Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Should we take multi-instrumentalist and composer Aimee Bessada at her word?
She claims that she does the least amount of public performance of the collective cast in the Musical Stage Company’s UnCovered concert series. Having seen her in last year’s Uncovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King, this feels either like underselling or a testimony to especially prolific castmates. Last year, she brought down the house with her rendition of Carole King’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” – and performing in UnCovered has given Bessada the opportunity to perform live more often lately.
Which brings us to this year and UnCovered: Stevie Wonder & Prince – the next great opportunity to see Bessada perform. As the fiercely loyal repeat audiences will attest, there is something deeply addictive about the UnCovered concert series, which annually features the music of two musicians, and is the Musical Stage Company’s annual fundraiser. Since its inception 23 years ago, it continues to gather momentum. Last year, Uncovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King was presented in two additional venues outside of its usual home at downtown’s Koerner Hall: the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York and the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. It sold out all three venues. It returns this year for multiple performances at Koerner Hall and at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly Toronto Centre for the Arts) in North York.
By the time last year’s ensemble had wrapped up their third night at Koerner Hall, Bessada was already asking Musical Stage Company’s Artistic & Managing Director Mitchell Marcus and Director of Music Reza Jacobs to have her return this year: “I had such a great experience doing Joni Mitchell & Carole King. The all-female cast was a powerful energy to be around, but I got the sense that UnCovered always delivers that kind of magical feeling year after year, which is why it keeps gaining ground. So I’m excited to see what this year brings.”
Her excitement in no way blinds her to the momentousness of covering this year’s two iconic musical giants, who were friends and sometime collaborators: “I think the biggest challenge of performing Prince and Stevie Wonder songs is that they are not at all my ‘go-to’ artists when I’ve sung cover songs in the past. They’re just too big; they’re untouchable.” Bessada never thought she could do them justice, “and I think to double up on that – specifically with Prince – he was one of the greatest performers ever. How do you even pretend to get close to that?” Her trepidation reinforces the reason that UnCovered is not about “imitation and replication”. The goal is “re-interpreting in a loving and highly respectful way” – and that is something she can lean into.
Of course, a foundational challenge of covering artists with such vast catalogues is determining which selections to perform. Once that is done, performers must be paired with songs. Typically, Jacobs and Marcus choose all the songs, which is “great” in Bessada’s view, because her natural tendency would be to gravitate toward songs that are familiar or that she has sung before. Having the music chosen for you “keeps you on your toes,” and inevitably yields some “really interesting discoveries”. The songs chosen for her to perform last year showed her that she had been limiting her vocal range: she learned that, with the right energy, she could reach two whole notes higher on the scale: “I had never challenged myself like that before.” This year, she will sing Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” and perform a trio version of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” with Lydia Persaud and Divine Brown. She enthuses: “And I think that’s going to be a killer.”
Bessada’s career has moved steadily away from where it began, which was with touring – notably with the band Hunter Valentine, who toured North America as Cindy Lauper’s opening act in 2013t. In fact, since 2014, Bessada has focused mainly on composing music for TV and film. She is an alumna of the Slaight Family Music Lab, a residency at the Canadian Film Centre where a select group of promising Canadian composers and songwriters receive mentorship from an established composer. Since her residency in 2016, Bessada has scored numerous film and television projects, including How To Buy A Baby, Irreplaceable You, Nappily Ever After, The Inherent Traits of Connor James, and Holly Hobbie (Hulu). Naturally, composing has meant a lot of work in her studio, on a computer, on her own. So “UnCovered has been great because it has gotten me back in touch with the unmistakable magic of performing music live, with other musicians, in front of an audience. So, not so surprising – I really love singing and being onstage. But I wish I got to do it more!”
To prepare for her solo numbers in Uncovered, she learns the “brush strokes” of how to play the songs on guitar. Then in the first rehearsal with Jacobs and Marcus, they discuss and agree on where the song wants to go, based on collaborative input: “So it starts out in a creative space and eventually finds its way into an arrangement we all understand and agree on. Then, in between rehearsals, I go back and practice my part while Reza is masterminding all the compositional aspects along with Jamie, our percussionist. It’s quite fantastic because I essentially have no idea how it will fully sound until the day of the show. So truthfully, my skills as a composer don’t really come into play here. I approach the songs as both band member and performer, and try to honour the original song, as well as the version Reza creates based on our rehearsals.”
What might amaze the series’ growing audience base is just how much everything comes together at the end, right before the actual show: “I mean there’s definitely tons of preparation and practice leading up, don’t get me wrong. But there are so many moving pieces, and it’s sort of like each part is working out the kinks in its own separate space,” Bessada offers. “And then” in one final, alchemical transformation – “the day of the show they just all fit together, and boom, it’s a show!”
On this at least, you needn’t simply take Bessada at her word: you can join repeat audiences in uncovering this for yourself from November 4 to 9.
News You Can Use
What: UnCovered: Stevie Wonder & Prince, music direction, vocal arrangements & orchestrations by Reza Jacobs | Presented by the Musical Stage Company
Performed by Sarah Afful, Thom Allison, Colin Asuncion, Aimee Bessada, Jully Black, Michelle Bouey, Divine Brown, Alana Hibbert, Lydia Persaud, Jackie Richardson, Cary Shields, Chy Ryan Spain
Musicians: Jamie Drake (Percussion & Additional Arrangements), Justin Gray (Basses), Reza Jacobs (Piano/Conductor), Erika Nielsen (Cellos)
Who: Audiences of all ages
When and Where: November 4-7, 2019 – Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON
When and Where: November 8-9, 2019 – George Weston Recital Hall, Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: musicalstagecompany.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019