The Toronto Consort’s All in a Garden Green with Alison Melville (L) and Katherine Hill. Photo COLIN SAVAGEOver the last few issues of The WholeNote, this column has explored some of the ways that presenters, festivals, orchestras and other performing groups have pivoted and adapted to 2020’s unexpected and unforeseen challenges. With the arrival of a second pandemic wave, a surge in case numbers and consequent public health interventions – most recently through the implementation of a second lockdown here, Toronto-area performers have had to dig in their heels even deeper and continue to use technology to bridge the gap between themselves and their audience.

As announcements of vaccine developments are released and plans for mass distribution are devised by governments around the world, it appears more likely that the waning of the pandemic itself is on the not-too-distant horizon, a hopeful and encouraging revelation after months of uncertainty. Far less likely though is that the return to concert halls will be suddenly reinstated as before, not with the technological advances made by so many through livestreaming and the broadcasting of pre-recorded material. 

And why should it? Although the maintenance and operation of remote viewing technologies is another line on the expenditures sheet, it is also an opportunity to increase audience bases (and revenue) by engaging with audiences that would otherwise be unable or still reluctant to attend in-person concerts. The Internet has no borders and is the perfect vehicle for making both domestic and international connections without in-person touring by planes, trains and automobiles, especially for those unable to fund such globetrotting ventures. This pandemic has brought the future closer to us, accelerating the development of technologies that support interpersonal connections and introducing us to different ways of meeting and greeting our friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers, and it is very unlikely that we will simply revert to our old ways once COVID-19 is relegated to the history books. 

EarlyMusic.tv

Even before the arrival of the pandemic, streaming services were hugely popular, allowing anyone with a compatible device and an Internet connection to access a near-infinite variety of entertainment. Within this vast expanse of material, classical music occupies a miniscule slice of the market, primarily through Medici.tv and a few other, smaller services, which present a wide range of performances and documentaries for enthusiasts everywhere, performed by an equally wide range of musicians, orchestras and ensembles. Last month the Toronto Consort joined the party by launching EarlyMusic.tv, an on-demand online streaming service devoted entirely to the Consort and featuring a variety of audio and visual material. 

Although still in its infancy, this service clearly has great potential and is a commitment on the part of the Consort to remain active and present, regardless of external circumstances. While classical musicians can occasionally be rather backwards-looking, EarlyMusic.tv engages with the majority of available technology and is accessible through web browsers, apps on iOS and Android, streaming through Apple TV, Amazon, and Chromecast, as well as a soon-to-be-released RokuTV app. This means that no matter your choice of device, operating system and mode of access, EarlyMusic.tv will be available for viewing everywhere that there is an Internet connection.

When looking at a streaming service, the two fundamental questions that must be answered affirmatively are: “Is the interface intuitive?” and, “Is the material good?” In the case of EarlyMusic.tv, both questions can be answered with a resounding “Yes.” The online interface is very straightforward, if not slightly understated, and content is easily explored, filtered and toggled through. Visitors are able to choose between video presentations, searchable by period, composer and arranger, as well as the Consort’s album library and individual audio tracks, which are also able to be searched and filtered. 

The Android app is similarly streamlined, a mobile-friendly reduction of the online website, with identical options to the desktop site. In addition to the aforementioned filtering options, the app contains a universal search function, which returns all applicable video and audio results for the search thread, such as “Byrd” or “Guerrero.” The well-thought-out nature of the EarlyMusic.tv app is particularly appreciated, as it makes the process of accessing content straightforward and simple, with easy access to both audio and video.

If the mode of accessing content is particularly good, the content itself is exceedingly so, with high-quality video and CD-quality audio across the streaming service. The audio tracks are taken directly from the Consort’s previous recordings, providing the listener with a superb auditory experience. The videos are brilliantly done, enhancing the traditionally static concert experience by providing close-ups on soloists and ensemble members throughout, with lighting and acoustics that enhance, rather than detracting from, the musical works themselves.

For anyone with a passion for early music, EarlyMusic.tv is a terrific resource to reconnect with one of Toronto’s finest performing groups. The streaming service is straightforward enough that even the least tech-savvy person can navigate it, and the content itself is both engaging and satisfying. With a variety of material already available and more to come as Consort invites contributions from other early music practitioners, is there a better way to whittle away the winter months than immersing oneself in some of the best music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras?

Sing-Along Messiah – The 2020 Edition

A Sing-Along Messiah addict can be identified in one or more of the following ways: multiple dog-eared Watkins-Shaw scores, with the orange covers dyed brown through time and repeated use; multiple recordings of said work, from barn-burning massed-choir singspiels to lean-and-mean, historically informed interpretations; and one or more special outfits, worn once a year, specifically designated for maskless communal singing Messiah.) For all such addicts, this December will be a time of painful withdrawal, as public health restrictions continue to prohibit large gatherings, particularly those involving singing. 

Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah, 2017. Photo JEFF HIGGINSWhile in-person sing-alongs will be verboten for the foreseeable future, Tafelmusik releases their Sing-Along Messiah on Screen this December, directed by the inimitable Herr Handel himself. As Tafelmusik Chamber Choir conductor (and Handel doppelgänger) Ivars Taurins writes, “for over three decades, George Frideric Handel has stepped onto the stage to lead Tafelmusik and an audience chorus of thousands through his timeless masterpiece, Messiah, in a sing-along version. This year we must come together in spirit rather than in person. So, until we can join our voices once again to ‘raise the roof,’ I sincerely hope that our Messiah sing-along film presentation, and Handel’s music, will rekindle the flame of all that is best within us, bringing joy, peace, and hope to your homes.”

Captured live at Massey Hall in 2010, this video of Messiah excerpts features soprano Suzie LeBlanc, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Rufus Müller, baritone Locky Chung, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, and a chorus of 1000 enthusiastic audience members. This video will be released on YouTube on December 17 at 7pm, and available until December 27. For those without multiple scores on their bookshelves, choruses will be available to download directly from the Tafelmusik website in the days prior to the video launch. While there is nothing that can compare with an authentically interpersonal singing experience, this is a wonderful opportunity to bridge the gap between our annual traditions and what is currently permitted; with such resources available to help us through what will undoubtedly be a strange and unfamiliar holiday season, we wait with anticipation for the joy of coming together, live and in-person, next year. 

It is encouraging to see the development of such high-quality online content as a way of combating the widespread isolation imposed by the pandemic. If you come across a technological marvel produced by one of Toronto’s early music performers that you think deserves a place in this column, let me know at earlymusic@thewholenote.com. “See” you next year!

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Baroque for BabyThe cognitive benefits of musical studies are well-documented and often repeated – used to attract and draw in prospective students to music schools and studios across the world. For many parents, music lessons for their children is as much an investment in their future as the pursuit of cultural understanding and artistic accomplishment – a résumé-building, college-application-enhancing tool in some future well beyond the horizon.

But while the decision to undertake musical studies is often pragmatic, even when it is not it should be initiated as early as possible, exposing even babies’ ears to the widest possible range of symphonies, songs and sounds and encouraging our little geniuses to connect with as much aural diversity as possible. As a parent, it can be challenging to consider such things, especially when entering one’s fourth Baby Shark marathon of the day, but Tafelmusik is helping make the introduction of classical music to our youngest family members slightly easier with their latest album, Baroque for Baby.

Read more: Testing the Waters: Tafelmusik’s Baroque for Baby

Last month I focused on the innovative approach being taken by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in response to public gatherings being severely restricted. With essential components of live music-making affected indefinitely, arts organizations, both in Canada and around the world, continue to grapple with the realization that almost nothing is the same as it was before. Paradoxically, it seems that these struggles are being felt most acutely by some of our greatest cultural institutions; by the time you read this month’s WholeNote, it will be public knowledge that the Metropolitan Opera is cancelling the remainder of their 2020/21 season, leaving musicians, administrators and other staff furloughed until September 2021, at the earliest. 

Part of the problem with such large-scale establishments is their inability to make wide-ranging changes quickly. Think of them as the dinosaurs of the music world: impressively massive, overwhelmingly resilient, and built for long-term duration in a relatively stable environment. However, if the need for quick and pivotal adjustment occurs due to a catastrophic change in the outside environment, there is a very real danger that the factors which made these organizations so great may be the same things that lead to their extinction.

It is with interest, then, that we turn our gaze to Kingston, Ontario, where the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts has recently released its Fall Festival programming. Obviously much smaller in scale than the Metropolitan Opera, The Isabel is nonetheless a significant presenter of musical performances, ranging in style from classical to folk and everything in between. Accommodating the impositions of a global pandemic is no easy feat, and the Isabel is facing these challenges by adopting a multi-platform approach, offering concerts both virtually and in-person. 

Each performance will be streamed live through the Isabel Digital Concert Hall and films of the live concerts will be available to ticketholders for up to seven days after the performance. For those attending in person (at time of writing, a maximum of 50 people), single tickets are available in physically distanced arrangements, with a number of additional safety protocols in place to ensure the health of all concertgoers and staff. While the majority of these measures would have been unthinkable even one year ago, the realities of COVID-19 have required such adaptations from those who are able to do so.

Read more: Kingston’s Bader Centre: Alacrity in a multiplatform world

Elisa Citterio, David Costello, and Marco Cera in Jeanne Lamon Hall at work on Elisa's Midsummer Night's Dream, a short film by Marco Cera, which conjures an imaginary return to the stage. It was filmed June 1-4, 2020 at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre observing physical distancing requirements with all musicians filmed individually, but the full orchestra brought together by movie magic. Photo credit TafelmusikIf the past seven months have taught us anything, it might be that the post-COVID world will move at a different pace than that which came before. Everyday decisions previously motivated by personal, social, and economic factors are now tempered by input from public health officials and other medical professionals attempting to contain and control the transmission of this new and deadly pathogen, resulting in exceedingly cautious and temporally conservative steps forward that have made dining at a restaurant feel like a momentous occasion. While social interactions and public spaces continue to reopen, at least for the time being, those things that were previously taken for granted and assumed to be perpetual have been reframed by the pandemic and forced to undergo a societal reevaluation through a new kind of cost-benefit analysis. 

For public performers and those who make their living within arts organizations, these public health interventions have appeared as doomsday prophecies, requiring unprecedented quick action and the changing of entire business models in mere weeks or months. Although soloists and smaller groups are able to pivot relatively quickly and efficiently, larger organizations – such as orchestras – face a more daunting challenge, having to implement novel guidelines and codes of conduct that ensure the safety of their performers and prospective audiences as the possibility of reopening draws closer. As September approaches and new seasons launch, how are arts organizations grappling with, and managing, these new and essential factors?

Read more: How to Get Back to the Concert Hall? Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.

The world is not the same as it was before. Over the past few weeks we have been inundated with news and information about self-quarantines, social isolation, and a virus that has the potential to take thousands, if not millions, of lives. With national economies grinding to a halt and governments injecting billions of dollars into them, borders closing, and the word war being used more and more frequently, the impact this episode will have on the future is inestimable. 

While this global pandemic affects every aspect and component of everyday life, the arts and culture sector has received a particularly severe blow. With concerts cancelled around the world and artists being released from contracts and freelance arrangements, performers are struggling to determine how to manage their lives and careers, and to plan for a highly unpredictable future. To put it mildly, the performing arts is not, by and large, a work from-home sector; it is the gathering of people to share in a communal experience that lies at the heart of what it means to be a musician, whether in a church or concert hall, and the loss of this fundamental participatory component has rendered the entire cultural sector inert. While broadcasts and livestreams can replicate the concert experience to an extent, the inherently human facet of congregational listening (in both secular and sacred contexts) is left wanting. In short, it simply feels different when it’s not in person.

This is not, however, the first time that global events have impacted the arts in a wide-scale way, threatening to decimate an already precarious industry. Over the last five centuries there have been numerous instances in which war and disease have affected and influenced the process and product produced by composers and performers, and we learn that severe societal unrest has the power to evoke significant artistic changes. Consider, for example, the rise of the avant-garde after the World Wars, where composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Ligeti, Nono, Berio and Penderecki produced radical and often grotesque musical representations of the terrors of war. Little consolation, but it may be that such radical advancements in the musical lexicon might never have resulted if not for the immense anguish and savagery of war? 

And here are some other examples.

Read more: Music in Times of Trouble
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