Ensemble of Talents Remembers Tom Thomson at Leith Church

Review by Bill Monahan of “The Woods Are Burning” presented at the Historical Leith Church on July 8, 2017.

On Saturday night at the Historic Leith Church the iconic Canadian artist Tom Thomson was remembered on the centenary of his disappearance with a special presentation of words and music entitled “The Woods Are Burning”.  It combined the talents of singer-songwriter David Sereda with poet Anne Michaels and a quartet of talented musicians in a show that hovered somewhere between musical theatre and séance evoking the spirit of the artist in a way that was exceptionally moving and inspirational.  Here in the unamplified acoustics of the church that the Thomson attended every Sunday, with every pew filled on this summer evening, the show was an exploration of the creative force, of the power of support from peers, of the mystery of Canada’s lakes and forests, and the nature of legacy.

Anne Michaels stood in the pulpit and told stories to bring us into Thomson’s world as it was a century ago, her narrative moving from historical artifact to poetic reflection.  David Sereda sat and often stood at the grand piano and in front of him was the quartet, with Keira McArthur on cello, Tyler Wagler on bass, Sandra Swannell on violin and Terry Young on mandolin.  The mood ebbed and flowed through the artist’s private thoughts as revealed by personal letters and quotes from associates and music that moved between being celebratory and elegiac.  Every one of the six contributors excelled in their portion of the presentation and as an ensemble they were transcendent.

Dramatist Joan Chandler provided an introduction to set the scene.  She reviewed the long genesis of this project (which will continue with a book and recording in the works).  When in 2002 the Tom Thomson Art Gallery asked her to produce “Colours in the Storm”, a musical about Tom, she declined, offering instead to do a workshop that would explore local stories and oral history about Tom, and really look at his paintings. That became the Brush workshop (2002) and led to collaborating with David Sereda on Songs in the Key of Tom, a concert in 2005 and then the full-length musical TOM in 2007. Toronto’s Poet Laureate Anne Michaels started her collaboration with David in 2016 with a Toronto version of “Woods Are Burning” last fall, which led to this night.  It was a warm summer night just like this one when Thomson left the camp with his friends to go off and spend the night alone on the other side of the lake, never to return.

She explained that the performance was in two parts with an intermission and that the spoken word and music would flow together, and so she asked us to hold our applause until the end of each act.  That instruction was difficult for the audience to follow as there were so many points when the emotion was so strong that the impulse to applaud was a reflex.  In the moment of silence that followed many songs a single clap was heard, from someone who caught themselves reacting naturally to the feelings evoked.

The music was sublime.  David Sereda’s voice has a wonderful evocative quality to it, made for this kind of church acoustics.  He reminded me of Josh Groban without the excessive mannerisms.  Equally evocative were the few solos by violinist Sandra Swannell, who plays with such pure emotion.  Both of these musicians are masters of tone, fitting in a tribute to Tom Thomson, who accomplished the same thing in the visual medium.  And the other players, contributing both vocally and instrumentally, maintained the highest standards of musicianship in the service of the work.

And that’s where there was a curious aspect to this performance.  Despite the fact that this was all about someone who worked in the visual arts, there was not a single example of his work on display.  That’s because this was not so much about the man’s work as it was about his obsessions.  Its exploration of how life and work interact for a creative artist would resonate with anyone who lives with that undeniable drive.  Thomson struggled with the need to find employment, with guilt about being left behind when the youth of his generation were called off to war, and with growing beyond the pursuits of youth without settling into the expected pattern of employment, marriage and family.

Parts of the narrative were particularly enlightening.  How he painted his canoe a special colour mixed from his palette so that it would fit perfectly into the nature around him, how he ran out into a violent storm to capture the essence of it in sketches.

The show said a lot about the importance of support for the creative artist.  When Thomson fell in with the other innovative painters who have become known at The Group of Seven it is what led him to the art of seeing that is the essence of his legacy.  He had a particularly close relationship with A. Y. Jackson and he valued the fact that they could go to paint from the same vantage point and each see it in his own way, a phenomenon that strengthened the bond between them.

David’s original songs captured moods that were alternately haunting and ebullient.  “One Fish At A Time” and “No One Lives Forever” were particularly effective.  During the intermission, the company assembled at Thomson’s grave to lead us in “Sun’s Evening Prayer (over Georgian Bay)”, a prayerful selection which also began the second act when we returned inside.

The cover tunes were also done with such skill that even songs which were chestnuts in Thomson’s time took on new life.  “L’il Liza Jane” was rollicking fun and “Hard Times” highlighted the great humanist skill of the 19th century songwriter, Stephen Foster.

By the end of the performance I was anxious to go and check out some on Tom Thomson’s work, which I expect was the intent of the evening.  And somehow the sounds that lingered in my imagination were fused with the colours of Thomson’s palette.

The Historical Leith Church is a very special venue that provides an exceptional acoustic setting for exceptional performances every summer, particularly in the area of classical music.  Next Saturday, July 15th, they will be presenting Duo Concertante, the celebrated piano and violin duo of Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves who have been praised for their “artistry, poetry, and impeccable technique”.

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One Response to Ensemble of Talents Remembers Tom Thomson at Leith Church

  1. Gillian says:

    Readers of this post may not know about The Group of Seven Guitar Project at McMichael Art Gallery. Eight masterwork guitars, commissioned from seven world-renowned Canadian guitar makers in homage to a particular Group of Seven member, will be presented in the round, allowing viewers to walk around and explore the various landscapes in wood and inlay hosted by the musical instrument. The eighth guitar, inspired by Tom Thomson, will be a group effort by all the 7 luthiers working together. (On till October 29.)

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