When Tanya Tagaq Won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize

In my October World Music Beat column I offered a “Polaris Music Prize Trailer,” luring readers with the promise of “a backstage pass to the avant-garde Inuk vocalist Tany Tagaq’s jaw-dropping ten-minute performance…” I’m here to deliver on that promise. I will also weighing in on the ramifications of the thrice JUNO-nominated Tagaq’s win on September 22, 2014 for her CD Animism. It’s the “best Canadian album regardless of genre and sales” according to Polaris, and her win this year certainly marks a significant milestone. For the first time it was awarded to an indigenous musician.

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When Tagaq, drummer Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot lit into their Polaris spot, it was as if an intensee Arctic wind had blown into downtown Toronto's The Carlu, howling. They played sections of their superb Animism with improvised throat singing upfront in the mix. I'd seen the trio on two other occasions. But when Christine Duncan cued her 40-voice improvising choir behind Tagaq, sounding like Xenakis or Ligeti's atonal chord clusters had just entered the hall, the concert achieved liftoff, moving onto another plane entirely. The multiple musical textures and traditions blended powerfully, the Inuit with the Euro-American-Canadian (featuring rock, free improv, soundscape, classical avant-garde and yet more genres).

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The Toronto Early Music Fair

Before the existence of public museums, gentlemen of a certain social standing would compile what they called a “cabinet of curiosities.” Like a museum in that it was a room, or rooms of artifacts devoted to culture in natural history, it differed in that the collection depended entirely on the whim of the gentleman collector and could include anything at all related to history, archaeology, geology, religious relics, antiquities and works of art. It was an approach to culture that depended on the collector’s freewheeling sense of enthusiasm.

One could feel it in the air at the annual Toronto Early Music Fair, where the wide-ranging talents of a diverse group of musicians were on display at Montgomery's Inn, along with a pile of antiques, musical scores and musical instruments, all curated as a labour of love by Early Music Toronto (EMT) and Frank Nakashima.

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Musicians in Ordinary

While we generally think of Elizabethan England as a Golden Age for the Arts, we often forget the political culture of paranoia, suspicion, and suspension of personal rights and freedoms that plagued England at the beginning of the 17th century. The average English citizen could expect to be detained indefinitely, tortured, and even executed if it was suspected that he was a member of a religion that was deemed by the English Crown to be hostile to English interests – namely, Catholicism. This was the theme of the Musicians in Ordinary's latest concert at Carr Hall at St. Michael's College, exploring the sacred music sponsored and composed by the undercover Catholics of England in a dangerous climate of religious persecution.

It didn't look like the Musicians in Ordinary had a particularly large body of work to choose from (given that the concert was dedicated to music that, by its very nature, was intended to remain as secret as possible) but despite lasting little over an hour, MiO managed to put together a comprehensive survey of composers from the English Renaissance, including Byrd, Robert Johnson, Tallis and Nicholas Strogers, and lutenist John Edwards played several solo English lute pieces as well as accompanied soprano Hallie Fishel with the help of a very fine violin band led by violinist Chris Verrette.

It was an interesting theme for a concert both from a historical and musical perspective, and the pre-concert lecture, given by Reverend Lisa Wang describing the persecution endured by Catholics in Elizabethan England was a welcome addition to the evening, but St. Mike's needs to invest in a stage manager if only to remind the octagenarian members of the concertgoing public that they are carrying cell phones that need to be turned off before the concert starts (yes, if you go to a classical concert in Toronto in 2014, someone's cell phone will still ruin part of it). The performers were further hindered by Carr Hall's air-conditioning system, which was left on throughout the concert and was loud enough to render most of the music, especially the lute solos, inaudible (which would have been bad enough without letting a techinician come in mid-concert to try to turn off said air conditioning with his walkie-talkie still on and receiving messages). This is simply not acceptable for a concert that advertizes itself to the paying public. Still, frustration is a powerful motivator, and the Musicians did seem to improve with the disturbances, or at least try harder to win back the audience's attention. Here's hoping they outshine their venue next time.



Music and the Movies: Love Is Strange

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Two men, as comfortable with one another as the proverbial pair of old shoes, rise and get dressed up accompanied by Chopin’s exquisite Berceuse. It’s a most appropriate lullaby for Love Is Strange, Ira Sachs’ compassionate new film about family and other inter-connected relationships. And it’s just the first of six pieces by Chopin that serve as the principal soundtrack for this sweet, observant story of the ironies of life.

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Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Tour

tso at concertgebouwHow do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise. How do you get a reputation? Tour and record.

Although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has done all three, it is 14 years since Toronto's finest last set foot (a couple hundred feet actually) on the European continent, which makes them near strangers on their current five-nation tour.

The five-nation tour is actually only a five-city tour. It began near Vienna (the outdoor Grafenegg Festival outside the Austrian capital), continued in Amsterdam and Wiesbaden, currently finds the players in Helsinki; it will conclude in Reykjavik.

Not exactly a Napoleonic campaign, you may argue, but then, the days of the three-week multi-stop grand tour are virtually over, according to a representative of Harrison Parrot, the English agency responsible for managing this and many other orchestral visitations.

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Music and the Movies: Frank

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Blink and you might miss this little gem about the creative process that is in the cinematic roman à clef family alongside Almost Famous. Inspired by journalist/author Jon Ronson’s experience as a keyboardist with the Frank Sidebottom band at 20 in 1987, Frank follows a present day naive cubicle-dwelling office worker with pop music dreams as he immerses himself in the strange world of a band with the unpronounceable name “Soronprfbs.”

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Toronto Summer Music: A Chamber Music Masterclass

serkin1 printIn his introduction to the third concert of the Toronto Summer Music Festival last night, artistic director Douglas McNabney noted that the program the audience was about to hear had nothing in it related to the festival’s theme “The Modern Age,” but that he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to program the two signature piano quintets of the 19th century. It became clear once pianist Peter Serkin and the Orion String Quartet began to play Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op.34, however,  that the rearview mirror of history was at work, setting a context for what would come in the century that followed.

 

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Toronto Summer Music: Beatrice Rana’s Toronto Debut

1909 Classical 2Italian-born pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of the Silver Medal and Audience Award at last year’s Van Cliburn competition, brought a nearly full Walter Hall to its feet last night with a heartfelt, technically gripping performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 6 in A Major, Op.82. The 20-year-old took the Toronto Summer Music Festival clearly into the modern age with the Russian composer’s chromatic melody-maker that was soul food for the age of anxiety in which it was written.

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Toronto Summer Music Festival: The Emerson Quartet Dazzles

paul watkins 6 c nina largeThe latest edition of the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM) got off to a rousing start before a near-capacity Koerner Hall Tuesday evening with a scintillating performance by the Emerson Quartet appearing here for the first time since the arrival of cellist Paul Watkins in May of last year. With him, the venerable Emerson, now in its 37th year, has an added degree of warmth to go along with their impeccable sense of ensemble and steel-trap technique, all of which came together brilliantly in the splendid finale of Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D810, “Death and the Maiden,” the final piece of an ambitious program.

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