Magazine article Opera Canada

Of Music and Sweet Poetry: The Canadian Art Song Project Wants to Put a New Focus on an Unsung Genre of Our Vocal Arts

Magazine article Opera Canada

Of Music and Sweet Poetry: The Canadian Art Song Project Wants to Put a New Focus on an Unsung Genre of Our Vocal Arts

Article excerpt

ART SONG (n): A song written to be sung in recital, typically with piano accompaniment, and often set to a poem (Oxford Dictionaries)

When the young American tenor Lawrence (Lance) Wiliford came to Canada in 2003 to study for a Masters in Performance (Voice) at the University of Toronto, he was taken aback by the fact that so few singers seemed drawn to or interested in Canadian art song. "In the States," he said, "you worked on American song as much as you did on German or French Chansons". But here in Canada, Wiliford, who has since taken on Canadian citizenship, found the opposite to be true. Singers programmed Canadian songs primarily when mandated to do so. Instead of being driven by an appreciation for the music and the art form, the programming was driven largely by Canadian-content requirements for competitions, entrance auditions, graduating recitals and the like.

In 2007, after the sudden death of Richard Bradshaw, former General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, Wiliford was instrumental in organizing a commission in his memory. The resulting work was a song cycle, The Four Seasons (2008), by Canadian composer Derek Holman. When Wiliford and pianist Liz Upchurch premiered this new cycle, the audience response, he says, "was so positive and so overwhelming that, quite frankly, I was just astounded. People said they had never heard anything contemporary like this before. That is, new songs, songs written in our time, songs that moved them. And I couldn't understand how that could possibly be the case, especially when there are so many fine composers and singers in this country."

Inspired by this experience, he began to talk with colleagues, mentors, friends and musicians to find out more about Canadian song, but what he discovered shocked him even further. "The overwhelming response was either that they didn't have any interest in Canadian song at all or that they knew a little bit about it, but didn't particularly want to know more."

It was at this point that Wiliford started talking seriously with pianist Steven Philcox, who teaches collaborative piano on the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, sharing his feelings about Canadian art song and his ideas about founding an organization to help spark renewed interest in existing repertoire and commission new works. "I was one of the audience members at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre [of the COC's Four Seasons Centre] in the Spring of 2009, when Holman's cycle was premiered," says Philcox. "It had a profound impact on me. So when Lance approached me about joining hint as co-Artistic Director of an organization to promote Canadian art song, it was really a no brainer. To have both sides of the coin represented--a singer and a pianist--made ideal sense."

And so the Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) came into being. "We started in March of 2012 with a Brian Harman song cycle, Seunng the Earthworm. The work was written for soprano Carla Huhtanen and myself. It was our first commission, and we recorded it last December as our second release on the CentreDiscs label." (CASP'S first release, Ash Roses: Music of Derek Holman, which includes The Four Seasons cycle, was released to critical acclaim on Centre-Discs last year.)

"Our next commissioned work is by Marjan Mozetich, one of Canada's great composers, who will be writing for piano and voice for the very first time," Philcox continues. "This is a major coup for us. I can mention the name 'Marjan Mozetich' to a lot of singers, and they have absolutely no idea who I am talking about. Many other very fine composers out there are in the same predicament."

In part, however, that may be because composers are not immediately comfortable with the idea of art song. "In talking with some," says Philcox, "we occasionally sensed discomfort with the prospect of writing for an instrument--the piano--that they, perhaps, do not play. Can they be 'pianistic' in writing for keyboard? …

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