Excerpt from Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer by John Beckwith
From the section entitled Compositions, chapter 13 Choirs, pages 282 to 285
I had greeted Elmer Iseler’s 1964 appointment as conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as a case of “the right person at the right time.”5 When that historic large choir pondered what to do with a commission for the Canadian Centennial in 1967, he suggested my name. This was a major challenge. Where to find a suitable text? As usual, my thoughts ran to a newly written libretto. The choir agreed to let me share my commission with a librettist. When I consulted with some of my writer friends, the name of Dennis Lee came up. Like Margaret Atwood, he had been part of Pamela’s Victoria College cast for Epicoene and was becoming known as a poet: his Civil Elegies, then about to be published, had pertinence to the modern city, and Toronto in particular; the children’s collection Alligator Pie, for which he was later renowned, was still several years in the future. Lee and I discussed some ideas about living in contemporary Canada and specifically in Toronto, and he developed a text calling for chorus and three soloists (speaker, Heldentenor, and blues singer). His first idea for a title was Civitas, but I thought that was too high-toned, so we settled on Place of Meeting, which some historians claim is the meaning of the Aboriginal word “Toronto” (“the [Toronto] meeting-place” and “the carrying-place” are terms found in historical accounts). The text depicts the commercial sleaze of the modern city (“this shambles”) and wonders how human dignity can survive in such surroundings. The blues singer laments, “This country ain’t my country, and this city ain’t my home.” When the speaker climaxes a diatribe by shouting, “There is no Canada; there is NO Canada!” the chorus overlaps his sustained “NO” with the beginning of “O Canada.” The tenor part represents a more optimistic and hopeful view, overriding the critical/editorial elements with penetrating high Bs and Cs. We took our commission seriously and ambitiously. Northrop Frye said of the Centennial that what we were all celebrating was the Canada we had yet to create;6 that was, I thought in retrospect, what Lee and I had tried to convey in Place of Meeting.
Place of Meeting was my largest composition project to date. Starting to work on it amid other commitments in the summer of 1966, I planned to produce it in stages, the score for chorus and soloists (with rehearsal cues) first, reserving completion of the orchestra’s score and the instrumental parts for later (I was promised the full Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the largest instrumental group I had yet worked with—six horns!). Elements in the work would, I figured, coexist on different planes of dynamics and speed, as in my radio collages—and with these multiple forces it would be necessary to have two conductors. When I checked out these ideas with Iseler he was supportive, indeed gung-ho. The vocal score was ready for the choir in the spring of 1967; it had timings (twenty seconds here, forty-five seconds there) for the orchestral passages I had yet to write. The soloists were booked: the speaker would be the musically sensitive actor Colin Fox; the tenor would be Jacob Barkin, one of the musical Barkins of Toronto, then a cantor in a synagogue in the US, and a singer with a powerful, ringing high register; Al Harris, well known from many CBC broadcasts, would play the guitar accompaniment for the blues singer Phil Maude.
The second conductor position was as yet unfilled. This was still the situation at the start of choral rehearsals in the early fall. With some hesitation, I said to Iseler that if necessary, since I knew the score, I could be the second conductor. He found this an acceptable solution and even asked me to take one or two of the rehearsals, which I did. This experience revealed to me a mood of unrest among the choir members: some were tremendously keyed up about the project, while others were doubtful or even hostile. The piece was turning out to be not just new but controversial. At that point in its history, the Mendelssohn Choir had, I think, never attempted any more advanced contemporary repertoire than Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, so Place of Meeting seemed to many of the singers further off the choral-music norm than it actually was. Moreover, if the musical content was unfamiliar, Lee’s text was, to some, pretty strong stuff. In one passage the choir shouts a miscellany of advertising slogans then seen on billboards or heard in radio jingles, among them a particularly blatant one from a subway placard, “Shrink Hemorrhoids Now!” For some of the more squeamish sopranos, that exceeded the bounds of good taste. It certainly wasn’t the B Minor Mass.
Iseler and I divided the conducting chores; for sections in simultaneous but conflicting metres (a large portion of the work), the choir was directed to watch him and the orchestra was directed to watch me. I was nervous for my rehearsals with the orchestra but felt I had good support from the players, some of whom I knew well. Audiences gave Massey Hall a superior rating for acoustics, but those who performed there regularly had a different opinion of the acoustics onstage. I understood this when I corrected the tuba on a wrong entry, only to be told that what I was hearing was the bassoon from the other side of the stage; the echoes played tricks. The speaker and the blues combo were positioned in a balcony overlooking the choir, and we asked for them to be miked. It turned out that the hall had no regular sound system in place (its transformation into a rock concert palace was still some years off). A part-time technician would come in when required and set up what amounted to a public address system intended for travel lectures or political meetings. There was delay and distress before this was prepared more or less adequately (it proved inadequate in the performance). Our dress rehearsal made everyone nervous, especially Elmer Iseler. He told me when it was over that he thought the performance would have to be cancelled. He was a veteran professional performer and I was making my first appearance leading a professional orchestra, but I found I was the one who had to rally his spirits. Somehow I must have managed to, because we went ahead with the show.
The night of the concert, the work came off more smoothly than in the dress rehearsal. As so often happens, the performers rose to the occasion and gave it their best. There were moments of audience reaction where it seemed our intentions got across. Fox’s voice commanded attention despite the erratic miking, and in the ironic final fade-out Harris’s blues guitar created a hush. I was told by two orchestra players afterwards (Gene Rittich and Bob Aitken) that my beat was clear; they had advised me as a novice that what most players want from a conductor is a strong upbeat, and I tried to remember that. There were however some bad, uncertain moments. The passage where the choir suddenly launches into “O Canada” was to be capped by the tenor soloist’s most exultant phrases, but Iseler hit “O Canada” at a faster tempo than he ever had in rehearsal—so much faster that Barkin found it impossible to sing his lines, so the effect was ruined. Dennis Lee and I were called to the stage for several bows with the conductor and soloists. It seemed something of the work had connected with our audience, but there were to be no more performances.5 “Music in Toronto 64–65,” Canadian Forum 45, no. 534 (July 1965): 83–85.
6 Northrop Frye, The Modern Century: The Whidden Lectures, 1967 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), 122–23.