Classical sexed up in Opera Undressed

Monday, July 18, 2011

Story by Chrissy Shannon

Throw away your monocles and leave the altar boys tucked in bed. Classical music does not have to be for the privileged few or for church pews. Classical music is sexy. It's passionate. It’s about pain and suffering, passion and envy, curses and evil!

Soprano Noosa Al-Sarraj (photo by Allison Staton)


The budding performance collective Opera Undressed wishes to pelvic thrust this take on classical music into the faces of all willing participants—and even those not wearing pants. Upcoming performances at Le Hibou in Wakefield on August 3 and at Tabaret Hall (UOttawa campus) on August 5 will showcase the virtuoso skills of pianist Roland Graham, soprano Noosa Al-Sarraj, and the art projections of Ariane Beauchamp. Significantly, there will also be a cash bar.

Initially staged as a modest performance of art songs, Opera Undressed is growing in size and ambition. It began when I was attending Al-Sarraj’s voice recitals (we are old acquaintances from our days in Peterborough) and noted her affinity for rock and roll and other incongruous genres. We set out to blur the boundaries and infiltrate the stuffy world of classical musicianship with a bit of spice from the real world.

Pianist Roland Graham (photo by Bill Blackstone)


Fast forward to not-too-long ago, when Al-Sarraj met Graham, a highly trained pianist, passionate choirmaster and director of the Verdun Classical Music Society. Next I was introduced to Ariane Beauchamp, a multidisciplinary artist whose varied works include ink drawings and light projections using everything including her body as a canvas.

Music in the August shows will be a mélange of styles and time periods: the idea is for listeners to feel the thematic connection between songs across time. Al-Sarraj will begin with a trio of German songs that evoke despair with minor keys and slow deliberate melodies. Anyone can relate to the mood of these heart-wrenching tunes regardless of musical background or knowledge of composers.

Visual artist Ariane Beauchamp

After performing some French art songs by Gabriel Faure, vocalist Al-Sarraj will conclude with three Italian opera arias that explore the theme of false appearances and masquerades. Overall, the musical selections reveal the heart of the Opera Undressed objective: to explore the full range of the human psyche through classical music and art projections. (Alternative objective: to enable people to get a little tipsy while listening to some kick-ass classical music.)

In preparation for the performance, Opera Undressed has put out a call for poster designs to all artists in the Ottawa area who would like to join the collective.

The posters will be displayed physically and digitally for the month of July as a public art display. For information or submissions, please visit


Unchambered music at Festival Pontiac Enchanté

Monday, July 11, 2011

Co-artistic director Carson Becke makes music in the hayloft concert hall for Festival Pontiac Enchanté


Story and photos by Kirk Finken

In art, as in life, the best things happen when you make an honest shift. You take a banal masterpiece, turn it slightly brassy or pare it back and you get magic. You take an old phrase and add a fresh, maybe rude word, and it sparkles. It feels real again.

There’s a newcomer to the local festival circuit that does just that. It takes chamber music and kicks open the walls. It makes an honest shift. It makes it real.

Now, don’t go all shitty on me here. Like, eeuw, chamber music. Yeah, chamber music.

If you like the truth, even if it hurts, you will like this chamber music festival. It’s the Festival Pontiac Enchanté in Luskville, Quebec.

I went to this festival last year for the first time, not knowing what to expect. I certainly did not expect to be converted into a classical music lover. But that’s almost what happened. I’m almost there. I think I need to go again this year and maybe I will be bona fide.

Here’s what happened last year. It was a glorious-hot summer day. There was a slight breeze, and by the upturned poplar leaves on Cregheur Road in Luskville (just 30 minutes out of Ottawa) there was the promise of a storm. As you pull up the long drive that leads to the Farm of the Mountain where the festival takes place, your eyes and soul are swallowed by the mountain, the forest, the fields. You enter another place. Not Ottawa. Not Gatineau. Not godforsaken Barrhaven. The setting was the first shift.

There are horses. There are swallows circling at 20 feet and turkey vultures circling at 200. The trees speak. There’s a nice old barn and a well-appointed-but-real house. It’s owned by the Becke-Bradley family. You can see that they are people of means but there’s nothing pretentious.

There was the pleasant, red-cheeked Sheila McCrindle serving the most amazing homemade chocolate-Guinness cake and proper iced tea and coffee on the lawn. Musicians were traipsing about. An old fellow in white pants and fancy shirt untucked arrived with his once-upon-a-debutante wife. They gleefully mingled with the musicians.

There were half-hippies in Birkenstocks and stories of recent junkets to teach in Japan and a smattering of curious, polite country folk in their Sunday best jeans and a checkered shirt. It wasn’t the usual NAC twats and stuffed olives. Another nice shift.

Someone announced the start of the concert and everyone made their way up to the second floor of the barn into one of the best-kept secrets around Ottawa. It’s a converted hayloft; the walls and ceilings are finished in barnboard. The resulting sound is rich, direct and golden. It’s completely unexpected and intimate, holding only 130 people.

And the music? It was delicate, big, complex, real, emotional. The musicians were pushing themselves. It wasn’t always easy, but things worth doing never are.

They were a combination of young-accomplished and seasoned musicians from Canada and Europe. They were not in their usual habitat. And they were exploring the freedom of this place and audience. It was brilliant. It was unchambered music.

I walked out a changed man. I went to see two more concerts the following week. This year, I am looking to take another step in that change.

The festival’s co-artistic directors Donnie Deacon and Carson Becke have promised to take it to the next level this time around from July 22 to 31. There are some of the same musicians from last year and some newly invited ones. All of them are serious, accomplished, and decorated.

While last year’s program offered a smorgasbord of sometimes unrelated works, this year’s is a more focused program. It feels like it has greater purpose. For his part, Becke calls it “a classical musician’s dream.”

“Specifically, there are a few pieces that we would not necessarily get to perform in other settings,” Becke continued, such as Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances for two pianos or Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht for piano trio. "These are both pieces that we have loved for a very long time but have not had the chance to perform until this summer.”

Becke just seems to gleam as he concludes, “This festival is a rare opportunity for artists. It provides us with an intimate setting where we can perform great music.  Everything we are doing here comes from a pure love of music.”

Purity is good. It seems we don’t get much of it these days. But you can find it in the barn out in Luskville.

Festival Pontiac Enchanté

July 22 to 31, Luskville, Québec
Reserve tickets online

Cube to dim the lights for Nuit Noire festival

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sanjeev Sivarulrasa, Milky Way Over Grand Lake Ontario

Story by Ashley McConnell

If you live in a city, there is no such thing as moonlight. Starlight, too, is a fable. You can walk around after sundown believing that it’s dark outside, but legitimate darkness is compromised by 24-hour convenience stores and four-storey parking garages. In a world of artificial illumination, we can’t often enjoy how nice the moon looks because everything else that glows never seems to fall asleep.

Still, as much as possible it’s important to notice the delicate things about night, such as the subtle shades of light and dark. Artists, of course, regularly do this; many of them gaze up and root their work in the feelings or memories that the night sky inspires. But absorbing the evening atmosphere isn’t only for the creative class—there is a universality to stargazing. We all do it because it creates a humble sense of connectedness and inspires awe.

To those fundamentally human ends, Cube Gallery will kick off Nuit Noire, an exhibition and festival dedicated to the night sky, on Saturday, July 2. This nocturnal art bash will celebrate the inky blanket above by highlighting a range of visual artists and scientific minds inspired by night.

Two examples from the artist lineup that pop out like the North Star: In Sanjeev Sivarulrasa’s astro-photography, star systems appear much like the perfect chaos of note-splattered sheet music. And in Andrew O’Malley’s ClearSkyScraper, an interactive web installation offers real-time light patterns formed in response to clear sky astronomical observation data from various Canadian cities.

In addition to the art (on display at Cube until early August), the gallery will host a number of evening discussion groups investigating topics such as light pollution, life on other planets, and black holes. A special theatrical performance by the Glacial Company called England by Tim Crouch will premiere Friday, July 8 at Cube and will incorporate the visual artworks in the show.

According to one of the event organizers John Flynn, Cube wanted to involve a diversity of creatively minded people who could investigate their fascination with dark skies in a way that others in the community could grasp. “We asked scientists to make a leap towards art and artists to make a leap towards science,” explained Flynn.

For Cube owner and curator Don Monet, the chief rationale for the show is simple: “There is something to celebrate in the night sky.” However, along with all the festivities, there’s a little bit of political point to be made: “It’s difficult to fully appreciate the night sky due to all the light pollution that we deal with on a constant basis in all North American cities,” Monet added. With Nuit Noire, Monet and Flynn hope to inspire a movement by both “illuminating and educating” exhibition viewers.

Monet also wants to demonstrate how “the world doesn’t fall apart when the lights go out.” To do so, he approached the residents of Julian Avenue (directly across the street from Cube’s Wellington Street West location) to participate in the gala opening on Saturday, July 2. Perhaps for the first time in Canada, an entire neighborhood has agreed to shut off the street lights to savor a moment without artificial illumination, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

To make the most of this temporary darkness, the Royal Astronomers Society will provide telescopes with attached monitors, giving guests the opportunity to appreciate uninterrupted twilight without leaving the city. In addition to highlighting the beauty of the sky, Monet hopes the experience will “light a match and cause a spark” by prompting people to question the omnipresence of street lights and their perceived facility for protection.

As easy as you might think it is to flip a switch, Cube has encountered a number of challenges when requesting owners of nearby buildings to participate in the blackout. Seems like many people just feel safer with the lights on.


Eric Walker, Nuit

Marc Brzustowski, Nuit

MaryAnn Camps, Light Pollution

Spring sex show gives way to dark carnival

Monday, June 20, 2011

Photos by John Smith

A sex-positive The Awakenings Spring Sex Show delighted visitors to St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts on Saturday, June 18—before morphing into the devious and more dangerous Dark Carnival to close out the evening.

Produced and hosted by Wicked Wanda's erotic shop, the early evening featured sensual fashion shows, educational seminars, sexy product demos, performances, and an erotic art gallery.

The Dark Carnival portion, billed as "an evening of carnal delights featuring fire spinning, burlesque dancers, rope suspension and industrial music," kicked off with a tribal drumming circle and flesh pull.

Food for thought: Local eats paired with local beats

Monday, June 13, 2011

Loon Choir (photo by Ming Wu)

By Ashley McConnell

Rarely does sound affect food or culinary taste affect music. Paired properly, however, they can act as powerful catalysts for sensory synergy. Music can not only set the stage for the appearance of a certain kind of food, but it can shape the very environment around us. That’s why choosing a restaurant is much like being in a record store: you stare into the myriad possibilities, pondering what experience you want for the occasion.

These musings on the connection between food and music got me salivating about our local offerings of tunes and tastes. With patio season in full swing and a steady number of music events on the horizon, I’ve dreamed up some tasty sound-and-fare combinations to share ...

Loon Choir and Taylor’s Genuine Wine and Food Bar

The most pleasurable experiences are often the ones you don’t expect—which is exactly why Loon Choir and Taylor’s make a perfect duo. One is a six-piece indie-folk band and the other is a wine bar in Old Ottawa South. Initially, both seem like rather tired concepts, but don’t be mistaken. There’s so much tasty genius moving through Loon Choir’s lyrics and Taylor’s plates. The harmonies and flavours created here are beyond mere method: both Loon Choir and Taylor’s combine honest elements in their offerings with just straight-head kicking it real. Real hard.

Giant Hand (photo by Ming Wu)

Giant Hand and The Whalesbone Fish Market

It’s probably hard to stay humble when you’re the Whalesbone. But while the restaurant on Bank Street has garnered a reputation as one the best in the city, their Fish Market located a few blocks west on Kent Street has really sequestered my gastro-interest. Every dish is born of a creative inclination to glorify fresh seafood using scratch-recipe methods. What kind of sound could possibly complete the karmic food cycle at Whalesbone? The honeyed vocals of self-taught musician Giant Hand. His wounded folk lilt has a soft and sweet touch of vintage that rises smoothly and swoops somberly. This genuine, melancholic music would be most keenly appreciated while sitting at the rickety picnic table in the parking lot of the Market with an oyster po’boy in hand.

The Polymorphines and steak frites

No. The Polymorphines don’t sing songs to which we might heedlessly BBQ. This is music for those who like meat with a side of stubbed cigarette butts. Your steak must be at least 24oz and cooked no more than crimson-rare. Bonus points if you shot the cow yourself while sucking on a Marlboro. The Polymorphines explode with sharp lyrics and loose, primal rifts—and what is more primal than protein and starch? Check out Farbs for the juiciest steak in town, but candlelight won’t cut it. I’d recommend taking your blood-bathed fare to go and dining on the hood of your car while blasting the Polymorphines’ “Wicked Woman.”

Peach Kelli Pop and cheap tacos

Noting says solstice like eating on the street while listening to pop music. Ideally purchased from Ahora and consumed sitting on a Dalhousie curb at dusk, cheap Mexican fare should be washed down with surreptitious bottles of Dos Equis while grooving to the sugary beats of Peach Kelli Pop. These lo-fi bubblegum sounds make for the perfect outdoor dining soundtrack; of course promptly followed by a chain of debauched teenage antics (think making out in your neighbour’s pool). While customizing your Mexican feast by dousing all tortilla-wrapped items in the red and green salsas from Ahora’s serve-yourself condiment bar, tracks such as “Doo Wah Diddy” and “Girls of Summer” will make your head bop and your shoulders sway.

André M. Bluteau (photo by Ming Wu)

André M. Bluteau and Oz Kafe hangover breakfast

Perhaps the most anticipated Elgin Street food development has been Oz Kafe’s hangover breakfast. The restaurant famous for catering to service industry clientele with their Chef Appreciation events and late-night menus has yet again bridged a new gap for those who are on the other side of the bar. The hangover brunch is served from 2:30 to 9:00 a.m. every Sunday and features items that could cure or at last help you forget your hangover. What local vocalist would be suitable accompaniment? One with a voice that’s probably raspier and heavier than yours after a night of drinking: André M. Bluteau. His vintage sound is straightforward and candid. The smoky acoustics and poetic lyrics present a deep sonic expedition that even the most irritable hangover sufferer could enjoy.

Claude Marquis and Deedee Butters of The Peptides (photos by Jonathan Hobin)

The Peptides and a hotel rooftop

The Peptides are infectious. Once you hear their avant-garde ballads there's no going back to regular pop. The band maintains a low profile but every musical note stays firmly planted in the eardrums. You end up humming while brushing your teeth. The songs are catchy and clever and can punch up the most mundane tasks, slowing planting themselves in the soundtrack of your dreams, fucking up your rapid eye movement. For suitable listening-and-dining surroundings, find someplace with a view. Check out Tennessey Willems in Westboro, grab a pizza to go, and ascend to a rooftop. Once there, plug in the album For Those Who Hate Human Interaction, turn up the volume, and plot world domination.

OAG surveys the clever wisdom of Alex Wyse

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Wave (aka. Nelly Moser), 1985, mixed media


Exhibition preview by Tony Martins  /  Photos by David Barbour

That very little local art in Ottawa cries out as overtly political or rooted in activism should be no surprise. In a town rife with lobbyists, diplomats, NGOs, polite demonstrations on Parliament Hill, and scores of civil servants who must collectively bite their tongues, our way is one of calm, not protest. Art-with-politics in Ottawa can be a tough sell.

This mostly apolitical backdrop may serve to heighten the significance of the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) showing of works by local stalwart Alex Wyse opening June 17. Co-curated by the OAG’s Andrea Fatona and Catherine Sinclair, Wyse Works: Exposing the Inevitable positions the multi-disciplinary Wyse as part of a small group of locals who fuse satire with the conventions of folk art to do something that’s not so much in vogue: to get political.

“Over the past few decades and presently, there has been a vein of artists in Ottawa working with a folk-art inspired aesthetic to create social and political critique through humour in their work,” explained Sinclair in an interview with Guerilla.

Who besides Wyse could be included in such a vein? In the foreward she composed for the catalogue that will accompany Wyse Works, OAG director Alexandra Badzak draws parallels between Wyse and three other accomplished locals—Tim Desclouds, Eric Walker, and the late Mark Marsters—each of whom offers “political and social irony mingled with a healthy dose of humour and fashioned with a handmade and folk-art-inspired aesthetic.”

While there is little or no evidence that these artists have influenced one another (and no one is rushing to unite them under a banner called, say, The Ottawa 4), the humour and folk art similarities across practices are significant and may be characteristic of our art scene—a scene that reflects how we prefer political works with a splash of cream and sugar.

Still, though fashioned with abundant cleverness and craft, the works of Wyse do not lack for bite and, as Badzak notes in her foreward, he is overdue for a major solo exhibition. Viewers will appreciate the remarkable artistry, inventiveness, and whimsical-yet-sophisticated use of language threaded through the work in this retrospective.

With many options for shaping a broad range of pieces dating from the period 1956 to 2011, Fatona and Sinclair chose to emphasize a thread of environmental consciousness.

“Environment tends to be the background to everything in his work,” explained Sinclair, though it is used to make comment on human foibles. “Alex is always looking to expose and deconstruct underlying structures,” added Sinclair.

In Exposing the Inevitable, the painting from 1988 after which the exhibition is named, Wyse exposes both a colourful fish and the absurdity of human environmental practices.

As the artist’s long-time friend Christopher Youngs writes in his exhibition catalogue essay titled “The Unfashionable World of Mr. Wyse,” the painting is a prime example of how the artist creates scenarios with bizarre-yet-profound implications.

“Wyse frequently confronts the absurdity, the underlying stupidity, of our conventional sense of reality with a more ludicrous farce of his own invention,” writes Young. “In this case, a fish has taken a huge leap in an attempt to escape its threatened environment, the water. Sadly, desperately, it has propelled itself into a totally foreign surrounding in which it cannot exist. The entire balance of nature has been set askew—set to self-destruct.”

Wyse expresses of variety of moods when pondering the plight (and flight) of fish in several other works in the exhibition—including the sobering painting It Was Once So Plentiful and the fanciful box construction Fish Flying South—but the artist’s curiosity proves exceptionally diverse. This ambitious exhibition includes 58 works that range from simple art school drawings to almost room-sized sculptures.

If pondering the political nature of the art is not your thing, Wyse Works is an important show to attend simply because it surveys the career of one Ottawa’s most engaging, versatile, detailed, and thoughtful artists. Arguably, Wyse is himself an artifact of folklore.

“Alex Wyse has been working in Ottawa for almost 40 years now making such witty and beautiful creations,” noted Sinclair, “and this retrospective exhibition is a chance to view his varied and evolving practice.”

Exposing the Inevitable (detail), 1988, mixed media

Rutherford Rockets on Display, 1987, mixed media

It Was Once So Plentiful, 2006, ink, oil and crayon on paper

Fish Flying South (detail), 1988-89, mixed media

Female Fellers, 1972-73, mixed media