Celebrating the 2021 Career Development Award Winner
October 6, 2022 | 1.30 pm | Walter Hall, U of T
Tuning Your Mind | 12.15 | Walter Hall, U of T
Music historian Robin Elliott
1974 to 1998: Challenges and changes for the WMCT. Et exspecto (1986) by Sofia Gubaidulina whose life as a composer in the last days of the Soviet Union epitomizes the turmoil of the period.
WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives
For this special season, Artistic Director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series that constitutes a reflection upon the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. To accomplish all of this within just five concerts, he has divided that 125-year span into five 25-year blocks. As 25 years is the length of a generation, Simon had the additional creative idea of including, in each concert, musicians who are in a mentor/mentee relationship, thus reflecting the past, present and future of the invited guest artists, as well as of the WMCT itself. For each concert, an anchor work is drawn from one of the five 25-year blocks of time, which provides an opportunity to reflect upon that period in WMCT and world history. Here is some historical background on the fourth period.
4. 1974 to 1998
Concert 1: Michael Bridge and friends, 6 October 2022
Anchor work: Sofia Gubaidulina, Et exspecto, 1986
I remember 1974 well; it was the year that I began my studies in the BMus degree program at Queen’s University, the start of an educational path that would lead me to my present position as a faculty member at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. It was also the year in which Richard Nixon resigned as the President of the United States of America in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. That happened in early August, a month before I began my university music studies. At the end of that academic year, the Vietnam War concluded with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. That historic event was memorably captured by a photo of evacuees scrambling up a ladder to board a waiting helicopter perched on the rooftop of a building in Saigon. (The scene is recreated as a coup de théâtre in the musical Miss Saigon .) It was a desperate last chance to escape before the North Vietnamese forces completed their capture of what was soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The New York Times announces the resignation of Richard Nixon on 9 August 1974
The most important geopolitical event of this 25-year period, however, was likely the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This resulted in a reshaping of the world order, the effects of which continue to reverberate to this day. The first rift in the Iron Curtain had been the dismantling of the electric barbed-wire fence between Hungary and Austria in May 1989. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, followed by the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990.
The final step was the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991, overseen by the late Mikhail Gorbachev, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War. Towards the end of his life, Gorbachev was a vocal critic of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who pointedly did not attend Gorbachev’s funeral on 3 September 2022.
Developments in technology throughout the 1980s and 1990s would also change life as we know it in myriad ways. The Internet was widely available in Canada by 1996; the process of how I wrote the centennial history of the WMCT, Counterpoint to a City, may serve as an example of the kinds of changes this ushered in. Much of the research for the book was conducted in 1995 by scrolling through old newspapers and magazines on microfilm readers in Robarts Library. There was no “search” function, I had to scroll through entire issues to find what I was looking for. During the process of writing the book on my personal computer, I acquired my first email account, which enabled swift communication with the publisher of the book, ECW Press. In the fall of 1996 I moved to Ireland to take up a faculty position at University College Dublin, with page proofs for the book in hand. I compiled the index in a Word file and sent it across the Atlantic to ECW Press as an email attachment; they prepared the page proofs for the index and sent them back to me, also via email. I corrected the proofs and sent them back to the press.
This entire process, if it had been done by sending paper copies back and forth by mail, would have taken a couple of months; thanks to the Internet, it was all completed in a few days. For another good example of how computer technology has assisted research on the WMCT, read the article “History Meets Website” about how Hanna and Fred Feuerriegel created their monumental History of Concerts and Performers of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto and have updated and expanded it ever since the document was first issued in September 1997. Incidentally, the WMCT was an early adopter of Internet technology; the domain name https://wmct.on.ca was registered on 1 November 2000.
For the 80th anniversary season, the main challenge for the WMCT was to find a new home. Eaton Auditorium, which had been used for occasional WMCT recitals since 1931 and became the club’s regular venue in 1946, was shuttered in 1977. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was the first venue used by the club after Eaton Auditorium, but when construction on Roy Thomson Hall began across the street in 1978, the WMCT was forced to relocate due to the noise and disruptions. Christ Church, Deer Park was the venue for club recitals during the next six seasons, up to 1985. Unfortunately the exile from Eaton Auditorium resulted in a precipitous decline in membership numbers, from a high of 1,000 in 1964 to about 400 in the mid-1980s. President Hanna Feuerriegel decided to adopt Walter Hall as the WMCT’s new regular concert venue in 1985. The 492-seat hall was just the right size for the membership numbers; with its easy accessibility by public transportation, excellent sightlines and acoustics, and spacious foyer for receptions, it has proved to be a good all-round fit for the Music in the Afternoon concert series.
Eric Friesen, Stephen Ralls, James Ehnes, Jeanie Chung, Angela Hewitt, Catherine Robbins, Michael Schade, Russell Braun
The big event of this 25-year period for the WMCT was the Centennial Celebration Concert on 24 May 1998, which took place in the 1,000-seat George Weston Recital Hall in North York, with Eric Friesen of the CBC as the host. The proceedings got underway with a commissioned Fanfare for a Festive Anniversary by the Canadian composer Donald Coakley (who died earlier this year on March 2, 2022). The recital contained a mix of vocal and instrumental numbers performed by seven outstanding young Canadian musicians; included on the program was the “Berceuse” from the opera Jocelyn by Benjamin Godard with violin obbligato, which had been featured on the very first WMCT recital on 23 January 1899.
The George Weston Recital Hall had opened in 1993 as part of the North York Performing Arts Centre (renamed Meridian Arts Centre in 2019). This centre was part of a remarkable building boom during Mel Lastman’s term as the mayor of North York from 1973 to 1997 that included the North York Civic Centre (1979), North York Central Library (1987), Mel Lastman Square (1989), and Empress Walk (1997), among others. Meanwhile, the CN Tower was completed in 1975 after over two years of construction, becoming a symbol of Toronto in the process and holding the record as the world’s tallest free-standing structure until 2007.
Other major building projects in downtown Toronto during this period included First Canadian Place (1975; still the tallest office building in Canada as of 2022, though soon to be overtaken by several buildings currently under construction); the Eaton Centre (1977), Scotia Plaza (1988), TD Canada Trust Tower (1990), and Metro Hall (1992). This 25-year period in the life of Toronto ended with a huge expansion of the city limits when the old city of Toronto was amalgamated with its five surrounding boroughs by an act of the provincial government on 1 January 1998 to create what is colloquially known as the megacity (or more recently as “The Six”). With this development, Toronto became the fifth-largest city by population in North America.
It was a lively period for the arts in Toronto as well. The Toronto International Film Festival was founded in 1976 and has since become one of the premiere events of its kind in the world. The COC in 1983 became the first opera company to use surtitles, a feature that has since been adopted by opera houses around the world. Two new professional orchestras were formed, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 1979 and Esprit Orchestra, specialising in new music, in 1983. The Toronto Symphony moved into its new home in Roy Thomson Hall in 1982, and Opera Atelier began offering period productions of Baroque operas in 1985. The period saw a string of music festivals, many of them organized by Nicholas Goldschmidt.
The most spectacular was the Toronto International Festival, a month-long celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial (and the province’s bicentennial) in June 1984 that brought an extravaganza of music and dance to the city, including the Metropolitan Opera (with rare local performances by the star Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes and Die Walküre), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a host of others: 3,000 performers from 17 countries were featured in more than 250 events that month.
The shifting tides of this 25-year period in world history are neatly encapsulated by the life story of Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), whose Et exspecto (1986) is the anchor work for the concert by the accordionist Michael Bridge. Gubaidulina was born in the Tatar Republic of the USSR to a Muslim Tatar father and a Russian Orthodox mother. “I am the place where East meets West,” she has said of herself, referring to both her life and her music. After studying both piano and composition in Kazan, she moved to Moscow for graduate studies in composition at the Moscow Conservatory. She received encouragement and support from Dmitri Shostakovich, who offered her some cryptic and ironic advice: “continue on your ‘mistaken’ path.” Indeed, during her career in the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina was part of a small coterie of avant-garde composers (including her friend Alfred Schnittke) whose “mistaken path” was barely tolerated by the all-powerful cultural apparatchiks of the Soviet state.
Gubaidulina started to become known in the West when the violinist Gidon Kremer toured in the 1980s with her violin concerto Offertorium, which uses the theme by Frederick the Great that is the basis of the Musical Offering by Bach, who is Gubaidulina’s favorite composer. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina moved permanently to Germany in 1992, where she has lived in a modest bungalow in Appen, a small village near Hamburg, for the past 30 years. (Her friend and colleague Victor Suslin, another Soviet avant-garde composer, had moved to Appen in 1981, and her friend Schnittke had settled in Hamburg in 1990). Comparing her own career to that of Shostakovich in an interview with the musicologist Vera Lukomsky in 1998, Gubaidulina stated that “Shostakovich and his generation lived in a terrible time. In comparison with him, we are a happy generation. Of course, we had our share of suffering; nonetheless, our time was easier.” Gubaidulina’s father was persecuted for his religion during his entire life and the family “lived in permanent stress, expecting his arrest every night,” as Gubaidulina noted in the interview with Lukomsky. Easier is clearly a relative term.
Gubaidulina has frequently used non-Western and non-traditional instruments in her works, including the bayan, which is the Russian word for accordion. Michael Bridge in his DMA thesis (2022, p. 15) notes that the word bayan is “used broadly in Eastern Europe to refer to a concert accordion which has buttons on both hands, and has a free-bass convertor mechanism on the left hand” (this mechanism allows the left hand buttons to switch between playing pre-set chords or melodic lines). Et exspecto is a five-movement sonata and one of several works Gubaidulina has written for (and in this case dedicated to) the Russian bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips (b. 1948). The range of sounds Gubaidulina draws from the instrument is astonishing; David Raymond (American Record Guide, 1995) notes that in Et exspecto the accordion “with its seemingly infinite range of wheezes, groans, tone clusters, and a tonal range from reedy high notes to a truly profundo bass, sounds like a hand-held electronic music studio.” Religion lies at the heart of Gubaidulina’s music; she has said that her goal as a composer is “making a connection to God. If I separated the religious goal from the musical one, music would have no meaning for me.” In keeping with this aesthetic, Et exspecto has a religious inspiration; the title refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ, the work is based in part on a chorale tune, and it embeds cryptic Biblical references, as well as rhythmic and metrical sequences derived from the mathematical Fibonacci series. The work has been recorded numerous times and makes a stunning impact in live performance. Gubaidulina’s 90th birthday was celebrated around the world in 2021, with performances and recordings, a joint commission from the Boston and Leipzig orchestras, and a festival in Kazan, where she began her advanced musical studies some 70 years ago. Her life and music thus serve not only as a fitting testimonial to the period from 1974 to 1998, but also as an apt transition to the most recent 25-year period, discussed in connection with the concert on 23 February 2023.