Words, music and dance combine in Echo Chamber Toronto’s ‘Poetry in Motion’


Music and dance are linked at the hip although they are rarely seen in such close proximity.

Even when the dance is performed to live music, the players are mostly out of sight. Echo Chamber Toronto, founded four years ago by National Ballet Orchestra violinist and concertmaster Aaron Schwebel, aims to change that.

Echo Chamber’s latest project, presented this week as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival 2022, combines music, spoken word and dance in a program called “Poetry in Motion”.

William Yong of Toronto has choreographed new works to two famous pieces of music, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 15-minute “The Lark Ascending” in its original 1914 arrangement for piano and violin, and the 30-minute string sextet ” Verklärte Nacht, (Transfigured Night) Op. 4.” Each work is inspired by poems of the same name, by the Englishman George Meredith in the case of Vaughan Williams and the German Richard Dehmel in that of Schönberg.

Yong assembled a small company of dancers – Anisa Tejpar, Jarrett Siddall and Christian Lavigne – who all appear in both works. Before dancing, the actual poems will be recited so the audience can reflect on how the respective composers reacted to the music while watching Yong’s new response.

One of Yong’s earliest choreographies, performed while still in college, was based on a poem he had written.

“It’s almost like going back to my roots,” said Yong, whose more recent work has explored the intersections of human movement and technology.

“Here I use a pure form of dance,” he explained. “It’s contemporary but with elegant, elongated lines similar to ballet.”

Rather than a literal response to the poems, Yong said his goal was to capture their emotional impact in abstract form.

For “The Lark Ascending”, Schwebel will move among the dancers.

“Nothing complicated,” he says, laughing.

For “Transfigured Night”, the musicians will be more spread out than usual and the dancers will move among them.

The integration of actors and dancers, Schwebel explained, allows audiences to better appreciate the relationship between the two artistic mediums. Following past custom, the show also includes a self-contained musical performance, in this case three short works by Debussy and Fauré.

“Poetry in Motion” is just one item in a mouth-watering menu of musical delights in this summer’s nearly-back-to-normal festival. Thanks to the generous support of loyal donors and government grants, Toronto Summer Music has been able to maintain a presence on the annual performance calendar throughout the pandemic despite strict public health mandates.

As fiddler Jonathan Crow, artistic director of Toronto Summer Music since 2017, explained, everything was ready to roll for the 2020 festival when the closures abruptly began.

“We had to roll out the whole festival and felt pretty sorry for ourselves for a few weeks,” Crow said. “Then we pivoted to a digital festival.”

In 2020, that meant sacrificing the Toronto Summer Music Academy where the musical stars of tomorrow, singers and instrumentalists, work with seasoned professionals to prepare repertoire which they will then perform in front of live audiences.

In July 2021, the academy was back in person for attendees but streamed live for the public. This year, the academy is running at full speed, much to Crow’s satisfaction.

“It’s been really rewarding for me to watch the academy grow and see the level of polish and professionalism soar over the past six years.”

There’s still a chance to hear for yourself during a series of three midday academy concerts at Heliconian Hall on Hazelton Avenue, July 27-29. Participation is free, but places must be reserved.

Other highlights of this year’s festival include a typically imaginative concert by the Gryphon Trio on July 27 at Toronto Summer Music’s main stage, Walter Hall. Besides the famous players of the trio – Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; and Jamie Parker, piano — the show features Marion Newman, a Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations mezzo-soprano of English, Irish and Scottish descent, and the six-member Nordic Voices choir.

The concert weaves a fascinating vocal and instrumental tapestry of old and new music, including the world premiere of a work by Eliot Britton, a proud member of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

The next day, July 28, at the Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music, renowned Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin joins conductor Nicolas Ellis and the Toronto Summer Music Festival Orchestra to perform a reduction for chamber ensemble of the “Symphony no 4” by Mahler, arranged by the German Klaus Simon.

“We don’t hear Karina, one of my all-time favorites, in Toronto as often as I would like,” Crow said, “so this is a great opportunity for local audiences to experience one of Canada’s finest sopranos.

This concert begins with the contemporary composition “Arras” by Montreal composer Keiko Devaux, winner of the prestigious Azrieli Prize and a 2022 Juno Award.

Crow, very familiar to patrons of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as the orchestra’s concertmaster, has his own share of performing duties during the festival, including a duet recital titled “Two Canadians in Paris” with long-time collaborator of Toronto Summer Music, pianist Philip Chiu, in a program of Debussy, Fauré, Massenet, Milhaud and others.

Crow also performs as a member of the New Orford String Quartet which he co-founded in 2009. The quartet will be joined by Marion Newman and Philip Chiu in a concert featuring lyrics and music from the Americas.

This is just a sampling of the offerings in a performance series that aims to stimulate and delight with music both familiar and new, invariably presented in a way that offers a fresh perspective.

Echo Chamber Toronto’s “Poetry in Motion” is at the Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St W., July 21 at 7:30 p.m. The festival continues through July 30. See torontosummermusic.com for more information.


Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers opera and dance for the Star.

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