Against the Grain’s Elliot Madore. Photo ATG THEATRENo performing arts organizations can pretend they don’t exist in a specific time and place – responding to cultural and political moments of the right now, even when the music they perform comes from very different times. Choirs are grappling with the loss of rehearsals and live performances, but they are also grappling with the overlapping realities of fighting for justice and emancipation in a very complex world.

Messiah/Complex is an upcoming new digital performance from Against the Grain Theatre (AtG). Artistic director Joel Ivany and his innovative team are taking the Handel and Jennens masterwork and breathing it alive with diverse voices, languages and cultural inspiration of people across Canada. Ivany has been joined by Reneltta Arluk, director of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre. Together they have assembled a vast collection of performers representing every province and territory. The WholeNote had a chance to connect with artistic director Joel Ivany to share just what a complex Messiah looks like in our times. “There are complex layers to this work,” AtG’s Ivany shares. “Handel, himself, had investments in the Royal African Company. This means that he profited off of slave trade during the 1720s and 30s.” 

Connecting the history of the work to its time and place is necessary to connect to our time and place, he says. “We’ve asked Indigenous artists to learn settler music set to Biblical text. They have interpreted it and now sing it in their own language. We want to reconcile our relationship with First Nations, but it’s not easy; there are layers and it is complex. We want to support our Black, Indigenous and People of Colour community, but there’s no easy answer or quick fix.”

Read more: A Messiah for our Complex Times

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.

CECILIA LIVINGSTON. Photo by Daniel Alexander DeninoI’m always curious to see what the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C Festival will be offering each season; this year being unlike every other performance season, I was even more curious as to what we could expect from this annual offering of new sounds and the latest in contemporary music creation. I was pleased to see that the festival will be moving ahead despite the complexities of producing concerts for limited and virtual audiences. Running from January 15 to 29, this year’s offerings will be a scaled-down version of previous years, but still filled with premieres and outstanding performers, both local and from further afield. 

We will hear concerts by two Toronto-based pianists: Eve Egoyan will perform pieces written for her imagined piano that combines original piano sounds with an extended software-based piano; and Royal Conservatory alumna Morgan-Paige Melbourne will perform two of her own compositions along with pieces by several other composers, including one by Brian Current, the director of The Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble. The GGS New Music Ensemble will also have a concert of their own with several works combined with projected images. The well-loved Kronos Quartet will make a return visit with three different events to choose from. Their multimedia performance piece, A Thousand Thoughts, blends live music by Kronos, narration, as well as archival footage and filmed interviews. Kronos’ Fifty for the Future initiative, designed to create a repertoire of contemporary works for young string quartets they introduced to 21C audiences in 2016, will be the focus of a concert featuring four quartets from the Glenn Gould School after a two-day mentorship with Kronos. 

Read more: Cecilia Livingston’s Vocal Pleasures

As Beethoven’s 250th birthday approaches – thought to have been born on December 15 or 16 he was baptized on December 17, 1770 – there are several notable chamber music concerts being livestreamed from December 5 to December 13, the last remnants of what was to have been a year-long celebration that was curtailed by the pandemic.

Goodyear and Ehnes

Internationally acclaimed superstar and Canada’s preeminent violinist, James Ehnes, will be joined by virtuoso pianist Stewart Goodyear for a complete traversal of the ten sonatas for violin and piano in three recitals – to be livestreamed from Koerner Hall December 11, 12 and 13. Goodyear is celebrated for prodigious pianistic feats like performing all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the same day. 

Despite the marathons and the prodigious technique and memory that they require, the basis for Goodyear’s appeal is his empathetic relationship with the music he performs and his ability to communicate that to an audience. 

Read more: Chamber Beethoven As His Birthday Beckons

What is 12-ET A440 anyway?

Over the course of more than a decade, my WholeNote editor and I have developed a certain ritual around each upcoming article. After we agree on the story that month, it’s usually followed by a conversation on the phone, where I present my take, ask practical questions, and fret about approach and tone. My editor offers editorial guidance, and invariably offers an offhand quip or two in regard to whatever I am fretting about. As lay rituals go, I find it reassuring.

This month’s conversation point revolved around “a truly fret-worthy concern,” as my editor described it – for Labyrinth Ontario, the subject of this story, and all practitioners of modal music. One of LO’s signature concerns around its core concept of “modal music” is the ever-growing bias for “flattening out” traditional regional tunings, some very ancient, and modal-melodic performance practices in favour of the ubiquitous so-called “concert pitch.” That’s the Western-origin A440 pitch, the “settler” in the tuning house, which, given its ubiquity, we may assume has been around for centuries. But no: it was reconfirmed under the name ISO 16 recently as 1975 by the International Organization for Standardization.

Concomitant with it is the older model of 12-tone equal temperament (12-ET), where the octave is theoretically divided into 12 equal intervals. Taken together, this conglomerate-tuning model, with minor deviations, defines the sound of the modern symphony orchestra, its many spinoffs, and nearly all of the world’s commercial vernacular music.

Read more: Modal Stories Are Alive and Well in the Labyrinth

"December" composer Monica Pearce. Photo MONICAPEARCE.COMFor those of you who might not have noticed, this holiday season will not be its usual live(ly) self; however, there are still exciting music theatre and dance productions to cheer the spirit coming to our screens and to at least one live stage. So to save you some shopping time, here’s a personal (and partial) list.

DECEMBER 

NOV 11 to DEC 19: The Musical Stage Company’s virtual edition of their signature concert series, UnCovered: Notes from the Heart (see our November issue), has been extended for an extra two weeks, due to overwhelming demand. The 65-minute series of new linked dramatic music videos can be watched by single ticket buyers or become the heart of a curated group experience. ONLINE. Specific day and showtime only. $25 - $40. https://bit.ly/UnCovered2020.

NOV 25 to DEC 4: Musical Concerts from the Shaw (Festival) directed and choreographed by associate artistic director Kimberley Rampersad, with music direction by Paul Sportelli. Alternating evenings feature the music of Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields or Cole Porter followed by: 

DEC 5 to 19: Also from the Shaw, Songs for a Winter’s Night featuring favourite melodies from the holiday season. LIVE socially distanced audiences of up to 50. (Masks must be worn.) Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tickets are FREE but must be reserved by calling the Shaw Festival’s box office at 1- 800-511-SHAW (7429)  For  details see https://www.shawfest.com/event/musical-concerts/.

DEC 4 to JAN 2: The Nutcracker (choreography by James Kudelka.) The National Ballet of Canada, in a new partnership with Cineplex, are making their signature holiday ballet available to watch on both big and small screens. Live captured at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in 2008, the cast is led by audience favourites Sonia Rodriguez and Piotr Stanczyk as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. Tickets $12.95-14.95 at Cineplex Theatres not affected by the lockdown, or $29.99 to stream online from the Cineplex Store. For direct links go to  or www.cineplex.com.

DEC 6, 7PM: Together, Safe & Warm. Alexis Gordon, of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, guest stars with the INNERchamber Ensemble in an intimate program of holiday music new and old, interwoven in the characteristic company style with the stories behind the songs. The performance will be livestreamed from Revival House, the exciting performance and dining venue in Stratford.  ONLINE. One show only.  Tickets $35 (student and arts worker discounts available) www.innerchamber.ca/together-safe-warm.

DEC 12, 7:30PM: WinterSong: A Virtual Watch Party. Canadian Contemporary (formerly Children’s) Dance Theatre. The annual holiday dance special inspired by the world’s rich solstice traditions will be experienced this year through the medium of film combining choreographic world premieres with a retrospective look at iconic solstice work. Nowell Sing We, and highlights from WinterSong’s 33-year history. ONLINE. Tickets $30. www.ccdt.org

DEC 12, 7PM: Opera Atelier presents their first livestreamed production, Something Rich and Strange, a brand-new production featuring theatre music by Handel, Lully, Locke and Purcell that explores the realms of sleep, visions and dreams, plus a new creation by Edwin Huizinga for soprano Measha Brueggergosman. Streamed from Koerner Hall. One Show Only. ONLINE. The Royal Conservatory Box Office at 416-408-0208 or tickets@rcmusic.ca.

DEC 11 & 12, 7:30PM: Going Under, Toronto’s Bravo Academy Senior Troupe presents a newly adapted virtual version of Going Under by cutting-edge Canadian musical theatre creators Matt Murray (book), Colleen Dauncey (music) and Akiva Romer-Segal (lyrics): “When the subway train they are riding comes to a screeching halt, a group of high school students on the way to their graduation are caught underground, forced to face each other and their own demons, and the tragic event that tore them apart four years earlier.”  ONLINE. Tickets: $16.95-28.25 www.bravoacademy.ca/events-north-york/going-under

DEC 14: Tiny Pretty Things debuts on Netflix. Based on the bestselling Young Adult book of the same name, this new series – which explores the lives of elite professional ballet students in Chicago – has been eagerly anticipated since filming began last year. Many Canadians are part of the production team, including executive producer Michael MacLennan, music supervisors Scott Belluz and Natasha Duprey, and lead choreographer and dance consultant, Jennifer Nichols (as previewed in The WholeNote’s summer issue). 

 DEC 19 & 20: This year, Ross Petty’s annual topical fairy tale-inspired Panto has had to travel into the virtual realm. Taking that as a cue, Matt Murray’s new script for There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays begins as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz clicks together the heels of her ruby slippers and embarks on a magical roller coaster ride home during which she encounters new friends and panto favourites played by (among others) Dan (Plumbum) Chameroy, AJ Bridel, Eddie Glenn, and Sara--Jeanne Hosie, (last year’s hilarious Sheriff of Nottingham). Tickets: $35 per household. www.rosspetty.com. Watch anytime between 10am and 9pm ONLINE. A portion of each ticket sale goes to Kids Help Phone. 

DEC 21, 8PM: Essential Opera presents the world premiere of Monica Pearce’s new one-act opera, December, for three sopranos and string quartet. The story follows new couple Julia and Natasha as they plan to visit Julia’s family for the first time at Christmas. ONLlNE. Tickets $22.86 www.tickethalifax.com. https://youtube.com/c/EssentialOpera.

JANUARY

Read more: Yes December and January Will Still Have Their Highlights

Here we are at December, with all of the closures and quarantines having pretty well confined most musical groups to such measures as Zoom sessions. We even hear that Christmas will be delayed until some time in January, so Santa can quarantine for two weeks. So, with time on my hands, and since December happens to be my birth month, I decided to do a bit of reminiscing instead. 

Early band days

My plan was to start by referring to a band photograph I’ve been looking at from time to time for the past many months. Of course when I actually went to get it to refer to it, Murphy’s Law prevailed. It has disappeared and is not likely to reappear until this column has arrived at the printer. Ergo, rely on memory.

My band days began in Windsor when two school pals told me about the band that they played in. Jimmy Rees (cornet) and Keith Finney (tuba) took me to a rehearsal and introduced me to Mr. Arthur Laley, bandmaster of the High Twelve Boys Band, an all-brass band in the British tradition. As the name implies, the band was sponsored by the local High Twelve Club – High Twelve being an organization of Master Masons placing a special emphasis on youth support, and so-named because, long ago, noon was known as “high twelve” and the time to call off from labour for lunch. 

The band owned all its the instruments, so there would be no significant financial problems for me. Having been given a small toy drum some years earlier, I mentioned that I would like to play drums. Mr. Laley diplomatically informed me that the band did not have an opening for a drummer at that time. He suggested that he could both provide a baritone horn and that he could teach me how to play it. Thus began a lifelong interest in brass instruments.

Most young bands at that time were “Boys Bands”. However, at High Twelve there was a difference. Two of Mr. Laley’s three children were girls. One was the lead cornet, the other was the lead trombone and the son was the lead euphonium. In addition to the weekly band rehearsals, there were sectional rehearsals in Mr. Laley’s basement on other nights. Our summer months were busy too  –. with parades, small tattoos and competitions in various towns in Southern Ontario, to which we were usually fortunate to have a sufficient number of interested parents to drive us. 

Read more: Time to Reminisce

Last month, the Kensington Market Jazz Festival and the Canadian Online Jazz Festival provided concrete examples of virtual engagement on a large scale, showing programmers, audiences and musicians what digital festivals can look like. Musicians, meanwhile, have spent the year grappling with questions of engagement on a deeply personal level. 

With live audiences largely inaccessible, being a professional musician in 2020 has also meant being a recording engineer, a videographer and a social media planner. It has meant paying more for an upgraded internet connection, purchasing studio monitors and interfaces, and soundproofing apartment bedrooms. It has meant, in a virtual world, that musicians must contend with an idea of themselves as a brand, a glowing, disembodied presence on the screens and speakers of listeners. 

This month, I spoke to six different musicians – saxophonist/vocalist Emily Steinwall, drummer Jon Foster, producer/keyboardist Adrian Hogan, guitarist Rod Rodrigues, drummer Robert Diack and guitarist (and WholeNote contributor) Sam Dickinson – about their experiences with the great virtual shift. What follows are extracts from our discussions that involve home recording, livestreaming, brand maintenance and authenticity. Many thanks to these interviewees for their generosity and honesty; all told, I received close to 7,000 words worth of material, enough for several months’ worth of coverage at my standard word counts here.

Read more: Going Digital: Six Musicians Reflect on the Great Virtual Shift

1 GIMME THAT WINEThere’s no use sugar-coating it: this coming winter promises to be the darkest in living memory. Mix the harsh weather we Canadians can always expect this time of year with the fact that COVID-19 numbers are on the rise everywhere (Toronto is about to re-enter a modified form of the spring lockdown as I write), and you have a recipe for Bleak on Toast with a side of Dismal. 

Normally, we can look forward to Christmas and/or Hanukkah to provide an oasis of celebration in the midst of all the cold and ice and snow, but with the lockdown measures set to extend at least 28 days from November 23 on, these holidays will be a lot less festive this year. The best we can hope for is to celebrate them with a vengeance next year and in the meantime, thank God the LCBO is still deemed an essential service. As Lambert, Hendricks & Ross once famously sang, “Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle).” Cheers.

I’m tired of writing about the effects of COVID on musicians and live music and I suspect you are tired of reading about it, too. Let’s just say it’s been devastating, that many of us have done our best to do a technological end run around the pandemic, and leave it at that. The real question becomes how do we get through the next couple of months with our sanity and spirit intact? I’ve already recommended alcohol, but that doesn’t work for everyone. We’re all going to be cooped up inside so we have to learn to enjoy that as best we can. Cooking, baking, reading a good book or watching some classic movies all help; watching the news, not so much. And of course staying in touch with friends and family by phone or email or Zoom is really important. But above all else, I find listening to music helps the most. Since CDs have become almost obsolete, I came to regret having amassed such a huge collection of them, but no longer. I’ve spent a lot of the past eight months revisiting my collection and it’s been time well spent.

So, in the spirit of “bring it on” which helps Canadians withstand the winters, I’ve decided to offer a menu of songs which address the “joys” of winter – not Christmas or Holiday songs, which we all know – but rather songs which actually have to do with winter itself. If you’re reading this online, I’ve included YouTube links to each in the hope that housebound jazz fans will get some enjoyment out of these gems. 

Read more: Antidote to the Winter of Our Discontent: A 51:48-Minute Playlist

The team at the Glenn Gould School films their fall opera double bill, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins + William Bolcom’s Lucrezia. Photo c/o The Royal Conservatory.How do you teach opera during a global pandemic?

This was the question facing the team at the Glenn Gould School (GGS) in Toronto, tasked with planning its annual fall opera production. It was April 2020, and no one knew how long newly-imposed COVID-19 restrictions would stay in place, or what might be happening six months in the future when rehearsals were officially scheduled to begin. Little did they know at the time that they would be working on a new, operatic hybrid of stage and film – rehearsed, sung, and recorded for online consumption. 

“My meetings in the spring and early summer were all about ‘How can we do this? What kind of project can this be?’” explained director Amanda Smith when I spoke with her in November 2020. “Just trying to pay attention to what was happening in the world and what would be safe meant that it took several months to figure this out, always looking at the potential of what we could create.”

Read more: This fall, the GGS adapts opera for online – plexiglass and all

The UnCovered: Notes from the Heart ensemble, recording the full cast finale in front of Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. Photo by Dahlia KatzAs Halloween approaches, I would normally be looking forward to going to Toronto’s beautiful Koerner Hall for one of my favourite events in the fall music theatre calendar – The Musical Stage Company’s annual UnCovered concert. Clearly, this won’t be taking place this year as it usually does, so I got in touch with company founder and artistic director Mitchell Marcus to find out about how the company is reinventing itself in response to the pandemic. What struck me most in our conversation was a sense of renewed emphasis on the importance of creating, maintaining and expanding community through the sharing of music and storytelling. 

Mitchell MarcusCommunity has always been at the heart of Musical Stage’s mandate, he told me, but with the company’s rebranding in 2017, and recent explosive expansion, “perhaps we have lost a little bit of that.” But with the intense process of the last seven months it has come very much back into focus. Like other companies forced to pivot when theatres were shut down in the middle of March, MSC has leapt into the new world of experimentation: with small outdoor physically distanced live shows (Porchside Songs); with rehearsals and workshops conducted online via Zoom; and, most prominently, by reimagining their signature annual theatrical concert, UnCovered

Read more: MSC’s UnCovered Reinvented
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