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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An ancient and eternal instinct

We had the good fortune to be invited to a brunch for five couples, last weekend, at which our host and his wife initiated a philosophical discussion over which I'm still brooding.

He is an educator (a Professor of Political Thought and Humanities) who has recently written a book about globalisation, civilisation and the human condition, and Chris, of course, asked questions. If I understood him aright, Dr. R. sees civilisation (civilization, if you prefer that spelling) as the enlightenment of decently governed citizens. Contrary to the conventional notion that civilisation began in ancient Athens, he feels that the ancient Athenians did not get it quite right, because their decencies only involved the elite. Europeans were never truly civilised either, so long as they sought power over others within their various empires. The Chinese, despite their impressive governments and achievements, have not yet allowed their citizens sufficient freedom of thought. Our host made the provocative comment that human beings never became truly civilised until the 20th century, when at last --- in North America! --- the whole of society was engaged in civic responsibility, with shared standards of decency, not just the elite.

Well, that is debatable.

Around the brunch table, none of us being native-born Canadians (we were an Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Dutch, Latvian, German and British mix), we also began to talk about Plato's (i.e. Socrates') concept of Ideal Forms and later, related philosophies, but, as conversations do, the theme wandered, and at one point we were thinking about the "thin red line" that divides a civilised, moral way of life from its opposite. I am not very good on such occasions, full of l'esprit de l'escalier, always imagining after the event what I ought to have contributed to the conversation. Thinking about those borderlines, as I shall do for days, if not weeks, I keep recalling the novel Mr. Sammler's Planet by the Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow (set in 1960s New York), which I am now rereading. Mr. Sammler, who has suffered a great deal from the perversity and brutality of other people, comes to the conclusion that there is after all, within every human being, an instinctive awareness of the border between moral and immoral behaviour, and at the end he exclaims in a prayer for a friend who has died: "For that is the truth of it--that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

Saul Bellow himself said: "You read the New Testament and the assumption Jesus makes continually is that people know the difference immediately between good and evil... And that is in part what faith means. It doesn't even require discussion. It means that there is an implicit knowledge -- very ancient if not eternal -- which human beings really share and that if they based their relationships on that knowledge existence could be transformed." (My emphasis.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 1st - 6th, in Ottawa

The rest of the week was interesting, too. I have been reading Shakespeare's Kings, a history book by John Julius Norwich written with reference to the history plays, after Chris and I had taken part in a play reading of Richard II the other weekend. For reinforcement, and sheer appreciation of the poetry and the top quality British acting, I have also been re-watching our videos of the first four plays in The Hollow Crown production: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.

Last Sunday we cycled to Landowne Park's Horticultural Building to be at one of the Canada-in-the-world events in this year's series. Slovakia was on show, with dancers on the stage and costumed young men and women playing an accompaniment at the side, a colourful and friendly occasion. Outside the hall, two professional ice hockey stars from the Slovak Republic were thrilling a crowd of children by playing street hockey with them on the patio.

That same afternoon Chris and I continued up the bike path along the canal to hear a lecture at Carleton University arranged by the Ottawa Friends of the Canadian Institute in Greece (CIG), the Archaeological Institute of America in Canada, the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies (CIMS), the Parnassos Hellenic Cultural Society and Carleton's College of Humanities. A representative from the Greek Embassy was present too. The subject was The Battle of Marathon,the Athenians versus the Persians. The famous story of the Athenian runner Pheidippedes bringing the news of victory across the mountains from Marathon to Athens before dropping dead, the inspiration for the Olympic Games, is probably just a legend. There is no historical evidence for this feat
Monday evening, I went to the talk about outreach work being done by the National Arts Centre Music Education department, as was described in my previous blogpost.

Tuesday was a day for blood tests, a pneumonia innoculation, gardening and shopping.

I was meant to be at the Mosaicanada garden in Gatineau for a guided tour in a group on Wednesday morning, but I overslept and went to the midday concert at the NAC instead, swimming afterwards. Thursday I cycled to an apartment block standing across the street from Mosaicanada to take part in a German conversation, our topic being the history of seaside holidays --- Urlaub am Strand, and in particular the Strandkörbe (wicker beach chairs) which adorn the Baltic coast of northern Germany. Thomas Mann sat in one to write his novels. That evening, Barbara and I went to the Sibelius concert.
The next day, Friday afternoon, after that girls' choir concert at the NAC mentioned in the last blogpost, I called at the Horticultural Building again to see what China had to offer. It was "Beijing Week" which meant that most of the exhibition featured images and artifacts that I recognised from my happy visits to that city, which made me feel nostalgic. On the podium, a series of Chinese VIPs were holding forth in Chinese about China's Cultural Financing Platform and so on, the audience valiantly trying to follow, but even more valiant to my mind was the girl with a microphone who was giving a simultaneous translation into English. I know her! it was my Chinese tutor Jingnan Xue, wearing a smart black dress with golden necklace that suited her.

I missed seeing the masked Chinese acrobats who were to follow the speakers, warming up outside, because from there, I had to pedal back downtown in order to get to the Westin Hotel where I and my friends from the German conversation group had been invited to part of the World Tulip Summit to see the excellent, hour-long documentary, Tulip: Light of the East, explaining how tulip bulbs had travelled the world and how these flowers had at one time or another have represented invincibility, wealth and  In Arabic script, the word Allah looks rather like a tulip and indeed, the Arabic word for tulip (laleh) has the same characters as the word for God. A Turkish-Canadian member of our German group has been on the Canada Tulip Festival committee for the last 25 years. It was she who had invited us to see the film.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Out of the privileged bubble

Genevieve Cimon, director of "Music Education and Community Engagement", has been with the National Arts Centre for the last 15 years; she spoke to a gathering of CFUW women in Ottawa last week. Her boss Peter Herrndorf (President and CEO of the NAC and a Companion of the Order of Canada) has "put the national back into the National Arts Centre", she said. He it was who encouraged the National Arts Centre Orchestra to tour the remoter parts of Canada for the sake of educational projects such as its Music Alive Program in the prairies, Nunavut and (most recently) the Atlantic provinces.

What follows in this blogpost is a report of what Ms. Cimon told us and not necessarily an expression of my own views. I'll leave the value-judgements to you.

The touring NACO's initial mandate was to introduce children of elementary school age to classical music and modern composers, preparing teaching guides for the local teachers. This program has recently undergone some "rethinking", so as to pay more attention to the music of regional artists. Ms Cimon said that the experience for the NACO itself has been "transformative" --- a fundamental shift in the way that they see themselves. Previously, she told us, they had been living "in a privileged bubble". The role of a professional Canadian musician today, she said, is "to be an agent of change". The NACO has been working with youth at risk, which means first creating trust, recognising and showing one's own vulnerability and nurturing a common humanity. She compared it to the Sistema programs* in S. America and elsewhere.

In the past, "white composers" had been commissioned to write, for example, an "Inuit piece". Such an endeavour is no longer deemed respectful, condescending rather, and in any case, said Ms. Cimon, the northern audience's reaction to such compositions is "bad". It is traditional in such communities --- more appropriate, she implied --- to play one's own instruments and pass on traditional dances from generation to generation, some of which were taught by visiting whalers in the old days.

I felt that this rather contradicted what she was trying to say. She also mentioned the fiddlers of northern Manitoba who surely acquired their skills from Europeans, as well.

Alexander Shelley (from the UK) made a determined effort to learn about Canada when he took the post of the NACO's music director, and that includes the latest thinking about Canada's indigenous peoples: "reparation comes before reconciliation." Last year, the NACO and their associates created an experimental, collaborative, multimedia show called Life Reflected, about the life and thoughts of four Canadian women, one of whom was from the First Nations. Furthermore, through the Rita Joe Song Project, youth from the reserves and northern communities have composed their own responses to Rita Joe's poem about a Mi'kmaq girl in a residential school, "I lost my talk" ...

"We are building resilient communities by means of the arts!" exclaimed Ms. Cimon.

250 NAC events, this year (Canada's 150th) have put the spotlight on indigenous artists and often on female artists.

Not all of Ms. Cimon's talk was about outreach to Canada's rural or native communitites. She reminded us that, each summer at the NAC in Ottawa, there is an international Young Artists' program: a summer school for promising artists which, apparently, is becoming increasingly collaborative rather than competitive, the participants learning empathy and compassion. She says that this is a generation that wants to volunteer.

The new wing of the NAC is "Ottawa's new living room". More free programming is being planned, such as yoga and meditation sessions, on Mondays!


* This, I feel, is a misleading comparison, because as I understand it, El Sistema's mission is to bring classical music to the slums, a guiding principle being "the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence", rather than encouraging children to explore the familiar music of their own communities.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Northern music

The new "Staircase" at the NAC
It has been a good season for concerts; all those I've attended have had something to do with The North. The first was the Doors Open For Music concert at Southminster church on September 27th: A Salute to Finland, a celebration of Nordic culture featuring songs and instrumentals by Alfvén, Grieg, Merikanto, Sibelius and Sjöberg, honouring Finland's 100th anniversary.  The tenor Trygve John Ringereide (formerly the principal of a secondary school and music teacher / lecturer) sang solos by those Scandinavian composers, with Cecilia Ignatieff at the piano, and Jan Jarvlepp playing the cello.

This week, I was at three more, exceptional concerts, all of them held at the newly renovated National Arts Centre downtown. Two of these events were free, taking place at noon by the "Staircase" where an impromptu audience can sit on the stairs --- as on a bleacher at a sports field --- watching and listening to the performance on the floor below.

On Wednesday the performers were members of the New Orford String Quartet. First, the two violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow gave us Prokofiev's Sonata for two violins written in 1932, with its lovely Commodo third movement. (Apparently Prokofiev had heard a similar work by another composer and decided he could do better.) Then the violist came in with a substitute cellist from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; all four musicians had been learning a challenging work, Glenn Gould's String Quartet (No. 1, he called it, but there was never a No. 2), which, when they played it to us, turned out to be absolutely tremendous music. Mr. Crow said that the musicians had detected strains of JS Bach, Beethoven (the Groe Fuge) and Schönberg in it. To me, it did sound like another version of Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, but fancy this being composed by a Canadian! Extraordinary! Why don't we hear this work more often? I didn't even know it existed. All the people sitting on the stairs were bowled over by it.

The other free lunchtime event I caught was yesterday, a concert by the Cantiamo Girls' Choir of Ottawa conducted by their competent director, Jackie Hawley. She told us something about the choir's recent exchange trip to Iqaluit* where the choir girls had stayed with, performed with and made friends with their Inuit counterparts, two of whom had now come to Ottawa to join in the performance. During the programme they demonstrated their throat-singing skills and one of them later played the drum, but what touched me most was that they joined in the singing of the choir, having learned some of the repertoire along with the Ottawa girls. We heard them perform an arrangement of Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma, all singing in Inuktitut, and we as audience were encouraged to join in the mournful refrain "Ay-ay-ay-a" which was easier to pronounce and remember.

* The Gryphon Trio was also part of this collaboration.

The last concert I want to mention in this post also happened to be a free one because I had picked up vouchers for two complimentary tickets for it, at a talk about the NAC which I'll describe in a separate blogpost. Chris couldn't make it, so Barbara came with me; we found we had quite good seats, near the front. The NACO's director Alexander Shelley was sitting near us on the same row; the auditorium was packed. The music was Finnish and Canadian, since this was part of Mr. Shelley's Ideas of North Festival that's happening just now; this performance was being conducted by an energetic Finn, Hannu Lintu. We heard The Oceanides by Sibelius (which I didn't know), an impressionist piece of music that lasted 10 minutes, Sibelius' answer to Debussy's La Mer, perhaps, with its evocation of the surging high seas, and, after the intermission, his 2nd Symphony (which I did know, very well, having wallowed in it in my youth), such exciting stuff, especially where he goes triumphantly into the major in the Finale, trumpets, trombones and tuba blazing away and all the string sections swaying along.

However, the most interesting part of the concert was the long piece for piano and orchestra premièred just before the intermission, by a Canadian composer who admittedly lives in Finland, a musician called Matthew Whittall. He and the conductor are both close associates of Ottawa's most famous pianist, Angela Hewitt, who has written a "Reflection" about the première we attended:
I went [to Kittilä in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle] not just to [...] see this remarkable landscape, but also to learn the new piano concerto of Matthew Whittall, "Nameless Seas". 
The wooden house where I was staying was built especially for the small Fazioli grand piano that sits in its very centre, surrounded by glass windows through which you can see nothing but trees and undergrowth. A magnificent lake is only a few steps away. There is nobody else around for miles. The setting is perfect for the concentration needed; the inspiration from the surroundings similar to that which has inspired its composer. 
Although Matthew was born and raised here in Canada, he has made Finland his home for the past sixteen years. When I realised that Canada and Finland were both celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017, and that Finnish Radio already had the idea of asking him to write a piano concerto, it seemed the logical thing to have it also performed here. I am thrilled that it has finally come to fruition and that our mutual friend, Hannu Lintu, is conducting.
The music was experimental and amazingly evocative of waves breaking against rocks or the sparkle of the water and the wind on the shores. The percussion section had the use of a wind machine; the woodwind produced special glissando effects on their instruments like bird cries dying away. The piano often played a single line of notes, echoed by notes at the same pitch on steel drums or the xylophone. In the last section "...the piano is progressively engulfed by a series of ever-taller waves, ultimately dissolving into a tolling, rippling continuum of sound."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

At St.-Antoine-de-L'Isle-aux-Grues

Being on the island feels like being in a dream, a good dream, I must add. Most of the time for the two days we were there we walked in silence, taking in its beauty, its simplicity, and the quiet. Up from the ferry dock to the village on the other side of the island, a narrow country road leads through wide open fields, with a row of telegraph poles (none of them quite vertical) on the left and a fantastic view of the Laurentide Mountains ahead, standing in line beyond northern river channel. Wild flowers on the verges, including clumps of ragwort, pretty but poisonous, and invasive. All we could hear were the crickets in the grass. Once over the brow of the hill where the long, low barn stands, its lonely aspect reminding my husband so much of the setting of a novel by J L Carr that he nicknamed that barn Pollock's Crossing, the roofs of the village and church spire become visible.

The catholic church has been there since the mid 19th century and still seems to be the focal point, people gathering there for social occasions and special traditions at certain times of the year, such as for the Sale of Souls raffle in January or an opportunity to disguise oneself in fancy dress at the Mi-Carême festival in March. There aren't many shops on the island. The museum sells a few cards and souvenirs and the Riopelle Cheese Factory shop sells its delicious cheeses. There's one dépanneur along the main street which stocks the basic necessities; I gather this is going to be situated elsewhere in the near future. The Café-aux-Quatre-Vents likewise sells a few touristy things, as do the two auberges. And that's it!

In order to keep the village cheerful in winter and on grey days, some houses have been painted in bright colours. In their gardens stand artistically crafted models of cranes or herons, under the white birches or among the garden flowers. For our visit there was colour enough in any case, a field of sunflowers in full bloom next to the church, all their heads facing the road, green marsh grass and the blue water beyond. Other crops grown on the island are barley and two kinds of beans. We noticed structures for drying hay. Apple trees, at this time of year, are bearing healthy looking red fruit. Fishing and hunting are other productive pastimes here. In the depths of winter the community gets a canot team together to compete in the ice-canoe races across the frozen river. Before the airport, this was the only means of reaching the mainland in winter.

In the churchyard are the graves of the local population although one man obviously didn't want to be buried with the riff-raff because one solitary gravestone stood in the middle of the beanfields futher up the hill, away from the village. I didn't go close enough to inspect it in detail.

English doesn't come easy to the francophone people who live here. The most famous inhabitant of the island was Jean-Paul Riopelle, the rebellious abstract painter. The museum, housed in an old barn, features videos of him as an unkempt old eccentric, working obsessively on his paintings, squeezing paint straight from the tubes onto the canvas. The myriad white blobs in his later paintings are probably a reference to the snow-geese that migrate via the island in their tens of thousands twice a year. He was born nearby and died on the island.

On Thursday we lingered over breakfast at the Grand Hérons, watching the tide start to dribble in over the mud where the sandpipers were foraging under a grey, wet sky. Chris went to sit at the business end of the dock watching the activity around the ferry that sat low in the water waiting for the incoming tide to lift it high enough for vehicles and passengers to get on board, while I remained at the breakfast table reading a book. Eventually the rain eased off and we set off for a walk along the rivage, following the track past the cottages, through the trees, till it fizzled out and left us on the shore, with deer footprints all over the sand. From where we stood, it didn't look so far to the tip of the island at the western end, but that headland is elusive, and it turned out to be further away than we thought. We wandered for about 2 and a half hours that morning, the best part of our hike being the marked trails around the Pointe aux Pins which we had explored before, on our previous visit. Here we met one other couple, the only other people we encountered. We remembered the views from the look-out points. A bonus sight this time was of a large-headed bird, probably the short-eared owl that's supposed to frequent this spot, sitting on a rock at the end of the island, so motionless, that at first I thought it was just an upright stone or piece of driftwood. Then it took off, on wide wings. We saw another such bird fly out of the forest as we walked further along.

There's an even wilder area of untouched woodland at the eastern tip of the island, where we have not been; this is a hunting reserve. Closer to the inhabited part, east of our lodging beyond the tipis, you can follow more trails through the forest and the fields and then turn left up the hill to cross the island towards the airport and village, again. At the edge of the woods in this direction was a clearing where we noticed a surprisingly large number of small wooden structures ... "They look like dog kennels," I said to Chris, breaking our companionable silence, at which point all hell broke loose, the pack of huskies (probably used as sled dogs in the winter), having heard a voice they didn't recognise, leaping out of their kennels, barking, howling and frantically pulling on their chains. We were mighty glad they'd been chained up, I must say. It was quite an alarming encounter and we didn't linger.

Hoping to see stars after dark on the first night we'd gone up the road to sit by the lonely barn, but too many clouds surrounded the clear patches of sky. I did spot one shooting star. On the second evening it clouded over again, but while we ate our supper at a window table, seeing the hills of Maine beyond the water, the setting sun behind us tinged the clouds above them pink, and then a distant rain-shower lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone in the dining room was awe-struck by it.




Monday, September 4, 2017

On the Isle again

I am starting to write this post in our waterside room at the Auberge known as Maisons du Grand Héron on the Isle-Aux-Grues that we are revisting for the first time since we stayed at the other Auberge on the other side of the island.

Papa Tango November is cleared to the Montmagny airport via direct TAKOL, Tango 731, AGLUK, Tango 781, PESAC, YQB, Victor 98 to FLEUR, direct CSE5.

That was our clearance yesterday morning as we left Ottawa-Rockcliffe for Montmagny, 2 hours 20 minutes away to the northeast. The total flight time was in fact 2 hours 24 minutes. The flight was remarkably smooth through very hazy air, although we had clear views over Quebec City; having been diverted left by 10-degrees for traffic avoidance in the airspace around CYQB we were then set back on course right across the city, seeing the Plains of Abraham, harbour and downtown as we went.

Then followed the romantic stretch across the Isle d'Orléans and the archipelego of islands round this one, the Isle-aux-Grues lying almost adjacent to Montmagny. Children who live on the island go to school by plane every morning (a free, 5-minute Air Montmagny flight to the mainland, or le continent, as they call it in these parts). It must be one of the shortest regular flights on the planet. We saw the school plane in its hangar --- we saw this twin-prop. being taxied right inside the hangar before its engine was turned off, only the tail sticking out! --- and, once we took to the air again to do our own short hop across to the island, we spotted the school below us, too. Our midday meal had been a packed lunch at the Montmagny airport picnic table by the bullrushes, a far cry from lunch at Heathrow, where I shall be next week.

I had loved our stay on the island in 2011, when we had our meals on the Auberge des Dunes' delapidated old boat Le Bateau Ivre (its name inspired by Rimbaud's famous poem) still stuck in in the mud on the northern shore, and have loved it again this time round, this being the first time we actually landed on the island in our plane. The previous time, PTN having a flat tyre or something, we had flown in a less familiar, substitute plane (a Piper Cherokee) that may not have been so easy to land on such a short runway, so had left it on the ground at Montmagny and had come across on the ferry.

The Isle-Aux-Grues makes good memories. This time we were staying at the Maisons du Grand Héron on the rue du Rivage of the southern shore, facing the ferry dock; in fact we had a good view of the dock and distant mainland from our bedroom window. During supper on our second evening there, once again next to the windows, we even had the rare privilege of seeing a sunset sky complete with extraordinary, widely spread rainbow colours, as the setting sun lit a distant rain shower over the hills of Maine, beyond Cap St. Ignace.

The hotel has rooms within the Auberge itself, where the meals are served, as well as two yurts (yaourts) and two wooden "tipis" in the trees alongside. Their interiors are nicely furnished with all the requisite amenities and a barbeque outside; the only snag might be mosquito bites in the bug-season. Anyhow, the manager, Gilles, came to pick us up with our bags from the airport by pre-arrangement and drove us 3km along the quiet country roads to his place. We had chosen to take advantage of the four-course suppers and breakfasts offered as part of one of their forfaits (packages at $110 per person, per night --- not bad value). During our breakfasts one of the live grands hérons who frequent the muddy river edge when the tide is out, flew in to entertain us. Sandpipers and snow geese made their apppearance there too.

Gilles told us a heartbreaking story about the snow geese. During the last migration season / hunting season, earlier this year, one of the geese we saw was shot in the wing and not killed, but incapacitated, unable fly north, so (s)he had to remain on the island. Geese being faithful creatures, its mate and family stayed too. And when the winter comes, and the other thousands of snow geese stop by on their journey south, this particular goose family will be stuck on the island and will doubtless all die of cold.

Supper at the Maison des Grands Héron deserves a description. It was served in a leisurely fashion which meant that we were sitting at our supper table for about two hours. Drinks first, while we studied the Table d'Hote menu. The entrée is concocted with smoked esturgeon, whether you like it or not. Never fear, you will like it, fresh from the local sea water, nicely presented with an artistic salad and subtle dressing. We had slices of this smoked fish on the first night and a little ball of smoked sturgeon mousse on the second night. (Sturgeon can grow 2 metres long, so there is plenty for everyone. I just learned that they can live for 60 years, if you don't catch them.) The second course is a small bowl of tasty and fairly thick homemade soup, served with slices of homemade bread in a basket. The piece de résistance course is some kind of meat or fish in a sauce (presumably slow-cooked during the day) which they serve in individual casserole dishes with a not-too-heavy helping of rice or potatoes and carrots or similar on the side. I had curried sturgeon (!) on the first night and veal on the second. The dessert course is a slice of homemade cake or a fruit sorbet, once again artistically served, with tea or coffee.

I also appreciated the good taste with which the Auberge had been decorated. I dare say that Gilles' wife Nicole was responsible for this. The surroundings, despite all the activity at the dockside, make for a peaceful night's sleep. With our windows open, all we heard at night was the natural sound of rustling leaves or rain falling.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

And finally ... J.S. Bach

Music and Beyond's performance of the B-minor Mass on July 16th was the climax of the festival, and we had didn't need to pay to get in! It was a Festival-Plus concert, which means that I ought to have paid extra, and Chris was ready to buy his own ticket. But the organisers had given me (and other disappointed patrons) two complimentary tickets for the Bach, to compensate for the cancellation of Wednesday's lecture.

I knew this concert would be tremendous, because we had also been at the St. Matthew Passion performance on Good Friday, a few months ago, which had thrilled me then and for a long time afterwards. The soloist who had taken the part of Jesus in the oratorio was now singing the bass arias in the mass, so we knew the standard of singing would be high, as indeed it was, very, and we were to have the same able conductor at the podium, Kevin Mallon. We had many of the same instumentalists too (the Thirteen Strings plus their friends from the NACO -- its lead flute, oboe, trumpet, horn) including Julian Armour again, taking responsibility for the continuo part on his cello. The choir singing the great choruses of the mass, highly competent and well rehearsed, as we could see, since we sat near them, was from the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. We particularly admired the stamina of the first sopranos!

It is impossible to describe Bach's music in words. "The culmination of the Baroque!" my school notes used to say, but that is only a text book phrase. Perhaps a painting would do better justice to it, using all the colours. I have sung the B-minor Mass ... when I was 19, as one of the 2nd sopranos in London's Imperial College Choir, an experience that gave me a very good idea of what "in Heaven" means. Even though that performance wasn't half as good as what we heard in Ottawa, I remember how the last half hour of it was like flying through a night sky full of stars, making all my self-centred little worries null and void. Probably my mother once felt the same, because she has told me that she'd like a recording of the Sanctus from Bach's B-minor Mass played at her funeral.


Mum came up with another simile too; she once said that singing the Sanctus was like being on a big ship sailing the high seas.

I have found this blogpost about Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his more detailed response to the Bach mass, worth reading if you're interested.

Bach's greatness wasn't as obvious to his contemporaries at it is to us, and it wasn't until Mendelssohn's day, over a hundred years later, that he acquired his stature as a great composer. The 1720s clergymen at Leipzig had thought his St. Matthew Passion far too long and over-dramatic so hadn't given it a good reception. In a fit of pique, perhaps --- although this is undocumented speculation --- Bach decided to offer his large scale choral music to the court at Dresden instead, after that, setting Catholic Latin texts, what's more.

In Ottawa, the following day (July 17th) I went to visit the Syrian family I've befriended, who have a new baby, and coming home through the city in the afternoon I realised that I'd have time to attend one further concert, a performance of Bach's The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge) on period instruments (or replicas?), viols of different sizes and timbres, all held vertically, by a consort of four instrumentalists known as Les Voix Humaines. Not looking them up beforehand, I must confess I'd supposed that a group calling itself Les Voix Humaines would be singers, and so did others of the rather large audience, and so we were taken by surprise.

Again, it was very warm and humid that day, so it was essential to sit still in the non airconditioned church to hear this rather same-ish, soft music, lightly played, and the lack of resonance in these instruments so lulling that many of us had a hard time keeping awake. Sad to say, the nave wasn't half so full after the intermission because many of the audience had made their escape. I was sitting with Jingnan and Lee from my Chinese class during this concert, and we were among the few who remained. Jingnan told me that the word for 'soporific' in Chinese is cuīmián (催眠). During the break I walked up to the podium to take a closer look at the viols that had been left there. They constituted a visual work of art, too, each one decorated with a plume of coloured ribbons, as were their music stands.

The music sounds serious, intellectual, to us but the chief viol player (Susie Napper), who introduced everything, claimed that Bach himself saw the composition of the Art of Fugue pieces more as an after-dinner pastime and she informed us that Bach had a sense of fun, as well as a great liking for wine. She apologised for "the lack of seriousness in this performance", although actually I failed to identify any humorous moments in what followed. The fugues and canons were composed, maybe as a challenge from one of his family or friends, during the last ten years of Bach's life, in 2, 3 and 4 parts: Contrapunctus I, Contrapunctus II, Contrapunctus III, etc., all the way to Contrapunctus XVIII.

In complete contrast, the encore the instrumentalists gave us was an arrangement of Gershwin's Summertime for viols with the song part played on the recorder by Mélisande Corriveau.