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Julian Armour (cello) & Frédéric Lacroix (piano) play Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan”. Photo: Music & Beyond.

Harmony and artistry during a storm: Music & Beyond presents the Music & Nature virtual series

By Christina Bondi on October 7, 2020

In the midst of this seemingly endless storm of fear, loneliness, and pain, music can serve as a vehicle of consolation, connection, and healing. With live performances on pause, many music festivals like Music & Beyond have shifted their 2020 programming online. In partnership with the Canadian Museum of Nature, they present Music & Nature, a series of virtual performances that embody or are inspired by nature.

Over the course of two days, a variety of artists played music in different areas of the museum. Their performances were recorded and posted online. Music & Nature consists of 25 videos, featuring both traditional and non-traditional instruments. In addition to performances, this series provides a tour of the museum’s permanent galleries.

Throughout the series, both space and sound collaborate with and enrich one another. They are complementary yet allow us to see and appreciate the other in a new light.

On the other side of the screen, setting up recording equipment. Photo: Music & Beyond.

Through the Screen: Where Space and Sound Meet

The series opens with Karen Donnelly, principal trumpet player for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. In the Queens’ Lantern, Donnelly performs an original composition called “Fanfare for the Backyard Bird Feeder.” The physical space brings together minimalism and symmetry. Donnelly stands on a symmetrical butterfly staircase, beneath Luke Jerram’s “Museum of the Moon” installation. The dynamic notes of her trumpet evoke the delightful flits and flutters of birds. Space and sound are in concert with one another, allowing for a powerful performance to kickstart the virtual series.

Music & Nature II spotlights Sonia Rodriguez, principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. With musical accompaniment by Julian Armour (cello) and Frédéric Lacroix (piano), Rodriguez dances to Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.” The blue backlighting of the museum’s rotunda augments the curated scene of a swan gliding along water. In addition to the heartbreaking instrumental, each of Rodriguez’s movements capture great pain and sorrow. In a troubling time, this performance provides a much-needed moment of catharsis.

Julian Armour (cello) & Frédéric Lacroix (piano) play Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.” Photo: Music & Beyond.

In Music & Nature III, Thorwald Jørgensen gives us a delightfully bizarre rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” He plays the theremin, an electronic and contactless instrument, and the sounds are comparable to the buzzing of bumblebees. Jørgensen is accompanied by Kamilla Bystrova on the piano.

Jesse Stewart executes four creative performances. In Music & Nature XIX, he plays an original percussion composition in the cave of the Earth Gallery. The delightful rings and echoes personify the space in which he resides. Music & Nature XVI and XXII take place in the Water Gallery. In the former, Stewart plays the waterphone, breathing life back into the impressive whale skeleton just behind him. In the latter, taps on a shell produces memorable sounds and reverberations meant to complement a hydrothermal vent called the black smoker. In the Bird Gallery for Music & Nature XXV, Stewart combines various widgets to create incredibly lifelike bird calls.

The virtual series not only showcases music produced by instruments, but also voices. Jazz singer Kellylee Evans performs Gershwin’s “Summertime” and ahbez’s “Nature Boy” alongside Mark Ferguson (piano), Chris Pond (bass), and Jose Hernandez (drums). For opera novices and aficionados alike, check out Delibes’ “Sous le dôme épais” from the opera Lakmé. An interesting fact about this performance: the Atlantic Ocean separated singers Meghan Lindsay and Wallis Giunta, who tuned in from Toronto and Leeds (UK), respectively. Accompanying pianist Bryan Wagorn played from New York. Still, the three performers achieve admirable coordination, harmony, and flow.

Several videos share traditional First Nations songs with viewers. Aurora Jade performs “The Bear Song” in the Mammal Gallery. Her rich voice and powerful hand drum make for an impactful performance. And throat-singing duo Tarniriik (Samantha Metcalfe and Cailyn Degrandpre) provide a riveting and skillful performance for their digital audience.

Sonia Rodriguez in the rotunda of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Photo: Music & Beyond.

Beyond the Screen: Chatting with the Artists

I spoke with some of the artists to learn about their experiences as part of Music & Nature. Among them was percussionist Zac Pulak, whose two performances offer up very different sounds and emotions. In Music & Nature XXIII, he executes a bold and dynamic drum performance in the Earth Gallery’s cave, while in Music & Nature XV, his marimba produces a light, whimsical sound. I also spoke with harpist Caroline Léonardelli, who plays Mozetich’s “Reflection” in the Water Gallery. Her enchanting performance showcases the gentle and rapid movements of water.

I asked the artists what it was like to play and record in the Canadian Museum of Nature. Pulak said, “I’ve been to the museum several times to explore the exhibits, and through Music and Beyond’s Music and Nature series in previous years, I have had the opportunity to play for live audiences as well. It was a unique experience to be there alone, save for a handful of museum staff and recording engineers!” Léonardelli said the experience was amazing: “Every time I record there I position myself in the fish section. It was great to perform with all the fish looking at me from the aquariums.”

The artists opened up about how the pandemic has impacted their work. “Up until COVID-19, many of my creative projects (including my piano/percussion duo SHHH!! Ensemble which was also featured in the series) were building a lot of momentum. We had just completed a national tour and were looking forward to a three-week residency at the Banff Centre,” Pulak said. Nevertheless, he said “going from performing a concert or more a week to a concert (or less) a month really revitalized my appreciation for what a privilege it is to get to do this for a living. I have also had more time to dedicate to composing.”

Festivals and series like Music & Beyond have been working hard to adapt to these extraordinary times. Pulak said, “Opportunities like this one have been instrumental in keeping artists engaged with their audiences and their craft.” But, of course, artists look forward to a time when they will be able to perform live once again. “I can hardly wait to be in front of a real [live] audience,” Léonardelli said.

Enjoy many more virtual performances from the Music & Nature series.