To Make The Piano Sing

Classical 19Seen and Heard: After each standing ovation that followed his performances of three Beethoven piano concertos with the TSO in November, 19-year-old budding superstar Jan Lisiecki would take a seat at the piano and confidently greet the RTH capacity crowd with the words “Good evening.” He added at the last of his six concerts, “As has become traditional, I will now play some Chopin.” The Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor, Op. Posth. followed, flowing as naturally as the encores in the first two programs, the Prelude Op.28 No.1 and the Etude Op.25 No.1. Like putting on a comfortable shirt.

Lisiecki’s playing of the first movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto on November 12 had an almost fortepiano quality; the melancholy second movement had a conversational tone until it time-travelled into the future before meeting up with the impetuous Rondo. At intermission TSO composer advisor Gary Kulesha asked Lisiecki to compare Beethoven to Mozart and Chopin, the latter two composers having supplied the contents of the pianist’s two Deutsche Grammophon CDs.

“In Mozart you’re completey exposed – elegant; in Chopin you can play the concerto without the orchestra; in Beethoven you’re a member of the orchestra,” he responded.

“My modus operandi is to make the piano sing,” Lisiecki said. Along with a wonderful tone, that’s his approach to every piece he plays.

Kulesha wondered how Lisiecki would characterize the three Beethovens. The Third “has a similar ferocity and darkness as the D minor Mozart K.466 which it parallels”; the Fourth “pushes the boundaries . . .  [it] begins from the soul of the piano”; the Fifth “broadens what can be done in a concerto.”

Three days later came a first-rate performance of the Third. It had great cohesion, its architecture proceeding organically from the propulsive Allegro con brio and delicacy of the Largo to the pure joy of the inverted theme after the Rondo’s cadenza. You could feel the composer’s notes straining against classical convention but revelling in it. In the Chopin etude, Lisiecki demonstrated the beauty of tone over technique.

Lisiecki’s playing of the “Emperor” the following Saturday was dynamically diverse yet always controlled, from the wondrously hushed non-cadenza of the Allegro and the magical Adagio which felt as though the piano’s notes were walking on air, to the radical contrasts of the Rondo.

In a conversation with William Littler during intermission, Lisiecki divulged that a teacher in pre-school had suggested that the five-year-old child be given piano lessons. It took most of that year and a generous gift of a 100-year-old upright from a family friend before his parents agreed. Curiously, the Third Piano Concerto was the first piece by Beethoven he can remember as a child. Lisiecki also revealed that if he doesn’t practise he doesn’t feel right: “You don’t want to be around me.”

Talking about his instrument and the fact that every pianist is at the mercy of the venue where he performs, he raved about the piano at Koerner Hall, declined to comment on those at RTH and gushed over the one he played in Hamburg. “Not knowing what to expect forces us to create art in the moment,” he said.

Lisiecki’s Beethoven coincided with a series of three symphonies by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, all under the enthusiastic baton of Neilsen’s countryman Thomas Dausgaard. Judging by the orchestra’s generous applause and responsive playing, their connection to the guest conductor was genuine. For his part, Dausgaard exudes joy on the podium, which manifests itself occasionally as open-mouthed. And he often lowers his arms and lets the orchestra play on their own, trusting them for bars at a time. He turned away from the audience in his introduction to the final concert and spoke directly to the players: “Can I say to you Toronto Symphony – you own this music.”

Lisiecki too fell under his spell as the two musicians intently locked eyes at the beginning of the finale of the “Emperor,” the young Canadian drawing on the Dane’s energy.

Classical 21

Trifonov Trifecta: Daniil Trifonov, only 23, the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition multi-award-winner, having already proved his technical prowess at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition earlier that year, seemed intent on establishing his artistic reputation with three programs available to Toronto audiences this season. The first, a dazzling performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with the TSO took place in September. An ambitious solo recital December 9 at Carnegie Hall will be live streamed on medici.tv (and available free for 90 days thereafter). Consisting of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, BWV 542 (transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt, S. 463), Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 and Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, it will likely add to his burgeoning reputation.

Then on January 20 at Koerner Hall, Trifonov turns to chamber music with the great Gidon Kremer. Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 33 in E-flat Major, K. 481. Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 and Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9 comprise a program that will certainly reveal yet another side of this talented Russian-born phenom.

A Trio of Quartets: Music Toronto presents the latest incarnation of the Juilliard String Quartet January 8 in a program headed by Webern’s shimmering Five Movements, Op.5. Three weeks later the mighty St. Lawrence String Quartet returns for its annual visit to its first home. The exuberant Geoff Nuttall will lead us in a “Haydn Discovery” followed by the father of the string quartet’s Op. 33, No.2 “The Joke.” A major new work by John Adams fills the concert’s second half. On January 6 the New Orford String Quartet treats us to Beethoven’s Op. 95 and Brahms’ Op. 51, No.1 before premiering a new work by Gary Kulesha. The New Orford then teams up with Amici February 1 for one of the most interesting programs of the new year, “Bohemian Contrasts.” They join cellist David Hetherington and violist Teng Li in a performance of Schulhoff’s String Sextet and Joaquin Valdepeñas in Brahms’ unforgettable Clarinet Quintet in B-minor, Op.115. Pianist Serouj Kradjian fills out the rest of the program with piano works by Liszt and Janáček.

KWCMS’s 40th: The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society has designated the week of November 28 to December 7 to mark its considerable achievement. Over the years the cumulative volume of talented performers who have made their way to Jan and Jean Narveson’s home is astonishing enough, but it is the KWCMS’ penchant for programming complete cycle concerts that really makes one sit up and take notice. [For a glimpse into how they do it, see my October 2013 Classical and Beyond column.] Two cycles over the December-January period caught my eye: Trio Celeste’s complete traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Trios December 12, 14 and 16; and the scintillating Duo Concertante performing Schubert’s complete music for violin and piano January 29 and 31. It promises to be  an even more musically satisfying event than the Beethoven. Schubert’s music in this case is consistently of the highest order, charming and melodious; the opportunity to hear all of it should not be missed.

Quick Picks

Dec 6 the prodigious Stewart Goodyear performs Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker entirely on the piano joined by dancers from the National Ballet School of Canada and Ballet Creole, and singers from the Toronto Children’s Chorus.

Dec 7 two recent Glenn Gould School appointees, celebrated pianist John O’Conor and former first cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, Desmond Hoebig, team up for Beethoven’s serene Cello Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op.69. O’Conor will play a selection of Nocturnes by his Irish countryman John Field and by Chopin; Yehonatan Berick, Cordelia Paw and Barry Shiffman join them for Schumann’s masterful Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.44.

Dec 7 two admirable pianists make their Toronto debut in Mooredale Concerts’ “Piano Dialogue.” Wonny Song will play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and David Jalbert Poulenc’s Les soirées de Nazelles before coming together for duets by Ravel and Schubert and Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.2 in C Major, Op.17 for two pianos.

Dec 12 Anastasia Rizikov brings her already considerable 15-year-old experience to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 accompanied by Sinfonia Toronto before performing a staggering KWCMS solo concert Jan 24. Bach, Chopin and Liszt lead in to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; then after intermission Chopin and Mozart precede Balakirev’s fiendishly difficult Islamey.

Jan 9 Angela Hewitt, the subject of this month’s cover story, is joined by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in a program rich in songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Fauré, Debussy and Chaminade. Interspersed between them Hewitt will play piano music by Schubert, Brahms and Chabrier.

Jan 14, 15, 17 and 18 mark the beginning of the TSO’s Mozart@259 festival curated by Les Violons du Roy’s Bernard Labadie. The impressive young British conductor and keyboardist Matthew Halls leads the orchestra in three varied programs showing Mozart’s range as an instrumental composer.

Jan 22 to 25 will see the Montreal Symphony’s Kent Nagano make a rare foray into the forest of period instruments as he leads Tafelmusik in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op. 67 and his Mass in C Major, Op.67. It will be fascinating to compare this performance of the symphony to that in Nagano’s recent recording [reviewed by Richard Haskell in this issue of The WholeNote].

Feb 7 Pinchas Zukerman makes his final Toronto appearance as music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in an RTH program with two of Brahms’ most beloved concertos. Zukerman is joined by NAC principal cellist Amanda Forsyth for the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op.102; Yefim Bronfman is the soloist in the Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major Op. 83, the epitome of 19th century romanticism.

Paul Ennis is managing editor of The WholeNote. He can be reached at editorial@thewholenote.com.


Sound Stories of Water

New 22With the climate debate and pipeline protest actions heating up, along with the coming of winter with its potentially destructive storms, we can’t help but feel something is stirring of critical significance that can no longer be ignored. Our very survival as a species is under threat, as we are well aware. Not jolly holiday thoughts to ponder, I know. However, many movements are under way pointing towards a green revolution with a commons-oriented economy and clean energy sources. One of the major voices offering an alternate way comes from the indigenous community with a world view steeped in the traditions of honouring the wisdom of the land and the practices of how to live in a balanced relationship with all creatures and the elemental forces. Music and storytelling is just one of the ways these traditions and knowledge are passed on through the generations.

Manitoulin Island-born Odawa First Nations composer Barbara Croall has risen to the challenge of this cultural moment in her new work titled Manidoog, which translates into English as the spirit beings who dwell in the waters. In this epic work in ten movements, she weaves together ten traditional stories that speak to the importance of our right relationship with water. The work was commissioned by Trio d’Argento and will be premiered on December 11 as part of Music Toronto’s season. I spoke with one of the trio members, flutist Sibylle Marquardt about the work, the upcoming concert, and the trio’s relationship with Croall.

Manidoog opens with a story that summons the presence of the underwater panther. As the piece progresses stories of different creatures and beings weave their presence onto the stage: the spirit turtle emerging from the waters; the rising of the Venus morning star; the pregnant skywoman falling through a hole down onto earth; the winds and a swan catching her as birdcalls fill the air. Stories of the underworld play an important role as well: music brought forth by the guardian of the underworld, the mermaids and mermen luring people disrespectful of the waters down into the underworld; the trickster energies of the little people who live in the forest and along the river banks; the rising and falling of the giant underworld serpent; and, finally, the protective energy of the thunderbird who flies over the world and its waters. Overall, this combination creates something akin to a visionary narrative highlighting a fundamentally different way of living in relationship with the spirit of water and all relations.

New 23bhu-xiao-ouThe piece is fully staged with lighting design and the players moving from station to station to play out the different characters of the stories. Croall herself is one of the performers, playing traditional instruments and singing and speaking in the Ojibwe language. Trio member Peter Stoll performs on the full family of clarinet instruments, recorder and whistle, while Marquardt performs on the full range of flutes. Pianist Anna Romai performs on the keys while Croall joins her at times playing inside on the piano strings. There is also a recorded soundtrack with environmental sounds to add to the mix.

Marquardt has enjoyed a long relationship with Croall, at one time performing in Croall’s Ergo Ensemble. She is passionate about the importance of this work and the need for us to rethink our relationship with the earth and in particular, the waters. The rest of Trio d’Argento’s concert that evening blends together a work by Beethoven, a piece by French composer Jacques Ibert and a funky, jazz/world music-inspired piece by Minnesota-based composer Russell Peterson. The evening will also be a celebration of Trio d’Argento’s new CD just being released on the Opening Day label that includes the Ibert piece. To learn more about this rising virtuosic ensemble, I encourage you to check out their website (triodargento.ca).

Concerts in December

New Music Concerts: On the theme of new music talents named Barbara, the January 20 New Music Concerts joins with Music Toronto January 20 to present a program performed by Halifax-based pianist Barbara Pritchard. In 2009 Pritchard was awarded the Canadian Music Centre’s Music Ambassador title for her work in promoting and performing the music of Canadian composers. This concert includes 11 Canadian works by composers primarily from the Atlantic region, and an aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Prior to this event on December 11, New Music Concerts joins up with the Music Gallery to present two Canadian premieres of pieces by Italian-German guest composer Marco Stroppa, along with a new commissioned work from Paul Steenhuisen and a performance of Elliot Carter’s final work entitled Epigrams written in 2012. Stroppa worked for part of his career as a composer and researcher in Paris at IRCAM, an institution devoted to computer music. He will bring his electronic expertise to this concert, performing alongside trombonist Benny Sluchin and saxophonist Wallace Halladay.

More in December: In amongst all the traditional holiday music available in December, the Music Gallery is offering a unique way to tune into the holiday spirit with “Unsilent Night,” an outdoor walking event created by Phil Kline on December 19. Audience members are invited to bring their own portable sound system (boom box, etc) to play back one of four tracks of music, while being led on a guided walk through alleyways, crowded streets or empty spaces. You will experience your own unique mix of the tracks and the specific acoustics of each place visited. (And after the walk, at 9pm, you can return to the Music Gallery for a festive fundraiser with the O’Pears a female a cappella trio performing folk, R&B, celtic, and bluegrass music.)

Up on St. Joseph St., on December 13, the Canadian Music Centre presents festive Canadian music in its 21st century Virtuoso series with tenor Sean Clark. December is also CD celebration time at the CMC, with two concerts of new releases: on December 12, composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée with her Bookburners launch and on December16, composer and oboist Elizabeth Raum with her Myth, Legend, Romance CD.

And speaking of CD-related concerts, I’ll be presenting works in 5.1 surround sound from my Sounddreaming CD at Array Space on December 5. Another celebration, also at Array, salutes the iconic work of experimentalist Udo Kasemets spread over two days with screenings of Kasemets’ videos December 6 and a concert on December 7. These concerts are part of this season’s ArrayMusic’s concert series.

January

The University of Toronto’s New Music Festival: Moving into January/February, we have the U of T annual New Music festival running from January 30 to February 8. This year’s festival was inspired by a meeting between University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music composer Norbert Palej and China’s Hu Xiao-ou during the Beijing Modern Music Festival a few years ago. What began as a friendship has grown to a cultural exchange. This past October, Palej travelled with 11 colleagues from the Faculty of Music to China and Hong Kong presenting lectures, masterclasses and concerts of music from U of T faculty composers and students. Now, Palej is organizing this year’s New Music Festival to present the works of Hu and several of his students from the Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu, as well as a work by Wendy Lee, who currently teaches in Hong Kong. Both Hu and Lee will be in attendance in Toronto, and interestingly, both have Canadian connections. Hu is a part-time resident of Vancouver and Lee was a former student at U of T studying with Chan Ka Nin. The concerts on February 4 and 5 will feature chamber music by the guest Chinese composers, including the performance of a new work by Hu by the Cecilia Quartet.

The festival will finish off with a collaboration Palej developed with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. On February 6 and 7, the orchestra will perform concerts featuring the world premiere of Hu’s new pipa concerto with Lan Weiwei as soloist. Also on the program will be the premiere of Palej’s Shan Shui Miniatures based on Chinese folk themes, and the winning pieces of the Friendship Orchestral Composition Competition. Other festival events include concerts on January 30 and February 1 of student operas based on a libretto by Michael Albano and on February 2, works by international emerging composers performed by the Ecouter Ensemble. The festival will finish on a lighter note with a modern jazz concert on Sunday February 8. The full schedule of events will be on the Faculty of Music website early in December.

Esprit Orchestra: Esprit’s January 29 concert brings us the world premiere of English composer Philip Cashian’s the world’s turning inspired by the sculptures of Stephen Vince. The visual theme continues with Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s Over Light Earth which pays tribute to painters Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The program is rounded out with works by New Music Concerts’ artistic director Robert Aitken, whose Berceuse explores the balance of Yin and Yang while commemorating those “who sleep before us” and an Esprit-commissioned new work by Canadian Samuel Andreyev titled The Flash of the Instant.

Overview: And finally to finish off 2014 and move into 2015, an overview of other noteworthy new music concert events for December and January.

Canadian Music Centre: December 18 with the Toronto Guitar Society. Premiere of works by Leggatt, Oickle, Sandquist and Tse. January 13 the CMC’s 21st Century Virtuoso series presents works from Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux and Gilles Tremblay’s Musique de l’eau performed by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough

Music Gallery Emergents Series: December 4 curated by Melody McKiver. Works by Clarinet Panic Deluxx and Cris Derksen, two cellist/composers. January 30 curated by Felicity Williams: Dan Fortin and Robin Dann/Claire Harvie.

Exultate Chamber Singers: December 5. Works by Canadian composers in their “A Canadian Noël” concert.

Spectrum Music: December 6. Concert titled “Journeys” with works for guitar and string quartet by Alex Goodman and Graham Campbell with the Ton Beau String Quartet.

Syrinx Concerts Toronto: December 7. Concert includes Stillness of the 7th Autumn by Brian Cherney

Toy Piano Composers: January 24. Concert titled “Grit” with works by Brophy, Labadie, Pearce, Puello, Tam and others. Performances by Chelsea Shanoff and Nadia Klein with the TPC Ensemble.

 group of 27: January 30. Concert includes Voyageur by Andrew Staniland.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

Autorickshaw Tours South Asia

World 25My last column, highlighting the music programming at the Aga Khan Museum, noted the concert appearance of Toronto’s award-winning group Autorickshaw at the AKM auditorium on November 15. I attended the show to get an overview of their current repertoire, the range of which is wide and the boundaries fluid.

In addition to arrangements of South Indian classical and folk songs, original songs and numbers based on tala principles (overlapping Carnatic solkattu and Hindustani tabla bols) alternated with good-humoured ironic takes on 1970s Bollywood hit film songs. “Autorickshawified” hybrid adaptations of songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – “Bird on a Wire” rendered in a relaxed 7/4 – and the jazz standard “Caravan” were among my personal favourites. While vivacious vocalist Suba Sankaran, the heart of the group, claimed front stage centre for most of the concert, the skilled band comprised of Dylan Bell (bass/keyboards/beatboxing), Ed Hanley (tabla), with Ben Riley (drum set) and John Gzowski (guitar) stepping in for the night, shone in solos. “Caravan” was a rollicking example.

Well into Autorickshaw’s second decade of genre-blending musicking, summing up its repertoire, which is very often multi-genre and transnational in reach, is not an effortless undertaking; especially so for a persnickety listener like me. Autorickshaw’s website nevertheless helpfully weighs in, situating its music “on the cultural cutting edge, as contemporary jazz, funk and folk easily rub shoulders with the classical and popular music of India.”

That statement makes such hybridization sound like an easy reach. It’s anything but. Anyone who has seriously attempted it, or listened to fusion experiments where genres from across the world “easily rub shoulders,” knows how easy it is to fail to satisfy musical expectations – and for many reasons. In fact it is one of the most difficult forms of musical alchemy to pull off effectively and gracefully. Having persevered as a group for a dozen years Autorickshaw is proof that diligent work in the transcultural song mines can pay off. In their case it’s been rewarded with two JUNO nominations for World Music Album of the Year and the 2005 Canadian Independent Music Award. In 2008 they were awarded the John Lennon Songwriting Competition Grand Prize in World Music, in addition to the CAPACOA Touring Artist of the Year.

Autorickshaw’s web statement also accurately geographically locates the overlapping bi-continental musical territories the group primarily explores: North America and the Indian subcontinent. Furthermore testing the effectiveness of such transculturalism in the fire of international audiences via touring seems an essential part of the group enterprise. Autorickshaw has done just that. It’s been on the road exporting its “Canadian-made Indo-fusion” not only across its Canadian home base, the U.S.A. and Europe, but also to India during a three-week tour in late 2006.

As I write this the Autorickshaw Trio consisting of Sankaran, Hanley and Bell is preparing for an unprecedented two-month subcontinent-wide tour of at least two dozen dates in ten projected cities in India and Nepal (in Pokhara and Kathmandu). Departing Toronto on November 28, “we are acting as our own agents, mainly cold-calling our way to India and Nepal” wrote Sankaran in an email interview, building on “contacts [made] the last time we toured India.” She further predicted that “once on the ground, we will likely be approached to do other performances in the various regions we are touring. This happened the last time around as well, so we’re trying to build some buffer time for that.”

I asked about the sort of venues they will be playing. Sankaran commented on their diversity. “We are doing a variety of shows, from soft-seaters to outdoor festivals, from clubs to hotel dates, house concerts, workshops in ashrams, and collaborating with string and choral departments in schools; the majority are performances, [but] we’re offering some workshops as well.”

The incentive for the tour initially came from the group’s desire to commemorate, on December 3, 2014 the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal “gas tragedy,” widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Sankaran and Hanley have a personal commitment to the affected people of that city. In 2009 they co-wrote and recorded the song “The City of Lakes.” All proceeds from the song go to the Bhopal Medical Appeal which funds two local clinics offering free healthcare to thousands of survivors. While in Bhopal the Autorickshaw Trio will also appear as the opening act at the Indian premiere of the motion picture about the disaster, A Prayer for Rain, starring Martin Sheen. Another focal point of the tour is the promotion of songs from its strong new album Humours of Autorickshaw, in newly-minted trio arrangements.

In an email interview with Hanley I wondered how exporting Autorickshaw’s hybrid music to South Asia compared to performing and marketing it domestically. He replied with insight and humour: “There may be weight to the Canadian adage that you can’t ‘make it’ at home until you make it elsewhere. I’m not sure why that seems to be true, but anecdotally it does seem to be the case. We’re not trying to make it in India, but perhaps to lay foundations for future tours … The fact that we incorporate a lot of traditional Indian classical elements in our music seems to be a gateway for South Asian audiences. It’s [also] always nice to represent Canada and Canadian music,” on the international stage, therefore “we’re looking forward to playing some Autorickshawified Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Canadian folk songs (“J’entends le Moulin” with solkattu and tabla bols anyone?)”

I asked Hanley how he expected the various genres their repertoire explores to resonate with tour audiences. “We will definitely adapt our repertoire to the venue and audience. For example we’re doing some Christmas carols with local musicians in Darjeeling – at their request. That should be fun!” He added: “New audiences are always an adventure. There is a magic in performing for people who know, and perhaps like, your music, but there’s a very different kind of magic playing for an audience who has never heard you before, hearing the music … for the first time.”

As for South Asian sales of Autorickshaw music mediated via physical product vs downloads, Hanley noted that they “will take some CDs, and will ship a box ahead. We will carry a lot of download cards, which we can give away as a musical business card, or sell much cheaper than a physical CD. [Plus] all our music is online [and we’ve uploaded] lots of videos onto our YouTube channel.”

Hanley neatly summed up the music scene in India: “It’s really happening [with] clubs popping up. There are festivals galore, with lots of bands producing original music. What we do might come from a different place simply because we grew up in Canada and have a strong Western foundation in various forms such as pop, jazz etc. And why are Indian presenters eager to present us? I’m not sure. Could it be our [unique] Canadian perspective on our blend of styles?

On one hand Autorickshaw’s two-month tour sounds like a grand adventure in (re)encountering the roots of some of the musical streams it has been exploring throughout its collective career. It will also no doubt expand the awareness among South Asian audiences of a Canadian world music accent. I for one will enjoy reading the trio’s “reports from the road,” vicariously experiencing their musical travels which will take them on December 15 to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, Nepal, and on January 26 to SpringFest in Kharagpur, India.

Following are some of the stories I would likely have written about in depth had I not been sidetracked into talking about covert world music elements embedded in Canadian Christmas repertoire (Aaron Davis, page 14) and Canadian world musicians about to embed themselves in South Asia.

Small World Music Centre: December 5 Nazar-i Turkwaz (My Turquoise Gaze), four leading singers and instrumentalists on the Toronto world music scene, take the Centre’s stage. Brenna MacCrimmon, Maryem Tollar, Sophia Grigoriadis and Jayne Brown are the remarkable musicians whose appearance at the Aga Khan Museum I wrote about last month. Having collected, performed and recorded songs from Turkey, the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans for decades, you can expect masterful renditions of this repertoire, “cultivating a sweet sonic union” along the way.

December 6 may well mark a first in my column: a musical film screening. The Centre presents two films by American director Matthew Dunning collectively tilted The Stirring of a Thousand Bells (2014), released on DVD by the hipster Seattle, Washington label Sublime Frequencies. This fascinating niche publisher focuses exclusively on “acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers.” Its roster encompasses audio field recordings, repackaged folk and pop compilations, radio collages and DVDs, mostly from Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

Dunning’s films take viewers on a musical-visual journey of life in Central Java, Indonesia, focussing on gamelan music, a regional orchestral practice unbroken – though continuously shifted geographically, refreshed stylistically and hybridized – for some four centuries. In the city of Solo, where a Sultan still reigns, gamelan and its meditative palace dances remain a part of everyday life. I’ve been to Java five times studying and playing gamelan, and still feel like a beginner in the face of the complex interactive music’s inner workings and emotional life. The director will be present to contextualize his own gamelan practice and his films.

Ensemble Polaris: January 18, 2015 at 2pm the Gallery Players of Niagara present Ensemble Polaris in “Definitely Not the Nutcracker” at the Silver Spire United Church, St. Catharines. This fun concert celebrates Tchaikovsky’s popular music for the ballet but with a whimsical twist. Arrangements by the Ensemble alternate with songs and instrumentals from the Russian folk tradition. The instrumentation gives a hint of what they’re up to. Marco Cera (guitar, jarana barroca); Kirk Elliott (violin, Celtic harp, mandolin); Margaret Gay (cello, guiro); Katherine Hill (voice, nyckelharpa); Alison Melville (baroque flute, recorders); Colin Savage (clarinet, bass clarinet); Debashis Sinha (percussion, birimbao) and Jeff Wilson (percussion, musical saw). This new year why not stretch your musical legs, travel to St. Catharines and experience something other than customary?

Master Shajarian: January 31, 2015 [postponed to the fall of 2015] Persian master singer, composer, teacher and instrument innovator Mohammad Reza Shajarian takes centre stage at Roy Thomson Hall. Shajarian has been widely celebrated and decorated at home and internationally. UNESCO in France presented him in 1999 with the prestigious Picasso Award, one of Europe’s highest honours. In 2006 he was decorated with the UNESCO Mozart Medal and he has twice been nominated for the Grammy for Best World Music album. I had the privilege of hearing him sing about a decade ago and was impressed with his mastery of the difficult classical dastgah idiom. His vocal performances are justly savoured for their technical beauty, power and strong emotional presence. This concert is another good way to celebrate your good luck in reaching 2015 in good nick.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

A Non-Shoppers Guide to Carols

The term “Christmas carol” has become a kind of catchall for a multifarious group of songs from many parts the world and about 500 years of history. These songs emerge from hiding once a year, saturate our brains like an aural snowstorm and then retreat to their lairs for another ten months.

Christmas music, much of it beautiful, serene and profound, is commonly used by stores of all types to attempt to move product and it’s not surprising that people’s frustration with the hard sell becomes anger at the music itself. I’m not blaming the businesses, who have their own bills to pay, but carols really ought to be for singing, not for shopping. This is where choirs have a crucial role, because as I’ve written in the past, carol concerts are one of the few areas left in modern life where audiences of non-musicians are invited to participate in music making.

Christmas saturation brings with it musical anachronism, as carol singers hired for the holidays often find themselves wandering through 21st century malls, dressed up in garb that is meant to evoke late 19th-century England, while warbling tunes written by an American composer from Pennsylvania in 1951. Here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate one Christmas song from another.

Carols. Rarer than you’d think, carols are thought to have originated from dances; the words were sometimes cadged from pre-Christian sources and retro-fitted to coincide with Christmas celebrations. There were carols for all seasonal and liturgical occasions of the year, and it is only in the last couple of centuries that carolling became solely associated with Christmas. Carols often tell stories, have lively rhythms and a directness of expression that has actually caused church authorities to ban them on occasion. “The Holly and the Ivy,” with its pagan imagery and dancelike tempo, might be considered a true carol.

Christmas Hymns. Often mistaken for carols, Christmas hymns tend to be grander, statelier, with more ornate and even stuffy language. The classic familiar ones were often written by professional priests and clerics, such as Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At their best, such as in the work of John Goss (“See Amid the Winter’s Snow”), Christmas hymns combine brilliant lyrics with pellucid song composition.

Christmas Anthems. Compositions with a Christmas theme, often composed or arranged specifically for choral performance, and not meant for group singing. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and much of the work of John Rutter fall into this category.

Christmas Songs. This is almost an entirely American,20th-century phenomenon that exploded with the rise of recording technology. Like hymns, Christmas songs tend to tell us what we ought to be feeling, albeit from a secular perspective: excitement, anticipation, togetherness, as opposed to religious fervour. It’s hard to contest the sentiment, but after weeks of it, you start to feel like you’re being beaten on the head with a soft pillow; it doesn’t really hurt, but you wish it would stop. I wonder if the depressed feelings that many experience around Christmas time has to do in part with the gap between the Christmas song paradigm and the reality of credit bills and feuding relatives?  Nonetheless, at their best all four categories of Christmas song contain works of genius. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Christmas has become a big pan-cultural party that can reasonably be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.

On to the concerts: I’m going to assume that the readers of this column need no urging from me to find a Messiah performance or a carol singalong this time of year, and so will instead focus on some concerts that take an unusual angle, as well as looking ahead at the post-Christmas concert scene in the new year.

Trinity Pageant: There are many pageants and Lessons and Carols services being held this year at churches and civic centres – please check the listings for events in your area. The Christmas pageant mounted by the downtown Church of the Holy Trinity (just behind Eaton Centre) is a cultural event that has proved so popular over the years that the pageant runs into repeat performances, taking place at various times between December 12 and 21.

Briggs’ Snowman: On December 7 the Bach Children’s Chorus joins Orchestra Toronto for a concert that features the animated film The Snowman , with live musical accompaniment by the orchestra and choir. The film is based on the celebrated book by English illustrator Raymond Briggs. Briggs’ trademark combination of gentle imagery and dark, disturbing themes is a welcome antidote to more sugary Christmas entertainments. The concert also features the premiere of Canadian Dean Burry’s A Hockey Cantata. Burry’s work for children is accessible without being pandering, and this concert is highly recommended.

Choral 26

Brother Heinrich: On a similar note, on Dec 20 the Toronto Children’s Chorus will perform A Chorus Christmas: Ceremonial Splendour. a concert that includes John Rutter’s enjoyable choral fable, Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, about the 14th-century Dominican mystic Heinrich Seuse, thought to be responsible for composing the famous macaronic carol In Dulci Jubilo. The piece is narrated by legendary actor/writer Gordon Pinsent.

Coro San Marco was founded in 1995 by Toronto residents who hail from Italy’s Veneto region (the area around Venice). On December 6 they perform their Advent/Christmas concert, with a selection of Christmas songs from around the world.

Victoria Scholars:  On December 19 and 21 this chamber choir of men’s voices, perform Yuletide on the Cool Canadian Side, a concert of carols arranged by Canadian composers.

Echo Women’s Choir: The ancient concept of the Divine Feminine came to the fore in the last century, as a spiritual conjunct to the struggles for women’s rights that were carried out under the banner of modern feminism. Male-centered aspects of monotheistic worship in Christian and other religions have been challenged and reassessed, and the spiritual insights and strengths of female religious leaders, thinkers, mystics and composers have become part of our modern discussion. On December 7 the Echo Women’s Choir perform The Divine Feminine, a concert that includes music by the12th-century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.

This concert is also notable for a rare appearance by the co-founders of Stringband, Marie-Lynn Hammondand Bob Bossin. Toronto audiences born before the Beatles first album came out may remember Stringband well from a series of celebrated albums from the 1970s, as well as their many club, concert and folk festival appearances.

Bossin and Hammond are two of the most skilled songwriters to come out of the first wave of the Canadian modern folk music movement. Bossin writes in a deliberately political and historical manner, taking politics and cultural issues as subjects for his clever and amusing songs. Hammond’s work is more introspective, mining her family history, in particular her mixed French and English background, for truths found amidst the conflicts and encounters that are part of the Canadian experience. Hammond is based in Toronto, but Bossin now lives on the West Coast, and any chance to see these two folk legends perform together is not to be missed.

A Grand “Midsummer”: Looking ahead to the new year, on January 16 and 17 the Grand Philharmonic Choir Female Chorus joins the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a concert title which in January is going to seem either like wishful thinking or rubbing it in. But the music selection is excellent: Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the above play and selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Purcell never set Shakespeare’s poetry, but The Fairy Queen has great moments of humour, pathos and the composer’s peerless text settings.

Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir present a Beethoven double bill from January 22 to 25. The orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then are joined by the choir for his Mass in C. Guest conducting is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Kent Nagano.

Both pieces were written in the first decade of the 19th century. The Mass in C was composed for the Austrian ruler Prince Nikolaus Esterházy  II in 1807, and has the classical structure of liturgical works composed by Mozart and Haydn under similar conditions and royal patronage. At the premiere there was a scene – the prince was not sufficiently appreciative of the piece, perhaps -- and Beethoven left the concert venue in a fury, a breach of royal protocol that would have been unthinkable, and professionally fatal, to the older composers mentioned above. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony captures unforgettably the spirit that led the composer to assert his humanity and freedom against the patronage system to which most European composers had been forced to submit for centuries. 

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

First Rate, Serious Stuff!

Early 29In deference to holiday tradition, I’ll mention the Messiahs first: Tafelmusik’s sing-along Messiah will be at Massey Hall at 2pm on December 21 this year, while Aradia’s Dublin Messiah will happen on the December 20 at 7:30 at St. Anne’s Anglican Church. These are the only two Messiahs in Toronto I think you need to see. If a Messiah was all you were planning on catching over the holidays, please turn the page!

Right. Now if you’re serious about music, and you want to find some first-rate medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music this holiday season, or if you’re just looking for an antidote to every saccharine Christmas carol you’ve been subjected to in every shopping mall you’ve been to since the beginning of November, keep reading. You certainly might find something new in the Toronto Consort’s Christmas concert, “The Little Barley-Corne,” a program of Yuletide hits from Renaissance Europe. This program is based on the Consort’s fifth album of the same name, which although, or indeed perhaps because, it included very few tunes that were immediately recognizable as traditional Christmas carols, was a breakthrough hit for the Consort, and quickly established them as a Toronto-based early music group that deserved to be taken seriously. It will certainly be a special treat to revisit this seminal album again after 15 years. The Toronto Consort performs The Little Barley-Corne December 12 to 14 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Caprice: Another early music group that deserves our attention is Montreal’s Ensemble Caprice, a recorder-based baroque ensemble that quickly gained recognition on the Montreal scene for their free, and at times bizarre, interpretations of Telemann and Vivaldi. This group can typically be trusted to blow the roof off the concert hall. Caprice will be coming to Ontario to present their Christmas program “Baroque Christmas Around the World,” which features Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, some 17th-century South American songs, traditional carols and music by J. S. Bach and Handel. It also has the potential to be more subdued than a typical Caprice concert – a roof-raising Christmas concert being somewhat blasphemous in the eyes of the concertgoing public – but I can guarantee the group will perform with panache. This all takes place at the Port Hope United Church in Port Hope December 12 at 7:30pm and in Barrie December 14 at Grace United Church on December 14 at 2:30pm.

Poculi Ludique: If you’re looking for something completely out there as an alternative to Christmas carols and the Messiah, or if you’re just something of a medievalist, consider checking out this group of medieval-revival performers and musicians: the Poculi Ludique Societas (or the “Cup and Game Society”). This group will be performing selections from the York Mystery Plays on December 13 at 7:30pm at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church. The York Mystery plays were a series of performances based on bible stories ranging from the Genesis creation to the Passion of Jesus that were performed in the city of York around the 14th century; some were centred around the biblical story of Christmas. Each guild in town was responsible for a specific performance (based around a Christian divine miracle or mystery, hence the name). The mystery plays seem like a particularly insightful view into what life was like in the Middle Ages, given that the typical medieval European was a devout Christian and a member of a guild of some kind, but couldn’t read the bible (or even his own name) and depended on dramatizations like the York Mystery Plays to understand what he was supposed to be believing. In any case, the Poculi Ludique Societas are all medieval scholars from the University of Toronto and can probably explain all of this much better than I can. Plus, the music is under the supervision of Larry Beckwith of Toronto Masque Theatre, so the musical part of the production is in capable hands. As an unusual form of entertainment that nevertheless captures the original meaning of Christmas, this may be exactly what the Christmas season needs.

Tafel’s Quest: But if you’re looking for good live music, there’s no need to limit yourself to holiday-themed entertainment in the coming weeks. For example, Tafelmusik’s musical quest for a new artistic director, featuring the most outstanding violinists they can find, continues in the beginning of December. Amandine Beyer, a virtuoso violinist from France, will lead the ensemble in an all-French program at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre on December 4 to 7. It looks to be a killer program of French composers, including Rameau, Corrette, Campra and Rebel. Beyer herself will attempt to wow the crowd with a Leclair concerto, and we’ll see once and for all if the orchestra can put on a sublime performance of French baroque repertoire. It’s all very exciting, as you can probably guess.

Scaramella: Another Toronto group that’s keeping busy over the holiday season is Scaramella, led by Joëlle Morton. They’ll be playing a concert devoted to the English composer William Lawes on December 6 at Victoria College Chapel at 8pm. As a gamba-based ensemble, doing a concert devoted to Lawes just makes sense – he was great composer of music for everything viol, from duets to consorts of four, five and six gambas. As a figure from music history, he’s even more compelling, living as he did during the period of the English Renaissance and taking the laws of composition (sorry, couldn’t resist) to strange and unusual places. His music is both engaging and intelligent, but his approach to tonality is at times either extremely liberal or extremely strange. If you don’t manage to catch their Lawes concert, Scaramella is also doing a program of 17th-century German composers in Victoria College Chapel on January 31 at 8pm. This time the group will be joined by countertenor Daniel Cabena – this concert could be worth a look as well.

Out of the ordinary: If you’re looking for something to do over New Year’s Day, you might want to drop by Heliconian Hall at 2:30, where the Musicians in Ordinary will be playing their annual New Year’s Day concert. They’ll be joined by Christopher Verrette and Patricia Ahern of Tafelmusik as well as Boris Medicky on harpsichord for a mixed program including Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Corelli. The Musicians have put together a solid lineup of players to play some decent repertoire for this concert.

Finally, there are a couple of other concerts worth mentioning as we get into the coldest days of winter: Toronto Masque Theatre will be performing Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse on January 15, 16 and 17 at 8pm. And a group of six young Toronto-based violinists are taking an encyclopedic approach to concert programming and tackling all six of Bach’s unaccompanied solo violin partitas in one go. That concert will include Tafelmusik violinists Julia Wedman, Cristina Zacharias and Aisslinn Nosky, as well as Elyssa Lefurgey-Smith of Aradia. You can catch it all at Metropolitan United Church on January 9 at 7:30pm.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Of Partnerships, Productions & Other Diversions

Opera 31The two largest-scale opera productions for the period from December 1 to February 7 are those of the Canadian Opera Company’s winter season. Taken together they provide an example of the two models that the COC is currently following: partnering and production.

From January 24 to February 21, the company presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid. This production is an example of what the COC calls partnering: the company contributes money toward the production, but there is little or no COC input in the design or direction.  So, much depends upon choosing one’s partners wisely.

Don Giovanni had its premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2010, directed by acclaimed Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. The most controversial aspect of the production is that Tcherniakov has replaced Da Ponte’s original scenario with his own. He reimagines Mozart’s characters as the neurotic members of one present-day bourgeois family. Zerlina is now Donna Anna’s daughter from her first marriage, while Leporello is “a young relative of the Commendatore’s, living in his house.” Don Giovanni is presented as unhappily married to Donna Elvira. In the new plot Don Giovanni does not destroy himself, rather, his relatives combine to destroy him. The production has been around long enough that it is already available on DVD and in excerpts on YouTube for anyone who wishes to see whether Tcherniakov’s concept works or not.

For the COC, Russell Braun sings Don Giovanni, Kyle Ketelsen is Leporello, Jennifer Holloway is Donna Elvira, Jane Archibald is Donna Anna and Michael Schade is Don Ottavio. Michael Hofstetter conducts.

In terms of COC original productions, from January 31 to February 22 it presents Die Walküre, a production designed and directed by Canadians and owned solely by the COC. This COC production of Wagner’s Die Walküre had its premiere in 2004 and was revived in 2006 as the second opera of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle. This will be the first time it has been revived on its own. Atom Egoyan directs, Michael Levine is the designer and Johannes Debus conducts.

Of particular note is that renowned German soprano Christine Goerke will be making her role debut in Toronto as Brünnhilde. Clifton Forbis, who sang Siegmund in this production in 2004 and 2006, returns to sing the role again. Sieglinde, Siegmund’s sister and lover will be sung by Heidi Melton; Wotan is Johan Reuter; Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutal husband is Dimitry Ivashchenko; and Fricka, Wotan’s implacable goddess-wife is Janina Baechle.

Crunching the numbers: At the end of October this year the COC held its Annual General Meeting covering the 2013/14 fiscal year and reported “an impressive average attendance of 94 percent (an increase of 4 percent over last season),” a figure that was duly disseminated in the media. By comparison in 2012/13 the COC had 90 percent attendance.

Digging deeper into the numbers is interesting though: in 2012/13 the company presented  61 performances totalling 114,133 tickets sold. In 2013/14 it had 94 percent attendance for 58 performances totalling 111,421 tickets sold. Thus the percentage “increase” of 4 percent at each show had as its corollary a 2.4 percent decline in overall attendance.Worrying is that the number of tickets sold has now declined for the fifth year in a row. Average attendance of 94 percent per show is indeed impressive, but not if the only way to achieve those numbers is by decreasing the number of productions, and the number of performances of those productions.

Opera 32Other diversions: The COC winter season only begins at the end of January, but there are many operatic diversions in December. The starriest of these is a concert production with orchestra of Gioacchino Rossini’s last, and, many would say, greatest opera, Guillaume Tell (1829). It is based on Friedrich Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell (1804) about Switzerland’s struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire in the 14th century. The most famous episode is when the Habsburg tyrant Gessler demands proof of Tell’s skill as a marksman by having him shoot an apple off the head of Tell’s own son. Musically, the opera is best known for its overture, which despite the fame accruing to it from its use in The Lone Ranger and in countless cartoons, in fact provides a précis of the entire action of the opera.

The single performance on December 5 is part of a North American tour of the Teatro Regio Torino with its full orchestra and chorus. The opera-in-concert will be presented in its Italian version (from 1833) with English surtitles and will be conducted by the company’s famed music director Gianandrea Noseda. Featured among the all-Italian cast are baritone Luca Salsi as Guglielmo Tell, mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri as his wife Edwige, soprano Marina Bucciarelli as his son Jemmy and bass Gabriele Sagona as the villainous Austrian governor Gessler. The running time is approximately four hours.

Next in December is another reimagining of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, this time as #UncleJohn by Toronto’s small but feisty Against the Grain Theatre which produced a highly successful Pelléas et Mélisande outdoors earlier this year. Director Joel Ivany’s notion is to change the period to the present and to set the entire action at the reception for the marriage of Zerlina and Masetto. There is no stage. Instead, the singers mingle with and sing from the audience as invited members of the reception. Ivany has translated and updated Da Ponte’s libretto so that Leporello’s famous catalogue aria now counts up Uncle John’s social network followers. Ivany’s version was developed in conjunction with the COC at Banff and had its highly praised premiere there in August 2014.

Cameron McPhail sings Uncle John, Neil Craighead is Leporello, Miriam Khalil is Donna Elvira, Betty Waynne Allison is Donna Anna and Sean Clark is Don Ottavio. The design is by Patrick Du Wors and the accompaniment is by a piano quintet with conductor Miloš Repický at the piano. #UncleJohn plays at The Black Box Theatre, December 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19.

December and January also hold offerings for those seeking music theatre written before Mozart or after Rossini. Toronto Operetta Theatre presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Mikado December 27, 28 and 31, 2014, and January 2, 3 and 4, 2015. The production features Joseph Angelo, Lucia Cesaroni, Adrian Kramer, David Ludwig and Giles Tomkins. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

From January 15 to 17 Toronto Masque Theatre presents a new production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea (1718) at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse. Lawrence Wiliford sings Acis, Teri Dunn is Galatea, Peter McGillivray is Polyphemus and Graham Thomson is Damon. Larry Beckwith conducts a seven-member period instrument band from the violin. Daniel Taylor’s Schola Cantorum will be the chorus.

Meanwhile Opera by Request is busy with Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (1893) on December 7, Moreno Torroba’s zarzuela Luisa Fernanda (1932) on December 10, the Canadian premiere of Danish composer August Enna’s The Princess and the Pea (1900) on January 11 and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail on January 24. All performances are in concert at the College Street United Church with William Shookhoff as pianist and music director.

 Finally, on February 1, Voicebox: Opera in Concert presents Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (1946) with Jennifer Taverner and Colin Ainsworth. Robert Cooper is the conductor and pianist.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

Two Busy Singers

ArtSong 33The countertenor voice had been prominent in English music in the late 17th century, the time of Purcell, but was only kept alive afterwards in the cathedral choirs. That changed in 1944 when the composer and conductor Michael Tippett plucked Alfred Deller from the choir stalls in Canterbury Cathedral and helped him to develop a solo career. Initially many people found the experience of hearing a man sing in the alto register odd. There is a famous story of Deller being confronted by a woman who asked him whether he was a eunuch. The story goes on to say that Deller did not miss a beat but replied immediately: “I think Madam the word you are looking for is ‘unique’.” Well, si non è vero, è ben trovato, but the very fact that the story rings true even if it isn’t, and has been repeated by many tells us something about the way audiences felt about this high male voice. Things have changed: now there are many countertenors and only the naive and inexperienced will be nonplussed by what they hear. The other day there was a very good countertenor, singing Schubert’s Ave Maria during the evening rush hour inside the Bloor-Yonge Station. Nobody seemed to take any notice (I suppose people had trains to catch) but nobody there seemed to find it at all unusual either.

Countertenor Daniel Cabena will be a new voice for many. I remember hearing him with the Toronto Consort and I was recently listening to the splendid recording by Les Violons du Roy and the Chapelle de Québec of the Mozart Requiem. Cabena sings on that recording too. In 2004 he moved to Montreal, where he studied at the Université de Montréal; since then he has been a student at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel and has performed in Switzerland with Musica Fiorita and La Cetra and in France with the Concert Spirituel and Le Parlement de Musique. He recently returned to Canada and now lives in Guelph.

December and January are going to be busy months for him. On December 7 at 3pm he will be performing a free concert with the pianist Stephen Runge at Hart House. The countertenor voice is now largely associated with early music but Cabena has chosen late 19th and 20th century works, mainly British, for this recital: songs by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Finzi, Warlock, Quilter, Howells, Butterworth, Gurney, Britten and William Denis Browne. Of special interest are two songs by Barrie Cabena, Daniel’s father. The elder Cabena was born in Australia, studied in England with Herbert Howells, moved to Canada and taught at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo from 1970 until his retirement. 

On December 13 and 14 Daniel Cabena will sing in a concert of sacred music by Bach, with the Nota Bene Baroque Orchestra in Hamilton and Waterloo, respectively. On December 20 he will be the alto soloist in Messiah with the Guelph Chamber Choir at the River Run Centre, Guelph and on January 31 he will sing with the ensemble Scaramella in a program of 17th century German music at Victoria College Chapel.

Tenor Sean Clark is another busy singer. Fresh from his performance of Tamino in Ottawa’s Opera Lyra children’s version of The Magic Flute (set in space), he has begun rehearsals for another Mozart role, that of Don Ottavio in Against the Grain Theatre’s #UncleJohn, an adaptation of Don Giovanni at the Great Hall’s Black Box Theatre  December 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19). He is giving a recital of Canadian and American music that consists of Verlaine settings by Mathieu as well as folk-song arrangements by John Beckwith and John Jacob Niles at the Canadian Music Centre on December 13. He is also the tenor soloist in Pax Christi Chorale’s performance of Bach’s Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland as well as part of the Christmas Oratorio and in Stephanie Martin’s secular cantata Winter Nights at St. John Vianney Church in Barrie on December 5; Grace Church on-the-Hill on December 6 and 7. Clark has been a member of the Canadian Opera Company chorus for some time and is continuing in that role. But he is interested in developing a solo career and these concerts may mark an important stage in that development.

Other Events: On December 3 Erin Bardua, soprano, Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo, Charles Davidson, tenor, and Graham Robinson, baritone, sing Bach’s cantata Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! at St. James Cathedral, PWYC.

Miriam Khalil, soprano, and Julie Nesrallah, mezzo, are the singers in a concert of Arab music on December 4 at Koerner Hall.

Two concerts on December 7: Off Centre Music Salon presents Ilana Zarankin, soprano, and Erica Iris Huang, mezzo, singing works from Russia (Glenn Gould Studio); Marie-Lynn Hammond will sing with the Echo Women’s Choir at Church of the Holy Trinity.

On December 8; the soloists in the Toronto Masque Theatre Christmas concert are Lizzie Hetherington and Jean Edwards, soprano, Jessica Wright, mezzo, and David Roth, baritone  at 21 Shaftesbury Avenue.

The third and final installment of the International Divas series takes place on December 21; the singers are Rita Chiarelli, Maryem Hassan Tollar, Lara Solnicki, Sharlene Wallace, the Ault Singers and Hisaka at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Whitney O’Hearn, mezzo, and Bud Roach, tenor, will perform songs from the Irving Berlin songbook, with the Talisker Players at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, January 11 and, 13.  

Nathalie Paulin, soprano, Laura Pudwell, mezzo, Lawrence Wiliford, tenor, and Sumner Thompson, baritone, will be the soloists in Beethoven’s Mass in C with Tafelmusik. The concert at Koerner Hall, January 22 to 25, also includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the conductor is Kent Nagano (Koerner Hall, January 22 to 25).

On January 25 Emily Klassen, soprano, and Jean-Sebastien Beauvais, countertenor, will sing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at St. David’s Anglican Church.

On February 1 Melanie Conly, soprano, will sing Brott, Purcell, Berlioz and Schubert at Heliconian Hall.

And beyond the GTA: Marie-Josée Lord, soprano, will perform songs and melodies from Spain and Latin America at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Peterborough, January 17.

Catherine Carew, mezzo, performs at the Glenn Crombie Theatre, Fleming College, in Lindsay January 18.

Two Postscripts: I enjoyed Opera Atelier’s production of Handel’s Alcina. Most of it was very well sung and Allyson McHardy was spectacular in the role of Ruggiero. I wish though that the company had not advertised it as a Canadian premiere as there was a fully staged and very successful production of the work by the Opera School in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in November 2002. This was with a modern orchestra but Essential Opera also performed the work with a chamber orchestra with period instruments in May 2012.

I have been reading with great pleasure the memoir of Mary Willan Mason, The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing Up with Musical Parents (Words Indeed, 2010). Mason is the daughter of Healey Willan, the composer, organist and choirmaster, and of Gladys (“Nell”) Hall, who had been a distinguished pianist and singer before her marriage. Mason is now 94 and retains a lively interest in musical events in the city. One of the many details in the book that struck me was an account of how during the Depression Evelyn Pamphilon “augmented her piano-teaching income by producing a pamphlet, What’s On, listing local concerts and recitals.” This was clearly a forerunner of The WholeNote. Do any copies survive, I wonder.

Hans de Groot is a concertgoer and active listener who also sings and plays the recorder. He can be contacted at artofsong@thehwolenote.com.

A Night to Remember

Bandstand 34Ever since their inaugural days in Toronto, I have been a keen advocate of the New Horizons Bands in this part of the country. When I was invited to join the senior Toronto New Horizons band and sit in for one of their performances in early November, I was pleased and accepted. I thought that this was to be a typical fall band concert. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

I had been told that the concert was to be at the nearby Salvation Army Dovercourt location as a thank-you for the many times that the band had been able to rehearse there when their regular rehearsal space was unavailable. Since the title of the event was “A Night to Remember,” and since it was just a few days before November 11, I assumed that it would be a remembrance concert. However, in his planning, director Dan Kapp wanted something more respectful of the pain and suffering at home and with members of the forces during their times of separation.

Kapp’s research on the internet led him to a book titled One Family’s War: The Wartime Letters of Clarence Bourassa, 1940-1944.This is primarily a collection of letters written by Private Clarence O. Bourassa, of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, to his wife Hazel from March 1940 to July 1944, when he was killed, aged 30, in the Battle of Normandy. It was edited by Clarence’s son Rollie. While on leave in England, Clarence had established a friendship with one family, and letters from Dorothy Starbuck to Hazel have been included in this collection.Clarence’s letters reveal the complexity of the emotional life of the Canadian soldier far from his beloved wife and two children. Obviously, it would not have been possible to obtain any of Hazel’s letters to Clarence, but Dorothy’s letters provide much insight.

Once he had read the book, Kapp knew that he had the basis of what he wanted. In his words: “It was clear that this was all I really needed to tie the show together.” It would chronicle, with musical interludes, the many torments of the war for a young soldier and his family. (One extra tie-in was that, while in England, whenever he had the opportunity, Clarence played euphonium in a Salvation Army band.)

After discussion with Salvation Army Major Doug Hammond, the format for the event was agreed upon. Advertised as “A Night to Remember,” there would be no admission charged. Instead, audience members wwould be invited to donate to a charitable program in Zimbabwe sponsored by this Bloor Central Corps.

During World War I conductor Eugene Goossens put out a call for a fanfare to be played at the beginning of every concert in Britain during the war. It had been very successful. So, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Goossens, now in the U.S., put out a similar call. Of all of the submissions, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is the only one to have survived. It couldn’t be a more appropriate selection to open this remembrance program. In any war it is the “common man,” not the leader, who must carry on the fight.

The event that followed the fanfare was a multimedia look at the struggles of one such common man from small-town Saskatchewan. Private Clarence O. Bourassa was that common man. As the program progressed, between musical interludes, Ken Hodge, a member of the band, read letters from Clarence to his wife as a wide variety of war scenes and other images were projected on the screen behind. At other times Lisa Kapp, also from the band, read letters from Dorothy to Hazel.

Throughout the program no fewer than 120 photos or posters were projected on the screen. From a band member’s vantage point, even with no opportunity to see the images on the screen, it was a very moving evening. On speaking to some audience members who had the benefit of the combination of music, dialogue and images, they indicated that the impact was considerable. This format is one which could well be employed by school teachers when planning remembrance services in future years. Once again Dan Kapp deserves congratulations for making remembrance ceremonies more meaningful.

Wychwood Clarinet Choir: Another recent musical event deserving mention was the “Wind Song” concert offered by the Wychwood Clarinet Choir this past month. Having awarded Howard Cable with the title of conductor-in-residence, or something similar, it was only natural that he would play a significant role in the choir’s recent concert. The name of the concert came from the name of one of Cable’s first compositions for clarinet choir when he was the civilian associate conductor and arranger with the NORAD Command Band in Colorado Springs in 1964. Wind Song was the opener for the second half of the program which featured Cable as composer, arranger and conductor. The program closed with his Wychwood Suite which was written to showcase the solo artistry of the choir’s conductor Michele Jacot.

A new group: While it isn’t a band, Strings Attached is a new community ensemble. As the name might suggest, the group is a Toronto-based, member-run string orchestra made up of adult, amateur string musicians. The orchestra was formed in the summer of 2014, when three violinists and a cellist got together with a plan to form a group that would suit their needs. Specifically, they wished to play a diverse repertoire of music arranged or written for strings, with a group of like-minded, dedicated amateur musicians. While, like other amateur groups, a primary objective is the personal enjoyment of making music, their goal is also to serve the community at large with performances at nursing homes, hospitals and similar venues. Interest in the project grew quickly and Strings Attached now has over 25 members and is growing.

Conductor Ric Giorgi is a Toronto jazz bassist, pianist and singer, with a broad history of composing music for film and television, as well as having conducted various local orchestras and ensembles including the Scarborough and Toronto District School Board Music Camps. Under his baton, Strings Attached meets every Monday from September to June in the Bathurst and Sheppard area.

It is unusual to hear a new group state that some sections are full, but that is the case here. They say that their cello section is full and the viola and bass sections are close to capacity. However, they are currently looking for more violins. Anyone with a background in playing a string instrument, and an interest in playing with a friendly, encouraging group, is welcome to visit their website or pay a visit to a rehearsal.

Concerts coming: Last month I mentioned that the new Toronto Concert Band had begun rehearsals in west end Toronto in September. Now, only two months after their first rehearsal, they have just confirmed the venue for their inaugural public performance. Rather than perform in a local location, they wanted to reinforce their mandate of serving the entire City of Toronto, and have selected the CBC Glenn Gould Studio for their first appearance on the local music scene. Under the direction of  conductors Les Dobbin and Ken Hazlett they will kick off their season on Saturday, January 31, at 8pm.

See the listings section for concerts by The Encore Symphonic Concert Band (Dec 4, Jan 8, Feb 5), The Festival Wind Orchestra (Dec 14),  The Pickering Community Concert Band (Dec 14) and the Flute Street Flute Choir (Jan 31).

Concert missed: By the time this issue is off the press, the annual “Seasonal Celebration” of the Markham Concert Band on Sunday November 30 will be history. Unfortunately the information on that concert wasn’t received in time. One work scheduled for that program was a composition by Louie Madrid Calleja, who came to Canada from the Philippines and holds a master’s degree from York University. The information received does not mention the title of the work. Perhaps it was his Soliloquy for Band Op. 40a which was well received at the CBA Community Band Weekend in October. Keep your ears open. We should be hearing more from this young composer in the future.

Definition Department: This month’s lesser known musical term is maestro: A person who, standing in front of the orchestra and/or chorus, is able to follow them precisely.

We invite submissions from readers. Let’s hear your daffynitions.

Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at bandstand@thewholenote.com.

The More It Changes ...

Jazz Notes-2004This being the 15th or 16th December/January edition of these Jazz Notes for The WholeNote, I thought that rather than essaying something completely new, I’d dip back through my little stack of back issues for things that, still being appropriate, I might appropriate. Take this, for one example:

This month’s column is a departure from the familiar concert listings of previous issues, reason being that the above mentioned departure was mine - for a month-long trip to Europe! As a result this article is coming to you from the waltz capital of the world, Vienna.

First of all, for the record, the Danube is not blue, but an industrial brown which would not inspire Johann were he to see it today. Also the Viennese waltz does not make up 3/4 of the music heard in Vienna, even though it is in 3/4, and since being here I have not heard a single zither play the theme from The Third Man.

Is there jazz in this stronghold of Strauss? – this fatherland of Freud? – this Mecca of Mozart? – this city where you can have your Vienna Phil? Yes there is and quite a lot of it at that, although, as anywhere else it is music for a small minority – and a minority that is broken into at least two camps. There are the obvious ones traditional and modern, and it would seem that never – or very seldom – the twain shall meet. (No, not you, Mark!)

The stronghold for the traditional/swing/bebop audience – and I include bebop because in the overall picture of what is called jazz today, bebop is pretty traditional sounding – is a club called Jazzland, located in the heart of the old city, underneath what was the wall of the old city. It is, of course, a cellar club, full of atmosphere, with the original walls and vaulted ceiling still in place.

The walls are lined with photos of jazz artists who have played the club and it is quite a Who’s Who ranging from pioneers like Teddy Wilson and Wild Bill Davison to the recently deceased Art Farmer. Artists appearing in November, for example, included Red Holloway, Trevor Richards, Conte Candoli, Melissa Walker and Hal Singer along with some of the leading local players. It is the oldest club in Vienna currently in its 27th year as a jazz haunt and something like its 500th as a cellar. It was an escape route in times of siege but serves now as an escape for jazz fans who like to know where the bar is and prefer their music to swing.

Jazzland is run by a remarkable couple, Axel and Tillie Melhardt, assisted by a really friendly staff including Martin and Thomas, a pair of great bartenders. Alex and Tillie’s love of the music is genuine and the long succession of visiting artists thinks the world of them. If you can find better anywhere I’ll buy an oversized Tam O’Shanter and eat it. (It’s a hat Mabel). Incidentally Axel Melhardt comes by his love of music honestly. His mother was an opera singer and his great-grand-uncle was Antonín Dvořák!

There are several other clubs where mostly local musicians are featured. They don’t have jazz six nights a week so you have to check, but you can make some nice discoveries in venues such as Papa’s Tapas, Blues Man, Miles Smiles, tunel, and Vienna Unplugged. Worth noting is Reigen Live, a club which featured one-nighters last week by Archie Shepp, Les McCann, Jimmy Scott and Cubanismo. There is also a club called Porgy And Bess operating once a week just now. It presents the more avant-garde end of the spectrum so don’t expect much Gershwin, despite the name.

There are plans to build a new Porgy and Bess club heavily funded by the city, as the planned new Birdland club, being built by Joe Zawinul, will be. I heard a good singer called Barbara Pfluger who appeared last month in a spot called Celeste. The local talent pool is good. Some of the groups I am familiar with cover a wide range of styles. If you like it New Orleans style, there are The Red Hot Pods who have played the Toronto festival a couple of times A little more towards the Chicago style, in spite of their name, you have The Original Storyville Jazz Band and advancing chronologically in terms of style there are groups like the Stanton Big Band, Together, Koolinger, and The Vienna Art Orchestra. I can’t list everybody and I apologise if I leave out names that deserve to be included, but two of the most impressive musicians I heard were drummer Walter Grossrubatscher and pianist/clarinettist Herbert Swoboda who can easily hold their own in any company.

Jazz in Vienna is not confined to clubs, although it is interesting, in view of some earlier comments in this column, to note that performances in clubs are frequently referred to as “concerts.” The “real” concert hall scene is also quite active. Over the current four week period the line-up is Dave Brubeck Quartet, Manhattan Transfer, The Ron Carter Quintet, and Joe Zwainul in a “Homage to Johann Strauss” if you can believe that one!

So is there a jazz scene here? You can bet your Vienna Woods there is.

It seems to me that more has stayed the same in Vienna jazz life than has changed since mid-November 1999, which is when I wrote this little sketch – Axel Melhardt is still at the helm of a Jazzland, now in its 44th year. The Porgy and Bess and Birdland ventures I mentioned amounted to nothing; places announced in a blaze of glory only to fizzle are a part of the scene’s overall wonderful consistency. Audiences remain a consistent mix of grey and not yet grey, coming to actually listen to music, some of it because it is marvellously new, some precisely because it isn’t.

Incidentally, I rang in that millennial new year at The Montreal Bistro, Sherbourne and Adelaide… performing from the 28th to Jan 1, starting at 9pm each night. “The music will swing,” I wrote, “and so will my kilt on New Year’s Eve.”

So some things do change: the Montreal Bistro and the five-day gig both seem a long time ago.

 

Here are another couple of excerpts to ponder (both from the following year, the first December of the brave new millennium):

Looking back over the past year I realize just how much good jazz is available in this city. On any given week in Toronto you can hear a wide range of music. the performers are sometimes visiting “names” but the majority are our own artists – and the standards are high. the concentration of good musicians in our own community is astonishing. The number of playing opportunities regrettably small, for it is an unfortunate fact that there is a lot less work for musicians than there used to be.

… And this:

The somewhat unusual contradiction in all of this is the problem that we live in an age where there is not enough work for muscians, while at the same time there is too much music around us!

It’s a personal opinion, but I hold it very firmly, and I know I’m not alone. Music has been devalued or at least the contribution of the people who make the music. Because of its omnipresence – in elevators, in shops, in restaurants, in waiting rooms, in washrooms – incessantly – it is rammed down our throats, well our ears, to be more accurate, day and night, to the extent that it is simply noise in the background and of absolutely no aesthetic value. And silence becomes increasingly golden.

And so I come to the end of another column and another year, with a final quote from that December 2000 column.

“Have an excellent holiday season, and if you need a resolution for the new year, how about making a point of getting out to see more live music. Those of us who toil on stages and in clubs will be grateful.”

Or in the words of what has become my standard Jazz Notes sign-off over the years: Happy listening, and why not make some of it live!

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com. 

All Over the Place

Clubs 63Pianist Steve Amirault is a welcome addition to the Toronto music scene. The critically acclaimed Acadia-born musician has been based in Montreal for most of his career; he also lived in New York City from 1990 to 1993 where he worked with Dave Liebman, Sheila Jordan, Eddie Henderson, Joe Chambers and Eddie Gomez. In this country he has had the pleasure of working with Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen, Kirk MacDonald, Mike Murley, Seamus Blake and countless others; and since September of 2014 he has been happy to make Toronto his new home, already having performed at Jazz Bistro, The Rex, as well as the Savoury Sweet restaurant in Niagara Falls and the Jazz Room in Waterloo.

“I love it here and have found the scene, fans and musicians very welcoming,” says Amirault.

Known primarily as a pianist with an energetic, thoughtful style, in the past decade he has added vocals to his act, revealing a smooth and sensitive vocal instrument.

“I sang a lot of pop and rock music in high school, but when I went to the University of St. Francis, I put singing aside and concentrated on the piano. Then in my early 30s I became interested in vocal music and I started writing lyrics. It seemed natural to put words to my music and I have always thought myself to be more of a songwriter than jazz composer. I wasn’t planning on becoming a singer, but about seven years ago I started singing one song per set on my shows, to see how it felt, and fell in love with it. I recorded my first vocal CD, One Existence, a few years ago, and I’m now preparing a standards recording.“
On December 11 at 8pm Steve Amirault will perform a solo show at Toronto’s most intimate venue, Musideum.

“I’ll play a mix of original pieces, both vocal and instrumental, and some new arrangements of standards that will be on my next recording. I’m really looking forward to playing my music in this lovely space.”

Clubs 64aThere’s no mistaking that soulful vocalist Sacha Williamson sings directly from her heart, taking listeners on a journey that is frequently spiritual and always expressive. While one can hear jazz, blues and R&B in her delivery, Williamson’s original sound mixes contemporary traditions including new soul, hip hop and electronica. On Sunday December 7 at Hugh’s Room, Williamson celebrates the release of her latest collection of originals.

“I’m all over the place but I think it blends nicely,” she says. “One song is a down tempo soul tune that goes into a bossa nova…another one starts with hip hop beats with Billie Holiday-esque vocals on top. It’s called Love Life and these songs are all about elements of my love life and places I’ve been in love – everything from the joy and the heat of it, to anger and the uncertainty of a relationship.”

With music that often relies on extensive production, one of Williamson’s challenges is in translating it into a live performance.

“You need to have a very highly skilled band – and my thing is with this kind of music I need to have a pianist who definitely knows more than one kind of genre – he needs to know Odyssey Arp and 808 sounds – synth sounds – I guess you can say he needs to have gone through the Herbie Hancock school.”

Joining Sacha Williamson at Hugh’s Room on December 7 will be keys wiz Michael Shand, along with bassist Andrew Stewart and drummer Maxwell Roach.

Clubs 64bTrombonist Chris Butcher keeps himself busy with a variety of projects these days, including the Heavyweights Brass Band, The Lula All Stars, Changui Havana, Roberto Linares Brown, as well as his own quartet, which just wrapped up a residency at the Bellwoods Brewery. This month he is excited about playing a gig with Jay Douglas and his All Stars featuring the patriarch of Jamaican jazz, 82-year-old Ernest Ranglin, who was Bob Marley’s guitar teacher as well as one of the most prolific record producers in Jamaica’s history.

“The last time he was in town he played the main stage of the Luminato Festival on the week of his 80th birthday,” remembers Butcher. “Age has not slowed him down and he is still a pervasive and individual voice on the guitar.”

Ranglin, along with Jay Douglas and his All Stars, will perform an afternoon Sunday Jam at Seven44 (formerly the Chick’n Deli) on December 14 at 4pm. Tickets are $50 at the door or $40 in advance and can also be purchased at Henry’s Records in Scarborough, 130 Shorting Road, or at Crasher and O’Neil Barbershop at 169 Eglinton Ave. W.

In addition to Butcher’s busy performance schedule he hosts Dig! On CIUT 89.5FM every Wednesday from 12 to 2pm.

“The show is largely geared as a jazz show but I have an eclectic taste and deep love for many styles of music so expect to hear anything I’ve been digging on lately. I try and keep the show very connected to the Toronto scene on the ground level. That means you’re going to hear tracks by local artists or people coming to town before they’re released and before the big radio boys in town are playing them. I also have artists in for interviews and features at least on a weekly basis. This means you may hear a renowned musician with an international following like Elizabeth Shepherd or Adonis Puentes or you may hear a local guy like James McEleney, the bassist in my quartet, down playing tracks and talking music. You can tune in worldwide at ciut.fm.”

Speaking of James McEleney, he just let me know of an exciting weekly residency he has been enjoying with The Breakmen Trio for the past few months in Toronto’s west end, Thursday nights at the Passenger located at 2968 Dundas Street West.

The Breakmen Trio is chordless: Bobby Hsu on saxophone, James McEleney on bass and Sly Juhas on drums.

“I have an affinity for this formation,” says McEleney, “because of classic Sonny Rollins recordings like Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard, Toronto’s own Time Warp (which is now a quartet but still without chords) and as I player I find it feels very open and free.”

Of his sidemen, McEleney says: “I work in a variety of settings with Bobby Hsu including his group A Sondheim Jazz Project. He and I have very similar tastes in music and he is well-versed in the world of chordless trios, in particular the aforementioned Sonny Rollins records. Sly Juhas is a no-brainer for this gig. He swings, he has very focused ideas and has a way of pushing everybody’s playing up to a higher level. In the past year or so the three of us started to get together regularly to play tunes and work out some musical ideas so we’ve been really excited to share our work. Any day where I get to play music with these two is a great day.”

The Passenger is an intimate space with a cool vibe, great food including some late night snacks, a special cocktail menu and a wide selection of craft beer. There’s no cover for this series, which they call “The J-Train.” Join the Breakemen Trio at The Passenger on a Thursday night for some jazz in the Junction.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

Virtuoso Violins Piano Prodigies

beat - classicalAnne-Sophie Mutter was only 22 years old when she started her first foundation in aid of young string players; it was limited to the area of Germany at the foot of the Black Forest where she was born. As a teenager if had become clear to her – she told me in a recent telephone conversation – that “we string players sooner or later run through the same circle of problems mainly to do with finding the right teacher but also with finding an instrument which can be a musical partner for life, and hopefully financially obtainable as well. So my first foundation was sort of a tryout, how I could help younger colleagues.”

Now in its 16th or 17th year, the Circle of Friends of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation provides instruments for the foundation’s chosen scholars as one attempt to help. Another is commissioning new works. The Toronto program of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi in Roy Thomson Hall on November 21 opens with a commission by the Circle of Friends for double bass -- Ringtones by the American Sebastian Currier.

“Obviously throughout history the double bass has been one of the important pillars of the orchestra but there have been very few solo performers,” she said. “Roman Patkoló was one of my first scholars and I was totally blown away by his talent, by his artistry and great passion,” she continued. So even though her original plan had not included the double bass that much, it became “really a main focus of my foundation” with four pieces commissioned for Patkoló starting with “a beautiful double concerto” written and recorded by André Previn, “a very pizzazz-y solo piece by Penderecki,” as well as “a very intellectual spherical piece” by Wolfgang Rihm.

Ringtones is a very serious piece but also leaves room for fun,” she continued, explaining that it’s a way to build a case for the virtuosity of the bass. Showing off her sense of humour, she dead-panned: “Ringtones are for the very first time in a concert welcome!”

As to what it’s like to perform with her students and former students -- who comprise the Mutter Virtuosi with whom she’s sharing the RTH stage – she recounts how when she was 13, Karajan treated her as an adult, addressing her with the German equivalent of “vous,” not “tu,” which would be normal in speaking to a 13-year-old. She points this out to indicate that experience and age are irrelevant to the “all-embracing strength of musical language.”

“No matter how young we are,” she went on. “At the end of the day it’s really your personal viewpoint, and of course, a certain skillfulness, that we only have to share.

“Of course I’m looking with great love and devotion into the lives of the ones I’ve been a small part of for 10 or 15 years and it’s beautiful to see how all of them have found their place in music... it is really the Olympic ideal to make the best out of what you have that is the driving force behind the [foundation’s] selection process.”

Mendelssohn’s great Octet is on the program in Toronto, so I asked Ms. Mutter why she admires the composer so much. Her answer was especially revealing. She began by saying that it was only eight or ten years ago she re-started learning the Violin Concerto:

“My wonderful teacher Aida Stucki never seemed to be quite taken by what I did with the piece and I never felt quite free with what my vision was. So it wasn’t one of the pieces I felt comfortable with and when it was up to me to decide what repertoire I would delve into I thought, ‘Well if no one likes my Mendelssohn playing, I’ll just stop playing it.’

“Then many years ago, I think around Kurt Masur’s 75th or 80th birthday [80th in fact, in 2007] he said ‘I want a gift from you: Restudy the Mendelssohn and let’s do it together.’ Of course, when Kurt Masur wishes something I’ll go to the end of the world for him, so the least I could do was restudy the piece and come to different conclusions. And he gave me wonderful insights.

“I came to admire Mendelssohn as the humanist he was and actually today he’s for me a perfect example of what I expect a musician to be, also [what I expect] of the younger generation: someone who is socially engaged and open-minded and goes with open eyes through life.”

She explained that Mendelssohn built the first music school in Germany for “students of all cultural and financial backgrounds,” and of course, “he resurrected Johann Sebastian Bach.” She summed up her feelings: “Somehow I seem to admire an artist in general even more if he also turns out to be a useful member of human society, apart from being very skillful at what he’s doing.

“Obviously the Octet stands for all these qualities. There’s such a beautiful quote from Mendelssohn who used to say, particularly about the Octet, that when he is writing or making chamber music he hopes that it is ‘like a conversation between very well-educated and interesting friends.’

beat - classical 2“And this is pretty much how I feel when I am playing with my young colleagues. We all bring our own viewpoints to it and there’s a lot of freshness and passion in the air, which is the main ingredient really of rediscovering what we think we know.”

I had read that Ms. Mutter had recently begun using a baroque bow to perform Bach, so I asked her if she would be using one in the Toronto performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, only to discover that new regulations involving animal materials made it difficult to bring even copies to North America. She told me that she will continue to play Bach with it wherever she is able mainly “because the original phrasing in the Bach scores is only to be obtained by bows which are much lighter in the frog [the bottom part of the bow that is nearest to the hand] which was the case in Baroque times.”

While they don’t use baroque bows in their playing of the Vivaldi, it’s nevertheless much less dense and more transparent playing today than what she thought was proper in the 1980s. In Toronto she and her Virtuosi would be keeping that “transparent and very airy sound in mind, for sure.”

I was quite curious about what led Ms. Mutter to take up the violin as a child since I knew that she didn’t come from a family of musicians. She spoke of growing up “kind of a tomboy” with two older brothers in a house with a lot of classical music and literature. Her father was a journalist who later became a newspaper editor. As engagement presents her parents gave each other recordings by Furtwängler and by Menuhin. “That shows how much that was part of their life and how much that became part of our life at home.”

“We listened to a lot of classical music as well as jazz,” she continued. “And that is probably the reason for my deep-rooted love of jazz because I felt so comfortable and basically soaked it up like mother’s milk.

“So for my fifth birthday – it must have been the constant presence of that violin sound which made me want to try it for myself. And I’m still trying it,” she added, almost seriously.

I asked her about the violinists who made an impression on her in her youth and the depth of her answer was quite telling: “The great, unforgettable David Oistrakh definitely left the deepest impression: his presence on stage, the warmth of his personality. I remember there were students sitting literally at his feet ... Yes, I was six years old and he played the three Brahms sonatas.

“A few years later I was fortunate enough to hear Nathan Milstein who became another of my [favourites]; I obviously also played with Menuhin at a later stage of his life; I heard Isaac Stern in person; I was rather close to Henryk Szeryng. I was really very fortunate to hear all of these icons of violin playing at a still fabulous age and in great shape.”

As to what makes a great violinist great, Ms. Mutter responded that “we’re all trying to be a well-rounded musican.” She finds the idea of being a specialist rather boring, caught up with technical details and perfecting them without really having the scope to see the bigger picture. She thinks it’s wonderful that the violin is “an instrument which is best in company with someone else, with another musical partner.” At the same as she extols the virtues of “just being a useful part of the whole” she says, “Of course you have to find – as violinist, pianist or conductor – you have to find an angle where music is newly or freshly or whatever ... it has to bring a spark to something.”

She spoke of shattering the illusion of the listener who might think he knows what you’re playing already and may feel slightly tired of it. “Of course that illusion has to be taken away the moment that the particular artist goes on stage,” she explained. ”Then it really has to be totally fascinating.” When I enthusiastically agree, she responds, “Hopefully.”

Her extensive discography which began when she was just 15 – Deutsche Grammophon celebrated her 35-year recording career with a 40-CD box set last year and her 25-year collaborative partnership with pianist Lambert Orkis was marked with The Silver Album, a 2-CD compilation this year – prompted a question about what, if anything in the violin repertoire she looks forward to recording.

“Sadly, sadly, of course life is too short,” she responded. She is fascinated, she went on to say, with the great encores that Jascha Heifetz used to play, “a repertoire that is sadly, frowned upon in German-speaking countries.” Listening to two CDs over the course of an evening recently, she remarked how struck she was by the “nobility of this great violinist,” and that for the next few months she would be exploring this repertoire. Beyond that? “The repertoire is endless – you can go in this direction or that, ...Walton, ... Barber, more contemporary music ... the Beethoven string quartets.”

“Yes, Paul, it’s kind of [a mock scream over the phone, as if saying it’s all too much to contemplate]” I counter that it’s something to look forward to; “One after the other,” she replies.

There is so much to do. Even as she takes the Mutter Virtuosi on their first North American tour, their New York appearance is just one part of Carnegie Hall’s Anne-Sophie Mutter Perspectives in which all facets of her musicianship will be on display, from her recent appearance in the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle at the beginning of October, to the Annual Isaac Stern Memorial Concert November 11 (with Orkis on piano for Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata, and a performance of Currier’s Ringtones with Patkoló), to a concert next spring with Yefim Bronfman and Lynn Harrell (including Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio). Playing Sibelius, Berg and Moret with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony completes the six-concert series.

WholeNote readers will be interested in the fact that the Mutter Virtuosi Carnegie Hall concert on November 18 will be live-streamed and available on medici.tv for view for 90 days thereafter. Like the concert in Toronto three days later,  the program includes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but instead of Mendelssohn and Currier the Carnegie program features Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043 and André Previn’s.

What does she think about the live streaming, I ask. “It’s not downloadable but you can look at it and get horrified from another angle,” she jests, before adding more seriously: “I feel very honoured [because very few concerts are being streamed].”

So anyone going to the November 21 Roy Thomson Hall concert (or contemplating it) will be able to get a sneak preview in the few days before, or more likely cement a memory of parts of the Toronto concert any time through mid-February.

beat - classical 3Jan Lisiecki: Like Mutter, Calgary-born pianist Jan Lisiecki began music lessons at five and started recording for Deutsche Grammophon as a teenager (he was 17). He will bring his musical sensibilities to Beethoven’s third, fourth and fifth piano concertos in a series of concerts with the TSO November 12 to 22. I was fortunate several summers ago to hear Alfred Brendel play all five of the concertos with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood and I can’t overstress what a pleasure such concentrated exposure can be. Guest conducting the TSO will be Thomas Dausgaard who has paired each concerto with a symphony by his Danish countryman, Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, a contemporary of Sibelius, is known for his energetic post-romanticism, and he was quite explicit about the life force music represented to him. Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable” is particularly expressive in this vein, having been composed during the first half of the First World War. It’s paired with Beethoven’s most lyrical piano concerto, the Fourth, November 12 and 13.

beat - classical 4Itzhak Perlman: Like Mutter, Izhak Perlman is a towering figure on the world violin stage and occupied as well with music education. His upcoming RTH recital December 1 with pianist Rohan De Silva crosses three centuries with music by Vivaldi, Schumann, Beethoven and Ravel. At his concert here two years ago with collaborator De Silva, he introduced the entire post-intermission part of the program from the stage, with the joyful aplomb of a Borscht Belt kibitzer. Any opportunity to hear what he cals his “fiddle playing” should not be missed.

Leon Fleisher: For many years this city has been fortunate to have Leon Fleisher in its midst. As the occupant of the inaugural Ihnatowycz Chair in Piano at the Royal Conservatory, his presence has been felt in teaching, conducting, performing, examining and giving masterclasses. On November 25 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, he will appear on stage in a Q & A after the screening of the fully packed 17-minute film, Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story, which documents his battle to overcome focal dystonia, a movement disorder that affected the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. Watching him rise from the depths of despair at the peak of his concert career to remake his life as a musician is thrilling to behold. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet him in person.

beat - classical 5Three days later on November 28, Fleisher conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in a program that includes Mozart’s Symphony No.39 and Brahms’ Symphony No.3. On the mornings and afternoons of November 29 and 30 he will give masterclasses in Mazzoleni Hall. He will share a musical legacy traceable back to Beethoven directly through his teacher Artur Schnabel and Schnabel’s teacher Theodor Leschetizky who studied with Carl Czerny who studied with Beethoven. Anton Kuerti can claim a similiar connection through another pupil of Leschetizky, Mieczysław Horszowski, who taught Kuerti.

The evening at the Bloor also includes the feature-length, documentary Horowitz: The Last Romantic, a true curiosity by the noted filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (best know for Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter). The impish pianist and his shrewd wife Wanda (Toscanini’s daughter) are filmed in their apartment where Horowitz is recording an album at the age of 81. The up-close camerawork devoted to his fingers is just one of the attractions of this fascinating film.

Bavouzet and the LPO: Coincidentally, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who recently played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at RTH October 17 with an energetic London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, suffered from functional dystonia that affected his right hand from 1989 to 1993. In the Prokofiev Bavouzet moved confidently from wistful calm to devilish passagework, from idiosyncratic note picking to mysterious pianissimos as he revealed the composer’s Russian soulfulness. In the evening’s other major work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8, the LPO displayed great clarity and airiness including wonderful sound clashes, vibrant searing melodies in the strings, terrific brass work and yeoman flute playing that set up the intermittently febrile march of the second movement  and the sardonic third before the gratifying, sombre conclusion.

And So Much More: MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship-winner Jeremy Denk leads a parade of world-class pianists into November’s concert halls. He’s followed by the inimitable Richard Goode, the dynamic aestheticism of Simon Trpčeski, the elegance of Angela Hewitt (in a program that ranges far and wide from Bach and Scarlatti through Beethoven’s Op.110 to Albéniz and Liszt), to Mooredale Concerts’ “Piano Dialogue” between David Jalbert & Wonny Song and the adventuresome Christina Petrowska Quilico whose name is often found in the pages of TheWholeNote’s CD section.

And then there’s the Dover Quartet, the Daedalus String Quartet, the Cecilia String Quartet, the Windermere String Quartet, the Zuckerman Chamber Players, the Canadian Brass, Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang, Dmitri Levkovich ... It goes on and on. Like Tchaikovsky, Danny Kaye’s famous tongue-twister of a patter song, name after name, concert after concert. What riches there are to be found in this issue’s listings.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote. He can be reached at editorial@thewholenote.com.


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