Thanks to the existential – and mind-numbing – angst of the world’s worst health catastrophe in 100 years Music in the Barns has had to live off its pre-eminent reputation since it was founded in Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns in 2008 [followed its big splash at its artistic storefront in New York City]. That, and a soft-launch of the ensemble’s celebrated, eponymously entitled debut disc on the finest label for contemporary music, a label that I have referred to as – and firmly believe is – the Deutsche Grammaphon of contemporary music: New Focus Recordings. Between the two events Music in the Barns was busy performing live at renowned events – such as the Luminato Festival, at work on creating a prototype of an unique electronic violin [with Shape Products] that would eventually become a video game controller enabling gamers to play the violin while controlling a purpose-built game to learn music.
Most importantly Music in the Barns also earned a 2020 JUNO nomination [in the category of Classical Composition of the Year – string quartet] for “The Coming of the Sobs – for String Quartet” by Rose Bolton. So why choose to celebrate the launch its debut disc in Toronto three years after the fact? A publicity blitz announcing the event had this quote from Music in the Barns’ founder and artistic director:
“The programme is a cross between a post-covid commentary and album release. I felt it was important to bring forward something relevant to our experience while also celebrating the amazing work of the three Canadian composers on our album, the triumph of this recording and the team and musicians behind it. It was a labor of love and was made possible because of the uniqueness of Toronto’s cultural fabric.”
Carol Gimbel, Music in the Barns Artistic Director
Well, the event turned out to me a brief swing across Ontario to mark the ensemble’s first current tour – its first series of concerts before ‘live’ audiences since the pandemic disrupted stage performances by artists worldwide. It began quietly and ordinarily enough with a soiree on Tuesday, May 31st and a soirée at the Art Stop of Artscape Wyschwood Barns on Christie Street. The event coincided with an art exhibition by the brilliant New York artist, John Coburn, whose huge black and white exhibits adorned the stark white walls, curated by Anna Sophia Vukovich. Two stellar works bookended the walls: The first was a violin and bow that adorned what seemed to be a piece of wood – both painted in bold vertical and horizontal stripes to appear as part of what might be the proverbial Wreck of the Hesperus. Elsewhere, in another corner was the prototype of the electronic violin game console controller that Music in the Barns helped design with Shape Products.
The centre of the small studio space was briefly turned into a performance space, and that featured Daniel Lippel, guitarist and founder of New Focus Recordings. Mr Lippel also unveiled a masterpiece of design: a guitar with interchangeable fretboards designed by Microtone Guitars in Wisconson, that allows for performance of music in various early and experimental temperaments and tunings.
The exquisite-looking guitar with its alternate fretting was put through its paces on the evening of May the 31st. And on it, Mr Lippel wass at his very best as he traversed the alternate frettings of his instrument to play JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Eflat [BWV998]. After his performance Carol Gimbel declared the Canadian tour of Music in the Barns officially open with a short flourish of her beloved viola, making a joyful noise not unlike the excited and sensual sound of the rustling of raw silk.
Cut to Thursday June 2nd. At half past seven Miss Gimbel welcomed the eager audience to the official opening of Music in the Barn’s concert and launch of their 2019 CD. She began by [rightfully] paying homage to the Indigenous peoples who have ceded land all over Canada. Miss Gimbel also revealed [in the programme notes] the prescient words of her mentor Dr Bear Walker, an Indigenous holistic practitioner who reminded us why we have to remember to pay our respects to our Indigenous ancestors and very wisely said:
“We have a word in Anishinaabe called ‘mikwenden’ that literally means to remember. The word is slightly different in our language. It is not only to remember things or to recall things but also to re-member, [which means] bringing all of the members of the people of the clans back together. During these times of sadness, disconnect, separateness, confusion and pain, I think this could be a wonderful time to help reconnect and realign ourselves with our spirit which is deep within us. Some of us have forgotten, but many of us are trying to remember.”
Dr Bear Walker, Holistic Practitioner
The murmuring of the audience was silenced by the growing drone of a single chord struck on the keyboard by the prodigious pianist Cullan Bryant, who first performed professionally when he was just 2 years of age. Thus the hypnotic work Longing  by Scott Godin began to grow in intensity and harmonic splendour as Mr Bryant and the harmonics of second keyboardist Cheryl Duvall began to fill out and put an oceanic swell into the music. Longing – a single-movement; indeed, seemingly a single chord – was performed with a wealth of poetry and inflection while maintaining Mr Cullen’s legendary sense of pulse. For her part, Miss Duvall caught the heat of the chase, juxtaposing Mr Bryant’s entre with more liquid textures and subtle changes in harmonic colour and shading.
Mr Bryant is well-known as a pedagogue and performer of baroque, classical and romantic works performed on period pianos and was celebrated around the world for his disc Beethoven and his Teachers: Music for Four Hands [Naxos, 2008], which received high praise from Gramophone magazine. Mr Bryant is also highly regarded for his scholarship and professorship at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Miss Duvall – founder of the adventurous chamber group Thin Edge New Music Collective Mr Bryant and Miss Duvall returned with two vibraphonists – David Schotzko and Tim Francom – to accompany the vocal quintet conducted by Véronique Lacroix – the recipient of a myriad of conducting awards and is the founder of the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal [ECM+].
Miss Lacroix led the performers in a rendition of the diabolical Proverb , a work by Steve Reich that features text by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” Something that unwittingly dovetailed magically into what Dr Bear Walker has said about our ‘selves’. The conductor is the recipient of a myriad of conducting awards in addition to leading the brilliant contemporary ensemble [ECM+] in Québec. The vocal group comprised three stellar sopranos: Teresa Mahon, Lindsay McIntyre and Sinéad White; and two tenors: Benjamin Keast and Robert Kinar.
Emboldened by the ensemble of responsive musicians on stage Miss Lacroix turned their magical musicianship right back at the composer, raised their own, provocatively, quizzical eyebrows right back at the composer, playing fascinating games with his rhythmically challenging composition, the architecture of which was based on Reich’s magical use of repetitive figures, slow and maniacally hypnotic harmonic rhythm, and canons. How Miss Lacroix managed to navigate the changes – phrases that often taking off at right angles to the phrases that came in the preceding bar – was both a matter of magic and mastery of the score. It seemed as if the work spoke in whispers to the conductor in a very special way as she, with head and body leaning into the music, fired up her vocalists and instrumentalists to navigating the score, which began to grow in stature and intensity until the music exploded.
The main event as far as the core the performers, that is – Music in the Barns featuring Amy Hillis [violin I], John Corban [violin II], Carol Gimbel [viola] and John Popham [cello] – came next, to perform the first of their two pieces from the celebrated album which was the subject of this launch [performance]. Daydream Mechanics by Michael Oesterle was a fascinating composition – the fifth in a series of stimulated compositions inspired by the French-Canadian poet and novelist Nicole Brossard. Mr Oesterle’s music is fascinating and this work brought with it impassioned, whimsical improvisations. It was – like the other ones in the series – a bold boldly experimental work, containing passages of marked by accelerating phraseology and stuttering whispers, mumbles and puckish utterances that invariably added light-heartedness to [the profondity of] the work. The musicians’ focus was unerring as they navigated Mr Oesterle’s maddening score. The quartet showed how completely they had absorbed the nuances of the score, seemingly convincing you that they had been playing this music all their lives – and that too, with characteristic elegance, dexterity and dry humour.
A longish intermission later [wholly desired after the musical tension unfolding on stage in the first half of the programme] Music in the Barns returned to the stage to perform what turned out to be the apogee of the evening [much other great music in the programme notwithstanding]. This was a monumental work The Coming of the Sobs for string quartet  by the inimitable contemporary classical composer Rose Bolton. This prescient composition unwound at the virtuoso hands of the Music in the Barns ensemble like a coiled spring that once completely unwound in its third movement, “Heavy [Euphoric Tragic]” pounded the hearts of the every listener with the powerful and thunderous whiplash of emotion.
Miss Bolton’s eloquent work seemed shaped as if in the form of a ballet dancer [herself brought to life enmeshed by the matrix of emotions that the work possessed]. Accordingly the musicians of the ensemble bent and swayed to the breath of the music. And breathe the work certainly did as if in the mystical leaps and pirouettes of the invisible ballerina spinning and swirling in balletic moves – with mounting tension – around the composer Miss Bolton, who seemed herself to be embodied in the whirling phrases and sculpted lines of the piece.
Of course the degree of emotion and tension built into the work – growing by enormous degrees from darkness of “Mysterious with Intensity” through its elaborately unfolding “Baroque Style passacaglia” to the emotionally explosive finale meant that when it was over the musicians were themselves completely overcome with the emotion of this magnificent piece. Naturally we in the audience were just as overcome by the performance.
The air hung heavy in the barn after Miss Bolton’s great work. But all of that was about to torn to shreds with Trash TV Trance , by Fausto Romitelli, performed by the indomitable guitarist Daniel Lippel. If you thought this was to be a light-hearted composition, perish the thought. A brilliantly dissonant work, Mr Lippel’s performance was evocative of the [composer’s sardonic view of the] ‘news-worthy programming and editorial ‘garbage’ spewing forth from an imaginary [or, perhaps, not so imaginary, because it was inspired or suggested by programming on Netflix and Hulu] day in the life of television programming. The performance was [to me certainly] was as brilliant as “Zappa on steroids”.
This work progressed – appropriately so –with fragmented and jagged dissonance conjured by the guitarist by using various found objects – such as drumsticks, a woodblock and other devices – in conjunction with electronic delays and other effects triggered by his foot [or feet]. It was a completely different Daniel Lippel – an ocean away from his baroque performance of JS Bach’s Sonata in Cm BWV 997, on his magical well-tempered guitar just a couple of days ago. But his genius for music shone through the refracted screes of contemporary music at this time. The density of the composition was broken up by rapid, stuttering and often humorous breaks in the music, as if the [imaginary] television programming was either being short-circuited by the inane insanity that the composer, Mr Romitelli was attempting to convey.
The evening came to a close with a world premiere of Brain Fills , by Geof Holbrook. The final work of the evening also brought together Mr Lippel, percussion colourist and artistic associate David Schotzko to augment the Music in the Barns ensemble. It also featured artist John Coburn who painted the performance of the augmented ensemble live, that is, during their performance itself, the wonderful canvas was put up for silent auction after the performance at the art gallery around the corner, the proceeds of which were to benefit The Stop Community Food Centre, Music in the Barns and the artist.
Brain Fills featured Mr Holbrook’s bold, texturally intricate writing, allied to a sensitive awareness of the rich, varied palette of strings colour. The performers returned the favour by conveying the music’s virile energy, which carried the listener’s ear convincingly through [the music’s] passages that the composer felt, could not be dispensed with. The finale gained dramatically in the breadth of argument and structural symmetry, particularly, as here, in the performance, the ensemble on stage showed uncommon control of the strings’ dramatic demands and of the architectural span of the superb composition and, as it turned out, a performance that also resulted in marvellous canvas to mark the unforgettable evening.
All photographs © Raul da Gama [except Lautenwerk by Steven Sørli, which is by Jose Luis Tamez]