Tuesday, October 27 & Wednesday, October 28 - 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Programme notes
by Andrea Budgey

This programme offers a selection of texts by Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Dennis Lee, John Hicks, and Lorna Crozier, all "renovated" by skillful composers, plus a handful of songs (by Flanders and Swann) in which words and music were created together. In every case, the setting highlights and sharpens the absurdist scenarios and verbal gymnastics of the verse.
The skewed perspective of nonsense -  like the many-faced heads of cubist paintings, the fanciful incongruities of Marc Chagall, or the melting watches of Salvador Dali - demands that we look at ordinary objects, familiar rhymes, old jokes, and universal experiences, from new (and perhaps more interesting) angles. Make no mistake: these are not verses for children, any more than the sophisticated musical settings are children's songs. But they take us into a strange, alternative world, in which adults can perhaps retrieve the non-linear receptivity of their own earlier years.

Robert Jordah: Verses from Ogden Nash
Malsolm Forsyth: The Dong With a Luminous Nose. Verse by Edward Lear
Leslie Uyeda: The Sex Lives of Vegetables. Poetry by Lorna Crozier
Mátyás Seiber: The Owl and the Pussy-cat. Verse by Edward Lear
Elizabeth Raum: Renovated Rhymes. Text by John V. Hicks
John Greer: Palm Court Songs of the Bubble Ring. Poetry by Dennis Lee
Donald Swann, arr. Laura Jones: Songs from 'The Bestiary'. Lyrics by Michael Flanders

Robert Jordahl (1926- ): Verses from Ogden Nash (1994) for tenor, horn and piano

Verses from Ogden Nash was chosen as one of the works to represent the very varied output of American composer Robert Jordahl, in a concert to mark his retirement from McNeese State University in 1999, after 31 years of teaching. It was the only humorous piece, it would seem, on an otherwise highly respectable programme.

Closer examination, however, reveals it to be a mature and reflective work, outlining the four ages of man. An insouciant tango presents the poet in his youthful courting phase. The second movement, more darkly and urgently rhythmic, portrays the cares and frustrations of parenthood, but reveals them through the voice of a child.

The third and final song alternates between calmly objective sections, in which the poet compares himself with poets and artists of previous generations, and more active passages in which he waxes philosophical about those attachments which transcend human relationships. The calmer sections feature voice and piano alone; in the more agitated sections, the horn accompaniment seems to fulfill the role of subjective experience.

Malcolm Forsyth (1936- ): The Dong With a Luminous Nose (1979) for baritone, viola and piano. Verse by Edward Lear

Edward Lear is one of the best-known writers of nonsense verse in the English language - a nineteenth-century pioneer of the genre, in fact - but some critics have seen in his nonsense a deep alienation from Victorian social and cultural traditions and assumptions.

Canadian composer Malcolm Forsyth has set The Dong With a Luminous Nose as a grand satirical melodrama, allowing dissonant sonorities and abrupt rhythmic shifts to underline the dark side of this incongruous mock-romance between the tragically faithful individualist of the title and the insouciant (but socially conditioned) object of his doomed affections. Forsyth was much influenced by the grandiose recorded reading of the piece by the English actor Stanley Holloway, and incorporated many of his inflections, as well as his odd little tune for the "Chorus of Jumblies". The song was composed for, and first performed by, the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester.

Leslie Uyeda (1953- ): The Sex Lives of Vegetables (2008-10) for tenor, clarinet and piano. Poetry by Lorna Crozier

Leslie Uyeda trained at McGill and the University of Manitoba as a pianist and conductor. She also composed music from a very early age. She has worked as a coach, pianist and conductor with some of Canada's foremost opera companies. After a stint as chorus music director at the Vancouver Opera, she left that position (and another at UBC) to concentrate on composition. Of her vocal music, Uyeda has said

I love writing for singers. ...  I understand how the voice works, I love where it can take us and I revel in the singer's vocal and emotional palette. When I began composing, there was just no other choice for me than to write for these very special artists.

Uyeda's music for the voice includes three volumes of The Sex Lives of Vegetables, settings of ironically anthropomorphising poems by Lorna Crozier, from The Garden Going on Without Us and The Blue Hour of the Day. In the selections on tonight's programme, the voice part moves smoothly from a declamatory recitativo style to a rhythmic playfulness to a drily detached lyricism. The clarinet alternates between echoing and commenting on the vocal line and uniting with the piano in a more supportive role.

Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960): The Owl and the Pussy-cat (1958) for tenor, violin and guitar. Verse by Edward Lear

The Hungarian-British composer Mátyás Seiber studied with  Zoltán Kodály, and assisted his teacher in some of his folk-song-collection projects. The next phase of his varied career, beginning in 1928, was as the director of the ground-breaking jazz department at Dr Hoch’s Konservatorium in Frankfurt. But when the Konservatorium was closed by the Nazis in 1933, Seiber emigrated to London and established himself as a composer of orchestral and chamber music, film scores, and jazz. He also taught composition at Morley College.

While much of Seiber’s music was influenced by Bartók and Schönberg, The Owl and the Pussy-cat actually has more in common with Flanders and Swann. The dance-like vocal melody is tonally straightforward, with playfully decorative chromaticism, while the violin and guitar offer brief and glancing allusions to a variety of musical styles.

Elizabeth Raum (1945- ): Renovated Rhymes (1999) for tenor, baritone, violin and piano. Text by John V. Hicks

Renovated Rhymes was commissioned by soprano Karen Peeler and Trio Ariana, and revised by the composer for performance by the Talisker Players. Elizabeth Raum has set several other, more serious, texts by the Saskatchewan poet John V. Hicks (such as First and Gracious Sight, performed in the 2002-2003 Talisker season).

Renovated Rhymes matches Hicks' ironically imaginative elaborations on several traditional nursery rhymes with musical settings which reflect the tone of the texts exactly. A wealth of onomatopoeic effects - meowing, ticking clocks, bleating sheep - underlines the concrete imagery of the verses, while sly melodic quotations from the tunes of the original nursery rhymes help to draw tight the referential circle of the whole artistic enterprise. In the final movement, a pseudo-archaic dance setting of "Four and Twenty Blackbirds", the singers' roles are further complicated by multi-tasking.

John Greer (1954- ): Palm Court Songs of the Bubble Ring (1991) for tenor, clarinet, cello and piano. Poetry by Dennis Lee

Canadian composer John Greer is also an active conductor, accompanist, vocal coach, and arranger. He was the director and chair of opera studies at the New England Conservatory from 2003 to 2010, and head coach of voice and opera for the University of Kentucky in Lexington from 2011 to 2014. He is known for his numerous vocal, choral, and dramatic works - including the highly successful children's opera The Snow Queen - and his output of vocal chamber music includes a number of highly entertaining song-cycles commissioned by prominent Canadian musicians.

The kaleidoscopic cycle Palm Court Songs of the Bubble Ring was commissioned by Greta Kraus, as the result of a Toronto Arts Award, and first performed by Mark Dubois and Amici in 1991. The texts, by Toronto poet Dennis Lee, include some sheer nonsense, like "The Man who Never Was", which allows Greer to indulge in swing and cakewalk variations on a Mozart theme, and the mad scherzo - with foxtrot - of "The Mermaid's Banquet". Other movements, like the dark ending of the Faure hommage "The Coat", are clearly intended to be heard by adults. But the cycle's overall orientation to childhood is perhaps best expressed in the words of the title song, which traces the way in which the iridescent bubble-rings of a child's play leave traces in adult consciousness.

Donald Swann (1923-1994): Songs from 'The Bestiary' (c. 1960-70), arranged by Laura Jones for baritone, horn, violin, viola and cello. Lyrics by Michael Flanders

The fame of the English composer Donald Swann is inseparable from that of Michael Flanders, his writing partner in the comic-song duo which created two abidingly popular revues, At the Drop of a Hat in 1956 and At the Drop of Another Hat in 1963. The two first worked together at school in 1939, and resumed their collaboration in 1948.

In the late 1960s, songs about animals from both revues were gathered and released as The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann. Laura Jones has arranged several of these clever, gently satirical pieces for baritone, horn, and string trio, a combination in which the interplay between voice and horn recalls the witty on-stage exchanges between the original performers. "The Warthog", "The Sloth", and "The Hippopotamus" (one of their most beloved songs, in which the audience not infrequently joined in the refrain) are all light-hearted waltzes which offer their title characters anthropomorphized happy endings.

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