On two recent performances I experienced epiphanies which reminded me of something that often gets overlooked amid the hubbub and organized chaos of gigs: that, at the core of live jazz there is a process of generosity and giving, an exchange of gifts, which is the essence of what we celebrate during Christmas and other religious holidays. The exchange is circular, as there is an unspoken pact between jazz players and their audience which goes something like this: give us your attention, your ears, and we musicians will give you our very best – or at least try to – and make some music, out of thin air, you’ve never heard before and will never hear again. This commitment to playing one’s very best holds for all good musicians, but because jazz involves so much improvising, and thus risk, the giving in a jazz performance is much more personal, coming from deep inside the musicians themselves in a sort of spontaneous, high-wire communion. It has very little to do with money. Yes, musicians are paid for performances and must be – after all, it is their work and they have to survive like everyone else. But the level of effort and commitment put forth by jazz players has nothing to do with how much a gig pays; indeed I’ve been involved in many sessions and after-hours jams where there is no money involved and everyone plays out of their skin. Why? Simply because they love music and wouldn’t think of letting it, or each other, down. Jazz players give to each other, too.

Read more: Circular Exchange - Jazz and the Spirit of Christmas

Messing with Winterreise is a growing and delightful industry within classical music performance. Schubert’s best-known song cycle has been fully staged and orchestrated for a chamber ensemble (Netia Jones/Hans Zender/Ian Bostridge), divided between three female singers (Toronto’s Collectìf ensemble), multi-mediatized (William Kentridge’s video projections), arranged for singer, puppet, guitar, and piano with animated drawings (Thomas Guthrie) and staged with the piano and illustrated backdrops (Ebbe Knudsen). On January 17, Toronto will have a chance to see another contribution to the conversation on the meaning of Winterreise, when Le Chimera Project, with baritone Philippe Sly, bring their klezmer- and Roma-inflected take on it to Koerner Hall.

Philippe Sly. Photo Courtesy of Columbia Records.“The inspiration came when I saw a video clip of two friends, Félix de l’Étoile and Samuel Carrier, performing Gute Nacht on accordion and clarinet at a recital,” says Philippe Sly on a Skype call from San Francisco. “I thought, Oh my God, that sound suits this musical content so well. I approached Felix and asked what he thought would be the best arrangement if we were to continue with this klezmer-Gypsy-like aesthetic and he came up with the idea of having trombone, clarinet, violin and accordion instead of the piano.” De l’Étoile and Carrier wrote the draft arrangement and the entire group with Sly worked intensely on the piece for two secluded wintry weeks at the Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, where the Chimera Winterreise had its premiere.

Read more: Winterreisse Unmasked - Le Chimera at Koerner

November’s early twilights serve as a reminder of the upcoming festive season, a harbinger of what is to come. As the days grow shorter, we see a transition taking place in the world around us, a gradual evolution in which sandboxes are overtaken by Santa and road trips by reindeer. Lights and decorations are extracted from their hibernating hiding places until, one house at a time, our neighbourhoods begin to look like those in cheesy TV movies, though perhaps without the requisite miracles and an ageless, white-bearded neighbour conspicuously named “Nick.”

Musical programming undergoes similar changes at this time of year, following the seasonal trajectory in a way that mirrors the outside world: one by one, concerts are announced which accumulate in quantity until the month of December is saturated with choral, orchestral and many other presentations, each celebrating the spirit of the season in different ways. Scores and parts are extracted from their boxes – Messiahs, Christmas Oratorios and Concerti - in the same way as household decorations, ready to be dusted off and brought back to life for a few short weeks. 

Read more: The Season's Treasures Unpacked

Along with gift exchanges and eggnog giggles with loved ones, listening to Handel’s Messiah has become a Christmas staple for me. Especially in recent years, I repeatedly listen to this masterpiece of a work, my interest for it never wavering. Even after singing it several times and watching a number of performances, I have yet to tire of the soaring harmonies and elegant solos.

Grand River Philharmonic: This year, I’m looking forward to Messiah as performed, in an annual tradition going back decades, by the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener. With orchestral accompaniment by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the concert will be conducted by Mark Vuorinen and will feature soloists, soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tennekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. Choosing to see this particular version is part of my quest to broaden my knowledge of the choirs around me, and attend concerts outside of the Greater Toronto Area. Their Messiah will be held at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario on December 7. Ever the one to want to introduce the Messiah to new ears, I have gifted a ticket to a friend of mine who (aside from knowing the “Hallelujah” chorus) has never listened to the work in its entirety. 

Read more: Handel's Messiah and the Glee Effect

Seong-Jin Cho, the 25-year-old South Korean winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, is a polished performer whose life changed as a result of his Warsaw triumph. From playing 20 to 30 concerts a year, he went to 80 to 90; and, thankfully, no longer needed to participate in competitions. Because of The WholeNote’s production schedule, I missed his sold-out Koerner Hall recital on October 26, 2018, so I’m looking forward to his upcoming TSO appearance January 8, 9 and 11 in Beethoven’s revolutionary Piano Concerto No.4 conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo © Harald HoffmannSome critics have called Cho’s playing “poetic,” something he discussed on the British blog, Where Cherries Ripen, published on October 1, 2019. “What others say about my performances may accurately reflect some aspects of my playing style, but I cannot say I ever intend to sound ‘poetic’. If I may put it differently, there are times when I receive bad reviews, but I never intend to play badly. I think an instrumentalist’s unique sound is like the human voice. Everyone has a unique voice given to them, regardless of their intentions. For example, a tenor can never be a bass. Of course, I can force myself to perform wearing my heart on my sleeve, but this would not change who I fundamentally am. Everyone has a natural way of performing, and I play in my given way. I think audiences have been able to sense that personality.”

Read more: Looking Ahead to 2020

One thing that has been consistent with the University of Toronto’s annual New Music Festival over the years is the presence of a visiting composer from another country or Canadian city. During last year’s festival in January 2019, it was Toshio Hosokawa, a leading composer from Japan, and the year before that in 2018, Canadian Nicole Lizée was given the honours. This visitorship is named the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition, and was established by Roger Moore, a longtime supporter and philanthropist of new music. Sadly, Moore passed away in March of this year, and there will be a concert, as part of the festival, to honour him on January 21. More about what is on the program for that night below. This year’s visiting composer is André Mehmari, a leading Brazilian composer, pianist and arranger in both classical and popular music. Because of his diverse artistic accomplishments many of the events of the festival span both the jazz and contemporary music worlds, with the opening concert on January 12 combining electronic jazz, visuals and live electronics.

Read more: January's Distinguished Visitors - U of T New Music Festival

The only way to stay at the cutting edge of anything for 40 years, as Tapestry Opera has done, is to zigzag with the changing times – to go big when opportunity knocks, to hunker down when danger threatens, and, most important, to be able to recognize the difference between the two scenarios. 

TAP:EX is Tapestry Opera’s instrument for just that – figuring out when to go for broke and when to duck and cover. The name is short for Tapestry Explorations and TAP:EX Augmented Opera, presented this past November 20 to 23 at Sidewalk Labs, was its fifth iteration since its founding in 2014 by Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Tapestry’s artistic director. 

TAP:EX’s stated goal is to redefine the “elemental bounds of opera by challenging its notions of tradition, legacy, and purity, emphasizing emotional and artistic power over rules and norms.” Each of the four iterations so far has been different from the ones that preceded it: exploring the limits of the voice’s resistance to extreme physical exertion; probing the intersections between turntablism, film, soundscape and opera; inviting “local hard-core heroes F*cked Up to help frame a work that asked punk to look at opera and opera to look at punk”; and most recently, in 2018, bringing together Iranian composer Afarin Mansouri with emcee, playright, librettist, agitator Donna-Michelle St. Bernard “in a conversation with the devil.”

Read more: Tapestry Explores Augmented Opera

The holiday season is almost here, overflowing with family-oriented musical theatre offerings, beginning with YPT’s beautiful new production of The Adventures of Pinocchio in a musical version by Canadians Neil Bartram and Brian Hill. Originally commissioned by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, this is the Canadian premiere of a delightful 75-minute version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real human boy. 

Connor Lucas (left) in YPT’s Pinocchio, with Arena Hermans as Cat (centre) and Joel Cumber as the Fox. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.I have to admit that Pinocchio has never been one of my favourite fairy tales, even in the iconic 1940 Disney animated film, but I was completely won over by this version. At its heart is a warmth and gentleness that focuses on how the impulsive puppet learns through his (sometimes scary) misadventures and impulsive mistakes how to start thinking of others before himself, that life is about making (sometimes very hard) choices, but if he has courage, and looks inside himself, he can find the right choices to make and achieve his dream of becoming a real boy. Sheila McCarthy’s imaginative production is fast-paced and fun, with the young dynamic cast moving nonstop through multiple scene and character changes. Veteran Shawn Wright as a sympathetic Geppetto and Malindi Ayienga as a majestic Blue Fairy anchor the story while Connor Lucas as Pinocchio, though wearing a half Harlequin-like mask, wins the audience’s heart with his impulsive energy and vulnerability – and fantastic tap dancing. Joanna Yu’s storybook design for set and costumes perfectly matches the material, and hearing the children in the theatre reacting audibly as events unfold adds to the fun. 

Read more: From Pinocchio to Poppins - A Cornucopia of Family Fun

Last night, as I drove home after a rehearsal, I heard on the radio to expect a once-in-a-lifetime event at precisely 11:15pm – the most spectacular meteor shower in over 30 years. As I looked out of the window, though, I was barely able to see the road in front of me, through the dense fog. Now, sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, I am dealing with a dearth of information, unusual at this time of year, about happenings in the band world. Usually at this time of year, I would expect to receive quite a quantity of information on Christmas concerts, festive-season events or holiday shows. A temporary blip perhaps, or maybe just a sign of the busy times we live in. Since I can’t write about what I haven’t been sent, though, it gives me permission to write about what I like.

HMCS York Band (2019)Speaking of signs of the times

At a recent concert of the combined bands of HMCS York from Toronto and HMCS Star from Hamiton, I was stunned to see Lieutenant Commander Jack t’Mannetje sitting in the audience rather than on stage conducting. I then learned that Jack, who has been the Director of the York Band for many years, has been promoted. He is now executive officer of HMCS York, Navy lingo for second-in-command. It’s rare to see a military band conductor promoted to a position of command. Congratulations, Jack. As for the duties of band director, that falls to longtime band member, chief petty officer Maggie Birtch. Again, congratulations to Maggie.

Read more: Sound the Bugle!

Later on, we’ll conspire 
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid
The plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland

Winter Wonderland, Felix Bernard/Richard B. Smith. 1934. 

“Christmas starts on November 1;” so goes the knowing refrain, spoken in tones of world-weary authority to those affronted by the instant shift from Halloween to Christmas in retail displays, both digital and physical. Those who repeat this defeatist bromide are not necessarily less affected by the sudden onslaught of candy canes and evergreens, of reindeer and elves, of living in a dystopian paternalistic surveillance state ruled by the Clauses. No, they are simply stating the obvious: that the secular advertorial spectacle of Christmas constitutes an overwhelming, inescapable part of our experience of the season, even in households for which the holiday holds a primarily religious significance. 

Read more: If Only in Our Dreams

Not a lot of people in Canada know a whole lot about Colombia, the third largest country in South America, and what we manage to gather usually comes from American television shows and media reports on drug wars. The November 5 Toronto edition of Crossing Borders, the recital series founded by the Halifax-based soprano Maureen Batt, which pairs up Canadian composers with foreign ones in creatively themed evenings, may just change things on this score. Batt’s key partner in programming this time is Colombia-born, Ontario-based tenor Fabián Arciniegas, whom Toronto audiences may remember from the productions with Essential Opera and Opera in Concert. He left the Republic of Colombia in 2010 to complete a master’s at U of T, and stayed. “If any Latin American music is presented here in Canada,” he tells me on the phone from Coburg, where he now lives, “it’s usually a zarzuela – and that’s rare enough. When people think of music from Hispanic places, Spain included, they think either dance, or zarzuela, or de Falla. Composers from South America that are being performed outside South America are few. Carlos Guastavino is one – and he died in 2000. Piazzolla is another. And that’s where it ends.”

One day not so long ago, Batt and Arciniegas were chatting over instant messenger when the tenor mentioned in passing that he really wanted to put on a recital of songs by living composers from Colombia. Batt liked the idea and offered to produce it as a half-half evening, Canadian and Colombian/Latin American, and soon enough they were posting public calls for scores. Arciniegas urged the Colombian composers that he knew or knew of to submit, but nobody’s placement in the program was guaranteed. It was, unusually, a blind submission process, which upon completion of the first round, Batt, Arciniegas and pianist Claire Harris tweaked here and there for diversity of themes and musical approaches.

The cast of Crossing Borders. (from left) Claire Harris, Maureen Batt, Fabian Arciniegas. Photo by Dahlia KatzThe result is an eclectic program which, beside the classical art song, showcases electronic, improvised and popular songs. Juan Pablo Carreño is the composer of a mass, incorporating the testimonies by the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre in Colombia, and in this recital the piano-and-soprano piece from the Mass, In Conspectu Tuo, will be heard. Another Colombian composer, Leo Herrera, came to art song from the popular song tradition and acoustic guitar-playing – Arciniegas will sing his Noche. Words by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Jorge Luis Borges will be heard thanks to the Colombian composers Pedro Ramirez and Alba L. Potes who use them in their work. Stephen Bachicha employed a text by American Navajo poet Elizabeth Woody in an unaccompanied piece that has echoes of Hildegard von Bingen. Scottish composer Chris Hutchings’ I was listening to a pogrom, for speaking chorus and piano, deals with immigration and border crossings, and uses text by children’s author and BBC 4 radio presenter Michael Rosen. Many of the Canadians on the program have a direct link with Latin America, like the Cuban-born, Toronto-based Alondra Vega-Zaldivar.

“I’ve always admired Alondra’s work,” says Batt on the phone from Halifax. I first saw her perform in Halifax, in a program called Opera from Scratch – she went as a singer and composer, both. It was brilliant; really lovely work. I wrote and asked her what else she had and she ended up sending me an opera for chamber orchestra that she wrote for her MA dissertation. So we’re premiering a couple of scenes from that opera in the version for the piano. It’s an opera about an actress going through many stages of her life, and it’s solo soprano for about 25 minutes or so, which I’m hoping to produce in full eventually.” Monica Pearce is also in the program. Pearce’s chamber opera, December, for three sopranos and string quartet, set in an airport departure lounge, will premiere in Toronto later next year, as a partly crowd-funded commission from Batt and Erin Bardua’s jointly run company Essential Opera. 

When he asked the Colombian composers how they preferred to be paid, says Arciniegas, some were surprised that in addition to their work being performed, a payment would be forthcoming. “We in Colombia don’t have that tradition where you publish your music. So lot of things we’ll perform will be the first performance.” He tells me he’s been printing scores directly from the composers’ files, and we spend some minutes comparing the copyright and author royalties situation in the non-EU part of Eastern Europe, which I know well, and Latin America (it’s not great on either side). “And I’m not talking about composers who are just starting out – I’m talking about those who are mid-career,” he says. “If you do a concert in Colombia, it’s very hard for you to sell contemporary music. It’s the same here in Canada, but I still think there’s much more support for the composer in Canada and North America than South America.”

What is Colombian folk music like and is there, in fact, such a thing, I ask him. “We don’t have one folk music, but multiple. On the Pacific coast, folk and popular music are heavily influenced by African music. There is a huge population of Colombians of African origin who came to the country as slaves. But if you go toward the centre of the country, you have more traditional European influence, except it’s mixed with aboriginal music.” Have Americans been influential? “Of course. I grew up listening to, say, Michael Jackson, Elton John … Even if I didn’t speak English, I connected with the songs. I treated the music and the voice as one, and listened to the voice as an instrument.”

The classically trained tenor did not grow up in a musical family (“My parents had absolutely no interest in classical music”) and at first dreamed of being a rock singer. “The household listened to whatever happened to be on the radio. But slowly, I started seeking out different kinds of music. I became interested in opera because of The Three Tenors. People sometimes complain about these things, oh but they’re too popular etc. But that’s how classical music lovers are created. The very first classical thing that I’ve heard was probably Richard Clayderman. I was little, and that was the kind of classical music that you can easily find on LP. As I started studying music, my interest in the genre became more in-depth.”

As a towering figure in the development of his musical tastes, he mentions Leonard Bernstein. “I love that he’s capable of mixing love of a very classical tradition (he was a great Mahler conductor) with creating things like Trouble in Tahiti. He was not afraid to take on the more contemporary pop music and incorporate it into classical and make it all organic.” Arciniegas cites the “uptightness” of the classical music world as something that puts many potential music lovers off, him included. “I’m more and more going back to salsa, which I love dancing. And I like jazz musicians, who are less concerned with precision of delivery and more with the question of ‘How am I connecting to this, what am I saying with this?’”

What would he recommend to people who want to learn more about Colombia? “Two books. First, the obvious choice: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But he was writing magical realism, which is not exactly documentarian, I protest. “Yes, but when you go to Colombia, you understand where all that comes from,” he says. “Magical realism is not as crazy as it looks. Crazy things happen in Colombia.” And the second one? “It’s a book translated into English as Oblivion, by Hector Abad. It’s a memorial to his father. His father was a doctor and the first doctor in Colombia who applied medicine as prevention – he went to poor areas, told people to boil water etc. Because he was doing that, he was suspected of having Communist sympathies. And he was murdered. Abad writes about their relationship, and what was happening in Colombia at that time. It’s the saddest book ever. So deep, and it reflects a lot of what we are: the worst and the best of Colombia.”

Crossing Borders: Travesía Latinoamericana – November 5, 7:30pm, Heliconian Hall, Toronto; then touring Colombia, including Bogotá, Pereira, Medellín and Cali. Full Colombian tour schedule on maureenbatt.com.


NOV 8, 8:PM: Tongue in Cheek Productions and Opera 5 present a night of “Eight Singers Drinking.” Works by Handel, Porter, Montsalvatge, Berlioz, Viardot and others. Aaron Durand, Beste Kalender, Catherine Daniel, Michael Nyby, Rachel Krehm, River Guard, Ryan Downey and Trevor Chartrand. Gallery 345. 

NOV 11, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Chamber Music Concert Series: “Of War and Peace.” Works of remembrance from Handel to Sting. Monica Whicher, soprano; Steven Philcox, piano; Marie Bérard; violin. Walter Hall.

NOV 14, 1:30PM: Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Music in the Afternoon. Works by Purcell, Mozart, Debussy, Schubert. Jane Archibald, soprano; Liz Upchurch, piano. Walter Hall, U of T.

NOV 20, 12:30PM: University of Waterloo Department of Music. Noon Hour Concerts: “The Birds & the Bees.” Works for female singers. Eviole (Corey Linforth, soprano; Laura Pudwell, mezzo; Miriam Stewart-Kroeker, cello; Borys Medicky, harpsichord). Great Hall, Conrad Grebel University COllege. Free. Never miss a chance to hear Laura Pudwell.

Wallis Giunta. Photo credit: Dean Artists ManagementNOV 24, 3:15PM: Mooredale Concerts. Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano. Songs by Barber, Britten, de Falla, Schumann, Sondheim, etc. Steven Philcox, piano. Walter Hall, U of T. Giunta is now more likely to be found in Leipzig and Northern England than in Toronto, so mark your calendars.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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