Pride and Prejudice Before Your Eyes at Toronto Fringe

I stepped aside to allow Lizzy Bennet to pass me in the hall, and then followed her into the dining room. Mr. Darcy was waiting, and I eavesdropped as they discussed the idea of humour and whether or not it had any place in civil society. I and thirty-five other eavesdroppers then followed Elizabeth into a bedroom upstairs, where she was cornered by the odious Mr. Collins–

Campbell House - Dining Room

Darcy sat right there

But wait! How could this be? How could we be walking through a house from the early 1800s, observing the events from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of thing you get to see at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Not only did we see an adapted version of Pride and Prejudice enacted before our very eyes, but we followed the action, room to room, in a house from the very same time period as the novel. Talk about authentic!

This was my first time ever at the Fringe, and what an introduction! Actors Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg performed their adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel at the Campbell House Museum, the oldest building that survives from the old Town of York, Ontario (now Toronto). And you read that correctly: two actors, performing the whole story and playing all the parts.

Campbell House - Kitchen

Lizzy refused Darcy in the kitchen

So all thirty-five members of the audience stood in the front hall, before the narrow spiralling staircase, to watch Mrs. Bennet (Werneberg) gush at the news of the arrival of Mr. Bingley in the neighbourhood. Then we followed the actors upstairs to the large room where the ball was held and Bingley (Burt) and Darcy (Werneberg) first appeared and Darcy first met Elizabeth (Burt).

We moved from room to room as the story unfolded, and although the entire production only took 75-90 minutes, we hardly noticed that anything was left out, so smoothly did the actors manage the segues from major scene to major scene. We crowded into an upstairs bedroom where Mr. Collins (played by Werneberg with delicious unctuousness) propositioned Lizzy while she firmly refused him. We sat in the kitchen area to hear her refuse Mr. Darcy’s first proposal even more firmly.

The actors managed their changes of character with aplomb and just a few minor props. For example, one moment, Werneberg might flutter as Mrs. Bennett with a frantic fan in her hand, and the next moment, she exuded a delightful smarminess as Mr. Collins, abandoning the fan and quickly adding a collar with pretentious ruffles. Burt leaned on a cane to make her remarks as Mr. Bennet, while raising her voice and squealing like a preteen as she chatted with Wickham, as Kitty.

As audience members, we needed to step out of the way if an actor had to get past us, and of course we needed to be prepared for some degree of stair climbing. But the production was so well done that these were minor considerations. The atmosphere of Campbell House provided a very realistic backdrop, while the ability of the actors to change characters on a dime brought the story to fascinating, three-dimensional life.

It was such fun, getting to be a fly on the wall for this one. I don’t know what I want more–to go to more Fringe productions next year or to see what Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg will create next!

Campbell House - Staircase and Clock

Up and down and up and down we went!

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k.d. lang Makes Luminato Fans Yell “Hallelujah!”

kd lang

Hallelujah, what a voice!

I think k.d. lang could coax music out of a rock. Watching and hearing her coax and tease each note from a quiet, tender song, and then belt out a ballad with such pure voice and power, you start to wonder if there’s anything, musically, that she can’t do. I admit, though, that my own favourite moment in last night’s free concert for Toronto’s Luminato arts festival was when Ms. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I confess that I’ve always disliked that song, feeling like it was melodically kind of boring. But when lang did it on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album, all of that changed. For me, it typifies how she puts her whole soul into a song, pulling every nuance of meaning and emotion from it and sharing it with the audience. I stood in David Pecuat Square, downtown, under the stars with several thousand others, and listened literally in tears.

Once a year, for ten days, Luminato fills Toronto with art, music, and literature. Some of the events in other venues can get pricey, but the festival makes sure that there are plenty of free events too, so no arts lover is left out. And clearly, they  don’t skimp at all, even for events that are free. From Halifax alternative band, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, to Arabic fusion with Yemen Blues and the Sultans of String, to k.d. lang last night, the concerts at David Pecaut Square have been of the best quality — and the greatest fun.

The American band, the Belle Brigade,  who are currently supporting lang on her tour, got us all warmed up with some great folk rock music. But of course the square was primarily  packed with fans of lang’s music, and every one of us responded to her the same way. We swayed to “Hallelujah,” and we clapped and danced to the more lively songs, pulled by lang’s personality and artistry into what felt like an intimate circle of friends. (As she remarked at one point, “Many of you, especially of the female persuasion, may feel yourself drawn toward the stage. I want you to know…this is normal.”)

And when lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, burst into a hard rock version of “Constant Craving” (which had been released in a more country style originally), that was the crown of the evening for me. To combine one of my favourite k.d. lang songs with my love of hard rock, well, it made the night perfect. And again — musically speaking, there’s apparently nothing she can’t do.

Even the weather cooperated, being warm but not oppressive. And after the concert, everyone seemed relaxed and fulfilled, strolling and chatting along the streets on the way to their cars or public transit. This great festival is almost over for another year, with just this weekend remaining. But Ms. lang and the Siss Boom Bang made sure that it’s going out with a bang indeed.

Can I get a “Hallelujah?”

Tim Flannery: We May Save the Planet Yet. Or Not.

Here on Earth, by Tim FlanneryEnvironmentalists, take heart. Sure, the world may be about to end – but not yet. And if Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery is right, there’s actually time to save it, and there’s even a strong likelihood we’re going to. This is the message of Flannery’s latest book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, and that’s what he told an appreciative audience recently at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library. Interviewed by journalist and TVO host Allan Gregg, Flannery acknowledged the foreboding evidence he described in his earlier book, The Weather Makers, but he’s seen and done a lot of things since he wrote it, and has found astonishing reasons for hope.

It’s all because evolution isn’t “survival of the fittest,” after all, says Flannery. Rather, the evolutionary mechanism is more cooperative and collaborative. This view may contradict Darwin’s to some degree, but it has just as long a history. Alfred Russell Wallace, who developed evolutionary theory at the same time as Darwin, saw nature not as a bloody competition but as a system of cooperation and collaboration. And James Lovelock, who more recently propounded the Gaia Philosophy, sees things the same way. The world is a system that self-regulates, each part of it collaborating to create the optimum conditions for life, and survival.

This means, Flannery says, that the world is more like a body than a competition. And after all, you don’t really find the bladder, spleen, and lungs competing viciously to see which can defeat the others and be the last organ standing. Instead, they all work together so all will survive. As Gregg suggested, “Evolution is on our side, then.”

And we are gradually seeing the development of that kind system, where the world is the body and we ourselves are the brain. As Flannery says, there’s a great coming-together in our economics, our slowly unifying belief systems, connections in communication – and even our genetics will slowly merge as we continue traveling and intermarrying. Humans are emerging out of a “warring tribes” state and evolving into the world of an integrated “superorganism.”

It’s not that this definitely will save the planet, you understand. But the conditions are coming into existence in which we finally can. In fact, Flannery says – and this is both thrilling and very frightening – for good or ill, our living generation is the one that will finally choose, and take whatever action we’re going to take. Or not take.

The Weather Makers, by Tim FlanneryThis is a good news/bad news scenario for Canadians, though. While Australians are beginning to make big strides in reducing their carbon footprint, with even the Indians and Chinese starting to move toward green technologies, the same can’t be said forCanada. Gregg asked, “Is our reputation really that bad in the world?” To which the extremely well-travelled Flannery replied, “Sadly, it is.” With Stephen Harper in charge, in fact,Canada’s part in saving the world has not just diminished, but plummeted.

But if Flannery is right, the human race in general may yet save the planet, and just happen to drag Canadaalong with it. That’s the primary message of Here on Earth, and that was his emphasis to the enthralled crowd throughout the interview and the Q&A afterward. It’s possible for humanity to evolve to a point of integration with the earth, to its ultimate salvation, or to continue as we have been, and doom it altogether. And those who are alive today will know what choice humanity made before they pass on.

Trifecta – Guitar-lovers get a Triple Treat

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, and Oscar Lopez after "Trifecta" concert

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, Oscar Lopez

Those of us who love the guitar experienced a triple treat recently at Koerner Hall, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Three guitarists who are known for their music in different styles – the Latin musician, Oscar Lopez, Rik Emmett of hard rock fame, and Pavlo the Mediterranean guitarist – came together in a concert in support of their marvelous album, Trifecta. And to say it was a magical evening is an understatement.

The album itself had been an experiment in combining styles that have their own distinct flavours to see how well they could mesh. While Latin and Mediterranean music may sound similar and work more organically together, could they then be successfully combined with a rock ‘n’ roll sound? These three musicians gave us a living demonstration that they can.

There is something about watching master craftsmen at work that is just riveting. It didn’t matter what type of music these men were playing: their hands and fingers moved with such ease and control along those strings that you could almost believe the guitars were mere extensions of their own bodies. And they could coax divine sounds from them with the mere flick of a couple of fingers and the fine movements of a guitar pick.

Koerner Hall interior, Royal Conservatory, Toronto

Koerner Hall

The rock element was somewhat toned down, with the Latin and Mediterranean sound often predominating, as Emmett provided background rhythm and power chords during Pavlo’s or Lopez’s complex finger work. But the guitar leads of a hard rock band are swift and intricate, so Emmett was perfectly equipped whenever he soared into the same heady realms as his counterparts.

The atmosphere of the concert was warm and almost cozy, partly due to the genius of Koerner Hall itself. It’s arranged so that nobody is that far from the main stage. And the warm colours and soft woods around the stage and beamed across the high ceiling guarantees an intimate sound. Pavlo remarked that he’d been to Koerner hall soon after it opened last year, and immediately thought, “This is where we have to play!” He turned to us in the audience and said, “Isn’t this the perfect place for this concert?”

The musicians have been touring, off and on, since January, so they obviously know each other very well by now. Lopez often got the others laughing, and there was a lot of entertaining banter back and forth. At one point, Pavlo and Lopez goaded Emmett into getting up and demonstrating the patented “pelvic thrust” which, he explained, “every rocker has to learn at rock school.” Some of their giddiness might have stemmed from the fact that this was the final concert of their long tour. But the three musicians seemed genuinely relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

At these moments, we in the audience felt as though we were part of a big family just hanging out and amusing ourselves. But each time these three guitarists got back down to business and began to play again, we were lifted to another realm entirely. A realm of brilliant skill and exquisite music that left us breathless.

Word on the Street: Readers in a Candy Store

Forget the kid in the candy store. Any Toronto book lover will tell you that the Word on the Street book festival is much more exciting than that. And infinitely more tasty.

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

This annual festival, held recently again not just at Queen’s Park in Toronto but in several major cities across Canada, might start with books,  but it then extends well beyond them. In fact, this event might be better described as a readers’ and writers’ festival, instead of narrowing it down only to books. Where else can you find one speakers’ tent devoted to e-readers and other digital ways of reading, another tent for magazine publishing, another for readings by the authors of recent best-selling books, and another whole tent completely devoted to cookbooks?

In one tent, people gathered to hear history authors read from and talk about both their writing process and the actual historical events they wrote about. In another, hopeful writers learned some of the manuscript submission process from publishers and agents. Some even had pages of their work critiqued on the spot by published writers and writing professors.

Word on the Street - booths everywhere!

Booths everywhere!

Beyond all the speakers’ tents, the streets on either side of the park were lined with information booths, populated by representatives from publishers and writers’ clubs, bookstores and magazines, and published authors promoting their books. Whatever aspect of writing or reading you were interested in, you could find it there.

I’ve attended several of these September festivals, usually looking at things from an author’s point of view. It’s been interesting to see the digital world gradually infiltrate and begin augmenting the physical. Three or four years ago, the farthest it went was the panel discussions about the great things that could be done by blogging as either a pastime or an occupation. This year, the panel about e-readers was conducted twice. And both agents and published authors talked at great length about how to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote your writing and build a fan base, even before you submit your manuscript anywhere.

Yet judging by the interests of the crowds and the brisk business being done at the booths of the bookstores, the physical paper book is no less alive and vigorous, even if digital books are also becoming popular. And despite complaints by many social analysts that the skill of solid reading is being used less and less in society, that doesn’t appear to be true in Toronto. You may get some clues from hearing about the frequent author readings throughout the city each year, not to mention the International Festival of Authors held each October.

But the best evidence you’ll get, of how Torontonians love their books, is to visit the Word on the Street festival in the autumn. And slowly work your way through the crowds and the immense feast of reading and writing laid out before you.

Four panelists at the "Look at Me! Look at Me!" Social Media panel

Nina Lassam, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Anita Windisman, Julie Wilson

 

The Orchid Ensemble at the Toronto Music Garden: a Perfect Fusion

Exquisite music as the sun sets

Han Dynasty lament and the Willow Tree

It was a very typical Toronto sort of concert event, complete with beautiful setting, exquisite music, airplanes, and condos.

We sat in the curved, broadly stepped amphitheatre of the Toronto Music Garden, surrounded by lush greenery, listening to the Orchid Ensemble playing a Chinese-modern fusion of music from different regions of the Silk Road. A perfect cultural setting. And to the right, beyond the border of high trees surrounding the Music Garden – several condo buildings lining the busy downtown street outside. To the left, the dock for several sailboats along the shores of Lake Ontario – and the Island airport, from which the sound of occasional helicopters and small planes punctuated the music.

Condos in the background

Greenery, music, and condos

Yet none of this detracted in the least from the experience. I’ve been to several Music Garden concerts now, and somehow the Silk Road music, the musical instruments, and the beauty of the garden blended into a natural fusion. The concert began with a perfect rendering of “Hujia,” a lament from the Han Dynasty of the third century BCE, and the huge weeping willow tree serving as a backdrop for the ensemble seemed to sway its trailing tendrils along to the haunting Chinese melody. And that mood of unity wafted over the audience and kept us riveted for the entire hour.

Some people ate supper there, having brought containers of sushi, vegetable wraps or burritos, or perhaps a small pizza picked up on the way. The audience was just as diverse: people of Asian heritage sat cross-legged beside those from the Caribbean. I reminded the man beside me (whose family obviously came from India) not to forget his cell phone on the grass. And the two Caucasian women behind me discussed whether they should some day try to visit the Calgary Stampede.

Erhu

The instruments were primarily Chinese: Lan Tung’s erhu, a two-stringed fiddle with a sound box held on the lap and a long neck held upright, and the zheng, a flat, 21-stringed instrument lying on a stand in front of Haiqiong Deng, who plucked the strings with her fingers. But Jonathan Bernard played a marimba, using padded mallets, and added several drums and assorted gongs, bells, and other small percussion instruments.

The ensemble used music from their current CD, Road to Kashgar, to take us to several stops along the Silk Road. We heard a Mongolian folk song at one point, a Bengali song at another, and even an Ashkenazi song in tribute to the Jewish community that settled in central China in the tenth century.

This was a multicultural tour of that mystical ancient trade route, played by a multicultural musical ensemble in multicultural Toronto. All that would have been missing, as essential parts of Toronto, would have been the downtown condos and the sounds of the Islands. But we had those too. No wonder it all fit together with such perfection.

The willow tree bends to listen

The Orchid Ensemble

Herbie Hancock Dispels Summit Stress

As the music of Herbie Hancock and his talented friends carried us away on Saturday evening, it was easy to forget the violence that had taken place just a couple of hours earlier, a couple of blocks away. Most people will remember June 26, 2010 for the way a few hundred thugs hijacked the peaceful protests associated with the G20 Summit in Toronto, and began smashing windows and setting police cars on fire, drawing thousands of riot police in response.

But not us. Oh sure, the after-effects of the riots could be felt even at the concert. Because all transit going into the downtown core was cancelled, it meant that many of us had to walk a long, long distance to get to Nathan Phillips Square, the courtyard just in front of City Hall. And on the way to the venue, we often walked past stray riot police and businesses with smashed windows. Some of us even wondered if this Toronto Jazz Festival concert might be cancelled, being as close as it was to what had seemed like a war zone just a few hours earlier.

But once we arrived, it was hard to believe we were in the same city. Canadian bassist Brandi Disterheft opened the concert as planned, and reminded us why we had all come here despite everything. Her varied, creative music set just the right mood, supported by William Sperandei and Chris Gale on the trumpet and tenor sax, respectively, and by Stacie McGregor on piano and Sly Juhas on drums.

And then it was time. Hancock and his bandmates (**) took the stage and the place exploded. And he gave us all a means of dissipating the tensions that had gripped us during the day. He even made a point of reminding us that we couldn’t rely on the G20 Summit leaders (or, implicitly, the police) to produce peace in the world: it fell to each of us to produce this peace in our own hearts.

I myself, not having followed jazz through the years, only knew Hancock’s name and didn’t know his music at all. Yes, yes, I know: I’ve been sorely deprived all this time. But the skill, life, and liveliness of the music, not to mention the virtuosity displayed by each member of the band, kept me riveted all evening.

They played many pieces that long-time Hancock fans obviously recognized. And they even did covers of some songs I knew too, such as “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell, or “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Those actually brought tears to my eyes. This was sweet music and catharsis all in one. And then Hancock did several pieces from his latest CD, The Imagine Project.

I may not have followed his music before this, but now I know I have countless CDs to catch up on. This music helped all of us remember what was really important in life, and dissipated the stresses of the G20 weekend. And even though it took me well over an hour to walk home afterward, Mr. Hancock, Brandi Disterheft, and all their bandmates made the experience more than worth the effort it took to get to the concert and back.

(Mr. Hancock was accompanied by Greg Phillinganes on vocals and keyboards, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Tal Wilkenfeld on the bass guitar [how do they make them so young these days?], Vinnie Colaiuta on the drums, and violinist and vocalist Christina Trane. Each of these musicians was so good, they deserve several paragraphs of their own. I was grateful to be able to see and hear so much talent all in the space of a couple of hours.)

Here’s what we got for an encore, though this particular video was recorded at a different venue: