John Plant, composer

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Two premieres

Posted by John Plant on November 10, 2015 at 7:55 PM Comments comments (3)

The past month has been one of the most rewarding times in my compositional life. Two premieres: my Piano Quintet, in Halifax on October 4 with Blue Engine String Quartet, and Insomnia, at Carnegie Hall on Hallowe'en, with saxophonist Michael Couper, soprano Yungee Rhiee and pianist ChoEun Lee. Two peak experiences with matchless musicians; in the first I was a nervous and happy participant, in the second, a wide-eyed and goggle-eared member of the audience.

To experience two collaborations with two groups of musicians, who devote their breathtaking musicality, insight and intensity to my music, and who display an uncanny ability to meld themselves into a psychic unity - this is to be richly blessed.

i had never met Michael Couper, though I felt that we were old friends; we had corresponded extensively on the preparation of ''A deep clear breath of life'' for publication, and throughout the gestation of 'Insomnia.' He made many recordings for me of various extended techniques, alternate multiphonics, Aeolian sounds. Just a few days before our arrival in New York, Michael learned that he was a finalist in the prestigious Concert Artist Cuild's Victor Elmaleh Competition. He played my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the final concert. I was unable to attend, and expressed my wish for a TARDIS, so that I could travel backwards in time to hear him. He responded with a photo of himself wearing a t-shirt 'Trust me, I'm the Doctor...' He was wearing the same T-shirt when we met, in the studios of Opera America where the initial rehearsals took place.

That rehearsal began with a complete runthrough of the first movement. I was astounded, not only by the superb musicianship of all three performers, but by the unmistakeable communicative current which flowed among them, as if they were burning with a single flame. In my notes for the piece, I had written: Throughout the work the intensity and intimacy of the poet's encounter with the night are reflected in the intertwining of the saxophone's melodic line with that of the soprano, while the piano evokes and reveals the mysterious world in which she moves, at times echoing the sound of the poet's footsteps, at times providing shadows or glints of light.

As I listened, Yungee and Michael were indeed like the voice of a single soul, while ChoEun at the piano created - with mastery and mystery - the strange nocturnal world they inhabited. This impression only intensified as they worked on details, then rehearsed the movement again. This culminated in a performance of great intensity and beauty, one which continues to resonate in my mind. In a sense my wish for a TARDIS has been fulfilled!

Speaking of time/space travel, our Montreal friend Marsha sent us a long-distance celebratory treat: high tea at the Russian Tea Room, right next door to Carnegie Hall! - Given Jocelyne's Slavophilia dating from early childhood, and our love for Russian music, art, and poetry, this was a richly evocative feast in intoxicating and inspiring surroundings.

...instead of Russian and flamenco....

Posted by John Plant on September 4, 2015 at 10:25 AM Comments comments (1)

I have been deliciously, insanely busy this summer. Many of the projects I envisioned for my 'retirement', such as learning Russian properly and taking flamenco lessons, have been put on indefinite hold.

Ma il furto non m'accora - the loss doesn't disturb me, as Rodolfo sings to Mimi in a different context - because they've been utterly supplanted by the joys (and occasional agonies) of making music, writing it and performing it.


It's my immense good fortune to be blessed with magnificent musicians to work with. On October 4, with mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston and the Blue Engine String Quartet, I will be performing in a concert of my own music - this is a first for me - as part of the St. Cecilia Concert Series here in Halifax. Marcia and Blue Engine were both part of Opera Nova Scotia's presentation of 'I will fly like a bird' in May of this year; they also took part in the Scotia Festival premiere in 2012. Their insight into my intentions and their poignant, heart-stopping performances constituted a powerful blessing.


The concert will include three of my vocal works, all new to Halifax: Canciones del alma, an evocation of spiritual experience through the metaphor of physical love, to a poem by San Juan de la Cruz, a 16th century Spanish mystic/monk/poet; Invocation to Aphrodite, to a poem by Sappho, greatest of classical Greek lyric poets; and Somnus et Amor, a hedonistic hymn to the joys of physical love, to the magical transition from lovemaking to sleep - and back again to love. This poem comes from the medieval Carmina burana manuscript, the same collection from which Orff drew his famous cantata of the same name. The fourth vocal work is my transcription of Haydn's cantata 'Arianna a Naxos' for voice and piano trio.


The event also includes the world premiere of my Piano Quintet, composed thanks to a grant from Arts Nova Scotia, and written with Blue Engine's expressive virtuosity, versatility, and matchless musicality in mind. I've given a detailed description of the work in the 'Program Notes' section of this site. For more information, please consult St. Cecilia's website:


Blue Engine and Chris Wilcox have also very kindly invited me to compose a new quartet, commissioned by Blue Engine, for the Music Room Chamber series. To compose a string quartet is the most exciting and demanding of challenges, not only because of the form's illustrious lineage, but because the relative homogeneity of timbre impels a concentrated emotional intimacy, a kind of distillation which requires maturity and truthfulness of expression. It is, after all, the medium to which composers from Beethoven to Murray Schafer (and beyond) have confided their deepest thoughts, intuitions and aspirations.


Preparation for this work involved immersing myself in the study of quartets of all kinds. Along with many new discoveries, the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with this inexhaustible repertoire has been irresistibly inviting. New to me were the magnificent quartets of Grazyna Bacewicz; the terrifying and moving quartets of Helmut Lachenmann; the irrepressible vitality of both Ginastera quartets. And it was essential to plunge again into all six of Bartok's quartets, to continue to explore those of Ligeti, Penderecki, Murray Schafer, Carter; and to deepen my acquaintance with those of Schumann, Borodin.... and Beethoven.


The Music Room concert is scheduled for February 3; and I've recently learned that in January the extraordinary team of saxophonist Tristan de Borba and pianist Simon Docking will be giving the Canadian premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the same series!


And I would like to add an important postscriptum to my 'Pecorino' blog: my Insomnia, commissioned by Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill, for soprano voice, alto sax and piano will be premiered at Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of October 31.

I will have more to say about these events in a future blog, ideally to be written shortly after the October 4 concert.


So if Russian, classical Greek and flamenco have taken a back seat to all this, I certainly cannot complain, though I'm inclined to join in the immemorial kvetch about the shortness of life, not to mention the vertiginous brevity of every single day! And I'm full of gratitude to the incomparable artists who have immersed themselves in my work with such devotion and enthusiasm; to Larry Bent and Missy Searl of St. Cecilia Concerts, and to Chris Wilcox of The Music Room Chamber Series; and finally to my wife and life partner Jocelyne, who is an integral part of my creativity and the deepest source of my inspiration.


Opera Nova Scotia presents I will fly like a bird

Posted by John Plant on May 28, 2015 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (0)

In July of last year I received a most welcome phone call from Dr. Walter Kemp: Opera Nova Scotia was planning to stage  'I will fly like a bird', my opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy, composed to Andy Wainwright's poignant librettoAnd nine months later, on Tuesday, May 5, the rehearsals began! From May 9 we rehearsed every day, with a last-minute break on Victoria Day; staging rehearsals, music rehearsals, first separately, then together. The intensity which everyone brought to this enterprise was staggering, exhilarating, profoundly rewarding - splendid singing actors Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston, the amazing Blue Engine String Quartet; the adventurous, irrepressible clarinettist Dominic Desautels; stage director David Overton, who brilliantly vindicated the operatic quality of our work; and myself in the triple role of composer, rehearsal pianist, and ensemble member.  Andy Wainwright was a vital presence at many of the staging rehearsals. Both of us were profoundly gratified by David's penetrating, visionary insight into our work, and by his openness and receptivity to whatever we had to say as the process unfolded.


We rehearsed mostly in the bowels of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, two floors underground, in windowless rooms of varying sizes, shapes, acoustic attributes, and pianos. The music rehearsals - some with the singers, others with the instruments alone - evolved in a curious, fascinating parallel with the staging rehearsals, in which I tried to be all the instruments at once. But in both cases it was thrilling to sense the shared passionate determination to master the work's complexities and to navigate its emotional currents, without a conductor, relying utterly on each other to create the texture, tempo and mood implicit in the score.


Lots of driving - two and a half hours per day, back and forth from West Jeddore. My ipod shuffle received an excellent workout: I had loaded it up with Boris Christoff singing Musorgsky songs, Boulez conducting Webern, a tasty blues anthology, Maria Callas, some favourite Motown, historic recordings from La Scala, Stravinsky, Janacek, wonderful new music by Lisa Bielawa and Thierry Pécou, scattered little bits of Rautavaara's Vigilia - o that basso profondo! - the amazing treble Peter Jelosits from Harnoncourt's Bach cantata recordings - Mozart's C minor mass and his uncompleted operas, vintage James Brown and Aretha Franklin ... and of course lots of Verdi. This chaotic jumble of music perhaps acted as a counterweight to the singleminded intensity of rehearsals, over 60 hours of rehearsal for just under one hour of music. Oh, to see that hour of music emerge over the space of three weeks! - as initial uncertainties and confusions slowly but surely vanished, bringing the music and drama into keener and keener focus. It seemed to me that the rehearsal time could not have been more precisely calibrated: we reached a state where we could perform with confidence, but without the faintest shadow of routine, always with the necessary, exhilarating sense of risk.


We had two dress rehearsals, the second one being public - with an audience of high school students, who sat spellbound and attentive. As for the performances on May 22 and 23, they could not have been more gratifying. Many people who had seen the 2012 Scotia Festival concert performances remarked on how much more powerful, gripping and convincing the work became in David Overton's staging. Opera directors who are so deeply sensitive to the musical contours of a work are rare, but David is certainly among them. But it was not until I saw a video that I could grasp the coherence and poignance of his vision, aided and abetted by the beautiful, haunting and apt videographic projections of Garrett Barker, the stark, spare set design of Katrin Whitehead, the subtle atmospheric lighting of Matthew Downey.


My friend the poet Lawrence Raab liked to quote Robert Frost on the role of education: "you know, it lifts sorrow and trouble to a higher plane of regard." And Larry goes on to say, in his beautiful essay 'Poetry and Consolation' : 'the education that art can provide is keener sight. Great art simply makes its subject more visible.' I wrote to Andy Wainwright that I felt we had achieved something like that. Our opera cannot bring Robert Dziekanski back, or repair the immense injustice of his death. But perhaps we've lifted his story to that higher 'plane of regard', and that's something.


I am eternally grateful to Dr. Walter Kemp for presenting our opera, within a surprising but strongly effective context, between Monica Pearse's eloquent tribute to Helen Creighton, and Pergolesi's delightful and timeless farce La serva padrona. I would like to salute the excellent performers of the other operas: soprano Maureen Batt incarnating two diametrically opposed 'aspects of woman', with Lynette Wahlstrom as her sensitive, subtle pianist in Aunt Helen; bass-baritone Jon-Paul Decosse as the put-upon 'padrone', and the inimitable mime Bill Wood as the servant.


And I feel blessed and incredibly lucky to have such inspired and committed collaborators: Andy Wainwright, whose libretto took me into directions I would never have foreseen; Clayton and Marcia, singers burning with sustained intensity, vocal beauty and dramatic insight; and an ensemble of world-class musicians, illuminating every detail of the score, seismographically and poignantly sensitive to each nuance. My heartfelt thanks to you all.

Pecorino, Proust, and Performance

Posted by John Plant on March 14, 2015 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (2)

Tonight I was eating a piece of pecorino cheese, and remarking to my wife how the smell reminded me of my childhood - specifically, the milk-house in our neighbour's barn in rural Pennsylvania, where I played - innocently enough! - with Judy and Anne, the farmer's daughters. This sparked a memory of how their mother organized a surprise farewell party for me, as we were about to move to southern New Jersey, just as I was entering seventh grade. All my classmates were there, and they chipped in to buy me a present. It was an LP of highlights from Wagner's Die Meistersinger, in the Decca Grand Opera Series, the first record of Wagner's music I owned. From a taste of pecorino to that glorious quintet 'Selig wie die Sonne' - top that, Marcel Proust!

And thank you, Mrs. Whittaker, and my contemporaries from Alexandria Public School, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, 1957... I couldn't have had a better going-away gift.


It's been a long time between blogs. I've been working! - Two major projects on the heels of the Concerto for Orchestra. First, a very welcome commission from Michael Couper (who published A deep clear breath of life, and has also performed it in many venues) and Jennifer Bill (who premiered it in Boston in 2012) - to compose a new work for voice, saxophone and piano. The resulting work is Insomnia, a setting of excerpts from Marina Tsvetaeva's cycle of poems, written on the verge of the Russian Revolution. Michael will be performing it at Carnegie Hall on October 31, and Jennifer plans to include it as part of her Tanglewood Faculty Recital this summer, with soprano Elissa Alvarez. ( Michael will also be performing A deep clear breath of life in San Diego on May 6.)


The collaboration with Michael and Jennifer was delightful, rewarding and intense, involving much correspondence about the saxophone's astonishing arsenal of possibilities. Michael made recordings for me of multiphonics, trills, Aeolian sounds, and other special techniques; and both he and Jennifer were generous, patient and unbelievably helpful with technical advice. Insomnia extends the theme of the 'dark night of the soul' - which is not just the desolation of 4 A.M. so painfully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also the dichosa ventura - blessed adventure - mentioned by St. John of the Cross - forth into the unknown territory of night, with its sense of infinite possibility, the terror and ecstasy of the unknown - I'm beginning to see that these things are a recurring theme in my work - they are also at the heart of Canciones del alma, La notte bella, Somnus et amor, and the song Anoche cuando dormía (from Babel is a blessing).


The other major project was a Piano Quintet, composed for Blue Engine String Quartet, who have been such faithful and invaluable collaborators and friends. Composed with the help of a grant from Arts Nova Scotia, the Quintet will be premiered at a program devoted to my music on October 4, as part of the St. Cecilia Concert Series, with Blue Engine and mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston. I cannot overemphasize how much the support, friendship and artistic affinity of these magnificent artists means to me.



The Piano Quintet opens with an elegy to my parents, and closes with a rather riotous passacaglia. In between these violently contrasting outer movements, there is a somewhat vertiginous scherzo, dedicated to Blue Engine in homage to their virtuosity and sensitivity, and a very quiet movement evoking birdsong at twilight - this in memory of my mother's oldest sister, my Aunt Helen, founder of Kingston Field Naturalists and a passionate lover of birds all her life. The program will be completed by Canciones del alma , Invocation to Aphrodite, and Somnus et amor - a setting of one of the poems from the Carmina burana manuscript which Orff overlooked, the first work I wrote for Jocelyne - in a new version for piano and string quartet; and my transcription of Haydn's Cantata Arianna a Naxos for piano trio.


My opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy I will fly like a bird (libretto by J. A. Wainwright) is being staged by Opera Nova Scotia on May 22 and 23, with the same fine singers: Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston, and - once again - the wonderful Blue Engine String Quartet. The stage direction is in the very capable hands of David Overton.


I am truly spoiled for performances this year - in Halifax, Toronto (Invocation of Aphrodite with mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig with the Talisker Players), San Diego, Tanglewood, Ottawa (my Capriccio for flute and marimba, at the MusCan conference), and New York! Much to be grateful for - and now it's time to stop blogging and start practicing!



November news

Posted by John Plant on November 24, 2014 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I've been working on 'Insomnia,' for soprano, saxophone and piano, a co-commission from saxophonists Michael Couper and Dr. Jennifer Bill. It's a setting of poems from Marina Tsvetaeva's cycle of the same name. I think of it in some ways as a sequel to 'Canciones del alma,' another hymn to the sacred wild beauty of night. My own Russian is rudimentary - my 'retirement project' of learning Russian seems to be in abeyance, due to the regrettable shortage of hours in the day; but I used what Rosetta Stone and my review of old college textbooks taught me , and translated the poems myself. Tsvetaeva is a poet who combines halllucinatory intensity with dazzling Frost-like formal perfection; in translating, I had to sacrifice the latter aspect -  I don't think it's possible to achieve both. I like the Italian proverb: Traduttore = traditore! 

Some very agreeable recognition has come my way in recent months. I mentioned that Suzie LeBlanc's CD of Elizabeth Bishop settings 'I am in need of music' (including my 'Sandpiper' and 'Sunday, 4 A.M., along with works by Emily Doolittle, Christos Hatzis and Alastair Maclain) had been nominated for Best Classical CD of 2014 by the East Coast Music Association; I'm pleased to say that it won, against some formidable competitors. It was also one of five finalists for the 'Masterworks' Award of the Governor General of Nova Scotia, together with two sculptural installations, a play, and another work of music. Peter Togni's beautiful Responsio was the final winner, the first time a musical composition has been so honoured. But all the finalists were recognized at a reception in the Governor General's mansion, and I can't pretend to be other than delighted by the attention.

My opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy. 'I will fly like a bird' (written in collaboration with librettist J. A. Wainwright) will be staged by Opera Nova Scotia on May 22 and 23, 2015, together with Pergolesi's 'La serva padrona,' and, as a curtain-raiser, Monica Pearce's 'Aunt Helen,' about the legendary Nova Scotian folksong collector Helen Creighton. David Overton is the stage director. This will be the stage premiere, and will feature many of the same artists who performed the work in concert at Scotia Festival 2012: Marcia Swanston as the Mother; Clayton Kennedy as Robert; Blue Engine String Quartet, and myself at the piano. It was a deeply rewarding experience to work with these splendid artists, and I am overjoyed to have the opportunity to do so again.

Concerto p.s.

Posted by John Plant on May 15, 2014 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Of the many thoughtful and gratifying comments of people on hearing my Concerto, that of my old friend Beverly Leys holds a special place.  It is a response of such depth and insight - the sort of response a composer dreams of - and it shows such uncanny insight into what it felt like to compose the work - that I cannot resist (with her permission) the temptation to quote it in full: 

"What a wonderful way to return to Wyoming, still with snow flurries, a few snowbanks, and cold clearness of the North, to find your gift - a copy of the Concerto in its gorgeous presence. I have played it many times this week and find it building a fine cave deeper and deeper with each exposure -mystery, shelter, reinvention. I cannot decide which is my favorite section as they have already rearranged themselves in my mind several times. Perhaps the fair weight of each is the best praise. I am so pleased, John, that you ventured into this new exploration of the instrumental while you could devote the energy, tenacity, and ambition, and have made it yours. I can imagine too that Jocelyne rejoices in this. I think again of the freedom of music to answer questions in its own way and time. Together you and Jocelyne enrich the world, no mean feat in these lean times."

Concerto for Orchestra

Posted by John Plant on April 23, 2014 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Seventeen years ago Wanda Kaluzny commissioned my first orchestral work, dreams in the mirror, a setting of E. E. Cummings, performed in what was then the Erskine and American Church in Montreal. Last week they premiered my Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned in celebration of the orchestra’s fortieth anniversary, in Salle Bourgie: a magnificent new concert hall resulting from a ravishing transformation of the same building, now part of the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Three other premieres, all of them with voice, intervened, at Pollack Hall and Salle Claude-Champagne. This, however, was my first non-vocal orchestral work: regular readers will notice a trend here!

Wanda Kaluzny's preparation has always been so meticulous, and her interpretative insights into my work so perceptive, that I embraced this commission with fervour. I began by gorging myself on concertos for orchestra, renewing and deepening my acquaintance with Bartok’s, and discovering dozens of works - perhaps most remarkably, the unassuming but magically inventive one by Alexandre Tansman.

 Despite my confidence in maestra Kaluzny and her amazing musicians, I was a little apprehensive, particularly about the third movement: the string players have to execute extremely fast pizzicati - on the border of the humanly possible - while negotiating constant quicksilver metric changes. Similar challenges abound throughout the work. I needn’t have worried: not only did the musicians negotiate the most slippery passages with ease, they unerringly communicated the atmosphere of each passage and each transition.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the whole project was being invited to a pair of student concerts, during each of which the orchestra performed a different movement of the Concerto. I was then invited to field questions. The students came up with such stimulating and interesting questions: what was I trying to evoke in the first movement? A serendipitous question, because the answer had something to do with youth…

 The weather was not precisely my ally on April 15; just a couple of hours before the concert, a nasty, icy, windy snowstorm emerged from some dark cave and encouraged Montrealers to stay at home by the fire. (This recalled that first concert in 1997, when a late-March blizzard closed the highways and my dear friend Paul Campbell drove from Toronto through the storm to attend the concert, one step ahead of the road closures.) But those who came, including many wonderful friends - some of whom I had not seen for years - and my revered composition teacher Bruce Mather - received the work warmly. The whole concert was splendid: Haydn 104, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and a recently discovered bassoon concerto by Rossini, performed with rollicking and infectious zest by Josep Joaquim Sanchis Castellanos.

 I’ve posted an mp3 of the Concerto in the ‘Listen’ section of this site. I invite you to listen to it!

Kitchen Party, Coastal Voices, Piano Quintet, ECMA

Posted by John Plant on March 5, 2014 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

      My copy of ‘Kitchen Party’ has just arrived in the mail.  I’m writing this to the strains of ‘Dream Kitchen,’ a haunting work by Steve Naylor for flute, percussion and live processed electronics, the sixth of seven works on the CD, which emerged from the wonderful 2013 Shattering the Silence Festival (see my blog with that title below).  I’ve been listening straight through this beautifully conceived project, which also includes my ‘Capriccio’ and works by Derek Charke, Anthony Genge, Jeff Hennessy, Jim O’Leary and Bob Bauer, all gorgeously performed by Derek and percussionist Mark Adam.  Derek and Mark provided us all with an improvised gesture and asked us all to embed it into our pieces, hoping that this would provide a strand of DNA linking all the music on the CD.  A first listening delightfully confirms the successful realization of this hope.  It is rare that one can listen to an anthology of contemporary music - by eight different composers! - and come away with such a perceptibly unified experience. The CD is on the Centrediscss label, distributed by Naxos, and you can buy it here:  You can also download it from itunes (search: Derek Charke Kitchen Party). 

    I’ve taken on a new responsibility - a very satisfying one. I’m the pianist for Coastal Voices, a men’s choir on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, directed by Janet Gaskin. This is a true community ensemble,  with members hailing from various communities along a fifty-mile stretch of coast, and producing a a fine full-throated salty sound, brilliantly shaped and sculpted by Janet.  One of the most inspiring projects of this ensemble has been to perform a song composed by one of its members, Jim Reid. The song, ‘Come With Me’, is an extended ballad-like portrait of the shore and the ocean beyond.  The choir commissioned composer/conductor Gary Ewer to make a choral arrangement of this work, a task which he accomplished lovingly and respectfully. It’s very moving to see ‘Come With Me’ take shape - something beautiful emerging from a beautiful milieu.

    My long silence on the blog is once again a sign of work. I just completed (yesterday!) the first movement of the piano quintet which I’m composing for Blue Engine String Quartet. On Facebook I wrote “Finished the first movement of my piano quintet this morning. It’s supposed to be a piece of abstract music, but somewhere in this process I realized that it has a strong unpremeditated autobiographical element: at first my hungry years in Montreal came to mind; then, more recently, the loss of my parents. Amazing how all this maze of notes and rests assembles itself into a kind of portrait. A sort of archeological dig into my heart!”

Exploring the world of the piano quintet has, as in the case of the saxophone, led to all sorts of amazing discoveries. I knew Brahms's magnificent F minor piano quintet, and the marvelous quintets of Schnittke, Shostakovich, Franck, Dvorak, Fauré (well, one of them).  Among the discoveries: the heartstopping quintets of Grazyana Bacewicz and Ernst Bloch (two each), the lovely quintets of Dohnnanyi, Martucci, Bax, Respighi, Bridge, and the second Fauré; fascinating works by LeFlem and Koechlin, and the thorny but stimulating work of Adès and Wuorinen. 

I am pleased to announce that 'Sandpiper' has been nominated for 'Best Classical Composition' in the East Coast Music Awards, to be awarded in April.  'I Am In Need of Music', is in the running for 'Best Classical CD' - this is the Centrediscs CD of settings of  Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, commissioned and luminously performed by Suzie LeBlanc with some of Canada's most distinguished musicians, featuring works by Alasdair Maclean, Emily Doolittle, Christos Hatzis and myself.  The Cd is available at and  

Thoughts on my Concerto and the Bishop project

Posted by John Plant on October 26, 2013 at 10:45 AM Comments comments (1)

From a letter of Giuseppina Strepponi to her husband Verdi , 3 January 1853:

…'And you haven't composed anything? You see, you do not have your poor Livello in a corner of your room, tucked away in an armchair, saying to you 'This is beautiful, Wizard (one of her nicknames for him). This is not. Stop, play that again. This is original.'  (Mary Jane Matz, in her magnificent biography of Verdi, translates 'Livello' as 'Pest' - which is baffling, since the word seems to mean 'Level' - the one who provides equilibrium!)

It gives me inordinate pleasure to know that Verdi and I have at least this in common: a blessed 'Livello' who knows better than we do what it is we are trying to do, and whose participation in the process is essential if we are to 'open up the little boxes and let our magnificent (ahem) musical ideas out of them.' (her words again).

I've just finished my Concerto for Orchestra, perhaps the most intensive gestation of my career (nine months!), commissioned by the Montreal Chamber Orchestra and their marvelous conductor Wanda Kaluzny, in commemoration of the orchestra's fortieth anniversary. I have already spoken of how difficult it was for me to accept Jocelyne's retirement from singing, the closing of the chapter of my life when the rich vibrant fabric of her voice was my raw material.  But our collaboration has, if anything, only intensified. The question as to whether I was a text-bound composer - one whose peculiar and limited gift was confined to working with poetry and languages - has, I think, been resoundingly answered in the negative.  I felt very much as though I were wandering into an unknown region, one which obliged me to find out what it was that I needed to say without the intermediary of a text.  It has been an exhilarating experience, and I think that some of that exhilaration has found its way into the music! If you are in Montreal on April 15, 2014, please come to Salle Bourgie and hear the work - together with Haydn's last symphony, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin and Rossini's bassoon concerto.

I would be baffled by the attempt to say in words precisely what the 'Concerto' evokes, though I know that the piece would be very different if we had not gone to Russia, and that it enabled me to explore previously unsuspected regions of my psyche.   The composer Alexandre Tansman (who wrote a magnificent Concerto for Orchestra himself), speaking of Stravinsky, said: 'the aim of art is to provoke an emotional reaction, not to express one…'   The relationship of music and emotion is a slippery one to grasp, but I would place Tansman's aperçu side by side with E.M. Forster's 'How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?' Neither formulation is perfectly satisfactory, but in some sense composing is like digging: searching for nuggets, crystals, shapes.

Or like Elizabeth Bishop's Sandpiper: 'looking for something, something, something…'

My friend the poet Lawrence Raab has just alerted me to this saying of Adrienne Rich: 'Poems are like dreams. In them you put what you don't know you know.' This encapsulates precisely my experience with this Concerto.


Which brings me to the other great project of these past few years, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary project, culminating in Suzie LeBlanc's wonderful new CD on the Centrediscs label, 'I am in need of music.'   It was a joy and an honour to be part of this project, instigated by Suzie in conjunction with Sandra Barry and John Barnstead, founders and guiding spirits of the  Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia.  The CD features Bishop settings  by Alasdair MacLean, Emily Doolittle, Christos Hatzis and myself, performed by Suzie, the Blue Engine String Quartet, and the Elizabeth Bishop Players under the direction of Dinuk Wijeratne - whose glorious capoeira-inspired work Brazil, January 1, 1502 is too large in all senses for the confines of a CD - IMAX might do it justice, or at the very least a DVD in HD!  The beautifully produced package includes a booklet with the texts of all the poems and extensive notes in English and French, and a DVD of a pilgrimage Suzie took with filmmaker Linda Rae Dornan, retracing a Newfoundland trek undertaken by Bishop in 1932.   The sensitive sonic artistry of  John D. S. Adams and Ron Sneddon is fully worthy of the undertaking, which is high praise indeed.  I urge you to buy it: it's available at,,,  through the Canadian Music Centre at - and as a download on itunes.



End of summer reflections

Posted by John Plant on September 16, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (0)

It strikes me that in describing the enchantment of my first operatic experience, Rigoletto at Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1958, I haven't spoken enough about the shimmering wonder installed by that magnificent structure in gold and red velvet, with the kaleidoscope of marble and mirrors of the corridors  - and the subsequent, subtler enchantment of the dowdier, more earthy, creaky wooden staircases that led to the amphitheatre, where I sat when I bought my own tickets.  As you climb into the higher tiers, the staircases become progressively humbler, narrower, the splendour diminishing in precise lockstep with the ticket price; and the excitement mounting in contrary motion.    Even considering inflation, to pay $2.50 to hear Eleanor Steber in Lohengrin, or Mario del Monaco in Otello, seems to me a stunning bargain. - And this is for a SEAT - the Academy had (has?) no standing room.  


On my thirteenth birthday, I was taken to the Met for the first time to hear Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, with Nicolai Gedda.  The old Met had nothing of the grandeur of the Academy, but that mattered not at all when the curtain arose. I remember Olympia's bed appearing and vanishing very convincingly - this was in 1958, before holograms.  My parents had taken me to Asti's restaurant before the opera. The waiters at the Asti were all opera singers in training; on learning it was my birthday, they serenaded me and presented me with a cupcake. I didn't have time to eat it, so as the taxi whisked us off to the Met I stuffed the sacred object in my pocket.  Halfway through the first act, an inexplicable feeling of moistness yielded the realization that the little cake had an ice cream centre; my father, sitting next to me, shared in this less than delightful revelation.


My silence on the blog front is, as before, to be attributed to my work on the Concerto for Orchestra. I've reached the last movement, which for some reason is more of a challenge than the first three combined, but I can see (or hear) daylight.( What, do I hear the light?' cries Tristan!)  I have been watching Berg's amazing Lulu, in half-hour segments,  while staving off decrepitude on the elliptical trainer: a production from Glyndebourne which would be ideal if the sets were less terminally drab.  The utter clarity of the drama, and the idiosyncratic force which which all these desperate characters hurl themselves into their disastrous destiny - and the sheer hyper-romantic glory of the music - have never been so manifest.  So it would be churlish of me to rant at yet another production which relies on a multitude of hideous cheap chairs - but I do hope the fashion for chairs in operatic productions has peaked, and will go the way of machine guns, Peter Falk raincoats and fedoras.


While awaiting the forthcoming release of Suzie LeBlanc's wonderful new CD, entitled 'I am in need of music' and featuring the Elizabeth Bishop settings she commissioned (including two works by yours truly, together with Christos Hatzis, Emily Doolittle and Alastair Maclean) , I urge everyone to discover Sofia Gubaidulina's powerful and gorgeous violin concerto 'In tempus praesens,' dedicated to and gloriously performed by Anne-Sofie Mutter.  You can hear it on youtube but I urge you to obtain the CD; you get two splendid Bach violin concertos along with it, which, given the centrality of Bach to Gubaidulina's astounding musical universe, is a perfect coupling.