Tomorrow: The art song is about conveying the text, says tenor Colin Ainsworth


Tenor Colin Ainsworth sings with the Nash Ensemble at Koerner Hall on Thursday.

Colin Ainsworth, whose lyric tenor is one of the golden voices among the younger generation of great Toronto singers, is slipping away from Opera Atelier’s summer production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide, which runs until Aug. 23 at Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York, to perform with England’s Nash Ensemble at Koerner Hall on Thursday night.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival recital has Ainsworth singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ affecting 1909 cycle of six songs, On Wenlock Edge, using the composer’s original accompaniment setting for string quartet and piano.

Vaughan Williams had spent three months studying with Maurice Ravel in Paris before he sat down to set the texts, taken from A Shropshire Lad, a collection of poems by A.E. Housman. The settings brim with colour and atmosphere.

For Ainsworth, “The challenging part is learning the words and the getting the whole arc of the story together,” he says. “What do I want to say? What do I want people to come away with? How can I effectively communicate the text to people?”

He believes art song is more difficult than opera, where one character sings, then gets a rest while another takes up their aria.

Fortunately, Ainsworth has benefited from excellent training in art song in Toronto, at the hands of the Aldeburgh Connection’s Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata. And it was the Talisker Players who first asked him to perform On Wenlock Edge, several seasons ago.

The tenor admits that it’s getting more and more difficult to find opportunities for art song recitals in North America, but says he knows of young singers who are trying to organise small-scale festivals and soirées.

“In a way, I feel like we need to get back to the basics of what recitals used to be, when Schubert went in to somebody’s house, in their living room,” says Ainsworth. “We need smaller venues instead of trying to fill up Roy Thomson Hall.”

He’ll have an opportunity to try one of Toronto’s intimate venues next season, with a date at the Arts & Letters Club. Ainsworth, accompanied by William Aide, will be doing his bit for new Canadian repertoire as well: He has commissioned composer Derek Holman to set a handful of poems for the occasion.

But opera is now an important part of Ainsworth’s career. Over the past couple of seasons, he has sung with Sadler’s Wells (in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna), Calgary Opera, Edmonton Opera, Vancouver Opera and, thanks to a long connection with Opera Atelier, was able to raise his voice at the opera house at Versailles Palace in France this past May.

His opera work next season includes singing Cassio in Verdi’s Otello at Calgary Opera in November, and the role of Tamino in a refreshed Opera Atelier production of Mozart’s Magic Flute next April.

Ainsworth leaves the rest of Thursday’s all-English programme to the Nash Ensemble, who perform the Phantasie piano quartet by Frank Bridge and Edward Elgar’s magnificent Piano Quintet.

For full concert details and tickets, click here.

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In a taste of what the Nash Ensemble can do, here is the slow movement from Elgar’s quintet (from their Hyperion album):

John Terauds

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