On a cold snowy night last November 19, I was happy to be in the warmth of the Music Gallery at 918 Bathurst Street, listening to the bright pulsating music of an inspiring collaboration between Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and the Spindle Ensemble from Bristol, UK (a collaboration that arose from a chance meeting in Bali between Evergreen member Christopher Hull and Spindle member Harriet Riley, we had been informed). I was curious.
“A wild idea coming to fruition.” That is how composer Alexina Louie summed up the nature of Esprit Orchestra’s concert on November 27, featuring three exceptional concertmasters all based in Toronto and all sharing the stage, performing four violin concertos as part of Esprit Orchestra’s 40th season (an amazing feat in its own right).
The idea of programming an entire concert of violin concertos was an idea cooked up by Esprit’s conductor and music director Alex Pauk. Louie’s response when Pauk proposed the idea was to push back: “How can you do that? How often have you heard three violinists playing three violin concertos on one concert? In all of my concertgoing days, I’ve never seen a concert like that.” But Pauk persisted.
The concert will feature Aaron Schwebel from the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra performing José Evangelista’s concerto Violinissimo, written in 1992, which Esprit has performed before; Marie Bérard from the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra performing John Rea’s Figures hâtives written in 2006, a work she has previously performed; and Stephen Sitarski, Esprit Orchestra’s concertmaster, performing a newly commissioned work, Six Enigmas, by Andrew Staniland. The concert will conclude with Louie’s Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra that was commissioned by three different orchestras in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial year: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, performed, in that case, by each of their respective concert masters.
As 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.
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.
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.