Deja Vous concert, June 18, at Gold Saucer Studio

Gold Saucer Studio is a wonderful venue for musical endeavors. Situated in the historic Dominion Building, it is a collective space for independent musicians across Vancouver to gather and give performances. The performance room had a quaint, classic feeling, much like being invited into a drawing room of an older apartment, the experience having moreso of a feel by us sitting back on a spacious sofa, almost in darkness but for a few spot lamps focusing our attention to the duo at the front.

Dominion Building - 1908

(Photo credit: Bob_2006, Flickr)

Said duo were Cathy Fern Lewis, a soprano, and Marina Hasselberg on cello. Cathy is a teacher at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and a prolific musician, having produced and performed in shows across Canada for chamber music, dance, performance art and opera. Marina, hailing from Portugal, has played with a number of ensembles including being the Artistic Director of NOVO Ensemble. She is an avid enthusiast for new and baroque music.

The breadth of knowledge these performers brought to the performance was quite evident. Beginning with an adaptation Purcell’s Music For a While, the austere strains of cello rang out, in a solemn yet slightly melancholic manner, akin to the strains of a harpsichord. Such an approach was well-complimented by the ornamentation and slightly wistful, almost operatic intonation brought by voice.

Following this was Canto by Mark Hand, a Canadian composer living on Saltspring Island. Using a diminishing double echo loop for the cello, the quick passages played by the instrument gave the impression of reverberation around a cave, in an almost communicative manner. The voice, with its more straightforward delivery, was complimented and contrasted by the strings, giving at once a familiar feeling that was tempered by a strong natural sentiment.

The main feature of the evening’s offerings was Rudolf Komorous’ Cold Mountain Songs. Komorous, a Czech-born Canadian composer, was quite taken with the work of the Chinese poet Hanshan, a classicist who visited the eponymous mountains. Hanshan had three poetic periods, the most noteworthy being his transcendental, philosophical meditations composed during his sojourn at Cold Mountain. This expansive view of the world was captured in vignettes depicting small life events followed with self-reflection, which was captured in Komorous’ lyrics. Additionally, the cello takes on a number of quarter-tones and other unique uses of both the bow and of pizzicato, which adds a mystical quality to the music, almost like Scriabin at his most inscrutable. Such a set of pieces is very tricky to pull off, and Marina and Cathy performed this difficult portfolio with effortlessness, as well as the sensitivity to give a very private impression, almost as if the listener was the air travelling around the poet when he made his pilgrimage.

Another highlight of the evening was the premiere of Messages By Hand: A Collection of Postcards by Christopher Reiche. A suite of short pieces inspired by five vintage postcards he had acquired at a flea market, Cathy was to sing the messages on the postcards whilst Marina provided his musical interpretation of the setting. Short and sweet, the pieces conveyed drama, comedy, and even a locomotive feeling when it seemed that one had been writing her message from a train. Beautifully composed, it ended on a beautiful portrayal of Vancouver City Hall, which was of course, left blank on the back.

Sappho Fragments then followed. Composed of unused prose composed by Linda C. Smith, an arrangement was prepared by Marina and Cathy to suit cello and voice. The prose, initially intended to be set to music for a concert of contemporary pieces by women composers, combined beautifully with the musical setting. Rich and lush, voice and cello combined to invoke vivid imagery, giving an impression of the gardens that were originally intended to be construed in the performed concert.

From there followed a true garden piece, Garden Elegy by Jocelyn Pook. Perhaps best known for composing the soundtrack to Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, Pook composed this piece during her earlier days. Inspired by The Kingis Quair, a poem written by James I of Scotland during his 18-year imprisonment, it is an intense reflection of the narrator who is trapped between philosophy and longing for a distant woman he spies outside his window. In this, Cathy and Marina bring the classical music strains to a united whole – with a more baroque bent, homage is paid to the early pieces of the concert. Vivid imagery is reflected upon in philosophical, somewhat distanced measure, much as it was through the main portion. And again, the performers bring the music and voice to life, drawing us in with a skillful, guiding hand, yet leaving us to reflect on the meaning each of us derived from such work.

The concert was brought to a close with a performance of Nature Boy arranged by Marina. Cathy’s rich voice, brought out in the long, meandering melodic passages, was well accented by the vitality of Marina’s playing. Almost with a mischievous feel, when the last strains played out, the thoughtfulness of the song seemed to fade, seemingly awakening us from the spell previously cast.

And to that, we sincerely hope to feel the magic another time!

Public Salon returns in 2016 (review from Jan. 27)

Sam Sullivan and his partner Lynn Zanatta keep hitting home runs with their public salons. They bring together a group of interesting people, each of whom is given 7 minutes to speak. The Jan. 27, 2016 edition (#24 in this continuing series) maintained the same standard that I have come to expect from these evenings.

Each salon begins with a musical group playing as people find their seats. This edition was fully booked, a credit to the interesting speakers and the networking possibilities available afterwards. This time the group was The Straight Jackets.

sj(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Sam Sullivan as host is always good-humored and upbeat. He talked a bit about learning an indigenous language (the trade language Chinook Wawa), gave us a sample of what he has learned (the words rolled off his tongue quite fluently) and urged us to participate also.

The evening began with Brett Finlay, a microbiologist talking about how excessive hygiene may be causing the high incidence of allergies, asthma, and other disorders in current Western populations. If infants have certain bacteria in their microbiome at three months, they are unlikely to get asthma. But many factors, including Cesarean births and formula feeding (both of which can clearly be life-saving interventions), can hinder the growth of an ideal microbiome.

ed2(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Next up was Kedrick James, who does what I call “stochastic poetry”. He uses randomness and remixes to create his poetry. From a data science and mathematical and computing point of view, I find the experiment to be fascinating. From a literary perspective, I longed for Keats and T.S. Eliot, or even David Bowie (who did indeed use Brian Eno’s suggestions to introduce randomness into his lyrics).

I guessed that Farzana Jaffer Jeraj might be related to Senator Jaffer, and I was right (the senator is her mother, and her mother was proudly tweeting during the session). Farzana is an author and coach, and as described by tweeter @drshimikang, “#lifehappens & what matters is how we manage it.”

Scott C. Jones talked about recovery from a stroke, and his delight when he could finally manage to read sentences again. He spoke of his appreciation for the bookstores around Pender and Richards, with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Everyone knows Bill Richardson from CBC. He talked of purchasing a house in tiny Holman, Manitoba, and the pleasures he is getting from country living. He was as witty and insightful as always.

Trevor Stokes spoke about his students in the alternative Streetfront program at Britannia Secondary School. Many of his students have taken up marathoning, with incredible results, and some of them attended the salon that night too. It is always a very special thing to see a teacher who is extremely proud of his students.

Eran Sudds was struck with postpartum depression after the birth of her son. She got the help she needed, and seeks to encourage other women to do the same.

Robert Sung operates Wok Around Chinatown food tours. He spoke with pride of his father, who helped build Canada while still not being allowed citizenship. As Chinatown is my neighborhood of choice, I am certain that his clients have no shortage of great places to visit.

Once again, Sam and Lynn brought together a group of eight local people with fascinating stories. Keep your eye out for the next one happening in a few months!



A night at the salon: Global Civic Policy Salon, October 28

I liken the Global Civic Policy Salons to a tasting menu at a high-quality, innovative restaurant. Each course is well-prepared, and some are exactly to your taste, but the other courses are still intriguing and fun.

The salon follows a format of seven minutes per speaker. It is always astonishing how much can be said in that time with a well-prepared speaker.

At the October 28 salon, I was particularly taken by Alexander Weimann on the harpsichord. In seven minutes, he not only explained how and why he had moved to Canada, and eventually Vancouver, in his dual roles with Early Music Vancouver and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, but performed a couple of beautiful pieces on a lovely harpsichord. I am constantly encouraging people to take advantage of the great cultural opportunities Vancouver offers, rather than pining and complaining about what it does not. The music that Weimann brings to Vancouver is top-quality, and we are very lucky to have his talent in our city. I strongly recommend you look up the Early Music Vancouver schedule and attend a concert.

2015-10 Public Salon-10

Sam Sullivan, who with his partner Lynn Zanatta, pioneered this salon format which originated from personal dinner parties they gave, said that he specifically tries to avoid themes when selecting speakers, but that themes always emerge. That phenomenon was clear when we heard both from Judy Graves, a tireless and well-spoken advocate for the homeless in Vancouver, and from Bob Rennie, better known as “the condo king”. Graves reminded us how the homeless crisis has mushroomed, how we never used to see homeless people hanging around downtown, because just about everyone, save for a very few, could somehow find some room somewhere. Things have changed fundamentally, for various reasons. She urged us to consider the plight of a homeless person stuck in the rain, with wet socks and shoes. The average homeless person loses 20-30 years of life expectancy. Graves often tried to find shelter spots for homeless people, and did not always succeed. For such a complex subject in seven minutes, Graves masterfully led us through the current situation, how it got this way, and what the consequences are.


In a way, I thought Bob Rennie was brave to speak after Graves, knowing that many people blame him for the current high prices of real estate in Vancouver, and see him as an evil force of gentrification, which I consider to be a gross oversimplification. But Rennie did not mention that, nor talk about condos. Rennie was there to talk about the art he has collected, including some explosive American photographic images that make very serious points about gun violence. Rennie has a public art gallery in the Wing Sang building (which he has renovated), and is Chair of the Tate North American Acquisitions Committee (have you ever been to the Tate Modern in London — if not, go!).

Another speaker, Daniel Kalla, focused on how to have a dual career, in his case as an emergency-room physician and as a fiction author (it’s interesting that Rennie also has a dual career of sorts as an art collector and condo developer). The key, as one might expect, is not to waste time on frivolous pursuits. Kalla claims to be lazy, but his literary output suggests otherwise. It is true that emergency room physicians do have the benefit of strictly defined shifts, but that just means they have what approximates to a 40-hour work week. I am always trying to balance my cultural pursuits with my need to stay current in my technical field (which I also really enjoy), so I can relate somewhat.

Corey Ashworth talked about his campaign to help LGBT seniors who have been forced by circumstances to go back into the closet. How can this be, in 2015? Sometimes they have to rely on people who are not accepting of who they are. Take a look at Ashworth’s March Sweater Project:

Nicole Bridger spoke about the importance of fashion with a conscience, and the sadness of recently closing her Vancouver factory, although she hopes to develop some other approaches to this problem. Kevin Chong sounds like a very interesting author, and Dale McClanaghan offered us the promise of a Granville Island with a lot more creative spaces, once Emily Carr University makes the move to east Vancouver.

For the $20 ticket price, you will rarely find such a stimulating and diverse set of ideas in one evening. Not to mention, the evening started with the folk duo “No Mothers” playing some fun music. Sign up so you can be sure of finding out about the next salon in a few months time.

Review: The Incomplete Folksinger (Firehall Theatre, until November 14)

A skilled actor can sustain an illusion, and make us believe. That’s what I found compelling about Mark Hellman’s one-man show where he plays Pete Seeger, complete with banjo and guitar and his own voice. When Hellman came back on the stage for a Q&A after the show, it was clear just how well he had sustained the illusion. I could hear and see Seeger in Hellman’s performance (I have seen many Seeger performances on YouTube and elsewhere), but with Hellman on the stage as himself, it was clear just how remarkable a transformation it was.

Event information

The show takes us through Seeger narrating his life, using material from Seeger’s 1972 600-page biography, The Incompleat Folksinger.  Seeger died in 2014 at the age of 94, so this book is still far from the complete story of Seeger’s life.

As a huge Pete Seeger and folk music fan, I loved this show. But my companion, whose tastes are somewhat different, still enjoyed the show as well. The play is not just about Pete Seeger, but about politics, folk music preservation, fascinating events in American history, and finding the courage to constantly be fighting for what you think is right.

Seeger started his career as a would-be journalist during the Great Depression, and could not help but notice all of the suffering. Soon he met Guthrie, perhaps his most influential collaborator. It was Guthrie who got Seeger out to explore the width and breadth of America, starting with a car Guthrie had not yet paid for, and continuing with riding the freight trains. In the aftermath of a 1949 concert with African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson, Seeger and his family were the victims of an orchestrated Ku Klux Klan attack where stones were hurled at his vehicle as they attempted to drive away.

Seeger was threatened many times for his political activism. He was in Mississippi when the bodies of three civil-rights workers were found in 1963. He was continually being prevented from appearing on television, although sometimes succeeding too. The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) tried to force Seeger to incriminate his friends. He waged a difficult legal battle, and fought criminal charges for refusing to speak, but ultimately prevailed. What Hellman did not dwell on, and what might be Seeger’s greatest error, was his initial support of Stalin, which lasted over a period of years, and was eventually admitted by Seeger to be an error.

All through this, Hellman would take up the banjo or guitar as appropriate, and sing another Pete Seeger song, or a song that Seeger had popularized. One of my favorites is “Lonesome Valley” (which a little online research indicates is a gospel song that predated both Seeger and Guthrie), but was popularized by both. I don’t have a video of Hellman, but here is Seeger singing it with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo:

The Q&A was fun. Hellman discussed the difficult process of winnowing down the 600-page autobiography to a single night’s performance. Hellman said there was more than enough material for another show. An audience member pointed out that Bob Dylan was omitted, as well as the notorious electric guitar controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but as Hellman pointed out, the book only discussed Dylan as a songwriter, and thus, to winnow the material down, the decision was made to exclude him.

I asked about when Seeger started singing Spanish-language songs. Seeger is well-known for his Guantanamera and De Colores covers, but I was unaware that Seeger’s love for Spanish-language music included a love of Spanish Civil War songs. I researched a bit, and found a 1940s-era album featuring Seeger and other folk singers, titled Songs of the Spanish Civil War: Volume 1.

Here is Pete Seeger singing one of these songs in 1993 (with translations provided by his singer grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who I have been fortunate enough to see perform in both New York and the Vancouver Folk Festival):

Pete Seeger did not seek out fame or fortune. He lived modestly, in a home he had built himself. Even into his 90s, he continued his political activism, through song and otherwise. Among the things I find interesting about Pete Seeger is how he combined his own creative genius with those of so many who came before and after him, and how he worked with others on the causes he found so important, including cleaning up the Hudson River.

Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon returns October 28

Buy tickets

Another diverse lineup of interesting and accomplished speakers. These are always fun, and always bring new ideas and ways of thinking to the fore. Speaker list (quoting from email):

Cory Ashworth Vancouver radio personality championing new social enterprise.
Nicole Bridger fashion designer with a social conscience.
Kevin Chong author and commentator on life in Vancouver.
Judy Graves advocate for homeless people.
Daniel Kalla renowned author and head of St. Paul’s ER on the challenge of dual careers.
Dale McClanaghan on the meaning and future of Granville Island.
Bob Rennie, Art Vancouver and the Dalai Lama.
Alexander Weimann internationally renowned musician making Vancouver his new home.

Some, like Bob Rennie, are controversial.

Review: The Traveller (at Havana Restaurant Theatre until September 20)

Ulysses, the Ancient Mariner, and many other figures in literature represent the wise, grizzled traveller who returns and reports the terrible, the fantastical, and the unimaginable. A young protegé lacking in experience listens to the old traveller, but ultimately must make these discoveries for himself–and that is the story of the Traveller, playing at the Havana Theatre as part of Vancouver Fringe. Jung uncovered the archetypes of the Traveller (like Ulysses who returns) and the Eternal Wanderer (the one who cannot return, like Cain).

These classical archetypes pervade the Traveller. Imagine a story, partly sung and partly narrated, accompanied by The Traveller intermittently playing his guitar and mouth organ. Max Kashetsky plays the role of The Traveller who has been advised by an elder traveller, only to find himself gaining experience and knowledge he had not bargained for nor wished for. As travellers, want to see new things, exciting things, things that shake us out of our humdrum existences–but what happens when we do?

For me, the play brought up some questions and considerations. Do we shed our identities when we travel, like The Traveller says we do? I’m inclined to say that in the past, perhaps we did. But now, that is much harder to do in a hyper-connected universe. I am not someone with a blank slate when I meet someone when I travel–he or she can look me up on Facebook or Google in a moment (and we do–connections made while traveling need not be ephemeral anymore, and often they are not). There’s a perhaps related phenomenon where long-distance travel can feel just like I took a somewhat inconvenient bus trip–literally it can be just as fast for me to fly to Mexico City as it is to get to Hope without a car, and I would actually feel more at ease in Mexico City, because of familiarity. What feels like home and what feels like a neighborhood is not anchored in physical space.

I am drawn to this play for a multitude of reasons, being a frequent traveler, someone who loves visiting Latin America, and having a strong interest in the philosophy of what it means to travel or be at home. We navigate vast distances and endure numerous hardships, but ultimately living with the results can be the most challenging of all.

Reviews from Dancing on the Edge Performances (concluded July 11)

Throughout the various performances I saw over several days, one constant stood out. The musical scores were always intriguing, varied, and unexpected. These types of performances are ephemeral, and it’s hard to capture in words why they gave these impressions. But if you have the chance, attend Dancing on the Edge (or other contemporary dance performances) for the sound as much as for the dance.

I have focused on a few pieces that left a strong impression, but all of the pieces were worth seeing and hearing.

Edge Up, Sunday, July 5


I have seen several of Hong Kong Exile’s performances. These works are typically multi-disciplinary, and NineEight is no exception. The company members mostly all have strong personal connections to Hong Kong. Intrinsic to such connections, is an undercurrent of fear and menace not just from mainland China, but also that Cantonese culture in general, including in Vancouver, is being lost. Their recent “Centre A” art gallery presentation, transgression/cantosphere, in Vancouver’s Chinatown focused on the Cantonese culture that is slipping away on a daily basis.

So my political and cultural expectations were set from my personal knowledge, which may influence my interpretation (as it always does). Not to mention I visited Hong Kong last year and saw the brave participants of the Umbrella Revolution up close. I struggle to describe the work, but I was left with impressions of media and manipulation, of tradition and modernity, of being pulled in numerous directions. I felt engaged with this piece, both in terms of movement and sound, throughout.

I was happy to read that this production of NineEight is just the beginning for this work. It will be staged in an open rehearsal at Gateway Theatre on September 11-12, 2015. So I recommend you attend that, even if you caught it this time around.

this hallow space has a corridor

For this piece, which was intriguing but difficult to recount, I was particularly struck by the initial sounds, which reminded me of a Van de Graaf generator in a rainstorm.

Edge 2, Tuesday, July 7


Analyzing a piece when you aren’t sure of its meaning is risky for the critic. But given how the dancers in this festival repeatedly pushed the boundaries, I will try to be slightly brave. Here’s what I saw and felt in this piece.

The actor engages with a large piece of patterned fabric indigenous to the Philippines. He is first entangled and almost strangled by it. He finally succeeds in removing it. He tries leaving it completely alone. He tries wrapping the rectangle up small and using it in different ways (for example, as a hat). Ultimately, he dons the fabric again, but this time in a dress form. He suggestively sashays in a stereotypically feminine way. Perhaps the dancer, Alvin Erasga Tolentino, can best incorporate his indigenous culture into his life when he recognizes the feminine aspects of himself.

Regardless of the accuracy of this interpretation, this was one of the most engaging solo pieces I saw at Dancing on the Edge.

Edge 3, Tuesday, July 7


What I took from this piece was a riff on Creation stories, particularly feeling the influence of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, with a touch of Frankenstein. I do not see any of that in the official description, but that is what I got from it. The lighting (as was typical for DOTE) was excellent in focusing our attention. The dancer, Billy Marchenski, was nearly nude, giving the performance a primeval feel. I strongly felt the creativity and energy of the dancer.

Final note

Every time I attend a contemporary dance performance, I tell myself I have to learn more. Time is always precious, but I wonder if a free course like this might be useful to those of us who seek to improve our knowledge:

Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works (from Coursera)

Reviews: Misfit Blues and Weaver Woman (Dancing on the Edge Festival, until July 11)

Dancing on the Edge Festival focuses on varied and innovative dance performances. You are sure to see something challenging and different, no matter which of the many shows you pick.

Misfit Blues and Weaver Woman could not be more different, but they both demonstrated excellent performances.

Misfit Blues, developed by Paul-Andre Fortier, is minimalist. It includes theatrical elements that reminded me of a Samuel Beckett play. The movements are geometric, angular, and spare. The color palette is also minimal, solid colors in neutral tones. Often there is no soundtrack, but when there is, it’s an electronic drone. The man and woman dancers, enact various phases of a relationship, have a universal quality

Credit Xavier Curnillon

Weaver Woman, based on a traditional folktale found throughout Asia and presented with Chinese and Japanese and Korean elements, is a visual and aural extravaganza, combining traditional Chinese and Western instruments, beautiful costumes, and projected visuals. “A woman in a window, some stars, the rain and a man crossing a river…” The storyline is clearly spoken. An abstract sculpture hangs from the ceiling, and as the evening progresses, various colors and abstract Asian-language characters are projected on it. The music is soulful and evocative.

Credit Trevan Wong

These are just two of the many performances in this year’s festival. The programme is broad and exciting. Take a look!

Pianist Sergei Saratovsky at Müzewest Fundraising concert, May 22

In an era of constant budget cuts, music and art education and experiences are cut, despite their very real contributions to children’s lives. Children being able to play in a band or get music lessons does not happen by magic (even Louis Armstrong learned to play the trumpet as part of a school program). Organizations like Müzewest and St. James Academy bring music to children in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. I was invited to attend the Müzewest May 22 fundraising concert, which was a pleasure to do. Apart from the piano concert, founder Jennifer West called up some of the other volunteers in Müzewest for recognition, and it’s clear this is a group that really is passionate about musical outreach. Sergei Saratovsky started his programme with Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat major. This piece seems simple enough that I have even tried it myself, but like Liszt’s works in general, it takes a great deal of virtuosity and delicacy to make it work properly, which Saratovsky adeptly demonstrated. Liszt starts with a languid expression of love (this is a Dream of Love after all), which reaches a passionate crescendo. I was fortunate to have an excellent seat where I could see Saratovsky playing. Students think in terms of “mastering” a piece, which is itself an enormous challenge with works like the Chopin and Rachmainoff pieces that Saratovsky performed (.Frédéric Chopin – Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) – Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 and Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff – Lullaby). But what I see in Saratovsky goes beyond mastery; he is collaborating with the music, channeling the music, emanating the music. Small venues like for this concert allow a much more personal experience. I was really taken by the last work of the evening–Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – Three Movements from the Ballet “Petrouchka”. Rachmaninoff, of course, demands a lot of his pianists, but Stravinsky’s demands here are at least equal. As I was listening, I could swear I heard ragtime influences. Could this be? I did some research and found that Stravinsky was indeed influenced by ragtime, although admittedly I have not specifically seen a study of ragtime in Petrouchka. I also found that Stravinsky had originally arranged this piano version for Arthur Rubinstein.  I have not listened to the Rubenstein version (given that Rubinstein never recorded it), but Saratovsky did Stravinsky justice. Here’s a description of the work that explains its challenges: petrouchka It might seem trite to say so, but with modern classical music in particular, it must be performed very well for the audience to be able to appreciate it. Saratovsky rose to this challenge admirably. I want to hear Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka again, sooner rather than later. You can see Saratovsky’s YouTube channel here: His website is here: Sergei Saratovsky This week, May 30 at 7:30, Müzewest has another concert that looks terrific as well. Attend, enjoy, and donate and know that you are helping propagate music by doing so. Take a look: