Christmas 2020 has been the most wonderful opportunity to access music. It’s as if multiple choral groups and musicians decided to share their talent and creativity with the world in a common desire to rise above COVID-19 and give a gift of hope. The result has been memorable in the best possible way.
The most sublime of the music emerging this season has been Messiah/Complex from Against the Grain Theatre. Billed as “A daring reimagining of Handel’s classic featuring voices from across Canada,” it is a breath-taking rendition of the classic music in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone.
Produced in cooperation with the Toronto Symphony and the Banff Centre for the Arts, the production was co-directed by Joel Ivany of Against the Grain and Reneltta Arluk, Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre. The twelve soloists and four choirs come from every province and territory. They sing in their own languages and with visuals of the entire country… amidst northern snows, by ocean waters, in the woods, on the prairies, in the heart of our largest urban cities, at work or school, beside campfires. The language has been updated and the photography is contemporary. All of the artists contributed from apart, on video. But they worked together to give Canadians and the world a seasonal gift that would lift spirits and provide hope in this difficult time. The production is a musical and visual tour de force which shows the talent, creativity, and diversity of Canadian people and the breathtaking beauty of our country.
It is a profoundly moving experience. In the few weeks since it launched, there have been 55,000 views. Viewers are wild with praise: “so beautiful and so terribly long overdue,” from New York, another writes, I am “sobbing thru the beauty of this Messiah… and saluting CANADA for leading and showing the rest of us what true Diversity and shared Joy and Beauty and Hope look and sound like and unite us across all different races, religions, cultures into what makes us most extraordinarily HUMAN.” From Nashville: “absolutely extraordinary! Leave it to Canada to bring us a performance of such unusual brilliance at the tail end of such a miserable year.” “Life-enhancing,” “transformative… I will never hear Messiah the same way again,” “not enough superlatives.” “Possibly the most uplifting thing I have seen during this whole wretched COVID time.” “Astonishingly good musically and challenging, eye opening and… beautiful.” “Like no other Messiah I’ve ever heard or seen. Stunning visuals, beautiful voices, and whole new meaning for some of the words.” You get the idea. Whatever your normal response to the usual Messiah, this is a truly memorable experience which you should not miss.
This production went public on December 13th. Streaming has now been extended to January 31st. The history of how the production came about and profiles of the soloists are readily available on YouTube. Accessing the production itself seemed slightly more difficult. The performance is free of charge and can be streamed as often as you wish. To access the performance, you register on the ticket portal of Against the Grain’s website. Select a ticket beginning ASAP; only one ticket is necessary. Once done, you can access the ticket in your account. When you open your account window, you will see the name of the production, Messiah/Complex, in red. Click that and another window will open, with the words “view livestream.” That opens the YouTube stream of the live performance. It took me a while to figure it out, but it is well worth it.
I now see that Margaret Atwood posted a Tweet with a direct link to the video on You Tube. If she can do that, I can too.
Enjoy and Happy New Year.
Don’t anyone ever say that the Christmas spirit is not alive and well in Toronto.
On the Tuesday before Christmas last week, my husband, who is the chef in our family, went to do his final shopping for Christmas dinner. He is seventy-six and looks his age (although he insists that he is still only thirty-nine). He uses a cane for balance and to alleviate the pain in his back.
He went first to Fiesta Farms, our favourite local supermarket known particularly for its organic foods and excellent fruits and vegetables. He went early in the morning, assuming that he would beat the crowd. Alas, when he arrived, there was already a long line-up of customers all masked and appropriately socially distanced. The line-up was the longest he had ever seen since we returned to Toronto. It stretched across the front of the store, around the corner and all the way down Christie Street to the end of the store at the back. As he walked down the sidewalk beside the line-up, several people suggested that he join the line-up ahead of them. Each time he demurred, reluctant to jump the queue. When he got to the end of the line-up, the woman ahead of him also suggested that he go to the front. He insisted that he could wait like everyone else. He wasn’t there more than a couple of minutes when the store employee staffing the front of line-up approached him and insisted that, no, he was to come into the store right away. Apparently someone from the line-up had told him about my husband, and getting him into the store ASAP became a priority. That saved my husband at least a half hour of waiting.
My husband then went to the local neighbourhood butcher shop, Vince Gasparro’s Meat Market on Bloor Street West. Again, there was an unusually long line of people, maybe fifteen, lined up on the sidewalk outside. Again, a woman ahead of him suggested that he go to the front of the queue. She said that she knew the woman at the head of the line and she would not mind. My husband responded that perhaps the people between them would be less keen. Whereupon, his neighbour went down the line asking each person if they would mind my hubby going ahead. None did. The woman at the head of the line went into the shop and spoke with Pat Gasparro who was working the cash register. My husband is a regular customer there, long known to the family. Pat stepped out of the shop and yelled, “Irvine, get your ass in here right away.” And he did.
When my husband got home, he was delighted that the shopping had gone so quickly and that he had been treated so well by his fellow shoppers. Are people with canes treated this well all the time? Or was it the spirit of the season? Whatever. It was a community act of kindness which was much appreciated.
The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.