© Janet Davis


You think you have problems just weeding and watering your garden?  Imagine setting it to music—to Johannes Sebastian Bach, that is.  That’s precisely what the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma did on Toronto’s lakeshore, with the help of Boston garden designer Julie Moir Messervy. 

Bach….gardens…. Confused? 

Well, let’s go back to the beginning of this remarkable odyssey. 

It’s 1991 and we find Yo-Yo Ma at a symposium studying humanitarian (and Bach enthusiast) Albert Schweitzer.  Ma won a 1984 Grammy for his  recording of Bach’s six Cello Suites, so he’s intrigued when he learns that Schweitzer viewed Bach’s music as “painterly” and “pictorial”.  Never one to let a collaboration pass him by (I love the funky CD “Hush” he made with scat singer Bobby McFerrin), Ma starts dreaming up the unique 6-part recording and documentary film project now called “Inspired by Bach”. 

Besides an imaginary collaboration with 18th-century architect Giovanni  Piranesi (Suite 2), Ma teams up with Japanese Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando (Suite 5), Olympic ice dancers Torvill and Dean (Suite 6), choreographer Mark Morris (Suite 3) and Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Suite 4).  

But the First Suite reminded Ma of nature so he set out, along with garden designer Julie Moir Messervy, to create a Music Garden.  

Unlike a ballet or ice dance, gardens require land and loads of money.  The film shows Ma and Messervy being led down the garden path, so to speak, by the city fathers in home-town Boston until, at the last minute, the project gets axed.  Enter white knight Toronto, (then) Mayor Barbara Hall, an available site, a pledge of funds, and our parks department’s growing reputation for innovation.

And that’s how it came to be that in early summer 1999, under the shadow of the old Canada Malting silo on Queen’s Quay just west of Spadina, Toronto’s newest park, The Music Garden, opened for business.  

Just before the park opened, I chatted with Messervy as workers put the finishing touches on the six gardens representing the various movements of Bach’s First Suite for Cellos.  “The main thing I was trying to do,” she says, “was to understand the mood of the music, the emotions and some of the structure, though you can’t be too literate about the structure.”  

The broad granite steps we sat on, for example, are part of the Gigue (or Jig, as the Brits say), and provide one of two amphitheatres at the site.  Messervy visualized the first movement, the Prelude, as a flowing river and made a dry streambed of glacial granite boulders swirled with feldspar that plant supplier Horst Dichert found near his native plant nursery in Moonstone.  The Allemande, an ancient German dance, is interpreted as a birch forest that moves higher and higher up the hillside.  The Courante, like the French or Italian dance, spirals exuberantly upwards through a lush field of grasses and wildflowers designed to attract birds and butterflies to a maypole spinning in the wind at the top.   The contemplative Sarabande has tall conifers, a small reflecting pool and a huge stone to act as a stage or a poet’s corner.   The final garden, the Menuett, with its ornate iron pergola, echoes the symmetry of the dance in its formal flower parterre.  During the summer months, the music of Bach will come from speakers set into the gardens.

From a musical masterpiece for the ages came a delightful contemporary garden that will delight in four seasons.  And all thanks to the skill of a gifted designer and the rich imagination of Yo-Yo Ma.

Adapted from a column that appeared originally in the Toronto Sun

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