It’s ironic that The Aldeburgh Connection, a concert series that excels in casting an intimate, salon-like glow at every performance, is going big and splashy for its 30th anniversary celebration at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon.
That concert, which features 16 singers fostered and showcased over the history of this art-song performance series, is, without a doubt, one of this season’s must-hear events.
The guests are a who’s who of Canadian talent: Gerald Finley, Nathalie Paulin, Gillian Keith, Michael Colvin, Brett Polegato, Colin Ainsworth, Benjamin Butterfield, Tyler Duncan, Shannon Mercer, Susan Platts, Lauren Segal, Krisztina Szabó, Giles Tomkins, Monica Whicher and Lawrence Wiliford.
Co-artistic directors and piano accompanists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata give up their usual hosting duties to mezzo Catherine Robbin and former Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton.
Sunday’s showcase piece will be Ralph Vaughan William’s Serenade to Music, written for 16 singers (see video below).
Ralls and Ubukata, who met at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in England in 1977, started the Alderbugh Connection as a wouldn’t-it-be-fun song recital at University of Toronto’s Hart House on Feb. 21, 1982.
There was enough of an audience interested in the art song repertoire to encourage the duo to slowly expand into a small regular season of Sunday-afternoon concerts, usually held at Walter Hall (supplemented in recent years with a couple of summertime events in Bayfield, where the couple has a cottage).
The Aldeburgh format is a compelling mix of words and music, themed around a particular composer, influential arts figure or place. This has allowed for programmes that focus on French mélodies or Schubert Lieder or, say, the musical passions of Jane Austen.
In what could very easily become a dry format, Ralls and Ubukata always add a dash of wit. They take the music very seriously, but have a knack for keeping their audiences entertained.
I first met the couple around the time of the Aldeburgh Connection’s fifth anniversary. Ralls was teaching voice at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Ubukata was a freelance accompanist, coach and assistant organist at St. Simon’s Anglican Church on Bloor St. E.
Between moving to Toronto and getting my own organist’s job, I sang at St. Simon’s. It didn’t take long to get invited to Ralls and Ubukata’s Annex home, where a concert grand piano stretched through the full length of what should have been the dining room.
The couple were — and continue to be — the best kind of mentors, sharing their love of literature and music, peppering any conversation with caustic wit, and encouraging guests to mix freely amongst themselves.
As has been the case with so many people who have crossed their literal and figurative thresholds, I’ve loved the curiosity, laughter and friendship that go with knowing Ralls and Ubukata.
Every bit of that openness comes across at an Aldeburgh Connection concert, making for that ineffable magic.
Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was born as an anniversary piece. Dedicated to BBC Proms founder Sir Henry Wood, its 1938 Albert Hall premiere commemorated the 50th anniversary of his first concert. Lore has it that Sergei Rachmaninov, who was in the audience for its premiere, broke down and wept at its beauty.
The composer borrowed the text from Act 5 of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Here is a beautiful recording of the original, 16-part version, with the London Philharmonic led by Sir Adrian Boult. The singers are Ian Partridge, Meriel Dickinson, John Noble, Bernard Dickerson, Christopher Keyte, Gloria Jennings, John Carol Case, Kenneth Bowen, Marie Hayward, Norma Burrowes, Richard Angas, Sheila Armstrong, Shirley Minty, Susan Longfield, Wynford Evans and Alfreda Hodgson: