This month’s column is all about singing!

Two names jump out at me because of their involvement in four different events. They are Shannon Mercer and Carla Huhtanen, both young sopranos already with a wealth of experience behind them – and, I suspect, brilliant careers ahead. Of Mercer, Toronto composer and organist Andrew Ager says, “She is a true artist for whom I have unbounded admiration. What I like most is her consistent commitment to delivering the meaning of the text with an instrument of great flexibility and beauty, always with an unusual intensity of expression.” As for Carla Huhtanen, Boris Zarankin, co-artistic director of the Off Centre Salon, had only to hear her once (at last year’s Soulpepper Cabaret Festival) to know that she met the exacting standards of his highly respected concert series.

The two sopranos appear together in Queen of Puddings’ November 12 performance of Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist’s Puksånger-Lockrop, a category-defying composition described in Queen of Puddings’ press release as “a fearless, hair-raising, primal and exhilarating tour-de-force for two female singers and timpani inspired by Swedish folk music and herding calls.”

13a_huhtanen Huhtanen admires Queen of Puddings directors in general for their challenging repertoire choices, and says that this piece is challenging not only to the performers but also to the audience, in a way that engages rather than alienates the listener. Rehnqvist, she says, does this by using contrast as a musical development strategy, varying colours and textures, moving from passages that are almost hypnotic to gradual accelerations to traditional Swedish folk music techniques. These include the raucous and penetrating “kulning,” formerly used out of doors for herding cattle and communicating over long distances – Huhtanen calls it a “sung shout.”

On November 29 Huhtanen will join pianists Inna Perkis and Boris Zarankin, mezzo Krisztina Szabó and baritone Jesse Clark in Toronto’s longest running Schubertiad (their 15th!) at Glenn Gould Studio. The programme for this concert is of particular interest because it was all composed in the last year of Schubert’s all too short life. While it will include well known masterpieces, such as Shepherd on the Rock, and the posthumously compiled song cycle Schwanengesang, it will also include less known lieder.

“While I really enjoy doing contemporary music, I also love to sing lieder,” commented Huhtanen, “which is like a yoga class for the voice. With Schubert it is all about telling a story, communicating the words, it all starts with the words, with simplicity. It is so simple and so intimate; it’s just being there with the pianist and the audience. It has also been almost a discovery, after not singing any German repertoire for some time, to experience how good it feels to come back to singing in German.” Zarankin also looks forward to working with Clark and Szabó – and with flutist Robert Aitken, who will perform Schubert’s very last song, “Tauben Post,” as a solo flute piece.

13b_mercer The third concert, on November 22, St. Cecilia’s Day (Cecilia being the patron saint of music) and also Benjamin Britten’s birthday, is called simply “Blessed Cecilia.” It’s the Aldeburgh Connection’s second Sunday concert of the season and will mark the 350th anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell and the 96th of Benjamin Britten. The Aldeburgh Connection at this event, according to their website, will “seize the opportunity of celebrating the songs of two English masters,” and will “acknowledge the healing and sustaining power of music.” The soprano soloist in this concert will be Shannon Mercer, who will share the stage with tenor James McLean, and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins.

The fourth event is Toronto New Music Projects’ December 6 performance at the Music Gallery of Philippe Leroux’s “Voi(REX)” for six instruments, electronics and soprano. Carla Huhtanen, the soprano in this performance, describes the work as “difficult,” but also “fun and witty.” Leroux, who was associated for many years with Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, is not yet well known in Canada, but his works are performed around the world.

The singers I’ve written about are of the rising generation of Canadian vocal artists whose talents are in demand, not just at home but abroad as well. In fact, at the time of writing, Mercer was in London rehearsing Eric Idle’s comic oratorio Not the Messiah – she performed in its world premiere in Toronto in 2007 – and Szabó was in Ireland performing in the Wexford Opera Festival.

They, of course, are the latest in a long line of internationally renowned Canadian singers, the first of whom was probably Emma Albani, whose career began around 1870 – eight years before the birth of the legendary Canadian tenor, Edward Johnson, who not only sang at New York’s Metropolitan Opera but later became its director. Since then many more Canadian singers have performed on opera and recital stages around the world.

Two of the greatest artists in our long tradition of vocal artistry were soprano Lois Marshall, and contralto Maureen Forrester. The two did a tour together in 1973, which will be commemorated by soprano Lorna MacDonald, and mezzo Kimberly Barber, in a special recital, “Celebrating Marshall and Forrester” on November 10 in the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall at Wilfrid Laurier University, where Barber is the co-ordinator of vocal studies, and on November 19 in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto, where MacDonald is the head of vocal studies. I see this not only as a tribute to two great singers of the past but also as a celebration of the singing tradition, to which these two great Canadians added so much.

I’m reminded of something one of our great Canadian singers, Richard Margison, said to me a dozen or more years ago: “I like The WholeNote because it covers the local scene, and that’s where we all start our careers.” How true! So keep in mind that great talent may be found even at small events in humble venues. By all means, do go and hear the great ones in our midst, but also get out and support a smaller event in a smaller venue as well. It’s rewarding to be able to say – as I can of bass Robert Pomakov, whom I heard sing in a gymnasium at University Settlement House 15 years ago – that you heard so-and-so before he/she was famous!

Allan Pulker is a flautist and a founder of The WholeNote who currently serves as Chairman of The WholeNote’s board of directors. He can be contacted at classicalbeyond@thewholenote.com.

 

10One of the more unusual concerts of the month – perhaps of the season – is the Halloween “monster concert” on October 31, organized by pianist and educator Mary Kenedi. “Monster concert,” for the record, is a term referring to a concert performed on ten pianos by as few as ten and as many as 30 pianists.

The idea goes back well over a century and a half, when the famous Austrian pianist, composer and educator Carl Czerny organized the first monster concert ever in the 1830s to raise money to help the victims of the flooding of the Danube River. More recently, Kenedi herself performed in a monster concert in Toronto conducted by William Shookhoff, who himself once organized, at Rosalyn Carter’s (Jimmy Carter’s wife) request, a monster concert at the White House.

As this appears to be one of Shookhoff’s specialties, Kenedi has enlisted him as the conductor of her concert on October 31. Among other performers joining Kenedi for the occasion are composers Abigail Richardson, Gary Kulesha and Larissa Kuzmenko, as well as piano teachers from Kenedi’s North Toronto Institute of Music and 30 of their students, who will play, three to a piano, the prelude to Bizet’s Carmen and three songs from the Harry Potter movies, arranged by a North Toronto Institute student.

All the performers will wear costumes, and Cadbury has donated the content of loot bags to be given out to children attending the event.

To add some contrast, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals will be played by two pianists on two pianos, and Kenedi will perform Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. The concert will take place at Massey Hall between 3:00 and 5:00 on Halloween, so there will be no conflicts with the important business of trick-or-treating.

Minsoo Sohn

11A charming and somewhat off-the-beaten-track venue is the lobby of Classical 96 FM on Queen St. E. It is not large – perhaps 30 feet square, two stories high, with a long staircase leading up to a mezzanine on the floor above. Beneath the stairs sits a small grand piano, which was the focus of a noon-hour concert I attended recently. The performer was the Korean-born, 33-year-old pianist and Honens First Prize Laureate (2006) Minsoo Sohn, who will be back in Toronto on October 3 for his Glenn Gould Studio debut recital and again on January 14 to perform with Canadian cellist, Rachel Mercer, for Music Toronto.

From my vantage point on the stairs I got a wonderful view of Sohn’s hands on the keyboard – their strength and the sureness, economy and ease with which they moved. Best of all, I could hear the piano extremely well from this unusual position and appreciated his sound, which belied its percussive origin and seemed to float with the fluidity of a violin or a flute.

The whole scene below me – Sohn at the piano and perhaps 40 people sitting around it – made me think of a drawing I’ve seen of Liszt playing in a salon. In it, each person in the audience seems to reveal his innermost self through posture and expression. Salons don’t seem to be part of our experience these days, so kudos to Classical 96 FM for keeping the tradition alive. The only big difference between this and Liszt’s salon was the presence of a video camera on a long boom and several robotic cameras that captured the occasion for web broadcasting.

After the concert Sohn, Honens executive director Stephen McHolm and I went upstairs to talk about Sohn’s life as a musician and the Honens Competition. “Were you born into a family of musicians?” I asked. “Not really. My mother was a singer but stopped singing when I was born. And my father wasn’t a musician but loved music, especially the music of Rachmaninoff. I don’t know how many times I heard recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto while I was still a kid. It was a lot!”

I went on to ask Sohn about how he started playing the piano at the age of three, and what motivated him to practise. “I’ve wondered about that too!” he commented. “I don’t remember that time in my life. All I know about it is what my mother has told me, which is that I would stay at the keyboard for three hours at a time, as if there was something fascinating about it for me.”

I was interested in how he found a balance, in learning repertoire, between the demands of technique and the demands of understanding the message of the music. “They’re not really separate. Facility needs to be there, of course, and everything can come together when I’m practising and trying to find the meaning of the music. It is a struggle and doesn’t always happen, but when it does, I feel like a sculptor, giving form, shaping sound.”

Could he say what it is that changes when this occurs? “It’s as if I come to a very fundamental place in myself where I can become the music and the music becomes me.” Does playing for an audience help? “Playing for an audience is great and sometimes it seems to bring waves and layers of emotion, but for me the real work of searching for the music occurs when I’m alone with the piano. It’s this search that makes it worthwhile and which keeps me interested and motivated.”

Minsoo Sohn’s fascination with the meaning of the music he plays seems to be what makes him special to those who hear him perform. Of the 90 young pianists selected for the first round of the Honens competition from the 150 who apply, really only ten or a dozen, according to Stephen McHolm, have what the Honens jury is looking for: the ability to go beyond technique to look for what the music has to say.

I also asked Minsoo what he was looking forward to doing in the not-too-distant-future. “Right now my big project is a recording of the Goldberg Variations. I would like to add my own personal footprint to the discography of this great work.” Indeed, his interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations from the Honens Competition has been described as “extraordinary,” and has been broadcast numerous times on CBC and across the United States on NPR’s Performance Today.

Other Events

There’s far more than can be written about here – but perhaps I can give a feel for the depth and breadth of music that October and early November offer:

Early in the month, there are a number of noteworthy concerts, including, of course, all the musical events related to Nuit Blanche and the final four days of the Colours of Music Festival in Barrie. The Emerson String Quartet with pianist Menahem Pressler, who performed at the Toronto Summer Music festival this year, will play in Koerner Hall on October 1; and on October 10 Frederica von Stade will be on the Koerner Hall Stage as part of her farewell tour. October 1 and 2 the Ontario Philharmonic (formerly the Oshawa-Durham Symphony Orchestra) presents its season opener, The Philharmonic Rocks, in the superior acoustics of the P.C. Ho Theatre at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Scarborough.

The Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO) has started a new series, “Organ Horizons,” which makes its debut on October 2 with Kola Owalabi giving a recital at Glenview Presbyterian Church. The next evening, October 3, pianist Raymond Spasovski gives a benefit concert at Walter Hall while Caledon Chamber Concerts presents the Cecilia String Quartet in Caledon East. Also on October 3 the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra, with pianist Koichi Inoue, will play the music of the Czech composers Dvořák and Vorisek. At the University of Toronto, cellist Shauna Rolston will give a recital on October 16, followed on October 19 by the American Brass Quintet. On October 29 composer Srul Irving Glick will be remembered in a tribute concert at the Al Green Theatre.

Season Openers

On October 15 Music Toronto presents the Takács Quartet; on October 15 and 16 Via Salzburg performs music by Dvořák and Pärt; on October 16 the Toronto Centre for the Arts presents Argentinean pianist Christina Ortiz; on October 17 the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” with soloist Li Wang; on October 18 the Aldeburgh Connection focuses on the life, times and poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson; on October 23 Sinfonia Toronto performs with violinist Lara St. John; and on October 25 Mooredale Concerts presents pianist Gary Graffman.

Allan Pulker is a flautist and a founder of The WholeNote who currently serves as Chairman of the WholeNote’s board of directors. He can be contacted at:
classicalbeyond@thewholenote.com.

Toronto Concert June 30 2009
Gala Concert brings master organist Gillian Weir full circle

Royal Canadian College of Organists Celebrates 100th anniversary with major international organ festival

On Friday May 1 this year, I listened to Dame Gillian Weir, master organist, give a breathtaking recital, jet-lag be damned, to open the fourth annual ORGANIX festival, on Casavant Organ Opus 3095, newly installed in Holy Trinity Church, in the shadow of the Eaton Centre. The following morning I caught up with her for a whirlwind interview, a few blocks east, at the console of Metropolitan United Church's mighty Casavant Opus 1367, en route to the airport on her way back home to England.

Between those two organs hangs this particular tale.

gillian weir 002

Read more: Dame Gillian Weir, master organist

What a wealth of chamber music there is on offer this month! The early days of April offer two opportunities to hear Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal early work, Transfigured Night — April 2 in its original string sextet version by the St. Lawrence String Quartet complemented by former quartet members, cellist, Marina Hoover and violinist/violist, Barry Shiffman, and April 3 by Sinfonia Toronto in the string orchestra version.

April 3 Amici will present “Poulenc’s Musings,” a program of Francis Poulenc’s chamber music, including his famous Sextet with the brilliant TSO wind principals, and his “Story of Babar” for piano, with Steven Page (formerly of the Barenaked Ladies) as narrator. Definitely not your average evening out!
Those who love Haydn’s string quartets will have two opportunities to hear the Eybler Quartet play an entire program of them: on April 6 at the Church of St. George-the-Martyr, and on April 9 at the Music Room of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. And all this in just the first 9 days of the month. (See the listings for many others, or better still search for chamber music in the listings on our website.)

Read more: Chamber wealth - Quodlibet: April 09

In December 2006 Cynthia Steljes, co-founder of Quartetto Gelato, died after a short but intense battle with an asbestos-related form of lung cancer. After a two-year period of reconstruction, now with two new members, and with the next two seasons planned, including an autumn 2009 Asian tour, the ensemble has been re-incarnated. Its other co-founder, violinist, tenor and Cynthia’s widower, Peter DeSotto, brings continuity; and management is provided by entrepreneur and graphic designer Darlene Kulig. The group celebrates its rebirth with CD launch concerts at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa on March 19 and at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio on March 21.

Allan Pulker talked to Peter in mid February about the ensemble, its meteoric ascent, the tragic loss of Cynthia, its members, way of working and the new CD and concert.


Allan: How did you find the strength and the will to keep going after Cynthia’s death? It was a devastating loss, for you as her husband, of course, but also for the other members of the quartet as well.


Peter: I have a lot of trouble talking about it. Cynthia was a real sweetie. But I made a commitment to her that I would keep the group going; and it’s also a commitment to myself as an artist. This is what makes life worthwhile.

Read more: Peter DeSotto: Reinventing Quartetto Gelato
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