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

At the TSO 

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

Read more: Beyond Obligatory Inclusion?

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

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

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

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

Read more: Two musical exercises in cultivating cultural understanding

Artscape Wychwood Barns, in the event space

Music in the Barns

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday April 28

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

Read more: Women from Space: Redefining the sonic landscape

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

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

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

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