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Volume 17 Issue 7 - April 2012

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  • April
  • Toronto
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  • Musical

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of what happened between Violet Pike and LanierPhillips, and her lack of awareness of Africanpeople — black people — was viewed by a lot ofNewfoundlanders as a source of shame: it was a‘Newfie Joke’.” Chafe notes that it was Phillipshimself who changed this attitude. “WhenLanier started coming back to Newfoundlandin the Eighties, and went to St. Lawrence andtold his story, he changed this perception. He’sthe person who contextualized what happenedbetween him and this woman as a moment of innocenceand incredible beauty.”Oil and water don’t mix, or so the adage goes. Inthe case of Oil and Water, they alchemically fuse tobring about not only one man’s redemption, but thatof a whole town as well — a statement that might seemgrandiose were it not for Phillips’s life-long praise ofhis Newfoundland saviours. Until his death last month,Lanier Phillips continued to credit the 48 hours hespent with the people of St. Lawrence 70 years ago formore than his life. In countless talks and testimonials,he claimed, without qualification, that the encounterrenewed his belief in human kindness and inspired hisfight for civil rights. When he died, Artistic Fraud issued a pressrelease expressing their regret at his passing; they also explained howdifficult it was for them to convey “how much [this man] has donefor us. Lanier Phillips was a friend unlike any other to the people ofNewfoundland and Labrador, an unparalleled champion of this place.The way he saw us changed forever the way we saw ourselves.”Following the wreck of his ship in 1942, Phillips fought tobecome the first black sonar technician in the U.S. Navy, eventuallyenjoying a career in marine research that he worked to achieve asstrenuously as he campaigned for civil rights. To dramatize Phillips’struggle, Chafe uses two actors, Ryan Allen, who plays Phillips at19, and Jeremiah Sparks, who depicts him as an older man. JillianKeiley cast her net wide across Canada to secure actors who couldhandle the complex demands of the script: “It would be helpful itthey all were acrobats, as well as actors and singers,” she remarks asshe describes the challenges of the set that is dominated by a giantrepresentation of a sextant. As in all of her work with Artistic Fraud,the accomplished director takes an imagistic approach to staging,effecting stylized activity that often requires the precision of dance.The style is as visually stunning as it is physically difficult.A more traditional approach to staging, as well as to singing,characterizes Ragtime, an equally significant production that theShaw Festival previews this month (beginning April 10) prior to itsofficial opening in late May. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow(1976), the musical premiered in Toronto in 1996 and transferredto Broadway in January 1998 where it won Tony Awards for itsscore (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) and book (TerrenceMcNally), as well the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awardsfor best musical and best score. Although a “book musical” in theconventional sense, Ragtime shares similarities with Oil and Waterin the way it turns to the past to make sense of the present — in thiscase, the arrival in the United States of immigrants from diversecultural backgrounds at the beginning of the 20th century, peoplewhose values and customs, not to mention skin colours, often led tomisunderstanding and conflict. Explaining her choice of the show toinaugurate the Shaw’s 51st season, Jackie Maxwell, artistic directorof the Festival and director of the production, opines that Ragtime“is essentially an examination of the beginnings of the modernAmerican nation [that] captures perfectly a period in history that hashad a huge impact on the way we live now.”McNally’s book for Ragtime, mainly sung-through, interweavesthe rise and fall of three American families in New York city — awhite, upper-middle-class household in New Rochelle, an African-American musician and his wife and child in Harlem, and anEastern European artist and his daughter in the Lower EastSide — to dramatize the struggles and successes of the period.Intersecting these characters’ stories are incidents involving famousPaul Sportelli, Ragtime!personalities that include magician Harry Houdini, civilrights leader Booker T. Washington, political activistEmma Goldman, business mogul J.P. Morgan, inventorHenry Ford and performer Evelyn Nesbit. McNally’sgoal, like Doctorow’s, is to illustrate how ordinarypeople connect with celebrities, and with history, andhow, as a result, each is culpable for shaping the livesof the other.This is an ambitious project, one that McNally locatesin the tradition of Showboat and South Pacific,shows, he suggests, that have “a lot of plot, a moralfabric to the center of them, and a real involvementwith the society we live in.” The production alsorepresents a big undertaking for the Shaw, a factthat music director, Paul Sportelli, is well awareof as he rehearses the largest cast ever assembledby the Festival for a musical — 28 adults and fourchildren. Sportelli will conduct an orchestra of15 musicians from the pit, “essentially takingthe same approach in terms of my orchestraladaptation that I did to My Fair Lady lastseason: being as faithful to the original [instrumentation]as possible, and using keyboards as discreetly as I can — alwaysgoing for a balanced blend of what is acoustic and what is synthetic.Except of course for the piano writing, which figures prominently inthe orchestration, and will not be discreet!”The score for Ragtime, as intricate as the narrative is complex, isa major achievement in contemporary musical theatre, primarilybecause it allows Flaherty to work with a variety of styles. Whilethe primary motif is, of course, ragtime, the composer also introducesa wide range of additional musical elements appropriate tothe diversity of the characters: Eastern European klezmer music,Western European operetta, Victorian parlour music, gospel, jazz,Tin Pan Alley — all receive serious attention. For Sportelli, “it’salways interesting doing a musical that involves historical forms,”and this is especially the case here where “you can see that thehistory of forms such as ragtime, the cakewalk, and gospel, havebeen shaped by the history of African-Americans and race relationsbetween blacks and whites.” With wit and insight, Ahrens’ lyricsadd depth to the enterprise, helping to establish the context of thethree fictional families even as they foreground the tensions thatensue when their paths intersect.But perhaps the ultimate achievement of the score of Ragtime isthe opportunity it gives the cast for choral singing on a grand scale.“The entire ensemble sings together at times,” Sportelli exclaimswith excitement, “and the wall of sound is fantastic!” Indeed, thescore of Ragtime is as powerfully complex in its harmonies as itis rich in melody and form. Like Oil and Water, it offers a surfeitof outstanding choral composition, all the more exciting because ittempers emotion with ideas.There’s MORE!An expanded version of this column can be found at,including details of several one-off concerts featuringsongs from the musical theatre repertoire that pop up like springflowers all through the month. On April 1 at the Toronto Centrefor the Arts, Encore Entertainment gets things started with “Songsin the Key of Stephen”; the same evening at Koerner Hall, ActingUp Stage Company continues to blur the lines of rock, cabaret andmusical theatre that it began two years ago with “Both Sides Now,”in “The Long and Winding Road”; April 23 at the Al Green Theatre,the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre toasts 60 years of contributionsto the cultural evolution of downtown Toronto with “Starson Spadina,” including the singers of Countermeasure, a hot newvocal group whose eclectic use of the contemporary songbook defiesnotions of genre in its pursuit of originality.Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes abouttheatre and performance. He can be contacted David COOper30 April 1 – May 7, 2012

Pick of a Rich Cropandrew tIMARWorld music concerts this month launch with the culminationof the Toronto association Bharathi Kala Manram’s 40thAnnual Thyagaraja Music Festival at the SVBF Auditoriumin Etobicoke. Thyagaraja (1767–1847) was a singer and prolificcomposer and remains among the most influential figures in theCarnatic (South Indian classical) musiccanon. On Sunday April 1 at 4pm,Thyagaraja’s musical legacy is markedin a concert featuring the Indianvocalist P. Unnikrishnan, accompaniedby Embar Kannan, violin and AnandAnathakrishnan, mridangam (handdrum). As well as being considered oneof India’s great composers, often comparedto Beethoven, he dedicated hislife to the devotion of the divine. ManySouth Indians thus consider him thepatron saint of Carnatic music and his widespread diasporic legacyis celebrated every year in presentations of his songs.Our remarkably early and pleasant spring weather this year iscertainly a cause for celebration of another, more secular kind. (Theweather’s distractions might also explain the fact that this next concert,by the Sarv Ensemble, as well as that of the Baarbad Ensembleon April 15, discussed below, came to my attention too late toconvey to The WholeNote listings department.)On April 5 the Sarv Ensemble presents a concert marking thearrival of spring and the Persian New Year at Trinity-St. Paul’sCentre. Comprised of young musicians playing Persian instrumentsthis ensemble was formed two years ago in Toronto. Its music drawsinspiration from diverse classical and folk music traditions fromacross Iran, freely incorporating new compositions, yet strivingto remain faithful to the tradition of the radif, the primary tonalorganizational principle of Persian music. The eight-member SarvEnsemble is joined by the York University ethnomusicologist IreneMarkoff as vocalist and baglama player.That same April 5 night, around the nose of Lake Ontario inSt. Catharines, three top Canadian guitarists share the stage at theCentre for the Arts, Brock University. P.R.O. is pan-Mediterraneanspecialist Pavlo, Canadian Rock Hall of Famer Rik Emmett andmulti JUNO Award winner Oscar Lopez. Each musician has carvedout a career specializing in a particular guitar-centric niche mixinghis passion for pan-Mediterranean, rock, Latin, “nouveau flamenco”and fusion music genres. Another passion — one they share withtheir many fans — is an abiding love for the six-string, fretted instrumentthey’ve built their careers on.On April 12, Small World Music/Batuki Music Society presentthe trio called Bombino, whose music is billed as “blues from theSaharan desert” at Toronto’s Lula Lounge. Born in 1980 at a nomadiccamp near the North African desert town of Agadez, the guitaristand songwriter Omara “Bombino” Moctar grew up during an eraof armed struggle for Tuareg independence. His electric guitar riffs,once considered a symbol of Tuareg rebellion, draw on the guitarismof fellow North Africans Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré, as well asthe American rock and blues of Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker.Bombino, with his intense guitar virtuosity backed with drivingdrum kit and electric bass, is renowned throughout the Sahara. Notonly are his bootleg tapes treasured and traded among fans in theregion, but in recent years his guitar prowess has been increasinglynoticed internationally. In 2006, Bombino recorded with the RollingStones’ Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.On the same day, April 12, at the Harcourt Memorial UnitedChurch in Guelph, and with no guitars in sight, the Guelph YouthSingers headline a concert titled “United for Africa.” Joined by theGuelph Community Singers and Les Jeunes Chanteurs d’Acadie, theGYS program includes three African dances, the marching songSiyahamba, and songs from the traditional Acadian repertoire. Theconcert proceeds go to the Bracelet of Hope charity, providingmedical care to HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.The Irshad Khan World Ensemble performs on April 13 at theLiving Arts Centre, Mississauga. Of impeccable North Indianmusical lineage, Irshad Khan, a resident of Mississauga, is aformidable sitar and surbahar master whose career is rooted in classicalHindustani music. In this, his latest East-West fusion project,however, he has infused his sitar playing with the talents of localmusicians John Brownell on drum set, Dave Ramkissoon on tabla,guitarist Brian Legere, Mark Weston keyboards and bassist Dave Field.Together they explore the lighter sideof world-beat, playing Irshad Khan’scompositions that will “be decidedspontaneously on the stage.”Also on April 13 the PerimeterInstitute in Waterloo presents internationalpipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso WuMan with the Shanghai String Quartetas part of their Classical World ArtistsOmara “Bombino” Moctar, April 12 at Lula Lounge.Series. Wu Man is an eloquent advocateof traditional and avant-garde Chinese music who is best knownto international audiences as a champion of the pipa in the works ofcontemporary composers. Performing for nearly three decades, thepolished Shanghai Quartet has toured major music centres throughoutthe globe and collaborated with some of the world’s leadingcomposers and musicians. Together they perform a mixed programof music by both European and Chinese composers.April 15, the Persian music Baarbad Ensemble in collaborationwith Sinfonia Toronto and Moussou Folila, stage an ambitiousseven-part music program at the Glenn Gould Studio. Titled “ThePhoto RON WymanApril 1 – May 7, 31

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