People say that CDs are going the way of the dinosaur, but a new CD can still engage me in a way that downloaded music does not. Beyond the sheer joy of listening to good music performed well, I’ve always been a big fan of thoughtful, beautiful packaging. A CD isn’t just a means of presenting music; it can also be an opportunity to showcase great artwork, excellent design, and liner notes that can both enlighten and entertain the listener.

Nearly six years ago Tiresias Duo (my flute-piano duo with Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa) released Delicate Fires: Canadian Music for Flute and Pianothanks to a grant from the Canadian Music Centre BC Region. This CD was a “first” in a number of ways: for both Rachel and me, it was our first commercially available CD recording; the disc also featured three beautiful, newly commissioned pieces by BC composers Jennifer Butler, Jocelyn Morlock, and Rodney Sharman — all of which have enjoyed multiple performances over the years; finally, Delicate Fires was the first CD to be released on the Redshift Records label (the catalogue is is now up to six CDs, with another three on the way). I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with (my then) Co-Artistic Director Jordan Nobles, both of us giggling like a couple of pathetic nerds when we decided to give Delicate Fires the catalogue number “TK421” (hardcore Star Wars fans will appreciate the reference).

Some time last year we realized that we would soon deplete our stock of Delicate Fires CDs, but thanks to generous funding from the City of Vancouver, we were able to afford a second run that not only would keep this CD available for years to come, but would also allow for a sleek new graphic makeover by Simon Butler at ThinkSavvy Designs and bilingual programme notes by Caroline Gauthier. The reissue also features some shots from a photo session Rachel and I did a few years back with the incredibly talented S.D. Holman. And the CD still features cover art by my good friend, the gifted Vancouver-based painter Nancy Blanchard.
And the most exciting part? The CDs arrived on my doorstep today. I’ve included some highlights from the booklet below.

We all have moments that define our lives. For me, one of those moments is hearing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for the first time. I was seventeen when I first heard it performed by the Little Chamber Music Series That Could, conducted by the late and great Wallace Leung. I know statements like “it changed my life forever” are overused…. but seriously, it changed my life forever. I was haunted by it for months after. I couldn’t believe something so psychologically twisted could be so luminously beautiful. I was even reassured by it — all that internal psychobabble that we’re so afraid to admit to in public, it was all there. I often say Pierrot is one of my favourite pieces of music from the 20th century, but that’s not entirely fair: it’s one of my favourite pieces ever.

I’ve been fortunate to have played this piece on numerous occasions: in Victoria, in Prince George, in Montreal, in Vancouver for my DMA degree, and even once in Switzerland alongside an all-star cast that included Stephen Isserlis, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Sharon Kam, Kent Nagano, and the Icelandic pop sensation Björk (an event that remains one of the more bizarre experiences of my life). But these next couple of days are truly special: I’m honoured to perform Pierrot Lunaire with an amazing roster of musicians: Robyn Klassen (soprano), Cris Inguanti (clarinet), David Gillham (violin), Marcus Takizawa (viola), Ariel Barnes (cello), Corey Hamm (piano), and Marguerite Witvoet (conductor). The energy in this group is unbelievable: this is a Pierrot that is vital, throbbing, passionate, and so, so incredibly dark and twisted.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the world of Pierrot: Pierrot Lunaire Op. 21 was written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912 for singer/actress and chamber ensemble. The poetry is by Albert Giraud (translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben). Schoenberg selected twenty-one of these poems and set them to music; they remain some of the eeriest, cleverest, most beautiful stuff ever written. This half-hour song cycle describes the antics of Pierrot, a sadistic clown from the Commedia dell’ arte, drunk on moonlight, carrying out the most outrageous antics: at one point he grabs his friend Cassander and plays him as though he were a giant viola; another time he is convinced that he will be decapitated by the sickle-shaped moon; elsewhere he captures the hapless Cassander, drills a hole in his head(!), stuffs it full of Turkish tobacco and smokes him like a pipe. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up — well, unless you’re Giraud.

In order to pull Pierrot off, you need an exceptional singer. And I’m so thrilled that we’re working with the incredible Robyn Klassen (yes, she’s better than Björk. Like, way better). Robyn perfectly captures the demented side of Pierrot while still imbuing him with heartbreaking humanity. In fact, it’s a little unsettling how easily she slips into the Pierrot psyche. Just sayin’…

Pierrot Lunaire is presented by those monsters at Music on Main, who continue to provide Vancouver with some of the most innovative programming ever. Come join us at the Western Front either Monday the 15th or Tuesday the 16th, grab a drink at the bar, and hear one of the greatest, darkest, most beautiful masterpieces of the 20th century.

Pierrot Lunaire

Monday, October 15 & Tuesday October 16th, 2012

9:00pm

Western Front 303 E 8th Ave, Vancouver

Bar opens at 8:00 pm, Concert starts at 9:00 pm

Single Tickets: $35 ($15 for students)

Victoria, BC is my home-away-from-home. Without question, I spend more time there than any other city besides Vancouver. There are a number of reasons for this: 1.) the beer is spectacular. Really, I mean it: it boasts some of the best microbreweries in North America, including Phillips, Driftwood, and Spinnakers; 2.) the local gin is outstanding. Victoria Spirits is owned and operated by the Murray family, who not only created the most beautiful sipping gin ever, but continues to be stalwart supporters of the arts; 3.) there is an amazing musical culture that is entirely unique — the musicians and composers there continue to be an incredible source of  inspiration and cultural nourishment for me, and my association with the Aventa Ensemble remains one of the most exciting musical collaborations I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing.

So when Victoria’s Open Space asked me to present a concert there this Friday, October 12th, I took the offer very, very seriously. In addition to works for solo flute by Kajia Saariaho, Toru Takemitsu, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Toronto-based composer Gregory Lee Newsome, I’ll be presenting three recent works for flute and percussion with my longtime friend and collaborator Brian Nesselroad: Coming Home by Farshid SamandariIyr by Dubravko Pajalic, and a new premiere for alto flute and percussion, For Annette Brosin, by Victoria-based composer Darren Miller.

If you’re in Victoria this weekend, please consider coming to this concert: the music is incredible, and Brian and I have had a blast putting this repertoire together. And for the record, I want a t-shirt made from the poster image below — I was informed that those are actually flutes burning merrily away…

Mark McGregor, flute and Brian Nesselroad, percussion

Open Space 510 Fort Street, Victoria BC

October 12, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.

General $15; Members, Students $10

I have a confession: I become a monstrous slob when my schedule gets busy. And given that this September has been one of the craziest months ever for me, I think it’s safe to say I’ve degenerated into the world’s worst roommate. As I type this I am snugly nestled between precariously piled towers of dishes, music scores, CDs, instruments, and the occasional beer bottle. But I’m happy to say that it’s all for good reason: this week is the Modulus Festival, and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it. Brought to you by the ingenious folks at Music on Main, the Modulus Festival runs from Sept. 27 – 30 at Heritage Hall, Main Street, Vancouver.

This year’s programme is particularly dear to me: on Thursday the 27th I’ll be teaming up with violinist Müge Büyükçelen to give the world premieres of two works by the internationally acclaimed British composer Michael Finnissy. The first, entitled Mercy and Mankind, is inspired by a Medieval morality play in which Mercy instructs Mankind to resist the temptations of the flesh, warning of the “battle betwix the soul and the body” (Mankind quickly fails in his endeavours to remain virtuous and eventually falls in with the less-than-reputable Three Vices). Mercy and Mankind is at times playful, at times darkly ominous — and the sudden changes from one character to another can be both amusing and disconcerting. Finnissy’s second work for us, Sesto Libro di Gesualdo, is a two-movement character sketch of the great Italian Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo remains one of the more outrageous figures in the world of classical music: returning home early from a hunting trip, he discovered his wife in bed with another man. Consumed by jealous rage, Gesualdo brutally murdered his wife, her lover, and some accounts say he even murdered his infant son, doubting the child’s paternity. To make matters worse, the corpses were publicly displayed on the steps of his palace. Being of nobility, Gesualdo could not be prosecuted for crimes of passion, but the murders would nevertheless haunt him for the rest of his life. Finnissy’s new work presents two chilling portraits of the man: one quietly plagued with doubt, obsession, and guilt; the other engulfed in blinding rage.

September 30th’s concert celebrates the music of another of my favourite composers, Kaija Saariaho. Featuring soprano Robyn Klassen, violinist David Gillham, cellist Becky Wenham, pianists Rachel Iwaasa and Corey Hamm, percussionist Brian Nesselroad, harpist Albertina Chan, and myself, this programme deftly balances warhorses and rarities by this incredibly innovative composer. Personal highlights include Oi Kuu for bass flute and cello (a piece that is at once both incredibly strange and attractive) and Terrestre for solo flute and chamber ensemble — a stunning showpiece that has the flutist not only playing, but shouting, screaming, and reciting text. If you know Saariaho’s music, you know that this isn’t a show to be missed; if you aren’t familiar with her music yet, you’re in for a treat: this music is complex, delicately nuanced, intensely coloured, and utterly delicious.

Summer can be a time of feast or famine for the freelance musician: typically this is when most concert seasons are winding down, but it’s also when a lot of interesting festivals start revving up. I had the privilege of being a part of two truly unique musical celebrations this month: the National Flute Association‘s 2012 conference in Las Vegas and the 2012 Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver.

The American-based National Flute Association is, hands down, the largest flute organization in the world, with approximately 6,000 members from over 50 countries. The annual convention is held each August in a different American city, where literally thousands of flutists from across the world converge to listen, learn, share, and network. This year’s convention took place in Las Vegas — at no less prestigious a venue than Caesar’s Palace! On Friday, August 10th, fellow flutist Jessica Raposo and I presented a concert at the convention entitled “True, North, Strong, and Free: New Works by Canadian Composers”. Jessica gave a beautiful performance of “Sleeves of Green” by Yvonne Gillespie, while I gave the American premiere of Christopher Kovarik‘s Sonata for Flute and Piano with virtuoso pianist Kenneth Broadway; Kovarik himself was in attendance for the event. Our performance concluded with Jessica, Ken, and me performing Butterflies for two flutes and piano by the Okanagan composer Imant Raminsh. The concert was fun, well attended, and enthusiastically received — despite the 8:30am start time! (Seriously, this is absolutely the earliest I’ve ever had to perform — and I am not a morning person.) This was my first flute convention ever, and I’m greatly indebted to Jessica for bringing it to my attention, and for allowing me to share this prestigious opportunity with her. Looking forward to the 2013 convention… in New Orleans!

With flutist Jessica Raposo and pianist Kenneth Broadway, following our performance at the 2012 NFA Convention in Las Vegas.

The NFA convention wasn’t even half-over before I was on an early morning flight back to Vancouver to perform at the Queer Arts Festival. My flute-piano duo Tiresias (with the indefatigable Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa) presented what was arguably our most ambitious project to date, Boulez Contra Cage: an Interdisciplinary Argument for Two Musicians and Two Actors. Adapted from the published correspondence of Pierre Boulez and John Cage, Boulez contra Cage dramatizes the friendship, conflict and schism of two of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Sounds dry, you say? Guess again. Actors David Bloom (as Boulez) and Simon Webb (as Cage) brought this dialogue to life, presenting both composers as ingenious, eccentric, occasionally exasperating, and at times utterly hilarious. Interspersed throughout their repartee Rachel and I performed the music of both composers, including Cage’s Two for flute and piano, and selections from Boulez’s titanic Sonatine for flute and piano. The concert concluded with the premiere performance of Musique d’art pour flûte et piano by the Montreal composer Simon Martin. Martin’s piece was commissioned especially for this event as a way of bringing together the compositional methods of both Boulez and Cage — and demonstrating that the differences that divided the two men were not, in the end, so incompatible. If you live in Vancouver and missed this unique performance, fear not! We’ll be repeating it at the Western Front on November 24th, 2012.

Before the show: Rachel Iwaasa preparing the piano for Cage’s Sonata V (from Sonatas and Interludes).
Actor Simon Webb (as Cage) and Rachel Iwaasa performing Cage’s Water Music (1952).
The Ice Man cometh! David Bloom as Boulez.
With composer Simon Martin following the premiere of his piece Musique d’art pour flûte et piano.

 

 

Last year I had the enormous pleasure of meeting the composer Michael Finnissy for the first time. Finnissy, along with composer Michael Oesterle, was leading a workshop organized by the Aventa Ensemble in Victoria. Aventa played two of his works: Casual Nudity and Mr. Punch, with soprano Helen Pridmore. Learning these pieces was a revelation for me. Music I once thought as being daunting and complex was revealed to be, in fact, intensely lyrical, gestural, and expressive. And having Michael present during the rehearsals was a real treat — he provided wonderful insights and a friendly, supportive environment.

 
Shortly after the workshop, violinist Müge Büyükçelen and I approached Finnissy about the possibility of a new piece for violin and flute. Finnissy agreed (a fact that still blows my mind), and just the other day I received not one but two new works in the mail: Mercy and Mankind and Sesto Libro di Gesualdo, both for flute and violin. Both pieces will be premiered in Vancouver at the Modulus Festival, presented by Music on Main, on September 27th, 2012. I suppose this means I should get my arse away from the computer and into the practise studio!

On July 5th I had the enormous pleasure and honour of working with dancer/choreographer Margie Gillis, one of our nation’s cultural treasures. The daylong workshop was organized by composer Alfredo Santa Ana for Ms. Gillis and my trio, Trio Nomidi (violinist Karen Gerbrecht, cellist Olivia Blander, and myself). The morning and afternoon were spent working through Santa Ana’s trio, On Fairness. This stunning, six-movement work was premiered by Nomidi in January 2012 as part of the Peter Wall Exploratory Workshop, “Explorations of Fairness”. Our performance caught the attention of Gillis, who wished to choreograph On Fairness for future performances throughout Canada. Multiple performances of a major new work are a rare and precious thing in the new music world, so it was wonderful to come back to Alfredo’s trio — and it was even more wonderful to see the piece through Gillis’ eyes, as she worked through each movement, creating a thrilling visual narrative that complemented the music beautifully. Below are some photos from the workshop, taken by Alfredo and David Pay.

I’m going to let you all in on a secret: for the last million years I’ve been a student of the Doctor of Musical Arts programme at the University of British Columbia. In fact, I’ve taken so long to complete this degree, some of my friends have assumed that I’ve long since finished. Alas, such is not the case. Back in the Mesozoic Era, when I was an undergrad at UBC, I remember joking with others about these wraith-like figures you’d occasionally see stalking the halls of the School of Music — “There’s one of the doctoral students,” we’d say, “God, look at him: he’s so old. Like, what is he, thirty or something?” I suppose it’s only poetic justice that I’ve since become one of those wraiths: shunning the daylight hours, sneaking into the Music Building after 9pm to use the library, avoiding eye contact with undergrads…

But all this is (supposedly) about to end: on Thursday, May 24, 8pm at the UBC School of Music, I’ll be presenting my final lecture-recital. The lecture component will focus on my thesis, “Of Instrumental Value: Flutist-Composer Collaboration in the Creation of New Music”. This document looks at the careers of three flutists who work/have worked extensively with composers: Severino Gazzelloni, Robert Aitken, and (gulp) me. The performance component will feature two works for solo flute: Sequenza I per flauto solo by Luciano Berio (written for Gazzelloni in 1958) and the premiere performance of Yūrei by the Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan. For anyone not up to speed on their Japanese mythology, a yūrei is a ghost — and a rather unhappy one at that. Of the piece Ryan writes:

Yūrei are Japanese ghosts, spirits that for whatever reason have been kept from a peaceful afterlife. For centuries they have been a part of Japanese folklore, theatre and visual art, usually depicted dressed in the white burial kimono, with long black hair and without legs, seeming to float just above the ground. Traditionally, upon death, the soul (or “reikon”) awaits the proper burial rites, after which it joins its ancestors and protects the living family. However, if these rites do not take place, or if the soul is driven by powerful emotional conflicts, it can transform into a yūrei and can bridge the gap between the spirit and physical worlds.

Jeff’s piece explores a mind-boggling arsenal of extended techniques for the flute, and the overall effect is goose-pimplingly evocative. PLUS I get to recite Japanese poetry throughout the piece — how cool is that? My mother always joked that my Japanese accent was terrible, but I figure I’ve watched Kill Bill enough now to make my accent passable. I mean, if Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu can do it, so can I, right?

There’s a side of my career that doesn’t often get a lot of attention, even though it has been responsible for some of my most cherished performances, and continues to provide a humbling reminder of music’s power to move a listener when other methods fail. For the past several years I’ve performed concerts for the Health Arts Society, a non-profit society that brings live music to elders in care facilities throughout Canada. Many of these men and women are no longer able to attend cultural events in their communities due to poor health or mobility — so Health Arts brings professional-level music and theatre events directly to their residence. I’m so proud to say that, to date, I’ve performed 130 concerts for this incredible organization.

I’ve given concerts throughout BC under the Health Arts banner, but this past week presented a wonderful opportunity to perform in and around Toronto, thanks to the recently initiated Heath Arts Society of Ontario. HASO’s general manager, Raymond Aucoin, paired me with the fabulous Toronto-based pianist, Younggun Kim, and together we gave a week of concerts that included works by Schubert, Chaminade, Bizet/Borne, Chopin, and Poulenc.

These concerts reaffirm the worth of what I do. There is always someone who is touched in a way that I’d never expect: once, after a bedridden woman shouted “bravo” at the end of a performance, one of the staff informed me that it was the first thing she had spoken in months. There have also been a number of occasions when I’ve been approached by individuals who were professional musicians themselves, and am regaled with tales and anecdotes. And I challenge anyone to keep it together when you’re playing Ave Maria and the whole room hums along with you — years later, it never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to bring music to where it is needed most, and the reminder of how intensely vital the arts are in every stage of our lives.

A week of new music has come and gone! In my previous post I mentioned that I was going to listen to a new musical work every day for the month of April. So far, it’s been an interesting experience: my “listening time” often occurs at the end of the day, when I realize “Damn, I haven’t listened to a new piece yet…. Argh”. Often I was torn between listening to a new piece and curling up on the sofa with a book and a beer. That said, each night I managed to pry myself away from my book (if not my beer) and dutifully listened to something new.

And, I gotta say, each night I was rewarded for the effort.

I actually think I lucked out this week: everything I listened to was frickin’ awesome in its own way. Most of this music was entirely new to me, while a couple were pieces I had heard maybe once or twice many moons ago, and had more or less forgotten. The list this week was:

April 3rd – Toru Takemitsu: Sky, Horse and Death

April 4th – Derek Charke: Sepia Fragments

April 5th – Richard Rodney Bennett: Tom O’Bedlam Song

April 6th – Bela Bartok: 5th String Quartet

April 7th – Maurice Ravel: Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé

April 8th – Alban Berg: Altenberglieder

April 9th – Vladimir Martynov: Night in Galicia

The Martynov was the wild card of the bunch. Recommended to me by composer Jocelyn Morlock (who was referred to it by her former composition teacher, the late Nikolai Korndorf), I personally found this sprawling 70-minute work began to outstay its welcome by the fifth movement. But the opening movement is so intensely striking, balancing healthy doses of chant-inspired minimalism and folkloric ridiculousness. Here’s a clip for anyone interested (seriously, it blew my mind, so if you can spare 15 minutes, it’s absolutely worth a listen):