A Gem of a Concert

It is a striking story rich in imagery and drama. In the summer of 1701, over 1300 Native delegates paddled the northern rivers in their canoes headed for the colonial town of Montreal. They came from around the Great Lakes, from across the French colony, and from as far as Acadia, from 39 indigenous nations in all, to attend a peace conference called to put an end to decades of strife between them. In the middle of the conference, one of the leading organizers, Kandiaronk, a highly respected Wendat from Wendake (Huronia), fell ill and died. After funeral rites in both the Native and the French traditions, condolence ceremonies, and a funeral procession led by French troops, Huron warriors, clergy, the Native leaders and French officials, he was buried in Notre Dame Church in Montreal. Historians have said that his death brought everyone together and encouraged the signing of the peace treaty which was followed by feasting, dancing, singing and the exchange of goods.

The Toronto Consort, the nine-person ensemble of singers and instrumentalists led by David Fallis and known for their early music, turned the story of this “Great Peace of Montreal” into a haunting “choral documentary” which stunned the audience present for two sold-out Toronto performances on the weekend. Wendat scholar, poet and song-writer Georges Sioui brought the gravitas of his language, the wisdom of his poetry and the lyricism of his traditional music. Native singers and drummers, Ojibway Marilyn George and Wahta Mohawk Shirley Hay added their distinctive voices and drums. Wolastoq (Maliseet) composer and vocalist Jeremy Dutcher extrapolated from the oldest known recordings of songs by his Indigenous peoples along the St. John River basin, to produce a unique classical and operatic sound that brought the house down. He is now producing a CD, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, described as “part composition, part musical ethnography, part linguistic reclamation” that will be worth watching for.

The second half of the concert was a performance of “Wendake/Huronia,” another choral documentary, composed by Canadian composer and educator John Beckwith to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first encounter between Samuel de Champlain and the First Nations people in the province of Ontario, at Wendake (present-day Huronia). Commissioned by John French and the Midland-based Brookside Music Association, it had its première in the 2015 Festival of the Bays. Joining the Consort for this performance were the 40-plus member Toronto Chamber Choir and several singers who sang in the première.

“Wendake/Huronia” is written for choir, alto soloist, narrator, early-period instruments with indigenous drums, and sung in French and Wendat. Surtitles help with the translation. Beckwith first compiled a text from historical sources to summarize the Wendat experience before, during and after contact with the Europeans. His music simulates the use of snowshoes and canoes, both modes of transportation which fascinated the French. It evokes the appeal to the Europeans of exploring over the seas. There is “a musical depiction” of the traditional “Feast of the Dead” which so intrigued all who encountered it. “Lamentation, 1642” reflects on the epidemics and warfare which decimated the population. It ends with a French version of a poem by George Sioui which expresses hope for peace and reconciliation. The music is a melange of modern and First Nation traditional; the story is our history which is well worth knowing. The effect of the performance on the audience was mesmerizing. John Beckwith, who celebrates his 90th birthday in March, was present to share in the acclaim.

This very ambitious and successful triumph blew away whatever elusive expectations I had for the evening. Congratulations to the Toronto Consort.

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