Heather Pawsey “knocks 'em dead” singing soprano at Dead Serious concert

Soprano Heather Pawsey and pianist Rachel Iwassa pose with Todd Wong after a successful “Dead Serious” concert – photo Tim Pawsey

Ever attended a concert at a funeral home?  Or how about the Vancouver Crematorium?

In the latest venue for the New Music in New Places, opera soprano Heather Pawsey brought the theme of death and dying out into the open.  No bagpipes playing Amazing Grace.  But pianist Rachel Iwasaa accompanied Pawsey, as did flautist Kathryn Cernauskas.

It was a very interesting evening, full of surprises.  Guests first met at the Hamilton-Harron Funeral Home at Fraser St. and 38th Ave.  We then walked up Fraser St. across from the Mountain View cemetary, to 41st Ave.  It was a chilly evening, as we crossed Fraser, and made our way to the Vancouver Memorial Services and Crematorium.

Atmosphere was created in the service rooms.  The accoustics were good, and it seemed like any concert setting in a Church.  Ushers were dressed in robes.  One even wore gloves with skeleton designs.  Hand shakers created a bone-rattling sound, as the musicians entered the stage area.  Pawsey sang two new songs by composer Leslie Uyeda, based on poetry by Joy Kogawa: Zen Graveyard; and Stations of Angels.  Cernauskas accompanied on bass flute for this world premiere.

After these two songs, we exited through a different door, and walked downstairs past memorial places for urns.  Seeing the flowers and pictures honouring deceased loved ones gave the evening a thoughtful dynamic.  We filed out the back door and up some stairs, coming beside still more memorial plaques along the walls of the building.  Next we walked south through the cemetary, then East towards Fraser St.

Back at the Hamilton-Harron Funeral Home, we viewed some of the artist displays by S.D. Holman.  There was a unique altar display featuring tiny sugar sculptures in the shapes of human skulls, apparently a tradition for Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.

In the service room, draperies hung down the aisle along with artworks suspended from the rafters.  It all spoke to images of death and transition.  The piano was draped over with a white cloth.

Rachel Iwaasa entered the room, and started playing piano.  A disembodied voice was heard.  Where was it coming from?  From the piano.

After the song, Heather Pawsey revealed herself, by lifting off the white drapery off herself and the piano.

The evening followed with a variety of songs, some solemn, some joyous, and some like Rodney Sharman's “Crossing Over”- obviously campy.   Composer Chris Sivak set the Phyllis Webb poem “Treblinka Gas Chamber” to music for another world premiere.  My favorite musical piece was the Kurt Weill song, “Complainte de la Seine”, sung in French as was “Mon Cadavre est doux comme un gant” by Francis Poulenc, with words by Louise de Vilmorin.

The final highlight was another world premiere, The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, set to music by Robert Ursan.  It is a musical version of the macabre ABC book by Gorey, in which goes through an alphabet of children's names, who each strangely die untimely deaths.

Truely, an interesting evening.

Below is an e-mail from Heathere Pawsey, performer and producer of the Dead Serious event

Hey Todd,

Thanks for the great write-up. You really captured all the elements of what we
were trying to achieve with the concert (profundity, fun, reflection, remembrance).
I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

I think that's the first time I've been able to present THREE world premieres in
a single concert. As you know, I'm very passionate about promoting the
creative work of Canada's fantastic composers. You know Leslie, I believe.
She is one of the most profound and brilliant composers in this country - period.

Chris Sivak is a 4th year student at UBC; I met him when he was attending Cap
College and writing music for some of my singing students. He wrote "Treblinka
Gas Chamber" as a gift for me; I didn't know he had done it until I found the
score in my mailbox at the college.

Rob is an old friend since Grade 9. We toured the prairies together singing with
Prairie Opera, and one year we premiered his children's opera The Snow Queen
and toured it (it was also broadcast by CBC Radio). I was very honoured to be
able to sing the music of three composers I know and respect so highly.

Mined Over Matter coming up on March 16 at the BC Museum of Mining! I'll let
you know more details. Off to the first workshop of Veda Hille's new children's
opera Jack Pine for Vancouver Opera (and rehearsing Fidelio in the evenings).
Life is never DULL!


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