The 21C Music Festival: Giving Wings to the Better Angels of Our Nature

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Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Mervon Mehta, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Mervon Mehta, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Somehow, after two nights at Koerner Hall, on January 24th and 25th it seems appropriate to borrow from Abraham Lincoln who delivered his first inaugural address on Monday, March 4, 1861, while his country was being torn apart. He said, and I quote the now-famous passage from that speech, “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

When looked at through the lens of history national – and global – strife may seem relative but if you look beyond the facts on the ground the underlying provocations run deep and are much more sinister because all the upheaval across the history of our time seems to result in a flawed human nature that drives us to hate anyone and anything that looks and feels different. Yet happily, as Mr Lincoln saw it, “better angels of our nature” also exist side-by-side with the darker side of our collective humanity. And the concerts at Koerner Hall reinforced one fact: that we can find and appeal to these “better angels” almost always through music and the musicians who create it. Certainly the appeal went out and was heard by Danilo Pérez and his Global Messengers, John Patitucci and Brain Blade, Zakir Hussain, Zane Dalal and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, and Allison Au and her quartet, featuring Laila Biali.

All of them brought their prodigious artistry to Koerner Hall in January 2020 to close out the 7th Annual 21C Music Festival at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. This year’s festival was, perhaps, the most spectacular of all. It featured the Laurie Anderson, a great artist whose work has blurred the lines separating a myriad of styles of art. Her presentation The Art of Falling held many who were in attendance spellbound from beginning to end. The 21C Music Festival also featured five world and four Canadian premieres by four Canadian and one American composer. It also featured one North American premiere. Although the creative energy was high throughout, for many of us, it peaked during the last two days.

Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

On the penultimate day – January 24th – we were heralded by the world premiere of Hypocrisy, a stunning work for contrabass and orchestra by John Patitucci and the performance of Peshkar, a concerto for tabla and orchestra by the legendary Ustad Zakir Hussain. Both works also featured the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal, who shepherded the young orchestra through the two diabolically difficult works. The evening’s main events were preceded by a breathtaking musical jam; a collision of two worlds – Jazz and Hindustani – featuring Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, who locked horns with the great Zakir Hussain.

And before the curtain came down on the 7th edition of the festival – on January 25th – the audience was treated to the world premiere: Migrations an extraordinary long work by the celebrated young composer and alto saxophonist, Allison Au followed by the (Canadian) premiere of Fronteras (Borders), another heart-stopping performance by Danilo Pérez, this time with an incredible ensemble made up of Berklee alumni and entitled the Global Messengers.

Politics and art are not-so-strange bedfellows. We know that from the work of epic storytellers – the griots of Africa, from poets as far removed as Greece and Rome are from China and India. We hear the militancy of art clearly in La Marseillaise. The song was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, and was originally titled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine). It was adopted, by the French National Convention, as the anthem of the Republic in 1795. The song acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching to the capital. The song is the first example of the “European march” anthemic style. The anthem’s evocative melody and lyrics have since led to its widespread use as a song of revolution and its incorporation into many pieces of classical and popular music.

Perhaps more famously Beethoven made an enormous political statement with the Symphony No. 3 in E ♭ major, Op. 55, his Sinfonia Eroica, (Heroic Symphony) in four movements, one of the great composer’s most celebrated works. Composed mainly between 1803 and 1804 Eroica marked the beginning of his creative middle-period. More significantly, however, was the statement Beethoven made when he re-dedicated the work. He originally dedicated the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution.

But in May 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Wheneupon Ferdinand Reos, Beethoven’s secretary at the time reported, “I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men; become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica.”

The ugliness of Fascism has dogged Europe for decades and never really died down – even after the fall of the Axis powers in 1945, but its rise has been alarming ever since waves of migrants have sought to leave their homes in Iraq, Libya and through the protracted civil war in Syria, to seek refuge in the relative peace of Europe. Meanwhile people continue to flee despotic regimes in Central and South America. Empathy for their plight and a welcome by the receiving European countries and the USA has fallen short.

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