The Toronto Consort/The Aldeburgh Connection
At Trinity-St. Paul's Church and Walter Hall
in Toronto on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon
Just beyond the monumental downtown of Toronto's classical music geography, where you find the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company, are a series of charming musical neighbourhoods filled with more specialized chamber music communities. Two of the organizations that make up these communities gave concerts this past weekend. For one, it was the last of its season; for the other, its last ever.
The Toronto Consort, one of the city's premiere early music ensembles, ended its 40th anniversary season with a remounting of A Woman's Life, written by Alison Mckay, bassist with the Tafelmusik Orchestra, who has made a specialty of these kinds of multimedia presentations. A Woman's Life presented a portrait of 14th- to 17th-century female European experience, using images, readings and, of course, music. Proving, if nothing else, that discrimination against women in our culture has a sad, ancient pedigree, the show blended both domestic and artistic aspects of women's early experiences that were alternately poignant, funny and illuminating. Two narrators – Maggie Huculak and Karen Woolridge – led us through the evening with Mackay's cleverly selected texts, but it was the voices of the three female soloists that provided the concert its depth and joyous beauty. Sopranos Michele DeBoer and Katherine Hill both provided fine moments throughout the evening (Hill's luminous voice was especially appealing), but mezzo Vicki St. Pierre stopped the show cold with her breathtaking performance of excerpts from L'eraclito amorosa by Barbara Strozzi, one of the first female composers in the Western tradition. Alison Melville's vibrant recorder playing led the Consort's instrumental ensemble, with fine contributions from Ben Grossman's fascinating hurdy-gurdy, making for a very complete and rewarding evening. The Toronto Consort, after 40 years, provides music-making of the highest calibre.
The music-making was of equal excellence Sunday afternoon in the sweet but poignant atmosphere of Walter Hall as the concert presentations of the Aldeburgh Connection, after 30 years, came to a close, with A Britten Festival of Song, celebrating the centenary of British composer, Benjamin Britten. The Aldeburgh Connection was a wonderful recital series of primarily vocal music, organized and beautifully led by pianists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata. Also employing texts and readings along with their thematic musical choices, the final concert of the Aldeburgh Connection blended three separate stories, which wound about and enclosed each other like garlands of flowers. The first was the story of Ralls and Ubukata themselves, who met in the small village of Aldeburgh, Britten's home base, in the early seventies when Ralls was a rehearsal pianist there and Ubukata a visiting student. They've been a personal and professional team ever since. The second was the equally passionate and exciting story of the two musical professionals who inspired Ralls and Ubukata's lives and careers, tenor Peter Pears and Britten himself. And then there was the story outlined by Britten's music – tough, tender and as bitter and sweet in turns as the afternoon itself.
Ralls and Ubukata picked a Britten song cycle, Winter Words, to texts by Thomas Hardy as the spine of the afternoon's selections, and the tortured, plaintive words by the poet of the Wessex moors haunted the afternoon, even though there was also joy, humour and wit in the mix. Ralls and Ubukata make their living coaching and accompanying vocalists, and, as always, the vocal performances of the afternoon were superb. Tenor Colin Ainsworth allowed his smooth tenor voice to illuminate the various moods of his songs with real passion. Baritone Geoffrey Sirett was powerful and tender all afternoon, starting with his first selection, a Britten arrangement of a folk song The Foggy, Foggy Dew. Countertenor Scott Belluz provided a wonderful acting quality to his songs, and soprano Virginia Hatfield was spellbinding in selections from an early Britten opera, Paul Bunyan, to texts by W.H. Auden. The Canadian Children's Opera Company added a lovely texture to the afternoon, especially in the final selection of the concert proper (before some hilarious encores), the final moments of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. With Ubukata as Puck dancing about the stage, reciting the final words of the play to Ralls's accompaniment – "give me your hands, if we be friends" – an audience who has been charmed by the quicksilver blend of subtlety, excellence and passion of this duo for three decades was more than happy to oblige.