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Volume 14 - Issue 2 - October 2008

Book Shelfby Pamela

Book Shelfby Pamela MarglesElmer lseler: Choral Visionaryby Walter PitmanDundurn Press353 pages, photos; .00Walter Pitman'sbiography of ElmerIseler presents a charismaticconductorwhose impact on choralmusic in this countryhas never beenmatched. It's not justthat Iseler foundedboth the Festival Singersand the ElmerIseler Singers, andlead the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for thirty-threeyears . He transformed the choralrepertoire by commissioning and premieringan extraordinary number of new works heraised the already high standards for choralsinging in this country, and trained a wholegeneration of choral conductors and singers.As Pitman tells it, Iseler achieved evenmore-he captured "a vision of what hiscountry was capable of doing." But visionariesrarely play by the rules, and are seldome_asygoing . Pitman confronts Iseler's reputatl?nfor being difficult to deal with, describinghis occasional bouts with mental and emotionalillness. He describes a troubled, complex,and explosive man.But Pitman is clearly out to right somewrongs. He frequently uses the word 'tragic'to desc:ibe how Iseler was treated by thosewho f~iled to app_reciate what he was tryingto achieve, especially when chronicling the'sordid events' surrounding Iseler's shoddytreatment by the Mendelssohn Choir boardwhile he was dying of brain cancer in 1998.A~ with his two previous biographies ofle~dmg Canadian musicians, Pitman brings tothis study an invigorating perspective as ateacher, arts administrator, journalist andpolitician. A long-time environmental activistPitman even suggests that the early deaths ofIseler and his three siblings could be due togrowing u~ i~ a community polluted by dangerousemissions.Pitman has organized his chapters so thatindividual topics like the Festival Singers aretreated chronologically in a single thread.This brings cohesiveness to the individualstory lines but does entail some jumpingaround.Iseler's family, especially his wife Jessie,co-operate,d fully with Pitman, giving insightmto Iseler s background and character. Pitma~was gi_ven access to all Iseler's papers,which provided invaluable documentation anda terrific set of photos . A man whose passionand warmth inpired great loyalty and affectionemerges from the numerous interviews .Pitman's own experiences with Iseler enliventhis elegantly written, compelling biography,as_ when he recalls the first day he and hiswife showed up for choir rehearsal. Iselertold the choir, "I'll have eye contact withevery one of you in the next two hours" . Totheir astonishment, he did.The Oxford Companion to the AmericanMusical: Theatre, Film, and Televisionby Thomas HischakOxford University Press957 pages, photos; .95With more than twothousand entries, thisvolume provides awealth of informationon the American musical-notjust theatricalproductions, but alsomovies and television.Each entry is conciseand informative, madeall the more enjoyableby author ThomasHischak's critical astuteness.Singer Marnie Nixon writes in her forwardabout the benefits of browsing through thisbo~k. In his entry on Nixon, Hischak descnbe~her_ as "one of the most famous singmgvoices m Hollywood, although only seenby movie audiences once". Since it's Nixon' s~oice h~ard dubbing Natalie Wood's singingm the film version of the great Broadwaymusical, Gypsy, I looked up Gypsy. Afterbrowsing through over thirty entries-fromlyricist, Steven Sondheim; composer, JuleStyne; librettist, Arthur Laments (who at theage of ninety directed the revival now onBroadway); to the first Mama Rose, EthelMerman; I still hadn't reached Patty Lupone,the current Mama Rose.Hischak limits himself to the musical inAmerica. So, there's no Anne of Green Gables.But the Canadian musical The DrowsyC~~perone does get an entry since, after itsm1tial Toronto run, it became a hit on Broadway.Ragtime gets a write up , but there is nomention of its Canadian roots. CanadiansBrent Carver and Len Cariou have their ownentries, _but not_ Louise Pitre, even though shestarred m the hit Mamma Mia production onBroadway .. The:e is an index, but it is too scanty andmconsistent to provide reliable access toHischak's material. Performers who don't~ave t~eir own entries are infrequently listedi~ the i~dex, even if they are actually mentionedm the book. For example, Pitre andtwo other performers I tried to track downare lis~ed-Phyllis Hyman, a great singerwho died too young, and singer-lyricist JuneCarroll, who was composer Steve Reich'smother. Hischak includes lists of awardsrecordings, a useful bibliography and pho~os .Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey.Some Divisions of the Saga of MawrdewCzgowchwz. Oltrano. Authenticated byPersons Represented Therein. Book One.by James MccourtTurtle Point Press528 pages; .50This chaotic, flamboyantnovel is the first in aprojected series of sequelsto McCourt's 1975cult classic MawrdewCzgowchwz. Like itspredecessor, it is saturatedwith references toopera, especially to thesingers who appeared atthe old MetropolitanOpera, their roles, andtheir scandals.Mawrdew Czgowchwzended in 1956 with the opera diva, whosename, as we are constantly reminded, ispronounced, 'Mardu Gorgeous', sailing fromNew York with her lover to make a movie inIreland. Now Voyagers opens in 2004 withCzgowchwz, now a psychoanalyst known asMaev Cohalen, reminiscing with an oldfriend back in New York about the eventsforty-eight years ago.McCourt is not greatly concerned withplot, especially with the "thudding samenessa_nd strained expectation imbedded in it". Hishterary ambitions go far beyond telling astory. The world he conjures up reflects hisvalues as a cultivated, gay, opera-obsessedNew Yorker whose sensibility is rooted inmusic, art, philosophy, literature, and films.When she was starring at the Met in the1950's, Czgowchwz had a voice that trancendedexisting categories, with a huge rangeand remarkable otherworldly quality. Mc­C_ourt calls her an 'oltrano'. On stage, Minmewas her favorite role, Violetta her mostcontroversial, Amneris her most wicked, andMarfa her best. But her most notorious rolewas Isolde, since it was while she was singin~the Liebestod that the curse put on her bya Jealous colleague caused her to suddenlylose her memory and start singing-with avoice loud enough to be heard in Queens-inIrish, a language she did not even speak.McCourt's own language is coloured bydizzying wordplay, clever humour and extravag~nti_magery. With his complex sagaunfoldmg m letters, conversations and an epicteletype that was dispatched to the ship, Mccourtpresents such a confounding array ofnarrators that it can be hard to figure outexactly who is talking. Some of the referencesthat permeate the text are obscure butmost of them are delightful and they do forcethe reade: to slow down and thoroughlysavour this extraordinary novel. Contrary towhat one of McCourt's characters sayslife-at least as presented by McCourt_'._is alibretto.52WWW , THEWHOLENOTE, COMO CTOB ER 1 - N OVEM BER 7 2008

EDITOR'SCORNERYou could be forgiven for concluding that theVocal section is sparse this month because Iscooped off the cream for myself. It doesseem to have turned out that way, but it wasnot by design. Rather it was a function of thecalendar, with all of the discs arriving in thefinal days of production and falling to me bydefault.The first to arrivewas Daniel Taylor- The Voice ofBach with theChoir and Orchestraof the Theatreof Early Music(RCA Red Seal88697290312). Accordingto the liner notes Daniel Taylor,whose previous recordings include twenty CDsfor ATMA and numerous appearances as soloiston such projects as John Eliot Gardiner'scomplete Bach cantata cycle for the SDG label,is now an exclusive recording artist forSony BMG Masterworks. This is certainly acoup for the (still) young Canadian countertenorand one hopes that his new "super label"will take as good care of and as much pride inhim as ATMA did during their decade-longrelationship. Certainly they have begun on agood foot. Taylor is in immaculate voice (asever) and is featured as both soloist and directorof his Theatre of Early Music in this firstrecording for the industry giant. Short sinfoniasseparate arias from some of Bach's mostcelebrated works - St. Matthew Passion , St.John Passion and Christmas Oratorio - alongwith duets (featuring soprano Agnes Zsigovics)and chorales from various cantatas. Elsewherein these pages you will find Larry Beckwith'scomments about one difference betweenmodern instrument and period instrumentperformance being the treatment of thecontinuo line. Rest assured that the bottom iswell supported in this recording by cello, viol,double bass and organ, but never does it overpowerthe sweet and soaring vocal lines. Inthe higher instrumental parts the oboe playingof John Abberger (joined by Marco Cera inthe duet from Cantata 23) is particularly worthyof note. Mostly contemplative in nature,these arias and duets showcase the purity ofTaylor's sound. "The voice of Bach" couldjust well have been called "The Voice of anAngel".The next disc to arrive is a remarkable releaseof early works by Olivier Messiaen featuringthe outstanding Acadian singer SuzieLeblanc. Principally known for her crystallinerenditions of baroque repertoire, this ATMArelease, Chants de terre et de ciel (ACD22564) , comes as a bit of a surprise. Featuringrarely heard works by the iconic French composerwhose centenary is celebrated this year,this CD serves to bridge Messiaen's early in-OCTO BER 1 - N O VEM BER 7 2008recordings reviewedfluences - withhints of Wagner anddefinite traces ofMassenet and Debussy- and hismore familiar maturestyle of thepost-war years. ButLeblanc's purity oftone is very wellsuited to this repertoire. The disc includestwo song cycles, one vocalise, a cantata fortenor, soprano, violin and piano - the onlywork in which Messiaen utilized a solo malevoice (Lawrence Wiliford here) until the operaSaint-Fran(ois d 'Assise completed half acentury later - and the more familiar Themeand Variations for violin and piano. Composedin 1930 the first song cycle, Trois Melodies,pays tribute to Messiaen's mother,poet Cecile Sauvage who had died of tuberculosisthree years previously, with a settingof her Le Sourire book-ended by two poemsby Messiaen himself. The second, Chants deterre et de ciel (Songs of Earth and Heaven) ,also on texts by the composer, is a celebrationof the happy years of Messiaen's lifewith his first wife Claire Delbos and thebirth of their son Pascal, before Delbos' illnessand eventual descent into dementia. Delboswas an accomplished violinist and theTheme and Variations (performed by LauraAndriani and Robert Kortgaard who is thepianist throughout this disc) was composed asa wedding present for Messiaen's bride in1932. The Vocalise for soprano and pianowas composed three years later. The otherwisevery informative liner notes (completewith texts and English translations) fail to explainwhy we are presented here with a violinversion of the soprano line. That minor quibbleaside, this exceptional release providesvaluable insight into Messiaen's early years whileshowing another side of one this country's mostbeloved singers. It is a joy to hear.The next to arrive was a new Societe nouvelled'enregistrement release (SNE-659-CD) featuring song cycles by Toronto-borncomposer Bruce Mather who has made hishome in Montreal since 1966 when he begana professorship at McGill University. Thetitle piece, Poemes pour la main gauche(Poems for the left hand) , is a setting of 11poems from the last collection of AnneHebert, published in 1996 just four years beforeher death. Coloratura soprano YolandeParent, who premiered the work in 2005, issuperb in this performance accompanied byTSO gives magnificent concerto a fitting world premiereMagnificent is nat too strong a ward ta describe (Mathieu's Piano Concerto),the centerpiece of the orchestra's first-ever commerdal CD, featuringrenowned Canadian pianist Alain Lefevre.Arizona Daily Star, May 10, 2008Worldwide release!WWW. THEWHOLENOn COM 53

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