Q&A with the guest artists behind The Gull, the Raccoon, and the Last Maple

We are enthusiastically counting down the days to the premiere of our new commission, The Gull, the Raccoon, and the Last Maple, which has been turned into a digital concert just in time for Family Day weekend.

This powerful new digital concert for the whole family is inspired by the need for collaboration in the face of climate change. Timely and optimistic, our contemporary fable for baroque orchestra and narrator pits two of Nature’s most persistent scavengers —the gull (as heard through the swooping, quick sounds of the oboe) and the raccoon (portrayed by the calming, even violin)—against each other as they engage in a battle of wits over the Last Maple (soundtracked by the low and slow harpsichord), and the last slip of dry land unclaimed by the encroaching floods. As the swirling waters rise and drenching storms threaten, the three must combine forces, harnessing their resourcefulness and adaptability—or perish.

We spoke with four members of the creative team behind The Gull, the Raccoon, and the Last Maple: Amanda Cordner (narrator); Alexis Diamond (story and text); Jordan Laffrenier (stage direction); and Abigail Richardson-Schulte (composer) about the show and the ways in which we can all contribute to a healthier future for our planet.

Composed by Abigail Richardson-Schulte
Story and text by Alexis Diamond
Amanda Cordner Narrator
Jordan Laffrenier Stage Director

Tafelmusik: How did you come to know of—and work with—Tafelmusik?

Amanda Cordner: I had only ever seen promos for Tafelmusik. Then, one day last summer, I got an email asking me if I’d be interested in narrating a story accompanied by the Tafelmusik orchestra. My heart landed a triple sow cow! To perform a solo show scored by an orchestra?! This was something I didn’t even realize I wanted so badly to experience. I responded immediately.

Alexis Diamond: I am a fan of baroque music and opera, and it seems like I’ve always known of Tafelmusik and listened to their music…

I had long dreamed of doing a contemporary baroque opera, so when my long-time collaborator, composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte, contacted me about working on a piece for narrator and baroque orchestra, I leapt at the chance!

Jordan Laffrenier: I first engaged with Tafelmusik’s work as an audience member when I went to a concert in 2016. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the music was, and I remember needing to close my eyes while I listened. I jumped at the offer when Brendan Healy, a collaborator and the Artistic Director of Canadian Stage, recommended that I work with them.

Abigail Richardson-Schulte: Everyone in the Canadian classical music scene knows Tafelmusik. Their Executive Director, Carol Kehoe, has been well acquainted with my orchestral storytelling for all ages. She was formerly Executive Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, where I am still Composer-in-Residence. We worked closely together there. I am delighted to work with Tafelmusik and with Carol again. 

TM: Can you describe the collaborative process you undertook with your colleagues to create, rehearse, and record this program?

AC: Jordan and Alyssa Martin (assistant director) asked me to pick three songs, one for each character. We danced and played, and from there built a physical vocabulary for all three. As we worked to refine, Elisa Citterio joined rehearsals along with a MIDI track. There were so many cues in the composition, I didn’t know how I would learn all of them before recording day! We had only three days to rehearse with the orchestra before filming. And WE DID IT! It all came together.

AD: I conceived of the characters and plot and wrote the text in consultation with Abigail, which was then handed over to Jordan and Amanda. Abigail and I discussed our vision of the work with Jordan and talked about how Amanda’s performance could make that vision manifest.

We participated in the rehearsal process (virtually for me), giving feedback on pacing and timing. It was such a pleasurable collaborative process!

JL: The beauty of rehearsing a hybrid production—that is essentially a one-person show with orchestra—is the ability to divide and conquer. Rehearsing with the amazing Amanda Cordner and the extraordinary choreographer and assistant director Alyssa Martin on stage work, separate from the orchestra, meant that we were able to create specificity. Following that, incorporating the orchestra elevated our independent work, giving way to new discoveries and further depth of moment. 

AR: My long-time collaborator Alexis and I easily find a common vision. I give her a concept, she writes an outline with characters and plot, we discuss and adjust, she writes the full version, and then I compose the music to illustrate the story and interact with narration. We made sure each character had a unique story and personality, described musically. Rehearsals went well, with narration and direction integrated right from the start, allowing every element to evolve and solidify. 

TM: This program explores the impact of climate change. How do you approach this topic as a citizen and an artist? What are some ways we can each make a difference?

AC: As an individual, I do what I can. I recycle, sure. Real change needs to happen within corporations. But then again, many corporations exist to feed us. Produce for us. Humans tend to over-consume. So, who is ready to give up their luxurious comforts to remedy climate change?

AD: As a citizen, I try to minimize my consumption. I compost and recycle. I joined a car-share service. I walk, I bike, I take public transit. But I do find it really hard. Consuming is the underpinning of our economy, and as such, it permeates our culture.

As an artist, I try to work small. I am learning to work sustainably. I try to be mindful of the materials I use when I create.

How can we each make a difference? Think about where things come from. I do believe in consuming local products, supporting local producers. Every time I buy something, I try to weigh its value versus its real cost.

But we need to think on a community level. How do we reduce the need to own so many things? Could we have less, and could it mean more? As a society, could we privilege green space, natural environments, rather than stamping them out? Because once these spaces are gone, they are gone forever.

JL: Directing is always about looking closer. You have an initial impulse about a certain moment and the job requires you to look again and again. This is true of us as citizens of the world. And so, pieces like this one allow me to look closer, and ask the same questions about how I make change and impact my environment. I think the writing in this piece is exceptional and does an excellent job of telling the truth and asking us to look closer at ourselves. It was such a privilege to work with Elisa, Abigail, Jennifer Goodman (costume designer), Glenn Davidson (set designer) and everyone at Tafelmusik.

AR: As an artist, this is my second piece on the subject of climate change. I personify plants and animals and imply how it all reflects on what people do.

As citizens, my husband and I have made lifestyle changes. I take the GO Train and subway to commute instead of the car. We eat a vegan and organic diet, mainly from a weekly local farm box—the meat industry has an enormous carbon footprint. We also grow fruits and vegetables without pesticides on our rooftop terrace and we garden with a native species/pollinator focus to support birds, bees, and butterflies. 

Image of Abigail’s garden

I’m no expert but I’m happy to share some thoughts: by consciously deciding what we buy, we shape what the market supplies. We can all reduce our use of petroleum products, which includes the plastics of packaging. We can bring our own reusable bags. Changes in the basics of daily living make a big impact.  

TM: The Gull, the Raccoon, and the Last Maple was written for families, and especially kids. What do you hope kids will take away from this program?

AC: I hope kids will be entertained, educated, and enchanted by this program. Take from it whatever your imaginations deliver to you!

AD: I hope they will fall in love with baroque music. I hope they will see these creatures, considered pests, as fellow inhabitants of the planet.

Maybe this empathy will spread to other life forms and to the green and natural spaces near them. And maybe they will feel a bit protective of these places.

I hope they feel happy. And joyful. And inspired. And I hope they feel like if we all work together towards this common goal, we can make positive change.

JL: I hope they take away that they can make a contribute to social change, I hope they leave with a curiosity for how other creatures experience the world.

AR: I hope the experience might make climate change real for kids by helping them feel its impact on plants and animals as represented by the characters of the story. 

TM: What other projects do you have coming up and where can our readers find your work?

AC: TV series Sort Of, streaming now on CBC/HBOMax!

AD: Upcoming works on tour for families and young audiences include a theatrical concert Zoom-Boom-Boom, Jeunesses Musicales.

Translated works include The Greenhouse, Le petit théâtre de Sherbrooke, and The Nonexistent, DynamO Theatre.

My writings can be found here and you can follow me on Facebook or on LinkedIn to keep up to date with announcements of news and upcoming works.

JL: I am the co-program coordinator of The Music Theatre Program at Sheridan and The Artistic Director of Theatre Sheridan and we are producing a series of musicals called First Drafts.

I am directing a project with B-current called The Escape and will be the first Canadian director at The Makers Ensemble, where I will direct a play by Dante Green in New York City. I am the associate director of Dixon Road, which will happen in High Park this summer as part of The Musical Stage Company’s season. Lastly, my company Prime Mover is about to announce an international collaboration with an artist from the UK.

AR: The digital release of Another Day, a new song cycle commissioned by Canadian Art Song Project happens on February 22nd, 2022, https://www.canadianartsongproject.ca. The text is by six Toronto students (grades six through eleven) and was written for a poetry competition organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and COSTI Immigrant Services. This piece shows the plight of refugees through the eyes of children. 

Right now, I’m working on a commission to celebrate my ten years as Composer-in-Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, to premiere in September 2022. 

Your readers might be interested to hear my most famous and widely performed piece, The Hockey Sweater, with Roch Carrier and the HPO: https://cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-26619/

The Gull, the Racoon, and the Last Maple premieres February 17: perfect for the whole family, tickets are just $10! Learn more at tafelmusik.org/maple

Last Maple

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