The Orpheus Project: Reflections

Performing "recurrerre" by James B. Maxwell in the cellar of the Cultch. Photo by Jan Gates.
Performing “recurrere” by James B. Maxwell in the cellar of the Cultch. Photo by Jan Gates.

It’s usually my intention to blog about concerts and events before they occur so that anyone interested would have a chance to go. Alas, that didn’t quite happen with the Orpheus Project, Music on Main’s monster project at the Cultch, which ran from July 17 – 20. Real life (specifically a stint of work in Toronto, immediately followed by moving apartments, prepping for a music appreciation course, and, finally, saying farewell to my dear old pet newt, Smokey) conspired to make an already busy month even more hectic. But now, two weeks later, I’m still haunted by the Orpheus Project: I find myself daydreaming about it, playing over images and sounds in my head… I’ve even been dreaming about it. So today I’m going to reflect on what was one of the most ambitious, daring, and satisfying music events I’ve ever been involved in.

The Orpheus Project was an immersive event that opened up the entire Cultch Theatre to the audience and transformed it into a surreal playground of myth and music. Inspired by the many tellings and retellings of the Orpheus legend — his loss of Eurydice, his decent into the Underworld, and his ultimate grisly demise — the audience is divided into groups, each one taken on a unique journey throughout the theatre, from the main stage, to the catacombs beneath, even to a creepy shower stall at the top of the building. Over the course of the evening, they piece together their own account of Orpheus’ plight — a life full of love, loss, heroism, doubt, violence, and of course, music. New works were written especially for this event by Veda Hille, James Beckwith Maxwell, Cassandra Miller, Jocelyn Morlock, and Alfredo Santa Ana. These new commissions were placed alongside pre-existing interpretations of the Orpheus myth, including those by Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Andriessen, Handel, and Truax — though no single audience member could hear all the works in a single evening (inspiring some listeners to go a second night and follow a different group). Everyone came away from the Orpheus Project with a different narrative, a different interpretation.

Instead of sitting still for 90 minutes in a theatre and witnessing a musical narrative unfold before them, the audience is sent off to discover the story themselves. Each group follows a unique path, stumbling across events that gradually, over the course of the evening, form a bizarre mosaic of the Orpheus legend: some of these events are musical performances; others are ominous meetings with oracles (who were, in fact, composers Cassandra Miller and Jocelyn Morlock, and poet Colin Browne).

For me, the cellar was the most exciting part of the Orpheus Project — the deepest level of the Cultch was only visited by two of the five groups, giving it a slightly exclusive feel. But there was also this idea of stumbling upon the darkest corners of the Orpheus myth: cellars are dark, sunless places full of secrets and regrets, and I think a beautiful job was done creating a deliciously unsettling atmosphere here. Flutist Laura Barron and I performed a duet by James Maxwell that was cunningly coordinated to clips from a Cocteau film in a room full of mirrors and candles, while down the hall Cassandra Miller presided over the unsuspecting with wordless benedictions — and provided a glimpse into their future through scraps of music retrieved from boxes placed before them.

Some of the most exciting parts of the Orpheus Project took place when the audience wasn’t even there. Many times, Laura and I would calmly finish a piece and wait patiently until the last person had left the room… and instantly bolt out another stairwell to ensure we were in place for the next group about to arrive in another part of the theatre. In fact, the Project had an interesting way of creating comradery with the performers involved (which, it should be mentioned, included the outstanding soprano Carla Huhtanen, baritone Steve Maddock, violist Matt Davies, cellist Rebecca Wenham, pianist/harpsichordist Christopher Bagan, singer/pianist Veda Hille, and actor Patti Allan); as musicians, we aren’t often asked to contribute “physically” to an event. Everything we did before the audience — whether it was playing, or moving from one part of the stage to another, or simply picking up the instrument — had an incredible sense of purpose to it, and it made every musician more committed to the task at hand. As a result, throughout the run there was a unique sense of bonding, of contributing to a greater whole. It was unforgettable, really.

The full ensemble performing the finale by Alfredo Santa Ana/G.F. Handel.
The full ensemble performing the finale by Alfredo Santa Ana/G.F. Handel. Photo by Jan Gates.

Enjoy the photos that are attached here — photos are, of course, only photos (though the ones by Jan Gates are exceptionally beautiful) and can never give you an accurate idea of the beautiful and chilling soundworld that accompanies them. So here’s hoping the Orpheus Project sees the light of day sometime soon!

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