Esprit OrchestraApril 2023 will be a busy month for Esprit Orchestra, Canada’s only full-sized, professional orchestra devoted to performing and promoting new orchestral music. First up will be two programs in this year’s edition of the New Wave Festival, on April 12 and 16, followed by their Season Finale concert on April 23, all designed to celebrate Esprit’s 40 years of music making. 

Read more: Wave after Wave - Esprit Orchestra Celebrates 40 Years of Making A Difference

November 19 - The Music Gallery, Toronto: (from left) Bill Parsons (Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan), Caelia Lunniss (Spindle Ensemble), Harriet Riley (S), Jo Silverton (S), Daniel Inzani (S), Dan Morphy (E); Yang Chen (E), Andrew Timar (E), Blair Mackay (E), Jonny Smith (E), Christopher Hull (E)On a cold snowy night last November 19, I was happy to be in the warmth of the Music Gallery at 918 Bathurst Street, listening to the bright pulsating music of an inspiring collaboration between Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and the Spindle Ensemble from Bristol, UK  (a collaboration that arose from a chance meeting in Bali between Evergreen member Christopher Hull and Spindle member Harriet Riley, we had been informed). I was curious.

Read more: Collaborative Serendipity

L to R: Aaron Schwebel (Photo by Lauren Hamm); Alexina Louie (Photo by Bo Huang); Marie Bérard; Stephen Sitarski.“A wild idea coming to fruition.” That is how composer Alexina Louie summed up the nature of Esprit Orchestra’s concert on November 27, featuring three exceptional concertmasters all based in Toronto and all sharing the stage, performing four violin concertos as part of Esprit Orchestra’s 40th season (an amazing feat in its own right).

The idea of programming an entire concert of violin concertos was an idea cooked up by Esprit’s conductor and music director Alex Pauk. Louie’s response when Pauk proposed the idea was to push back: “How can you do that? How often have you heard three violinists playing three violin concertos on one concert? In all of my concertgoing days, I’ve never seen a concert like that.” But Pauk persisted. 

The concert will feature Aaron Schwebel from the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra performing José Evangelista’s concerto Violinissimo, written in 1992, which Esprit has performed before; Marie Bérard from the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra performing John Rea’s Figures hâtives written in 2006, a work she has previously performed; and Stephen Sitarski, Esprit Orchestra’s concertmaster, performing a newly commissioned work, Six Enigmas, by Andrew Staniland. The concert will conclude with Louie’s Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra that was commissioned by three different orchestras in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial year: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, performed, in that case, by each of their respective concert masters. 

Read more: Four Concertos and One String Quartet

UNSUK CHIN by Priska KettererAs the new season of concerts gets underway in these somewhat post-Covid days, some of the larger-scale presenters have, with fingers crossed, announced ambitious season lineups. As I looked through their listings, a noteworthy trend was emerging: the regular programming of contemporary works. Perhaps there’s been a shift away from the token or obligatory inclusion of music by living composers which would indicate that past events such as the TSO’s New Creations Festivals, or several seasons of the 21C Festival have been successful in bringing in an eager audience interested in listening to current ideas and styles. 

At the TSO 

A good example of this lies with two October concerts presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. On their October 12 concert, the programming includes a work by Christina Volpini, a Hamilton/Toronto based composer whose music is known for its subtle and nuanced textures, and the Canadian premiere of subito con forza (2020) by Korean-born/Berlin-based composer Unsuk Chin. Volpini’s piece is one of the five Celebration Preludes commissioned from GTA composers for the 2022/23 season. These recently composed pieces stand alongside 20th-century master Ligeti’s Atmosphères and classic compositions by Haydn and Beethoven. Chin’s piece was composed for the 2020 Beethoven anniversary year, and quotes from his 1807 Coriolan Overture are shape-shifted and woven throughout the orchestra. Other references to Beethoven’s music in Chin’s densely textured piece include the Fifth Symphony’s opening rhythm and flourishes from the Emperor Concerto.

Read more: Beyond Obligatory Inclusion?

From left to right: Andrew Timar, Debbie Danbrook, Jin Cho and Rene MeshakeIt is often said that music has a special power to bring diverse people and cultures together. Two events in July occurring just two days apart highlight this truth – one local, one international.

North Wind: On July 16 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall, North Wind Concerts is bringing together four Toronto-based musicians – each playing different types of wood or bamboo flutes – onto the same stage, for a concert titled “Encircling the World: Flutes II” part of an ongoing series. Combining flutes from Korea (the daegeum played by Jin Cho), from Japan (the shakuhachi played by Debbie Danbrook), from the Anishinaabeg First Nation (the pipigwan played by Rene Meshake), and from Indonesia (the suling played by Andrew Timar), the focus will be on an exchange of musical ideas and approaches to performance.

As artistic co-director Alison Melville explained to me, although many efforts have been made over the past 20 years by classical music organizations to stretch thematically beyond the boundaries of the European tradition, not much has changed when it comes to drawing in new audiences. “There’s something more fundamental that has to happen,” she said. 

One key ingredient often missing is a primary focus on the music itself. How do people from different cultural backgrounds actually approach playing the music, and when, and why? “What instruments do you play that are like mine? If I listen to the way you play your instrument, how can that inform me about how one plays music, and even in understanding what music is?” Even though different fundamental techniques may be used when it comes to different wind instruments, exploring common elements, such as how to play with air, for example, can be informative. Regarding drawing in new audiences, people familiar with the music of their own culture are more likely to attend a concert such as “Encircling the World: Flutes II”; in so doing, they will be exposed to other approaches to music-making, traditions that they otherwise wouldn’t experience.

Read more: Two musical exercises in cultivating cultural understanding

Artscape Wychwood Barns, in the event space

Music in the Barns

Creating musical events in unusual spaces is one of the signature features of Music in the Barns, an organization founded in 2008 by violist Carol Gimbel. At the time, Gimbel had an artist studio in the Artscape Wychwood Barns building which was renovated from several large early 20th-century TTC streetcar garages to create a multi-use facility that contains individual artist studios, a farmers market, a greenhouse, an event space and arts organization offices. On June 2, Music in the Barns is staging a celebratory post-Covid return with different events happening in the various Barns’ spaces to create a multi-sensory experience for the audience. 

Anchoring the evening will be a concert to finally celebrate their 2019 album – Music in the Barns: Bolton, Godin & Oesterle ( As Gimbel explained to me during a recent phone conversation, they had previously championed the music on the album during their concerts at the Barns, and after recording it and spending many hours editing it, they never had a chance to do the album-launch concert properly before the lockdowns began. This concert will therefore be the chance for an extended evening of celebration with all those who worked on the album. 

Read more: Creating Musical Spaces Indoor and Out | Two Visions

Women from Space founder/ organizers Bea Labikova (left) and Kayla MilmineWomen from Space is a very special festival, highlighting creativity across a diverse range of music and mixed-media work, often improvisatory, sometimes electronic, scheduled each year to coincide with International Women’s Day weekend.

First launched in 2019 just a week before the COVID-19 lockdown, the event highlights many of the ways in which women are expanding and redefining the sonic landscape, shifting any remaining boundaries between genres and fusing them into new forms. Last year, in full lockdown, founder/organizers Kayla Milmine and Bea Labikova made available an innovative three-dimensional projection box that allowed home viewers to watch the festival in a unique miniature environment. For the fourth edition, the festival is back on stage, this time in the Tranzac’s main hall for three nights and then at 918 Bathurst for the finale. As with past editions there are events that will be better experienced than described. Pre-show panels and chats, presented by Musicworks, run from 7:00 to 7:30 with four to five performances per evening beginning at 8PM.

Thursday April 28

Montreal voice-and-movement artist Susanna Hood’s past works have included explorations of sometimes subtle, sometimes visceral poets, including P.K. Page (The Muted Note) and the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyū (Impossibly Happy). Here Hood explores the saxophonist-composer Steve Lacy’s Packet settings of poems by Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theatre. Hood matches Lacy’s original instrumentation with two stellar Toronto improvisers, soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine and pianist Tanya Gill. That spirit of improvisation is matched by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud’s solo performance, while the same integration of the arts is evident in vibraphonist/pianist Racha Moukalled’s compositions, inspired by works of the pioneering abstract painter Hilma af Klint. Moukalled’s quartet includes violinist Aline Homzy, oboist/flautist Elizabeth Brown and interdisciplinary artist Ilyse Krivel. 

Read more: Women from Space: Redefining the sonic landscape

Beverley Johnston PHOTO: BO HUANGTwo concerts, one in early March, the other in early April, resonate with the day on the calendar set aside to celebrate the historical, cultural and political achievements of women: International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8. This special day has its origins in Russia, a fact that feels significantly ironic – as I sit writing this column, Russia has begun its invasion of Ukraine. On March 8, 1917, the women textile workers of Petrograd rose up to demand “Bread and Peace” – which meant for these women an end to World War I, to food shortages and to czarism. It remained a holiday primarily in Communist countries until 1967 when second-wave feminists in Western Europe, the UK and North America adopted the date as a day of action, highlighting issues such as equal pay, reproductive rights, and the prevention of violence against women.

On March 8 of 2022, percussionist virtuoso Beverley Johnston will be performing a series of compositions that highlight various mythic and real-life female characters in a concert she is calling Finding HER Voice. When I asked Johnston whose voice she is referring to in the title she responded by saying that it has several meanings. “It can be my own voice because I’ve been incorporating a lot of voice into the percussion works that I’ve been learning, either by singing or speaking. Metaphorically, the title draws attention to how women through the ages have empowered themselves, found their voice and become stronger within themselves.” 

Johnson uses her voice in all of the pieces, and even though she is not a trained singer, she became comfortable using her voice due to her experience as a member of the URGE collective in the 1990s and in workshops with Richard Armstrong, an original member of the Roy Hart Theatre known for its pioneering of extended vocal techniques. These activities “empowered me to know that it’s okay to find that gruff quality in the voice, and allowed me not to be afraid to use my voice,” she said.

Read more: Johnston’s Voice & Devaux’s Imagined Sounds

The Piano Travels - a transmission art installation by James Bailey - is featured in NAISA’s 2022 Deep Wireless FestivalRadio art is a lesser-known creative medium yet is perfectly designed for these concert-barren times we’re in. Deep Wireless is a festival of radio and transmission art, plus encompassing installations, performances, radio programs, symposiums and a series of CD compilations. The festival is entering into its 21st year of activities, thanks to the committed vision of New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) and its artistic director Darren Copeland, 

When I proposed this story to my WholeNote editor, he recalled that he had performed the role of a live radio host at a very early Deep Wireless event in 2002 held at Theatre Passe Muraille. One of the memories of that event that stood out for him, he said, was a performance of Radio Music by John Cage, a work written in 1956 for one to eight performers. His mention of that event in turn jogged my memory – I too had been involved in it. Later when I chatted with Copeland about this year’s festival, he was able to confirm that, not only was I involved, but that I had actually conducted the Cage work. In fact, most of the performers were students from my sonic arts class at OCAD who executed the movements on the radio dials according to the notated score.

Read more: Radios, Pianos and Weather – Deep Wireless at 20

Kronos and Tagaq resized C Lisa Sakulensky“It’s not so much a place I go to as a place I come to. It’s a freedom, a lack of control, an exploration, and I’m reacting to whatever happens upon the path.”

Tanya Tagaq (quoted in WN May 2016)

Five years ago at the 21C Music Festival, the Kronos Quartet introduced their Fifty for the Future project, performing four of these works including the world premiere of Snow Angel-Sivunittinni (meaning “the future children”) created by the exhilarating and ferocious Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Spread over five years, the project commissioned 50 new works by 25 women and 25 men for string quartet, all designed to introduce future string quartets to the diversity of contemporary musical ideas. In The WholeNote article I wrote for the May 2016 issue, David Harrington, first violinist of the quartet, described Tagaq’s voice as sounding “like she has a string quartet in her throat.”

Read more: Music for Change: Kronos and Tagaq return to 21C

Soundstreams’ presentation of Love Songs. Photo credit: Claire Harvie.Thanks to Soundstreams and their commitment to programming Canadian music, there will be a chance to hear two works by the celebrated composer Claude Vivier on November 19, 2021, during the broadcast of a livestream concert event.

Vivier’s musical influence in Toronto stretches back to the late 1970s when his works were regularly performed by Arraymusic, and has been ongoing ever since, even though his tragic death in 1983 put an end to the creation of new works by this celebrated composer. The upcoming concert was recorded in Koerner Hall and features two works by Vivier: Love Songs (1977) and Hymnen an die Nacht (1975), as well as the world premiere of Oceano Nox by Christopher Mayo, composed as a tribute to Vivier. 

Read more: “Pure sound and the light of eternity”: Claude Vivier reprised and recollected
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