01 Aux Deux HemispheresAux deux hémisphères features two sonatas and three stand-alone works by Quebec cellist and composer Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy, accompanied by pianist Jean-Michel Dubé, (Société Métropolitaine du disque SMD 311-1 dominiquebeausejourostiguy.com). Although the CD’s extensive liner notes are unilingual French, the composer’s website gives detailed context in English for the project from which I take the following: “The title is a reference to two of my main sources of inspiration, namely the lyricism and the torment found in Russian post-Romantic music as well as the relentless rhythmic energy of Argentinian tango music. These two hemispheres are very present in my music and represent the two poles of my musical personality. Indeed, my compositions frequently alternate between introversion and extroversion [creating] a cinematographic flavour with a lot of intensity and contrasts. The two hemispheres are also a way of expressing the duality and the complicity between the cello and the piano, constantly in dialogue and each occupying a place of equal importance.” On repeated listening to this disc, the word that kept coming to my mind was “soaring.” The music itself is enthralling, both conventional and adventurous at the same time, and the multi-award-winning performers, are in top form. As pointed out by Terry Robbins elsewhere in these pages, the facilities at Domaine Forget where it was recorded in late 2021 “guaranteeing top-level sound quality,” this album is a real treat for chamber music enthusiasts. 

02 Duo CavatineNuages is another outstanding Canadian cello and piano disc, showcasing Noémie Raymond-Friset and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert respectively, collectively known as Duo Cavatine (KNS Classical KNS A/121 duocavatine.com). The title for this debut disc, which translates as clouds, comes from its centrepiece, producer David Jaeger’s Constable’s Clouds for solo cello. I spoke in my February column about a reworking of this piece with electronics for violist Elizabeth Reid, so I welcomed the opportunity to get to know this original set of variations inspired by the cloud studies of John Constable. Jaeger tells us the variations “of widely differing character” were inspired by the “magical and endless variation we see in the shapes of clouds streaming by.” Raymond-Friset, who gave the work’s premiere, rises to all the technical challenges Jaeger presents in these nuanced nuages. The disc opens with a rarely heard yet charming sonata by Francis Poulenc dating from the occupation years of the Second World War. It’s from the gentle second movement Cavatine that the duo has taken its name. Alfred Schnittke’s powerful Sonata for Cello and Piano No.1 reverses the normal order of things by starting and ending with Largo movements bookending a diabolic moto perpetuo Presto. Throughout the disc, whether in the lyricism of Poulenc or the abrasiveness of Schnittke, Raymond-Friset and Broekaert shine, with technique and musicality to burn. Recorded at Glenn Gould Studio the sound is, as we have come to expect from engineer Dennis Patterson, impeccable.

Listen to 'Nuages' Now in the Listening Room

03 Brian BaumbuschIn the Pot Pourri section this month you will find Andrew Timar’s thoughtful and informative account of three new discs by the California based Gamelan Sinar Surya, an ensemble devoted to preserving the traditional gamelan music of Indonesia and its diaspora. In contrast, following in the footsteps of his West Coast predecessor Lou Harrison, American composer Brian Baumbusch has created his own instruments in the Balinese tradition while also envisioning new performance practices through innovative building designs and special tunings. He has worked closely with the Balinese ensemble Nata Swara and in 2022 donated his instruments to them and shipped – 1,800 pounds of them – to Bali. He then went to Bali himself to record the album Chemistry for Gamelan and String Quartet with Nata Swara and JACK Quartet (New World Records 80833-2 newworldrecords.org/search?q=Brian+Baumbusch). The disc opens with the exhilarating Prisms for Gene Davis for gamelan, completed in 2021, the most recent work presented. This is followed by Three Elements for String Quartet (2016), Helium, Lithium and Mercury. Performed by JACK, the work, an extreme example of Baumbusch’s “polytempo” style, features close harmonies and some abrasive textures amid doppler effects and the breakneck speed of its final movement. The disc closes with Hydrogen(2)Oxygen (2015) featuring both ensembles. The work reconsiders the earlier Bali Alloy for quartet and gamelan in which the composer attempted to unite the disparate instruments. This later work takes into consideration the irreconcilability of its two sound worlds, i.e. the harmonic overtone series naturally produced by the string instruments and the inharmonic series of partials of the steel and cedar bars of the gamelan instruments. This allows the string quartet and gamelan to exist side-by-side, exploiting their combinations and contrasts for expressive effect; in the words of Stephen Brooke after the premiere, “building from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies [...] magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.” 

04 Jason DoellThere are times when Baumbusch’s textures sound unearthly and it’s hard to reconcile the sounds with acoustic instruments. The same is true of Jason Doell’s Becoming in Shadows – Of Being Touched (Whited Sepulchre Records WSR043 jasondoell.com), although in this instance there are electronic manipulations at work. All the sound materials originate from the composer’s daily piano improvisations recorded while in residency at the Banff Centre in early 2020 (although some of it seems to have been performed by Mauro Zannoli on a “frozen” piano, exhumed from a snowbank). These are, to greater and lesser degrees, subjected to a piece of simple generative music software developed by Doell. The program blends user-defined parameters with decision-making procedures to determine how sounds from an audio database are strung together, layered and transformed, all the while guided by the composer’s aesthetic. A kind of humanized AI design. The result is a dreamlike landscape, a labyrinthine journey where microtonal pitches are blended with soft percussive sounds, all recognizable as emanating from a piano, albeit an otherworldly one. 

Concert Note: On June 18 at Array Space the TONE Festival features Jason Doell as he launches his album Becoming In Shadows ~ Of Being Touched

05 Alice Ho BlazeAlthough there is an electronic aspect on one of the tracks of Christina Petrowska Quilico’s latest CD Blaze featuring piano music of Alice Ping Yee Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 31323 cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/Centrediscs), the rest are purely acoustic. Ho tells us “The eight works in this collection have short, descriptive titles, with inspiration drawn from abstract paintings, forces of nature, the last journey of a female pilot, a horror film, plus a show piece from a piano competition. These compositions are both introspective and personal, designed to elicit evocative ‘images’ or ‘impressions,’ visually and psychologically. It is a great honour to have these works recorded by Christina Petrowska Quilico, an astounding musician as well as an acclaimed visual artist. The poetic metaphors in these pieces not only showcase her powerful performer’s persona but also uniquely resonate with her beautiful and vibrant paintings.” Among the paintings depicted are Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Erupting Skies evokes Amelia Earhart’s last journey: “The solo piano is a symbolic representation of a female voice; […] the electronic track is a combination of Earhart’s voice with multiple layers of engineered acoustic and synthesized sounds.” The range of emotions depicted and the sheer virtuosity of several of the works make demands on the pianist that a lesser musician would find daunting. Petrowska Quilico, still at the top of her game after more than 50 recordings, rises to every challenge without breaking a sweat. Stay tuned for the upcoming Centrediscs release Shadow & Light, a double concerto CD with Petrowska Quilico and violinist Marc Djokic with Sinfonia Toronto under Nurhan Arman featuring music by Ho, Christos Hatzis and Larissa Kuzmenko. 

06a Future is Female 1If it is due to the efforts of Christina Petrowska Quilico that we are aware of as many Canadian women composers as we are, it is thanks to American pianist Sarah Cahill that the world is becoming increasingly aware of the presence of women composers throughout history. The Future is Female (firsthandrecords.com) is a project launched in March 2022 encompassing 30 composers ranging from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) to the more familiar 19th and early 20th-century names of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Germaine Tailleferre, and on into modern times with two dozen more including Betsy Jolas and Meredith Monk to name just a couple. Bringing the series to a close, Vol. 3 At Play (FHR133) was released in May 2023 and features works by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), Cécile Chaminade, Grażyna Bacewicz, Chen Yi, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Pauline Oliveros, Hannah Kendall, Aida Shirazi and Regina Harris Baiocchi, pieces by the last four having been composed in the 21st century. Cahill says “Like most pianists, I grew up with the classical canon, which has always excluded women composers as well as composers of color. It is still standard practice to perform recitals consisting entirely of music written by men. The Future is Female, then, aims to be a corrective towards rebalancing the repertoire. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, in any way, and the three albums represent only a small fraction of the music by women which is waiting to be performed and heard.” Each of the three volumes has a theme – In Nature, The Dance and At Play – and is arranged chronologically, with ten works spanning three centuries per CD. In this way each recital brings a fresh perspective and expands our understanding of the history of Western music from the classical to the modern era. Kudos to Cahill for convincing performances of the music of all these diverse styles and composers, for giving them voice and for opening our eyes and ears. 

07 Bruce CockburnSome half a century ago I spent many hours at my kitchen table trying to figure out a song from Bruce Cockburn’s eponymous first album, the inaugural release on Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records label. That song, Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon, has recently come back into my repertoire thanks to guitarist Brian Katz who attended one of my backyard music gatherings last fall. It’s taken a while to get my chops back for Cockburn’s intricate chord progressions and finger patterns, but it’s been worth the effort. So imagine the pleasure I felt to find Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon (True North Records TND811 truenorthrecords.com), in my inbox last month. Over the years Cockburn’s music has gone through changes from that pristine acoustic first offering through many sides of pop music and hard-edged songs, but he has always maintained his moral compass, celebrating life and protesting abuse and ignorance. On his latest album the opening track On a Roll is reminiscent of some of his rockier outings, but the overall feel of the disc is gentle and, as always, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Predominantly acoustic, Cockburn plays guitar, resonator guitar and dulcimer and is joined by a handful of A-list musicians including guitarist Colin Linden, who also produced the recording, with vocal support from Shawn Colvin, Susan Aglukark, Allison Russell and Ann and Regina McCrary. Highlights include the mournful yet anthemic Colin Went Down to the Water, When the Spirit Walks In the Room with violinist Jenny Scheinman and Janice Powers on B3 organ, the cryptic King of the Bolero – who is it plays like that? – and the instrumental Haiku. Cockburn’s voice has weathered somewhat over time, but he uses the gruffness to good effect, and he has not lost any of his musical charm or character. “O Sun by day o moon by night | Light my way so I get this right | And if that sun and moon don’t shine | Heaven guide these feet of mine – to Glory…”

08 Outside the MazeThat first True North Record was produced by Eugene Martynec, as were many of the label’s subsequent offerings including, in that same inaugural year, the haunting track December Angel on Long Lost Relatives by Syrinx, a seminal Toronto electronic ensemble featuring the synthesizers of John Mills-Cockell. Martynec is still an active part of the Toronto music scene, albeit after spending some years abroad, and his current project is the free improvising collective Gilliam | Martynec | McBirnie in which he’s in charge of electroacoustics, with pianist Bill Gilliam and flutist Bill McBirnie. Their latest release, Outside the Maze (gilliammcbirniemartynec.bandcamp.com/album/outside-the-maze), consists of ten diverse tracks, no two of which sound the same. While the piano and flutes (C and alto) are pretty much distinguishable throughout, Martynec’s contributions vary from atmospheric to percussive. At times it is hard to imagine the convincing sounds are not being created on physical drums and cymbals; at others it’s hard to imagine what their origins are. It’s also hard to imagine that these cohesive “compositions” are being created spontaneously in real time without premeditation or formal structure. The results are entrancing. 

09 Eliana CuevasA final quick note about Toronto’s Latin diva Eliana Cuevas’ latest release Seré Libre (Alma Records ACD472323 shopalmarecords.com). The Venezuelan-Canadian singer is accompanied by the Angel Falls Orchestra – named for the world’s highest waterfall located in Canaima National Park, Venezuela – conducted by the album’s producer Jeremy Ledbetter. Cuevas says “I created this 27-piece orchestra, as it was the one missing piece to realize my dream of fusing the incredibly rich traditions of Venezuelan folk rhythms and classical music.” The album explores loss – the deaths of Cuevas’ father and grandfather – and her mission to continue the centuries old folk music traditions they taught her. The title song, which translates as “I shall be free,” is a nine-minute epic journey which Cuevas says she always dedicates to her troubled homeland, but “it can be interpreted as being about finding freedom from whatever is holding you back.” With Cuevas’ gorgeous voice and the lush orchestrations played by an orchestra that includes many of Toronto’s finest pit musicians, this is truly a glorious album. There will also be a theatrical film release of the project which will be available online by the time you read this. 

Listen to 'Seré Libre' Now in the Listening Room

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 Die schone Mullerin guitarAs a folk singer of sorts I was intrigued to read somewhere that Franz Schubert sometimes accompanied his songs on guitar. For several issues now I’ve meant to write about a new version of Die schöne Müllerin but each time I’ve run out of space, or it just didn’t seem appropriate to the theme of the column. Guitarist David Leisner has adapted the original piano score for guitar and is joined by baritone Michael Kelly in a compelling performance (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0175 brightshiny.ninja). I wrote back in December that the lack of texts for Victoria Bond’s song settings on the album Blue and Green Music was not an issue due to Kelly’s clear diction. I’m sure if I were conversant in German the same would be true in the case of the current recording, but as I’m not I’m glad that there is a QR code linking to full lyrics and translations. Leisner’s clever adaptation of the accompaniment and his clear and fluent playing provide a transparent, yet supportive framework for Kelly’s nuanced interpretation. The sparser textures produced by the guitar allow Kelly to really shine, especially in the tender, quieter moments, without compromising the effect of the more dramatic sturm und drang aspects of the song cycle.

02 Leisner Letter to the WorldIt seems that, like me, David Leisner got his start singing folk and pop songs, accompanying himself on guitar as a teenager. As his horizons expanded through choral singing and composition studies, he established himself as an accomplished classical guitarist and composer, with a focus on art song. On Letters to the World (Azica ACD-71353 davidleisner.com/composition-recordings) we are presented with four examples of this spanning the 1980s to 2011. The disc opens with Confiding, a cycle of ten songs for soprano and piano, featuring Katherine Whyte and Lenore Fishman Davis, with texts by Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, four each, and single offerings from Elissa Ely and Gene Scaramellino. The disc’s title is taken from the final song of the cycle, Dickinson’s This is my letter to the World (That never wrote to Me). Dickinson is also the source of the texts of Simple Songs from 1982, for baritone and guitar featuring Michael Kelly and the composer. Leisner chose (and rendered into English for the programme booklet) five selections from Richard Wilhelm’s German translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching for the cycle Das Wunderbare Wesen (The Miraculous Essence) for baritone and cello. Leisner says, “The songs emerged less out of deference to the melodic line and more in response to a structure established in the cello part, e.g., a repeated alternating metric pattern or a melodic theme that is repeated in the fashion of passacaglia throughout a movement.” Once again Kelly shines, in equal partnership with cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. The final track is the powerful Of Darkness and Light, written in response to the 9/11 tragedy. Leisner says, “To ‘know the light’ and ‘know the dark’ is essential, especially in times of trouble.” Of Darkness and Light uses five poems by Wendell Berry written between 1968 and 1970 which the composer found to “have special resonance in 2002 as well.” Set for tenor, violin, oboe and piano, this moving performance features Andrew Fuchs, Sarah Whitney, Scott Bartucca and Dimitri Dover respectively, drawing this intimate composer-portrait disc to a successful close. 

03 Eine WinterreiseSchubert’s songs have been subjected to many diverse interpretations and adaptations over the past two centuries. One of the most effective that I have had the pleasure to witness was Chimera Project’s Winterreise featuring bass baritone Philippe Sly as staged during the 21C festival at Koerner Hall just a couple of months before the COVID lockdown in 2020. I have just encountered another intriguing evening-long production conceived and staged by Christof Loy for Theater Basel. Eine Winterreise (A Winter Journey) features soprano Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and a sparse cast of silent characters representing various aspects of the drama (Naxos DVD 2.110751 naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=Eine%20Winterreise). Loy writes, “Anne Sofie plays the soul of Schubert in a kind of fictionalized account of the composer if he had lived to grow old rather than dying so young. Other characters gather round her, played by non-speaking actors and dancers. Like shadows from the past, inspired by Schubert’s biography. There is a double who is kind of a younger mirror image of the ‘mature Schubert’ – a melancholy soul for whom life is complex in its beauty but also in its difficulty. The other man, Schober, is based on Schubert’s friend, a reckless young man with a freewheeling lifestyle who […] a number of biographers even accuse of having taken Schubert to the prostitute who gave him the syphilis infection that killed him. In this sense, the courtesan in A Winter Journey is associated with death though conversely she’s also full of vitality. The other female character, whom we christened Viola, imparts a gentle, hopeful strength to the whole production.” Stand alone songs – the play opens with Die Sommernacht – and selections from the cycles Schwanengesang and Winterreise, are interspersed with solo piano works and text fragments taken from Schubert’s Mein Traum, often with dramatically choreographed accompaniment. The evening ends quietly and mournfully with the beautiful Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby) from Die schöne Müllerin as snow falls on the darkened set and the cast slowly disperses into the night. There is a momentary respite from the gloom as von Otter steps out of character and recites Wilhelm Müller’s sardonic epilogue from that cycle of poems arresting the audience’s suspension of disbelief and bidding them a safe journey home. A stunning performance.

04 The Wanderer Brooklyn RiderOne of the most striking usages of Schubert’s music in another medium is Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden which he later adapted for Roman Polanski’s 1994 mystery-drama film. But it was Schubert himself who first reinterpreted his 1817 song Death and the Maiden and used it as the theme for a set of variations in the slow movement of his 1826 String Quartet No.14 in D Minor. It is this work which is the cornerstone of a new (digital only) release by Brooklyn Rider, a New York-based string quartet, titled The Wanderer (In A Circle Records ICR025 brooklynrider.com). The title refers to another Schubert lied that the composer incorporated into a late work, the devilishly difficult Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano. The album is “bound together by the dualities of memory and remembrance, melancholy and bliss, old and new, and life and death” made all the more poignant by the fact that the disc is a recording of a live performance in eastern Lithuania shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It opens with Aroma a Distancia, a work composed for the quartet by Gonzalo Grau. The composer lived the first 20 years of his life in Venezuela before moving to the United States. He says, “the aroma, the remembrance of my past, is what makes me who I am today. After all, it often happens when I am in Venezuela, I miss Madrid or New York, or if I’m in Boston I miss Caracas.” The brief work incorporates flavours from these various influences. Another South American transplant, Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s Um Dia Bom (A Good Day) “depicts the story of a life from morning to midnight and beyond, but as told to a child” with movements titled Hovering in the Cradle, While the Rain, Around the Fire, Riding with Death and Feather. Acknowledged influences include a traditional Yiddish song, a sparse painting by Basquiat of a horse carrying the Death Rider, Blind Willie Johnson’s song Dark was the Night and the spirit of the late Chick Corea. The crowning glory is a stunning performance of Schubert’s masterpiece, his penultimate contribution to the string quartet genre, especially nuanced during the variations on the tune that gives the work its name and the flamboyance of the breakneck galloping horse-like finale.

Banjo is the glue that binds the remaining discs in this column. When I was preparing for retirement from my day job at New Music Concerts four years ago, I began to collect instruments I thought I would enjoy getting to know better, including mountain dulcimer, accordion and banjo. Although I did gather some instruction books, took a few lessons and even learned a few banjo songs, I must admit that when COVID hit and my work at The WholeNote expanded into a near-fulltime job organizing CD reviews to fill the void left by the empty concert halls, my best laid plans fell by the wayside. 

05 Kate WeekesAll that is to say that I’m envious of guitarist and singer Kate Weekes who took advantage of her isolation in the Gatineau Hills during the pandemic to learn how to play clawhammer (old-timey, rather than bluegrass style) banjo and pursue new directions in song writing. The result is a new CD, Better Days Ahead (kateweekes.com), featuring ten original songs all penned by Weekes. Although not flashy, there is nothing about Weekes’ banjo playing to indicate her neophyte status; the banjo provides rhythmic and harmonic structure to the quirky songs and supports her simple soprano voice lines. She is accompanied by a trio of accomplished musicians who play nearly two dozen instruments, primarily sousaphone and other brass (Brian Sanderson), fiddles, bass and mandolin (James Stephens, who also produced and engineered the disc) and various exotic percussion instruments (Rob Graves). The arrangements are simple and straightforward, always complementing Weekes’ singing and not interfering with the clarity of the lyrics. I particularly enjoy the use of sousaphone (marching tuba) for the bass line on most songs. Highlights for me include Liminal Space about sheltering in place; the haunting title work co-written with Brenda Berezan; Floating Face Down, a cryptic and surprisingly upbeat, quasi-English ballad about the narrator’s drowning in the Thames “wearing my mother’s dress”; and Time by the Moon, a song written during a month-long banjo tune writing workshop hosted by Chris Coole during the late fall of 2021. Videos for these last two can be seen at youtube.com/results?search_query=kate+weekes. It’s well worth the visit. 

Listen to 'Better Days Ahead' Now in the Listening Room

One of my problems with the traditional five-string banjo is trying to get my head around the counterintuitive fact the highest sounding string is on top, whereas on every other stringed instrument I’ve played it’s on the bottom. One day about five years ago I found myself at the corner of Danforth and Broadview where I was met by the intriguing sight of a young man playing a banjo with six strings. I asked if it was tuned like a guitar, and he said yes. Well, I thought to myself, that’s cheating! I’d also like to think that I’m not too old to learn a new trick or two, so it was a five-string banjo I eventually bought. I’m still stymied though because when my ear knows a high note is called for, I instinctively pluck the first string instead of the fifth… 

06 Eric Bibb RidinMy mother is a big fan of the late Leon Bibb, folksinger, actor and civil rights activist – he marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and through her interest I became familiar with his son, renowned bluesman Eric Bibb. Eric’s youth was spent immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger were visitors to his home, and he was deeply influenced by Odetta, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal. Mom and I had the pleasure of seeing him perform at Hugh’s Room some years ago and my biggest takeaway from that evening was his statement “I just need one guitar… more!” Imagine my surprise when I watched a video from his new album Ridin’ (Stony Plain SPCD1472 stonyplainrecords.com) and saw him playing a six-string banjo (aka banjitar). Bibb plays it more like a blues guitar than a traditional banjo, but the snare drum-like membrane of the banjo head and the hollow round body give it a very distinctive sound. 

It this sound that opens the disc in a paeon to kith and kin, aptly titled Family, the lyrics of which nicely sum up the overall message of the album: “I am like you – born of a woman | I am like you – a child of God | You are like me – here to learn from History | You are like me – Family.” Bibb says, “As a songwriter, studying African American history has always been a deep well of inspiration. The true stories of my ancestors and their communities are at the heart of many of the songs on my new album. Together with co-writer/producer Glen[vin Anthony] Scott, we’ve created a concept album focusing on the ongoing task of understanding systemic racism and purging it from our world.” The history lessons include songs about the 14-year-old Emmett Till, kidnapped, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 (the title track); another about the white author who underwent skin pigment transformation to write Black Like Me, and the persecution he faced from his own community as a result in The Ballad of John Howard Griffin; and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” by white mobs in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma in Tulsa Town, among others. These are interspersed with traditional folk songs like 500 Miles and Sinner Man. I cannot find credits for the backup band, but there are a number of identified cameos throughout the album including star turns by Taj Mahal and Jontavious Willis on Blues Funky Like Dat. Bookending the disc is People You Love (People you love pass on, but they’re not gone | the ones who love you, stay by your side…) bringing a bittersweet but hopeful portrait of a troubled land to a gentle close. 

07 Lynn MilesI see I have not left myself much space for the final disc, TumbleWeedyWorld, the latest from Canadian country icon Lynn Miles (True North Records TND802 lynnmiles.ca). On this, her 16th studio album, the Juno Award-winning and three-time Canadian Folk Music Awards Songwriter of the Year is accompanied by an outstanding band featuring Michael Ball (bass), Joey Wright (mandolin/acoustic guitar), Stuart Rutherford (dobro), Rob McLaren (banjo) and James Stephens (violin). Wright’s mandolin is front and centre on one of my favourite tracks Cold, Cold Moon which features Miles’ signature octave breaks in the moving melody line. Although at times during the disc I felt that this vocal effect was a little overused, it is particularly moving and effective on Moody, where it borders on yodelling. Julie Corrigan and Dave Draves contribute harmonies on the upbeat Sorry’s Just Not Good Enough This Time and dobro and banjo come to the fore in All Bitter Never Sweet with Rebecca Campbell providing duet vocals. This traditional country-flavoured disc comes to a poignant conclusion with Miles in fine voice on the ballad Gold in the Middle

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

John Beckwith photo by Andre LeducI received the sad news shortly before Christmas that my friend, iconic Canadian composer John Beckwith, had died at the age of 95 from complications of a fall. I had seen him some ten days earlier when I dropped by to have him autograph my copy of his latest book – his 17th! – MUSIC ANNALS: Research and Critical Writings by a Canadian Composer 1974-2014 (Institute for Music in Canada 2022) which you likely read about in last September’s issue of The WholeNote. You may also have read the many insightful CD reviews John contributed to this magazine between 2001 and 2016, running the gamut from early Canadiana (1753 – Livre de Montreal) and period performance practices (Haydn – Five Sonatas on Fortepiano performed by Malcolm Bilson), through Beethoven Late String Quartets (Takács Quartet), Schubert’s Winterreise (Russell Braun) and Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus (Angela Hewitt) to 20th-century American composers (Toch, Persichetti, Bolcom) and his Canadian contemporaries Harry Somers, Henry Brant and Eldon Rathburn to name but a few. These can all be found on thewholenote.com website. Of course, numerous recordings of his own music were also reviewed in these pages. 

John’s career was many faceted, encompassing a range of fields from music critic, composer, teacher, writer, historian, administrator – he served as Dean of the Faculty of Music at U of T and Director of the Institute for Music in Canada – and performer, but he preferred to refer to himself simply as a musician. His knowledge and breadth of interest was vast, and his own compositions tended to incorporate and synthesize several of these at a time. John’s oeuvre spanned virtually all genres of art music from folk-song arrangements to art songs, choral works and operas, symphonic works, chamber music, duets and solo pieces. Although his stage works are strikingly underrepresented, recordings of a good cross section of his other works can be found at the Canadian Music Centre (cmccanada.org). Also available from the CMC is his moving personal autobiography, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, which I highly recommend.

01b optional BeckwithOne work that I have particularly enjoyed revisiting in recent days is Quartet as recorded by the Orford String Quartet (John Beckwith Centrediscs CMC-CD 5897). Back in 1986 I had the pleasure of interviewing John on my radio program, Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM. When speaking about Quartet John mentioned that, like Bartók, who had drawn on his Hungarian heritage and had the string instruments mimic the sounds of cimbaloms and hurdy-gurdies, he wanted to reflect the traditional music of Canada in his string quartet. Although John was not particularly well versed in popular music, his father had played the mandolin and his oldest son played guitar, so he had a bit of a head start and as usual was willing to do some homework. He began researching fiddling styles and attended the finals of the Canadian Open Fiddle Championship in Shelburne, Ontario. The resulting work, while not sounding like fiddle music per se, draws on gestures and nuances of fiddle technique and adds a surprising innovation. The two violinists share a third instrument in an alternate tuning enabling different open string chords and unexpected harmonics and producing a “distorted fiddle tune at the same time as the real one” towards the end of the piece. It’s quite a stunning effect. 

Hear! Hear! Remembering John Beckwith takes place at 7:30 on February 28 at Walter Hall, U of T. Performers include Choir 21, Monica Whicher, New Music Concerts Ensemble, Opus 8, Robert Aitken, Peter Stoll and others.

02 Fiddle TunesAs mentioned, Beckwith’s Quartet doesn’t sound like traditional fiddle music, but I had no shortage of the “real” (or should that be “reel”) thing over the past month or so. I was inundated with folk recordings by local artists in a variety of styles and from a variety of traditions. First up, a disc simply called Fiddle Music by Elise Boeur and Adam Iredale-Gray (Fiddlehead Recordings FHR013 eliseandadam.ca). Boeur plays both fiddle and hardingfele (Norwegian hardanger fiddle) while Iredale-Gray alternates on fiddle and guitar. They are accompanied by upright bassist Robert Alan Mackie, who also provides lyrical solos on some of the numbers. The personal liner notes give the authors and origins of each of the tunes and how they came to be in the group’s repertoire. The disc begins with a medley of lively traditional Irish tunes featuring fiddle and guitar. This is followed by La Coccinelle (ladybug), a bourrée by French fiddler Jean Blanchard combined with a tune by Norwegian accordionist Kristoffer Kleiveland, performed on two fiddles with added bass. The lyrical valse à cinq Evening Glory, penned by Belgian Toon Van Mierlo, is arranged here for fiddle, guitar and bass. Other eclectic offerings include more traditional Irish, American and Swedish tunes and several for hardingfele – a rull and a Setesdal Gangar – that Boeur learned while studying folk music in Norway. The disc concludes with a stark tune by the Icelandic jazz band ADHD, followed by another medley that starts slowly with the melancholic Frank Thornton, gets moving with Cock and the Hen and finishes with a rousing rendition of Cottage in the Grove. All in all, a feast for the ears, with fine playing from all concerned.

03 VintaBassist Robert Alan Mackie reappears as a member of Vinta on the next disc, Beacons (vintamusic.com). Other members include Emilyn Stam (fiddle and piano accordion), John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion, bass clarinet) and Nathan Smith (fiddle and viola). One might expect hints of Klezmer from the ensemble’s instrumentation, but Vinta is based in the folk-dance traditions of Europe, especially those of France and Sweden. Growing out of Balfolk gatherings in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto, the enforced isolation of the COVID lockdown also provided an aspect of the group’s inspiration. “At a time when joy and celebration were far away, the four of us came together and shared everything we could. First came the old tunes, hot meals and loud laughter – sure enough, then came the new tunes.” The result is an album of original music in traditional style(s), and one cover – Seduction, a 1929 waltz by Frenchman Mario Cazes, which is combined with Mario and Everest by Stam, “a wedding waltz written for dear friends.” A highlight for me is another waltz, Rosedale Valley by Mackie, once again paired with a composition by Stam, Regent Street Parade. Other pieces of note include High Park by Williams, and the group composition Le réveil des coccinelles, yes, those ladybugs again. Producer (and mandolinist extraordinaire) Andrew Collins praises Vinta’s “unique aesthetic driven by their original composing, arranging and virtuosic playing. […] one certainty is that you will have a smile on your face.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

04 Emilyn and JohnThe next disc features half the members of Vinta, Emilyn Stam and John David Williams performing as a duo. I thought Stam was a familiar name and searching back a few years I found a disc by a local group called The Shoeless – a “cross-cultural stew, combining the sounds of Klezmer, French, Celtic, Appalachian and English music” in a trio with fiddle (Stam), banjo and cello – so obviously her roots spread far afield. The current album focuses on her Dutch heritage and draws on a collection of tunes published in the early 1700s, the title of which translates as Old and New Farmer Songs and Contradances from Holland. On The Farmer Who Lost His Cow and other old Dutch tunes (emilynandjohn.com) Stam plays five-string fiddle, piano and piano accordion, while Williams adds harmonica to his arsenal of clarinet and diatonic accordion. To 21st-century ears there is a certain sameness to the melodies, but differing tempos and the way the duo switches up the accompaniments makes for an entertaining listen that kept my attention. I’m not sure if it is just the novelty of the titles, but highlights included The Pig Scratches His Hole, The Mullet Fish and, of course, the title track, along with the almost minimalistic The Friction Drum and the haunting Farewell My Love with its harmonica lead. As well as songs, there are numerous Gaillardes interspersed throughout this compelling disc. And I feel I must mention, the graphic art includes… ladybugs!

05a David GreenbergDavid Greenberg’s Multiple voices for One (Leaf Music DG2022A davidgreenbergviolinist.bandcamp.com/album/multiple-voices-for-one) is another disc that combines traditional fiddling styles with dance forms, contemporary arrangements and compositions. For over three decades, Greenberg has enjoyed a double career as a Baroque violinist and Cape Breton fiddler. His international career spans continents and his Toronto connections have included performing as a member of Tafelmusik and Toronto Consort among others. This disc features movements from Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin and other classical movements intercut with a variety of jigs, reels and marches from various sources and original tunes by Greenberg and his son Owen, as well Toronto’s late legendary fiddler Oliver Schroer’s Enthralled. Greenberg plays both Baroque and octave violins on the album, both tuned in period style at A414. There is no overdubbing involved, he just plays one or the other on each track, but the booklet includes a clever picture in which he appears to be playing both at once with the smaller one tucked under his chin, the other on his shoulder and the bow spanning both instruments. Greenberg is an acknowledged master of violin and fiddle techniques and, as this recording attests, possesses a consummate musicality that spans genres and styles. An accomplished clinician, he offers a variety of online tuition opportunities, that latest of which is “Making Tunes with Intention,” a three-week course exploring the composition and arrangement of traditional style tunes – Celtic, Baroque, and classical – beginning February 26. You will find details and registration at davidgreenbergviolinist.com/mti-home.

Listen to 'Multiple Voices for One' Now in the Listening Room

06 David JaegerSticking with the violin family, but moving away from the fiddle tradition, the next disc features music for solo viola by longtime CBC producer and frequent contributor to The WholeNote, David Jaeger. In the spirit of full disclosure I will say that I have had a lengthy professional relationship with Jaeger over the years as the administrator of New Music Concerts but of course almost everyone in the contemporary music community could say the same. Since retiring from the CBC, Jaeger, when not busy producing independent recordings for some of Toronto’s finest musicians, has expanded his activities as a composer and there has been a wealth of new work in recent years. Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger (Redshift Records TK524 redshiftrecords.org) spans four decades. The soloist is Hamilton native, now Vermont resident, Elizabeth Reid who rises to the various challenges the works present with aplomb and conviction. She is accompanied by Alison Bruce Cerutti in Sonata, Tristan and Isolde, written in 1992 in honour of the 70th birthday of the composer’s mother (and her dog and cat), and Sonata No.1 for viola and piano written just four years ago. The Six Miniatures for unaccompanied viola are based on verses by Scottish poet David Cameron, the texts of which are included in the booklet, with the violist “in effect, playing the role of the reciter.” As befitting a founding member of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, Jaeger’s three remaining works involve the use of technology in one form or another. Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds is an adaption of a work originally for solo cello. At the suggestion of Reid, Jaeger reworked the cello score for viola and added an electronic track “composed using a similar process,” i.e., examples of linear variation observed in the work of English Romantic artist John Constable. The result is intriguing. The final two works were written for the internationally renowned Israeli violist Rivka Golani who made her home in Toronto for some years. Favour for viola and live digital delay controlled by the performer was composed in 1980. Sarabande was composed to address the issue of the complicated set-up required for the live electronics aspect of Favour, here replaced by a single playback track for the performer to play against. Favour was originally released on Golani’s Viola Nouveau (Centrediscs CMCCD 0883), still available from the Canadian Music Centre, providing a rare opportunity to compare two interpretations of a contemporary Canadian piece. By pairing these two works we are presented with Jaeger’s “second take” on the same material and also a second performer’s take on them both. It’s great to see a new generation of musicians taking up the mantle and championing existing works along with the new. 

Listen to 'Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger' Now in the Listening Room

07 Missy MazzoliMid-career American super-star composer Missy Mazzoli "inhabits an exquisite and mysterious sound-world that melds indie-rock sensibilities with classical traditions… [equally at home in] concert halls, opera houses and rock clubs." Dark with Excessive Bright (BIS-2572 missymazzoli.com) is a portrait disc spanning 15 years of Mazzoli’s international career, featuring Norwegian violinist Peter Herresthal. Once again, we are presented with a composer’s alternate takes on several works. The title piece was originally a concerto for double bass and string orchestra that at Herresthal’s request Mazzoli reworked for violin, “essentially flipping the work upside down.” Dark with excessive bright is a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a surreal and evocative description of God’s robes, written by a blind man. Mazzoli says: “I love the impossibility of this phrase and how perfectly it describes the ghostly, heart-rending sound of strings.” It appears here twice, bookending the disc, opening with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan and closing with a reduced version for solo violin, string quartet and double bass performed by members of Norway’s Arctic Philharmonic under the direction of Tim Weiss. Both versions are extremely powerful, with a sound palette that belies the all-string instrumentation, and it’s hard to comprehend that in the latter all that sound is being created by just six players. Vespers for Violin is a reimagining of the earlier Vespers for a New Dark Age, in which “sampled keyboards, vintage organs, voices and strings from that composition, drenched in delay and distortion,” are used to create an effective work for a solo violinist. Full orchestral resources are utilized in Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) with music “in the shape of a solar system.” The title draws on two meanings of the word sinfonia: a Baroque work for chamber orchestra and the old Italian term for a hurdy-gurdy. Mazzoli describes it as “a piece that churns and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed, in the process transforming the ensemble into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy, flung recklessly into space.” There’s a Toronto connection in Orpheus Undone. It’s an orchestral suite, fragments of which have their origins in Orpheus Alive, a work composed for the National Ballet of Canada back in 2019. In its present form, it depicts “a single instant in Orpheus’s life, in the immediate aftermath of his wife Eurydice’s death. I have used the Orpheus myth… to explore the ways traumatic events disrupt the linearity and unity of our experience of time.” It was composed in 2021, no doubt in response to the trauma of COVID-19. Concert Note: Speaking of Toronto, Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright will be performed in its original double bass version by the Toronto Symphony and guest conductor Kerem Hasan, with TSO principal Jeffrey Beecher as soloist on March 1 and 2 at Roy Thomson Hall. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

Back to top