classical and beyond rachel cheungThese days, with so much to bring us down — the lousy economy, rampant shootings, political turmoil, crushing poverty, grave threats to the environment, the possibility (even the remotest one) that Mitt Romney might win the upcoming U.S. presidential race or, closer to home, that certain mayors might get re-elected for a second term — who isn’t looking for a reason to lift the spirits and celebrate something ... anything. Any excuse for a party, right?

Fortunately for us, in October and early November there’s some serious (and eclectic) celebrating going on by several orchestras: from the CAST (Chinese Artist Society of Toronto) Philomusica Orchestra’s commemoration of the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s accession to China, and the Korean Canadian Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of its 25th anniversary, to the Ontario Philharmonic’s recognition of violinist Shlomo Mintz’s 50 years on stage, and the curiously-named Medical Musical Group Chorale and Symphony Orchestra’s acknowledgment of “200 years of peace and friendship” with an “American-Canadian Friendship Concert.” I did say eclectic.

At the other end of the musical spectrum, the art of the solo piano is being celebrated by a number of presenters, covering the gamut from Bach to John Cage (who’s also being celebrated in honour of the 100th anniversary of his birth, well-noted in last month’s issue). You’ll find those listed below in the Quick Picks.

All in all, there’s some pretty compelling and unusual music making this month to take your mind off the woes of the world, if only for the length of a concert. Let the celebrations begin!

A Banner Month for Anniversaries

15 years: 1997 marked the year of Hong Kong’s accession to China (after 156 years under British rule) and its establishment as a “Special Administrative Region.” The Chinese Artist Society of Toronto (CAST) and the Multi-Culture & Folk Arts Association of Canada are honouring the 15th anniversary of this historic juncture with a concert on October 28 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. On the varied program: Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor; Mozart’s (unfinished) Concerto for Violin and Piano in D Major K.anh.56 (315f); Chinese music for violin and piano; narration with music arranged from songs that evoke images of Hong Kong; and a violin ensemble of 100 children performing popular Hong Kong songs.

The concert features 20-year-old Hong Kong pianist Rachel Cheung, making her Canadian debut. Also performing are well-known local soloists (with Hong Kong connections) Conrad Chow, violin, and Ka Kit Tam, piano, and the CAST Philomusica Orchestra. Erhei Liang, who wears many hats including one as president of CAST, another as composer-in-residence of the Hong Kong City Choir and yet another as an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre, conducts. The evening gets underway at 7:30pm.

classical and beyond shlomomintzyoungperformeroption125 years: On its website, the Korean Canadian Symphony Orchestra states that its mission is “to present the highest quality classical music to our audience, many of whom are not regular concertgoers, to present Korean-Canadian soloists and composers and provide work and experience to young musicians from the GTA.” On October 20, regular and “non-regular” concertgoers can see that mission executed as KCSO presents its “25th Anniversary Gala Concert” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ George Weston Recital Hall, beginning at 7:30pm. While the program does not contain any Korean works, it does offer Mozart’s Andante in C K315 and Rondo in D K184, the first movement of both Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, as well as Symphony No.7 by Beethoven (in full). Korean-Canadian musicians Sylvia Kim, flute, and pianists Jason Lee and Donna Lee will perform under the baton of Richard Lee who, in addition to being the KCSO’s music director, is also an assistant music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

50 years: The Ontario Philharmonic (OP) must be getting pretty pumped about their upcoming set of concerts titled “Shlomo Mintz, Violin Legend: Celebrating 50 Years on Stage.” I don’t know when it was that Mintz last performed in Ontario (or with the OP), but his early November engagement with the Oshawa-based orchestra is being billed as a “long-awaited return.”

Interestingly, both the OP and Mintz were born in 1957 (which means Mintz must have had his first stage appearance at age five). Mintz, considered one of the greatest violinists of our time (and who, at age 18, added the role of conductor to his long list of achievements), has had a celebrated career, beginning with his Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 with the Pittsburgh Symphony. We are lucky to have him in the GTA for two performances: the first, November 3, is at Oshawa’s Regent Theatre; the second, on the 6th, is at Koerner Hall and is part of the OP’s special Great Soloists Series which showcases some of the world’s most distinguished artists.

It’s an all-Tchaikovsky program for each concert with Mintz performing the Violin Concerto in D Op. 35 and Marco Parisotto, OP music director, conducting the orchestra in the Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64. Both concerts begin at 8pm.

200 years: I simply could not resist including the Medical Musical Group Chorale and Symphony Orchestra’s “Canadian-American Friendship Concert: 200 Years of Peace and Friendship!” in this collection of celebratory concerts. Based out of Washington, DC, the 200 members of MMG are “healers: doctors, nurses and others from medical centers and schools all over the USA.” Their mission? “To perform ‘Music with a Message’ — of healing, hope, inspiration, patriotism and peace at home; and peace and international friendship overseas.” MMG is the largest musical medical group in America — there are many such groups, as I discovered at; who knew? — and performances have taken the group to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and the White House, as well as to overseas destinations such as Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand and Russia.

The repertoire for MMG’s November 7 concert will include everything from Foster’s The Prayer and Haydn’s The Heavens Are Telling to von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, McCrae’s In Flanders Fields and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture Finale; plus another eight or so pieces as well as a “Beautiful Tunes Collage” of theme melodies. And as an extra special treat, Dean Martin’s daughter, Deana Martin, will be on hand to sing some of her father’s songs. In addition, there will be the narration of verse intertwined with music.

Joining the MMG for the evening will be tenor Mark Masri and soprano Lacey Purchase, while our very own Kerry Stratton will be among the seven narrators; that’s right, the busy conductor will not be the one with the baton this time. That honour will go to MMG founder and music director, Victor Wahby, MD, Ph.D., otherwise known as the “medical maestro.” Church on the Queensway is the “operating” theatre; “scrub in” is at 7:30pm. (sorry)

Quick Picks: Art of the Piano – Soloists in Recital

October 7 3:00: Hart House Music Committee. Sunday Concert: 653rd Concert. Works by Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich and Gershwin. Mauro Bertoli, piano. Great Hall, Hart House.

October 13 8:00: Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. Eric Himy, piano. Debussy: Ondine; Ravel: Ondine; Schubert: 3 Impromptus Op.90; Gershwin: American in Paris; Rhapsody in Blue; and other works. KWCMS Music Room, Waterloo.

October 18 1:30: Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Music in the Afternoon. Schubert: Sonata in c D958; Sonata in A D959; Sonata in B-flat D960. Paul Lewis, piano. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Bldg.

October 28 3:00: Campbellville Chamber Concerts. The Art of the Concert Pianist. Works by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Alexei Gulenco, piano. St. David’s Presbyterian Church, Campbellville.

October 30 8:00: Music Toronto. Piano Series: John O’Conor. Beethoven: Six Bagatelles Op.126; Sonata in D Op.10 No.3; Schubert: Sonata in c D958. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

October 30 8:00: Les Amis Concerts. The Art of the Piano:
Nada Kolundzija, piano.
Cage: Sonatas and Interludes (1946–1948). Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave.

November 4 3:00: Gallery 345. The Art of the Piano: Darret Zusko. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Liszt, Buczynski and Kapustin. Gallery 345.

So, whatever your reason to celebrate, take yourself out to a concert for the occasion, and may your spirits be lifted! 

Sharna Searle trained as a musician and lawyer, practised a lot more piano than law and is listings editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

September is kind of an oddball month around here: the summer festivals have wound down, for the most part, and the season of regular concert series doesn’t really get under way until October. So, what’s a classical music columnist to write about this month? Plenty, actually: there are those exception-to-the-rule summer series and festivals to take us into the end of September (look for Colours of Music and SweetWater in our Beyond the GTA listings), and the gutsy presenters who are first out of the starting gate each year with season launches in September. See, nothing to worry about!

17 classicalandbeyond brentano string quartet  1 photo credit christian steinerSeptember’s septet of quartets:You can’t talk about quartets in Toronto without talking about Music Toronto. For 40 years, this venerable organization has consistently presented some of the most sublime, memorable and musically satisfying evenings of chamber music, many of which have involved one major, or up-and-coming, string quartet or another (in addition to outstanding trios, duos and soloists). Here’s a non-exhaustive list: Juilliard, Guarneri, Orford, St. Lawrence, Jerusalem, Kronos, Tokyo, Lafayette, Cecilia, Molinari, Bozzini, Brentano and Amadeus.

The person who, with little fanfare, has been shepherding Music Toronto since 1990 — first as general manager and since 2006 as both GM and artistic producer — is Jennifer Taylor. Roman Borys, artistic director of Ottawa Chamberfest, and cellist with the Gryphon Trio (Music Toronto’s ensemble-in-residence from 1988 to 2008), sings her praises during a June 12, 2012, video interview he did for The WholeNote’s Conversations@TheWholeNote YouTube video series: “Jennifer Taylor, Music Toronto, there’s an organization and a particular individual ... one of the great foundations in chamber music in this country ... who understands the genre, who understands the business of presenting music, presenting concerts, and who, luckily, also has great stamina!” Borys adds that Taylor gave the Gryphon “wonderful opportunties to continue to develop our own skills as chamber musicians and learn from one another.”

For Music Toronto’s 41st season, Taylor has assembled yet another superb lineup of quartets, trios, pianists and other soloists, with concerts at the Jane Mallett Theatre — its regular venue since its inception. First up of the quartets, on September 13, is the Brentano, with a fascinating 20th anniversary program called “Fragments: Connecting Past and Present.” They have taken six fragments by great composers from the past, and invited six living composers to respond to them. In their Music Toronto concert you’ll hear “fragments” of Schubert, Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart juxtaposed with “completions” by Bruce Adolphe, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke and Vijay Iyer, respectively. Also on the program is a work by Charles Wuorinen, based on the music of Josquin and Dufay, the earliest music in the “Fragments” project.

(You can also hear — but only hear, not see — the Brentano Quartet in a film titled A Late Quartet. It’s one of several featured films on offer at this year’s TIFF to “use music in interesting ways,” according to Paul Ennis, whose TIFF-focussed article is here.)

The Attacca Quartet was formed at the Juilliard School in 2003, (as was the Brentano in 1992 and the Tokyo in 1969), and they’re the second quartet presented by Music Toronto this month. Making their Toronto debut, the Attacca will perform quartets by Haydn (Op.77 No.2), Prokofiev (No.1) and Mendelssohn (No.2 Op.13). This group also has an interesting project on the go, a multi-year performance series titled “The 68,” referring to the number of string quartets Haydn wrote over the course of his life. And while the series itself takes place in New York City, we will have the pleasure of hearing the Attacca perform one of the “68” here in Toronto on September 27.

I mention the Tokyo Quartet this early in the season for a couple of reasons. First, they will perform their 45th and 46th concerts for Music Toronto on January 10 and April 4, 2013, respectively, to conclude their three-concert series of all six Bartók quartets. Second — and this may or may not come as a shock to some of you — the Tokyo will be retiring from the concert stage in June, 2013, after 43 years, and will be giving an extra special “Farewell Performance” in Toronto, in support of Music Toronto, on April 5, 2013. I wanted to give you plenty of time to arrange your schedules, accordingly — it’s going to be one heck of a farewell. For the rest of Music Toronto’s stellar season, please go to

As for the rest of the the issue’s “septet” of quartets, they, along with several other noteworthy concerts, are included in the Quick Picks at the end of this column.

17 classicalandbeyond musicmondays 1 photo by blacksMonday Monday: Music Mondays began its 21st season on June 4, and has been treating us to an astonishing array of music and musicians, every Monday throughout the summer, at 12:15pm, at the “exquisitely tuned” Church of the Holy Trinity. And for the second year in a row, they’ve extended their season into the fourth week of September. Talk about gutsy!

I asked Eitan Cornfield, Music Mondays’ new artistic director, to say a few things about his first year at the helm of the series, what he calls a “sanctuary in the heart of the city’s commercial, financial and administrative core, a musical respite from the workaday world.” (As a long-time CBC music producer, Cornfield is well aware of Holy Trinity’s “rich, acoustic environment,” as he puts it, having produced CBC Radio Two’s Music Around Us there.)

The challenge, now, according to Cornfield, is to “develop a sharpened focus for Music Mondays ... [to] remain relevant and distinctive while maintaining the core values of Holy Trinity’s inner-city mission, ... to build on Music Mondays’ historic strengths ... by featuring an eclectic fusion of western classical music and traditional art music of various cultures, all the while providing a contemplative, inclusive and accessible sanctuary ... ” The goal, as he looks forward to new alliances and “new programming initiatives” with his keen core team is “to be able to say you first heard it here!”

Next “first” could be as early as September 3, when Music Mondays presents Triceratonin, a young “made in Toronto” piano, oboe and bassoon trio fresh from their NYC debut at the Juilliard School, as participants in the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival. I came upon this expression of sheer glee in someone’s daily blog on the IWCMF: “Wait til you see the Triceratonin Trio perform synchronized swimming with their oboe and bassoon!” Curious? Check them out on YouTube. And don’t forget to get to the church on time, September 3, for some jazz-inflected works by Poulenc, Previn and others, performed by the good-humoured, talented and very synchronized Jialiang Zhu on piano, bassoonist Sheba Thibideau, and Aleh Remezau on the oboe ... and snorkel?

The remaining Music Mondays concerts take place September 10, 17 and 24, with music ranging from Porter to Purcell to pop!



New Orford String Quartet: September 15 and 16:
Prince Edward County Music Festival; September 12: Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society; September 11: Gallery 345.

Penderecki String Quartet: September 21 and 22:
Prince Edward County Music Festival; September 23, 26, 27, 28: Colours of Music.

Ton Beau String Quartet: September 9: Summer Music in
the Garden; September 14: Gallery 345.

Silver Birch String Quartet: September 23: Colours of Music (with the Penderecki).


Gryphon Trio: October 1: U of T Faculty of Music.

Amity Trio: September 22: Colours of Music.

Junction Trio: September 26: Post-Industrial Wednesdays
at St. Anne’s Anglican Church.

Trio Kokopelli: October 4: Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation/
Christ Church Deer Park.


Toronto Symphony Orchestra: September 20 and 22:
Opening weekend with James Ehnes; September 27 and 29: Pictures at an Exhibition; October 3 and 4: Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Royal Conservatory Orchestra: October 5: with Uri Mayer
at Koerner Hall.

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony: September 28 and 29:
Last Night of the Proms at Centre in the Square.

So, slip gently into September as you take advantage of the last vestiges of summer. And while September may be an oddish month for music, there’s no real shortage of those musical threesomes and foursomes — and moresomes — ready to dazzle you. Enjoy!

Sharna Searle trained as a musician and lawyer, practised a lot more piano than law and is listings editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

While most of us might appreciate some structure in our lives, there’s certainly something to be said for having a little boundary-defying ambiguity in it, too. Take this column, for example: I’ve been at it for almost a year, and each month I grapple, still, with the “and beyond” part of its name. One of my first questions when I took on the beat was, of course, “beyond what?” The answer has been an ongoing, ever-evolving work in progress.

With that, I thought it would be interesting — and fun — to explore the “beyondness” available at some of the classical-music-based summer festivals and other events, in July and August. The programmers, curators and artistic directors of these events wrestled, no doubt, with the balancing act of staying connected (and true) to the classical music at the core of their mandates, while, at the same time, providing some “outside of the music box” programming, in order to attract festival-goers of all ilks. Looking through our daily and alphabetical festival listings, it’s clear they have triumphed: we have a summer exploding with boundary busting “beyonds.”

Beyond the Basics: Bach on the Banjo, and Tchaikovsky gets Uked up

Works by J.S. Bach have been heard in practically every setting imaginable, refashioned into musical genres too numerous (and, in some cases, too painful) to mention, and performed on just about every instrument invented. But I bet you haven’t heard much Bach played on the banjo! In its late-July, weekend exploration of the “dramatically different aural landscapes created by string instruments from across the world,” Harbourfront Centre’s “Classical IV: Strings” is giving us a chance to hear a five-string rendition of the Allemande from Bach’s French Suite No.6 in E Major BWV817, by Canadian banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone, on July 29, 2pm.This two-time JUNO winner (who recently performed at Luminato), is known for taking his audiences on a “genre-blurring” musical journey, bridging folk, jazz, chamber and world music. So, fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy not only the Bach but also a Trinidadian Calypso, Malian melodies and Stone’s own “tiny symphonies!” Along for the ride will be the stellar ensemble of Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, bassist Joe Phillips and Nick Fraser, percussion.

Incidentally, if your appetite is already whetted and you’d like to begin your “journey with Jayme” earlier, he’s at Summer Music in the Garden on July 19. And if gardens are your thing, Stone and gang perform at the Toronto Botanical Garden, July 26; (

OK. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture?” Canons? A Bugs Bunny cartoon? Ukuleles? UKULELES?? That last thought clearly crossed the minds of the creative, curatorial trio behind “Classical IV: Strings.” As a result, Caroline Hollway, Tara Brady and Dalton Higgins have dreamt up the “Ukulele Project.” And the idea? To have a critical mass of ukulele players converge upon Harbourfront Centre’s Redpath Stage and, together, play one of classical music’s best-known pieces. Here’s their fun pitch:

“Dust off that uke and bring it down with pride to Harbourfront Centre as we attempt to bring as many ukulele players as possible together to play a resounding, uplifting and downright fantastic version of the ‘1812 Overture.’ Haven’t played for years? Have only just started? No worries, brush up sessions will be available on site and projected chording will keep everyone strumming straight. You know you want to!”

I know I do. The ingathering begins at 4pm on July 29.

Beyond the Concert Hall: Bunkers, Barges and Barns, Oh My!

And the award for the most inspired summer music festival venue goes to … Ottawa’s Music and Beyond. They’ve got an event happening in the Diefenbunker, for heaven’s sake! Not only that: they’ve called it “Beyond the Bomb: Music of the Cold War,” and the Moscow String Quartet will be performing (along with a few others), as you stroll through the entrance tunnel, the decontamination cubicles, the emergency radio broadcast centre and other areas of the complex. Now that’s “beyond the beyond” and I think it’s terrific! Music of the Cold War played by Russian-born musicians, in Canada’s Cold War Museum — surely it’s got to be the hottest ticket at the festival! Gear up for 18:00 hours, July 11.

Before hitting the bunker, you can travel up the Rideau Canal on a barge, along with the London Handel Players and Theatre of Early Music, as they serenade you with Handel’s Water Music, starting at 9:30am on July 8. Indeed, it’s Handel’s masterpiece performed as it was intended to be heard, and just like it was originally performed in July of 1717 — on a barge travelling along the River Thames, accompanying King George as he listened from the comfort of the Royal Barge.

Not to be outdone, Stratford Summer Music hosts an entire series on the MusicBarge, a floating stage docked at the bank of the Avon River. Between July 19 and August 26, at 12:30pm and/or 3pm, “BargeMusic” offers up an amazing array of music and musicians, including the Métis Fiddler Quartet (July 19 to 21), the Canadian Guitar Quartet (August 2 to 4) and the Heavyweights Brass Band, who graced our June cover last summer (August 23 to 25). Seating is BYOLCOB: bring your own lawn chair or blanket.

Back to the Canadian Guitar Quartet for a minute. Before they “take up residence” on the barge, the CGQ — currently in residence at the University of Ottawa — will be playing in a barn. On July 7, at 2pm, instead of your standard oinks, moos and baas, The Barn — primary venue for Westben’s Concerts at the Barn series in Campbellford (July 1 to August 5) — will be alive with the sounds of Rossini, Gabrielli, Roux and original compositions performed by the CGQ. (And once they’ve braved the barn and the barge, CGQ members Julien Bisaillon, Philip Candelaria, Bruno Roussel and Louis Trépanier will perform in the relative safety of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, at Ottawa Chamberfest, August 8.)

Additional barn alert: there’ll be Beethoven in The Barn, along with Mozart, on July 17; concerts held at Festival Alexandria’s Festival Barn (July 8, 15 and 22 — see Beyond GTA listings) featuring works by Debussy, Gershwin, Corigliano, Delibes and others; and the Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble performing works by Oesterle, Godin and Mozart at Artscape Wychwood Barns Main Space, July 5.

Beyond the Blackboard: not your typical
classroom music lessons

I began by applauding the creativity of the “Classical IV: Strings” curatorial team, and that’s where I’m going to end. This time they’ve moved from the ridiculous — the “good” kind, of Bach-friendly banjos and unifying ukuleles — to the sublime: The Hammer Band — From Violence to Violins (THB).

Renowned Canadian violinist Moshe Hammer, the driving force behind THB, told the Globe and Mail last month that it “started with Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ in 2005, when it seemed like dozens of kids were shooting each other almost every day. I was losing sleep thinking about the young teens carrying weapons around. Then I thought of the fact that ‘violence’ and ‘violins’ sound almost the same.”

And from that “crazy idea,” THB was born. Knowing music’s power to change lives and develop one’s sensitivity, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, and appreciation of community, Hammer and a dedicated staff have been providing free music lessons to at-risk kids from a diversity of backgrounds since 2007. Starting with two schools and 40 students, THB now teaches about 300 students in 15 Toronto public schools; it also provides the free violins. And while the program initially offered only violin lessons, it now includes cello classes, a summer music program and masterclasses!

We’ll have the pleasure and privilege of experiencing the fruits of this extraordinary labour of love and commitment when THB students, joined by Cuban-born violinist Yosvani Castaneda, perform at Harbourfront Centre on July 29 from 4pm to 6pm.

Curators Hollway, Brady and Higgins offer a thoughtful approach to the weekend: “Be prepared to open your ears, drop your misconceptions and discover new and ancient heartwarming resonances.” What could be more inviting?

So take time in July and August to explore the mountains of music happening beyond the comfort zone of the concert hall. May you have a truly ear-opening, “Classical and Beyond” summer.

Sharna Searle trained as a musician and lawyer, practised a lot more piano than law and is listings editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Here’s what’s really neat about the classical music scene in June: it seems to me that performers and presenters, alike — having thrown off the heavy mantle of winter and survived their various spring concerts and season finales — are now ready to have some real, summer fun! Given what’s on offer — Green Pages and all — perhaps an apt motto for the month might be, “Go Big or Go Late Night!”

classical_stewart_goodyear_photo_by_gary_beecheyA good day for Goodyear: And when I say “big” I mean BIG, as in having pianist Stewart Goodyear perform all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in the order in which they were composed — in one day! Let’s see, now. That translates into approximately ten and a half hours of some of the most complex, difficult and profound music ever written, played by one remarkable, strong-minded (and strong-bodied) pianist in a single day over three “concert sittings” starting at 10am and, with two breaks, ending at 11:30pm. Phew! —not for the faint of heart (and I’m talking about both performer and audience, here). Co-presenters Luminato and the Royal Conservatory haven’t billed this “The Beethoven Marathon” for nothing!

Goodyear — a Toronto native now living in New York — stopped by The WholeNote for a “Conversations” video interview session, May 10, with the magazine’s David Perlman.

Read more: Going for the Gusto

In past columns you’ve read about many of the “big guns” come to town — major, professional orchestras, world-renowned soloists and quartets — and you’ve read about an array of gifted artists presented to us by local groups and organizations who don’t have the big bucks but have great taste and know a talented “up and comer” when they see one.

This month, I want to focus on two other categories: first, ensembles which don’t easily fall under neat labels such as “quartet,” “quintet” or “chamber orchestra,” because they are constantly morphing in size, depending on what’s on the program; and second, the community orchestras which provide the backbone of the musical life of their communities. Both attract dedicated bunches of musicians who play for the love of it in a variety of settings including seniors’ residences, hospitals, churches, intimate venues and large concert halls. Here’s what some of them are up to this month.

“Extra cello” with magic on the side, please: The ensemble called Alchemy offers the following irresistible blurb on its website: “Alchemy was a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy which aimed to transform base metals into gold, and to discover a universal cure for disease and a means of indefinitely prolonging life. Notwithstanding its failure to succeed, some of its lofty aims have been inherited by a group of Toronto musicians who feels that if music cannot prolong life and cure disease — though who can tell — it is certainly known to transform an ordinary hour into something magical.”

Alchemy began “making magic” in 2003 and has since performed chamber music from the 17th to 21st centuries with about 50 musicians, selected from a pool of accomplished friends and colleagues. Meri Gec, pianist, founding “alchemist” and the group’s program coordinator, explains: “The mix continually changes, depending on which instruments are needed for a program idea and which musicians are available. Program and repertoire ideas come from anywhere — the musicians, the internet, radio, summer music camp, live concerts.”

Gec’s role is to organize the one-hour programs using those ideas. And while, more often than not, she’s the one “initiating the ideas and recruiting the right musicians” (most with busy lives and day jobs), she adds that “the musicians participate actively with researching ideas, finding extra musicians when needed, introducing pieces at concerts, suggesting venues, and so on.” As she says, “Alchemy has become an engaged and collaborative ensemble.” For Gec, Alchemy represents “all that is great about music, friendship, and community service.”

It’s a winning combination that has seen the ensemble perform for almost ten years and at over 20 venues — all of which have been predominantly retirement residences and hospitals, in keeping with the ensemble’s original — and unwavering — philosophy. Fittingly, Alchemy will perform at Baycrest Centre on May 23 at 7pm. On the program is Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, String Quartet Op.44 No.1 by Mendelssohn and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Gec (on piano), will be joined by Kaye Royer on clarinet, violinists Catherine Sulem and John Bailey, violist Dorothy Pellerin and Susan Naccache on cello. Heal on, musical alchemists!

18-19_2_alt_wychwood_clarinet_choirDid someone order an extra clarinet? Make that 18. That’s the number of members currently playing in the Wychwood Clarinet Choir. This lively group is now in its third season and they’re going strong, under the leadership of Michele Jacot, WCC’s artistic director and conductor. Founding member Roy Greaves, who plays bass clarinet with the group (as well as the “usual soprano in b-flat” that everyone in the ensemble plays), shared a few words with me, by e-mail, about the WCC, starting with its inception in 2009:

“Some adult clarinet students of Michele Jacot were looking for an alternative to playing in a community band at the same time as Michele was considering adding conducting to her teaching and performing schedule. I was about to retire from teaching music at Oakwood Collegiate (Michele is a former student of mine) and was also looking for a different musical challenge. (The teacher becomes the student; the student the teacher.) Thus began the start of the Wychwood Clarinet Choir.”

By fall of that year, a rehearsal space was found, as were several like-minded clarinetists, and in its first season the WCC gave two major concerts along with smaller performances, including one at the (then) new Wychwood Barns. They’ve since added school performances to the mix, along with opportunities for high school and university students to perform with them, in varying capacities, including that of conductor. While Greaves assists with artistic choices and occasionally conducts, and several members of the group arrange and compose for the choir, he credits Jacot with having the “vision that really makes the group work.” Jacot gets the last word (which I lifted from the WCC’s website): “The goal of the WCC is to both learn together as well as to play the best music possible to reflect the unique sound of our ensemble and it’s my job to ensure that we have fun doing it.”

Well, actually, I get the last word: the WCC’s “Spring Concert 2012” is on May 27, 3:30pm, at St. Michael and All Angels Church. On the wonderfully eclectic program will be works by Julius Fucik, Clare Grundman, Glenn Miller, Mozart and Mancini.

Putting the “commune” in community orchestra: There are well over a dozen concerts being performed by community orchestras (COs) this month. So, rather than scant words about each, I thought I’d ask one dedicated CO player to give you an idea of the many rewards of participating in this often unsung sector of the musical scene. (You will also find a number of CO concerts in the Quick Picks list at the end of this column.)

Adam Weinmann, a busy oboe player, accompanist, cabaret performer and teacher (and our Canary Pages editor) suggested I contact Laura Rosenfield, principal oboe with the NYCO Symphony Orchestra, someone he met when he sat in with NYCO a few times, about two years ago. Good call, Adam.

“Belonging to a community orchestra means playing the world’s most beautiful music with like-minded people who share a love of classical music,” Rosenfield wrote. “Community orchestras allow amateurs of all ages and from all walks of life to experience the joy of making music, as well as the opportunity to grow and improve as musicians. They also offer high school students and university music majors invaluable real-world experience with conductors, ensemble playing, and classical repertoire. While I frequently attend concerts by professional orchestras, I love the unique and thrilling challenge of playing the same repertoire in ‘my’ community orchestra.

“Perhaps the greatest reward of performing is bringing music to audiences that might not otherwise be able to hear live music, via outreach concerts in seniors’ homes and hospitals. School concerts, which help children to appreciate classical music and learn about the instruments of the orchestra, are heartwarming experiences, as well. I think that my own children learned early to appreciate classical music by hearing my daily practice, as well as recordings of pieces I was working on. Also, they were curious to attend mom’s concerts!

“Amateur orchestras foster a feeling of community that is truly enriching and transformative. I have learned about the volunteer and non-profit sector, have benefited from taking on various volunteer administrative tasks in community music over the years, and have made lasting friends. I suspect that most of my fellow musicians would agree that the stresses of everyday life melt away when the baton drops and the orchestra begins to play … ”

18_laura_rosenfield__principal_oboe__nyco_symphony_orchestraThe NYCO Symphony Orchestra, by the way, began as a reading orchestra under the auspices of the North York Symphony in 1975 and evolved into an independent, community-based orchestra around 1988. Rather than hold formal auditions, it invites new players to sit in for a couple of rehearsals to test the “compatibility factor.” Then, if you are offered a permanent position you are expected to pay a membership fee. (A wonderful twist to the typical professional musician’s fate of often not getting paid enough for their efforts.) In addition, NYCO members are obliged to purchase a subscription. Clearly, both these fees are critical in allowing this CO to provide its exceptional, community-enhancing, music-making opportunities, and you will find variations on the same theme among many other community orchestras.

You will find Rosenfield in her first oboist’s chair when NYCO performs Smetana’s The Moldau, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (with principal cellist, Sybil Herceg-Shanahan) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8, under the baton of its music director and conductor, David Bowser, June 2, 8pm, at Centre for the Arts, St. Michael’s College School. There’s a pre-concert chat at 7:30pm.

Community Orchestra Quick Picks

May 6, 2:30: Orchestra Kingston. Works by Suppé, J. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Copland and others.

May 6, 3:00: Symphony on the Bay. Works by Bach, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

May 10, 8:00: Corktown Chamber Orchestra. Works by Beethoven, Bach and Dvořák.

May 12 and 13, 7:30: Huronia Symphony Orchestra. Works by Dvořák, Raum, Beethoven and Verdi. (Beyond the GTA).

May 12, 8:00: Counterpoint Community Orchestra. Works by Widor, Saint-Saëns, Bach-Stokowski, Bizet and others.

May 12 and 13, 8:00: Oakville Symphony Orchestra. Guest: Polovois Issariotis, guitar.

May 12, 8:00: Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra. Works by Vivaldi, Mozart and Magowan and Denomme-Welch. 7:15: Pre-concert chat.

May 26, 8:00: Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra. Works by R. and J. Strauss and Bizet.

May 26 and 27, 8:00: York Symphony Orchestra. Works by R. Strauss, Amram and Prokofiev.

May 27, 3:00: Orchestra Toronto. Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. 2:15: Pre-concert talk.

June 1, 8:00: Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestra. Works by Debussy, Rodrigo and Berlioz. 7:30: Pre-concert chat.

Now go out and get yourself some of that community spirit!

Sharna Searle trained as a musician and lawyer, practised a lot more piano than law and is listings editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

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