Tuesday, October 22, 2013

First-Person: Larry Beckwith on Brief Lives and Toronto Masque Theatre

William Webster (photo by Tariq Kieran)

Pushing Tin
by Larry Beckwith

Larry Beckwith enjoys a successful and versatile career in the arts in and around Toronto. He studied violin and musicology at the University of Toronto. Since then, he has vigorously pursued his interests in choral music, baroque and contemporary music, theatre, radio, teaching and writing. As a professional singer, he has appeared regularly with the Elora Festival Singers, Tafelmusik Chamber Singers, Opera Atelier, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Exultate Chamber Singers. An accomplished baroque violinist, Mr. Beckwith studied with Jeanne Lamon and was a founding member of the Aradia Baroque Ensemble. In 2003, he founded Toronto Masque Theatre, which - under his artistic leadership - has presented more than 25 critically-acclaimed programs of interdisciplinary performing art, including a cycle of the five major music theatre works by Henry Purcell and stage works by Molière, Stravinsky, John Blow, John Beckwith, Monteverdi, Handel, Charpentier and others. Through TMT, Mr. Beckwith has commissioned and premiered new works in the spirit of the masque by Canadian composers Abigail Richardson, James Rolfe, Omar Daniel, Dean Burry and Alice Ho. Larry Beckwith runs the celebrated strings program at the arts-intensive Unionville High School and lives in Toronto with his wife, soprano Teri Dunn, and their two daughters, Alison and Juliet.

As Toronto Masque Theatre celebrates its 10th anniversary this season, it’s given  me a chance to look back, take stock and marvel at the adventures we’ve had so far. It also excites me to imagine the coming 10 years, knowing they will be filled with interesting and innovative projects with a wide range of artists from various disciplines.

Toronto Masque Theatre (TMT) was born out of a desire on my part to create a company that would have, at its very core, the objective of bringing different performing arts disciplines together in a positive, creative working environment; one that valued the individual talents of all performers. 

Katherine Hill, William Webster (photo by Al Uehre)

At the time, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the ghettoizing of early music. A situation which was compounded by local opera companies and other early music groups who tended to perform from this relatively narrow range of music to exclusion of all else. I wanted to mix things up. I wanted to see what would happen if you hosted a single evening featuring both Baroque and contemporary music. How would audiences respond to an evening of performance that was organized around a theme - say the telling of a classic myth - rather than by the era the music was composed in. What would happen if you invited successful contemporary composers to write for early instruments. What would a traditional, courtly masque look like on a stage in contemporary, multi-cultural Toronto. 

My artistic point of view always stems from a trust in the material I’m presenting

I also wanted to reach out, not to just those with eclectic tastes, but to also build a relationship with as wide an audience as possible. I wanted to do this by producing performances that were honest, direct, simple and intimate. Over the years, I feel that this has become the hallmark of our work: intimate and eclectic; honest and imaginative. For us, when we perform for an audience it feels more like we are interacting and sharing ideas with a group of friends, or even collaborators, rather than the traditional relationship that exists between artists and audiences.

My artistic point of view always stems from a trust in the material I’m presenting; I don’t feel that it needs to be “improved” by gimmickry or unnecessary “updating”. In my experience, audiences respond to sincerity and a sense that the performers are engaged and enjoying themselves. Honesty, integrity, vulnerability, charm: these are all attributes that define the work of Toronto Masque Theatre at its best.

My colleagues and I were far from being alone in having this desire to break down barriers and create connections with new audiences. The success of multi-disciplinary organizations such as the Art of Time Ensemble and I Furiosi as well as small and vital opera companies such as Queen of Puddings pointed to a change in the way the so-called “high arts” were being presented and thought of in Toronto. In the ensuing years, many other fascinating companies have emerged with similar interests. It feels like a movement is happening and we're delighted to be a part of it.

The history of the company can be traced even further back to my education and early professional experience. While in university I had the good fortune to study with various stimulating professors of English Lit, including William Blissett, who taught an especially interesting course on Modern Drama. After earning undergraduate and graduate musicology degrees, I discovered Tafelmusik and fell in love with baroque music and performance practice. I have now been a part of that world for 20 years, singing in the Tafelmusik chamber choir. I studied violin for three years with Jeanne Lamon, played and sang in productions of Opera Atelier and have been inspired by Marshall Pynkoski’s commitment and drive. Individual musicians have also inspired me, including the organist John Tuttle, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, teacher and lieder coach Greta Kraus, conductor Bernard Labadie and countless others. My work at CBC Radio brought me into contact with great minds and the year I spent at the side of Nicholas Goldschmidt, as his director of programming for the 2002 Toronto Choral Festival, put me in touch with my “inner entrepreneur”. A feature that is so important in the running of a small company in Canada.

I also had a desire to mine the strong contacts and professional relationships I had built up over the years in Toronto and other parts of Canada. I had had many informal conversations that began with “wouldn’t it be great if….” or “if only we had a company, we could do….”. I wanted to give life to these dreams and aspirations and work with artists whom I admired and respected.

I met Derek Boyes - Artistic Associate at TMT and also director of our upcoming production Brief Lives - on tour with Opera Atelier (he was playing the title character in the Moliere/Lully Le Bourgeois Gentillehomme) and I was immediately struck by his musicality as an actor and the tremendously generous way in which he worked with his colleagues. We met again at the hockey rink, playing shinny together every Tuesday night in our neighbourhood, and in this unlikely environment, I outlined my idea for TMT to him. He was an immediate enthusiastic supporter and ally from the beginning. He brings a wonderful combination of high standards, patience, passion and great theatrical know-how to TMT. (He’s a also, I have to say, a brilliant actor and currently on-stage in Soulpepper’s production of the Alan Ayckburn trilogy The Norman Conquests.)

Her performances have that rare combination of appealing to the “general public” while managing to impress those “in the know”.

I met our other Artistic Associate, dancer and choreographer, Marie-Nathalie Lacousiere while working on a baroque project in the late 1990s. She was actually billeted at my house on a few occasions and we struck up a great friendship and began to dream about creating projects on our own. Not only is she a prodigiously talented dancer and choreographer, she is also an accomplished actress and comedienne. Her encyclopaedic knowledge of baroque dance, and interest in commedia dell’arte, have brought not just a high level of entertainment to TMT shows but a sense of connection to the traditions that the work originates from. Her performances have that rare combination of appealing to the “general public” while managing to impress those “in the know”. 

I am blessed to work with these two on a regular basis.

I've highlighted these two personal relationships to again emphasize the core of collaboration which I believe infuses all our work. It is this sense of adventure and partnership that has allowed a small company like ours to - over the past 10 years - commission and present seven new multi-disciplinary works in the spirit of the masque. The latest of these, The Lesson of Da Ji by Marjorie Chan and Alice Ho, won a Dora Mavor Moore award for Best New Opera just last season. In addition, we’ve accomplished the rare and thrilling task of mounting all five major music theatre works by the brilliant 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. We’ve presented plays by James Reaney, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Moliere, music theatre pieces by Stravinsky, John Beckwith, Monteverdi, Charpentier and John Blow. And we’ve delved into the world of pop music with presentations of The Randy Newman Songbook and the Masque of Love, a Valentine’s Day celebration with Patricia O’Callaghan and  Ken Whiteley. Eclectic programming to say the least.

Our latest production, a co-production with Soulpepper Theatre Company, opens October 25 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Derek Boyes is directing the acclaimed actor William Webster in Patrick Garland’s poignant and amusing play, Brief Lives. The play is based on the writings of John Aubrey, known as the first biographer in the English language. His portraits of notable figures of the 17th century, including William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Hobbes, provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some of the most well-known people in the history of London. The production, in true TMT-style, will transform Garland's traditional, one-man show into an interdisciplinary performance featuring projections by Ken McKenzie and gorgeous music from 17th century England – performed by lutenist Terry McKenna, singer Katherine Hill and me on violin. Intimate, charming, thought-provoking and moving, it will, I'm sure, prove to be a wonderful introduction to our work. I hope you can join us. 

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