John Plant, composer

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...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.


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!