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The 21C Music Festival: Giving Wings to the Better Angels of Our Nature

Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Mervon Mehta, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

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Somehow, after two nights at Koerner Hall, on January 24th and 25th it seems appropriate to borrow from Abraham Lincoln who delivered his first inaugural address on Monday, March 4, 1861, while his country was being torn apart. He said, and I quote the now-famous passage from that speech, “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

When looked at through the lens of history national – and global – strife may seem relative but if you look beyond the facts on the ground the underlying provocations run deep and are much more sinister because all the upheaval across the history of our time seems to result in a flawed human nature that drives us to hate anyone and anything that looks and feels different. Yet happily, as Mr Lincoln saw it, “better angels of our nature” also exist side-by-side with the darker side of our collective humanity. And the concerts at Koerner Hall reinforced one fact: that we can find and appeal to these “better angels” almost always through music and the musicians who create it. Certainly the appeal went out and was heard by Danilo Pérez and his Global Messengers, John Patitucci and Brain Blade, Zakir Hussain, Zane Dalal and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, and Allison Au and her quartet, featuring Laila Biali.

All of them brought their prodigious artistry to Koerner Hall in January 2020 to close out the 7th Annual 21C Music Festival at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. This year’s festival was, perhaps, the most spectacular of all. It featured the Laurie Anderson, a great artist whose work has blurred the lines separating a myriad of styles of art. Her presentation The Art of Falling held many who were in attendance spellbound from beginning to end. The 21C Music Festival also featured five world and four Canadian premieres by four Canadian and one American composer. It also featured one North American premiere. Although the creative energy was high throughout, for many of us, it peaked during the last two days.

On the penultimate day – January 24th – we were heralded by the world premiere of Hypocrisy, a stunning work for contrabass and orchestra by John Patitucci and the performance of Peshkar, a concerto for tabla and orchestra by the legendary Ustad Zakir Hussain. Both works also featured the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal, who shepherded the young orchestra through the two diabolically difficult works. The evening’s main events were preceded by a breathtaking musical jam; a collision of two worlds – Jazz and Hindustani – featuring Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, who locked horns with the great Zakir Hussain.

And before the curtain came down on the 7th edition of the festival – on January 25th – the audience was treated to the world premiere: Migrations an extraordinary long work by the celebrated young composer and alto saxophonist, Allison Au followed by the (Canadian) premiere of Fronteras (Borders), another heart-stopping performance by Danilo Pérez, this time with an incredible ensemble made up of Berklee alumni and entitled the Global Messengers.

Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

Politics and art are not-so-strange bedfellows. We know that from the work of epic storytellers – the griots of Africa, from poets as far removed as Greece and Rome are from China and India. We hear the militancy of art clearly in La Marseillaise. The song was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, and was originally titled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine). It was adopted, by the French National Convention, as the anthem of the Republic in 1795. The song acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching to the capital. The song is the first example of the “European march” anthemic style. The anthem’s evocative melody and lyrics have since led to its widespread use as a song of revolution and its incorporation into many pieces of classical and popular music.

Perhaps more famously Beethoven made an enormous political statement with the Symphony No. 3 in E ♭ major, Op. 55, his Sinfonia Eroica, (Heroic Symphony) in four movements, one of the great composer’s most celebrated works. Composed mainly between 1803 and 1804 Eroica marked the beginning of his creative middle-period. More significantly, however, was the statement Beethoven made when he re-dedicated the work. He originally dedicated the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution.

But in May 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Wheneupon Ferdinand Reos, Beethoven’s secretary at the time reported, “I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men; become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica.”

The ugliness of Fascism has dogged Europe for decades and never really died down – even after the fall of the Axis powers in 1945, but its rise has been alarming ever since waves of migrants have sought to leave their homes in Iraq, Libya and through the protracted civil war in Syria, to seek refuge in the relative peace of Europe. Meanwhile people continue to flee despotic regimes in Central and South America. Empathy for their plight and a welcome by the receiving European countries and the USA has fallen short.

The Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. John Patitucci on contrebass. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
The Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. John Patitucci on contrebass. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

The results of 2016 US election seems to have unleashed a fresh and near-violent wave right-wing resistance in that country. With even enlightened politicians and parties seemingly unable to stem this fear and hatred, the artistic community from Brasil, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia to the US and Canada seems to have taken up arms by composing and performing works that are not only more socially-conscious in theme, but often atmospherically dark, with melodies, harmonies and even lyrics that make the case for human rights and justice with a great deal more force.

On January 24th we heard one of such piece of music – Hypocrisy, composed by John Patitucci and performed by him with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. The work assumed its power from the immense gravitas of Mr Patitucci’s contrabass, an instrument on which he performs with extraordinary virtuosity, musicality and passion. As far back as 1992, Mr Patitucci had distinguished himself with a largely through-composed work principally for electric and contrabass entitled Heart of the Bass (Stretch Records).

That album centred round Mr Patitucci’s performance of a concerto for bass and chamber that sets up the title track of the disc – the “Heart of the Bass”. The disc also features an interpretation of Bach’s “Prelude in G major” from the master’s Cello Suites and five miniatures reminiscent of the work of Chopin. It is a magnificent disc featuring eloquent performances by bassist and orchestra.

Mr Patitucci’s magnum opus must surely be his extended work for contrabass and orchestra – Hypocrisy, a major work that comes from a very deep place. Reflecting the mood of the USA in which society has degenerated into something phlegmatic – even hateful. It is one where the rise of Fascism is rampant; a dark and dystopian world full of Dickensian reality that seems to flood the media outlets day after day, where civility has been abandoned and sanctimoniousness seems to have gripped civil society. Mr Patitucci’s title captured this duplicitousness where the most heinous social and political behavior is condoned in the name of acceptable and even “good” politics.

As an artist with a social conscience Mr Patitucci shows a deep aversion for all of the above and his work is a diaphanous canvas on which the moving image of society is painted in molten notes that leap off the page as contrabass and full orchestra interpret feelings of hope and despair, frustration and elation. The progress of Hypocrisy is a tempestuous affair. It demanded – and received – a flawless technical performance both on the part of the contrabassist and the full orchestra, masterfully conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. Mr Patitucci’s naturally, showed sublime command of his instrument playing music that demanded structure and momentum, as well as fingers of flexible steel. At times in the heart of the piece, when the musical mood demanded deeply meditative moods and emotions, Mr Patitucci wielded his bow with great eloquence throughout the movements played con arco.

The members of the orchestra responded to the music and the bassist’s vaunted cadenzas with a great and empathetic performance supplanting ostentation with a performance of breathtaking detail. Zane Dalal was masterful in guiding this orchestra of young performers. His conducting brought to the work an intensity and commitment that was electrifying throughout and in the end he contributed significantly to providing a sense of genuine shape and structure to Mr Patitucci’s beautifully-conceived work.

Left to right: Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Zakir Hussain, Brian Blade. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Left to right: Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Zakir Hussain, Brian Blade. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

John Patitucci’s work came shortly after a magnificent jam session that opened the evening’s proceedings from Zakir Hussain’s monumental work Peshkar. The music of this jam session has no title; musical collisions such as this one are rarely titled although it is highly disciplined yet loose enough for it to ebb and flow as its highly liquid form courses along a relentless path often engaging in dramatic melodic, harmonic and rhythmic entrances and exits. The music on this day began with a declarative chord followed by a tantalising right-hand figure derived from it, played by pianist Danilo Pérez. This was quickly picked up by the rest of the musical cast and interpreted by bassist John Patitucci, drummer and percussion colourist extraordinaire Brian Blade and the great tabla maestro Zakir Hussain – each according to his own whimsy – yet clearly following what Mr Pérez had so elegantly stated with masterful brevity.

Left to right: Zakir Hussain, Danilo Pérez, Brian Blade. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Left to right: Zakir Hussain, Danilo Pérez, Brian Blade. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

You knew that the music was going to be full of wondrous – and diabolical – twists and turns. Although the conversation was a five-way one, the most dramatic moments came when bassist, drummer and tabla-player took turns acting as sort of musical agents provocateurs leading each other and the pianist down mysterious paths and harmonic and rhythmic alleys daring the others to follow with a view to leading everyone out of what surely felt like the dead-end in a musical labyrinth.

Here too the most fascinating ones were those that came when Mr Hussain made as if to lead Mr Blade astray. But Jazz teaches those who would learn to prepare for any eventuality by listening attentively to every musician on stage as if they were the only ones playing. Still, a lesser drummer would have been flummoxed; but not Mr Blade, who is a master not only of time but dramatic change. It became clear early and frequently as well for everything that Mr Hussain threw at him – and there was much that he did, in the form of complex polyrhythms arising out of diabolically difficult talas, made more spectacular with even more complex and ornamented lightning-fast rhythmic figures that no one else by Zakir Hussain could make.

Every rhythmic zinger that was sent Mr Blade’s way was returned to the tabla maestro with the proverbially compound interest. But remarkably, fire was not necessarily fought with fire. Often Mr Blade sent back a rhythmic call with a delicately formed response. And after a percussion discussion that sometimes caught fire, the percussionists drew in Mr Patitucci and Mr Pérez turning the evolving music into something quite extraordinary until – having had their respective fills, the musicians brought the music “home”. The result was a complete triumph of music, with the quiet intimacy of a small group often exploding into a long work, delightfully-communicated in an utterly focused and poetic manner.

Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

The evening ended with the absolutely spectacular Peshkar, a concerto for tabla and symphony orchestra performed by Ustad Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. There have been some collisions of culture similar to this one involving the collision of music from the Hindustani (or North Indian) universe and the European one. Even the best of us have appallingly short memories so it bears remembering – among others – the extremely avant-garde (for its day) versions created by Maestro Uday Shankar, the composer, dancer and choreographer-brother of (the infinitely more recognised) Pandit Ravi Shankar. His most famous endeavour was Radha-Krishna a ballet he created and danced with the great prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1923.

Pandit Uday Shankar’s adaptation of European theatrical techniques to Indian dance made his art hugely popular both in India and abroad, and he is rightly credited for ushering in a new era for traditional Indian temple dances, which until then had been known for their strict interpretations, and which were also going through their own revival. Meanwhile, his brother Ravi Shankar was helping to popularise Indian classical music in the outside world. Uday Shankar also collaborated with the German modern dancer-choreographer, Kurt Jooss and another German, Rudolf Laban, who had invented a system of dance notation. This experience only added more exuberances to his (Uday Shankar’s) expressionist dance.

In the realm of popular music there are, of course, the several incarnations of John McLaughlin’s great music including with such pioneering groups as Shakti – one of the first incarnations of which included Zakir Hussain.

Ustad Hussain’s pedigree is impeccable. He grew up at the feet of his father, Ustad Alla Rakha, one of the greatest ever figures in Indian music and an tabalchi (tabla player) whose virtuosity remained unrivalled on the instrument – until his son, Zakir Hussain came of age, that is. The Ustad’s performances in the musical realm have been benchmarks not simply of technical genius, but of musicality as a whole. Moreover, his superior intellect has also helped him create more than just frightfully original ways of approaching rhythm. In his many performances of solo and jugalbandhi performances (duo performances) with other instrumentalists The Ustad has elevated the interpretation of iconic classical Indian ragas to a rarefied realm.

Using his incredibly deep and inspired understanding of tradition; indeed with an uncanny ability to excavate the musical tradition with the precision of an enlightened archeologist Ustad Zakir Hussain has been able not only to interpret Indian music but to give it – and the tradition from whence it came – a whole new context and meaning for and in the modern world. But his composition Peshkar does something more than that too. It is a glorious example not just because it is vaunted contribution to the modern history of the Indian tradition; it is an unrivaled contribution to the history of music. It celebrates the co-existence of Indian classical music and the classical music by relocating music as a whole to an altogether new realm: that where both streams and traditions can coexist as if they were of one root and one branch.

Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

By melding the rhythmic heartbeat of the tabla with the collective breaths of the instruments of the symphonic orchestra and pouring the resultant music into one flaming and bubbling volcanic mix Ustad Zakir Hussain’s work – Peskhar – enables us to imagine music not just as the glorious artistic creation of a human being, but as a single, living and breathing human being itself. The pulse of this wonderful human being – this Peshkar showed us that night of January 24th 2020 that the rules of pentatonic scales and the tala – that term used in Indian classical music to refer to musical meter – any rhythmic beat or strike of which measures musical time in Indian music and governs “the whole subject of musical meter” can coexist as if in one body and sing and dance as if it is a live human being.

That is, after all, what music is meant to do, isn’t it? Make us rise up – if only in our minds’ minds – and dance because when we hear this elemental melody and harmony and feel its cosmic rhythm it’s as if the whole world around us is joyfully alive in our own mind and body and spirit. This is how the Ustad and his extraordinary work, swirling amidst the musicians of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra caused us to be swept up into the heady musical world of the Ustad’s making. In a programme note Ustad Zakir Hussain told us, “(The) tabla solo tradition is still an evolving one; loosely, it appears to have four clear movements that control the flow of the performance. In this piece, I have tried to maintain the integrity of the repertoire while trying to find a way for the orchestra to react and support the presentation”.

It strikes me that this is what all great composers – from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms; and Mozart, Chopin and Schubert have done through their concerti and symphonic works for piano and violin and clarinet (etc.) and orchestra. In those works, as they unfold before audiences, a titanic struggle ensues as the soloist wrests the music from the orchestra before yielding back to the ensemble – back and forth the music goes until in its climactic moment the finale arrives in the monumental dénouement of the poetic musical narrative or portrait to restore goodwill to the world around us once again.

Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Zane Dalal did just this to us as with the breathless palpitations of the tabla-heart a new creation – albeit a musical one – came to be born. All of this seeming to flow out of the magical fingers of Ustad Zakir Hussain as they caressed the skins of the tabla – both musical potter and medieval apothecary – mixing the magical potion of melody, harmony and rhythm to create reflection of what humanity ought to look like. But of course, Ustad Zakir Hussain was not the only one who came to the rescue of “the better angels of our nature”. Much more was to follow on Saturday, January 25th, the final day of the 2020 edition of the 21C Music Festival…

Jon Maharaj, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Jon Maharaj, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

At 8:00 pm or thereabout, Mervon Mehta arrived, stage right, to introduce the evening’s event and to briefly speak about its first performer. She was to be the brilliant young composer and alto saxophonist, Toronto’s own Allison Au, who has been celebrated with the TD Grand Jazz Award and a $5,000 grant at the 2017 edition of The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and more recently decorated, with a Juno Award for best Jazz Instrumental album [Wander Wonder]. Anyone who’s been around supporting live music at the city’s ever-shrinking-and-then-expanding network of clubs and larger venues will have heard Allison Au, either with her long-standing quartet, playing as a soloist or as a pillar in the woodwind section of some other musician’s ensemble.

But it was unusual and altogether most memorable to be at her performance as she premiered Migrations, her major composition, a brand new work commissioned by The Royal Conservatory. Clearly the work indicated that her composer is at the pinnacle of her burgeoning vocation in music. Miss Au had been teasing many of musical associates, and her numerous followers and fans on social media about her heritage, which – anyone who has made her acquaintance – would know is a rich cultural amalgam featuring Chinese, and Jewish Polish hewn spectacularly together in one a uniquely Canadian sort of way. For us in the audience – we, who as proud Canadians, still struggle to define and speak our unique identity among all the nations of the world – this kind of cultural collision is often at the heart of who we are as individuals and as a society. In today’s world, we have often been forced to confront this reality in the harshest possible terms – even in Canada, where we have felt safe.

For an hour or so, using the poignant salve of music, Miss Au gave us the powerful means of music to arm ourselves as we too search for what it means to be ourselves in context of the great and unique Canadian landscape. In fact Miss Au’s music in her extended work, Migrations (that was to come) would give anyone – no matter where in the world they came from or were headed – the ability to examine our own lives with a view to finding meaning in our own uniqueness.

Left to right: Todd Pentney, Jon Maharaj, Allison Au, Fabio Ragnelli. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

The evening that Miss Au shared with the audience was first heralded by a performance with her long-time quartet and comprised two songs from her recent book – “The Valley” and “Looking Up”. Suddenly, after individual and collective struggles possibly during the week that went by, we suddenly felt alive again. I have said before that I believe Miss Au’s music “has a unique spatial sense into which melodies seem to enter as if by magic to occupy imaginary musical architecture made of enchanted designs that takes on a life of its own after the (long-standing) members of the quartet breathe their way into it.”

Indeed in this performance – as on the recording that first gave us “The Valley” and “Looking Up” both reminded those of us (who already knew, of course) that Miss Au is an artist of the first order. Miss Au plays her instrument with gilded splendour. Her melodic phrases – usually long, loping lines – arc their way in gentle parabolas that often break away from each other, prompted by gently ululating tremolos that dart and swing as they collide with the often climactic harmonies provided by pianist Todd Pentney. The pianist anticipates the direction in which the music is headed as he proffers ideas that take shape in swerving lines of his own. Miss Au’s touch perfectly enunciates the mood of each piece and – as the black dots literally leap off the page – she swept up her pianist, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Fabio Ragnelli into the swirling head winds of the ensuing music.

And this was only the prelude to the world premiere of her major work, Migrations. Using the poignant language of music that seemed at times to be an unique purview available exclusively to her, Miss Au gave us a magical toolbox with which to examine our own historical and elemental migration into our ever-present lives. At the heart of the composition were seven miniatures forged into a suite of music that combined surface virtuosity with a singular lyrical sense of line. And each could only be described as the poetry of emotion.

Left to right: Todd Pentney, Aline Homzy, Amahl Arulanandam, Jon Maharaj, Fabio Ragnelli, Allison Au, Michael Davidson, Laila Biali. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Todd Pentney, Aline Homzy, Amahl Arulanandam, Jon Maharaj, Fabio Ragnelli, Allison Au, Michael Davidson, Laila Biali. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Miss Au’s composition described with the eloquent angularity of musical expression, her parents’ journey from a Chinese migration and the survival of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, through Malaysia and eventually Canada, there to finally settle into a modicum of peace. Throughout the work, and with dramatic and dynamic tension that ebbed and flowed, Miss Au also described, ever so eloquently, her own “migration”, embellishing the music by adding the lyricism of poetry that was breathtakingly sung – in what was clearly a musical coup – by the fabulous vocalist Laila Biali (and, in one instance narrated by Miss Au as well). In addition the group also featured virtuoso violinist Aline Homzy, cellist Amahl Arulanandam and a brilliant young vibraphone player, Michael Davidson. Together these musicians added enormous contextual colour to Miss Au’s work, while excelling as performers both in ensemble as well when called upon – however briefly – to step into the musical limelight.

The music of Migrations has taken Miss Au’s artistry to a whole new level of imagination. Melody, harmony and rhythm; idea and execution, composition and improvisation were all pressed into a gossamer-like aural fabric adorned by Miss Au’s unique virtuosity on the alto saxophone as well as through the probing virtuosity of each of the musicians, topped off by Miss Biali’s breathtaking interpretation of the poetic element of the work. This comprised verse written by several poets – Canadian and American – such as Wanda Coleman in “The ISM”, Duncan Mercredi in “Racing Across the Land”, Emma Larocque (with embellishments by Miss Au herself) in “Progress”, Chief Dan George in “Keep A Few Embers From The Fire” and – in the work’s utopian grand finale – the poetry of Langston Hughes for the work’s closing movement, entitled “I Dream A World”.

I found myself – and I’m sure that others in the rapt audience did so too – mesmerised; unable to breathe at times for the supremacy of the music was so edifying and, heart thumping in my chest – often choking with emotion as the music played itself to its finale. Suddenly Miss Au’s emotions were my emotions. Her world was mine – complete with my own cultural multiplicity and the emotions of the Holocaust, of my own family, held secret for an age – and her music set me free. It was – and is – time now, as ever therefore, to acknowledge the power of music to heal, to transform me (and us) completely – body, mind and spirit. For tonight – on January 25th 2020 and ever after, it would seem, we have Migrations, this outstanding work of music by Miss Au, to thank for restoring my (and our) equilibrium; and to thank for the healing nature of the mind through her music. And as Miss Au and the members of her ensemble exited the stage at Koerner Hall to seemingly unending and well-deserved applause, we retired stretch our legs before re-convening for the final performance of the 2020 edition of the 21C Music Festival, with Danilo Pérez seminal work, Fronteras (Borders), a meditation on a humanity imprisoned by the diabolical necessity of geographic borders…

Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

Danilo Pérez brought with him a very unique group of musicians – the Global Messengers – who comprised erstwhile neophytes from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he founded, and included (in addition to the pianist and musical director, vocalist Farayi Malek, violinist Layth Sidiq, cellist Naseem Alatrash, percussion colourist Tareq Rantisi and Vasilis Kostas, who plays the laouto (an Grecian version of the Middle Eastern “oud” – a kind of instrument evolved – it would seem from its harmonic range and sound – by marrying the tiple and the classical guitar. The Global Messengers’ performance this evening, in addition to the Canadian premiere of Mr Pérez’s “Fronteras”, also included a breakthrough presentation of another worthy long composition by Mr Pérez entitled “Suite La Muralla (The Wall)”. Both works carefully curated by Mervon Mehta to reflect the socially conscious theme of the past two evenings.

Lately we have come to expect nothing less of Mr Pérez. He is a musician of prodigious gifts both in the realm of composition and pianism. But he is also well-known as a social activist, humanitarian, and a leading proponent of what has come to be known – somewhat uncomfortably speaking – as “global jazz”. “Uncomfortably” for many reasons, including one that was proven after the concerts here that what music has clearly become is one world without beginning or end. Certainly the 21C Music Festival where the cultural topography of many worlds collided in the music of a handful of great artists, we came closest to form a rather beautiful and holistic world of music, which, to steal from the title of Mr Pérez’s own composition, is a world without “Fronteras” or “borders”. But that’s the subject of another dissertation…

While Mr Pérez’s work has been inspired by the terrible emerging landscape of Mr Trump’s vision of the USA, it is so much more; a metaphor for a whole world seemingly gone mad as it seems to have inspired in some quarters of society (at least) the worst in human nature. And where we are comfortably numb with the fact that we have been separated by the “borders” that keep us apart because of how we look, who we are, how we worship, what language we speak at home, our individual appearance; sometimes even something as ridiculous as what we wear.

The musicians led by Mr Pérez at the piano unfolded the diaphanous fabric of this four-part composition by bringing the ingenious music to life with a wondrous ensemble performance, punctuated at strategic turns with brilliant solo breaks by instrumentalists often spurred on by a lyric line or a beautifully wordless wail by their inspirational vocalist Farayi Malek. Some of us, remembering our own travels to our ultimate home in Canada were reminded of our own journeys. Many of us, remembering the myth of Gilgamesh and the epic Exodus of Mosaic times were given new insight not only into ancient texts but made to realise just how painful is the idea of creating a frontier that keeps people out rather than encircling our planet with a human chain that protects everyone within it.

Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Naseem Alatrash, Farayi Malek, Layth Sidiq, Vasilis Kostas, Tareq Rantisi. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Naseem Alatrash, Farayi Malek, Layth Sidiq, Vasilis Kostas, Tareq Rantisi. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Throughout the work, Mr Pérez marshaled his group from behind the magnificent concert grand piano, guiding them through his epic work. A master-stroke on Mr Pérez’s part was to eschew horns of any sort from the composition. The doleful sound of absent brass – of cor anglais, for example, and of woodwinds was often supplanted by the plangent lyricism of Miss Malek’s voice as it pierced through the instrumental patina of (for instance) the first movement “Cruzando la frontera” or (“Crossing the Frontier”) and the second movement “Al-Musafir” (“The Traveler”). The dangers of the elements – something we have seen as frightened refugees from Syria, Libya and, much closer to home, refugees Central and South America experience as they flee persecution and often certain death.

We, the listening audience, became alive to the treacherous crossing as we heard the elemental cry that was sounded in the third movement of Mr Pérez’s musical odyssey: “Kalesma” (“The Calling”). We also experienced fear and trembling as the work ended as in the uncertain future of the travellers’, in the final movement of the piece – this one entitled “Destino Desconocido” (“Unknown Destination”) which seemed to perfectly and eerily describe what so many of us have read about with abject despair as thousands of refugees made to new and impermanent homes – some with tragic consequences.

But if all seemed hopeless in the soundscape of Mr Pérez’s Fronteras, hope seemed to spring eternal soon after in his other long work Suite La Muralla (The Wall). While seeming to reference more directly the ominous prospect of Mr Trump’s (Mexican) border wall, the work was also a lyrical metaphor for the invisible lines that are drawn more global. Of course, the work was also more hopeful sounding although it began with a dolorous report of the state of things on earth (Movement One entitled “Madre Tierra” (“Mother Earth”). The ensemble made up of voice, strings and percussion seemed wonderfully layered into textural strata whose shifting relationships evoked the natural forces that shape the planet.

As the piece unfolded these strata – stacked solidly one upon the other – felt immense; at other moments, especially in “Monopatia” (“Pathway”) the music thinned to the most delicate and diaphanous texture until – through “Frutillar” the work’s third movement and into the final movement entitled “Puente de las Americas” (“Bridge of the Americas”) there was a sense of reaching a radically hopeful point as the music seemed to change somewhat seismically to reflect a kind of cultural rainbow across the once-darkened sky.

Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Both pieces were performed idiomatically as if the musicians inhabited the music in a most personal manner. In making their instruments sing, violinist, cellist and laouto player played with the kind of virtuosity that only the best of their respective tribes would, which is why they were selected to play this music in the first place. The percussionist added muscularity and drama to the recital and seemed to transcend the rhythmic role associated with his battery of instruments by enlivening his playing with breathtaking musicality. The vocalist seemed to take wing from her position in the back of the strings players as her voice stood out in vivid bas relief.

Mr Pérez directed the Global Messengers from his position of leader of the ensemble with verve and supreme energy. His fleet-footed and light approach to leadership was combined with appropriately mercurial brilliance conceiver-in-chief and as pianist. Together the group parleyed with the familiarity of old friends playing Mr Pérez’s music with the sublime nobility that it so richly deserved.

In the glorious pell-mell of this edifying music that lit up the air around Koerner Hall on that eventful Saturday we should also spare a thought for Toronto’s trumpeter Andrew McAnsh, who shared his considerable gifts as a musician and instrumentalist for all those like me, who simply hadn’t had enough music even after the intensity of the musical soirée inside the sanctum sanctorum of Koerner Hall. Mr McAnsh had the task of providing a postlude to the performances and – together with a superb group of musicians – gave generously of his talent and of himself. And that did not go unnoticed.

The focus of the last two days of the 21C Music Festival remained the role of art in giving wing to the better angels of our nature. Something to cheer about… For as we all know and understand – artist and listening, viewing and participating audience alike – that art is at once, is the provocateur of both personal and collective journeys. These are journeys that we all make alone. But when we make them together we feel more secure and emerge from them much stronger as a humanity that has inherited the planet that we must care for, guarding it with each and every one of our individual lives so that it will become a genuinely better place for the generations who will come after us and whose inheritance will just as surely be what we leave behind; this gigantic blue and green rock hurtling through space, for how much longer we really do not know.

And we may also forget why we came here because we are humans who have been blessed because of the ability to feel, but also flawed because our memories are often short. But it is hoped that in the rough and tumble of the cruel times in which we live we will – with the music of the two days before the curtain came down on the Festival – remember to crave the music of the bards of our world.

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