This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.

Composer Laura Sgroi (L) and poet Rebecca Thomas (R).On the evening of Friday June 26, 2020, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS) presented its final Friday night online video broadcast of archival concerts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this performance the KWS showed a pre-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, conducted by Edwin Outwater, followed by a pre-recording of We’re Not Done Drumming, composed by Laura Sgroi with poetry by Rebecca Thomas. Though originally performed in different concerts, the pairing of the two for this broadcast brought to light the multifaceted issues of colonization, the displacement of Indigenous people – and suggested one path forward for how these issues might be approached in the context of western classical music.

The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 opened up with the rich, deep sound of horns in a solemn proclamation of duty and a call to arms. In the aftermath of this opening, the violins entered with a breathless tune that caressed the listeners into a false sense of hope ­– for there was no rest in this first movement. Ever moving with anticipation and anxiety, the winds and strings climbed into a vibrant crescendo met by the grand crashing of percussion.

Tchaikovsky’s second movement ushered in an empty feeling induced by the high, lonely sounds of the oboe’s solitary notes. The violins echoed this call but soon seemed to resonate with a certain cold beauty of their own, lifting the audience up in an empty promise of safety and hope while the high-pitched cries of the winds maintained a desolate sorrow. The third movement offered a shift, emerging with an upbeat lively rhythm – though underscored by the low, deep murmur of the percussion instruments, evoking a sense of something brooding underneath the surface. The fourth movement dismissed this subtle warning and ascended to a climax of horns, cymbals, percussions and winds – a bright and brilliant finish that filtered out into a calm silence.

The feeling of unease that seeps into the shadows of Tchaikovsky’s work is the main discourse of Thomas and Sgroi’s We’re Not Done Drumming. In her opening remarks specifically garnered for this livestream event, Thomas, a Mi’kmaq poet and spoken-word artist, asked the audience to revisit the past and to try and understand the hardships Indigenous people have faced.

The first movement of the collaboration between Sgroi and Thomas was imbued with a majestic quality. The high notes of the clarinets and strong, deep voices of the bassoons created an atmosphere of something magical and far in the distance. When Thomas’s words first appeared in the score, the violins began to create a low dark sound, like the coming of a storm – a deep underbelly over which Thomas recounted an unromanticised history of Indigenous experience. The second movement became more intense as the destruction of Indigenous culture was depicted through the conversation of two distinct voices. Through her words Thomas illuminated the betrayal of Indigenous people: “You locked us in place, enough is enough, you lied, you were pleased with our despair.” Then the violins and cellos entered with a new intensity and Thomas assumed the voice of the settler in the conversation: “you should be pleased we taught you savages how to read.” In the wake of her powerful words the precise notes of the flutes and clarinets in agreement with the rich vibrations of the percussion invaded the space in a depiction of colonial violence.

The third movement brought a new quality to the piece. The violins dragged along a sad melancholy feeling, supported by elongated notes in the winds. But then Thomas proclaimed, “Like it or not, we are in this together,” and warm vibrant horns and guttural drums transported the audience to a place of majesty. We’re Not Done Drumming was a voice for Indigenous people and a call to action.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 and We’re Not Done Drumming are two pieces in conflict with one another. Tchaikovsky’s work, created in the late 1800s, is a staple of European classical music – whereas the collaboration of Sigroi and Thomas, composed in 2019, deliberately communicated the oppression of Indigenous people under the guise of westernization. Yet there are glimmers of regret in Tchaikovsky’s music that are brought to light in Thomas’s words, demonstrating the benefits of hearing these pieces back-to-back. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s decision to configure an evening composed of these pieces was an important statement on remembering our past as we go into our future.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony presented Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 and Sgroi and Thomas’s We’re Not Done Drumming as an online video broadcast, on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Nicole Decsey is a writer and performance artist based in Toronto and Mississauga. She graduated from Ryerson University with a BFA in performance dance in June of 2019 and has been a freelance writer and editorial intern with the Dance Current since December of 2018.

This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.

Pianist Angela Park. Photo credit: David Leyes.There’s something intimate about livestream concerts: watching musician and instrument in their space waiting, you can almost feel the anxious excitement as you wait for the concert to begin. On June 18, that feeling was palpable as a digital audience awaited “Water Play” – an hour-long livestream concert by pianist Angela Park, inspired by different musical views of water.  

The performance was part of the Toronto-based Xenia Concerts series, bringing music to isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially to those who might not otherwise be able to access classical music concerts. Xenia is a registered Toronto-based charity focused on breaking down barriers to music and art in an environment accessible to neurodiverse audiences. Everything, from the performance length to Park’s enthusiastic explanations of the pieces she was about to perform, to allotting a brief “stretch break,” made this event feel welcoming for music enjoyers of all experience levels. (This was evident by the heartwarming virtual Q&A following the performance – some of Park’s commenters were as young as 5 or 6!)

This artful program featured works by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, and Debussy – each composer’s piece inspired by a radically different view of water out the window. The afternoon began with Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle, slow and rolling on the piano keys, like a gondola down a centuries-old canal. It’s a shame that the peaceful, nostalgic mood of Chopin’s melodies in this piece is impossible to bottle.

The next three pieces Park played were a set by Franz Liszt, inspired by his awe of peaceful lakes in Switzerland, but also by turbulent storms raging above the Swiss mountains. The first, Au lac du Wallenstadt, was peaceful and melodic – but Park’s rendition of Liszt’s Au bord d’un source really stood out. Meaning “beside a spring,” Park's interpretation was sunny and sparkly. In the tinkling of her crystalline high notes, you could hear ice-cold water trickling over pale stones.

The final Liszt piece Park played was Orage or “storm.” After having begun the concert with such serenity, the deep, barrelling crescendos and tense chords of this work felt electric. Powerful, booming chords told the story of thunder and lightning dancing menacingly together in the sky about the lakes surrounding the Alps. The experience was turbulent yet cathartic, leaving listeners in the sleepy, hazy calm of the beach after the storm as the final, calming notes faded away.

In the second half of the concert, Park performed Maurice Ravel’s Jeux D’eau – “water games” – with appropriate playfulness, emphasizing the music’s gleaming glissandi. Next came the crowd-pleaser Claire de lune by Claude Debussy, a timeless encapsulation of the shadowy magic of moonlight. Here, Park’s playing was graceful yet powerful. With water on the forefront of the mind, it was easy to imagine the haunting coastal fog of the slow opening chords, silvery ripples gliding across the glass-like surface of the sea.

The concert ended with Debussy’s less-often heard L’Isle Joyeuse and it stole the show, stepping out of the moonlight and closing the event on a sunnier note. Debussy was inspired in this work by French artist Watteau’s 18th-century painting The Embarkation for Cythera, of a joyful group of companions embarking a ship to the mythical island of Cythera. The painting’s playful nature is echoed in the beginning of the piece, its upbeat tempo and exciting phrases filling the air with fluttering notes of anticipation of romance. As the piece developed, its melody grew more triumphant and confident – a successful voyage and a blissful jig for all.

After the grace of the Barcarolle and undulant drama of Orage, L’Isle Joyeuse was a pleasant resolution. “Water Play” was fun, accessible and thoughtfully curated – and Park was a thoughtful one-woman show, guiding the voyage with elegance and emotion.

Xenia Concerts presented “Water Play”, featuring pianist Angela Park, on June 18 at 3pm EDT, via Facebook Live.

Leah Borts-Kuperman has completed her Master of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her work has also been featured in Broadview, Opera Canada, and Dance Current magazines.

This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.

Cellist Margaret Gay (L) and violist Patrick Jordan (R). Photo credit: Sian Richards.For many, working from home on June 17 meant another day at the well-worn computer desk. For the players of Tafelmusik, it meant presenting Caprice, the spirited fourth video broadcast in their ticketed Tafelmusik at Home online series. Showcasing lesser-known 18th-century composers, players from the ensemble gave both educational commentary and performance, all delivered from their own living rooms. Though the video series came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project is a serendipitous fit for Tafelmusik – so much 18th-century chamber music was written to be performed and heard at home, and this digital platform gives audiences new access to that intimate experience.

The program opened with four selections from William Herschel’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin (ca. 1760), performed by violinist Thomas Georgi. After more than 30 years in the ensemble, Georgi announced that this performance would be his last for Tafelmusik before entering retirement. Despite sharing a title with Paganini’s Caprices, Herschel’s offerings emphasize sensitivity over devilish showmanship. They are as charming as they are brief – even at a relaxed tempo, Caprice No. 7 burned through its entire 22 bars in less than a minute. Making the most of what’s there, Georgi performed with a consistently sweet sound, carefully shaping long notes during the plaintive theme of Caprice No. 9. In Caprice No. 13, Georgi sensitively controlled the density of his tone to differentiate ornamental filigree from delightfully lengthy cadential appoggiaturas.

Read more: Concert report: Tafelmusik at Home’s “Caprice” brings fresh nuance to 18th-century works

Mezzo Wallis Giunta (left) and Jennifer Nichols (right) in the TSO’s June 2017 Seven Deadly Sins, by Kurt Weill. Photo by Jag GunduI have been friends with Jennifer Nichols since meeting as colleagues working at Opera Atelier more than ten years ago, and I have followed her freelance career with great interest ever since, sometimes reviewing or previewing her shows for The WholeNote: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony in 2017, for example which she choreographed and performed in, with mezzo Wallis Giunta; or 2019’s Dora-nominated Pandora for FAWN Opera which, again, she both choreographed and danced in. One of the things I love about her work is how she is always looking for new challenges, new ways to push herself and discover more of what is possible in terms of choreography and performing to music. 

In the May/June issue of The WholeNote, we found ourselves as virtual colleagues again – she wrote a moving guest article about how music is at the heart of all she does: dancing, choreographing, teaching, producing and, as she said to me the other day, even just walking down the street. Now, with the continuing need to physically distance ourselves from each other, thanks to the ongoing world pandemic, even walking down the street is bounded by restrictions; most of her other activities have had to be recalibrated, reinvented, moved online as much as possible, but somehow trying to keep that human connection that is created by dancing with, and in the live presence of, other people. 

Read more: Music in the Dance of Life: Responding to a changing world

Grand Philharmonic ChoirAnyone who sings in a choir has likely seen the tragic story of the Amsterdam Mixed Choir where after a performance of the Bach St John Passion, 102 of the 130 choristers were sickened by COVID-19. One of those members would pass away from the virus in the following weeks, just as news also broke of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State where 52 members would ultimately be infected, with two deaths. Smaller group outbreaks were noted in other choirs around the world such as the Berlin Cathedral Choir and in many faith-based settings. The headlines are enough to make any person take pause. The choral community has been shaken particularly hard by these stories as, for many, choir is their escape from the pain and stress of the world, not the cause of it. 

In the absence of clear scientific evidence, the precautionary principle has provided the only guidance available to choirs throughout much of the pandemic so far. Organizations have not waited to take strict action, instead choosing to comply with blanket safety, quarantine and shutdown measures. For every choir in Ontario, it is now over three months since any rehearsals. Seasons were ended early, summer festivals are cancelled, tours are out of the question, and uncertainty reigns, with planning for next season made difficult by differing assumptions of what may be. 

Read more: In the Absence of Singing, Uncertainty

James Ehnes and Jonathan Crow at a TSM launch in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Photo by Chris HutchesonOf all the musical events I’ve taken in online recently, the highlight was watching new TSO music director Gustavo Gimeno in Amsterdam conducting the regathered Concertgebouw, the orchestra in which he played percussion for 11 years beginning in 2001. 

Both Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (recorded June 2 and broadcast June 3) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 (livestreamed on June 5) are now available on YouTube. The Dvořák, its live aura palpable, struck special notes of smooth and sweet, its dance movements floating effortlessly. The musicians observed quite distinct social distancing rules, with the strings separated by 1.75 metres, the winds and brass by two metres, which led to many members being placed on the steps behind the stage.

I was in the midst of a telephone conversation with TSO concertmaster and Toronto Summer Music artistic director, Jonathan Crow, when I wondered. Had he seen it? Yes, he had. Wasn’t it extraordinary, I asked rhetorically.

Read more: “As Live as We Can Do It” – TSM Reborn

Photo Credit: Small World MusicEstablished in 1997 by Toronto music curator Alan Davis, Small World Music Society has for years maintained its position as one of the city’s premier presenters of culturally diverse music. All in, they reckon they have presented and partnered on close to 800 concerts and related events in venues ranging from top-tier concert halls to their own venue, from outdoor festival stages to clubs across Greater Toronto, making SWMS one of the this country’s most significant global music presenters, reaching audiences of many kinds.

Full disclosure: I first met Davis when he was a programmer at The Music Gallery, probably back in the late 1980s. Later on he joined Gamelan Toronto, a community music group I started in 1995; in fact, one of Small World Music’s first projects, in 1997, was to present the Gamelan Summit Toronto, a ten-day festival of which I was the founder and artistic director. I have also performed as a musician at SWM-produced concerts since. And over the last decade I’ve followed various aspects of Small World Music Society’s programming and evolution here in The WholeNote. One example was when its Small World Centre, a hub for the culturally diverse arts community, opened six years ago; another was my summer 2017 World View column about the 2017 launch of Polyphonic Ground, a multi-organization umbrella group of ten GTA-based music presenters working collaboratively to showcase the voices and sounds of Toronto’s global music scene.

So I was all ears when, early this year, SWM announced not only its annual springtime Asian Music Series, but also an ambitious Global Toronto conference. It was all set to go in May as a showcase for select culturally diverse Canadian musicians, plus a place where Canadian and international buyers could meet, greet, hear and book them. Then the COVID-19 crisis suddenly locked (almost) everything down, and both those events were cancelled. End of story it seemed.

Read more: One More Pivotal Moment For Small World Music

Steve Wallace, centre, in friendlier times, with the Barry Elmes Quintet. Photo by Don Vickery“Playing the changes” is jazz argot (jargot?) for navigating the chord changes of any given piece or tune being played, a hard-earned skill, the challenge of which varies depending on how many chord changes there are, and how complex they might be. It’s also referred to as “making the changes,” as in playing notes which fit the chords – a sort of entry-level requirement – or “running the changes,” which can carry a negative connotation of a soloist robotically playing a lot of notes without necessarily making a coherent musical statement of any melodic value.

However, the difficulty of negotiating the labyrinthine chord changes of, say, Giant Steps, or I Got Rhythm, pale in comparison to the challenges facing jazz musicians during the COVID-19 lockdown of the past three months and counting. “Playing the changes” has taken on a whole new meaning – as in adapting to the catastrophic changes wrought by this virus. These have affected all of us deeply of course, but I would like to address them from a jazz perspective.

I’m slightly reluctant in doing so lest this take on a “woe is me” tone of self-pity, as if jazz players have suffered more than other live performers such as actors, dancers and musicians in other fields. Everyone has surely suffered from the lockdown measures, but as a largely in-the-moment, collectively improvised music – and an economically vulnerable one at that – jazz and its practitioners have been particularly set back by social distancing.

Read more: Playing Changes

As the days drag on into weeks and the weeks drag on into months, with no live music, we are all suffering in some way or other. Finally I have learned from a local columnist that there is a name for our problem. He told me that we are all suffering from “pandemic fatigue.” 

While this column has a focus on instrumental music, we recently learned of a vocal number which sums up the feelings of almost all musicians at this time of isolation. There are a couple of choral versions of What Would I Do Without My Music. They can be found at

Staying In Touch

In many cases we have heard nothing from bands about how their members are coping. Most, though, are staying in touch with members at least by email. So I have two questions: 1) How are all the bands and their members coping with this situation while they cannot play together? 2) What are the plans for the bands when that distant day arrives, and how will the long absence have affected their morale and performance? 

Read more: How to Fight Pandemic Fatigue? Practise.

The RexIn the wake of ongoing worldwide protests in support of anti-racist social reform, major Canadian arts institutions have expressed statements of commitment to look inward and address their own programming selections, hiring practices and artistic choices. 

Amidst promises to do better, major institutions have the benefit of time and major financial resources to stay afloat; meanwhile, Toronto’s clubs face an uncertain future. Though it is imperative that venues of all sizes think critically about their own internal biases, it is small venues, rather than large, that have the greater capacity to provide space to diverse programming, having a mandate to develop and serve their communities, rather than their donor base. 

So, with the advent of summer, and a recent move into Stage 2 of the province’s reopening framework, I connected with representatives of three Toronto venues – The Rex, The Emmet Ray and Burdock Music Hall – to discuss the suspension of live performances, surviving the financial hurdles of quarantine, and moving forward.

Read more: Small Venues – Surviving Suspension, and Moving Forward

Abbey ChoirThis article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.

Parry Songs of farewellParry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood
Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor)
Hyperion CDA68301

Parry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood, the Westminster Abbey Choir’s latest offering on the Hyperion label, brings together in death two composers often fiercely at odds in life: the sometimes-friends, sometimes-rivals Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. As English choral composers working at the turn of the 20th century and colleagues at the Royal College of Music, the two alternately championed and criticized each other’s work. In pairing these two artists’ late-career compositions with selections from their lesser-known contemporaries Charles Wood and Alan Gray, the Westminster Abbey Choir has created a fascinating conversation on visions of life, death, and eternity within the English sacred music tradition, shaped by four composers experimenting and excelling in the genre. The all-boys Abbey Choir interprets with sensitivity both the subtlety and grandeur of these compositions, and I found myself listening to excerpts again and again to uncover their detail.

Stanford’s Three Latin Motets open the album. Director James O’Donnell expertly leads the choir through the arc of Justorum animae, the first motet: from resonant exhortation for righteousness, into the ominous warnings of the “trials of evil” with echoing minor repetitions, to a final major-key promise of peace. Coelos ascendit hodie is a triumphal Ascension hymn, with repeated “alleluias” that climb to a jubilant “Amen” at the motet’s majestic conclusion. Beati quorum via is comparatively gentler, a dialogue between overlapping upper and lower voices contrasting two lines from Psalm 119 before resolving in still union.

Stanford was less successful, I think, with his Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat. He composed this after reconciling with Parry near the end of Parry’s life, and dedicated it to him in publication (though Parry died before seeing it). Perhaps Stanford was overcompensating in his attempted atonement, but the Magnificat lacks the religious reverence we hear in his Motets. The Magnificat opens with boisterous counterpoint, the choir’s sopranos rapidly ascending and descending in a confusing first stanza. This indulgence is echoed in the doxology, and both sections consequently feel incoherent in their detail. The choir achieves a greater tonal clarity in the middle verses, where Stanford comes closer to the eloquent simplicity typical of the late English choral style. More successful still were the canticles by Alan Gray and Charles Wood, Stanford’s contemporaries at Cambridge. Wood’s Nunc dimittis is especially strong in its varied dynamics; O’Donnell guides the choir through the motet’s ebbing and flowing phrases to the striking Gregorian-inspired doxology.

Though Stanford’s attempted homage to Parry falls short of the mark, Parry’s own valedictory composition of the same time is a comparative triumph. The album’s high point is Parry’s six motets, collectively titled Songs of Farewell. Written shortly before his death in 1918, Parry’s compositions echo the sacred music of this period, but take lyrical inspiration from English poets contemplating life beyond death.

The first four motets move swiftly, dramatic in their rhythmic variation. I was struck by I know my soul hath power to know all things, with its repeated, hesitant “and yet,” a reflection on human frailty. Never weather-beaten sail, with its contrapuntal wanderings, evokes the sailboat on still water at sunset, embarking on life’s final journey. And the wistful There is an old belief is sustained throughout by constant overlapping voices yearning into the upper octaves, fulfilling poet John Gibson Lockhart’s lyrics as the choir reaches “beyond the sphere of grief.”

Each of Parry’s Songs offers an inventive vision, but it is the fifth and sixth motets which I found most moving. The penultimate At the round earth’s imagined corners is Parry’s melodic invention at its richest: the lively motet is mystical in its many voices as the basses recount the resurrection of the dead, and the sopranos in eerie chromaticism sing of beholding God. The choir’s harrowing pleas coalesce in the motet’s last line of prayer, leading us to Parry’s final farewell, Lord let me know mine end, its plaintive text taken from Psalm 39. Here, O’Donnell’s keen sense of silence shapes the motet into a powerful declaration – the mournful echoes of “mine age is as nothing” and “thy heavy hand” hang in chilling, empty space. The choir’s repeated murmuring of the word “fretting” is another delightful moment of dynamics, as with the crescendo in the Psalm’s final plea, “O spare me a little,” with each choral section excelling in clear, bold tones.

Parry reportedly denied that the Songs of Farewell had any significance for the end of his life, but the intimate revelation of each motet suggests his deep contemplation and thematic attention in composition. In seeming to write his own adieu, he reconciled himself with his past and anticipated an unknowable future. It is Parry’s visions of the fearful now and the imagined beyond which will remain active in my memory long after I’ve stopped playing this album on repeat.

The Westminster Abbey Choir with James O'Donnell (conductor) released Parry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood (Hyperion) on May 29, 2020.

Marie Trotter is a Toronto-based writer, avid theatre-goer, and occasional director. She studied Drama and English at the University of Toronto with a focus on directing and production, and recently completed her MA in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University.

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