Concert Preview: Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Introduction to Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Two extraordinary concerts are taking place at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Fri. Oct. 27 and Fri. Nov. 3, which marks the third incarnation of Unsound Toronto, the brainchild of Unsound Festival artistic director Mat Schulz and executive director Malgorzata (Gosia) Plysa, based in Krakow, Poland.

Those first two ground-breaking manifestations took place at the derelict Hearn Generating Station in 2015 and 2016 as part of the Luminato Festival. They created a sensation with their unique sound and light show that included experimental music and innovative visuals. The 2017 edition continues with the same sort of brilliant programming.

Halloween High (Oct. 27) features live music with dance and film. The program opens with a screening of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi thriller and cult film, Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, based on Michel Faber’s unsettling futuristic 2000 novel. Academy Award-nominated composer Mica Levi’s original soundtrack is played live by the Unsound Toronto Ensemble led by rising star Canadian conductor Evan Mitchell. The second part features revered American electronica musician Jlin playing her original score for Autobiography Edits, a new dance piece by acclaimed British choreographer Wayne McGregor, associate artist at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The movement is inspired by McGregor’s DNA and the sequencing of his own genome.

Halloween Hangover (Nov. 3) is all about international, cutting edge new music and mind-blowing visual technology. Poland’s legendary Ksiezyc (which means “Moon”) kick-starts the evening. The five-member experimental group performs a mysterious and haunting combination of ancient Slavic music, minimalism and psychedelia soundscapes using a bizarre mix of instruments and vocals. American Emmy Award-winning composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (from the Austin, Texas-based band SURVIVE) perform their eerie, original, synthesized music written for the hit Netflix TV series, Stranger Things. This sequence includes a specially commissioned lighting installation /stage design/video projection environment created by acclaimed German visual artists MFO (a.k.a. Marcel Weber) and Theresa Baumgartner. Influential German minimalist techno artist, Wolfgang Voigt, closes the concert with GAS, his unique ambient symphonic score inspired by the dark forests of his homeland.

The Interview

Unsound executive director Gosia Plysa was reached in Krakow, Poland via Skype.

What’s the background of the Unsound Festival?

It began as a small annual new music festival in Krakow founded by Australian writer Mat Schulz and a friend in 2003. The emphasis was on electronic music, a keen interest of Mat’s, which was virtually unknown in Poland. It sort of had a DIY ethos. I came on board as a volunteer in 2006. At that time everyone was a volunteer. In 2008 we got extra funding which meant we could grow the festival to include smaller touring versions we call Dislocations. We also were able to establish cultural exchanges, co-presentations, and satellite festivals all over the world. Our big international breakthrough was the incredible success of Unsound New York in 2010. Besides the yearly flagship festival in Krakow, this year Unsound is taking place in Toronto, Adelaide and London.

Where did the name “Unsound” come from? I think it’s really clever given what the festival entails.

I’m not sure. I think it was suggested by Mat’s brother in Australia.

How did Unsound move beyond being just an avant-garde, electronica music festival?

The heart of Unsound has always been artistic risk-taking and experimentation, so it was a natural outgrowth to connect new music with other art forms. We began by setting up collaborative projects, even putting people together from diverse geo-political backgrounds. We see Unsound as facilitating creative collaboration. We love pushing artists into new formats, and doing things for the first time. For example, musician Jlin had never composed music for dance before working with choreographer Wayne McGregor.

The piece that McGregor recently premiered at Sadler’s Wells is called Autobiography. What is Autobiography Edits that’s being performed in Toronto?

It’s a condensed touring version of the piece using less dancers, but it still captures the intense essence of the original. Jlin’s driving rhythms underscore the restless movement that represents the continual evolution of the human body.

Unsound is now also known for an eclectic range of new music, as well as state of the art visual technology – in other words, eye and ear grabbing light and sound shows.

That’s true. We are very conscious of the development of contemporary music and what new sounds are coming from the latest technology. Unsound concerts can feature electronica, acoustic instruments, improv jazz, club music.

One of your earlier concerts took place in a Polish salt mine. Your first two events here in Toronto transformed the Hearn Generating Station into a mind-boggling audio/visual palace. Now you’re performing in the traditional seated Bluma Appel Theatre. Does a traditional venue cramp Unsound’s style?

 We certainly love adapting challenging spaces and creating new environments in abandoned post-industrial venues. By the same token, we also like to play with putting unexpected sounds in traditional theatres. Each context has validity, and our aim for both is to attract new and different audiences.

How important is the home crowd to an Unsound concert?

 Very. For each satellite festival, we connect with the local scene, like the musicians making up the Unsound Toronto Ensemble accompanying the film Under the Skin. Everywhere we go, we are building networks.

I know that each Unsound festival you present, whether at home or abroad, is built around a theme. This Unsound Toronto is clearly inspired by Halloween.

 Both line-ups convey Halloween in different ways. They’re both dark or even spooky, but sit together in unexpected combinations. Halloween High includes Under The Skin, a sci-fi/horror film which has an utterly mesmerizing score by Mica Levi. The double bill also features a show by Jlin – one of the most hyped electronic musicians of the year – with dancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Together they perform Autobiography Edits – a work that tonally, I think, will intersect with Under The Skin in an interesting way, but will leave the audience on a high.

Halloween Hangover features synth musicians Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein playing live music from the hit horror TV series Stranger Things, which very clearly fits the Halloween vibe. The second season will even be launched on Netflix for Halloween! Alongside this is an A/V show from legendary German electronic composer GAS who plays ambient music, often with a deeply submerged techno beat, while the visuals take the audience through dark, almost hallucinatory forests. It’s a very intense experience. Also on the line-up is the Polish band Ksiezyc, channelling ancient Slavic music to create a show that is very otherworldly, even mystical. This is a powerful trio of shows that I think will leave audiences with a mix of contrasting and vivid impressions.

Finally, how would you compare the two concerts?

The second evening is darker – more mellow and mystical. The sounds reflect horror and witching.

Unsound Toronto is presented by Unsound, Civic Theatres Toronto, and the Luminato Festival.

(For tickets to Unsound Toronto: Call 1-855-872-7669 or visit

TIFF Movies 2016 – Best and Worst

Saw 21 films, almost all of them enjoyable. Due to a broken neck, (I kid you not), caused by a very bad fall in early August, I had to construct a list of films where I didn’t have to switch theatres during the day. I also needed decent access because of my walker, so there are more big-budget English language movies than I would usually choose. My directors were largely women, although that was happenstance and not design. By coincidence, I also happened to see the top three People’s Choice Award films (La La Land, Lion, and Queen of Katwe) which is a first for me.

tiff-2016Top of the LineA United Kingdom (UK – Interracial marriage of future king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and British government’s relentless campaign against the couple).

Very Strong Heaven Will Wait (France – teenage girls being radicalized into jehadis), Aquarius (Brazil – the great Sonia Braga as a woman fighting against developers trying to evict her), In Between (Israel/France – travails of three young Arab women living in Tel Aviv), Christine (USA – news anchor in Florida who committed suicide on air), Burn Your Maps (USA – a little boy who thinks he’s Mongolian), Safari (Austria – droll exposé documentary of big game hunters).

Most Artistic/Cinema As ArtBrimstone (Netherlands – incest and revenge in the american old west).

Most PeculiarSalt and Fire (Germany – kidnapped research scientist abandoned in the Bolivian salt flats with two blind Indian children – Werner Herzog strikes again).

Bottom of the Gene PoolLa La Land (USA – a derivative, unoriginal, predictable attempt at a movie musical with insipid score and routine performances – won the People’s Choice Award proving that you can fool some of the people some of the time).

The Rest of My TIFF Films 2016 – The Rehearsal (New Zealand), Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Egypt), Their Finest (UK), In Dubious Battle (USA), The Exception (UK), The Secret Scripture (Ireland), Loving (USA), Lion (Australia), Queen of Katwe (Uganda/South Africa), Strange Weather (USA), Mascots (USA).

Paula’s Picks and Pans

This week/weekend there is a deluge of openings. In dance, there’s ProArteDanza, Kathleen Rea, and Red Sky, not to mention Theatre Gargantua and the new music concert Unsound. One hopes they all find an audience.

Dance Theatre Review – Adelheid/Theatre Centre – what it’s like

strauss1The best way to describe choreographer Heidi Strauss’ latest work, what it’s like, is a stream of consciousness about brotherhood. The totality of the piece is brotherhood looked at from very personal relationships to the larger metaphor of a world in chaos. Three charismatic male dancers – Michael Caldwell, Luke Garwood and Naishi Wang (who are listed as co-creators) – move on a random journey with the audience literally following them through their travels. They laugh, challenge, one-up, pretend fight, play games – men will be boys, so to speak – but they also morph into very serious and dangerous situations. Risk is a big factor in brotherhood, it would seem.

The images that are evoked through the organic movement physicality swing from stark reality to allegory. For example, we first see them lying on the floor, heads almost touching in a most intimate way, having a lark trying to win at word games. Later in the performance, they use volunteers from the audience to manipulate their bodies as if they were puppets. These ungainly physical patterns, that began with laughter, then become the diktat when the men move on their own. They are lemmings heading over the cliff at someone else’s command. There is no linear plot. Rather, the audience is swept away on a tide of imagination, and the joy of the piece is being constantly surprised by what comes next in the parade of fanciful vignettes. Over time the men develop key personality traits which seem to carry on throughout in various guises, which makes for interesting personality dynamics. Garwood is the heavy, Caldwell is the provocateur, and Wang is the endearing goofuss.

strauss2what it’s like was developed through a residency at the Theatre Centre, and the work certainly shows the loving care that can arise out of a gradual process of development and exploration. Strauss and her design collaborators have divided up the stage and backstage area into different spaces, almost like corners of the mind. Curtains go up, and curtains come down, in the most unexpected ways. The last setting created with criss-crossing laser lights is absolutely both magical and scary. The use of space is outstanding.

Strauss has worked with a gilt-edged design team –Julie Fox (scenic designer), Jeremy Mimnagh (sound and projection), Simon Rossiter (lighting), Alana Elmer (costumes) – with esteemed vocal coach Fides Krucker thrown in for good measure. The production/theatrical values are top of the line. As for her performers, they are at once charming and infuriating.

The best way to enjoy the work is to let oneself be carried away on the flood. One should leave their reason and logic at the door along with their bags and shoes (the audience is naked, as it were). what it’s like is meant to be experienced, and when the audience emerges at the end, and confronts their possessions individually wrapped in plastic, like evidence bags, and piled in the centre of the room, it is both chaotic and familiar – like the world we live in. The time for analysis is later.

strauss3Perhaps the most interesting feature is that a female choreographer has taken on exploring a male perspective. Strauss says in her program notes that the piece arose out of her desire to try to make sense of the world. “So what is it about brotherhood?” she asks. Judging from what it’s like, she discovered that brotherhood is both warmth and war.

So Heidi, when are we going to get sisterhood?

what it’s like, choreographed by Heidi Strauss, continues at The Theatre Centre until Oct. 2.



Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Rossini’s Maometto II

Maometto3-GB-85For bel canto fanatics, (among which number I count myself), the COC production of Rossini’s Maometto II (1820) will be nirvana. For others, the composer’s florid musical style, expressed through non-stop ornamentation, will seem like coloratura torture, and, not surprisingly, there were a significant number of early departures who did not come back after the intermission. Tant pis to them.

Rossini wrote far more opera seria than he did opera buffa, although it is the latter for which he is known. Yet, it is his opera seria that laid the groundwork for the bel canto composers who followed, with Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi being the most famous. Rossini’s opera seria abound with orchestral accompanied recitatives, massive choruses, and a never-ending fund of principal singer ensembles be they duets, trios, quartets or larger. If the music of Maometto II sounds familiar, you probably own the old LP of L’assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth) starring Beverly Sills, which was Rossini’s 1826 revised version of Maometto II for Paris – Le siege de Corinthe – in its Italian libretto.

This COC production, which originated at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012, is a new critical edition, and most importantly, the first performance of the original Maometto II since Teatro San Carlo premiered the work in Naples in 1820. In other words, Maometto II is opera history writ large, and this is what opera aficionados live for: the staging of rarities. Please Alexander Neef, give us more.

15-16-06-MC-D-1161I associate English conductor Harry Bicket with early opera, but Maometto II needed someone with experience handling the florid arias of Handel, for example. When you look beneath Rossini’s coloratura wall, there are subtle shifts of emphasis, of nuance, of emotion, and Bicket is able to find these in his orchestral accompaniment. No two arias are the same, but in the hands of a lesser conductor, they could have become a same-same tsunami of ornamentation. The joys of this production are the fine delineation and detail in the music. Bicket gives us what we should be hearing in Rossini’s opera seria. He presents us with the emotional drama that sweeps through the score. Bicket’s conducting and the COC Orchestra’s playing, particularly the obbligato accompaniment by specific instruments, are as good as it gets.

Three of the four principal singers are from the Santa Fe production and what a blessing that is. All of them can toss off coloratura runs with aplomb, and the ornamental heart of Rossini’s music is safe in their hands.

Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni cuts a swaggering presence on the stage. He is every inch Maometto II, the Ottoman leader who is beginning his conquest of Europe by attacking the Venetian outpost of Negroponte. Pisaroni possesses a robust but surprisingly sweet voice which works well. He needs the commanding strength when he is before his armies, but also the tenderness when confronting Anna, the daughter of the Venetian general. The two fell in love when Maometto was in disguise as a Venetian nobleman on a spy mission. To say that Pisaroni has charisma is an understatement. He seems to be moving out of Mozart and Rossini opera buffa into bel canto which is good news indeed.

American soprano Leah Crocetto and fellow American tenor Bruce Sledge are the daughter/father duo, Anna and Paolo Erisso. Erisso is the Venetian general defending Negroponte. Crocetto was a Grand Finals winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and for good reason. She has a rich, clear, soaring voice that thrills the ear. She also radiates emotion in every note. What a career she has in front of her, given she can range from Donna Anna to Aida. Sledge has a bright voice as smooth as honey with no apparent strain at the top. At first, it seems a bit light to capture the Italianate cadence needed for bel canto, but surprise, surprise, Sledge can really turn on the power when needed. He does seem a bit stiff on stage, but his angry father role is pretty limited in terms of characterization.

American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong performs the trouser role of the Venetian officer Calbo, Anna’s intended. She is just a tiny button of a singer who possesses an utterly surprising, full-bodied outpouring of sound that fills the theatre. She is also a coloratura virtuoso with solid placement and flexibility, an all-round talent to be sure. Her gorgeous voice was certainly a crowd-pleaser

15-16-06-MC-D-975American director David Alden and his director brother Christopher have been called “opera’s terrible  twins” by the Times of London. Both are known for their excess of stage business, and on more than one occasion, their over-direction steeped in symbolism has been the bane of my existence. It is David that is responsible for this production of Maometto II, aided and abetted by English designer Jon Morrell, but this time around, he has shown restraint. The production’s visual core is a curved wall from which things open up, or move around, and which are meant to surprise the eye. The stage itself has hidden levels like wells or pits. Alden uses the chorus to move props around while keeping to the beat and the mood of the music. Morrell’s period costumes are simple and direct. Happily, this Alden production does not take away from the music, nor does his stand and deliver staging impede the drama.

COC ensemble members tenor Charles Sy (Venetian nobleman Condulmiero) and tenor Aaron Sheppard (Maometto’s confidant Selimo) perform their small roles respectfully, although both have very light voices in development.

Rossini’s Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company, conducted by Harry Bicket, directed by David Alden, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 29 to May 14.