By Wayne Gooding, Published in Opera Canada Spring 2012

Of many fine events in the series of fine vocal concerts Nina Draganic programmed this season for the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre, the most significant in terms of legacy was surely A Celebration of Canadian Art Song on Mar. 6. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford and collaborative pianist Christopher Mokrzewski performed two songs written in the 1970s for Jon Vickers by Srul Irving Glick; mezzo Krisztina Szab√≥ and Mokrzewski brought humor and great style to David Passmore’s swing-inflected setting of Shakespeare in Seven Dark Lady Sonnets; and soprano Carla Huhtanen, with Steven Philcox playing and plucking the piano, sang the world premiere of Sewing the Earthworm, a cycle about a woman’s declining physical powers by composer Brian Harman to text by poet David Brock.

The concert marked the official launch of the Canadian Art Song Project (CASP), the brainchild of tenor Wiliford, who is CASP’s co-Artistic Director alongside pianist Philcox. The initiative, says Wiliford, is to establish an organizational advocate for Canadian art song, providing performance opportunities for artists and creators, celebrating and promoting the canon of existing literature and expanding it through new commissions, of which the Harman/Brock cycle was the first. While other organizations have commissioned art song from Canadian composers – Toronto Aldeburgh Connection, for example, has commissioned almost 20 works over the past three decades – the performance record is sporadic and the literature not widely known. “Conversations with some colleagues and friends revealed that they didn’t know any Canadian art song and there are very few recital recordings available of works by Canadian composers, “Wiliford told an audience that filled the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. “I heard from many [composers] that they didn’t feel they had much exposure to writing for the solo voice and didn’t have many opportunities to learn the individual characteristics of the different voice types.”

Wiliford’s own interest in the project was piqued after he premiered Derek Holman’s The Four Seasons in 2009, first performed at the Amphitheatre and dedicated to the memory of the COC’s late General Director. The interest and response he had to that led him to explore what was available and what was perfomed in the field of Canadian art song. The haphazard record he found triggered the CASP initiative, which aims to provide an organized creative resource for performers, composers and librettists, and their audiences. For singers and composers, Wiliford joked, CASP aims to foster relationships “so a composer can learn what the passaggio is and the singers don’t look at a vocal line and say, “Do you really want this
word sung on that note?'”

CASP has already announced its first round of commissions and concerts. Wiliford and Philcox, now head of the Collaborative Piano program at the University of Toronto, will be on hand for another Celebration of Canadian Art Song concert at the Bradshaw Amphiteatre in Spring 2013, alongside soprano Shannon Mercer, baritone Peter McGillivray and pianist (and head of the COC Ensemble Studio) Liz Upchurch. Also for 2013, composer Norbert Palej has been commissioned to write for Wiliford and Philcox, while composer James Rolfe is setting text by author André Alexis for performance by baritone Brett Polegato in 2014.

It’s part of CASP’s mission to ensure that such commissions find a wider audience in multiple recital programs and proper audio-visual documentation so future generations of Canadians can hear works by their own composers. That, of course, makes vocal artists and musicians central to the program. A key element, says Wiliford, is to encourage “students of music to become more familiar with the repertoire of their own country so that Canadian Content isnt a novelty in a recital program.” (For more information: canadianartsongproject .ca)