In just five years, Music on Main’s annual Music for the Winter Solstice concert has become a true seasonal tradition, its blend of sonic innovation and convivial warmth a welcome alternative to frenzied shopping streets and the winter blues. But with acceptance comes expectation. How can MoM’s programmers retain the holiday spirit while also keeping the mix fresh?
For MoM artistic director David Pay, it’s a matter of gently tweaking the established formula, while thinking equally carefully about who he invites onboard.
“When I’m talking to people about playing this show, I’m talking to them about the feeling in the audience and the feeling in the space,” he explains, in a cellphone conversation with the Straight. “And, obviously, I’m thinking about musicians who can share that feeling of warmth and all the feelings of glad tidings, but without any of the feast-days necessities.
“It’s not Christmas; it’s not Hanukkah; it’s not a pagan solstice,” he continues. “It’s just that this time of year, things get dark but also warm and cozy. So how can we have a beautiful feeling where we can all come together? And when I talk to musicians about that, they’re always onside.”
This year, only pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa returns from previous Music for the Winter Solstice productions, but a few familiar songs will reappear, including MoM–commissioned works from Alfredo Santa Ana, Nicole Lizée, and Caroline Shaw. Joining Iwaasa on the Heritage Hall stage will be violinist Karen Gerbrecht, singer Julie McIsaac, and singer Corey Payette: the former will present a selection of what Pay calls “violin bonbons” from Fritz Kreisler, Edward Elgar, and Antonín Dvorak, while the latter will offer songs from his musicals Les Filles du Roi and Children of God. Payette will also introduce a new instrument to the Winter Solstice stage: the Indigenous frame drum on which he accompanies himself in the song “Gimikwenden Ina (Do You Remember?)”.
It’s an appropriate choice, the Oji-Cree composer notes. “The drum in that song plays an enormous role,” Payette relates, on the line from Armstrong, B.C., where his new musical, Sedna, has just opened at the Caravan Farm Theatre to immense acclaim. “It’s such a low, bassy instrument that it provides us with a sense of warmth. It almost warms us from the inside.”
For Payette, tradition is a powerful source of warmth and sustenance, and that’s at the heart of “Gimikwenden Ina”. “In times of darkness, in what can seem like a cold feeling or isolation, if we share language and share songs, that is a way that we, as people, have always connected to one another,” he says, noting that he sees Music for the Winter Solstice as part of “a very, very old tradition of storytelling and sharing song”.
“For me, winter has been a time of reconnecting, of deep thought, and of new beginnings,” he continues. “Like, what is happening with the solstice is that it’s a way of marking a change in time that we all collectively experience. And I think that having an opportunity to witness that as part of a concert is something that, hopefully, will be a new tradition, where every year we’ll have a chance to mark this feeling—and the time that we’re all living in.”
Warmth, the changing seasons, and the prospect of sunshine are also the focus of “Cold Isn’t Permanent”, which Payette wrote with Julie McIsaac for Les Filles du Roi. “That whole show…looks at the seasons as almost being characters in the stories that we tell,” he explains. “Winter is a villain to these people. It’s feared, in a way. It affects health in a deep way. And so songs like ‘Cold Isn’t Permanent’ remind us of the broader cycle, and that spring will return, and that we have ways of keeping ourselves healthy and reminding ourselves of who we are and what makes us strong. And then outside of the context of the show, I think ‘Cold Isn’t Permanent’ might just be something that people can tell themselves, you know. Like ‘We can make it through this. We can overcome this because we know that spring will come, and that light will return.’”
Holding on to that knowledge was one way Payette got through his long childhood winters in northern Ontario, where there’s sometimes snow on the ground well into May. It might not be quite as pertinent here on the Wet Coast, but change one word in his song’s title and Music for the Winter Solstice might have a new motto: rain isn’t permanent either.
Music on Main presents Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall tonight and Thursday (December 19 and 20).