The Barricades

The Mysterious Barricades concert series came out of a tragedy: in 2015, the series co-founder and president, Edmonton-based mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull, lost her husband to suicide. “Beth and Chris and my husband Gord and I, and Russell Braun and Carolyn Maule and many others in this group – we were all friends mainly through University of Toronto Opera School,” explains Monica Whicher, Mysterious Barricades’ Toronto leader and presenter, when we meet in her home to talk about this year’s event. “Chris wasn’t a musician professionally, but he was a music lover. We were each other’s families essentially, as you are when you’re young in school and away from your own family. We have been friends for at least 30 years when it happened.” Turnbull herself speaks eloquently about her loss and her partner’s struggle with depression and anxiety in the video on the Mysterious Barricades website. Nothing, however, prepares one for the devastation that is the loss of a loved one.

“Beth understood that a way for her toward healing would be music,” says Whicher. The mezzo invited her musician friends to join forces and create a consciousness-raising event, rolling out as a series in multiple cities across the country in the course of one day. Each year, the event takes place during World Suicide Prevention Week and includes guest speakers and representatives from mental health organizations. Each concert has its own presenter and programmer. There will be a Kitchener-Waterloo concert on September 10 at 7pm. And on September 14, Ottawa (12pm), Toronto (1pm), and London (2pm) will be the three Ontario cities participating in what is planned as a 17-hour sequence, coast-to-coast concerts which will also be streamed live.

The 1pm Toronto concert will be in the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. From the very start, the Toronto Mysterious Barricades concert has been under the auspices of the University of Toronto, where Whicher and many other musicians involved happen to be teaching. Everybody is volunteering their time. “There’s space, there’s some generosity amidst of it all, and there is a student body who we feel can use the knowledge and shared experience,” says Whicher. This year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Andrea Levinson, psychiatrist-in-chief, Health and Wellness, University of Toronto. “Our goal is to make sure that everybody knows that there is help available. We will present these resources in between the music making. It’s easy when one is not struggling to let something in one ear and out the other; but when one is struggling or one’s loved one is, it becomes difficult to understand how to proceed in a crisis. The more we can put this info forward – the better.”

While much of the messaging of MB is directed toward the university population, students and instructors, the resources listed on the website for each city include information for the general population as well. Representatives from the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Canadian Mental Health Association and CAMH will also be there. “At university each year we’re encountering a group of people, and I was this person at one time, trying to do something that they love and trying to do it better. Whether this is music or anything else. You are coming to a new level of critical process, and this is very difficult. You may need support.” If a student is struggling, there’s a confidential number to call and an email address, and this is easy to find in all student handbooks.

I ask her if there are perhaps plans to grow out of the university setting, move to a non-university-affiliated hall. She explains that given that most things are currently donated, including the access to Walter Hall, this would not be an easy transfer, but that they’d be open to it should the opportunity present itself. Thanks to the live-streaming – which is, let’s not forget, still extremely rare in Canadian performing arts – the concerts do get seen by a large swath of people who are not attending university or teaching in it.

And while Mysterious Barricades is not a day of advocacy for better funding or better insurance coverage for talk therapy, it is an invitation to look at the available resources, and to start a conversation around mental health. “I appreciate that it can be difficult,” says Whicher. “We want to deal with problems before they become a crisis. The understanding of what’s already available, and the availability – both of these need to be ramped up. Everybody comes to their help differently. We are here to start the conversation, and get past the initial discomfort around it.” Social media is not helping – they’re making, Whicher says, things worse. “It’s not helping the isolation factor, it’s not helping the understanding – in fact it’s diminishing the understanding. We need daily contacts with humans. We just have to keep finding ways to make contact with one another. And in this world of online likes and dislikes that can be difficult.”

Does she program each year around an idea? “Yes – Beth initially asked and I think it’s a beautiful plan, that the music provide some space for contemplation. Now, of course, it may also create space for emotion. We want to have music that evokes shared experience and be contemplative… forward-looking… colourful… in a word: hopeful.”

“Music has been the thing that’s upheld me for as long as I can remember,” she says. “And that’s true for so many people.”

Monica WhicherThe Barriers

So you need talk therapy and live in Ontario and are not wealthy? A quick primer based on personal experience.

Talk to your GP – many will know psychotherapists who are covered by OHIP and can give you their contact information. This will not guarantee anything, unfortunately, as OHIP-covered psychotherapists tend to have long waiting lists. The current Ontario government has embarked on a reform of mental health care which, as part of the new negotiated contract with physicians, stipulates that a psychiatrist cannot bill the Ontario Ministry of Health unlimited number of hours anymore, but can bill 24 hours a patient a year instead. The change would save money for the Ontario government (and this is probably the primary motive) but would also, ideally, open up some of those waiting lists. When I asked my then-GP (who has since left Canada) for therapy leads three years ago, she gave me contact info for two psychotherapists who never even bothered returning my phone calls – I expect due to the length of their already existing waiting lists.

A debate has been taking place among mental healthcare providers in the province even since the proposed changes have been announced. A star psychotherapist, Dr. Norman Doidge, author of the internationally acclaimed The Brain That Changes Itself, contributed an op-ed to The Globe and Mail in which he argued that the reduction of fully billable hours would effectively mean abandoning the most vulnerable patients in need of intense, multiple-times-a-week care. Others, like some of the physicians featured in Dr. Matt Strauss’ recent National Post piece have argued that the proposed cuts to hours will be the only way for a good number of people, currently excluded due to where in Ontario they live, whether they’re new Canadians or old, or how much they earn, from access to mental healthcare. Would the only way to increase access to psychotherapy while not taking it away from existing patients be to expand the list of registered psychotherapists who could bill OHIP (currently only MDs can)? This does not seem likely under the current government which primarily seems to be interested in short-term cost cutting.

OHIP-covered therapy therefore, you soon learn, is not available to a lot of us. You may get yourself on the waiting list, but what about right now? The other possibility is to have a job that comes with health benefits which also have excellent provisions for psychotherapy. And even if you are lucky to have a job that gives you additional health insurance, most health plans will have fairly low mental healthcare claims limits. I currently have a part-time job unrelated to writing, which has insurance (freelancers and precariat of any kind have no additional health insurance unless they individually pay into it – but that’s a topic for another article). This insurance has reasonably ample provisions for dental care, for example, but limits the amount you can spend on psychotherapy to $700 a year (about five or six hours!). Meaning that every two months you can see somebody for an hour.

Otherwise, you must pay out of pocket. I once had an initial session with a non-MD psychoanalyst and it cost more than $200. There was no second session; there was no way I could afford to continue.

Certain large hospitals, like Women’s College, offer support, therapy and treatment groups, but a quick check on their website reveals that even some of the groups, like the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) one, are not accepting referrals any more due to high demand. (The Day Treatment Program group seems to be still open.)

And so, many of us must press on without mental health care. There’s a federal election coming up, but the provincial one is not before 2022. Meanwhile, perhaps we could all think about how the quality of our lives or our loved ones’ could be improved by bringing down the systemic barriers preventing access to psychotherapy, and get in touch with our MPPs and politely ask them if they see that as a society we have a problem, and what their plan to address it is. 

ART OF SONG QUICK PICKS

And in the meanwhile, we have music.

SEP 14, 1PM: Set to join Monica Whicher in the Toronto Mysterious Barricades concert are baritone Russell Braun, mezzo Norine Burgess, harpist, Judy Loman, pianists Carolyn Maule and Jialiang Zhu, soprano Nathalie Paulin, three members of the Turkwaz vocal and instrumental ensemble (Jayne Brown, Sophia Grigoriadis and Maryem Tollar), and a Mysterious Barricades Toronto Chorale, conducted by Tracy Wong. Updates on the program for the concert, an opportunity to reserve your free concert ticket, as well as detailed information on all 15 Canadian concerts can be found at mysteriousbarricades.org.

SEP 19 AND 21, 8PM: TSO, Hannigan and Storgårds. Beethoven: Overture to Egmont; Dutilleux: Sur le même accord, for violin and orchestra; Haydn: Symphony No.96; Brett Dean: And once I played Ophelia, for string orchestra and Piano (Canadian Première); Sibelius: Symphony No.3. John Storgårds, conductor and violin; Barbara Hannigan: conductor and soprano. Roy Thomson Hall

SEP 20: Masterclass with Barbara Hannigan – Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre, with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and Maeve Palmer, soprano. 1 to 3pm, Walter Hall, 80 Queen’s Park. Followed by “In Conversation: Barbara Hannigan and composer Brett Dean.” Q&A with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s visiting artists. 3 to 4pm, Walter Hall. Both events are free admission and open to the public.

SEP 22, 2PM: Renée Bouthot and Ana Cervantes. “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air sur soir: Music by French and Mexican Composers.” Debussy: Fêtes galantes; Études and Préludes (selections); Ibarra: Tres canciones; Uribe: El viaje nocturno de Quetzalpapálotl (Canadian premiere); Poulenc: Tel jour, telle nuit. Renée Bouthot, soprano; Ana Cervantes, piano. Heliconian Hall, 35 Hazelton Ave.

SEP 28, 4PM: Toronto Operetta Theatre. Viva La Zarzuela. Music of Latin America and Spain. Romulo Delgado, tenor; Ana Persijn Alarcon, soprano; Cristina Pisani, soprano; Olivia Maldonado, soprano; Guillermo Silva-Marin, tenor; Narmina Afandiyeva, music director/piano; Henry Ingram, host. St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

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

Antiquity is a foreign country: they love and desire differently there. Or do they really, asks Amanda Hale in her libretto for the lesbian-themed opera composed by Kye Marshall which is about to have its premiere, June 5, onstage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Pomegranate is structured as a tale of two couples in two different time periods, though the text is open to interpretation – it could be the tale of one couple imagining their historical antecedents, or the story of obstacles to same-sex love which never disappear entirely even in liberal societies. The first couple is in Pompeii in 79 AD, before the Vesuvius eruption. In the second act, we are in a downtown lesbian bar in 1980s Toronto.

“I had been to Pompeii in the early 2000s and my inspiration for Pomegranate was the frescoes that I saw in the Villa of Mysteries there,” says Hale. To this day archaeologists are not sure what the frescoes depict, but it’s presumed to be some kind of a Dionysian ritual that involved women. “The images stayed with me so I formed a story for myself about two young girls falling in love. They’re teenage girls, they’re innocent, and the setting is sort of a Roman girls boarding school.” Worship of Isis was one of the unofficial religious traditions practised in Rome of the time, so Hale introduced a temple of Isis, as a refuge for the girls, and a temple priestess to the story.

Hale, a novelist and a poet, initially wrote a poem cycle about two young Pompeii women. Cellist and composer, Kye Marshall, set the poems to music, and the tale was told as a song cycle, at the Heliconian Club in 2014. “The audience responded so strongly to it that we decided to make an opera,” says Hale. It would take six years of work, grant writing, collaborator hunting, creating contacts in the opera world, two workshops, producer changes and cast changes until Pomegranate the opera was ready to premiere. “I first contacted Michael Mori from Tapestry who was always very supportive (and who is directing the June 5 to 9 run). He put me in touch with Marjorie Chan, who became my dramaturge. She helped me enormously. She coached me in the arts of the libretto.”

Mount Vesuvius has an eerie presence in the first act and its own changing soundscape. The catastrophic event brewing in the background, says Hale, is another parallel with our time. “We all have our little plans and machinations and arguments but we are facing climate-related disasters all over the world.”

In the libretto, which Hale shared with me, there are hints of a female-only utopia in the temple scenes and perhaps in the lesbian bar in the second act, but the idea is complicated. Would an all-women religion or a political party or a living setup be, in her view, a functioning social utopia of the Call the Midwife type, or a dystopia where women merge too much and ignore interpersonal boundaries, in the vein of Grey Gardens? “In my ardent feminist days in the 1980s when I was much younger, feminism was a real vehicle for my political education. I was quite a lesbian separatist and I had a lot of those utopian ideas but I have aged and mellowed,” says Hale. “I didn’t see it in those terms but there is a lot of conflict in the libretto. Another character, Julia, is almost in love with the priestess but she becomes jealous of Cassia, one of the principals. That, and the fear of being crucified as an escaped slave, leads her to betray everybody. In the second act there’s a big fight between the two women on whether one of them should finally come out to her conservative family who’ve come from a war-torn part of the world. Her mother is the one who betrays her and it’s often the women who betray their daughters, unfortunately. If you, for example, look at the clitoridectomy and infibulation today, it’s the mothers who take the daughters to have it done.” As well, the priestess of the women-centred temple is, it turns out, the sister of the Roman soldier pursuing one of the women. “I think it’s a fairly realistic view of how it might have been.”

The parallels between the past and today do not end there. Pompeii was a multicultural port city with people of all backgrounds living there and passing through; half the population of Toronto is foreign-born. Politics on the small and large scale was presumably as present in Pompeii’s citizens’ lives as it is for Torontonians today. Hale herself is foreign-born – British – and moved to Canada in 1968. She lived in Montreal through the 1970s and the War Measures Act and Bill 101, but describes herself now as “quite politically naïve at that time.” Her politically active life started in Toronto, where she moved in the 1980s and got involved with Nightwood Theatre, wrote for the feminist paper Broadside and founded Red Tree, a visual arts company, with Lynn Hutchinson. Today she divides her time between Hornby Island, BC and Toronto. Before returning to writing in the late 1990s, with her first novel published by Raincoast Books, Hale earned her living as a painter and sculptor in BC.

She still travels to England to visit family. “It was a good thing, leaving England, because when you leave a place, you can see it.” Her family’s story has been far from ordinary: Hale’s father was a supporter of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists during the Second World War, and died by suicide some years after the war. “That legacy has hung over me all my life,” says Hale, who has written about it in her latest novel, Mad Hatter (Guernica, Toronto), to be launched in September. “I feel absolutely liberated for having told that story. It’s been a great shame and humiliation so it was good for me to leave England and be able to see all that. But it’s taken my lifetime to process it.”

Hale’s own politics are at the opposite end of the spectrum to her father’s. She often travels to Cuba and has developed a lot of connections, personal and professional, over the last 15 years. “I went there first to paint a mural with Lynn Hutchinson in solidarity with the revolution and we made a connection with a gallery in Havana and did an installation there on colonialism and sugar, then another one about surveillance, which Cubans really understand.” Latin America was always of great interest. “I’ve had a lot of connections with Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. A big change I saw here in Toronto in the 1980s was the refugees coming from those countries who’d experienced American interference, people who enriched Toronto tremendously during the 1970s and 1980s. There were Greeks coming here after the Junta and people emigrating to Canada after the Iranian Revolution. On Hornby Island we have an Iranian man who’s taken refuge there, who is a wonderful potter.”

While she would define herself as bisexual today (and is no fan of labels), Hale’s view on the importance of lesbian presence in culture hasn’t changed. “It’s still fairly new to see it – and women’s experience in general–- and some of the terrible things that happen to us and some of the great things that should be celebrated. I think it enriches the culture generally, and for men as well. It’s not being against men: it’s filling out a picture that has been half blank a long time.”

Rebecca Gray (left) and Camille Rogers in Pomegranate. Photo by Greg Wong

ART OF SONG QUICK PICKS

JUN 4, 7PM: Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto presents Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir, mezzo & Snorri Sigfús Birgisson, piano; atTimothy Eaton Memorial Church, Toronto.

JUN 8, 4PM: Lisa Di Maria, soprano, and Adolfo De Santis, piano; at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto. Barber, Fauré, Puccini.

JUN 10, 12:15PM: Music Mondays presents Heine’s Buch der Lieder. James McLean, tenor, and William Aide, piano; at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto .

JUN 19 TO 22, 7PM AND JUN 23, 2PM: Soundstreams, Luminato, & Pinkhouse Productions present Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook. Music by Hanns Eisler, staging and concept by Tim Albery with design by Michael Levine. Russell Braun, baritone, and Serouj Kradjian, piano. Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto.

JUN 27, 8PM: Muse 9 Productions/Village Opera present “Bon Appétit! A Musical Tasting Menu.” Lee Hoiby: Bon Appétit!; Danika Lorèn: The Secret Lives of Vegetables; Peter Tiefenbach: Chansons de mon placard. Katy Clark, soprano, Victoria Borg, mezzo. Hyejin Kwon is the music director, staging by Anna Theodosakis. Merchants of Green Coffee, Toronto..

JUL 11, 7:30PM: Toronto Summer Music opening night: “Beyond Borders.” R. Strauss: Vier letze Lieder; Ravel: Cinq mélodies populaires grecques; Sarasate, Mozart, Chopin and more. Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano, Jon Kimura Parker, piano, Kerson Leong, violin, and Steven Philcox, piano, with the New Orford String Quartet and Tom Allen hosting. Koerner Hall.

JUL 16, 7:30PM: Toronto Summer Music presents “Griffey & Jones in Recital.” Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Warren Jones, piano. Music by Bridge, Griffes, Barber, Finzi, Laitman, Niles and Ives. Walter Hall, U of T.

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

Liz Upchurch accompanies Jane Archibald in the COC’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, 2018. Photo by Kevin LloydNot a lot of people know that Liz Upchurch, the head of the COC Ensemble Studio and a key figure in operatic training in our country, started her career as an art song buff. The Royal Academy of Music graduate and London-born pianist who studied with Roger Vignoles first came to Canada for a lieder course led by Martin Isepp in Banff, where she met Mary Morrison, Michael McMahon and John Hess, who all had extensive opera experience. “At the time I had just started to lose my sight,” she remembers. “I have a retinal disease which started to manifest seriously around that time… it had been a difficult year. I’d just been given an okay by the specialist to go for the summer.”

After the course, Isepp asked her to come with him to Italy, to an opera summer program he was running. “I wasn’t in love with opera then,” she admits. “I was in love with singers and art song. When I asked what we’d be working on, and was told a Mozart opera, I thought, hmm. But I’m so glad I went: it changed the course of my life. He became a mentor. I wanted to have that kind of artistic sensibility where I can be in both worlds, opera and art song.”

Liz Upchurch. Photo by Chris HutchesonUpchurch is celebrating her 20 years with the COC with a noon concert, “Some of My Favourite Things,” on May 7 at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (RBA), and the program will be back-to-back-to-back art song. “I did a double first at the RAM in solo and chamber music, but I always played for singers, for their classes and recitals, and was kind of crazy for singers. There’s nothing as amazing as the written words set to music – the human voice. Human voices send me.”

Back in Banff, John Hess, in particular, became a fast friend, and opened further doors into opera – and hiking. “John would always lead these hikes. I couldn’t do the hikes with other singers and pianists – when you start to lose your vision, you’re seeing in two dimensions, the whole up-down thing is confusing. He said, ‘I’ll take you on walks at the end of the course.’ And he got me over a couple of fears that I had.” Banff was also the place where Upchurch met her future wife, theatre director Jennifer Tarver, who was then assisting Rhoda Levine. But that was to come later. “Then John on that hike said, ‘Look, I do this course in the winter, it’s called Dramatic Integration, for Canadian singers doing contemporary music. I can’t really explain the course, it’s a bit crazy, but I think you might be the right kind of crazy to do it.’”

Two things were immediately evident, Hess tells me when I ask him about the experience. “Liz was a beautiful pianist. Superb sound, great fingers, deeply musical and a superb ensemble player. The other thing was a wicked sense of humour.” She was also, he writes, a dramatic sight to see while playing. “She was already beginning to have vision issues and she would often play with a tissue draped over one side of her glasses.” She accepted this unknown disease in stride, almost in an off-hand manner. “This was vintage Liz. She had an unabated appetite for the beauty of the Rockies and even with her physical challenges she was undaunted in getting to the top of whatever mountain she could.”

Young pianist Jennifer Szeto, now Montreal-based former Ensemble Studio member and Adler Fellow, also remembers that sense of humour and the cheek. They met by accident, when Szeto played an audition for a friend whose regular pianist cancelled. “It’s a story which Liz likes to tell in a completely different way. But we met at that COSI audition. I walked in, played the audition, the singer left and Liz looked at me at the piano and went Who are you?! Um, I’m Jenn Szeto. I was a second-year student at that point. She asked me if I’ve ever seen an opera before. Which is a funny thing to ask someone. And thankfully I had seen an opera, as I was dating a young baritone. Liz invited me to the COSI program on the spot, and I spent the summer immersing myself in opera. Martin Isepp was coaching Cosi fan tutte, conducted by Stephen Philcox and featuring all the ensemble members at the COC. Sam Chan was there. Kinza Tyrrell conducted a Haydn opera, Aviva Fortunata was singing. I had an amazing introduction to the world of opera. That’s how Liz found me and I joined the Ensemble eight years after that. I’ve been learning and working in opera for about ten years since that first encounter. If I hadn’t agreed to play that audition, I’d never have met her; if she hadn’t asked who I was, I wouldn’t have the career that I’m building right now. It’s really because of her. And I’m sure I’m not the only person.”

The two kept in touch over the years, but when Szeto inquired too early about trying out for the Ensemble Studio, she got an honest answer. “Jenny, she said. You’re not ready. I needed to wait a few more years. She is always honest with her advice. And I auditioned when I was ready.” Upchurch is known for keeping an eye on young musical talent across the country, and Szeto confirms it. “She likes to keep tabs. She likes to keep a good pulse on everything. I think that’s what makes her so good at her job: she has a remarkable eye for talent. She is a fabulous teacher and mentor, but really has an eye for spotting that thing that makes you different.”

Liz Upchurch with the 2018/2019 COC Ensemble Studio. Gaetz PhotographyBy the time the first round of taped submissions for the Ensemble Studio auditions arrives, Upchurch will have heard a good number of applicants already. She spends a chunk of her year travelling to vocal programs and festivals. “By the end of a summer, I’ve heard between 50 and 80 Canadian singers from undergraduate level up, and several pianists. That allows me not just to hear young people with a lot of potential and watch them and be at the significant point to guide them over the next few steps, but also to interact with their teachers and people that they are with. So: there are no real surprises, honestly. The talented people rise. It’s important to have that big radar.”

What is she looking for in the 130-plus submissions that they get? “Extraordinariness. Beauty. People with amazing sense of message: communicators. You can have a wonderful voice and not know how to communicate. You’ve got to sort of have it all and then you’ve got to really want it. It has to be a calling. It’s a very hard discipline, singing. It looks incredibly glamorous, but the fact is it’s a very difficult life.”

The international success of Canadian singers thrills her, but she’s not entirely sure how to explain it. “It’s a miracle. I’ve said it for years: for a country this size, how is it conceivable that everywhere you go, any of the major opera houses right now, you will fall over a Canadian on the stage. Frankfurt’s now become a mini-Toronto, in a way.” There are Canadians in Berlin, and Paris, and across France. Doesn’t it also speak to the quality of training here? “Yes. When you have such a plethora of amazing training, there’s not necessarily work of a certain type for everybody,” she adds, and the singers travel abroad.

What about the training program, developed over the years, at the COC that she now heads up? “I have a small army, basically,” she says. Because it’s a large art form, it can be broken down and taught in separate ways. “You’ll do movement in one room, you do German diction over here, you have a vocal session here, you have coaching over there, everything is silo’d in boxes. For the singers who’re trying to put it all together, if there wasn’t a unified language, they are starting to ping pong.” She is first and foremost a pianist and she plays for all the trainers that she brings in, which means that she can see first-hand whether this trainer is a good fit for that particular group of singers. “It took me a long time to find this team. I have people like Wendy Nielsen, and Tom Diamond, and Jennifer Swan whom I met in Italy ten years ago, who’s an expert on breathing and physicality. It’s taken years to develop a sort of language, an understanding, a philosophy, and a method – a repeatable method. Sometimes we have four trainers in the room. We’re very good at sharing who needs to go when in the room, who needs to talk. The teamwork is essential. They also teach them separately.”

The new Studio members are always introduced to the audience of the noon-hour concert series as a group, but they say farewell individually, in the Les Adieux concerts. Near the end the repertoire is often ambitious. “They sometimes want to do big song cycles, and we created space for them in the series for that. I’ve already spoken to the incoming studio members about their Les Adieux concert. For a Schubert concert like Samuel Chan just did, that is two years’ work.”

“The song aspect has been elevated during Liz’s tenure with the Ensemble and that’s been a fantastic thing,” says Wendy Nielsen, the head vocal consultant at the Ensemble Studio and the head of voice at U of T. The two women did a recital together in 2011 in the RBA and after meeting as teachers at the Ensemble Studio, Nielsen invited Upchurch to come to her own summer program in St. Andrews in New Brunswick. What is Upchurch after in a young singer? “She’s primarily focused on helping them to develop their artistry,” says Nielsen. “Obviously voice matters, that’s their instrument, but she has a real ability to bring out the artist inside them.” And if that includes singers or pianists who also compose, like Danika Lorèn and Stéphane Mayer, she will find ways to bring forward their original work. “She is very respectful of what each ensemble member needs, and aware that they all need something different. One of her strengths is that she meets someone where they are. The recipe is not the same for each person. While providing training, the program allows for a lot of growth in different directions.”

When I ask Upchurch what composers she favours personally, she takes the Romantic lane. “Brahms was my first love – and Schumann. I get Schumann. I was obsessed with the letters, with the relationship, with how he wrote, how he changed from improvising to seeing text for the first time, that whole thing. The Brahms-Mendelssohn-Schumann-Wolf axis was a major love affair for me. All of the piano trios, Brahms piano trios, Brahms cello sonatas, violin sonatas, how violin sonatas bleed into art song – all that.” But Brahms and Schumann won’t be on the program on May 7, giving way to some contemporary music, as is only right. Schubert, though – “a god of writing for text” – will make an appearance, with An die Musik.

It was hard reducing her favourite things to an hour-long concert, she says. “I was really stuck – and I’m never stuck. It gelled about a month ago when I really knew exactly who I could have. I decided it should be about the Studio – the first year Simona Genga and Anna-Sophie Neher, who are friends, will do duets and rep that they love. The COC orchestra concertmaster, Marie Bérard, will play the violin solo in Strauss’ Morgen, with Genga singing.” Among the songs by living composers, the Ana Sokolović cycle Dawn Always Begins in the Bones will be well represented, as will Derek Holman’s The Four Seasons. “It’s an incredible set, which I’ve already recorded with Lance [Wiliford]. The Fair Daffodils is a true gem – Anna-Sophie will sing it.”

Upchurch also composes. “Monica Whicher and I used to perform this song that I wrote, but this time it will be with a violin since Marie is there. It’s a lullaby for my son, who’s now nine, and who I have to go collect right after our interview. He’s never fallen asleep to it, not once in nine years,” she tut-tuts.

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

Judy Loman at Crow’s Theatre. Photo by Trevor HaldenbyA harp can sing: this we’ve learned from Judy Loman and her extraordinary career. The now-retired principal harp with the TSO has several harp-centric world premieres to her name by the composers like R. Murray Schafer, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Glenn Buhr and John Weinzweig, and has often accompanied voice in art song recital, notably on records with Lois Marshall in Folk Songs from the British Isles, Eleanor James in Schafer’s Tanzlied and Monica Whicher in Lullabies and Carols for Christmas. On April 14, she will be reuniting with Whicher in song and trying something entirely different: a selection of Mahler and Strauss arranged by Loman for the harp.

There’s going to be much else on the program, ranging from the Elizabethan era to Britten and spanning multiple countries, but the Mahler and Strauss songs re-tailored for the harp are the most exciting challenge, explains the 82-year-old harp virtuoso when I meet her at her midtown west-end home. I take a peek at the program that they are preparing, and much of the Strauss set is one lavish melancholy hit after another. The languid, soft “Ruhe, meine Seele” (Rest, My Soul) opens the set, followed by the bright melancholy of “Allerseelen” (All Souls’ Day) and sombre “Morgen!” (Tomorrow). Then, a change of mood for the finale. The playful “Heimliche Aufforderung” (The Lover’s Pledge) and the altogether brighter and vast “Zueignung” (Devotion) complete the Strauss set.

The upbeat “Frühlingsmorgen” (Spring Morning) with its fluttery ornaments opens the Mahler set, which proceeds to the deceptively simple and short, but devastating in effect, “Phantasie” and finishes with the highly dramatic song of farewell “Nicht wiedersehen!” from the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

That, in addition to the Ravel and Britten sets, three Italian songs from the Baroque and classical periods, and the Elizabethan-era sequence that includes the gloriously melismatic “Chloris Sigh’d” and a song attributed to Anne Boleyn. The harp will also sing on its own in a nocturne by Marcel Tournier (d. 1951).

Monica WhicherThe two women have decided to name this Mazzoleni Songmasters program at the RCM simply Monica & Judy. They’ve known each other for a long time, says Loman; they originally met through a common acquaintance who was a member of a group advocating for better care of autistic children that Loman, parent of a now-adult son on the autism spectrum, used to belong to. Some of the paintings on the living room wall behind me, she later tells me, are her son’s.

The harp naturally occupies a prominent spot in her living room. On the coffee table, a monograph on the work of the visual and media artist and Guggenheim Fellow, Penelope Umbrico, Loman’s oldest daughter, who was born in the US, shortly before the young Curtis Institute of Music alumni Loman and her husband, trumpeter Joseph Umbrico, moved to Canada for good. The small family moved to Toronto in 1957 so Umbrico could take up the principal trumpet position with the TSO, and as luck would have it, two years later the orchestra needed a principal harpist. When she joined the TSO, Loman was by no means the only woman, she tells me; while some of the internationally prominent orchestras to this day struggle with the issue of too few women in the ranks, she wasn’t an oddity in the TSO of the 1960s. Though she did help set a positive precedent that eventually changed a particular bit of orchestral culture that will sound unusual to us today. “Well, a funny story. If a female player got pregnant,” Loman says, “she was expected to stop playing in the orchestra as soon as the pregnancy was beginning to show. But what happened with me is that I stayed for as long as I could comfortably embrace the instrument, because there weren’t many harpists that the TSO could hire while I’m away on maternity leave for months. So I played through pregnancy, and after that, other women in the orchestra could too.”

What is her theory; why is the harp now an almost exclusively female instrument? “I wonder as well … Perhaps a lot of girls do as I did – see a beautiful harp at the music school and decide, wow, this is the instrument for me.” Loman’s parents both had great affinity for music – her father was a gifted jazz pianist, her mother had keen interest in dance – but neither ended up going the professional route. When they went to register their five-year-old for piano lessons, the child spotted a small golden harp on the premises and decided there and then that was the instrument for her. (Piano came much later in life.) Orchestral brass, on the other hand, remains largely a male purview. “My husband too used to be a little chauvinistic on that topic,” says Loman mischievously, “but he changed his mind later in life, once women brass players started coming through the ranks in greater numbers.”

The couple raised three daughters and a son and remained together until Umbrico’s death in 2007. Both Loman and Umbrico frequently played pieces by living Canadian composers, and over the decades Loman built up a remarkable recorded legacy in harp repertoire with the emphasis on the 20th century. The first harp concerto written specifically for her was the 1967 Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra by John Weinzweig, a piece which she now describes as “perhaps a little dry.” (Readers of CanLit and chroniclers of Canadian literary modernism will have noticed the recent and well-deserved surge of interest in the novels of Helen Weinzweig, the composer’s wife, due in large part to the NYRB Classics reissue of Basic Black with Pearls in 2018). Loman’s encounter with Murray Schafer was more fortuitous. She approached him after the TSO performed a piece by Schafer inside U of T’s Convocation Hall and suggested he consider creating something for the harp. “I mentioned to him that I’ve been talking with Toru Takemitsu about a possible harp piece for which the harpist would wear bracelets with bells, and I think this was what fired up his imagination,” remembers Loman. Soon after, Schafer dropped by her house with the score for The Crown of Ariadne, the now legendary six-movement segment of Schafer’s opera cycle Patria, which he set for the harp with an assortment of percussive instruments and prepared tape. Loman premiered it, recorded it, won a JUNO for it and most recently awed in it in an all-Schafer Soundstream production appropriately called Odditorium. In the darkened Crow’s Theatre, Loman alone on stage performed Ariadne Awakens and the dances. When I tell her that her performance created a religious experience for this atheist, she laughs and offers a more-down-to-earth comment: “It’s a very difficult piece, and I sometimes make the odd mistake, but I was so well prepared for that, I don’t think I made any during that run.”

Following Ariadne, Schafer went on to compose six other works for the harp, all of which were finally gathered on the same disc in 2016, Ariadne’s Legacy. Loman plays in five of the seven in addition to The Crown of Ariadne (1979), the 1986 Theseus for harp and string quartet, the 1987 Harp Concerto with the TSO under Andrew Davis, the 1997 Wild Bird with Jacques Israelievitch on violin and the 2004 Tanzlied with Schafer’s wife, mezzo Eleanor James.

Even with such a career behind her, the national treasure that is Judy Loman is not anywhere near the end of her bucket list. Her hearing is not 100 percent today but when did a little reduced hearing ever prevent great musicians from doing anything? “I’m 82 and not sure how long I’ll be able to play, so I’m busy getting into pieces that I haven’t yet done and really want to do,” she says.

More religious experiences brought to us by Loman at the harp to look forward to then.

ART OF SONG QUICK PICKS

APR 5 AND 6, 8PM: Confluence Concerts presents an all-Purcell program at Heliconian Hall, “Tis Nature’s Voice: Henry Purcell Reimagined.” Larry Beckwith, Anna Atkinson, Andrew Downing, Patricia O’Callaghan, Drew Jurecka and Suba Sankaran, among others. $20-$30, with the pre-concert chat on each night starting at 7:15pm.

Allison AngeloAPR 14, 3PM: The new edition of the Off-Centre Music Salon (which takes place not at all in a salon but at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre on Bloor West) presents “To the Letter: An Epistolary Celebration,” a showcase of composers who have been known for their prolific and skillful letter writing. Soprano Allison Angelo, mezzo Andrea Ludwig, tenor Ernesto Ramirez, baritone Giles Tomkins and Kathryn Tremills at the piano appear in a program of Chopin, Brahms, Debussy and Mozart. Tickets not cheap at $40-$50, though there are deep discounts for young adults.

MAY 1, 6:30PM: Tongue in Cheek Productions’ latest is titled “Democracy in Action” and I’m told will involve “integrated online polls available to the audience throughout the concert”. My guess is as good as yours. Pianist Trevor Chartrand will accompany a solid lineup: mezzos Krisztina Szabó and Julie Nesrallah; sopranos Natalya Gennadi and Teiya Kasahara; tenors Asitha Tennekoon and Romulo Delgado; baritones Alexander Hajek and Stephen Hegedus. Lula Lounge, $35 ($25 arts workers); seating is a mix of dinner tables and theatre seating.

Finally some folk and pop content in the picks this month. Gordon Lightfoot is touring Ontario in April, including, among others, Richmond Hill (APR 3), Barrie (APR 8), St Catharines (APR 11 AND 12) and Mississauga (APR 15 AND 16). Ticket prices vary.

And on APR 27, 7:30PM: Music at Metropolitan presents” L’Aigle noir: The Music of Barbara,” the songs of the late French singer-songwriter in a cabaret-style tribute by Charles Davidson (singer-actor) and Jesse Corrigan (accordion). Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St. E. $20.

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

Erika Switzer (left) and Martha Guth. Photo by Colin MillsCompetitions are not unusual in classical music. Every few months, young voices and pianists are competing somewhere in the world – in standard repertoire by composers from the past. No new songs get commissioned especially for the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, or the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, or the Operalia. For new works by living artists one goes to poetry slams and literary death matches, where poets and novelists turn their writing into a performance and the audience, to a greater or lesser degree inebriated, decides the winner. We can go to competitions in old music – and watch them civilly and in silence – or competitions in new writing, spoken without music, where a certain degree of audience responsiveness and noise is in fact encouraged.

Those were the choices, that is, until spring 2017 and the inaugural songSLAM concert before a standing-room-only crowd in New York City. It’s when soprano Martha Guth and pianist Erika Switzer decided to give a spin to this new and (fair to say) populist format for presenting new art song creations. The two musicians, while pursuing independent careers, have, in their spare time, also been running Sparks & Wiry Cries, an organization and online magazine dedicated to the “preservation and the advancement of art song.” The new-song-competition format became popular almost overnight: after the NYC songSLAM, two new cities, Minneapolis and Ann Arbor, immediately wanted their own. There will be seven songSLAMs in three countries this season, says Guth via email from NYC when I get in touch with her to ask about the upcoming Toronto slam.

Scheduled for January 16 at the more formal Walter Hall at the University of Toronto, the Toronto songSLAM will otherwise remain true to the established slam practices: drinks (cocktails will be served 30 minutes before the 7pm start time, says Guth), all songs by living composers, and performers from all career levels – students, young professionals and established musicians from Toronto and Montreal. She could not confirm the final list of participants, as the 12 accepted composer-performer teams and five alternates were still being notified at the time of the interview, but at least two young singers have already shared on Twitter their excitement ahead of the concert – sopranos Sara Schabas and Danika Lorèn (who will be singing her own songs accompanied by Darren Creech on the piano).

“We created the songSLAM in order to get audiences excited and invested in the creation of new music,” says Guth, “and to build a sense of collaboration and interaction between composers and performers in each city where events are held. This social event has so far exceeded all of our expectations everywhere it has happened. The audiences have been incredibly enthusiastic, and the musicians taking part have told us that even if they didn’t place in the competition, they loved taking part because of the community-building aspects.  For us too, it is an amazing way to hear up-and-coming talent.” Ever on the lookout for new and exciting art songs, the pair have commissioned new music from some of their favourites from the slams, some of which will be performed in the 2019 songSLAM festival in NYC.

NYC songSLAM CREDIT Martha GuthTo put together song slams in different cities, partnership with a local organization is key. For the Toronto event, Sparks & Wiry Cries partnered with Women on the Verge, aka the sopranos Elizabeth McDonald, Emily Martin and Kathryn Tremills, the performing trio on a mission to tell the stories of women’s lives through song. The University of Toronto’s Voice Studies Program is the second Toronto partner that made the slam possible. After the Canadian edition, slams in Chicago, Denver and Ljubljana (Slovenia) are in the works, the latter scheduled to be televised on Slovenian TV.

Toronto-based tenor Jonathan Russell MacArthur and pianist Darren Creech took part in the first slam in NYC last year. The two musicians met while working on a production workshop with FAWN Chamber Creative, and “definitely clicked, being two queer boys who live in Toronto,” says MacArthur in an email when I ask about the experience. “There was always something to talk about.” When he heard of the competition and proposed a collaboration to Creech, the young pianist didn’t need much persuading. They agreed to do a piece by Wally Gunn, MacArthur’s Aussie friend who lived in the NYC borough of Queens. “Wally wanted to tell a story of Captain Moonlite – a gay Australian bushranger and outlaw – so he wrote that piece for us.” Once in NYC, they stayed with Gunn and rehearsed in Brooklyn. Their performance now lives on YouTube. “We had a great time.”

But first, December. The year is not over yet.

Just the other day I received an email from Happenstance’s clarinetist Brad Cherwin describing their next concert … or shall I call it experiment. As soprano Adanya Dunn is out and about travelling and auditioning, Happenstance will this time present themselves as a duo, “Alice” Nahre Sol (piano and composition) and Cherwin himself. On December 11 at Gallery 345, free admission, they will present PAPER, an exploration of that mundane yet essential material through music and visual art.

How is that going to work? “Expect a 30-minute performance piece, incorporating all new music by Alice and improvisations by both of us, alongside projections and painting. It’s going to be our first attempt at wrestling with the concert form. We’re pushing ourselves out of the standard recital paradigm.” The visuals will not be narrative but abstract, to match the music, he says. They won’t be incidental but fundamentally connected to the sound. In other words, we have to come and see what they have concocted. (To check out some of Cherwin’s art – he does all the visuals for the Happenstance programs – head over to Instagram, his account is public.) Meanwhile this fall, Nahre Sol has started a fellowship at the RCM in partnership with the 21C Music Festival, and Happenstance has received some TAC funding for the new season. The 2019 concerts will be announced on December 11, and the odd detail remains to be worked out, but Cherwin can confirm North American premieres of works by Wolfgang Rihm and Pascal Dusapin for soprano, clarinet and piano, as well as a world premiere of a new trio by Nahre Sol.

Meanwhile, across town, in the Amsterdam Bicycle Club on the Esplanade, Against the Grain Theatre, known for messing with traditional operatic repertoire to great effect, will launch its record label and its first release on December 7. Ayre, Osvaldo Golijov’s 2004 song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble that uses Sephardic, Arabic, Hebrew and Sardinian folk material, has been recorded in a live concert by the AtG’s founding member, Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil. Songs from the disc will be performed at the launch, which will be an art song recital that keeps all the informality of an AtG Opera Pub. And did I mention cocktails, which seem to be the recurring theme of this end-of-year column?

A few song-themed tips for the gifting season

For the new music eccentric in your life, consider the recently released CD of songs by Andrew Staniland to the poetry of Robin Richardson, Go By Contraries. SongSLAM’s Martha Guth and baritone Tyler Duncan lend their voices, with Erika Switzer at the piano. For the early music jester, get Sallazzo Ensemble’s debut album Parle qui veut: Moralizing Songs of the Middle Ages (Linn Records). And for those few people in your life who still read books (not a huge number of us are still kicking about), look for Robert Harris’ Song of a Nation, on the eventful life of the composer of Canada’s national anthem, Calixa Lavallée. 

ART OF SONG QUICK PICKS

DEC 22 AND 23, 8PM: Heliconian Hall. The Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Toronto presents the Vesuvius Ensemble’s “Christmas in Southern Italy.” Francesco Pellegrino and the lads of Vesuvius see the year off with their traditional December concert of secular Southern Italian songs around Christmas themes. Pellegrino, Marco Cera and Lucas Harris are joined by Romina di Gasbarro at the guest vocals and Tommaso Sollazzo on the bagpipes. Knowing Vesuvius, I expect some high quality arrangements of Italian pop songs as well – at least in the encores.

JAN 26 AND 27, 7:30PM: Trinity College Chapel, U of T. Cor Unum Ensemble and Sub Rosa Ensemble bring to the fore the little-known works by women composers from the 16th and 17th centuries.

JAN 27, 2PM: The Royal Conservatory of Music. Mazzoleni Songmasters Series: “Winter Words.” Mezzo Lucia Cervoni and tenor Michael Colvin sing Britten, Mahler and assorted other music around the broad theme of winter.

FEB 3, 7:30PM: Vocalis: The Song Narrative Project, curated by Stephen Philcox and Laura Tucker. The Extension Room, 30 Eastern Ave. Meet University of Toronto Faculty of Music’s outstanding master’s and doctoral students in concert. Free admission.

What stood out for you this year? Send me your highlights to artofsong@thewholenote.com. Wishing you a merry and song-filled end of the year.

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

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