Festival Pontiac Enchanté: Concert celebrates the work of Canadian women composers

Clarisse Tonigussi is presenting a concert of songs composed by Canadian women.

Festival Pontiac Enchanté is a chamber series at the beautiful Venturing Hills Farm concert space in the municipality of Pontiac about a half hour northwest of Ottawa. Founded by Carson Becke, the festival has evolved into a year-round concert series. The next concert features an ambitious programme put together by the singer Clarisse Tonigussi of art songs written for soprano and piano by Canadian women. After a ton of research, Tonigussi is now touring her show. It lands in the Pontiac on June 24. ARTSFILE asked her about the concert and why she took the project on.

Q. Can you tell me about this performance?

A. The Canadian Women Composers (CWC) Project came to life last fall when I began planning my graduating Masters recital at the University of Toronto. My initial goal was to perform a concert of Canadian music, male composers included, but I quickly realized that it was Canadian women’s music that needed the most support. I have taken this project on not only to support the female composers in our country, but also to give other Canadian female artists opportunities to showcase their talent. The text sung in the recital is written by Canadian female authors, with a few exceptions when I felt the song suited my programme, I commissioned a musical work by Rebekah Cummings, an emerging Canadian composer, and asked fashion designer Carly Cumpson to create a gown, which I will wear for each recital. The musicians performing on the tour are all Canadian women as well.

Q. Was it difficult finding female Canadian composers for voice?

A. At first I thought I might have a difficult time finding art song for soprano and piano by Canadian women composers. But when I approached the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) in Toronto, the librarian gave me a list of more than 90 sets for soprano and piano, and I knew then I was going to be just fine. I also had help from fellow soprano, Brooke Dufton, who is known for singing contemporary Canadian works, and Carol Ann Weaver, the director of the Association of Canadian Women Composers (ACWC). Without their help I wouldn’t have been able to present the women and works I am today.

Q. What kind of criteria did you adopt?

A. I wanted my programme to be a historical overview of Canadian women’s vocal compositions. It begins with music written by Gena Branscombe in the early 20th century and ends with a work commissioned for my voice in 2017 by Rebekah Cummings. I originally wanted a set from each generation, but that turned out to be a difficult task in the end, as there are not very many works available for soprano voice and piano written by Canadian female composers from 1920-1960. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the career of a composer was still not fully accepted if you were a woman during this time.

Q. The women you have chosen, do they represent a range of musical forms?

A. I wanted to represent many different styles of contemporary art song on The CWC Project recital. Some are very lyrical, some are jazz influenced, some are atonal. The list goes on. Every piece on the recital has been written in the 20th or 21st centuries, so yes, they are all contemporary art song. Are they what one would deem as “contemporary music?” I would say Love Songs by Ana Sokolović and Three love? Songs by Mary Gardiner are in that particular vein. I might add Jana Skarecky’s Green and Gold to that list too, but I’m on the fence about it.

Q. What’s the earliest piece that you have chosen?

A. The earliest is How do I love thee from Love in a Life (1907) by Gena Branscombe. The poetry was written by Elizabeth Barett Browning and is a sonnet about her relationship with Robert Browning. Because it was such an intimate portrayal of their marriage and love, Elizabeth claimed that the sonnet was written by an anonymous Portuguese author and she had simply translated it. Branscombe has done the poem justice by composing beautiful melodies, and rich, soulful harmonies.

Q. You have an extensive tour planned. How did that come together?

A. The idea for the tour was spurred on by something my voice teacher, Jean MacPhail, said when I proposed a recital of all Canadian women composers.“Well, that’s a recital you could take on the road.” I thought about that for a while, and then wondered “why not?” It would be a wonderful opportunity to share Canadian women’s music with different communities in Canada for the 150th. So I began calling and emailing venues across the country and I have been met with only positive responses. I began my tour in Guelph on June 17 and then I will make my way to Luskville for the performance with Festival Pontiac Enchanté. From there I will travel the east coast for the summer (Newfoundland, P.E.I., New Brunswick), head up to Saskatchewan and Manitoba before coming back to Toronto in the fall. In January I will fly to the West coast, and perhaps add a performance in the Yukon, if I can work it out, and then fly back to Toronto, where I have the last few recitals in March 2018.

Q. What will audiences see when they come to the Pontiac Enchanté venue at Venturing Hills?

A. An hour-long recital of delightful art song by Gena Branscombe, Jean Ethridge, Jean Coulthard, Carol Ann Weaver, Mary Gardiner, Ana Sokolović, Jana Skarecky, Martha Hill Duncan, and Rebekah Cummings, in that order. At the piano will be Jenna Richards, who currently works for the Ottawa Arts Council, the Ottawa Chamber Music Society, Ottawa Classical Choir and the Canadian Centennial Choir, all while freelancing frequently throughout Ontario.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself?

A. According to my mother, I sang Happy Birthday to myself when I turned one. I couldn’t say the words yet, but I sang the tune. So, really I’ve been a singer since before I can remember… At four I begged my mother for piano lessons when a friend’s older sister taught me how to play Hot Cross Buns on their upright piano. I was immediately obsessed and began lessons with Shireen Moos, one of the most inspiring women I have ever known. During our lessons she encouraged me to sing as I played. The more I sang, the more I wanted to learn about it. So I begged my mother for singing lessons. I knew it was what I wanted the most in the whole world. This is actually a very funny story, and perhaps irrelevant, but my mom actually found my first singing teacher, mezzo-soprano Susan Gudgeon, at the side of the road. One of the tires on her bike had popped in our neighbourhood, so my mother offered to drive her home. They got to talking and I started taking lessons soon after. I remember being so excited when I woke up on the days I had lessons that I would nearly burst. It was around that time I began violin and fiddle lessons with Ruth Hoffman. Between Shireen, Ruth, and Susan, my life felt inspired.

By that time I had been composing for a while (encouraged again, by Shireen Moos) and eventually began studying composition with Philip Corke and theory with none other than Jana Skarecky, the composer of Green and Gold and previous director of the ACWC. When the time came to audition for schools, Susan helped me get into U of T. I did a four-year undergraduate in Voice Performance, where I studied with teacher and  mezzo-soprano Jean MacPhail. I continued studying at U of T and now have a Masters in Voice Performance as well.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Guillermo Silva Marin and his company Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) as well as his summer program Summer Opera Lyric Theatre where I was Papagena in The Magic Flute and Emmy Perth in Der Vampyr by Heinrich Marschner. I’ve also had the opportunity to work behind the scenes as a production assistant with TOT and Opera in Concert on several occasions. In addition, I am a member of the touring company Opera Luminata that combines many of the great opera hits with dancing and fireworks.

The CWC Project is the next journey in my musical life and I have a very good feeling about it. I believe in the music and the women who have created it, and perhaps I can have a small hand in spreading its wealth.

The Canadian Women Composers Project
Clarisse Tonigussi, Jenna Richards
Where: Venturing Hills Farm
When: Saturday June 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets and information: Festival Pontiac Enchanté

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.