Toronto Sistema’s David Visentin - No Neutral Ground

1806 Behind The Scenes 1Even when you arrive slightly late to the party, you sometimes still get to have your cake and eat it too. In terms of having his cake, David Visentin was only eight years old when he started playing the violin. Various relatives were playing fiddle at the time; one was also a jazz violinist; and his own brother, who started on the piano, later switched to violin as well. He was well on his way.

Still, even when you have made all the right choices, the personal trajectory of a career musician can begin to pall, as it did for Visentin, 16 years into a comfortable and satisfying association with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. After performing onstage at the plush, 2,300-seat Centennial Concert Hall for the umpteenth time, Visentin says, “We would go out into minus 30–40 degree weather — this was average for us — but the tragedy of that weather is that there are people who live outside. There is still a very large urban Aboriginal population and, many times on these evenings, we would pass people sniffing glue — because that was the big epidemic happening at the time in downtown Winnipeg.

1806 Behind The Scenes 2“I remember this occasion, I’d already been thinking about the relevance of what I was doing on stage as a musician for audiences that would get out to warm parking lots and get into warm cars to warm homes. I was trying to reconcile what I call the distance between the stage and the sidewalk. The next morning, I read the headline in the newspaper that one of them had died and another was still in a coma — and it really came home to me personally that what I was doing on that stage had very little relevance to the sidewalk. I felt that if my art was to have any meaning, it had to extend further.”

In retrospect, he admits, “I wish I had come to that conclusion earlier.” He was in his early 40s, and it would still be a few years before he was to be offered the position of associate dean of the Glenn Gould School, and dean of the Young Artists Performance Academy at the Royal Conservatory. “And guess what? I was being offered the opportunity of training the next generation of musicians like myself.”

Then came a series of events in 2009 that was to change his life forever. It’s what Visentin describes as “an amazing Celebration of Music Week, where Venezuela essentially came to Toronto and took it over.” The prestigious Glenn Gould prize, which “promotes the vital connection between artistic excellence and the transformation of lives,” was being awarded to Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela.

To celebrate the occasion, Gustavo Dudamel, often regarded as the poster child for El Sistema and now the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela in their Canadian debut. Among the many events being held were 14 intimate concerts at high schools and community youth centres featuring Venezuelan chamber ensembles, an international music symposium and a climactic concert for 14,000 students at the Rogers Centre.

As a member of the board of the Glenn Gould Foundation, Visentin was in the front row of these events and was so blown away by the calibre of the young Venezuelan musicians that he spoke to Abreu and offered his services to El Sistema. He was invited as a masterclass guest artist for two weeks, to teach at various centres throughout Venezuela.

Now the executive and artistic director of Sistema Toronto, Visentin has found in this remarkable program a way of bridging the stage and the sidewalk that he has long sought. Begun as a social rescue program in 1975 among the most poverty-stricken and violent neighbourhoods in Venezuela, El Sistema has transformed the lives of more than a million children in Venezuela alone — and the program is rapidly gaining traction in many parts of the world.

It’s been said that El Sistema has brought the joy of achievement, the motivation to strive for personal growth and betterment and the love of learning to children who would otherwise be part of a lost generation. Visentin points to an important distinction: “Sistema describes itself as a social program through music, not a music program that has social benefit.” Abreu describes it thus: “The orchestra and chorus are more than artistic structures, they are models and schools of social life because to play and sing together means to intimately coexist while striving toward perfection and excellence, to follow a rigorous regimen of discipline and coordination and to seek harmonic integration, to foster ethical and aesthetic values in the awakening of sensibility and forging values.”

Abreu refers to Mother Teresa as having been the one who realized that the most tragic aspect of poverty is not the lack of bread or a roof overhead, but the feeling of insignificance that poverty breeds, the lack of identity and self-worth that all too often spirals into violence. In contrast, it is the redemptive role of music that leads to the child’s becoming a role model for the family and community, by inspiring in the child a sense of responsibility, perseverance and punctuality and eventually inspiring new hopes and dreams.

Abreu refers to the world crisis invoked by the historian Arnold Toynbee — not the economic crisis which everyone seems to talk about, but a spiritual crisis for which religion offers no solution. It is now only art in the form of music, Abreu says, that can synthesize the wisdom of the ages and provide creative space for culture in the community, not just as a luxury for the elites, but as something in which all can truly participate.

Visentin agrees: “I believe that poverty has many faces. While Toronto is not Caracas and Canada is not Venezuela, we don’t have the extremes of poverty and violence that are expressed in Venezuela, but we do have poverty and we do have violence and that’s where there’s no difference between Canada and Venezuela.

“Dr Abreu is passionately opposed to the waste of time — ‘the perverse use of leisure time’ is what he calls it. Time-wasting, for Abreu, could mean being forced to sell T-shirts eight hours a day in Caracas to make money for your family or it could be wasting time in front of the computer when you could be putting it to productive use or it could be gang membership.

“Poverty needs to be seen in more than just a socioeconomic context. Poverty of spirit is no respecter of class, because that’s ultimately where everyone meets, even in contexts where people seem to have everything going for them. It’s a great leveller when you see that everyone has parts of themselves that are impoverished. Some have the means to address them, some do not. And this is where Sistema has a value.”

Visentin describes this as a shift in awareness: “When you are looking at it through a different lens, it changes everything that you deliver — your knowledge and your experience. Because I can teach a violin lesson, I can coach an ensemble, I can conduct an orchestra, but when you’re imparting qualities of humanity — citizenship — the first thing you have to do is turn the mirror on yourself and look at what it is you really have to give. So that again levels the playing field, because we’re all trying to be better people, better family members, community members.

He pauses for a moment before resuming: “So this question of social value is really the fundamental question that Sistema is not answering necessarily, but asking. Creating an environment, bringing people together in this joint endeavour around this body of great literature and art, with remarkable results. We see everything as inextricably linked. It’s quite wondrous and frightening at the same time because there’s no way to be separate, you have to belong in a way that draws the best out of you or it draws you away, I don’t think there’s a neutral ground.”

Now into its second year, Sistema Toronto offers its after-school program to 80 young string players from Grades 1–6, who come in for two and a half hours a day, four days a week, 38 weeks a year. Explains Visentin, “We ask only three things: to see themselves as a team, to always help each other and to always do your best.” It’s the same dictum that applies to their teachers, all accomplished musicians, who are selected as much for their passion for their craft as for their ability to teach.

On any of these days, as three o’clock approaches, music stands are wheeled out, chairs whisked into place and various string instruments assiduously tuned in anticipation of the children who will play them. “We’re often asked: what’s the curriculum, what’s the pedagogy, where are the texbooks, where’s the handbook?” says Visentin. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The beauty is that it’s created in each community.” At Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School, for example, in addition to classical works, they also learn Tibetan folk songs and stories that reflect the Hungarian Roma community, not to mention The Great Canadian Story, a composition by one of their teachers, Ronald Royer. Visentin sees this as an opportunity for the children to express themselves not just to their own community but to the other communities where they are inevitably invited to perform, forming a network of communal music making.

For its own part, Sistema Toronto is already looking to extend its program beyond Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School. Last year, Peter Oundjian, director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was appointed the first honourary music ambassador for Sistema Toronto’s Playing to Potential music education program, with its focus on rehearsing and performing as a member of an orchestra. At the same time, when Leonard Cohen was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize for lifetime achievement, he chose Sistema Toronto to receive the $15,000 City of Toronto Protégé Prize. Just the other day, a few University of Toronto students adopted Sistema Toronto for its Philanthropy and Youth project, which was up for a $5,000 prize for the best presentation.

El Sistema-inspired programs are proliferating across Canada — there are at least 12 programs being run from New Brunswick to British Columbia. “What’s very exciting, “ says Visentin, “is that there’s a momentum happening, more activity happening in Canada per capita than, I believe, anywhere else in the world, and Ontario is leading in the number of programs that are Sistema-inspired.” 

Rebecca Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who writes on culture and the arts.


St. Michael’s Choir School’s Stephen Handrigan

handriganSometimes second chances take a long time in coming. Fortunately, if you’re only 10 or 11 years old, you don’t spend a lot of time regretting lost opportunities. You just put it behind you, grow up and get on with the rest of your life — or so you think.

It’s been four decades, but the winsome little boy who sang “O Holy Night” to a packed cathedral in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has never forgotten what it felt like. Especially since the cathedral in question was the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which, when it was consecrated in 1855, was the largest Irish cathedral outside of Ireland and the largest church in North America — and a full house meant more than 3,000 seats filled.

“I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with four sisters and three brothers — we were a bit like the von Trapps of St. John’s — after supper, we’d get around a piano and sing,” reminisces Stephen Handrigan, the new director of the St. Michael’s Choir School. “And, of course,” he points out, “there’s a huge choral tradition in Newfoundland.”

The legendary musicologist Sister Kathrine Bellamy was the organist and music director at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist for almost a quarter of a century, but she also worked with several school choirs in St. John’s. Handrigan still remembers the many chants she taught, and her favourite Schubert lieder.

For the young boy introduced to sacred music by Sister Kathrine, the highlight of his young life was the prospect of being sent to the St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, which seemed like light years away from St. John’s at the time. But, in the end, the funding fell through and the boarding school experience never materialized.

Handrigan went on to study music and music education at Memorial University in St. John’s and eventually pursued a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. After trying out both coasts of the country, he finally made it to Toronto.

All in all, he’s been teaching music in schools for nigh on 30 years, including at Upper Canada College and the Country Day School in King City. Between 2003 and 2005, he directed the Conference of Independent Schools’ Music Festival. He’s accustomed both to seeing the big picture and to being front and centre, because he’s also a singer. As a baritone, he put in a stint with the Canadian Opera Company and he continues to be active in his church choir.

Before St. Michael’s callled, he had a pretty full life, as a husband and father of two sons and as an administrator with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. To be honest, he hadn’t given St. Michael’s Choir School much thought. So he was completely gobsmacked when the invitation to be its new director came. That’s why he ended up replaying his voice mail message 20 times before it finally sank in.

Upon accepting the position, he found himself immersed in a surreal flurry of meet and greet as he was introduced to the various faculty, staff, committees, students and members of the community he would get to know. He was learning about the rubrics of his job, as he says, “one conversation at a time, with students, parents”— in short, with everyone who could help him piece together the big picture.

It wasn’t until he walked into the Founder’s Day concert in the middle of October, when he heard the boys singing the descants from Monsignor John Ronan’s timeless compositions, that he thought to himself, “I’m in heaven. The hair was standing at the back of my neck, listening to those 300 voices, so poignant and profound.”

(Ronan, who founded the St. Michael’s Choir School in 1937 and was its principal until his death in 1962, was also a composer of sacred music. While his work has continued to be sung as part of the repertoire of the choir, Ronan’s accomplishment as a composer has been sadly overlooked, Handrigan says, pointing to the fact that many of Ronan’s 400 compositions sat in the school’s archives, unpublished for 50 years. As part of a busy year ahead, Handrigan will be discussing with doctoral candidate Robin Williams, who is cataloguing Ronan’s work, how to bring this sacred music to a wider audience.)

For the choir school, things are already busy! First up, and continuing its Christmas tradition, in its 73rd annual concert, the St. Michael’s Choir School will be featured in two performances, on Saturday, December 15, 2012 and Sunday, December 16, 2012 at Massey Hall. Conducted by Dr. Jerzy Cichocki, the 270-strong choir will be joined by Teri Dunn, Charissa Bagan and Jakub Martinec, and special guests the True North Brass quintet.

Then, on January 2, 2013, to mark its 75th year, the St. Michael’s Choir School will perform a benefit concert, called simply, “A Gift of Music,” at Roy Thomson Hall. The proceeds from the benefit concert will be used to support bursaries and scholarships so that no student has to be turned away solely for financial reasons.

Directed by alumnus Andrew Craig, “A Gift of Music” will feature a dazzling cast of alumni that includes, among others, jazz vocalist Matt Dusk, Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies, bass baritone Stephen Hegedus, Celtic musician James McKie and operatic superstar Michael Schade. The two co-hosts that evening will be actor and alumnus Jim Codrington and jazz vocalist Heather Bambrick. (Bambrick never went to the choir school, but has a Newfoundland connection. Handrigan remembers teaching the young Bambrick, who played the clarinet in school, years before she launched both her singing career and her morning radio program.)

But the busy times don’t stop there: As one of only six choir schools in the world affiliated with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, St. Michael’s Choir School provides sacred music for St. Michael’s Cathedral of such a calibre that the choir has performed for prime ministers, monarchs and popes. The first time the choir school went to Rome for a papal audience was 42 years ago, and it’s been 16 years since it last appeared at the Vatican. That’s why their upcoming tour to Italy in April 2013 is such a momentous undertaking.

“I never dreamt I’d be sitting in Cardinal Collins’s office talking about a tour to Italy,” says Handrigan, who will be leading an entourage of 350, including 180 choir boys. They will sing high mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with his Eminence, Thomas Cardinal Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, on April 7, 2013. Then, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Pontifical College, where Canadian Catholic priests go to study in Rome, there will also be a command performance the next day.

This is the time of the year when we all stop both to take stock and to celebrate. December 15, when he hears again the first unforgettable bars of “O Holy Night,” Stephen Handrigan will not be the first — and certainly not the last — to marvel at the many twists and turns it has taken for him to finally join the choir. 

Rebecca Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who writes on culture and the arts.

Mooredale’s Anton Kuerti

11-60behindthesceneskuertiThere was Anton Kuerti, with his nimbus of unruly hair, in the auditorium of Walter Hall on a balmy Sunday afternoon looking for all the world like a latter-day Einstein. Except this was no theoretical physicist nor amateur musician but a man who has been called one of the truly great pianists of this century, a pianist who has been lionized in practically every one of the almost 40 countries he has played and whose name is very nearly synonymous with Beethoven’s great “Emperor” Concerto.

Surrounded by the principal players of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as they deftly performed excerpts from Schubert’s Octet and Spohr’s Nonet, he surveyed the forest of hands that shot up in answer to his gently probing questions and fielded a volley of eager responses from young children and their families. It was quite an introduction to the first concert in Mooredale Concerts’ Music & Truffles series, one specifically designed to acquaint first-timers with classical music.

It is easy to forget, in taking a measure of the man — when that man is Anton Kuerti — that he is not simply a concert pianist par excellence. Impresario, talent scout, chief copywriter, principal website and ticketing strategist, entrepreneur: these are just some of the hats he has added to his repertoire after assuming the mantle of artistic director of Mooredale Concerts five years ago following the death of his wife, the cellist Kristine Bogyo.

The genesis of these concerts began in 1986 when their son Julian was ten years old and Bogyo was looking for a youth orchestra where the young violinist could further hone his skills. Then, as now, notes Kuerti dryly, “it’s very important and worthwhile to have as part of music education (but) there’s a scarcity of chamber music opportunities for outstanding young artists.”

By the second year, the ten children Bogyo started with when she decided to grow her own youth orchestra in the family’s living room, had trebled, prompting a move to Mooredale House. “Kristine had the knack for making young people love music and understand it,” Kuerti says, citing the letters parents and the young musicians themselves continue to write, even after they go on to professional careers.

In the intervening years, the single orchestra has blossomed into three. Clare Carberry, a fellow cellist, joined Bogyo 21 years ago and now conducts the intermediate orchestra. Bill Rowson conducts both the junior and senior orchestras while Kuerti himself leads the senior orchestra’s summer concert. Mooredale Concerts continues to provide opportunities and bursaries for those who need them.

The youth orchestras have an enviable reputation not just among the music teachers who entrust their young charges but among the young musicians themselves who, says Carberry, “experience the joy of performing but also make friends as well.” Bogyo’s sister Esther, whose own children have been a part of the orchestras, agrees: “It lets the kids see each other as very cool and that it’s okay to love music.”

Bogyo realized, from the outset, that it was crucial to the growth and development of the fledgling musicians not just to play, but also to listen. “Take Beethoven’s Fifth,” says Kuerti, “To you and me, it’s perhaps too well known, but everybody hears it for the first time. And every music lover should have a chance to hear it live.”

Thus was born the Concert Series as an opportunity to showcase home-grown talent, providing a platform for collaboration with artists such as Isabel Bayrakdarian and Measha Brueggergosman long before they became well known. Kuerti continues this fine tradition by inviting the winners of the Young Canadian Musicians Award, on which jury he sits, to perform in concert.

Whereas Bogyo concentrated on home turf with special attention to the Canadian landscape, Kuerti works from a broader palette, deepening the variety and range of works presented. When he invited nine of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s first chair players to open the current season in what would turn out to be a sold-out concert, they already had their work cut out for them. It was Kuerti who suggested that they play Schubert and Spohr.

“He’s a music scholar many times over,” says Christina Cavanagh, Mooredale Concerts’ managing director. Kuerti views his task as not merely one of programming an audience favourite such as Schubert, but giving an overlooked master like Spohr his due. “He was an incredible violinist himself and there is a lot of virtuoso writing in the Nonet,” Kuerti points out.

Only two words guide Kuerti’s programming: “Great music.” As an artistic director he is intent on “presenting something people will buy and love: some Canadian, so far as it’s really good, but also 20th and 21st century music.” And as with any impresario worth his salt, he also keeps a canny eye on breaking new ground.

A case in point: booking the Dali String Quartet for a concert next February. This young group, schooled in Venezuela’s El Sistema, focuses on Latin American music, in particular the work of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, but plays the traditional string quartet repertoire as well. Kuerti is just as enthusiastic about Pierrot Moonstruck, where poetry and mime will, for the first time, be married to piano music and the soprano voice in a program that evokes turn of the century Paris using music by Chopin, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.

On December 4 Mooredale Concerts subscribers will be ushered into Koerner Hall to hear Kuerti play yet another concerto, Brahms’ Second, as part of an a program that also includes the composer’s Symphony No.4,when he reunites with Marco Parisotto and the Ontario Philharmonic. It will be another tribute to his stewardship of what began a quarter of a century ago as a mother’s quest and one woman’s act of creative imagination: the opening salvo in a continuing celebration of great music. 

Rebecca Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who writes on culture and the arts.

Richard Marsella and the Musical Life of Regent Park

coverstory lollipoppeopleliveWhen the students of the Regent Park School of Music took to the stage with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters at Toronto’s Rogers Centre this past June, they were performing for an audience of 40,000 — no mean feat for 15 students from a little community music school. Not that these particular students are strangers to large crowds. After all, they’ve performed at Blue Jays openers before. But this time around, their rousing rendition of Another Brick in the Wall was, in fact, a reprise of several sold out concerts two years ago.

That first time, when Waters contacted the school in 2010, they were given such short notice that, armed only with a copy of the lyrics and a YouTube video, the students virtually practised in the bus on the way to the concert at the Air Canada Centre. Still, that was a demonstration of the kind of sterling professionalism (and gusto!) worthy of any serious musician — and the kind of challenges that these students have surmounted before.

For the children of Regent Park, the challenges have never been simply, or even predominantly, financial. When the music school first began almost on a hope and a prayer in 1999, the neighbourhood’s name was widely used as a synonym for “gangs and drugs.” As a scenario it was not so very different from the slums of Caracas in Venezuela in 1975, where one of the giants of music education in our time, Jose Antonio Abreu, hit on the plan of luring children of poverty away from crime by providing free musical training.

El Sistema, the voluntary music education program Abreu founded, and for which he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2009, began dismally, with just 11 students. Today, it has close to 370,000 students and boasts 125 youth orchestras, 31 symphony orchestras and the celebrity of alumni like conductor Gustavo Dudamel. What’s more, it’s an enduring testimony to the transformative power of music.

Read more: Richard Marsella and the Musical Life of Regent Park

Nina Draganic, “Lobbyist”

10 nina draganic  3 - karen reevesA night at the opera is often burnished into memory as somehow grander, more glamorous and opulent than any other night. Soaring melodies, impressive sets, ingenious costumes: the sheer spectacle tends to obscure the hundreds of hours of beavering and, more accurately, the years of preparation that made it all possible. Everyone conspires to make the magic happen. So in that moment when everything falls into place, it all somehow seems inevitable and we rarely, while caught up in the moment, stop to question it: to wonder about the science behind the magic, to speculate what might have happened instead, to ask “what if?” These are questions for the lobby after the curtain has fallen.

This month, our spotlight falls on an individual whose life is bound up with watering and feeding the beast that is opera, almost always out of the limelight and behind the scenes, indeed more often in the lobby than in the hall itself! But in terms of life’s twists and turns, for Nina Draganic, who is among other things the curator of the Canadian Opera Company’s lobby concert series, one could also ask “what if?”

Read more: Nina Draganic, “Lobbyist”
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