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

John Maharash, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Jon Maharaj, Allison Au. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

At 8:00 pm or thereabout, Mervon Mehta arrived, stage right, to introduce the evening’s event and to briefly speak about its first performer. She was to be the brilliant young composer and alto saxophonist, Toronto’s own Allison Au, who has been celebrated with the TD Grand Jazz Award and a $5,000 grant at the 2017 edition of The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and more recently decorated, with a Juno Award for best Jazz Instrumental album (Wander Wonder). Anyone who’s been around supporting live music at the city’s ever-shrinking-and-then-expanding network of clubs and larger venues will have heard Allison Au, either with her long-standing quartet, playing as a soloist or as a pillar in the woodwind section of some other musician’s ensemble.

But it was unusual and altogether most memorable to be at her performance as she premiered Migrations, her major composition, a brand new work commissioned by The Royal Conservatory. Clearly the work indicated that her composer is at the pinnacle of her burgeoning vocation in music. Miss Au had been teasing many of musical associates, and her numerous followers and fans on social media about her heritage, which – anyone who has made her acquaintance – would know is a rich cultural amalgam featuring Chinese, and Jewish Polish hewn spectacularly together in one a uniquely Canadian sort of way. For us in the audience – we, who as proud Canadians, still struggle to define and speak our unique identity among all the nations of the world – this kind of cultural collision is often at the heart of who we are as individuals and as a society. In today’s world, we have often been forced to confront this reality in the harshest possible terms – even in Canada, where we have felt safe.

For an hour or so, using the poignant salve of music, Miss Au gave us the powerful means of music to arm ourselves as we too search for what it means to be ourselves in context of the great and unique Canadian landscape. In fact Miss Au’s music in her extended work, Migrations (that was to come) would give anyone – no matter where in the world they came from or were headed – the ability to examine our own lives with a view to finding meaning in our own uniqueness.

Left to right: Todd Pentney, Jon Maharaj, Allison Au, Fabio Ragnelli. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Todd Pentney, Jon Maharaj, Allison Au, Fabio Ragnelli. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

The evening that Miss Au shared with the audience was first heralded by a performance with her long-time quartet and comprised two songs from her recent book – “The Valley” and “Looking Up”. Suddenly, after individual and collective struggles possibly during the week that went by, we suddenly felt alive again. I have said before that I believe Miss Au’s music “has a unique spatial sense into which melodies seem to enter as if by magic to occupy imaginary musical architecture made of enchanted designs that takes on a life of its own after the (long-standing) members of the quartet breathe their way into it.”

Indeed in this performance – as on the recording that first gave us “The Valley” and “Looking Up” both reminded those of us (who already knew, of course) that Miss Au is an artist of the first order. Miss Au plays her instrument with gilded splendour. Her melodic phrases – usually long, loping lines – arc their way in gentle parabolas that often break away from each other, prompted by gently ululating tremolos that dart and swing as they collide with the often climactic harmonies provided by pianist Todd Pentney. The pianist anticipates the direction in which the music is headed as he proffers ideas that take shape in swerving lines of his own. Miss Au’s touch perfectly enunciates the mood of each piece and – as the black dots literally leap off the page – she swept up her pianist, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Fabio Ragnelli into the swirling head winds of the ensuing music.

And this was only the prelude to the world premiere of her major work, Migrations. Using the poignant language of music that seemed at times to be an unique purview available exclusively to her, Miss Au gave us a magical toolbox with which to examine our own historical and elemental migration into our ever-present lives. At the heart of the composition were seven miniatures forged into a suite of music that combined surface virtuosity with a singular lyrical sense of line. And each could only be described as the poetry of emotion.

Left to right: Todd Pentney, Aline Homzy, Amahl Arulanandam, Jon Maharaj, Fabio Ragnelli, Allison Au, Michael Davidson, Laila Biali. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Todd Pentney, Aline Homzy, Amahl Arulanandam, Jon Maharaj, Fabio Ragnelli, Allison Au, Michael Davidson, Laila Biali. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Miss Au’s composition described with the eloquent angularity of musical expression, her parents’ journey from a Chinese migration and the survival of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, through Malaysia and eventually Canada, there to finally settle into a modicum of peace. Throughout the work, and with dramatic and dynamic tension that ebbed and flowed, Miss Au also described, ever so eloquently, her own “migration”, embellishing the music by adding the lyricism of poetry that was breathtakingly sung – in what was clearly a musical coup – by the fabulous vocalist Laila Biali (and, in one instance narrated by Miss Au as well). In addition the group also featured virtuoso violinist Aline Homzy, cellist Amahl Arulanandam and a brilliant young vibraphone player, Michael Davidson. Together these musicians added enormous contextual colour to Miss Au’s work, while excelling as performers both in ensemble as well when called upon – however briefly – to step into the musical limelight.

The music of Migrations has taken Miss Au’s artistry to a whole new level of imagination. Melody, harmony and rhythm; idea and execution, composition and improvisation were all pressed into a gossamer-like aural fabric adorned by Miss Au’s unique virtuosity on the alto saxophone as well as through the probing virtuosity of each of the musicians, topped off by Miss Biali’s breathtaking interpretation of the poetic element of the work. This comprised verse written by several poets – Canadian and American – such as Wanda Coleman in “The ISM”, Duncan Mercredi in “Racing Across the Land”, Emma Larocque (with embellishments by Miss Au herself) in “Progress”, Chief Dan George in “Keep A Few Embers From The Fire” and – in the work’s utopian grand finale – the poetry of Langston Hughes for the work’s closing movement, entitled “I Dream A World”.

I found myself – and I’m sure that others in the rapt audience did so too – mesmerised; unable to breathe at times for the supremacy of the music was so edifying and, heart thumping in my chest – often choking with emotion as the music played itself to its finale. Suddenly Miss Au’s emotions were my emotions. Her world was mine – complete with my own cultural multiplicity and the emotions of the Holocaust, of my own family, held secret for an age – and her music set me free. It was – and is – time now, as ever therefore, to acknowledge the power of music to heal, to transform me (and us) completely – body, mind and spirit. For tonight – on January 25th 2020 and ever after, it would seem, we have Migrations, this outstanding work of music by Miss Au, to thank for restoring my (and our) equilibrium; and to thank for the healing nature of the mind through her music. And as Miss Au and the members of her ensemble exited the stage at Koerner Hall to seemingly unending and well-deserved applause, we retired stretch our legs before re-convening for the final performance of the 2020 edition of the 21C Music Festival, with Danilo Pérez seminal work, Fronteras (Borders), a meditation on a humanity imprisoned by the diabolical necessity of geographic borders…


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