Montreal Gazette | Montreal classical composer got long COVID, then a Grammy nomination

Fire and Flood is a deliciously adventurous collection that Woolf refers to as a “composer portrait.”

By T’Cha Dunlevy March 25, 2021

Composer Luna Pearl Woolf in her home studio in Outremont. Her album Fire and Flood was nominated for a Grammy Award for best classical compendium. PHOTO BY JOHN MAHONEY /Montreal Gazette

Luna Pearl Woolf caught COVID-19 on March 10, 2020, at a charity concert and dinner during a two-day trip to New York. One year and four days later, the Montreal composer was a first-time nominee at the 63rd Grammy Awards, where her album Fire and Flood was up for best classical compendium.

“Rollercoaster sort of begins to describe it,” Woolf said of the past 12 months.

Turns out, she didn’t just get COVID-19; she got long COVID.

For a musician who has spent the past decade of her 25-plus-year career “focused on dramatic works of various kinds” — pushing boundaries in theatre, opera and classical music — there was an undercurrent of irony to the highs and lows that befell her.

“For me, music exists as an emotional language,” she said. “It’s a way of expressing internal turmoil, tension and transformation that is very hard to capture just in words. … I’m always attracted to ideas that can transform into psychological experiences.”

Woolf’s traumatic experience with long COVID may one day inform some future work. For the time being, it remains something she’s contending with on a daily basis. From the first phase of ailments that included headaches, severe muscular aches, chills, loss of smell and taste, to the unpredictable and precipitous drops in energy that she continues to navigate, it has been quite the ride.

“Every symptom you’ve heard of, I’ve had for at least a day,” said the Plateau resident. “It travels all through my body and does weird things. It has reactivated old injuries in strange ways. It does make a person think she’s going crazy.

“It has been extremely frustrating, alongside all these amazing happenings in my career.”

Fire and Flood is a deliciously adventurous collection that Woolf refers to as a “composer portrait,” including songs “about social justice, relations between genders, faith and activism.”

She wrote the opening track, the alternately heartrending and campy a cappella choral piece To the Fire, in 1994 when she was a 20-year-old undergrad at Harvard.

Après moi, le déluge is a swirling, swaying, four-part tribute to Hurricane Katrina, penned in 2005, featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the cello flourishes of Woolf’s creative partner Matt Haimovitz.

And then there are more recent numbers, including two Leonard Cohen covers: a playfully avant-garde Everybody Knows; and a spirited, album-closing rendition of the hymn Who by Fire. Both showcase the dynamic interplay between Haimovitz and three female vocalists (American opera singers Devon Guthrie and Elise Quagliata, and broadway actress Nancy Anderson).

“The thing that moves me about (Cohen’s) music and poetry is that he’s creating these layers of implication, self-reflection and emotion,” Woolf said. “These versions, which are just covers in a way, are what happens in my head when I hear him. I think of it like a kaleidoscope — his music is coming in and my brain has split the light waves into different expressions.”

Woolf learned of her Grammy nomination the day of the announcements, in November.

“It was extremely unexpected,” she said. “It was the very last thing I could have imagined.”

In the run-up to the awards, she was profiled in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town. She watched the non-televised ceremony via Zoom, March 14, with a glass of “either-way champagne” in hand.

“It was one of my happiest days,” Woolf said, “even though I didn’t win. This year has really been one difficult day after another. (The Grammy nomination) brought a sense that I’m in the right place, and I shouldn’t be discouraged.”

tdunlevy@postmedia.com

twitter.com/TChaDunlevy

Read it at Montreal Gazette

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