IT'S BACH TO NATURE FOR YO-YO MA
by Christopher Hume
Superstar cellist and designer Julie
Messervy plot a garden, based on the music
of J. S. Bach, for Toronto's waterfront
Yo-Yo Ma is the first to admit that, in
his search for the truth, he has been led
down the garden path.
Fortunately, this garden path runs through
the Music Garden, the result of a unique
collaboration between the superstar
cellist and American author/designer Julie
The scheme was originally intended for
Boston, but that fell through last year
and the pair settled on a 3.2-acre site on
Toronto's waterfront. If all goes
according to the new plan, the plot will
be transformed into a garden based on the
music of J. S. Bach.
The site is a roughly triangular parcel of
land that stretches along Lake Ontario
west from Spadina Ave. almost to Bathurst
Though the $1.5-million project has plenty
of supporters, there's likely to be a film
about it before it gets into the ground.
That may sound strange, but in fact the
Music Garden began as a TV special, a
Rhombus Media special to be precise.
Experience tells us to expect the
unexpected when the Toronto TV production
company is involved and this is no
Not even the director of the one-hour
program, Kevin McMahon, knows how the
episode will end. Neither does Ma nor
Messervy. No one does. And the deadline is
September to meet a fall broadcast date.
On the other hand, there's no doubt about
how the project started. The beginning
came five years ago when Ma approached
Rhombus with the idea of doing a series of
TV specials inspired by Bach's six
unaccompanied cello suites.
The twist was that in each episode, Ma
would join forces with an artist from a
different discipline to reinterpret the
music. In addition to Messervy, the
collaborators include filmmaker Atom
Egoyan, Torval and Dean, the Mark Morris
Dance Group and Japan's leading kabuki
actor, Tamasaburo Bando.
``I've been struggling all my life to
define what a piece of music is,'' says
Ma. ``Though it's abstract, music is about
something. But in code, like DNA.
``The first suite, which Julie and I
worked on together, has always reminded me
of nature, something to do with trees and
water as opposed to something that's
Composed in the 1720s, the suite consists
of six movements, each of which has a
counterpart in Messervy's design.
``You enter the garden at the west end,''
the designer explains, ``which is the
prelude. It's a wave-like space, rhythmic
and reminiscent of a river.''
From there, you go to the next movement,
an allemande: Messervy has turned the old
German dance form into a wooded area.
``It had to be a grove of trees,'' she
says. ``Poplars and trembling aspens would
After that, the visitor can walk up a
spiral path to the top of a small hill.
This is Messervy's transcription of a
courante, also a dance but French rather
``Here I wanted to express a sense of
play, the sheer delight and joy of the
dance,'' she says. ``It's a movement in
circular form; the dancers move in a
If the courante is the literal high point
of the Music Garden, the sarabande that
follows is lower and darker. ``This is the
littlest part of the whole garden, but the
most powerful,'' Messervy says. ``I see it
as dark, ferny and contemplative, a poet's
The fifth movement, the gigue, is open
space planted with wild flowers and
grasses. It flows into the final section,
the minuet. In contrast to the apparently
natural look of previous areas, the minuet
is the most obviously ornamental.
The dance on which it is based was highly
formal and aristocratic. It becomes a
staircase that leads to a pergola - the
main performance space of Music Garden -
on the garden's third hill - then out back
to the sidewalk of Queen's Quay W.
``Both music and gardens are about
immersion,'' Messervy argues, ``music in
time, gardens in space. The music gave the
whole design. Despite what people think, a
piece of music is so much richer as a
program than what you normally get. You
can look at the structure, the images, the
emotions . . . . It would be so much
better if you could press a button and
hear the music.''
If that happens, it won't be in the
immediate future. Before the garden can be
planted, Queen's Quay W. must be rerouted
and $1 million raised. The City of Toronto
has put aside $1 million to do the road
work and landscaping. The street already
is being rearranged and will be finished
by the middle of June.
``Basically, we're laying out the
structure of the park,'' says city planner
Bob Duguid. ``What we build will enable
them to introduce elements of the Music
Garden as they can afford them.''
Toronto philanthropist Jim Fleck has taken
on the job of raising funds. He and Ma are
beating the bushes and have pledges of
$500,000. But they're still looking for
``an angel.'' That person has yet to
appear, though Fleck remains optimistic he
or she will.
Given the location of the proposed garden,
directly south of the twin condo towers of
the Pavilions on Queen's Quay W., the most
likely candidate for wings is Richard Li,
the wealthy Hong Kong developer behind the
For a man in his position, the garden
presents a wonderful opportunity to show
Toronto how smart he is and also to
enhance the appeal of the property he's
Since construction stopped at Li's massive
but ill-conceived condo towers last
November, there has been much snickering
from the local development community.
Seems Li didn't check the market before he
dug. But with the Music Garden across the
quay, the last laugh would be his.
``It's amazing how civic-minded
Torontonians are,'' Ma enthuses. ``I'm
unbelievably excited about doing the
garden. As far as I know, there's nothing
like it in the world.''
When the project was launched in Boston,
it was greeted warmly at first but
eventually collapsed under the weight of
red tape, political posturing and the
American obsession with security.
``In Toronto, the idea has been
embraced,'' reports McMahon, who watched
it fall apart in the U.S. ``It has been a
gritty and fascinating exercise. The film
will be about process, not product. But I
don't have a clue how it's going to end.
At this point, the garden and the film are
really two separate things. The dream will
live regardless of what happens.''
For her part, Messervy will be happy if
just one of the movements gets built by
``It has to be done with quality and
integrity,'' she insists. ``I've been
nervous since the beginning, but working
in Toronto is so exciting. Everyone has
been so supportive.''
Perhaps, but so far the color of music is
as hard to discern as the sound of money.
Even if nothing happens, the Rhombus
series will air on TVO and CBC this fall.
[This article appeared in the Life-Entertainment section of the Toronto
Reprinted with permission, courtesy of the Toronto Star
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