About 50 guests happily responded to an invitation to join soprano Suzie LeBlanc and co-hosts Monique Léger and Patrick Smith for the Ottawa launch of I am in need of music, the new CD/DVD which is a testament to the 2011 centenary celebration of poet Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotia roots.
During the early evening of November 12, participants chatted over wine and cheese at Mary Albota’s striking loft condo, with its brick walls hinting at the historic building’s 19th century hospital origins.
I asked some other guests what brought them to this gathering, and their answers varied: one was a close friend of Suzie’s from childhood; another was an English teacher who loves Bishop’s poetry; still another was a local classical music fan encountering Bishop’s work for the first time.
Monique and Patrick welcomed everyone, and we then gathered around to hear from Suzie. She began by introducing the project, which was clearly a labour of love: after discovering Elizabeth Bishop's work, she had invited certain Canadian composers to set some of the poems to music, using crowd-sourcing as one funding method. The format of this event was similar to that in Toronto: Suzie began by paying tribute to the composers, musicians, and other collaborators, though they were unable to attend in Ottawa. Particular mention went to Sandra Barry for her expertise and dedication to Bishop's legacy, as well as to Linda Rae Dornan, who filmed Suzie and herself (Walking with EB) as they retraced the 21-year-old Bishop's three-week trek with a friend across Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula in 1932. Suzie described this adventure as frantic at first, but ultimately a very positive “exercise in slowing down.” Next, Suzie asked writer Daniel Poliquin to read two of the very different Bishop poems which were chosen to receive settings (by Alasdair MacLean and John Plant, respectively): the tender love poem “Breakfast Song,” and “Sandpiper,” where Bishop's typically close observations of nature are on show.
Finally, the ‘piece de resistance’: we were treated to an intimate performance by Suzie, ably aided by Frederic Lacroix on piano. While the CD background settings are for instrumental groupings, Suzie explained that Christos Hatzis had also created arrangements for piano accompaniment for two of his compositions. First came the witty and jagged “Insomnia,” which requires a playful touch and much vocal agility. And to conclude, Suzie sang “Anaphora,” which while rather opaque, chronicles the sensuous side of “every day in endless/ endless assent” – and could that also be ‘ascent’? Hatzis in his illuminating notes thinks so, as he finds a religious undercurrent which must have prompted his swelling “Broadway” (his word) phrases that call on Suzie to soar up to peaks of high A’s. Of course, she effortlessly does. This piece closes the CD, and it was a fitting ending for the launch program, too.
Up close and personal at the Ottawa launch
of "I am in need of music"
of "I am in need of music"
Like Suzie, I am a latecomer to Bishop's writings. In January 2010, I travelled to the annual Key West Literary Seminar, which featured the last 60 years of American poetry. The Toronto organization Classical Pursuits sponsored a seminar there immediately afterward, and Bishop – with her Key West connection – was one of the writers of focus. As someone who also attended the CD launch in Toronto, I was delighted to have the chance to hear Suzie singing ‘up close and personal’ again, and to tell her directly that hers is among my favourite classical voices. (Since we are now in the pre-Christmas season, I would heartily recommend her a cappella duet with Daniel Taylor, “There is no Rose of such Virtue” on the 1999 Atma CD Star of the Magi.)
What is next for Suzie LeBlanc, now that she has ventured on this personal initiative that takes her outside the usual bounds of classical performing? Will she seek out other writers to champion musically? Will she use crowd-sourcing again? Who knows? Maybe she could be persuaded to explore other worthy poets such as the recently departed Canadians P. K. Page, Jay Macpherson, and Margaret Avison.
Note: Full disclosure: Wendy Lawrence has an academic background in literary studies and teaching (yes, she was taught by Jay Macpherson), and a life-long interest in music. After retiring from a career involving international development and women's rights, she now studies classical voice with soprano Wanda Procyshyn and enjoys choir singing in Ottawa.