7 years ago

Volume 17 Issue 7 - April 2012

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PAMELA MargLESUnheard of: Memoirs ofa Canadian Composerby John BeckwithWilfrid Laurier University Press408 pages, photos, musical examples;.95 paperAt 85 years ofage, Canadiancomposer JohnBeckwith can lookback from a singularvantage point.Because his lifeis so intertwinedwith the developmentof modernmusic in Canada,and since he hasbeen so productivein many aspects of it, his memoir has aparticularly wide range of material to cover.He describes his early childhood years inVictoria, his complicated first marriage andfamily life, his experiences as a professorand Dean of the Faculty of Music at theUniversity of Toronto, his years workingat the CBC during its heyday, his extensivewritings as a music critic, most recently reviewingCDs for this magazine, and, aboveall, his achievements as the composer of over150 works.In describing his most significant works,he offers a revealing glimpse into how hecreated them. Taking a Stand, which hewrote for the then newly-formed CanadianBrass, shows the spirit of adventure thathe brought to a great deal of his music. It’sinteresting to see how operas like Crazy toKill, Night Blooming Cereus and Taptoo!were born out of a deep friendship. Beckwithwrote them with poet James Reaney, whomhe describes as “a writer who understoodmusic.” In the case of his Quartet, writtenfor the Orford Quartet, “Ideas came rapidly,as if I had a quartet inside me waiting to bewritten down.”Throughout his career, Beckwith’s writingshave been marked by his outspokenness— what he himself calls his “habitualcritical bitchiness.” But here, though he isuncommonly candid about his own shortcomingsand outright failures, he is surprisinglytolerant of the shortcomings of others.Since Beckwith has already written extensivelyabout figures in Canadian musiche knew best, it’s understandable that he isreluctant to cover the same territory againhere. He recently contributed a delightfulportrait of his teacher John Weinzweig tothe collection of essays about Weinzweighe edited with fellow Weinzweig studentBrian Cherney. And he has explored hisrelationship with Glenn Gould extensively,especially in his biography of AlbertoGuerrero, who taught both of them piano.Yet the experiences with friends and colleagueshe does recall here — such as thetime fellow Canadian composer BarbaraPentland demanded that Beckwith be given afree ticket for a concert which featured oneof his compositions — tell so much about thecharacters and issues involved. These arestories that would otherwise never be heard,and I’d love to hear more.The extensiveendnotes, index,and score excerptsall contribute tothe considerablepleasure of readingthis beautifullywrittenmemoir.The collection ofphotos includes a terrific ad from 1968 forthe Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It featuresa photo of a Volkswagon Beetle, and reads,“The bug and John Beckwith.” By the end ofthis memoir Beckwith is ready to admit thathe does, perhaps, exaggerate his obscurity.“Unheard Of”? — hardly. “Unheard” — undoubtedly;though what Canadian composerfeels otherwise? “Essential” would be morelike it.The Beauty of Belaieffby Richard Beattie DavisClef Publishing384 pages, colour plates; 5.00available at www.beautyofbelaieff.comBy the end of this memoirBeckwith is ready to admit thathe does, perhaps, exaggerate hisobscurity. ‘UNHEARD OF?’ —HARDLY…While researchinglate 19thcentury Russianmusic, musicologistRichard BeattieDavis was struckby the elaboratetitle pages thatadorned many ofthe original scores.He soon recognizedhow the chromolithographedtitle pages published by Mitofan PetrovichBelaieff stood out for their exquisite artistry.It wasn’t just that they were so beautiful.As Davis points out in this definitive studyof Belaieff’s title pages, they were clearlyintended to be more than decorative, sincethey revealed important information aboutthe music itself. At their best, he writes, theycan “illuminate one’s comprehension, evenintensify one’s appreciation” of the music.Belaieff was a wealthy timber merchant,music lover and amateur violinist living inSt. Petersburg. By the time he started publishingmusic in 1885, he had already beensupporting composers like Glazunov andScriabin, organizing concerts, and hostinghis legendary Musical Fridays — gettogetherswhere a string quartet, usuallywith Belaieff playing viola, would tryout new compositions by composers likeTaneyev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakovand Glazunov.During a period of 16 years Belaieff publishedsome of the most important orchestral,chamber, operatic, vocal and instrumentalworks of this immenselyrich periodin Russian music,including 80 fullscores of orchestralworks alone.Combining the expertiseof a scholarwith the obsessivenessof a collector, Davis managed to trackdown most of the original scores Belaieffpublished. Of the almost 200 title pages thatBelaieff is estimated to have produced, over150 are reproduced here.Balakirev’s influential collection of folksongs,which introduced the Volga BoatSong, bears a surprisingly simple title page.But the intricate title page for Borodin’sPrince Igor manages to encapsulate thestory of the opera. The unusual title pagefor Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnolfeatures a dedication to the orchestra whichperformed at the premiere under the composer’sdirection. Underneath, the namesof all 67 orchestra members are engraved.Davis notes that for the second performanceTchaikovsky played the castanets (so hisname is not on the list).The detailed essays that Davis pairs witheach artwork add up to a veritable history oflate-19th-century Russian music. But somedetails do nonetheless get left unexplainedbecause of the format. He mentions thatBelaieff published many operas, includingseven by Rimsky-Korsakov alone. Andaccording to Davis, Belaieff consideredhis edition of Prince Igor to be the jewelamong his publications. Yet elsewhere Daviswrites — with no further explanation — thatBelaieff had an aversion to opera.An epilogue to this beautifully-producedvolume points out how Belaieff’s publishingventure, which had ceased by thetime of his death in 1904, once againthrives in Germany today as M.P. BelaieffMusikverlag, publisher of Blacher andPärt — though they no longer produce suchmagnificent title pages.Pamela Margles is a Toronto-basedjournalist and frequent contributor toThe WholeNote. She can be contactedat April 1 – May 7, 2012

Editor’s CornerDAVID OLDSTSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson andhis section mates were featured duringthe recent New Creations Festival inthe North American premiere of the CelloConcerto Grosso by festival curator PeterEötvös. Johnson took that occasionto launch his first compactdisc which features twostaples of 20th century cellorepertoire, the RachmaninovSonata for Cello and Piano inG Minor Op.19 and Sonata No.2in D Minor Op.40 by DmitriShostakovich. Johnson is accompaniedby Victor Asuncion withwhom he has been performing since 2009.The partnership seems to have been made inheaven if the music making heard here is anyindication. Balance and interplay are impeccableand these interpretations are obviouslyfrom the heart. As it says on the homepageof Asuncion’s website ( “Victor is a collaborator. Don’t get lostin a forest of blandness. Opt for an enthusiasticartistic partner working with you, notjust for you.” Joseph Johnson ( has obviously done just that.The independent release (JVCD-01) wasrecorded last winter in Minneapolis whereJohnson previously played in the MinnesotaOrchestra and the MinneapolisQuartet. As the verypersonal liner notes tellus, the session tookplace just days afterwhat could have beena disastrous accidentat Roy ThomsonHall whenJohnson’s cello fellout of its case and the neck ofthe 1747 Guillami instrument snapped off.Thanks to the experts at Toronto’s Geo.Heinl and Co. temporary repairs were madeand the session was able to proceed. There isno suggestion of distress in the sound of thecello captured on this beautiful recording.My only criticism is the assumption that thismusic is so well known it speaks for itself.There is not a scrap of information aboutthe pieces or the composers to be found inthe notes.The latest from the Canadian MusicCentre is Still Image – Music by OwenUnderhill (Centrediscs CMCCD 17412) whichfeatures works involving string quartet performedby Quatuor Bozzini. They are joinedby François Houle and Jeremy Berkmanon clarinet and trombone respectively. StillImage is an apt description of the disc aswell as being the title of a piece commissionedin 2007 by Houle and revised in 2011for this recording. Underhill’s music generallyhas an underlying stillness although itis often tinged with tension. Quarter-tonesand multiphonics in the clarinet writingextend the tonality here.There are two one-movementstring quartets which representthe earliest and most recentworks on the disc. Both arevery personal and emotionalofferings. String Quartet No.3 –The Alynne was written in 1998after the birth of a daughter withchromosomal abnormalities.String Quartet No.4 – The Night was commissionedby Quatuor Bozzini in 2011. Ittakes its title and inspiration from a poemby Henry Vaughan which includes the lines“There is in God (some say) / A deep, butdazzling darkness.” Underhill says “Thestriking contrast and integration of darknessand dazzling light in the poem helped guidethe overall concepts of alternating slow andfast sections.”The World’s FinestClassical and Jazz MusicDestinationCanada’s other teen sensation!Jan Lisiecki’s debut onDeutsche Grammophon• Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 21Specially PricedOnly $ 9.98Available April 17 th• 70 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto, M5R 1B9(416) 922-6477• Town Square, 210 Lakeshore Road E.,Oakville, L6J 1H8 (905) 338-2360April 1 – May 7, 67

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