon

Barbara Chamberlin of Whitehorse
(Music and Beyond, continued)

At the Tabaret Hall on July 6th, singers from the Yukon were showing what they could do; the first three songs were sung unaccompanied by a ladies' choir calling themselves The Persephones. They were directed by a forceful woman called Barbara Chamberlin who had also arranged or composed some of the items. At the lectern, to educate us about the Whitehorse region and Yukon culture, she introduced the songs and announced the many deviations from the published programme.

The actual order of items was as follows:

1. A part song entitled The Northern Lights.
2. Hudson Bay Boys, a cheeky 4-part number supposedly sung by the 1st Nation women to the gold diggers, who used to look forward to their arrival. "Where's the Hudson Bay boys?" went the chorus. "I'm getting older for you!" Or at least, I think that was what they sang.
3. Then came a song about a badly behaved husky: Dog of Shame. I think Ms. Chamberlin wrote the words as well as the music, which incorporated dog noises. She told us that in Whitehorse, there are more (sled) dogs than people. Anyway, "...they had to muzzle him."

For the remainder of the programme, three men came on stage, plus a few extra women, to join (or replace some of) The Persephones. This was the 8-part Whitehorse Chamber Choir, a more experienced group of 14 singers; with their arrival the standard of performance went up.

4. Gabi Gabi, a South African song.
5. Song For A Winter's Night, pianissimo, in close harmony, ending with humming in all the parts.
6. Cold Snap, a song with eccentric words, such as "I want to be a winter person..."
7. After the Gold Rush, a setting for choir of a Neil Young song.
8. Ms. Chamberlin introduced the 8th item by telling us, "Summer in the Yukon isn't very long, only about twelve days" so the next item was a spoof version of The Twelve Days of ChristmasThe Twelve Days of Summer. The choir themselves had helped to compose the words, so (as well as I could make out) we had
12 Yukon drummers
11 moose a-rutting
10 Can-Can dancers
9 wolves a-howling
8 broken windshields (?!)
7 salmon swimming
6 ravens (doing something I couldn't catch)
5 gold claims
4 mosquito bites
3 blackflies
2 cariboo
and a bearcub in a pine tree
9. Baba Yetu, another South African song
10. An arrangement of the the late Leonard Cohen's ubiquitous Hallelujah, that people praise so highly. I shall now make myself extremely unpopular by adding that I don't like this song very much, neither the words nor the music, sorry.
11. High Wind. This was a song with piano accompaniment expressing Yukoners' longing for the north wind and "the midnight sky on fire" whenever they're away from the Yukon.
12. The last item was Ned's Lament composed and sung in gospel style, the story of a paddlewheeler that ran aground on the River Yukon. Ned was its Captain. Here's a recording of the performance I watched:

I wrote in the margin of my programme that concerts* allow you to stare at people without seeming rude. On the front row for this one, I'd been able to stare to my heart's content.

* The same applies in cinemas and at the theatre, of course.

Arensky, Beethoven and Schubert

As a Festival Pass holder at this year's Music and Beyond in Ottawa, I have 15 concerts to report! It feels like a long time since the first one I attended at midday on July 5th, a concert of music by the Russian composer Arensky, who died in 1906. "Tragic death," I scribbled on the programme, but forgot why. (According to the Wikipedia Arensky died of TB at the age of 44, in Finland.)

Each of the two pieces was written in memory of another musician, the first, a quartet for violin, viola and (unusually) two cellos, in three movements (Op. 35, No.2), composed as a tribute to Tchaikovsky. The music being balanced towards a low pitch made it sound funereal in places, the first movement like a sacred chant. "Deep Russian sonority," I noted. The middle movement was a series of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, Russian folksy in style, and the Finale began in a low register again, on all four instruments, andante sostenuto, leading to a fugue.

The second piece, Arensky's first piano trio in four movements, Op. 32, written in memory of a cellist friend, was somewhat lighter by comparison, with a romantic, Dvorak-like opening movement with a fast, bouncy Scherzo and a muted Elegia following.

I jumped on a bus and went straight from that concert to the 2pm concert at Southminster United: the Auryn Quartet playing Beethoven and Schubert, not to be missed! They played Beethoven's C-sharp minor Opus 131, with no breaks between the movements. I'm not sure whether the Ottawa audience is quite ready for Beethoven's Late Quartets -- some of the audience seemed to find it a hard slog -- but knowing what to expect, I was swept along with this monumental music. After the intermission, the German group performed Schubert's G major quartet D. 887, and that was Beethovenesque too, with its sudden major-minor changes, and delighted me with a long and lovely melody on the cello in the slow movement. The Auryn Quartet is adept at pianissimo playing: that's what distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs. These men have been playing together for more than 30 years, still the original members of the quartet, like a marriage. They are currently based in Detmold, Germany.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Home in the rain

I am starting to write this post in the pilots' lounge at Trois-Rivieres airport (CYRQ) where we have touched down for lunch. I ordered a poutine with chicken and peas, something I'll probably not order again. Poutine is basically chips covered with thick and salty gravy. We had a smooth and easy flight here from Grand Falls, what a pleasure. The next and final leg of our trip may not be so enjoyable as we'll be in stratus cloud for most of the way. It is raining in Ottawa with low ceilings there, the weather will stay that way for the rest of the day and night; we just have to hope that the cloud ceiling will allow us to see the runway at Gatineau in time to land there. Otherwise we'll have to try again back at Mirabel airport which is "our alternate", as they say on IFR flight plans.

Over Edmundston
We did a short-field take off at Grand Falls to avoid further damage to the shimmy dampers on their bumpy runway and then set off across the farm country on the Canadian side of the border to Edmundston where the Saint John River goes round a large bend. For a while during this morning's VFR flight we were in and out of fluffy, lowish cumuli clouds, no threat at all, and very few of them over the St. Lawrence River as we crossed it between Montmagny and the Isle d'Orleans, but around Quebec City the cloud became less broken, so Chris air-filed IFR for the rest of the way to give himself a more comfortable feeling. Because there was no turbulence, I felt comfortable all the way to the destination. We crossed the fleuve twice more beyond Quebec, seeing the big tanker ships below us; one of them had a helicopter landing pad on its deck.

While we were in Yarmouth, George had explained about the strip fields. In previous centuries French families tended to have many children, and as the tradition among farmers was to bequeath land to one's children, the available land had to be divided into many narrow pieces, one strip for each son. There are many such patterns along the cote sud of the Saint-Laurent.

Descending through rain
End of post, end of journey: our CYRQ to CYRO flight was half in fine weather, half in IMC. We knew we were flying towards the stratus layers and Chris estimated that we would go into these rain clouds just before YMX (the Mirabel VOR) which turned out to be about right. What we hadn't expected was that there would be a dramatic rise in pressure (the VSI showing a sudden difference of 1000ft, even though we were flighing smoothly and horizontally along) just about at the point where we penetrated the wet murk. No turbulence worth mentioning on this flight, although we were somewhat blown about by the southeast wind as we moved away, by request, from the approach to Gatineau towards Rockcliffe, our home airport. Clearly able to see the ground by then, we were permitted to cancel our IFR flightplan and change frequencies. It was for the best that we headed away from the approach to Gatineau because we had a fighter jet on our tail, coming in to land in preparation for the Canada Day show on Saturday. ATC managed to keep a safe distance between us and the jet, notwithstanding the difference in our speeds; those planes fly twice as fast as we do, even at their slowest.
Home ... in the rain
Having tied PTN down in the wet, we are home now, tired and very satisfied with this holiday.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dodging storms over the St. John River

Big clouds ahead, at Grand Falls
Chris is sitting comfortably on a deck chair outside our Quality Inn room at Grand Falls / Grand-Sault, this evening. We are a good 5km from the town itself, and the famous falls, but no matter. When we acted helpless without a car, the hotel manager handed us the keys to his truck so we could drive into town anyway, thus avoiding either a soak from the oncoming storm cloud on a long and hungry walk, or an expensive taxi fare.

The clouds are our reason for staying here tonight. They are too big to penetrate, therefore we aren't where we had planned to be. We have had a dramatic day, but according to Chris we were perfectly safe at all times.

1st leg, Yarmouth to St. John, over the water in a straight line.
The wriggly snakelike line on the left is the edge of Maine, USA.

This is the flight-tracker picture of our afternoon flight
"1hr 44mins, diverted", but as this shows, we went straight
through the large cloud to the left of our starting point!

Local fog over Yarmouth
Because it was meant to be a long day, including the stop for maintenance, we got up early. A quick bite to eat and cup of tea at Tim Horton's along the Yarmouth commercial strip opposite our hotel, me rather envious of the group of elderly chaps clearly intending to sit chatting to one another a long time in their quaint Nova Scotian accent, over their daily breakfast in the corner, then we returned the rental car to Enterprise. The Enterprise lady was kind enough to drop us off at the airport after we had checked out, so we loaded and unloaded our luggage twice.

Chris had spoken with the mechanics at the Atlantic Flight Centre of St. John airport who'd offered him an appointment at 10:30am to change PTN's oil and oil filter, check her tyre pressures and check for traces of metal in the oil (not good --- fortunately they found none), clean the engine and the inside of the cowling -- it was a job thoroughly well done, costing $$$, but still.

Yarmouth at low tide
We first had to get there on time, cloud ceiling and winds permitting, so we felt lucky that the local mist seemed to be gathering elsewhere than at Yarmouth airport. We saw it hanging over the marshes as we took off, also noticing that the tide was right out, leaving the channel between Yarmouth and Yarmouth Bar quite unlike what we had seen of it on Monday: a narrow stream meandering between mud flats. No sign of the lighthouse, since fog lay over that too. We more or less followed the line of yesterday's drive to Digby, to start with, then our "St. John direct" line took us over the Digby Neck and out to sea. Only for 25 minutes, with views of the ferry entering the channel to Digby to our right and Grand Manan Island in the distance to our left. When, wearing my life jacket again, I looked straight down below our wheel, I could actually see the seabed with its treacherous reefs below me. I might have spotted
whales too, if we hadn't been at 7000ft above sea level ... literally. We told ATC at Moncton that we could now see the airport ahead and so we could do a visual approach to the circuit, none too soon, because this necessitated a fairly steep (1000ft per minute) descent during which our ears popped. In my experience, ears are pretty reliable altimeters.

Into the towering cumuli
At St. John, while the young men were working on our plane in their hangar, we had some snacks at the terminal building and watched (with some trepidation in my case!) the developing line of TCU clouds hanging in the sky in the direction of our next leg. Chris spent a long time studying the radar pictures, charts and weather advisories en route, showed me what he was interpreting, and thought we had a good chance of reaching Riviere-du-Loup on the St. Lawrence by the end of the afternoon, a two-and-a-half hour flight. I was not so sure, but climbed meekly into the passenger seat and resigned myself to whatever fate we'd meet, up there. We could see the first line of "build-ups" ahead which were highish, but didn't look any more threatening than towering cumuli we have flown through in the past. Chris asked for a deviation 10deg. to the left of one big cloud, but a necessary change of heading actually took us straight through an even larger one beyond it. Not many minutes after coming out the other side, rain having lashed onto our windscreen within the cloud, we were rather surprised to hear over the airwaves a commercial flight diverting around this very spot (the waypoint called MOWND). I'm guessing that this "build-up" was about 20,000ft high. Ahead, we could see sun shining on the ground, which was encouraging, implying holes between the clouds, but we could also see several of those ominous red dots on our strike finder in the cockpit, which mean lightning strikes in the vicinity, some of them straight ahead. So another deviation, this time to the right, and saw very black colours in the sky and on the ground to our left. From ATC's point of view we were "in the mix", says Chris, with all the other aircraft trying to avoid the larger cloud masses, to save their passengers from too much turbulence. Everyone was veering all over the sky round here. Their radio calls also warned us what was ahead, such as a cluster of "build-ups" close to Presque-Isle in Maine, the area through which we were about to fly!

Heavy showers over the New Brunswick-Maine border
Chris keeps admirably calm on these occasions. "I was interested, but didn't get excited," as he puts it. Which, I suppose, reassures me. We certainly would not cope so well if there were a nervous person like me in the pilot's seat. I helped him to look up some alternative landing places on our electronic charts, because it was clear that we wouldn't be able to continue as planned --- the storms ahead now becoming visible, too. "What beautiful clouds!" exclaims Chris, "Can you get a picture of them?" as I reply, "There's a small airport on the other side of the river, only 10 miles away. We could go there." Chris looks at the map and decides to continue a further 25 miles from this area, aiming to land at Grand Falls.

On the ground at Grand Falls
We did not actually cross the US border into Maine although we were talking to Boston Centre (kindly giving us the altimeter readings for nearby airports and advising us of dangers to the west of our new track when we told them that we were changing our flight plan). Grand Falls looks like a tiny airport in comparison to the others at which we have landed at on this trip; it is a narrow, anciently paved, 4000ft strip in a field, hard to locate from the air, and the uneven surface putting a considerable strain on our shimmy dampers as we landed in the crosswind that had sprung up ahead of the heavy shower approaching, but to me, it felt a lot safer being down on the ground than up in the air.

The Grand Falls
The manager has managed this airfield for 40 years, he told us, living in a house beside the airport buildings and I think we met him before when we landed here, for similar reasons, in 1997. This time, he offered to let us sleep at the airport where there are guest rooms and three or four double beds, but the accommodation did look a bit basic, and we had no available food to cook, so we chose to book whatever hotel we could find in Grand Falls. The Best Western was full, so I rang the Quality Inn who could offer us a room. I should have asked how far it was from town, too late now. A lady with a taxi came to fetch us, and when we borrowed the hotel manager's truck as mentioned above, we were able to view the falls like proper tourists and find a satisfying Chinese meal on Broadway. The Grand Falls Broadway, that is. The annual Potato Festival is supposed to be in full swing this week, but we didn't see any sign of it, other than on the posters.

I have been editing this outside our room in bare feet at the end of a glorious sunset that is reflected in the motel's duck pond. Someone has blocked my view of the duckpond by parking his boat on a trailer opposite our room. An extremely long freight train is rattling past along the railway behind the bushes to my right. On my left at the end of the row of rooms, a man is singing and playing the guitar to his friends. A crescent moon has replaced the storm clouds. Time to sleep soon.