An unusual event that bodes well for opera in Toronto takes place in November. Canadian Stage and Soundstreams have combined forces to produce the chamber opera Julie by Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans. This will not only be the North American premiere of Julie, but, amazingly, the North American premiere of any opera by Boesmans, one of the most highly regarded contemporary composers of opera. This will also mark the first time that an opera has been included in Canadian Stage’s subscription series.
Beat Columns (Live Music)
Once there was a time when aspiring Canadian composers were discouraged from writing pieces that required large ensembles, such as an orchestra. “No one will play it” was the advice given. But in Canada, that was before Esprit Orchestra came along. Formed in 1983 by conductor and director Alex Pauk, the orchestra is still going strong after more than 30 years of programming exclusively new orchestral music. Recently Pauk was recognized for his outstanding contributions to Canadian life and was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada.
That followed on the heels of a wildly successful tour this past spring to China, where according to Alexina Louie’s blog posts, they performed to cheering packed houses, with audience members clamouring to have selfies taken with members of the orchestra afterwards. Such was the reception of Canadian orchestral music in China! To read more about the tour, I recommend reading Louie’s posts, which can be found by going to espritorchestra.com and clicking on the blog link.
Play: The opportunity and possibilities that Esprit gives composers are about to be displayed to the maximum in their upcoming concert on November 15 with the programming of a piece titled Play by American composer Andrew Norman. Play is a massive and sprawling 47-minute work originally written in 2013 for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and is described as being akin to a “Symphony No.1.” In researching Norman’s work, I came across a November 18, 2014 episode of the Meet the Composer podcast series produced by Q2, an online radio station connected to the Classical WQRX station based in New York. Luckily, the last segment of the episode (44 minutes in) was dedicated to a conversation with Norman about Play. He talked about how he was given free rein to write anything he wanted, so he decided to go “really big.”
The podcast begins with a collage of different voices, each one describing their response to the piece. “Like a roller coaster ride, a jack-in-the-box, exhilarating, expansive, breathless, frightening, frenetic, and risky” are some of the terms used. With such a description, it’s best to go straight to Norman’s own words about the inspiration for the piece: the structure of video games. Although not a gamer himself, what intrigues him the most is the idea of “trying things again and again until you get it right. You try something, and you fail. You try again, and choose another door.” For him, this gaming process is very much about structural or formal design, the architecture of a piece. He even goes so far as to equate classical symphonic form itself as sharing similarities with video games. For example, in a Beethoven symphony, several ideas are first presented, but all mixed up. The ideas return in different ways until finally they appear in the right arrangement in the finale.
A similar process happens in Play, where the listener is confronted with a vast array of ideas at the beginning, a “gazillion ideas,” as Norman describes it. As the piece unfolds, some of those ideas become important and are transformed, while others are like wrong doors and are discarded. There are even multiple climaxes – each one coming up with a different answer, which turn out to be the wrong one, until the final climax appears with the right answer close to the end of the piece. He also uses the percussionists in a fashion analogous to the different operations in a game environment – pause, fast forward, rewind, etc. For example, every time a certain percussion instrument is played, that’s the signal for the orchestra to pause. It’s actually how he wrote the piece, thinking “what would it sound like if I randomly paused the music at any moment, sped it up, or moved it fast forward?”
Norman’s other interest in the piece is to explore the human potential of the orchestra, rather than just limit himself to using the orchestra as a field of sonic resources. Thus the orchestra members become different protagonists, interacting on an interpersonal level. This also extends to the underlying meanings of the word “play,” which suggests something both fun and also something more dark, like a chain of control with the musicians being “played” by the conductor. And given the role of the percussionists, they too become more like a conductor, playing the orchestra. In all, it sounds like it will be quite the ride on the evening of November 15. Joining in on the Esprit express that night will be two other works – Tevot, written in 2007 by English composer Thomas Adès and Canadian John Rea’s Zefiro torna (Zephyr Returns) from 1994.
Seismic Waves: There are several other upcoming musical events that also promise to create seismic movement in the local airwaves. In early December, Soundstreams is launching “Ear Candy,” a new series designed to engage the audience with new forms of presentation in more intimate venues. The first one happens on December 7 and 8 and features an electrified version of the Christmas classic, the Messiah. “Electric Messiah” puts together electronic musicians (John Gzowski, Doug Van Nort), extended vocals (Christine Duncan) and sound poetry (Gabriel Dharmoo) along with the Electroacoustic Orchestra of York University. The evening at the Drake Hotel will be bookended by DJ sets. Before all this gets going though, Soundstreams will be collaborating with Canadian Stage to present the North American premiere of Julie, which runs from November 17 to 29. This chamber opera composed by Belgium’s Philippe Boesmans is an adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 play, Miss Julie, and is an example of Strindberg’s naturalism aesthetic that sought to create theatrical characters who were more realistic with multiple motivations for their behaviour. The story pits an aristocratic and desperate Julie against the ambitious social climber Jean, who inevitably become involved with each other, but not seemingly for love or mutual attraction. The score is minimalistic with the composer’s aim being to distill the music so that the narrative shines through.
Tagaq and Pallett: To get us rock and rolling into the Christmas season, what surely will be an explosive event will be happening at Massey Hall on December 1 when two previous Polaris award winners - Tanya Tagaq and Owen Pallett – take the stage. Pallett is a Canadian composer and violinist whose creative output spans writing orchestral music and performing in the indie music scene using programmed loop pedals to send his sound into multiple speakers. Tagaq, who appeared in R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis back in June, is renowned for her extreme range of primal vocal sound that arises out of her Inuit throat singing heritage. She will appear with members of her band, percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, with a special appearance by the improvising Element Choir directed by Christine Duncan.
Gnosis: Shock waves will also spread on November 27 and 28 when Arraymusic and the Music Gallery team up to present the world premiere of Gnosis, a large-scale work created by former Torontonian David Virelles. Virelles sought out the Music Gallery as his venue of choice to present this work which offers a kaleidoscopic ride through the percussive rhythms of Cuban music. The evening will be an opportunity to hear the unique drums used by the Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá, as well as master drummer Román Díaz performing with members of the Array Ensemble.
Thin Edge, Spectrum, Toy Piano: Three of Toronto’s younger and blossoming presenters are hot at it this month with their opening concerts of the 2015/16 season.
Founded four years ago in 2011, the Thin Edge New Music Collective begins its season with “Light Show” on November 29, including the Toronto premiere of Music for Lamps, an installation and performance work for 12 sound and light emitting lamps. Other works by Oesterle, Murail and Bolaños Chamorro complete a program that also includes visual illuminations and silent film.
Spectrum Music, founded in 2010, opens its season on November 14 with a concert delving into the complexities of colonial exploration. The program is made up of a suite of works narrating the adventures of explorers from the 15th century that left the world forever changed. As an interesting twist, each new work is paired with a reimagined classic folk song performed by singer-songwriter Alex Lukashevsky.
Kicking off their eighth season on Novembert 21, the eclectic Toy Piano Composers presents “To Be Announced III”– a program of six world premieres by emerging composers curated from TPC’s national call for new works.
Additional Concerts and Performances of contemporary music
New Music Concerts has two events this month. On November 8, an R. Murray Schafer CD benefit concert and on December 6, a program featuring two works by French composer Philippe Leroux, who currently teaches at McGill University, works by Gérard Grisey and Elliott Carter, and a newly commissioned piece by one of Leroux’s former students, Scott Rubin.
group of 27 and Eric Paetkau presents Loved and Were Loved by Canadian composer John Burge, November 6, in a novel venue: the ground floor “Garage” at the Centre of Social Innovation at 720 Bathurst Street.
New Music Kingston: Works by John Estacio, Vivian Fung and Jordan Pal, November 11, in the new but already muscally thriving Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston.
Music Toronto presents a world premiere commission by Nicole Lizée, performed by the Cecilia Quartet, November 5.
Heliconian Club celebrates the music of Canadian composer Kye Marshall, including a world premiere for harp duo, November 20.
University of Toronto Faculty of Music: Works by Christos Hatzis, Dean Burry, Julie Spencer, Dinuk Wijeratne and George Kontogiorgos, December 7.
Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toronto and Canada have been abuzz recently with the announcement of pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin’s second-place finish in the 17th Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw. It’s the first time a Canadian has won a prize in that prestigious event. In addition Richard-Hamelin won the Krystian Zimerman Prize for best performance of a sonata for Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58. The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto was justly proud. It was the same sonata that won him their Career Development Award last April. In fact at the initial concert of their 148th season October 15, the WMCT announced that Richard-Hamelin had just made the finals.
Even mainstream media picked up on the historic nature of the award, the story made sweeter by the (perhaps) more unexpected news that 16-year-old Toronto high school student Yike (Tony) Yang, who finished fifth, became the youngest prizewinner in the history of the gruelling competition. One of Yang’s teachers, former Chopin Competition winner (1980) Dang Thai Son (the subject of The WholeNote’s February 2000 cover story), was one of 17 jury members. Martha Argerich (whose final vote mirrored the top two finishers -- Seong-Jin Cho of South Korea was awarded first place), Garrick Ohlsson, Yundi and Adam Harasiewicz were other former winners among the jurors. Richard-Hamelin’s second place puts him in the distinguished company of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mitsuko Uchida and Ingrid Fliter.
Yulianna Ardeeva: This month’s listings are brimming with young talent. In a coincidence of rare serendipity, Yulianna Ardeeva, who placed first in the previous Chopin competition in 2010, is the guest soloist with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) at Roy Thomson Hall on November 25. On her website you can get a sense of the crisp articulation that will undoubtedly serve her well here in Stravinsky’s elegant Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Kent Nagano will also lead the orchestra in Shostakovich’s profound Symphony No.10.
Alexander Seredenko, who won first prize in the Canadian Chopin Piano Competition in 2014 is the soloist in the latest instalment of Rob Kapilow’s ongoing TSO series “What Makes It Great?” Rachmaninoff’s justly popular Piano Concerto No.2 will be explored by the engaging Kapilow and the up-and-coming Seredenko.
Anastasia Rizikov, another gifted prodigy, now 16, gives a recital at Glenn Gould Studio, November 28. It will be interesting to see if she performs Albéniz’ Triana, which earned her first place at the Jaén International Piano Competition in Spain earlier this year, as well as a special prize in the Obligatory Spanish Work category. This piece is scheduled for inclusion on her upcoming Naxos CD, to be released next March, 2016.
Phil and Eli Taylor Academy: Speaking of prodigies, the COC is featuring three young pianists from the RCM’s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, in a noontime free concert, November 26: 11-year-old Leonid Nediak, who won the Canadian Music Competition (age 7 to10) in 2013 and made his OSM debut in 2014; 12-year-old Raymond Huang; and Richard Chao Gao, who appeared at RTH in the Emanuel Ax-curated “Pianorama” last February. The fall edition of the Taylor Academy Showcase Concert November 21 at Mazzoleni Hall is already sold out, so this is an opportune moment to get a sense of the young talent on the rise in our city without having to wait for the Taylor Academy’s next showcase in the winter of 2016.
Jan Lisiecki: No reference to prodigies would be complete without noting the sublime Jan Lisiecki, now 20, whose December 6 Koerner Hall recital is sold out. I’m happy to say I already have my ticket and I’m looking forward to hearing Lisiecki (and his pellucid, singing tone) perform, among other works, Chopin’s Preludes Op.28, Mozart’s Sonata No.11 in A Major K331 and Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses in D Minor, Op. 54.
Peter Jablonski, now 44, who makes his Toronto debut at the Jane Mallett Theatre November 10, began studying drums at five and piano at six. He played the Village Vanguard with Buddy Rich and Thad Jones when he was nine, earning praise from Miles Davis. He then made his solo recital and orchestral piano debut at eleven in Sweden before establishing a distinguished professional career in the U.S. and U.K. in the early 1990s. His Music Toronto program is unusually rich and varied, moving from Szymanowski and Chopin to Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Copland’s El Salón Mexico.
Schulich School. Richard-Hamelin, currently studying with André Laplante, received his master’s degree from the Yale School of Music in 2013 and a bachelor’s degree in performance from McGill’s Schulich School of Music in 2011. Another Schulich tie-in: celebrating the Schulich School’s tenth anniversary, the McGill Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Alexis Hauser, makes its Koerner Hall debut November 17.
Highlighting the evening will be Brahms’ resplendent Double Concerto in A minor, Op.102 with violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Matt Haimovitz as soloists. Strauss’ Naxos recording of Volume 2 of Enescu’s violin and piano music caught the attention of Terry Robbins in last June’s WholeNote. He called the CD “exceptional” and Strauss “terrific”in his Strings Attached column. The opportunity to hear the internationally acclaimed Haimovitz is always welcome. All three artists are on the Schulich School faculty. The evening begins with John Rea’s Over Time. Rea, a two-time recipient of the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, will attend the concert. Closing out the program is Shostakovich’s forceful Symphony No.5, with its contagious rhythms that careen from sarcasm to triumph.
And speaking of student orchestras, ten days later, Tania Miller, music director of the Victoria Symphony, leads the Royal Conservatory Orchestra (the RCM’s own student orchestra) in its fall Koerner Hall concert. Their program opens with Traffic Jam, by the Banff Centre’s “emerging composer” and composer-in-residence of the Victoria Symphony, Jared Miller. Concertmaster Heidi Hatch, a Glenn Gould School scholarship recipient, is the soloist in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a delightful mashup of Scottish folk songs and German Romanticism. Mahler’s memorable Symphony No.5 completes the evening.
Grosvenor’s Return: Last month I profiled the extraordinarily talented young British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor. His return visit to the Jane Mallett stage October13 exceeded all my expectations. For a report on the concert, please read my blog on thewholenote.com.
November 5 The Cecilia String Quartet’s Music Toronto concert includes Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op.44, No.2 which is featured on their newly released Analekta CD. The quartet series continues November 26 with the Toronto debut of the young Polish ensemble, the Apollon Musagète Quartet, playing Dvořák and Schubert.
November 6 Beethoven’s under-appreciated Symphony No.4 is the featured work in a diverse program by the energetic group of 27 under the direction of the effervescent Eric Paetkau that also includes works by Purcell, Burge and Glazunov.
November 8 Marquis Classics recording artist, flutist Susan Hoeppner, and TSO principal oboist, Sarah Jeffrey, are joined by pianist Jeanie Chung in a program of works by Ginastera, W.F. Bach, Ibert and others in Mazzoleni Hall.
November 8 The superb string trio, Trio Arkel, includes Haydn and Beethoven in its Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society (K-WCMS) recital. November 9 finds the Arkel in Heliconian Hall playing a similar program. November 12 the COC free noontime concert series features them again in the Beethoven Trio Op.9, No.3 as well as Michael Oesterle’s Warhol Dervish.
November 10 Legendary musicians flutist Suzanne Shulman and harpist Erica Goodman perform “An English Midday Serenade” at McMaster University in a free lunchtime concert that includes music by Vaughan Williams, Handel and Elgar, among others.
November 11 Nocturnes in the City presents the celebrated Zemlinsky String Quartet in a program of works by Dvořák, Janáček, Suk and Shostakovich
November 12 The K-WCMS series continues with the Zemlinsky String Quartet. The esteemed Czech musicians include the first of Beethoven’s late string quartets, his Op.127, in their program. November 18 rising star violinist Francesca Anderegg gives a solo recital featuring Bach, Ysaÿe and Kreisler. November 21 the versatile Ottawa-based pianist, David Jalbert, mixes and matches Satie, Poulenc and Stravinsky in his “Soirée Parisienne.”
November 12 and 14 Michael Sanderling, of the musical Sanderlings (father Kurt, brothers Thomas and Stefan) and conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, leads the TSO in Mahler’s Symphony No.4, perhaps the composer’s most popular symphony. November 18 and 19 Peter Oundjian takes back the baton for Rimsky-Korsakov’s crowd-pleasing Scheherazade, with concertmaster Jonathan Crow as violin soloist. Principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas brings his gorgeous, full tone to Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No.1. Dec 2, 3 and 5 Crow returns to the spotlight for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, that enduring romantic icon, while Oundjian conducts another of the composer’s masterpieces, his Symphony No.6 “Pathétique.”
November 14 The Dover Quartet caught everyone’s attention when they won the Grand Prize and all three Special Prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition. Their concert in Kingston’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts should be worth the trip.
November 15 The Windermere String Quartet performs Russian works by Alabiev and Glinka as well as Beethoven’s great “Razumovsky” Quartet Op.59, No.2.
November 25 André Laplante brings his secure pianistic sense to Schubert’s Moments Musicaux (Nos.1,2 and 6) and Three Petrarch Sonnets by Liszt as part of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s “German Romantics” program.
November 29 Canadian superstar violinist, James Ehnes, is the soloist in Lalo’s virtuosic Symphonie Espagnole with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.
Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.
At this time of year the majority of bands we hear from are preparing for fall concerts, and only a few already have their sights set on Christmas. After attending the rehearsals of two different bands in mid-October, two weeks before Halloween, with nothing but Christmas music in their rehearsal folders, I was beginning to wonder if fall was going to be bypassed this year. Then we heard from the Wellington Wind Symphony. In their program November 1, “On the Road Again,” conductor Daniel Warren takes the audience on a trip, with a broad selection of works by Grainger, Reed, Hazo, Mahler and Koetsier. In a similar vein, Silverthorn Symphonic Winds’ November 28 concert, “Music that Tells a Story,” is built around music from such shows as Anne of Green Gables. So chalk a couple up for fall fare. One day later, though, the Markham Concert Band tilts the balance slightly the other way with a concert titled “A Seasonal Celebration” including Christmas and Hanukkah favourites. (Although, to be fair, it also includes music from all eight Harry Potter films.)
Plumbing the Depths: If as some suggest the pun is the lowest form of wit, then hats off once again to “Professor Hank,” Henry Meredith, for once again plumbing the depths of imaginative programming. For the London-based Plumbing Factory Brass Band’s December 2 concert, Meredith has pulled out all of the thematic stops and put them to practical effect. Many bands will frequently feature a small ensemble of band members for one selection, but this time every section of the band gets to display the talents of its members. Rather than attempt to paraphrase, here is a lengthy excerpt from the December 2 program announcement.
“The ‘agenda’ for the Semiannual Convention of The Plumbers Union includes small ensemble music by its offshoot subcommittees and delegations of like-instruments, as well as music for the entire membership.
1. The conference begins with two pieces heralding the bonds of comradeship typically found at such a conclave – ‘Emblem of Unity’ March by J.J. Richards and Overture ‘Fraternal’ by M. M. Snyder.
2. Following these opening ceremonies, the first delegation on the agenda, the Slush Pumps trombone ensemble, enters, sounding a ‘Royal Procession’ dedicated to their union boss.
3. Then the trombone section proceeds to discuss its regional interests in shipping with two familiar Newfoundland folk songs, ‘Jack was Every Inch a Sailor’ and ‘I’se the B’y that Builds the Boat.’ The entire ‘caulk us caucus’ responds with its rendition of a medley of several additional folk songs describing life on the ocean.
4. The Siphon Sirens are next to take the podium, playing two Austrian hunting tunes on valveless Parforce Horns. Their haunting Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, follows, performed on traditional alto horns.
5. The names of each committee evoke plumbing terminology, so the Rusty Pipes cornet ensemble continues the serenade with the elegant aria ‘Leise, Leise’ from Weber’s Der Freischütz, followed by their Flanges and Flugelhorns contingent.
6. Subsequently, the Saucy Faucets of the cornet section become Hipster Hosers when they play Jimmie Lunceford’s ‘Count Me Out.’ After these detours ... the convention recesses for an intermission card game featuring ‘King of Diamonds,’ the seldom heard Overture by Calixa Lavallée, composer of O Canada.
7. The semiannual conference adjourns for the holidays with two versions by Georges Bizet of the familiar medieval Christmas carol, “March of the Kings,” both as a “Prelude” with variations, and also as a ‘Farandole’ folk dance.”
Other sectionals: While this program of the Plumbing Factory Band features separate performances by just about every section of the band, it is quite common for bands to include one or two numbers in a concert by a small ensemble of band members. In their concert this fall, the Wellington Wind Symphony will feature a section by their Slide by Slide Trombone Quartet.
Another smaller outgrowth of a concert band is the After Hours Big Band which consists almost exclusively of members of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band. Unlike other groups formed from within a concert band, this groups has never performed in a concert with the mother band. On the other hand, they do perform regularly quite independently from the concert band. For many years the Newmarket Citizens’ Band rehearsed in the local Lions Club hall. There the band had its own section for music storage and a refrigerator to store refreshments. It was common practice, after the regular rehearsal was over, for a few members to remain on “after hours” and play big band music. In time this group became more formalized and adopted the name The After Hours Big Band. In time they started playing engagements independent of the activities of the concert band.
Several years ago the Lions’ Club hall was destroyed by arsonists. Over the years the Citizen’s Band has moved from one temporary location to another. On the other hand, the After Hours Big Band has been able to settle into a regular rehearsal location which would not be suitable for the full concert band. While I don’t have any information on their future performances, I do know that they quite regularly entertain at retirement residences and long-term care facilities.
Instrumental Choirs: In past issues we have mentioned a few of the choirs, or ensembles, of like instruments including Flute Street and the Wychwood Clarinet Choir. We have just learned of another such group, the Flute Flight Community Flute Choir. Their concert on November 15, ”A Whole Lot of Treble,” will include works for flute ensembles of various sizes from trios to full flute choir. This will all take place at the Cosmopolitan Hall of Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill on November 15.
Handbells: Speaking of small ensembles, for several years I have thought about researching and writing about some of the lesser-known groups. In particular, I was interested in learning more about Handbell Ensembles. Then suddenly without any planning on my part I found myself listening to two different Handbell groups within one week. The first of these was at the 12th Annual Sandford Music Gala at Sandford United Church. For those not familiar with the geography, Sandford is a small hamlet north of Uxbridge. The last time I had been to one of these events was a couple of years ago when I was playing in a brass quintet. This year, not being a part of the show, I was attracted when I read that one of the groups performing would be a handbell ensemble known as Rhythm A’Peal.
Marilyn Meikle: Less than a week later I heard another handbell group, The Embellished Handbell Ensemble. However, this latter event was very different. The handbell ensemble was playing at a memorial service for one of its members, Marilyn Meikle. Marilyn was not only a member of this handbell group. She, along with her husband Tim, were long time members of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band. Her passing has significantly impacted our household. For years I have been sitting beside Tim in the tuba section and, when she was able to attend, my partner Joan sat beside Marilyn in the flute section. Less than two weeks before Marilyn’s passing, I was chatting with her at a rehearsal. She told me how much she had enjoyed their cruise around the British Isles just a few weeks earlier. She certainly will be missed.
Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The GTA has a host of fantastic children’s choirs. From Oakville to Mississauga, Hamilton and Niagara, these choirs are often-times the entry point for a lifelong engagement with music and the arts. They provide important exercises in strengthening the fabric of social engagement, inside and outside of music, helping to provide key skills as children age and move on to other adventures – some of which may be still be musical. There are some skills essential to choral music that directly benefit later-life experiences, such as knowing when to blend in and be part of a greater whole; paying attention to difficult situations and implementing plans and practices to address them; learning to follow instructions/direction and applying them to your personal situation/physicality; and learning how to engage contructively with people who ignore all these things. There is so much that these ensembles do in creating and building communities.
Here are some of them: The Toronto Children’s Chorus has eight separate choral programs for different skills and levels of engagement including six choirs. The VIVA! Youth Singers are featured every year in the National Ballet’s performances of The Nutcracker and have five ensembles. The Oakville Children’s Choir has seven programs including six choirs. (Artistic director Sarah Morrison led the Oakville Children’s Choir to a double gold finish at the World Choir Games in the Summer of 2015.) The Hamilton Children’s Choir with Zimfira Poloz was featured in R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis during Luminato, as well as the Pan American Games closing ceremonies. These are some of the hardest working choirs out there year after year. And there are many others throughout Southern Ontario. It’s also important to note that these are also ensembles who have a presence in their communities beyond their membership. The Oakville Children’s Chorus has begun a project in partnership with ErinoakKids, the largest children’s treatment centre for a variety of disabilities. Members of ErinoakKids and the OCC sing together regularly in a glee club that was created to share music. Sarah Morrison speaks of the joy and learning that is shared when choirs reach out into their communities. And, as she says, more often than not, it’s the kids who have the ideas, the energy and the enthusiasm for these collaborations. The Hamilton Children’s Choir also performs regularly for seniors in their communities.
A functional musical vocabulary is another benefit of early involvement in a choir. As a policy analyst by educational training and trade, I spend a lot of time around people who have no formal musical background. These are not people who don’t have music in their lives – far from it. But they aren’t playing clarinet in a wind ensemble or violin in a string quartet or singing alto in a mixed-voices choir. They have a musical vocabulary made up of words like “rocking,” “energetic” and “soft,” instead of “chromatic,” “largamente” and “that suspension in the time change before the major chord was innovative.” Children’s choirs have an important part to play in the evolution of how larger communities engage in music. Because really, who looks at a bunch of kids singing and goes “Wow. I really don’t like this.” These kids inevitably grow up and in time share their experiences in music with a new generation. Moreover, the skills they learn will continue to serve them and us throughout their lives.
That being said, we should beware of making the jargon of music into a kind of closed door club. I take friends to concerts who have never been or go infrequently to live instrumental or choral music. The musical fabric of the city is built into their lives in bars, pop concerts, street performers and music theatre, but the same cannot be said of instrumental music. On a recent trip to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of La Mer and A Sea Symphony, I brought a friend who had been to a symphony only twice before. I gave a briefer on the Sea Symphony and used many of the words that I used in last month’s column: bombastic; imperialistic; grand. This worked for him. For a person untrained in music, who cannot usually tell the difference in sound between a trombone or a horn, or what a cadence is, he understood because he felt it. And this is where the great power of instrumental music lies, in common experience. His vocabulary didn’t need to be RCM certified to convey the commonality of experience. So the languages trained musicians use to communicate widely should not exclude others. The languages of what we could describe as music in the widest sense are as varied and many, as diverse as the living things that make up this planet. One doesn’t need to analyze the pitch and program of toads in the Caledon Hills during mating season to appreciate that something grand and exceptional is happening. Similarly, one can listen to A Sea Symphony and interpret a military sound without knowing that trumpets and snare drums are creating that sound.
It is also worth considering the information we get as to the state of choral music making in our communities not by what the established choirs are doing, but by what is happening on the fringes, and anywhere children and young voices are concerned. Where are younger people engaging with music? EDM, DJ Skratch Bastid, Choir!Choir!Choir, Pentatonix, music theatre and film soundtracks are just some of the sources of music I find my friends going to that aren’t mega-scale, heavily produced pop concerts. And for this, and an even younger crowd, Disney movies continue to be a source of deep and powerful musical tradition (That Choir recently had a Disney-themed cabaret).
In September, That Choir did a season launch that wasn’t a choral performance. This is unusual and welcome in an attempt to build a community of relationships that support a choir and its work. The TSO does this as well, with donors of much more privileged wallets. One day I might make it through the doors of the Maestro Club or the fancy Amex lounge at Roy Thomson Hall. For now, having a drink at No One Writes to the Colonel and singing “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” by the Weeknd with 100 other people hits the spot pretty well. And importantly, it does for a lot of other people as well.
Children’s Choir Concerts
The Toronto Children’s Chorus is going on tour to Boston and New York City in March 2016. These talented kids will light up the hallowed walls of Carnegie Hall in the Choirs of America National Competition. The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “Spectral Contrasts” on Saturday November 7, at 4pm, in Calvin Presbyterian Church. Proceeds will go towards the competition.
The Hamilton Children’s Choir will be part of the City of Hamilton’s Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 8, at 10:30am in St George’s Church.
The VIVA! Youth Singers present “Shanti!: Our Native Land” on November 29, at 3:30pm in Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.
The Oakville Children’s Choir presents “Songs for a Winter Night” on Saturday December 5 at 7pm in St. John’s United Church in Oakville.
Chorus Niagara’s Children’s Choir presents “The Time of Snow” at Beacon Christian School on Saturday December 6 at 2:30pm in St Catharines.
Chorus Niagara is pulling together the McMaster University Choir and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in presenting “CELEBRATE!: The Explosive Power of 160 Voices in Partridge Hall” on November 7, at 7:30pm in FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St Catharines.
Further east, another conglomeration of choirs is assembling for “Choralpalooza,” featuring the Kingston Chamber Choir, She Sings, the Kingston Townsmen, the Kingston Choral Society and Open Voices Community Choir. This will take place November 8, at 12pm in the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.
Bel Canto is just one of many choirs in Scarborough. They perform “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on December 6, at 2:30pm and 7:30pm, in St. Dunstan’s of Canterbury.
Two sets of German choral works are being presented: one by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on November 25, at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall; the other by the Hart House Chorus on November 29, at 4pm in the Great Hall of Hart House.
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Emma Kirkby: It has sometimes seemed to me that my interest in early music began with listening to Kirkby. When I checked dates, I realized that that was not true. I bought my first early music LP (two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, conducted by August Wenzinger) when I was a schoolboy in the early 50s, while Kirkby’s career did not begin until 1971 when she joined the Taverner Choir as a founding member. But my mistake highlights the fact that Kirkby’s singing has been central to early music performances ever since. On October 18 she and her accompanist, the fine lutenist Jacob Lindberg, gave a recital of English music ranging from William Byrd to Henry Purcell at Trinity College Chapel. Now that Kirkby is in her mid-60s the incomparable beauty of her singing is also layered with a lifetime of nuance; every presentation provides a lesson in how these songs can be delivered.
In the first half of the program we heard a number of students, members of the University of Toronto’s Schola Cantorum. Until recently the University had not shown much interest in early music but this changed with the appointment of Daniel Taylor (best known as a countertenor but now also a conductor) as Early Music Area Head. Many of these performances were very fine, a tribute to the singers but also to Taylor’s leadership and to the extra coaching the singers received from Kirkby and Lindberg.
Agnes Zsigovics: Kirkby studied classics at Oxford University and became a schoolteacher. At that time she would have had no notion that a professional career could be built on the singing of early music. That is no longer the case and Kirkby’s career is one reason why that change became possible. There are now many singers who specialize in Early Music and one of the finest is a Canadian soprano Agnes Zsigovics whom we shall be able to hear on November 14 with the Ottawa Bach Choir and York University Chamber Choir in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at Grace Church on-the-Hill. The other soloists are Daniel Taylor, alto, Rebecca Claborn, mezzo, Jacques-Olivier Chartier, tenor, Geoffrey Sirett, baritone, and Daniel Lichti, bass-baritone. The conductor is Lisette Canton.
When I asked for an interview with Zsigovics, she accepted readily and added: “Isn’t it every soprano’s wish to talk about themselves all day long?” I decided not to take this too literally and I was right not to do so. She is not a self-absorbed diva but a down-to-earth and disciplined artist committed to her craft. As a young woman she sang in choirs at school and as a member of the Bell’Arte Singers. Her first big break came in 2005, when she sang with the Toronto International Bach Festival and was asked by the conductor, Helmuth Rilling, to sing the soprano solo in Bach’s Cantata BWV106 (the Actus Tragicus). Daniel Taylor heard her and invited her to sing part of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at a private function and to join the Theatre of Early Music. In 2007 she sang in Bach’s St. John Passion under Rilling with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
I have heard her four times in recent years: in the virtuoso soprano part of Allegri’s Miserere and as Belinda in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (both with the Theatre of Early Music), in Vivaldi’s Gloria (with Tafelmusik) and as the soprano soloist in the Grand Philharmonic Choir’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Kitchener last Good Friday.
She has now sung outside Ontario many times. In May she performed at the Bethlehem Bach Festival (and she will return there next May) and she took part in the reconstructed St. Mark Passion by Bach at the Festival d’Ambronay in France in September. As for the near future: in January she will be in Montreal in a program of Bach cantatas, in April she will sing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in Chicago with Music of the Baroque and in May she will sing Bach in Calgary. She will make her debut in a fully staged operatic performance when she will sing the role of Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice in Grand River, Michigan. We can also hear her voice on several recordings, two with the Theatre of Early Music (The Voice of Bach on RCA, and The Heart’s Refuge on Analekta) and one with Les Voix Baroques and the Arion Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann (Bach’s St. John Passion, on ATMA). Zsigovics is now looking at the possibility of launching her first solo recording.
Simone Osborne: Like Zsigovics, Simone Osborne could be described as a lyric soprano but, unlike Zsigovics, she is primarily an opera singer. In 2008, when she was 21, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Concert Auditions. In 2012, Jeunesses Musicales Canada chose her as the first winner of the Maureen Forrester Award. She was a member of the Ensemble Studio of the Canadian Opera Company and has performed a number of roles for the COC on the main stage: Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff and Lauretta in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. She will return to the COC later this season to sing Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen. On November 12 and 14, we have a chance to hear her in concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Part of the TSO’s Decades Project, that concert will show the diversity of styles in works from the first decade of the 20th century. Osborne will sing three pieces: the aria Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise, first performed in 1900; the Song to the Moon from Dvořák ‘s Rusalka (1901) and the soprano solo in the final movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1901).
Isabel Leonard: The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto can always be relied on to provide artists and programs of interest. I, myself, am very much looking forward to the recital by the American mezzo Isabel Leonard on November 19 inWalter Hall. A few seasons ago Leonard sang with the COC in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and she was splendid in the role of Sesto. The recital will include works by Montsalvatge, de Falla, Ives, Higdon and others.
Sondra Radvanovsky: I last heard Sondra Radvanovsky in a dazzling performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux for the COC. On December 4 she will give a recital in Koerner Hall. The program includes the aria Sposa son disprezzata from Bajazet by Vivaldi, the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, the Song to the Moon from Dvořák ‘s Rusalka and songs and arias by Bellini, Barber, Giordano and Liszt.
Magali Simard-Galdès: Jeunesses Musicales Canada has announced that the winner of the 2015 Maureen Forrester Prize is the soprano Magali Simard-Galdès. The prize consists of a 30-city tour in which she will perform a program of art songs including a new song cycle by Tawnie Olson, commissioned by the Canadian Art Song Project.
Hans de Groot is a concertgoer and active listener, who also sings and plays the recorder. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
There’s an anecdote from a book I read once that’s been bothering me for a while. In the memoir Kitchen Confidential the American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain describes the following altercation he had with one of his Italian chefs at a restaurant he owned:
“Gianni had taken one look at my chef de cuisine, shaken his head and warned, ‘Watch out for dees guy. He’ll stobb you inna back,’ making a stabbing gesture as he said it.
“What? What’s his problem? He’s Sicilian?’ I asked jokingly, knowing Gianni’s preference for all things Northern.
‘Worse,’ said Gianni. ‘He’s from Naples.’”
Bourdain never explained what the problem with being Neapolitan was at any point in the rest of the book (maybe he never got around to asking Gianni), and frankly, I’ve never tried to ask anyone whether they were from Naples, Italy, or anywhere else. Was Bourdain’s chef a racist? Are Neapolitans intrinsically untrustworthy? And (most importantly) why would they be intrinsically untrustworthy to other Italians?
Maybe the chef’s mistrust had to do with the fact that Naples had a history that pitted it against the rest of the Italian kingdoms for most of the last millennium: the Kingdom of Naples, comprising the city of Naples and roughly the southern half of the Italian boot, was ruled by the (French) King of Anjou from mid-13th to mid-14th century, the (Spanish) Aragonese from then to the early 16th century, the Spanish and Habsburg Empires for the next 200 years, and became a Napoleonic possession from then until 1815. That wasn’t a lot of time for Southern Italy to develop an independent, let alone pan-Italian identity, so maybe other Italians (or at least that particular Italian) are referencing the fact that, politically, Naples was in fact a French, Spanish, or Austrian province more than it was ever an Italian one.
As a cultural centre, though, Naples in its prime was a fascinating place. Ethnically Italian with a Spanish influence, its position smack in the middle of the Meditarranean made it a natural port of call between the rest of the European continent and the Middle East. Naples is also largely responsible for giving us a major institution of both culture and of classical music – the modern conservatory. The Spanish regime in Naples was one of the first governments to found conservatories, which it did in Naples – initially church-run institutions to shelter and educate orphans, they later became the music schools we know today. In 17th-century Naples, with the new form of opera quickly becoming popular and a sudden high demand for trained singers and musicians throughout Italy, conservatories found themselves part of a feeder system for professional musicians and singers, as they were both amply funded and made music education a significant part of a child’s education.
Vesuvius: This month, The Toronto Consort pays tribute to the music and culture of this Renaissance cosmopolis in their opening concert of the season, “The Soul of Naples.” The Consort will be performing this month at Jeanne Lamon Hall at Trinity-St-Paul’s Centre at 8pm on November 13 and 14. I’ve been looking forward to this concert for some time. The Consort is teaming up with the Vesuvius Ensemble, which is the only folk group I’ve ever encountered that specializes specifially in Renaissance Neapolitan folk music. The group has the good fortune to be led by a top-rate tenor, Francesco Pellegrino, who will be directing both Vesuvius and the Consort this time around. And if you’re a guitar fan, this is definitely the concert for you – this show features a menagerie of plucked-string instruments, including baroque guitar, theorbo and lute, as well as the far more obscure chitarra battente and colascione. The Consort has a few concerts for 2015/16 that look very interesting, and this is one of them. The group has a unique talent for taking an audience back to a particular time and place in history. I can’t wait for opening night.
The Canadian Opera Company is a Toronto institution that dabbles in early music only occasionally, but it will be well worth checking out their upcoming program this month if you’re a fan of either Monteverdi or new music. Pyramus and Thisbe is a new opera by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman and will be headlining the evening, but the two opening acts are overlooked gems of the Baroque repertoire and rank as some of the Venetian composer’s most accomplished miniatures. Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Lamento d’Arianna are both exciting and powerful (though brief) works that take the listener back and forth from vivid depictions of warfare to intense sadness, often in the space of just a few bars. They’re great examples of the revolution in music that happened at the beginning of the 17th century when Monteverdi declared that poetry and text was more important than any musical idea could be. And more importantly, they’re fun to listen to. Check them out on November 5 and 7 at the Four Seasons.
The Oratory: Sometimes less is more. If a folk/medieval supergroup and a pair of Monteverdi mini-operas with a full continuo band aren’t enough to get you to a concert this month, there are a couple of choral concerts that promise to be very enjoyable indeed. The Oratory at Holy Family Church (1372 King Street West) is presenting two concerts based around the Renaissance choral repertoire. The first, featuring a five-voice men’s chorus singing just one to a part, is a requiem mass for the feast of All Souls. The oratory has some fairly pious music lined up for the occasion – they’ll be performing works by that great papal hero of Renaissance polyphony, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, as well as the Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales on November 2 at 8pm. If you miss the occasion (or don’t want to sit through a whole mass) consider going instead to their November 18 concert at 7:30, which will feature Roland de Lassus’ Requiem for 5 Voices and his Music from the Office of the Dead as well as music by Tomas Luis de Victoria and J.S. Bach. Hardly cheerful music, to be sure, but a chance to hear Renaissance sacred music done with all soloists as opposed to a massive chorus is a rare and enjoyable experience.
Rossi in Ordinary: The 16th-century Italian composer Salamone Rossi has the unique legacy, for musicians and scholars, of having written sacred music for the synagogue which survives and is still performed today. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more extant examples of Jewish sacred music that modern audiences can listen to – Catholics being the main recipients of a half millennium of high-level patronage to the exclusion of nearly everyone else – but this month, the Musicians in Ordinary are performing Rossi’s sacred music as well as some of his sonatas for two violins. Violinists Chris Verrette and Patricia Ahearn will join the ensemble on November 27 at 8 pm at Father Madden Hall in the Carr building at the University of Toronto to explore the work of a fine composer in the Renaissance mould who has been regrettably overlooked by history.
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In previous columns I’ve explored something I called hybridity in Toronto music -- transculturalism as it manifests itself musically, both in the disciplines of composition, improvisation and performance practice, and in the way audiences respond to music reflecting these hybridized values. This column connects the dots between a few Toronto concerts featuring hybrid sounds.
Pedram Khavarzamini is World Music Artist-in-Residence at the U. of T.’s Faculty of Music. Over the last decade or two the GTA has been the beneficiary of a wave of talented, primarily emerging career Iranian musicians. The tombak (principal Iranian goblet drum) virtuoso, teacher and composer, Pedram Khavarzamini, stands prominently among them. Moving to Toronto last year, this accomplished musician and scholar has steadfastly maintained the traditions of tombak technique and repertoire and introduced new audiences to them. He is also known for his innovations in cross-cultural collaboration and musical experimentation. Both the traditional and collaborative sides of Khavarzamini’s work were on ample display in his exciting May 16, 2015 Music Gallery concert, “East Meets Further East,” which he shared with Montréal tabla soloist Shawn Mativetsky. Their drum duo at the end of the night was a memorable marvel of musical respect and communication. It reminded the audience that transcultural challenges can be met and honoured at the highest level.
A pioneer in another – and more hybrid - arena too, Khavarzamini also composes for Persian-centric percussion ensembles. His main outlet is Varashan, a group he directs and composes for. Its performance was yet another musically satisfying feature of the May 2015 Music Gallery concert I attended.
In addition to his eloquent performances set in international halls with leading Persian and international musicians, Khavarzamini has also taken tombak teaching onto the global stage. Offering conducting workshops and individual instruction to scores of students in Iran, Europe and North America, live and via Skype, he has become a leading instructor on his chosen drum and its indigenous musical idioms.
Khavarzamini’s activities as a virtuoso percussionist, composer, teacher and group leader have already attracted the attention of learning centres. His appointment this fall at U of T’s Faculty of Music provides proof of this. Searching for insights into this development in his career, I exchanged several emails and Facebook chats with Khavarzamini in the penultimate weekend of October. He confirmed that his Artist-in-Residence duties will, among others, include “leading masterclasses and the newly formed U. of T. Iranian Music Ensemble,” activities which will involve several dozen music students.
An excellent opportunity to witness the impressive breadth and depth of Khavarzamini’s work can be had at a November 17 free concert at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, where he will lead the Iranian Music Ensemble and members of Varashan. The Persian instrumentation will include multiple tombaks, the dayereh (medium-sized frame drum with jingles), santoor (hammered dulcimer), kamancheh (bowed lute), tar (plucked lute) and perhaps a vocalist. Then on December 3 the Iranian Music Ensemble directed by Khavarzamini takes part in a World Music Ensembles concert at Walter Hall alongside the Klezmer Ensemble and the Japanese Taiko Ensemble. These biannual public concerts, along with their York University counterparts, have for decades subtly influenced the general Toronto reception of non-mainstream European- and American-centred musics, perhaps even laying the groundwork for the kind of hybrid creations increasingly appearing in a whole range of venues.
David Virelles: Gnosis featuring Román Díaz at the Music Gallery. David Dacks, the Music Gallery’s artistic director, has certainly not shied away from engaging in musical hybridity, as he made clear in an X Avant festival story in The WholeNote last year.
However he remains very aware of the inherent complications of mixing and matching musical genres, especially the ever-prickly notion of authenticity. “If one is attempting to join culture A to culture B in a coherent musical statement, one must be really attuned to power relationships, comparative structures/forms/tuning/language, your own personal experience and other points of connection or difference between musical ingredients one is working with.” He gives a down-home example: “randomly sampled African chants over breakbeats just won’t fly anymore.”
Fortunately we’re mostly in good hands, Dacks adds. “In crazy, diverse Toronto, many musicians are cognizant of these factors, not just academically, but internally. The resulting hybrid musical creations are way more than pastiches, they are declarations of one’s transcultural (going back to last year’s term) life experiences.”
For Dacks the November 27 and 28 concerts, “David Virelles: Gnosis featuring Román Díaz,” at the Music Gallery, co-presented by the Music Gallery, Arraymusic and Lula Music & Arts, are a case in point. For those unfamiliar with Virelles’ music, the billing “futuristic Afro-Cuban chamber music” gives a taste of what one might expect.
Immigrating to Canada from Cuba at 18, pianist and composer Virelles began his musical studies at Toronto’s Humber College and continued them at the University of Toronto. He came under the mentorship of saxophonist Jane Bunnett, long celebrated for her support of both Cuban music and musicians. Virelles has since developed into a cutting-edge jazz innovator. Achieving career success along the way, last year he released his first ECM recording Mboko, in the words of Dacks, “taking Cuban music places it’s never been.”
The 32-year-old Virelles is “capable of tropically intense polyrhythms and irregular but internally logical phrasing, which befits an artist who came to jazz through Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and Bud Powell.” About five years ago Virelles moved to New York to further his career and has since worked with jazz leaders like Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille and many more. Earlier this year he scooped the Downbeat Rising Star – Piano award.
The Music Gallery partnership with both Arraymusic and Lula Music & Arts in presenting Gnosis is part of the story. As Dacks explains: “Gnosis, is a big project (hence a rare two-night stand at The Music Gallery). It’s a chamber piece, requiring some 12 musicians. Rick Sacks … [has committed members] of the Array Ensemble to the group, plus most of the rehearsals will be at their Arrayspace. It’s turned into a big part of their season too.” As for Lula Music & Arts, they’re “a natural promotion partner in this project. Virelles played there frequently [when he was a Toronto resident] and it’s the nerve centre for so much Latin music in Toronto.”
Another significant element in the work is the inclusion of Abakuá drums by Cuban master drummer Román Díaz with four other Cuban drummers. Hermetic and little known even within Cuba, Abakuá is an Afro-Cuban men’s initiatory fraternity, a secret society, with roots extending back to Nigeria and Cameroon. Despite its secret nature, the percussion and vocal dance music of the Abakuá, as well as other music of West African origin, have been found by researchers to have collectively infused and influenced virtually all genres of Cuban vernacular music, including rumba and son.
Dacks notes that Díaz “has been playing with Virelles for quite a while now” drawing on Cuba’s deep African musical heritage as an essential element of the performance. Rather than using Abakuá songs and drumming as a superficial pinch of ethnic spice in a jazz score, they have instead chosen to perform it as it occurs in Afro-Cuban ritual practice (echoing Dacks’ earlier comments about authenticity). “Abakuá drums have never been in a concert hall setting, so this is absolutely a new form of music that Virelles is exploring.”
For Dacks, it’s not “just a ‘local guy makes good’ show, it’s bigger than that. Virelles is already the most experimental pianist of Cuban origin I’ve ever heard, and he has become a major creative force. As such, this is a unique opportunity for the Music Gallery and our partners to help him take the next, ambitious step.”
Continuing with this month’s theme of musical hybridity, the Aga Khan Museum presents two concerts which can easily be included in that portfolio.
November 28 the Kinan Azmeh City Band mounts the AKM’s auditorium stage with a concert blending jazz, Western classical and Syrian music. Kinan Azmeh, clarinet, Kyle Sanna, guitar, John Hadfield, percussion, and Petros Klampanis, double bass, perform works from their album Elastic City.
December 5 the spotlight shifts to the Indo-Afghan music of the veteran singer Ustad Eltaf Hussain Sarahang. Starting his career as a young court musician – appointed as Royal Musician to the Court of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (reigned 1933–73) – Sarahang has enjoyed a career spanning decades as a leading exponent of the hybrid traditions of Indo-Afghan music.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Jane Bunnett’s day is so chock full that the only time we can find to do an interview is at Ana Maria’s hair salon, down the street from her Parkdale home. It’s a big week. Two nights ago (October 20) she won Ontario’s Premier’s Award for Excellence; today (October 22) is her birthday; and on Saturday night (October 24) she performs at Koerner Hall with Maqueque and Emilie Michel. I congratulate her on the Premier’s Award and ask what this particular honour means to a five-time JUNO winner, two-time Grammy nominee and Order of Canada recipient:
“First of all this is my third time up for this award, and every time, the people in this category have been people that I respected. Some of them I knew because they are closer to my field, but when I’ve been seeing the other nominees and investigated and researched what they do, I’m extremely honoured because I look at them and I think, ‘That’s amazing, look what this person has done, look what this person has done!’ and I’m saying it about everybody and then I go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m in the same category!’ so that must mean, you know? The jury, my peers are recognizing me in the same way. I’m so very honoured.”
Bunnett’s talent is astonishing, her passion contagious and her discipline inspiring. She is also lucky in love: her husband of nearly 35 years is producer manager and occasional sideman Larry Cramer. “He is my other half in making these things happen. We are a real team …my vision is not as strong as his vision. A lot of the time I can’t quite see it, but Larry sees the end results. I just see all the work that has to get done and I freak out. We’re a great team.”
The two have toured this planet dozens of times in the past 30 years, acting as Canadian ambassadors, standing up for social and political causes, collaborating with some of the very best in the world and providing countless opportunities for others every step of the way.
“Sometimes it’s hard for us to stand back and just look at the total body of what we’re doing because artists are so forward thinking and you never know where your next bread and butter are going to come from. To sit back and savour the moment, the recognition because we are always moving forward – you finish a project and you’re on to the next one – so to be able to stand back with Larry, it means so much to us. And not to look like a materialistic person, but there is a monetary value to the award that could not come at a better time, when we’ve been stretched financially. We’ve set a certain standard for ourselves, and it can’t be any less that that. Twenty records later, we have to keep our standard high ... keep it interesting for yourself and your fans if you have fans. So sometimes we have to beg, borrow and steal to make a project happen.”
Making a living as a jazz artist in Toronto can seem nearly impossible without a secondary income. Most jazz musicians teach either privately or in a post-secondary institution. Although she is a natural mentor, Bunnett has never had a regular teaching position, which arguably has allowed for the 20 recordings under her belt.
“Who knows down the road, as I get older – I don’t know how long my body can handle the running around – as a jazz musician when you are doing what I’m doing, when you don’t have a teaching position, you have to travel. To work I have to travel. There’s only so much you can do in Toronto, there’s only so much you can do in Canada, so you have to up and move, and so when I can combine that with going into a university or a high school or a community arts organization, I really enjoy doing that and I like to be able to shed light on what I do, because some people really don’t understand what is entailed in being an artist – the sacrifices that you make to do that. How you put the whole thing together – the whole record – especially with young people, because there is a disconnect with creativity, everything being so hi-tech. The way I work is very organic – in the case of Maqueque – I write a piece of music and then we sit down and we work on it, and I’m very open to people’s ideas. If a change is suggested we’ll all bounce it around and a lot of the time their suggestions are great. We workshop the material to bring in the different influences. I see myself as a collaborator – I thrive on not only doing my own thing, but bringing other ingredients into what I do – and I think in a certain way, I am good in the educational world, to be able to explain this experience.”
Maqueque: The group Maqueque – which is also the name of their debut album – is Bunnett’s latest triumph, finding her in the company of five female Cuban twentysomethings: Daymé Arocena, vocals and percussion; Dánae Olano, piano and vocals; Magdelys Savigne, vocals and percussion; Célia Jiménez, vocals and bass; and Yissy García, drums. Maqueque won the 2015 JUNO for Jazz Album of the Year – Group.
“The record was done in 2013 and it was done pretty quickly. We put the group together down there, and we rehearsed three or four days, and then went into the studio and made the record. I hardly even knew most of the girls.”
Having followed Bunnett on Facebook for the past few years, I’ve noticed many posts about favourable receptions on their North American tour. I asked her what surprised her about the response to the album, both from critics and audiences:
“That’s a good question. When we made that record, I had no idea – Maqueque was actually a very difficult record to make. There were certain things that happened … part of the tracks were recorded on a broken bass, and I didn’t even know it! Celia didn’t even own a bass – she was a classical bassoon player but she really wanted to play jazz and picked up the bass but she didn’t own one. I don’t even know whose bass she was using. We were in the studio and then when were mixing, both Jeremy Darby and David Travers-Smith were like ‘I don’t know what to do about the bass sound, it’s just dreadful’ and I was quite overwhelmed with all the things that were going on. I knew something was funny but, I later found she was playing on a broken bass that wasn’t hers and she didn’t want to tell me because she thought I wouldn’t let her be in the band. Yeah, thanks! Thousands of dollars later and trying to clean up the sound.
“And then there was making a record and not knowing who the record was going to be for, because at that time EMI was being bought by Universal and so we didn’t have a label for it. A lot of people work like that, do it independently, but we had spent a lot of money and we were very lucky, we got some assistance from Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council and FACTOR to make that recording. That all being said, when it was done, I thought, ‘This music is very, very different from any of the musics I have written.’ There is a feminine – there’s something different from any other record I’ve made. There’s all these women singing – there’s a vocal component on four tracks – it’s not a pure jazz record, not a pure Afro-Cuban record, it’s a real mixture of the two things. I was really afraid of how people were going to react to it.
“As with all of our recordings, we are always moving ahead of the curve when we make something and it’s also our problem in a way too. I can’t stay in one place, do the same thing over and over again, but just as somebody starts to understand what our last project is, we have moved on to something different. So there’s always kind of a catch-up mode with your audience, and some people get it and some people don’t. But yeah, I was really afraid, to be totally honest. Plus with it being an all-female record, I was worried that people wouldn’t give it their ears – an all-girl group – not give it the real attention and look at the integrity of it. Every one of those artists, even though some were more developed than others – it was a leap of faith taking a bunch of girls – most of them had never been into a studio before and it was their first recording.
“It’s a whole bunch of firsts and Larry and I were carrying all these new things, it was a huge leap of faith and money to do this and say to the world, “What do you think of this one now?” Larry really was the one that was saying, ‘It’s going to be a great record.’”
Maqueque is now working on their second album.
“We’re writing new material and rehearsing every day, much to my neighbour’s chagrin,” laughs Bunnett. Following Saturday’s concert, they are doing a tour of Australia – Bunnett’s first time down under since 1993 – as well as performances planned in Cuba as part of the JAZZ.FM91 jazz safari and the Kennedy Center in May.
“The record was great and it’s the door opener, but I think when this group gets on stage, people’s minds are blown because the energy is so strong from these young women. They so love performing and they so love the opportunity to get on a stage. I have been saying this for years in interviews: the only way you get better – you get more popular, you become great – is by performance opportunity. Look at Esperanza Spalding as a perfect example. She is a great talent, but if she didn’t get all those opportunities with Joe Lovano and all those people, they have all been stepping stones to her becoming her own artist.
“There’s the 10,000 hours thing which has been studied – but you can put all those hours in and not get the opportunities too. I feel it so greatly when I get on the stage with them … they have these great big smiles and they are not being phony. They’re so excited to be in front of an audience, playing and getting feedback. They love it and it’s very contagious. And they’re all kickass musicians who play their instruments so well. They love being together as a group, and I know that because they’re all living in our house! So I see how it works, there is a deepness in the relationship, all the girls coming from Cuba and knowing what they’ve had to be up against. And knowing that what is happening for them right now is a huge opportunity. It’s been great for me because it has given me new energy also.”
Heavyweights’ Chris Butcher: As selected by Bunnett, the Emerging Artist Award that goes with the Premier’s Award went to trombonist, composer and bandleader Christopher Butcher. At the awards gala, she introduced him:
“This wonderful young musician has been in the trenches as an artist/educator/radio show host at U of T and an arts activist. Along with his Heavyweights Brass Band, he brings great musicianship to the streets and concert halls…”
And says Butcher: “It is a huge honour to be selected by Jane Bunnett as emerging artist at the Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. The award comes at an important moment in my career. I’m heading to New Orleans in January to study with trombone master and producer Delfeayo Marsalis, with support from the Ontario Arts Council. I look forward to being able to focus on my art while soaking up vibrations from the birthplace of the music I love. I’ll be coming back to the first American tour of my group the Heavyweights Brass Band in March, with clinics and concerts in NYC, Buffalo, Williamsville, Cleveland, Akron, Detroit and more, as well as heading out west with Mexican singer/songwriter and JUNO award-winner QuiQue Escamilla.”
Butcher, like many musicians – yours truly included – feels lucky to have Jane Bunnett as an inspiring beacon in our community.
“Jane has been a mentor and inspiration to me for years. I feel validated and inspired to have been selected by her. Not only do I want to work harder for a positive change to the fabric of Canadian culture through my art/music, I also want to give back to the community and have a positive impact on humankind. With her Spirit of Music Foundation, which provided instruments for Cuba, and countless benefit concerts, Jane has showed the way.”
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.
This past September, The WholeNote celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert/party at the newly renovated Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Rarely passing up an opportunity to hear live music for free, and absolutely never turning down a good excuse to wear a suit and tie, I reserved my seats very quickly. It was great. There was a diverse program, lots of good humour, and perhaps most importantly cake.
I remember turning to my plus-one after a lot of the performances and saying “Okay, that was my favourite.” Some highlights include:
Mary Lou Fallis, who did a great job co-hosting the event with WholeNote publisher David Perlman, sang a hilarious song, listed in the program as Tone Deaf, in which the narrator goes on about her musical ineptitude, pokes fun at herself and punctuates phrases with deliberately off-key notes. It’s the tiniest bit ironic that while singing about an inability to distinguish pitches, Fallis demonstrates a very finely tuned command of pitch by nailing those “off” notes so perfectly imperfectly.
The pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico paid tribute to renowned violinist and educator Jacques Israelievitch, who passed away from lung cancer three short weeks earlier, by playing a quick and upbeat piece of music, Glass Houses (5) by Anne Southam because, as she told it, the “always on” Israelievitch never wanted to play things slow (or, more accurately, below performance tempo), even in sight-reading sessions, and “because he would have liked it.”
The program also included some jazz. During the second set, as Sophia Perlman, Julie Michels and Adrean Farrugia approached the stage, I nudged my friend and said, “This is definitely going to be my favourite.” I had said before that Sophia Perlman was my favourite jazz singer in the city and then quickly corrected myself. “One of my favourites. Top five.”
The finale of the anniversary celebration invited the participation of the audience. A bunch of people with conducting experience came on stage, divided the audience into sections, and conducted each respective section in a rendition of the round Music Alone Shall Live, while Mary Lou Fallis accompanied us on the piano. “All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, music alone shall live, never to die.”
The song is true. If not literally, then in some other way. Music may not survive the heat death of the universe, but it is transcendent and universal. It has existed since before recorded history and it – or at least evidence of it – will exist after our species has gone extinct. It could have been my imagination, or the nature of the music, or the elevation of the stage, or just the fact that we were in a church, but for me, it was a reverent moment. There was no dancing or even standing (excepting the conductors). Only a bunch of people simultaneously expressing a belief we all share, and which none of us takes lightly.
Sophia Perlman: Vocal diamonds. Earlier that week I had gone to the Reservoir Lounge, a venue with less light, more food, and a louder audience, to hear Sophia Perlman. Accompanied by Farrugia on piano, the band also included Richard Underhill on alto sax, Jeff Halischuk on the drums and Mike Carson on bass. It was a marvellous show. The finale of the night, a cover of Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, complete with vocal harmony from the band also invited audience participation. Before the night was over, everyone was on their feet. Most people danced. I’m not one for dancing, but I couldn’t sit for it. I had to sway.
The music aside, the setting was different. The stage was less elevated. No one was in formal attire. Most people were drunk (I was not) and at times willing to talk over the band (also not I) – which I think made it all the more meaningful and beautiful when the audience did choose to hand over their attention to the musicians on stage. “Ta na na, Ta na na na” is not quite the statement that “music alone shall live, never to die” is. Nonetheless it lifted in a similar way to the round in the church. So in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the words. Maybe it was the joy of making music with other people.
For the aforementioned jazz singer, Sophia Perlman, a large part of the joy of making music – specifically improvised music – with other people is the spontaneity of it. Jazz musicians aren’t known for their creative inflexibility or physical tension, but even in this idiom you will rarely see someone as loose, relaxed, comfortable on stage and comfortable in her skin as Perlman is.
She has clearly worked hard at developing this craft, and she must know how good she is. But yet, offstage, she is as uncomfortable with flattery as anyone. When I told her I had transcribed one of her scat solos (All of Me at Shops at Don Mills, available on YouTube), she laughed nervously and said: “Don’t do that, I don’t know what I’m doing!” Imagine the luck that must be involved, to build a career of not knowing what you’re doing!
Her voice has a rasp to it. Not the kind that comes from years of smoking, but the kind that might come from shouting excitedly about something for a few minutes. The rasp isn’t the defining feature of her voice, but to me it adds something to the performance that’s difficult to nail down. It’s shading. Musical shading. The rasp is good. But through the rasp comes a voice that is clear, powerful, and shockingly huge.
I’ve only heard her perform live three times – each at a different venue, with a different ensemble. And each time the experience was radically different. In fact, if it wasn’t radically different, it wouldn’t be worth attending, never mind writing about.
When she was a novice on the Toronto scene, Perlman says she found it “baffling, and at times really frustrating” how fluid lineups were. But – as evidenced by the performances I’ve seen, and the ease with which she adapts – she’s gotten used to that since then: “The beauty of belonging to this community is that every time you stand onstage, and take stock of who’s there, you realize there are two things at play: you have a relationship with everyone on the bandstand to some degree. Usually. But most of the time, they all have their own relationships with everyone else on the bandstand – a whole other collection of shared musical experiences, some of which don’t include you!”
I’m excited, and I hope you’re excited, too:
You can catch Sophia Perlman adapting to all manor of different factors at two listed gigs this month (and possibly more): one at Bloom in Toronto with Adrean Farrugia and Ross MacIntyre on November 26; the other at Manhattans Pizza Bistro & Music Club in Guelph with Terra Hazelton, under the name PerlHaze.
Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Taylor has a knack for programming. Music Toronto’s artistic producer and general manager admitted in a recent chat that while she has “a tiny reputation for piano recital debuts, just say that I am lucky.” We met in her office in an older building high above the city’s downtown core. Glancing at the list of pianists who have made their local debuts under Taylor’s watch over the last 25 years, many of the names jump out: Pascal Rogé, Misha Dichter, Nikolai Lugansky, Markus Groh, Andreas Haefliger, Simon Trpčeski, Piotr Anderszewski, Steven Osborne, Arnaldo Cohen, Alexandre Tharaud, Till Fellner, Peter Jablonski and Benjamin Grosvenor, who returns to the stage of the Jane Mallett Theatre on October 13, a mere 19 months after his memorable debut there in 2014. Conceding that she doesn’t usually gamble on pianists as young as Grosvenor, she said: “He was the real thing.”
Grosvenor’s exceptional talent was widely revealed at 11 when he won the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. At 19, shortly after becoming the first British pianist since the legendary Clifford Curzon to be signed by Decca, he became the youngest soloist to perform at the First Night of the Proms. The venerable magazine Gramophone bestowed its “Young Artist of the Year” on him in 2012.