Thirteen Strings with Pandora Topp
When: Sunday, June 11, 7:30 p.m.
Where: allsaints event space, 330 Laurier Ave. E.
Tickets: $10-$40 at https://thirteenstrings.ca/product/edith-piaf/
When Pandora Topp was in university and already a fledgling blues singer, she thought it would be a good idea to conclude her class presentation on the magnificent artistry and tragic life of Édith Piaf with a rendition of the incomparable French vocalist’s song L’accordéoniste.
The difficult piece, sung a cappella, was more than Topp was capable of.
“I effing just blew it. It was horrible. I watched people slip down their chairs. I persevered, then I sat down and thought, ‘If that wasn’t the stupidest idea ever,’” recalls Topp, a bilingual anglophone born in Quebec in an interview.
She laughs at the thought of what her French professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury said: “Your presentation was fantastic, but it’s not easy to do Piaf, is it?”
After her inaugural flop more than two decades ago, Topp thought she would never sing Piaf’s music again. But to her surprise, she received requests to sing more Piaf in Sudbury, where she still lives. She sang Piaf at a wine and cheese event for Laurentian profs. She sang Piaf at the La Nuit sur l’étang music festival held annually in Sudbury. She has continued to sing Piaf intermittently since the late 1990s, while also working as a multidisciplinary artist and educator.
On Sunday, she will perform her homage to Piaf in Ottawa, joining forces for the first time with Thirteen Strings, the Ottawa-based chamber ensemble.
“My gosh, it’s such an honour and a rare, rare opportunity,” says Topp of the upcoming collaboration.
“We’re coming together to do the highest art in the world, listening together, breathing together, playing together, evoking an atmosphere, a time, words and a story.”
Kevin Mallon, the artistic director of Thirteen Strings, heard Topp sing Piaf with her band at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South in the fall of 2018. After, he was determined to team up with Topp, whom he calls “a powerful force.”
For Thirteen Strings, covering Piaf is a bit “quirky,” Mallon says. But in this case, quirkiness could help Thirteen Strings attract new listeners at its season-closing concert Sunday, he says.
Mallon was so committed to the idea that he spent almost two weeks at his computer creating arrangements of songs associated with Piaf for Thirteen Strings. All of this happened before the pandemic, because Thirteen Strings and Topp were to have performed together in June 2020. But COVID-19 postponed that concert for three years.
“I’m delighted that the concert is finally happening,” Mallon says.
Also on the program will be works by the composers Gabriel Fauré and Camille Saint-Saëns, who preceded Piaf in the chronology of French music. These and other works will put Topp’s renditions of Piaf in a historical, cultural context, says Mallon.
Born in 1915 in Paris, Piaf lived a hard life of just 47 years that was expressed through autobiographical songs about love, loss and sorrow. Piaf’s best-known songs include La Vie en rose, Non, je ne regrette rien, Hymne à l’amour and Padam Padam, all of which Topp is to perform with Thirteen Strings on Sunday.
Topp, a 53-year-old, self-taught vocalist, says she was introduced to Piaf and her music when her mother suggested she consider the late chanteuse for that French class presentation.
“My mom said, ‘Do you know who Piaf is?’ and I said no, and she said, ‘She is the Janis Joplin of French music’ because of her life, which was filled with drugs and rock and roll, but at an earlier time,” Topp says.
“I was immediately intrigued. I went and found some of her music and was immediately captivated. I heard a voice unlike any other voice. It was her life that you heard. It was imperfect and raunchy, but it had a life in it.”
Topp, who is also an actor and poet, says her own strengths include “storytelling, the ability to emote, and understand the narrative line.”
She recalls that when she was a child, one of her favourite singer-songwriters was Chris de Burgh. “I’d be singing the words and crying all the time,” Topp says.
For the 20-plus years that Topp has been performing Piaf’s music, one of her collaborators has been Iona Reed, a Sudbury-based accordionist of international renown who won the World Accordion Championships in Prague in 1962. When Topp’s Piaf project was just starting, it was Reed who transcribed the bulk of the repertoire that numbers about 30 songs. Reed, now 83, still performs with Topp.
“Because of her, the Piaf show exists,” Topp says.
We apologize, but this video has failed to load.
Topp says she really admires Piaf for who she was — “powerful, street-wise, opportunistic, a businesswoman, sly.”
Of Piaf, Mallon says: “I think that her songs and her life really show an incredible spirit to overcome adversity.”