In my Prism Cell

I like to think there is a particular point on the narrow spiral catwalk inside the large-chimneyed incinerator of hell reserved for art critics who have somewhere in their twisted souls a fierce and thirsty love for the paintings of Seurat or Manet. At this particular point on the interior wall of hell’s chimney, therefore, is a large painting by one or the other of these two painters. Hell, by definition for the aforementioned critic lies in the fact that he cannot step back far enough from the painting to get it in focus, without falling over the railing of the catwalk into the fiercest fires at the very bottom of the chimney, which are reserved for ex-mayors and people who use “walking ovations” to be the first out of the opera or symphony hall. 

I particularly enjoy thinking about other people’s hells when I am sitting nailed to a computer screen, contemplating in little prismatic flashes all the pleasures of the musical month ahead that will, alas, for the most part be denied to me, because after a day to catch my breath I will be plunged into the next publishing cycle, sitting on my bum behind a computer screen.

But oh how pretty the little flashes are.

For example, there’s noticing that Shauna Rolston (who found her way onto the cover of the magazine this month because of her involvement in Peggy Baker Dance Projects he:she) will demonstrate her passion and versatility at least twice in other contexts this month: Monday March 10 at U of T with the Cecilia Quartet and soprano Stacie Dunlop, and March 7 as part of the TSO’s tenth annual New Creations Festival. Has it really been ten years since Peter Oundjian arrived on the scene?

And there’s noting (with double pleasure) not only that the Toronto New Music Alliance is back at the Toronto Reference Library March 3, 10 and 17 with New Music 101 but also that John Terauds will be hosting the series. (See the very end of our ETCETERA FILE, which starts on page 47, for information on the series.) Terauds’ involvement is a treat. He has the ability to ask the kinds of straightforward questions an expert in the field wouldn’t condescend to.

Speaking of Terauds, I noticed that he shows up in an entirely unexpected capacity this issue, as librettist for a short opera called Etiquette (composer, Toy Piano Collective’s Monica Pearce) which will be one of three presented April 5 at Heliconian Hall by Essential Opera.

I could go on. But the reality is I won’t make it out to more than a fraction of the world of musical fulfillment that’s out there for the taking. But you will, won’t you? So write me when you do. 

publisher@thewholenote.com


A funny thing happened

on the way from the lobby (the north lobby that is, of Roy Thomson Hall). I was on my way back from RTH to the WholeNote office here at the Centre for Social Innovation at 720 Bathurst Street, last Wednesday morning January 15 2014. I had been at the Simcoe-King punchbowl for a Toronto Symphony Orchestra 10am season launch for their 2014/15 season (more about that in a minute), and was heading back to the WholeNote office. On that particular morning it was cold enough that instead of my usual King-Streetcar-to-Bathurst/Bathurst-Streetcar to-Lennox saunter I took the coward’s way and slunk through the underground tunnels from RTH to St. Andrew and took the trains to Bathurst. And it was there that the aforementioned funny thing happened. Ah but I am going too fast. Some background is needed.

Two bits of history

First bit of history: around 10 or 12 years ago the TTC decided that loitering at Bathurst subway station was becoming a real problem. The best possible way to deal  with the perceived problem, their experts decided, was to pipe non-stop classical music into the station, reasoning that the loiterers, being of a certain ilk, would be so offended that they would vacate. 

Second bit of history: around two years ago the TTC decided that the pigeons who had moved into residence inside the Bathurst subway station were becoming a real problem (riding the escalators to the platforms, for example).  The way to deal with the problem, the experts said, was to pipe loud recordings of hawks at unpredictable intervals into the station, reasoning that any self-respecting pigeon would immediately beat a retreat no matter how cold it was outside.

Back to our story

And so it was that at around 12:30pm this past January 15 I was strolling through the mezzanine level at Bathurst subway station, my press kit from the TSO season launch in one hand and a patty from the station patty shop in the other. And right then, a funny thing happened. What happened was that the Brandenburg concerto (in A440) stopped, and simultaneously Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and a Sharp-shinned Hawk launched their respective cadences into the mezzanine.  And nary a loiterer bolted. And not one pigeon ducked for cover.

Aha, I said to myself. There is a new audience for this music we love.

And back to RTH

I love the way that season launches and press conferences have morphed over the years we’ve been doing this stuff. Ten years ago a TSO season launch would have attracted 30 TSO staffers, about the same number of  sponsors, and maybe 15 ink-stained wretches from media, mainstream and  otherwise. Someone from the TSO would have introduced some key sponsor who would have read a quick speech and then the music director would have tried to sound spontaneous as he made his way through the media package that was going to be handed out at the end of the launch anyway, so no real need to take notes or listen.

It’s sure not that way any more! For one thing, there were well over 250 people at this launch, most of them TSO subscribers, seduced by an occasion offering genuinely witty and off-the-cuff stuff from the music director, interspersed with four or five well-produced little video greetings from the coming season’s luminaries, and an opportunity right after the launch to sit in on a TSO rehearsal in the hall.  In fact there were so many people there enjoying the event that you could hardly see that the number of media types in attendance these days is far-and-away less healthy than, say, the number of pigeons on the platform at Bathurst subway station.

As for the details of the season announced last Wednesday, stay tuned over the next month or so. There’s a lovely lot to talk about, and Peter Oundjian, the TSO music director, has promised us a visit, probably at the beginning of March, during their New Creations Festival, to talk about it all. “Hard to believe it’s already ten years since he came on the scene” you hear some say.  “Hard to believe it’s only ten years” you hear from others; testament, I suppose to the fact that he wears the role with all the comfort of an old pair of slippers and all the enjoyment of a kid with a brand new toy.

And what of the endangered few?

That’s what I found myself wondering leaving RTH that particular frosty morning. And by “the few” I don’t  mean the pigeons or the loiterers, but us. The arts media. When in all the time I have been doing this, I found myself wondering, have I ever felt more mainstream leaving a TSO launch? In other words, when has the main stream of arts coverage in the city’s media been so dried up and shrunken that The WholeNote’s presence or absence at an event like this would even be noticed or commented upon?

 Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having one’s contribution to the cause noted. But it’s unnerving to realize that one is standing out in a crowd because the crowd is dwindling.

Among the biggest talking points at the TSO launch that day was that one of the city’s best and truest voices on the musical arts scene might be thinking of winding up his blog, leaving us all with a far less musical Toronto.

Nah, I say, if Grieg and the hawks can keep the pigeons and loiterers hanging around to listen at Bathurst Station, there’s hope for reinvention yet.

publisher@thewholenote.com

PRICELESS

More readers each month are starting to notice (and comment on the fact) that where we used to say FREE on our cover we now say PRICELESS.

It’s a bit of an in-joke, but it’s also a clear-eyed warning that, to paraphrase the Rhodes scholar, “nothing ain’t worth nothing if it’s free.” Thirty thousand copies a month to make and distribute are just that, and not covered by the four percent in revenue that we derive from arts councils grants!

We’d love to keep things that way forever, and for now we aren’t asking you our readers to do anything different: find us, pick us up each month, use us with joy, and support the endeavours of all the musically alive entities whose endeavours we catalogue, among them the advertisers who pay our bills!

Viva la musica! 

The Street Where I Live …

The Street Where I Live contains probably only five or six dozen buildings in total. They include a firehall, daycare (soon to become a little Montessori School), community centre/settlement house, heritage nursing home converted to assisted housing, and a mix of houses from the 1880s to the 1960s, in various states of decay and ambitious renovation, accommodating a wide range of “household types” from empty nesters to multi-generational immigrant families, to rooming houses, to student housing, to double-income-no-kid (yet) trendies young and old, waiting patiently or impatiently for the neighbourhood to also mobilize upward.

It also contains a park the size of a small city block, a “Green P” parking lot (three quarters the size of the park) and far and away the downtown’s finest willow tree, its branches stretching skyward, its puzzled roots wondering where Russell Creek, long buried, went.

On the street where I live there are probably only five or six dozen buildings, but they include two that are steeped in history: the Kiever Synagogue (furthest south) and St. Stephen in-the-Fields Anglican Church (furthest north).

My personal musical November started at the Kiever during Holocaust Education Week, and will draw to a close November 29 at St. Stephen in-the-Fields with a concert titled “Music for Autism,” organized by pianist Richard Herriott, and written about in a story by Rebecca Chua in the previous issue of The WholeNote.

It’s just a few short blocks and a few short weeks between the one event and the other, but in between I have already had a chance to observe how far the ripples from one concert can spread. The concert at the Kiever was titled “Letters from Bozena” which was the name of the major work, by musicologist/composer Charles Heller, on the second half of the program. Bozena was his grandmother’s name and the work, for soprano soloist (Stacie Carmona) and chamber ensemble, was built on letters Bozena had written from Czechoslovakia to her son (Heller’s father) who had taken refuge in England in the late 1930s as the storm clouds gathered.

It was “not your typical concert audience.” Members of the congregation rubbed shoulders with outsiders drawn by the event’s musical pedigree. The venue itself is rarely, if ever, used for concertizing; but great music making from performers such as violinist Barry Shiffman and pianist Bram Goldhammer, in repertoire ranging from Dvořák to Golijov hung beautifully in the air above the bimah. And the context, historical, personal and memorial, of the concert gave the music that edge that relevance brings; when the form and function of a work are reunited, as when a requiem is sung at an actual funeral, or one can take communion while one of the world’s great choirs sings.

As interesting to me has been observing how ripples can spread from one concert to another. A case in point: entering the Kiever that day I noticed inserted into the program a postcard for a November 23 event — Toronto Consort’s presentation of Ensemble Lucidarium, a Milan-based consort specializing in Jewish music of 15th century Italy. It was a canny bit of product placement, I thought at the time, but a bit of a long shot. I was wrong; the Saturday November 23 performance of Ensemble Lucidarium at Trinity-St. Paul’s had at least a dozen members of the audience from the Kiever two weeks previous, for music that leapt effortlessly across the centuries into an enthusiastic audience’s receptive ears.

Concert making will find its way back into the Kiever I found myself thinking; and Toronto Consort will have found new listeners as well.

Similarly it will be interesting to see what kind of ripple effect “Music for Autism” at St. Stephen’s will have had by the next time I’m back writing this column. Will there be people who find their way from that event to Walter Buczynski’s 80th anniversary concert at Walter Hall January 26, having noticed that Herriott will be one of the pianists assembling, along with Buczynski himself, for that event? Or will there be people there (with children, for example) who take heart from being at a concert where funeral-like decorum is not imposed, and who begin to realize that concert norms, like the music itself, are always evolving and changing? Or that their own assumptions about their children’s capacity for attention and appreciation are greater than they thought they might be?

I have no grand peroration to this little opener — just to say that it’s a season of change with glorious opportunities to revel in the familiar and to step just a little bit outside our usual comfort zones. Enjoy. Dare. And we’ll see you on the other side of the saelig season. 

publisher@thewholenote.com

Back to Front

I checked The Wholenote’s snail-mail really late tonight — deep in the throes of putting the November issue to bed, and have to walk down four flights of stairs to get it. But I needed a break before diving into what has become a serious love/hate ritual for me over the nearly two decades of doing this: namely the task of closing the issue by writing this Opener.

There were a few cheques in the mail, a “thank-you” card from a printer rep I can’t remember talking to on the phone and — here’s the point — yet another reader survey, clipped from the September magazine, completed by hand, stamped and placed in a hand-addressed envelope and put into the mail. The flood of survey responses has dried to a trickle at this point, so as I opened it I found myself thinking “What if this were the last one? If so, what would the ‘last word’ from our readers be?”

“Thank you for printing WholeNote” she wrote. “It has introduced me to so many venues in Toronto. Toronto is such a vibrant musical city but I did not know it until I found your magazine about 7 years ago and I lived in Toronto most of my life. Please continue this magazine, I get it every month. It would be such a loss to me if I didn’t get it.”

Aside from the fact that it’s always nice to brag, the profound point I get from this lovely affirmation is that we had nothing to do with creating the vibrancy — it’s the city that has that. All we did was open someone’s ears to the pulse of what is already going on.

Stretching the point still further, it seems to me that what The WholeNote has done for that individual’s sense of the vibrancy of our city’s musical life, so music itself does to tune us, individually and collectively, to the inextinguishable roaring vibrancy of life.

Increasingly, looking around, people have taken music and commoditized it, made it entirely personal — shoving little earbuds in their ears, bopping to their own individualized rhythms in a helter of other people, all slightly out of sync in their aloneness.

I happen to think the tide is turning, though. Precisely because the digitized world gives us the capacity to be completely alone, the messy meat monkey that is the human self gets hungry to escape a world that is suddenly, alarmingly, back to front. And seeks out a world of community, of congregation. It may not be to concert halls as we know them, but it will be rooms full of people engaged in listening to the same live roaring hum of music in the ears.

“Teach me to listen, teach me to sing, teach me to play, teach me how to learn” comes the gathering cry. And music says: “I can do that.”

Here are some interesting snippets of all this from the writings you will find in this issue:

Hans de Groot in Art of Song: “Last summer my daughter Saskia turned twelve [and] chose ... to move to the Downtown Vocal Music Academy on Denison Avenue, ... the brainchild of Mark Bell, a man known in musical circles for his leadership of Canada Sings, a community Sing-along that meets every second Tuesday of the month somewhere in East Toronto.”

Jack MacQuarrie, our Bandstand columnist, digging into studies supporting the benefits of music and quoting the lead scientist on one such study: “Everyone can benefit from music training. A wealth of empirical, neuroscientific evidence supports the positive influence of music training on numerous non-musical brain functions, such as language, reading and attention ... across the lifespan into older adulthood.”

Richard Herriott, interviewed by Rebecca Chua, talking movingly about the music series he and Winona Zelenka will launch at St Stephen in-the-Fields Anglican Church this month, not only to raise awareness of and funds for autism spectrum research, but just as importantly to create a context for people with autism spectrum disorders to attend live music and have the particularities of their individualism embraced as part of the concert experience.

Ben Stein, in Choral Scene, describing a concert by the Orpheus Choir of Toronto which will feature Benjamin Britten’s 1938 cantata World of the Spirit: “Britten was a life-long pacifist who lived briefly in America during the beginning of WWII, in part because his pacifist leanings were not well received in pre-war Britain.” A concert like this requires more than passive spectatorship — it combines “choral music and visual imagery, in the kind of multimedia presentation that has become an Orpheus Choir specialty.” and demands engagement of head and heart.

And here’s Allan Pulker in Seeing Orange our ongoing commitment to the cause of music education, usually nestled deep in the magazine but brought by occasions such as this from the back to the front.“In March this year we published our first Orange Pages directory” he writes, “a collection of profiles written by private music teachers, community music schools and summer music programs of various kinds. Their goals and ours were, and remain the same — to put music teachers with something to offer in touch with prospective students wanting to learn.” Namely with you, “the reader who is looking for opportunities to deepen the place of music in your life or the life of someone close to you.”

As the nights lengthen may the gathering dark find you, vibrantly, among the friends you find through music. That’s what we’re here for. 

—publisher@thewholenote.com

PRICELESS

Sick of doing surveys? Well tough! We’ve got another one for you. But this one’s real short. It’s not about what you think of The WholeNote either, or asking sneaky questions about where you fit in the overall demographic scheme of things. It’s for those of you who have a hankering to learn more about music — whether that be to appreciate it better or to to make use of that old instrument gathering dust, or to take what you already know to be one of life’s imperatives to the next level. What are you looking for in a music teacher? is the basic question. Help us help you find one. There’s an explanation of all this on page 61 in the magazine; the survey itself is at thewholenote.com/orangesurvey.

Blessings on your head for giving freely of your time!

Rainbow Chasing

People who have watched this magazine grow and change over the decades have seen us add other strands to our core commitment: to paint as a comprehensive picture as we can of live local music as it happens. Our BLUE PAGES came first — this month’s is the 14th iteration. A couple of years later we added our CANARY PAGES every May — an attempt to give choirs and prospective choristers an opportunity to find each other and new audiences. (Bit of trivia, we started out calling it the Choral YELLOW pages but a kindly lawyer advised us not to play with fire.) Our GREEN PAGES came next — not so much a commitment to things ecological as a nod to the verdant fact of summer music making.

And now, as we chase some rainbow ideal of full spectrum usefulness, it is music education, in all its forms, that has us choosing ORANGE as a colour to symbolize this brave new quest.

First installment of our ORANGE PAGES came in March, second comes next issue. Whereas in the first we tried to get a bit of a feel for who’s out there in the world of continuing education — private teachers, studios, community music schools — this time round we’re planning to start looking at the topic of full-time music-centred education at the secondary and post-secondary level.

Here’s the twist: this is a quest like no other before it. Because its starting point will be not what schools choose to say about themselves, but rather the questions that you, the prospective student, should have the confidence to ask.

All a bit cryptic? Never mind. All will be revealed.

And meanwhile, speaking of chasing rainbows, this is an issue of The WholeNote that sparkles like a prism in the autumn sun. Great writing, lots of candour, much as always to do and hear. We are happy to have you along for the great musical ride! 

publisher@thewholenote.com


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