John Plant, composer

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Our Russia cruise

Posted by John Plant on June 5, 2013 at 5:50 PM Comments comments (2)

Our Russian Cruise

May 15-29, 2013


Jocelyne and I have signed up for a Viking river cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg, with a two-day 'pre-extension' in Moscow...  Here's a day-by-day chronicle of the experience:


May 15

    Let's start at Moscow Airport (Domodevo), a scene of teeming chaos which somehow filters itself into a sort of line-up - which, contrary to all expectation, we get through in a reasonable amount of time. After passport control, there are two corridors, one of which is marked 'nothing to declare' -  we stride through that one, with no one showing the slightest curiosity as to the contents of our bags.

    Viking's driver is waiting for us with a sign, and we begin the three-hour drive to our hotel - our first glimpse of Russia is a massive traffic jam, locus of some of the most terrifyingly creative driving I ever hope to see.  I manage a conversation with our very pleasant driver, who doesn't speak a word of English.    He stops at a bank for us, and the ATM very agreeably supplies us with roubles - one anxiety removed!  The dismal Soviet-era buildings which lined the highway from the airport are gradually interspersed with breathtaking churches, and beautiful old buildings begin to appear; the bleak first impression of Moscow is considerably attenuated by the time we arrive at our destination: the Ukraina/Radisson, one of Stalin's Seven Sisters, right on the Moscow River - the most luxurious hotel I have ever stayed in, full of businessmen, poules de luxe,  and just a sprinkling of tourists like us.  Too exhausted to go out, we have a light supper in the hotel bar: pumpkin/ginger soup for Jocelyne, a jar of herring, mushrooms and potatoes for me, together with a glass of superb Nevskoye beer. Both soup and herring are exquisite.


May 16

Glorious breakfast in the mezzanine restaurant; too many delicacies to choose from. The sausages of my dreams, cheeses, fish, fruit, fresh-squeezed juices.

Metro-walking tour with our eloquent guide Svetlana.  Metro: the wonderful frescos of Kievskaya station, and the bronze crouched statues in Revolution Square (socialist realism meets Michelangelo).  Wonderful walk down Arbatskaya pedestrian mall.  Lots of bookstalls - I wish we had more time to browse! - Our first church: the lovely little Church of the Saviour on the Sands.  Our guide also takes us to the cylindrical constructivist Melnikov House, still in private hands.

    Moscow is in the midst of a heat-wave - coming from the foggy and damp Eastern Shore spring, we enjoy every bit of it; in fact, we are quite spoiled by splendid weather for most of the trip.

    We thank Svetlana and make our way alone to the Tretyakov gallery. We are gaping at the amazing collection of icons, many by Andrei Rubliev, and I chat with the guard in my lame Russian about Jocelyne's Slavic imagination. She urges us to head immediately to the museum temple, which closes in half an hour.  We do, but are more moved by the stately large Rubliev icons in the main collection. Thence to the wonderful late romantic/early impressionist paintings. A whole room full of Serov, an unsuspected genius.  I rejoice to see his portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov, but am very sorry not to find Repin's magnificent one of a very shaggy Musorgsky.

    We break for lunch at a very nice vegetarian cafe across the street, then decide to try to track down the 'Church of the Resurrection in Kadashi' nearby.  We find it surrounded by a wooden fence; the city had a development plan for this area which would hide most of the cathedral - there were signs saying 'This must not happen!' We try to find a way into the evidently closed church; a shabbily dressed man who has an adjoining garden emerges to talk to us, in a mix of Russian and French.  He asks us why Quebec failed to separate: propaganda? He's clearly disappointed that it didn't happen.  We return to the Tretyakov, and then head back to the hotel, intending to eat in the lobby again. But this time we're ignored (was our tip too small the night before?) and we go out to a lovely Georgian restaurant nearby which our Viking guides had recommended. Splendidly romantic evening.  

 May 17

 After a bout with insomnia during the night, I awaken at 11 A.M., with Jocelyne still asleep - we've missed breakfast, and we have to check out within an hour!  We are both parched, and I run down to the restaurant and beg for a couple of glasses of grapefruit juice. The angels in charge SQUEEZE it for us! -

    We make our way to the Kremlin, via the Lenin Library, but realize that what we really want is Red Square - to see St. Basil's Cathedral. Worth all the stress of navigating Moscow's metro.  Not one but many tiny churches housed in that labyrinthine building, icons and wall paintings to the top of each turret, with an excellent male quintet (Douros) singing.

    The Palace of the Romanov Boyars is not what we were expecting! Tiny rooms - a limestone basement with farming tools, weapons and armour; a miniscule banquet hall, beautifully painted, and a study with a tiny door right out of Alice in Wonderland.

We hasten back to the hotel to catch the bus which will take us to our boat.

    The boat is docked east of town facing a charming park full of kids playing, youths on bicycles, parents, lovers strolling, etc. I finally get my coffee, at 6 p.m. - and taste solid food at 7; a delicious dinner of hake stuffed with shrimp mousse, followed by sherbet (green tea and prickly pear).


May 18

      Our Moscow tour is led by Natasha, an enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable guide. We have a glimpse of the Bolshoi, and just a little free time to explore Red Square - we have just time to visit the reconstructed Kazan cathedral and then GUM, which is spectacular architecturally but not my idea of a shopper's paradise. Very happy to have visited St. Basil's properly yesterday! - We walk along the Moscow River Embankment to the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which is too close to St. Peter's in scale for comfort - definitely not our favourite Moscow church, though it certainly bears witness to the religious revival, everywhere apparent in Moscow.  But the walk along the Embankment is a treat. We enjoy the padlocked trees on one of the bridges: lovers who have plighted their troth place a lock on the tree, and throw the key into the river!  

     We eat our boxed suppers on the bus before proceeding to the Tretyakov for the evening's concert by the very youthful Moskva Russian  Folk Orchestra. This turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Youthful performers playing with utmost concentration, intensity and passion on balalaikas, domras, winds, accordions and percussion. Mostly Russian repertoire, though a soprano treats us to Musetta's Waltz from La Bohème - which actually works quite well on strummed instruments! - But it's the Russian music which stirs our soul, like a great wind arising from a field of wheat. Nothing articulates contrapuntal inner voices like balalaikas!


May 19

     A difficult day following a difficult night - our stateroom adjoins some vibrating machinery and we have to reverse our beds in order to sleep. Today is the excursion to Sergiev Posad, some 40 miles outside of Moscow, home to a monastery and several cathedrals in honour of St. Sergius.  We get on the wrong bus and are distressed to be deprived of Natasha.  

    Interesting bus ride to Sergiev Posad (renamed Zagorsk during the Soviet era).  New high rise apartment buildings interspersed with ruined dachas;  the flow of bright unsubtle billboards - many of them announcing apartments for sale - gradually diminishes and yields to forest.  Today is a religious holiday, and we attend part of a really stirring service in the refectory; the priest is chanting and also conducting the congregation; when everyone suddenly joins in the singing the effect is overwhelming - I was reminded of the moment when Bruce Springsteen turns the mike on the audience during 'Hungry Heart'  - except that, of course, this is strictly a capella. We visit the magnificent museum on our own - full of textiles, priestly robes, metalwork,  miniatures in ivory and metals, ikons, crowns and other tsarist regalia. A group of ten or so young soldiers is visiting at the same time; I am struck by the reverence, devotion and wonder with which they gaze on everything; I find this simultaneously deeply moving and a little scary.

     The most disturbing event of the entire cruise occurs on the bus ride home; the man in front of us dies, presumably of a stroke, with his distressed wife right next to him. He is examined by a nurse, shows signs of recovery, and is taken to the back of the bus to lie down. I hear him say 'I think everyone is making too much fuss over me.'  The heavy traffic means that we are slow in getting a much-needed police escort, and when the ambulance arrives it is too late. We can only imagine what the widow must have suffered through those agonizingly long delays.

      While waiting for the police, we chat with Graham Whitehouse, the nurse's husband. He's an architect and an artist;  he and his wife Angela met at Verona at a performance of Madama Butterfly! He shows us some of his beautiful sketches.  The bus finally pulls into our river port five hours after leaving Sergei Posav.

 May 20

    Magnificent Kremlin tour, including the Armoury: dazzling fairy-tale coaches, thrones of Tsars, Fabergé eggs, crowns (both the old-Russian style with sable, and the 'European' style, riddled with diamonds) Empress Catherine's wedding and coronation dresses, both made with silver thread; and, of course, armour.

    Then the beautiful Cathedral of the Assumption, which has perhaps the most stunning, breathtaking iconostasis we've seen so far.

    Return for lunch, after which we set sail - announced by horrendous but heartwarming amplified music through the antediluvian sound system.  A beautiful ride toward Uglich:  gentle green landscapes interspersed with small towns and their gleaming churches.

May 21

    We've been in Russia for a week now - Jocelyne awakens with the cold, alas, which will turn into bronchitis. After breakfast I attend Natasha's excellent lecture on the Romanov dynasty.

     Uglich: where seven-year-old tsarevich Dmitri was murdered, reputedly by the henchmen of Boris Godunov.   A charming small town whose chief industry was watch-making; one manufacturer still survives, but our guide tells us that tourism is now what keeps the town going. The church (St. Dmitri on the Blood) is lovely, with wall frescoes in Renaissance style - including a naked Adam and Eve! - a welcome contrast to all the Byzantine severity of the churches we've seen up to now.  The martyrdom of the child St Dmitri, of course, is also depicted.  In the small museum we are serenaded by another male vocal ensemble, with a truly cavernous bass.

     We decide to skip the family visit and to shop in Souvenir Alley, a long tented lane with perhaps fifty or sixty stands. We buy a samovar, a Palekh pencil box for me (depicting the Firebird) and baby shoes for the forthcoming shower of our neighbour's daughter.

 May 22

Yaroslavl.  A short bus ride takes us to the confluence of two arms of the Volga, site of the gorgeous and spacious city park, and the church of St. Elijah the Prophet. As in the Uglich church, the paintings and icons are more Italianate, with gentler contours, and we like it very much.  We proceed to the market - a labyrinthine  jumble of stores and stands (clothes and toys predominant, not souvenirs) - and Jocelyne buys a skirt.  

Then to the Governor's Palace - where the guides are dressed à l'époque, with the girls playing the role of the Governor's daughters. They handle this potentially embarrassing role with great aplomb and grace, with a charming lesson on how to communicate your intentions with your fan.   We hear yet another fine male vocal quintet, featuring a tenor with an easy top D - we learn that he has been engaged by the Mariinsky and will be leaving the group - it's easy to predict a future for him in the stratospheric Rossini tenor roles.

    Jocelyne is feeling quite rotten by the time we get back to the ship.

    I dream that Britten has written a final opera, called Barlow, one in which he reveals himself even more pssionately than in 'Death in Venice.' The shirtless tenor has to perform all sorts of acrobatics while singing a poignant, simple melody - in the lineage of 'What harbour shelters peace' from Peter Grimes,' filtered perhaps through Glinka?!

 May 23

 At breakfast, we pass a bell-tower emerging from the lake - or rather, the Ribinsk Reservoir, Stalin's brainchild, the largest man-made body of water in the world - to make it,  he drowned some seven hundred villages. Hundreds of villagers refused to leave, chaining themselves to their homes; and they were drowned.

  The first rainy day of the cruise. We disembark at Kuzino, on the White Lake, and proceed by bus to Kirillov - I see a wolf from the window - and visit the local secondary school.  The building is dark and a bit mouldy, but the two classes we visit - grade 7 math and art - seem to be lively.  Our student guide, a graduating girl, is calm, elegant and self-possessed.  A short presentation for us: a young girl (perhaps ten) reciting Edward Lear limericks in English, and a boy (perhaps thirteen) playing accordion.  The art teacher shows us their work - including two-headed folk dolls enabling Little Red Riding Hood to transform herself into the wolf - some of the students' handwork is for sale.  Later, our guide tells us that the chief problem is that the young people leave, and gravitate to the big cities - to those of us on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, that sounds sadly familiar.

       We visit the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery and museum; the monastery has also been a fortress.  Desolate impression. At the pier, we are given an extremely hokey Viking presentation, in which hapless  volunteers are dressed in Viking attire and photographed. Jocelyne has the good sense to miss this.

 May 24

    Tatiana, one of the tour escorts,  gives a vivacious lecture on Putin, Medvedev and the Russian economy.

    Kizhi, on Lake Onega - our northernmost point. Kizhi is a beautiful island, and the huge, magical wooden church, with its multiple wooden onion domes, seems to be clambering out of a dream. We can't see the inside of the major church - the oldest wooden church in Russia -because it's closed for reconstruction, but the smaller winter church is lovely.  We have a splendid local guide, full of energy and philosophy.  We have free time to walk around the island, almost uninhabited - the whole place is a Unesco museum, with several reconstructed northern Russian wood houses of the early twentieth century. We visit several of these, and are struck by the resourcefulness with which they enabled families to survive and flourish, particularly in extreme winter conditions.  Bedrooms are ensconced between walls, with just enough of an opening to allow access; a rope-and-pulley system allows the baby's cradle to follow the mother's movements from one part of the house to the other. A place for everything: for the poultry, the animals, the fishing boat (only useable for six months at most); the farming and wood-working tools. And despite the harsh conditions, the house is beautifully ornamented, with artful carvings indoors and outside.

    We watch 'The Cranes are Flying' in our cabin, but Jocelyne is feeling feverish, and we visit the ship's doctor, who prescribes penicillin, with a plethora of other medictions,  homeopathic and otherwise.  The ship, built in the mid-1980s in East Germany, is a bit drab, excessively air-conditioned (i.e. cold), and rather noisy; it's unfortunate that illness obliges her to spend more time aboard than she would like.  One asset is that it's very stable on the rough waters of Lakes Onega and Ladoga; another is the very helpful and resourceful staff.  I might add that the ship has a fine library, including a volume (new to me) of reminiscences by Shostakovich's children.

 May 25

     We arrive in Mandrogy, the brainchild of a millionaire: it's a souvenir village on a large scale, but conceived with an eye to authenticity.  Lots of rather fantastical wooden structures, with oriental and Russian motifs jumbled together with more exuberance than coherence .  Lots of lacework, woodwork, ironwork on display (and for sale); we skip the vodka museum; but the island itself is very pleasant.  Jocelyne is very tired; we spend a long, relaxing time on a log swing; and I buy and eat a chicken pirozhi (delicious) from a strolling vendor.

    In the evening, I participate in the Guest Show via Gilbert and Sullivan: A policeman's lot is not a happy one, with audience participation obligatory - and happily forthcoming - in the chorus.

 May 26

We dock in St. Petersburg - or rather, several miles west of the city.

    Although we've paid for a full-day tour of the Hermitage, including a visit to parts of the museum which are closed to the public, we decide to opt for the shorter tour.  Natasha is an excellent guide, but we begin to long for independence and are very relieved when we are given free time. With Natasha we see the Prodigal Son of Rembrandt (for which she provides a very illuminating introduction), a room full of Titians and the two much-vaunted Leonardos.  But for me the high point is being left alone to gaze at the glorious collection of Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Derain, Matisse (no reproduction can prepare one for the stark luminosity of his 'Music'), Picasso, Rousseau - without the horrendous crowds trying to elbow into the Leonardos and Rembrandts (though I must salute here Natasha's skill in steering us to these paintings at the precise moment when the traffic subsides). 

     Evening performance of Swan Lake at the Conservatory.  Superb Odile/Odette and Jester. I enjoy the whole thing very much, despite a sometimes earthbound ensemble and the rather crude energy of the orchestral playing.)

May 27

     Glorious sunny day - in fact, we have splendid weather throughout our stay in St. Petersburg.

    Natasha takes us on a metro/walking tour of the city. We emerge at Nevsky Prospect, near an art nouveau gourmet foodshop of great splendour. We walk up the canal to the Church of Spilled Blood, built on the site of Tsar Alexander II's assassination. The church is stunning, inside and out.   Once again, the frescoes and icons are more Italianate, more humane, more gently contoured, without losing anything in splendour or mythic resonance.  The profusion of inventive energy everywhere, the generosity and self-renewing splendour of shapes and colours. We separate from our group here and have the afternoon and evening on our own.

    The beautiful Mikhailovsky Park adjoins the church; it's full of couples and children - hard to reconcile this with our guide's statistics that 70% of marriages end in divorce -  and we snooze a bit on a bench in the sun before proceeding to the Russian Museum, where we are greeted by two gigantic primeval Roerichs - followed by a delightful room of Larionov and Goncharova, and another full of Malievitch, onward via Tatlin and the other suprematists to  'socialist realism' - including some really striking and moving works -right through to the 1980s.  There's also a splendid temporary exhibit of works inspired by birds and other wildlife..  We backtrack to the nineteenth century and the late romantic works of Repin and Serov.  Also rooms full of crafts and folk art, incredibly delicate work in ivory, Palekh lacquered papier mache boxes, lace, textiles…  I'm delighted to have seen so many churches, and feel utterly satisfied on that score; but I regret not having had more time to spend in all three museums.

    We walk from the Russian Museum to the Mariinsky - along one of the canals, stopping in Dom Knigi - a three-volume bookstore where I find what I'm looking for, a Russian edition of Pushkin which includes Eugene Onegin, Boris, the Small Tragedies, the Captain's Daughter & lots of poems - as well as what I think and hope is a complete Tsveteyeva. Desperate search for a place to eat, we finally settle on a rather dubious Chinese restaurant near the theatre, and have a very good fish there. The Mariinsky - splendid to look at, though Jocelyne finds it a bit 'defraichi' - lots of children and young people in the audience - but the performance (of Tchaikovsky's wonderful Eugene Onegin) is disappointing. Badly conducted and badly played - and atrociously staged. The production dates from 1982!  Fine tenor as Lensky; and Tatyana, at least, has a voice.  Tourist fare, which angers me, as this is supposed to be part of the White Nights festival. I suspect that some of the orchestral musicians must be second-string - and not trying very hard to impress anyone.  Where is the smouldering passion in Tatiana's letter scene? Next to us is a small boy, whose first opera this must be - he arouses the ire of the guy sitting next to me by his stream of questions - but the lad is clearly bored to tears, and I can't help contrasting this with my own first lucky experience. We leave before Act III.A bitter disappointment - this was to have been the climax of the trip. The perils of great expectations!

May 28

     We spend the morning packing.

    After lunch, the canal cruise, absolutely sensational.  We emerge from the canal network to the Big Neva, in front of the Peter and Paul fortress. Our very young guide evokes the horrors of life under the Bolsheviks, and when one of the guests asks who they were, he answers, "Well, they were mostly Jews," - and goes on to say that Lenin had a grandmother named Kaplan, as though that explained something.  This rather spoils the rest of the cruise for me, but it's almost over, and the ride through various intersecting canals - past unbelievably beautiful Mozartian architecture - beautifully sculpted and painted buildings - has been a joy.

    At supper, Jocelyne is serenaded and presented with a sumptuous birthday cake! I stay for the evening's entertainment: a fine short recital by a young American (Russian grandparents) soprano from the Mariinsky, with an excellent accompanist - Bizet, Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff; the pianist plays a couple of Chopin preludes, very well except for the excruciatingly out-of-tune piano.  I get more pleasure from this recital than from Eugene Onegin at the Mariinsky!

May 29

Easy ride to the airport - we arrive too early. Jocelyne buys a lacquered bowl and I buy a nice cheap Russian edition of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.  Terrifying time trying to connect flights at Frankfurt - the Air Canada terminal is miles away from where we land, and you have to take a train to get there.. We barely make it. Easy crossing of the Atlantic, with a free beer - for some reason we are in Hospitality rather than basic Economy for this stretch - and the quietest plane so far. More panic in Toronto, as we can't find our declaration form and are once again in serious danger of missing our Halifax connection, but Jocelyne retrieves it from her handbag, we  arrive at the last minute and reach Halifax at midnight - and finally get home close to 2 AM.




    Though perhaps not the idyllic carefree vacation we'd been hoping for, the cruise was an unforgettable and intense experience.  We were both astonished to observe the slow passage of time - though now that it's over, it seems in retrospect to have only lasted a few minutes!  I think this is the only way we could have seen Russia - but the question as to whether we are 'cruise people' has - despite the excellence of our guides, the helpfulness of the ship's staff, and the stimulating encounters with many wonderful fellow passengers - been answered resoundingly in the negative.   

    Russia has been part of Jocelyne's inner world since her childhood; her piano teacher was Russian, and his brother was an icon painter and close friend of the family. The Slavonic atmosphere evoked a deep response in her.  She writes of the cruise: 'I found this experience overwhelming. Perhaps just as some people experience a voyage to India. A whole range of childhood dreams collapsed in the face of the hard reality of this country, which I had always associated with legend. So much beauty, built at the cost of so much suffering.  Its history is inscribed in its monuments and its architecture; one cannot forget it for a single instant. Moscow is a masculine city, tough, assertive, massive; while St. Petersburg is rather feminine, tempered by Italian architecture..  In short, a difficult trip, but worthwhile."    One of our fellow guests, Pamela Smith,  is an expert in Russian textiles and art.  Her website is a rich and stimulating resource for those who want to know more about this astonishing country, with many useful links.  I recommend it very highly:

    Further impressions: the proportion of young people seems much higher than in our part of the world, and they look healthier and more beautiful, though too many of them smoke. The religious revival is powerfully evident.  Notes to any future revolutionaries: if you want to ensure the flourishing of religion, ban it for the better part of a century and then just watch it swing back with redoubled force! -  Putin seems to be wildly popular - understandable, perhaps, given the nation's relative current prosperity  contrasted with the abject economic misery of the early 90s.  But from a North American perspective, the combination of intense patriotism with intense religious fervour is more than a little disquieting.  The pervading sense of energy and optimism, however, is heartening; this does not feel like an unhappy country.




April 28, 2013

Posted by John Plant on April 27, 2013 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (1)

No blog entry since February! I've been deep inside the Concerto for Orchestra, a commission for the 40th anniversary of the Montreal Chamber Orchestra next season. My apprehension about embarking on a major non-vocal work after so many years is beginning to dissolve in the strenuous exhilaration of actually seeing and feeling and hearing it take shape.  Two movements (out of four or five) are now complete.

The section 'Jocelyne and I in concert' is new.  Jocelyne - my wife, creative partner, muse, unerring critic - has now retired from singing, and I've posted a few souvenirs of our work together in concert.  I still miss the joy of accompanying her in concert, but she is a constant presence in this new adventure; I said to a friend that every note I write bears the imprint of her DNA as well as my own, and that's truer than ever now. Paul Klee once made a painting of the vocal fabric of a singer's voice; I think that the fabric of Jocelyne's voice is interwoven within all my music.  Though she's no longer singing, her soul still shimmers with the same unique radiance, and that shimmering has infused itself into every part of me.

I've also posted a few photographic souvenirs of my own brief singing career - as the Count Almaviva in two McGill Opera Studio productions, directed by the late and much lamented Edith and Luciano Della Pergola. (I also sang the Secret Police Agent in Menotti's Consul - hardly typecasting! - and the twin buffo roles of Alcindoro and Benoit in Puccini's La Bohème, in which the sublime Gianna Corbisiero sang Mimi.)  In addition to full-fledged operas, they presented many evenings of staged excerpts, and I participated in scenes ranging from Flotow's Martha to Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.  I remember watching maestro Della Pergola coach the splendid baritone Gaston Harnois through the monologue 'Pari siamo' in Verdi's Rigoletto, showing him how Verdi's music has meticulously traced the physical movements as well as the psychological evolution of the character... it was as stunning a dramatic experience as watching Maggie Smith in the theatre (I saw her as Lady Macbeth and Rosalind on the same weekend at Stratford!). 

A deep clear breath of life

Posted by John Plant on February 28, 2013 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (3)

I've just returned, exhilarated and inspired, from the premiere of 'A deep clear breath of life,' composed in memory of my friend Peter Kovner's sister Kay, and brilliantly performed by saxophonist Dr. Jennifer Bill and pianist Yoshiko Kline.  I was deeply moved by the intensity, sensitivity, and virtuosity they brought to the piece, and by their profound intuitive comprehension of my work.   It was part of a magnificent program at Boston University,  including wonderful works by Shih-Hui Chen (also a premiere), Jun Nagao and Jennifer Higdon.  Kenneth Radnofsky, who has probably commissioned more great works for saxophone than anyone on the planet (check out his inspiring website at was in the audience and was gratifyingly enthusiastic about the work.

The audience included many Boston University students - from all disciplines, not just music. For the second time in a month I've been revitalized and rejuvenated by the powerfully positive energy generated by a community of the young. And my gratitude to Jennifer and Yoshiko is unbounded - not only for mastering its considerable technical demands but also for conveying its emotional landscape so eloquently, and for placing it in such a stimulating context.

I have posted a recording of the performance in the 'Listen' section.

I have been haunted by a memory which properly belongs in my 'Beginnings 3' blog. (N. B. for those who are newcomers to the blog, I've just inserted in in its proper place.) Several days after arriving in Canada in February 1968, I found myself in the coffeeshop run by Montreal's underground newspaper, Logos - (which I recall as visually gorgeous, psychedelic to the point of illegibility). Instead of hearing the strains of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix or Country Joe and the Fish, the music on the speakers when I entered the warm dark candlelit cellar was from Verdi's Aida - it was the aria 'O patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò'.  The startling strangeness of hearing this music (O my country, I will never see you again) which I have loved with all my soul since i first heard it, was unbearingly poignant  - devastating and consoling at once, as I truly did not know then if I would ever see the USA again.

Shattering the Silence

Posted by John Plant on February 5, 2013 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Jocelyne and I have just returned from an amazing jewel of a music festival - Shattering the Silence, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, on the campus of Acadia University. Shattering the Silence is an annual festival organized by composer/flutist Derek Charke and conductor Mark Hopkins.  In residence this year were the agelessly inventive composer Michael Colgrass and the scintillating, fearless Quasar Saxophone Quartet from Montreal. I was one of seven composers invited to contribute a work for flute and percussion to the closing event, a memorable Nova Scotia-style Kitchen Party in Dr. Hopkins' home.  Each of us was given the same ten-second fragment, and we were asked to embed this on our work; the result was a panoply of seven beautifully varied works within a unified context, performed by Derek and percussionist Mark Adam The performances were interspersed with breaks for wine and Dr. Hopkins' irresistible pumpkin soup and chili.

The night before the Party, Dr. Hopkins had assembled the Acadia Youth Band, Symphonic Band, and Wind Ensemble for a gala concert with Quasar, culminating in a stupendous performance of Colgrass' Urban Requiem, conducted by Dr. Hopkins -  this work is now an indelible part of my musical landscape. Earlier in the day we heard the Acadia Gamelan - yes, this small university has a topnotch gamelan, under the direction of Ken Shorley. - They chose to perform in their beautiful, tiny, resonant studio, offering a program including two fine student works (Liam Elliot and Lucas Oickle), one by Shorley, and a classic by Lou Harrison. 

We had arrived on the third day of the festival; we'd been invited to critique Dr. Jennifer King's performance class.  This was a perfect point of entry (even though we had already missed two wonderful days); it was a real joy to me to resume contact with young  musicians, particularly when they were as receptive, sensitive and talented as these. In fact, the flavor of the entire Festival was pervaded by the effervescence and enthusiasm of Acadia's music students.  The day concluded with a breathtaking recital by Quasar, including a richly textured work by Derek Charke, and concluding with a wonderfully raucous Frank Zappa encore.

This Festival owes its existence to the indomitable mix of gusto, energy, and mind-blowing organizational capacities of Derek Charke and Mark Hopkins, as well as to the dedication they inspired in all the participants, and their inspired decision to invite Michael Colgrass and Quasar.   It was a rare and precious experience, and one which has left me with a strong appetite for getting back to work!

To read more about the festival, go here:

Beginnings 4

Posted by John Plant on October 22, 2012 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

The thrill of a splendid performance of 'The Palace at 4 A.M.' at Place des Arts, as one of three composers representing McGill at the International Student Composer's Symposium, provided a strange counterpoint to the realization that academia and myself made an extremely uncomfortable fit.  I was once again a dropout. But by a lucky chance, I met a visual artist at a party, Suzanne Swibold, who was working on a project with a modern dance company, Le Groupe de la Place Royale. Learning that I was an aspiring young composer, she encouraged me to come down to the company's headquarters and meet the two directors, choreographers Peter Boneham and Jean-Pierre Perrault. 

The beautiful loft in an ancient building with metal spiral staircases, adjoining Place d'Armes in Old Montreal, seemed to me like an enchanted space. It turned out that Peter and Jean-Pierre shared my interest in the spoken word.  And they had recently created a work using the music of my teacher Bruce Mather! From him they learned that I could be safely entrusted with a commission.  The first collaboration was a 'Poem Dance', using texts of Rimbaud and Gerrie Grevatt, and making use of the dancers' voices over pre-recorded piano. Most of my subsequent work with the company involved voices; the next work, more ambitious, involved two singers, piano, harpsichord and percussion.  The culmination was a series of works inspired by Gertrude Stein: dance operas in which the vocal parts were taken by the singers. In the first of these works, 'What Happened,' I was careful to provide time for the dancers/singers to breathe, by not having them all sing at the same time; but when I saw Peter's brilliant choreography, I realized that he was requiring the dancers to execute complex and dazzling movements while singing.  By this time the company had relocated to Ottawa, and 'What Happened' was performed at the National Arts Centre, where it was gratifyingly well received.

Like most composers of my generation, I was struggling with the issue of tonality. Most of the works I composed at McGill, and my earlier works for the Groupe, were deliberately atonal, but the nostalgia for the Lost Triad was perceptible even in the spikiest works, and I soon began experimenting with series which would yield triads - either by omission or by direct statement.  This was at best a provisional solution; but the exuberant linguistic brilliance and gusto of Gertrude Stein encouraged me to a more  spontaneous utterance.  My final work for Le Groupe was a setting of her magnificent version of the Faust story. In 'What Happened' the vocal demands were, I think, perfectly tailored to the dancers' capacities (and their astonishing musicianship). But 'Faustus' demanded a more operatic treatment - and I still intend to write a fully operatic version of this thrilling text.  In the initial version, I probably went overboard in my quest for simplicity, but it was a crucial step toward recovering a language of my own. 

September 27, 2012

Posted by John Plant on September 27, 2012 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (1)

During the past week I've completed two very rewarding commissions, which have kept me busy all summer - so much so that I've only just now begun the spring cleaning of our shed. One was for the Talisker Players, a marvelous vocal chamber music ensemble in Toronto whose interests are uncannily like my own: all of their concerts involve singers, and consist of settings of poetry in combination with readings.  They had already performed (magnificently) two of my works: the Invocation to Aphrodite and La notte bella, as well as my transcription of Wagner's Wesendonk-Lieder for voice and string quartet. The new piece is a setting of a passionate sonnet by the Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, mentioned by Rilke in the First Duino Elegy, for mezzo-soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano.  The mezzo-soprano is Anita Krause, whose richly coloured voice is equally at home in Mahler and Vivaldi. The concert is on October 30 and November 1.

The other commission , from my dear friend Peter Kovner, was to compose a fantasia for saxophone and piano as a memorial to his beloved sister Kay. In it,  I attempted to evoke something of the exuberance and the poignance of her life as I understood it.  The music traces a path through the joys, hopes,  tribulations and torments of childhood, nostalgia, melancholy, exuberant Dionysian abandon, frenzy, illness; and concludes with a sense of the radiant spirit which survives and which, perhaps, represents her true legacy. Peter expressed the wish that I would at some point pay tribute to my love of vintage Motown, which is why the work includes an homage to Junior Walker. Her sojourn in Rome is evoked by yet another homage, this time to Nino Rota, the composer of the matchless music for most of Fellini's films, including 'La dolce vita.' Neither homage involves any conscious quotation,  but I enjoyed the challenge of integrating multiple styles and emotional states within a twelve-minute span.  Schnittke's coinage of the word 'polystylistic' seems tailor-made for 'A deep clear breath of life'  -(the work's title, taken from a moving e-mail from Peter).

The work is composed for the brilliantly versatile and sensitive saxophonist Dr. Jennifer Bill, who will perform it as part of her Boston University Faculty Recital in February (exact date tba). You can hear this fine artist at

This has been a real voyage of discovery for me: I have been enjoying close encounters with many unsuspected masterpieces. It seems that Japanese composers have a particular affinity with the saxophone. My library has been enriched with scores and CDs of works by Takashi Yoshimatsu, Ryo Noda, Fuminori Tanada, William Bolcolm, Christian Lauba, Robert Muczynski, and many others.. not to mention some splendid books, such as Jean-Marie Londeix's indispensable 'Hello Mr. Sax', The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, and Paul Harvey's more traditionally minded introduction to the instrument in the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides series.

And last night I attended my first concert since the Scotia Festival in May/June - apart from Janice Jackson's magnificent adventure 'Opera from Scratch' -  and I can't imagine a more rewarding return. It was a 'Totally Togni' concert, devoted to the work of Peter Togni and featuring the world premiere of his setting of three odes by Pablo Neruda for soprano and string quartet.  The setting of Neruda's Ode to My Suit is, I think, nothing less than a masterpiece, gloriously performed by soprano Stacie Dunlop and Blue Engine String Quartet - a work fully worthy of the pulsing, earthy vitality of its source. All the music was richly imagined and deeply felt.  A memorable evening!



Beginnings 3

Posted by John Plant on July 10, 2012 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (0)

... To start with a p.s. to the 2d chapter, about my Middlebury composition teacher George Todd - he invited me to his house to listen to Boulez' Le marteau sans maitre over a bottle of Scotch - an utterly new world for me - and as I left he pressed the record into my hands. This impetuous generosity set the tone for our relationship. When I dodged the draft and came to Canada in 1968, he was one of the first to write to me - a beautifully balanced and very wise letter.

Now, to continue from Beginnings 2: My gig at the Bonnie Scot Club came to an end - none too soon! - when the tenor was engaged for a week-long gig at the Avalon Lounge in St. John's, Newfoundland, and invited me to accompany him.  We were not a success: Charlie was an old-school tenor, and he wore a sort of semi-military Scots uniform, which went down beautifully in Montreal - but did not impress the fishermen of St John's; our operatic rendition of 'Bonnie Scotland, Scotland aye sae braw' was received in glacial silence. The next day I ran down to the nearest music shop and bought a collection of local folk songs, which we learned in haste but performed with enough gusto to garner a few desultory claps. I later learned that the club's previous act had been The Platters - the contrast must have been rather startling. Charlie had a beautiful voice, and we performed together on several subsequent occasions in Montreal - he would perform in both Irish and Scottish pubs, using his father's name (O'Leary) for the former, and his mother's (Greville) for the latter.

My parents realized that I was serious about music, and that nothing else would really ever satisfy me, and thanks to them I was able to attend McGill.  It was not a good match: despite my intense (and, from current perspective, entirely fortunate) disillusionment with Harvard, I was expecting to enter a sort of Parnassus full of enthusiastic, utterly devoted, passionate young musicians.  (I later learned that the Conservatoire was such a Parnassus, with students such as Michel-Georges Brégent, Michel Gonneville, Claude Vivier attending our concerts and engaging with us, with the kind of intensity I'd hoped to find at McGill). I was fortunate, however, in several of my teachers, particularly Bruce Mather (composition) and Alan Heard (analysis).  Bruce was a perfect combination of rigor and sensitivity; he sensed one's capabilities, as well as the particular nature of one's talent, and with gentle implacability he helped one's voice to emerge. It helped also that his own music was so limpid, so exquisitely and unashamedly beautiful. As for Alan, I particularly remember his classes on Brahms 4 and of the Berg violin concerto; it was not possible to have one's love for these works immeasurably strengthened by confronting their innermost depths, and perceiving the breathtaking structural unity underlying their beauty. During my second year, Bruce was on sabbatical and I studied with Charles Palmer, who gave me a freer hand, encouraging me to work in larger forms; the sequence of contrasting teaching styles was, I think, extremely fortunate.

But I was an erratic student, acing my courses in composition, orchestration, piano, and analysis, and utterly neglecting everything else.  The highlight of my second year was that my setting of Lawrence Raab's poem 'The Palace at 4 A.M.' was one of three works chosen to represent McGill at the International Student Composers' Symposium. It was scored for soprano, three percussionists, cello, harpsichord and piano. Margo McKinnon, a reigning figure on the contemporary music scene, took on the very demanding soprano part, making frequent visits to my hovel of my apartment on rue Napoléon to rehearse; her kindness and generosity are a shining memory.  The musicians were splendid, and I remember with particular pleasure a visit to the studio where the three percussionists dramatically expanded my awareness of the magic which might emerge from their amazing arsenal.

Still, I could not have continued at McGill without a dramatic alteration in my attitude toward academia, an unlikely development in this particularly bohemian stage of my life.  It was necessary to earn a living. I answered an ad for a teaching assistant at a private elementary school - out of sheer economic necessity - and got the job. I quickly discovered that teaching suited me, and that I was good at it.  And I was extremely lucky that the person whose assistant I had become, Mme. Zora Srepel, was a brilliant teacher and an inspiring mentor.

I will fly like a bird

Posted by John Plant on June 28, 2012 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (4)

In June 2009 I received an e-mail from Halifax poet and novelist J. A. Wainwright; he'd written the text for a song cycle on the Robert Dziekanski tragedy. (Dziekanski was the Polish immigrant who was moving to Canada to live with his mother; he was fatally tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver Airport, after a heartbreaking series of misadventures and failures of communication. (Those who want to know more about the incident are directed to the thorough, dispassionate and devastating Braidwood Report, commissioned from the B.C. government,  available at


The story is told entirely through the imagined voices of Robert and his mother. When I showed Jocelyne the beautiful text that Wainwright had written, she said 'You have to do this.' It soon became apparent that the text was the libretto of an opera - and it's just been performed, at the Scotia Festival in Halifax, on May 31.


I've posted the program notes in the 'Texts and Translations' section.  I want to use this space to pay tribute to the marvelous singers and musicians I had the good fortune to work with: baritone Clayton Kennedy, mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston, clarinettist

Micah Heilbrunn, the Blue Engine String Quartet, with me at the piano.  


The rehearsals were intense and intensely gratifying experiences; the intuition, musicianship and passion of everyone involved were electrifying.  It seemed to me that every note, rest, tempo change had been so deeply assimilated that the performers were able - individually and as a group - to charge the piece with 'duende' - that ineffable quality of energy which Garcia Lorca, in a famous essay, regarded as

indispensable.  And this was palpable in the audience response.


We were honoured by the presence of Zofia Cisowski, Robert Dziekanski's mother, who flew in from British Columbia for the premiere.  I had the pleasure of meeting her at a reception after the performance.    To encounter in the flesh a person whose experience we had been imagining through poetry and music was an extraordinary experience. She told us that she wept through the entire performance, but that she was happy that we had chosen to remember her son in this way.



Here is a link to the Lorca essay:

Beginnings, 2

Posted by John Plant on March 15, 2012 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (8)

This blog seems to be turning into something like a musical autobiography...

My attitude toward popular music underwent a dramatic change during my high school years. My friend Pete and I used to spit ritually when walking past the doors of WIBG, Philadelphia's legendary rock station. But radio was ubiquitous, and some of the songs of the early 60s were surreptitiously working their way into my psyche, particularly Little Eva's 'Locomotion' (on which I recall writing a set of piano variations, now fortunately lost), the Isley Brothers' 'Twist and Shout' - and the Damascene revelation: Heat Wave, by Martha and the Vandellas, which carved a permanent rhythmical niche in my psyche. So when I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, I would frequently hitchhike to New York for a weekend, going to the Met on Friday night and the Apollo Theatre on Saturday - I saw the joint Met debut of Monserrat Caballé and Sherill Milnes at the Met on one night in December 1965, in Gounod's Faust  (after waiting in line eight hours for standing room), and James Brown at the Apollo the next.  But it wasn't just opera and soul - I can remember seeing Martha Graham dance Phaedra, discovering Magritte at the Museum of Modern Art, hearing the Mothers of Invention in the East Village - and gasping as their raucous polyphony/cacaphony morphed seamlessly into a flawlessly executed bit of Petrushka. 

On the academic front, I decided to major in Classics after hearing Professor Ursula Heibges read Catullus - I wish I could recreate the liquid rhythmic suppleness with which she invested those poems. I took no music for two years, but at the end of my second year a new composition teacher arrived, George Todd, and transformed the department. There was a Mozart seminar, focused on  Don Giovanni - and there was the welcome prospect of independent study in composition.  I had fulfilled most of my core degree requirements and was able to focus largely on music for the last two years. My friends Lawrence Raab and Peter O'Neill created a film, called 'The Distances', and invited me to compose the score. The conflict of priorities became acute. I rationalized it by deciding to go into comparative literature, and making the sources of opera libretti the subject of my dissertation. I was accepted at Harvard, and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship - but my advisor, the noted critic Harry Levin, saw through me right away, and tried to redirect me into music. Thoroughly confused and utterly lacking in confidence - and causing great distress to my parents, who thought they saw a clear career path into academia for me -  I dropped out, thereby exposing myself to the draft at the height of the Vietnam War; and on February 2, 1968, I emigrated to Montreal. (My acceptance to the U. of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in musicology came through a month after I arrived!)

Several days after arriving in Canada, I found myself in the coffeeshop run by Montreal's underground newspaper, Logos - (which I recall as visually gorgeous, psychedelic to the point of illegibility). Instead of hearing the strains of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix or Country Joe and the Fish, the music on the speakers when I entered the warm dark candlelit cellar was from Verdi's Aida - it was the aria 'O patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò'.  The startling strangeness of hearing this music (O my country, I will never see you again) which I have loved with all my soul since i first heard it, was unbearingly poignant  - devastating and consoling at once, as I truly did not know then if I would ever see the USA again.

For me, however, Montreal was a blessing in disguise - I needed to discover who I was, and I needed some distance from my beloved and loving parents - and their hopes, fears, and expectations -  in order to do so. I worked for five months in a factory, and then landed my first music gig: pianist at the Bonnie Scot Club, boul. de Maisonneuve - accompanying a fine old-school tenor and leading singalongs between sets. Seven nights a week, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

... to be continued -  with intermittent interjections on other subjects! -


Posted by John Plant on March 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM Comments comments (1)

It all began with 'The Marriage of Figaro'. At the age of ten I caught sight of a dual-language booklet, the libretto of the Metropolitan Opera Record Club recording of the opera; and two lifelong obsessions were born - opera and language.  My parents played the LP for me, and I was hooked - Giorgio Tozzi singing 'Cinque, dieci' changed the course of my life. Piano lessons soon followed, and shortly therefter I made a stab at my first opera, 'Il Mago di Oz'. The 'opera' was not in Italian, but it had to have an Italian title. I still have the score, with the opening 'Apertura' - for some reason I thought that was how you said 'overture' in Italian. The first three-chord opera - anticipating the minimalists by several decades? - Definitely NOT the work of a prodigy.

We lived in rural Pennsylvania. I remember my intense disappointment at not being taken to a production of Aida in Altoona, 75 miles away. When we moved to South Jersey a year or so later, my parents richly compensated for this by taking me to Rigoletto at the Academy of Music, with Cornell MacNeill, Eva Likova and Eugene Conley - second row center.  Beautiful painted sets, and I still think it must have been an amazing performance. My father spoke years afterwards about the awe aroused by the first notes, one trumpet and one trombone articulating the theme of the curse.

I was blessed with music-loving parents - not musicians, but passionate music-lovers. Dad came home late for work on Friday nights, and they celebrated with steak, wine and music. I would creep out of bed and listen on the staircase while they played Liszt's Les Préludes, Bizet's 'L'Arlesienne' suites, Franck's D minor symphony, the Brahms horn trio, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel.  One day Dad came home with the London (Decca) recording of Don Giovanni, complete with score. And then I began ordering records myself, from The Record Hunter in New York; I think my first purchase was the Gigli/Dal Monte/de Fabritiis Madama Butterfly. 

As a teenager in South Jersey, I soon discovered Philadelphia and spent many Saturdays there, dividing my time with the Free Library (still an image of Paradise for me), with its astonishing collection of scores and its listening booths, where I heard Stravinsky's 'Rossignol' for the first time, bookstores, and Elkan-Vogel's gorgeous little hole-in-the-wall music store.   I encountered like-minded friends in high school, and discovered the thrill of buying my own tickets to the opera - $2.50 for a balcony seat - with Bob Gordon or Pete Waldo or John Davis, and later with girls - Lohengrin, Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Die Walküre, The Ballad of Baby Doe.   And in the bookstores I was finding the wonderful Penguin bilingual anthologies of Italian, Spanish and German verse. 

My friends were extending my musical horizons on both ends of the spectrum: Berg and Stravinsky on one end, and Bach and Vivaldi on the other.

I should mention that Woodbury High School offered four years of Latin, three of German and Spanish, all of which I took.  And that free tickets to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts were often available - so I was able to hear the first American performance of Shostakovich's 4th; the immense washes of orchestral sound in that work were a revelation to me.  Our high school also had a choir, conducted by James Freund; we performed at least one Bach cantata (BWV 142 - I sang the bass solo), and lots of Brahms, including 'How lovely is thy dwelling place' from the Requiem. I was not in the orchestra, but I remember that they performed the overture to Die Meistersinger at our graduation.

I learned enough Italian from following libretti that I was admitted to a third-year course at Middlebury; and the French I picked up from Gounod and Bizet served me in good stead when I moved to Montreal in 1968.

I should also pay homage to our church choir, conducted by my piano teacher, Dr. Starke: we sang a very mixed bag - I should say a deliciously mixed bag - ranging from Handel and Mozart to some pretty fusty Victoriana (Olivet to Calvary, by J. H. Maunder, whose name, I fear, was sadly self-descriptive). A major thrill was hearing the organist's wife, Iris Starke, our soprano soloist, boldly flinging out her laserlike high C in the Inflammatus from Rossini's Stabat Mater, recast as 'None else shall deliver us!' 

To be continued!