Seymour Bernstein. Photo: Ramsey Fendall. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

“Music is a reminder of our own potential for perfection.”
-- Seymour Bernstein

In last September’s issue of The WholeNote, in my preview of the Toronto International Film Festival, I wrote that the film I was most looking forward to was Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction. It had been Hawke’s explanation of Bernstein’s teaching mantra (responding to Hubert Vigilia’s question on, two years ago just as the film was taking shape) that piqued my curiosity and made the film a must on my TIFF to-do list.

Said Hawke: “He’s a very deep guy. I was touched by him, and I thought he had a lot to teach me about acting, and then I slowly realized that the way he’s talking about the piano relates to every profession.”

I was touched, charmed and inspired by Hawke’s moving documentary when I saw it at TIFF and couldn’t wait to see it again. Six months later, it’s begun an exclusive engagement at the Cineplex Varsity Cinemas. The second time I was even more moved. Be prepared to be charmed and inspired when you see it. It’s unmissable.

Hawke (Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) has given us a tender, warm portrait of the captivating pianist Seymour Bernstein. Among many things Hawke’s documentary does, it debunks the axiom that those who can, do and those who can’t, teach. And it does so with wall-to-wall piano music highlighted by Bernstein’s own playing of Chopin (Berceuse, Ballade No.1, Nocturne Op.37 No.2) and Beethoven (Bagatelles Op.126, Sonata Op.111, “Moonlight” Sonata) among others, as well as some of his own compositions. 

Feature1-Kate_Applin.jpgThe classical music world’s relationship with youth has definitely seen better days. But it has also seen worse. In recent years, performers, presenters and concertgoers have worked hard at debunking the myth, resilient to this day, that classical music is only for those much older and far richer than your average music lover. There are fatal misconceptions about the type of person you have to be to listen to classical music; for some, white hair and deep pockets are the necessary prerequisites for admission into the genre’s inner circle. And with so many musical opportunities out there, no wonder so many younger people eschew the idea of becoming interested in a music genre that has only ever seemed to belong to the generation of their grandparents.

Opera is no exception. It can require a large cast, orchestra and production team to mount a show of traditional operatic proportions, which means that expenses can run high. So high, in fact, that down the line it means sometimes catering to the crowds who can afford to pay. It all gives the whole genre an aura of lavishness and grandeur that it only sometimes deserves.

Nothing, however, is so one-sided—and the tide is turning. In recent years, a number of smaller opera companies have cropped up in the Toronto area alone that are doing innovative work with fewer resources than might be expected. And often, that innovation goes hand-in-hand with a redirection towards more diverse opera audiences—proving that opera has the ability to go places that those used to the grand stage may not have imagined.

2006-Etcettera_Etcettera_Ounjain_MaestroClasses.jpgMaster classes such as those listed in Section E: The Etceteras, are invaluable learning experiences. And not just for the participating students. Those listening in, be they students or other musicians can gain insights into performing that they can use in their own private pursuits; curious music lovers can likewise get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the ways music that they hear in the course of their concertgoing lives is imagined and prepared.

TSO music director Peter Oundjian held his second RCM masterclass of the season February 9, teaching students from the Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists. As the Academy’s dean Barry Schiffman (himself a former student of Oundjian) explained, the Glenn Gould School’s student body ranges in age from 18 to 23 whereas the Taylor Academy’s runs from 12 to 17. (Oundjian’s final masterclass of the season March 2 from 5pm to 7pm at Mazzoleni Hall will focus on GGS students.)

2006-Feature_2-Till_Fellner_1.jpgTill Fellner was 18 in 1990 when he was asked to play for Alfred Brendel. It was arguably the pivotal moment of his life. Three years later he won the Clara Haskil piano competition gaining a modicum of name recognition and an entrée into the world of recordings.

The head of the keyboard department at the Vienna conservatory, where Fellner had been a student since 1981, had suggested a meeting with Brendel in a castle in Grafenegg not far from Vienna where the noted pianist was giving a recital. Fellner was invited to listen to Brendel’s rehearsal in the morning and then play a few pieces for him. The older pianist immediately started teaching by correcting what the younger man was playing. His first lesson had just begun. Brendel then suggested that Fellner call him and arrange another.

2006-Feature_1-Slattery_and_La_Nef.jpgLet us now take a moment to praise John Dowland. The early music movement owes much to the famed English composer and master of the Renaissance lute song. He gave us a sizeable body of work that has come to function as a kind of soundtrack to the English Renaissance for modern listeners. As impressive, in his own time, Dowland was famous throughout Europe, not only as a composer of popular songs (nearly 90) but also for his solo lute music (nearly 90 of those works as well).

As a Catholic in late Elizabethan England, though, Dowland found it difficult to make a living in the early stages of his career. Although he was a trained musician with a Bachelor of Music from Oxford (apparently they gave out music degrees in the 16th century too), Dowland blamed intolerance against Catholics for his inability to get a position in the English court, eventually leaving England in 1594, to make his fortune abroad on the Continent. His exceptional talents took him far and wide, and he earned renown from Denmark to Italy. After nearly two decades abroad, Dowland finally returned to England as a lutenist in the Catholic court of James I. Although the well-travelled composer was a citizen of the world who, as the story goes, eventually came home to England, he has come to symbolize a particularly English sound for the music of his time.

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