Celebrating Mary Morrison:
An 80th Birthday Concert
At Walter Hall
In Toronto on Monday
For three solid but highly entertaining hours, Monday night at a packed Walter Hall at the University of Toronto, pupils of Mary Morrison -- some of them currently stellar names in the singing business -- paraded their pride and affection for this most remarkable of Canadian voice teachers.
For a large part of Morrison's own career, as a leading concert and operatic soprano, and a resourceful, joyous, fearless champion of vanguard music from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s, she was too busy to teach. But she began teaching nevertheless in the mid-1970s, bringing all her personal resources of musical acumen, intelligence, humour, imagination, hands-on practicality and sheer professional skill to the task. She began with time-limited stints at several universities: Simon Fraser, Western Ontario, McMaster and Toronto, and also at Banff. So in 1985, when she retired from singing, her teaching career burgeoned swiftly in the most natural way, growing equally from her own delight in the process and the challenge, and from the wide need for her kind of teacher. Pupils came to her from far and wide and the days were not long enough to accommodate all she had to give them.
The list of her successes includes sopranos Valdine Anderson, Nancy Argenta, Ingrid Attrot, Kathleen Brett, Measha Brueggergosman, Tracy Dahl, Barbara Hannigan, Joni Henson, Shannon Mercer, Adrianne Pieczonka and Charlene Santoni; the remarkable mezzo-soprano Megan Latham; and the sensational Quebec tenor John Tessier. These are all names to conjure with, and all of them, save Anderson and Hannigan, were personally on the platform Monday to wish their teacher a happy 80th birthday (the actual date is Nov. 9), in bright song, high camp and low roast. Hannigan, who was tied to an assignment in the Netherlands, sent a touching testament on video. Brueggergosman, slim and smashing in black, and galvanizing in an unbridled, unaccompanied medley of spirituals, also served as M.C. -- hilarious at her best, sometimes sweet and down to earth, occasionally over the top, but then all of that's Measha.
The other current superstar among the pupils, Pieczonka, fresh from her luminous Sieglindes at Bayreuth and the Canadian Opera Company, sang Richard Strauss's Zueignung (Dedication) to her teacher and lent herself to a wicked send-up of a Morrison singing lesson on a New Work about a Loon by "Harry Freedman-Somers-Schafer," with Jackie Short in an improbable silver-grey wig and bifocals as Morrison. Short, with pianist Liz Upchurch, also contributed a paralyzingly funny account of Flanders and Swann's I'm Tone Deaf .
There was quite a lot of good singing and an equal measure of very high spirits, far too much to detail. Lori Freedman, one of the daughters of Morrison and her late husband, the renowned composer Harry Freedman, gave us a strange and stunning improvisation on her bass clarinet. The 83-year-old clarinetist Phil Nimmons and his gifted young piano partner David Braid played some lovely impromptu jazz, and Nimmons confided that once, long ago, when four young singers at the conservatory, Lois Marshall, Mary Morrison, Patricia Rideout and Elizabeth Benson Guy, seemed doomed to fail their courses because their theory wasn't up to snuff, a young teacher had been assigned to rescue them from their plight. Nimmons was that teacher.
The evening's hands-down best singing and best performances in the Morrison tradition came from coloratura Tracy Dahl in a singing-lesson send-up (special words by Michael Albano) of Adele's Laughing Song from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus and from John Tessier in a hair-raising rendition of Donizetti's Una Furtiva Lagrima. Both brought the house down.
But the lady herself was unquestionably the central figure. Morrison, still in her prime as a teacher, glamorously gowned in discreetly glittering black, utterly poised and looking half her age, was piped to her seat by an authentic tune reflecting her Scottish heritage. And at the end, when Gage Averill, dean of the University of Toronto's faculty of music, made her a presentation and quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes's poetic remark, "Alas for those who never sing but die with all their music in them," she looked ready to get straight back to work, ensuring there would be not many, and if possible not any, of Holmes's "those."