By Glenn Vanderkloet
The Music Gallery (MG), located within St. George the Martyr Anglican Church at the southern end of Toronto’s Grange Park is, according to its website, “a centre for promoting and presenting innovation and experimentation in all forms of music, and for encouraging cross-pollination between genres, disciplines and audience.” I would say that it unequivocally delivered on its mandate and did so in a highly entertaining fashion on a recent visit payed by myself and my consort. The impetus for the visit was a performance by Violinist Sarah Neufeld, as well as some not as well known, but equally impressive opening performers.
The MG as an institution has been around for some 40 years, founded in 1976 by Peter Anson and Al Mattes. Since then it has been something of a mobile venue having been housed in four different buildings since its inception. It hit its stride beginning in 1991 with a move to a multi-purpose space on Richmond Street where it morphed into a haven for creativity and experimentation hosting around 150 shows per year. Sadly, a “demolition clause” was invoked in 2000 to make way for condominiums (big surprise) and the MG was forced to make alternative arrangements. It hosted events at a variety of venues the following year before finding what is hopefully a permanent home at its current incarnation on John Street. Thank (insert preferred deity here) it did because the city needs it.
People may know Neufeld from her role in Arcade Fire, the distinguished Canadian indie rock band. She was a core member of that group from 2007-2010 and acted as an additional musician for their 2004 debut, Funeral and their latest effort, 2013’s Reflektor. She has also collaborated with American experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson on a film score and a studio album. Additionally, she is a member of Montreal Post Rock outfit, Belle Orchestre and Montreal indie rockers, The Luyas. Based on her resume, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that violinists of her caliber are highly sought after. As anyone could deduce from this rundown, Sarah is an incredibly hard working and committed musician and if all this weren’t enough, she also has a blossoming solo career. She has released two full length solo albums, 2013’s Hero Brother and this year’s The Ridge as well as Black Ground, a 2014 EP.
Neufeld’s performance was part of the eleventh edition of the internationally acclaimed X Avant Music Festival which gives prominence to thought provoking, avant-garde music. Admittedly, this type of production isn’t something I would normally bring a tent and a Coleman stove to the box-office lineup for, but this was an instance where I’m glad I went against my ostensibly better judgment.
The evening began in an alcohol friendly social space within the church. We weren’t allowed into the concert area until fifteen minutes prior to start time. I immediately felt under-dressed in my plaid and denim and categorically out of my element amidst the wine sipping, middle aged, and what I imagined were, real estate mavens and business tycoons populating the room. Gradually, a nice mixture of folks of all ages began to congregate probably owing to Neufeld’s prominence in the Canadian indie music scene and that gave way to a good-humoured buzzing of anticipatory discussion. After awhile, I started to feel less alone and before long, we were ushered into our seats.
Dialectica opened the show and were a fine prelude to Neufeld. They are a chamber-jazz saxophone quartet led by Shannon Graham in collaboration with fellow composer Javier Vazquez and they executed a passionate, sincere and professional performance highlighted by impeccable timing and incredibly skillful playing.
Neufeld was next and appeared perhaps a bit overwrought at first but soon settled in comfortably even joking a little shortly after the performance began. “I like to make up excuses to talk to you between songs so my arms don’t fall off,” remarked Neufeld referring to the strenuous nature of her instrument. The 37 year old Montreal resident who originally hails from Vancouver Island earned every ounce of the audience adulation and applause bestowed upon her for a technically sound, energetic performance. Playing the violin is hard work and on an unseasonably warm October evening that made the church air heavy, Sarah had an added challenge. I can safely say that myself—and I’m guessing the rest of those in attendance—felt the warm air mass as well but felt that the music emanating from the stage was too engaging to let the less than ideal environs affect us.
She opened her set with “Dirt,” a track from Hero Brother. Within the first couple of suspenseful notes, I got the sense that I could be listening to the soundtrack from a horror/thriller film or perhaps being taken into the idiosyncratic world of a Werner Herzog picture. This wasn’t the folk/roots/singer-songwriter stuff I typically gravitate toward nor was it the auto tuned ear candy pumping out of heavily listened to mainstream radio stations, yet it still had an unmistakable magnetism that held my unadulterated interest.
Her second piece was entitled “From Our Animal,” a cut from the aforementioned The Ridge. This piece moved in an aggressive, rhythmic manner. Neufeld almost looked possessed at times as the fast paced number took shape. It was hard to believe that such an engaging, immersive sound could come from one instrument. We got our first taste of her vocals on this one as well as she added them at the end of the piece. This may be an obscure reference, but you could make a comparison between her vocals and those of Kazu Makino, lead singer of New York City band, Blonde Redhead.
For the third piece, the title cut from Hero Brother, Neufeld brought to the stage her drummer/percussionist, Stefan Schneider who stayed with her for the duration of the performance. His heavy use of the kick drum and cymbals propelled the piece forward giving it an out of control feeling. Organized or calculated improv you might say. Although the music had a reckless and chaotic feel to it, both musicians were so engaged and zoned in that it gave us as an audience reassurance that the piece wasn’t lost or directionless.
The next few pieces in the set were probably the most moody and experimental of the evening. Sarah chose to trade in her violin bow for her fingers as she plucked the instrument like a harp and in turn, Stefan used his hands as well as a combination of drumsticks, mallets and brushes to diversify the sound. Sarah again added a mix of humming and singing as accompaniment to the atmospheric, ever building sound. At one point, it started to sound like a group meditation with something akin to a Tibetan Singing Bowl effect.
For her seventh and eighth pieces of the evening, Sarah performed “We’ve Got a Lot,” and arguably her best performance of the show, “The Ridge,” both from the newest solo record. These songs were definitely the most melodic and mainstream sounding of the evening. Both had hummable melodies and almost a modern rock drumbeat.
She ended the performance by saying “Let this be a lullaby,” before playing “Where The Light Comes In,” also off of The Ridge.
This was a great night of music that had me engaged from the first note. Although Sarah is an obviously skilled and sought after collaborator with some highly regarded musicians, she stands firmly on her own as a very competent solo performer. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the evening. Violin based-music or chamber music to any degree isn’t my first or probably even my fourth choice as a genre, but Neufeld made me a believer. The concert as a whole definitely had a sophisticated vibe due to the instruments being played and the venue they were being played in, but Neufeld turned the stereotype of emotionally stagnant, chamber music on its head with an alternative, edgy approach and should be commended for perhaps opening up violin based music to a younger audience. One can hope for more solo material from her in the future, and that all of her limbs stay securely attached.
Feature image courtesy of the Music Gallery, inset image by Glenn Vanderkloet.
Sarah Neufeld – Violin/Vocals
Stefan Schneider – Drums/Percussion
Shannon Graham – Tenor Sax, Composition
Chelsea Mcbride – Baritone Sax, Composition
Olivia Shortt – Alto Sax
Samantha Etchegary – Soprano Sax
Javier Vazquez – Composition