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Volume 27 Issue 3 - December 2021 / January 2022

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Many Happy Returns: the rebirth of Massey Hall -- from venue to hub; music theatre's re-emergence from postponement limbo; pianist Vikingur Ólafsson's return visit to to "Glenn Gould's hometown"; guest writer music librarian Gary Corrin is back from his post behind the scenes in the TSO library; Music for Change returns to 21C; and here we all are again! Welcome back. Fingers crossed, here we go.

IN CONVERSATION

IN CONVERSATION “It’s a necessity, creation.” Composer Ana Sokolović LYDIA PEROVIĆ ANDRÉ PARMENTIER It’s only when you leave a country – a culture, a language, a family – that you can really see it. And it’s only then that you can consciously, rather than by inertia, belong to it. This wisdom comes to most immigrants, expats and refugees by mid-life, but it came to Montreal-based composer Ana Sokolović early in her career, after the first performance of her music in her new country. “Critics described my music as having ‘Slavic soul,’ which stunned me. ‘Slavic soul’?! I’m a contemporary, avant-garde composer, I thought, I’m as far from any kind of national folklore and nostalgia as possible,” she recalls. When she moved to Montreal to work on her master’s degree in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia, in which she grew up, the multicultural egalitarian experiment, was already disintegrating in ethno-nationalist acrimony, and she was eager to say goodbye to the rising ethnocentrism. The point for her was to say something new, not blindly follow the established tradition. But the talk of Slavic flair back then got her thinking about whether she was entirely in control of her own sound-making, or if something else voiced itself in the process, something less conscious. “I realized the local audience detected a certain openness to emotion that they translated as ‘Slavic soulfulness’. Crucially, I realized that it wasn’t a bad thing. And that perhaps I should bring it to light more.” We are sitting in her quiet home in Montreal, our only other company her Siamese cat sleeping in a patch of sun on the windowsill. Svadba-Wedding was about to be performed the following week by a young ensemble from Toronto’s Glenn Gould School – her much travelled a cappella opera that uses idioms of Balkan singing techniques and South Slav language phonemes but is musically more like dissonant, rhythm-addled Stravinsky than the Balkans. “It’s only when I physically removed myself from my place of birth that I understood this conversation between tradition and invention,” she says. It’s nothing to do with genes, she says. It’s to do with different spices of how to be in the world. The dialects of humankind. It’s like keeping Occitan in Languedoc alongside French, and not subsuming it under it. “Imagine if the only thing that divided us was this difference in style, the variety in the taste of the terroir? And religions would be there just to serve this cultural side of us. Just so we could sing to God in all kinds of idioms.” Toronto. Pittsburgh and Opera Philadelphia. Perm with Teo Curentzis. Montreal. Boston. Aix-en-Provence. And Belgrade, of course. Svadba is probably the most performed Canadian opera of the last two decades. Sure, it’s small and inexpensive, emotionally communicative, visceral as a pagan ritual. All that helps. But that still doesn’t explain its popularity. How does she explain it? “It’s mad, isn’t it? But I think part of it is that a wedding is a near-universal experience and a universally understood phenomenon. But here it’s told through a very local perspective. That quote attributed to Tolstoy, ‘If you want to be universal, start by painting your own village?’ It’s that.” And people of all ethnicities have found something in the scenes in which six girlfriends prepare one of them for the wedding. Before she embarked on Svadba, her second commission by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in the late noughts, Sokolović travelled back to Belgrade to talk to ethnomusicologists about old South Slav rituals associated with female preparation for weddings. Some of these rituals she included (the henna painting, the weaving of the wreaths), some she didn’t find particularly inspiring (breadmaking). Some would have been inherited from the long Ottoman colonization (the bathing/ hammam, and here Svadba doesn’t shy away from eroticism). What also made Svadba so easy to follow is, paradoxically, that it’s in the original language. “When I composed The Midnight Court for Queen of Puddings, I needed to make the story legible. The pace is decided by the text: the opera must unfold at the speed of the text, and must follow our understanding of the text. After that, I wanted to create something where no individual words needed to be understood – everything would be understood through music.” And while many South Slav and Serbian words are used in Svadba, a lot of them are exploded into syllables and phonemes, both vowels and consonants, and used as purely musical tools. People generally understand what’s going on, with or without the language, even in concert, she’s noticed. “They understand the emotion.” Some activities which are not traditionally associated with weddings Sokolović introduced precisely for this musicality of words. Nursery rhymes, pattycakes and the alphabet play an important role in the opera. She also needed a dramatic peak, some kind of a scene of conflict, which the night before a wedding usually does not have. But what it has is the nerves – and the tension. So she played that up. I tell her that I’ve noticed that people who have no interest in the institution of marriage also find the opera powerful, because it’s 10 | December 2021 and January 2022 thewholenote.com

clearly about a rite of passage – the change from girlhood to womanhood, the leaving of childhood behind and moving to the unknown. I’ve also found the music very dark, I tell her; it’s all those menacing seconds, like Bluebeard’s Castle! And for women of the Balkans, and many other places in the world, the wedding may or may not have been a joyful event, depending on how they may or may not have been treated by the new family. “I get that,” she says. “It’s that complexity of feeling: the joy and the sadness. I mean, how do you explain the word seta in English? Something like Portuguese saudade? Sadness, but of a pleasant kind? There is no seta in Svadba I don’t think, but there are ambivalent feelings.” She pauses for a few beats. “It all probably comes from the Mediterranean carnival. An occasion for ambivalent feelings, if there ever was one! It’s the films of Kusturica, Fellini, Buñuel. You’re happy and you’re sad.” Milica is not sad because she’s about to get married, but her leaving is. “She is never going to be the same person. There’s a line in the opera, ‘Your mother will cry.’ Of course. We cry at weddings. My mother cried on my first day of school. A new chapter opens. It’s not quite clear why we cry at rites of passage, but we do! And this speaks to people, whether we get married or not, whether we are female or male.” Doesn’t contemporary music have something of a PR problem, though, I ask? It’s often dastardly to sing – some composers have no interest in writing voice-friendly stuff. It’s unemotional (the worst thing is to be a Puccini – like the well-funded American composers end up being). It doesn’t see itself in the business of giving pleasure. It’s often written by people who teach at universities and effectively compose for tenure. Those who work in the tradition of serialism never see a second performance – and probably for a good reason. Scratch that: most don’t experience a second performance. I’ve been to contemporary music concerts with four people in the audience; but as long as the grants from peers are coming down, the small contemporary music organization has nothing to worry about. Am I wrong? “We are in 2021, though. A lot has happened and keeps happening from the time that serialism, or dodécaphonie in French, was major news,” she says. “There isn’t one thing, one school, with or against which we all have to define ourselves. There are a lot of branches on the tree. Schoenberg and Boulez had to exist. We are continuing on, but in different ways. There is a divide in classical music in that there is an audience that only listens to contemporary, and a usually older audience which prefers the traditional works of the Western canon. But imagine if there was a museum of anything that stops at the Romantic Age. It would be a strange museum, no?” And the contemporary vs. the traditional is a particularly sharp divide in music. In other art forms – visual, theatre, novels – it’s much less present, she adds. Are we talking about the modernists? I probe. Does modernism Alexander Dobson and Krisztina Szabó in Ana Sokolović’s Midnight Court – commissioned by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre and premiered at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, June, 2005. in music exist as a tradition now, or is it still a project? And does it even matter – is this something that only interests academics and critics, and the audience not in the least? Does Canada even have any modernists? I love Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, which I presume is in that tradition, but John Weinzweig, for example, is not performed any more anywhere, and having tried some of the recordings, I can’t say I’m too sad about it. “It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m one or not – most people would say that I’m not,” she says. “But those boundaries are all Continues on page 58 GREG REEKIE PUCCINI MADAMA BUTTERFLY FEBRUARY 4–25 VERDI LA TRAVIATA APRIL 23–MAY 20 MOZART THE MAGIC FLUTE MAY 6–21 CELEBRATE THE RETURN OF Live opera Single tickets go on sale January 11, 2022 coc.ca thewholenote.com December 2021 and January 2022 | 11

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