Preparing to write this month’s column, no fewer than three announcements for significant events featuring Silver Bands landed on my desk. In order: the Hannaford Silver Band’s 6th annual Festival of Brass; the Weston Silver Band’s Concert with special guest Douglas Yeo (bass trombone of the Boston Symphony); and the Metropolitan Silver Band’s 75th anniversary celebration. My editor seemed to find this more significant than I did, so I took to the internet to find out if there were important distinctions between Silver Bands and Brass Bands.
Beat Columns (Live Music)
What a wealth of chamber music there is on offer this month! The early days of April offer two opportunities to hear Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal early work, Transfigured Night — April 2 in its original string sextet version by the St. Lawrence String Quartet complemented by former quartet members, cellist, Marina Hoover and violinist/violist, Barry Shiffman, and April 3 by Sinfonia Toronto in the string orchestra version.
April 3 Amici will present “Poulenc’s Musings,” a program of Francis Poulenc’s chamber music, including his famous Sextet with the brilliant TSO wind principals, and his “Story of Babar” for piano, with Steven Page (formerly of the Barenaked Ladies) as narrator. Definitely not your average evening out!
Those who love Haydn’s string quartets will have two opportunities to hear the Eybler Quartet play an entire program of them: on April 6 at the Church of St. George-the-Martyr, and on April 9 at the Music Room of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. And all this in just the first 9 days of the month. (See the listings for many others, or better still search for chamber music in the listings on our website.)
Once again the stars have aligned to make April the most opera-intensive month in Southern Ontario. At time of starting to write this article there were no fewer than fourteen examples of music theatre on offer spanning the 17th to the 20th century. (There have been a couple of hiccups, as you will see, but opera lovers will still have quite a task deciding how to fit them all in.)
Here they are in chronological order.
The Scarborough Choral Society has been around for well over fifty years, with an unbroken run of annual shows stretching back to their G&S days in 1955. They are the only Toronto musical theatre group to limit their stage activity to a single production each year, but their annual Sounds of Christmas concert at Markham Theatre, first produced in 1986, has become so successful that the society now essentially runs two separate activities.
In recognition of this, the stage musical section was given the name Onstage Productions two years ago. Ron Turner, who was President of the Society from 2002 to 2006, explains that the new name is intended simply to emphasize that the group presents fully staged show productions, and not just concert versions as the name "Choral Society" apparently suggested. Members, he says, became tired of being asked such questions as “Are you going to have any scenery?”
When Onstage Productions presents Crazy For You at Bayview Glen Upper School at the end of March, it will be their second year at a venue they hope will be their home for at least the next little while. The show, rather appropriately, centres on the problems of theatre management, and the trials and tribulations of mounting a show. But its storyline is tame compared to the recent theatrical adventures of the SCS, for whom Bayview Glen is the sixth show location in just ten years.
It’s truly been a “crazy” period for the SCS members. The songs from the show offer a whimsical guide to their search for a theatre – amply illustrating the problems that can befall community theatre groups, and the resourcefulness, resilience and commitment needed to overcome them.
I Can’t Be Bothered Now
For many years Scarborough Choral’s regular base for their annual stage show was the cavernous auditorium at Cedarbrae C.I., which, complete with balcony, could hold about 1,100 people. The huge stage was ideal for the large chorus, but the huge hall capacity made for a short single-weekend run; opening on a Thursday, the show was usually just getting settled in by the time it closed on Sunday. The deteriorating state of the facilities, however, together with increasing rental costs, finally convinced SCS to give up and leave after their 1999 show, Me and My Girl.
Slap That Bass!
The large recreation room in Bendale Acres, a Scarborough retirement home, was their first stop. And despite its having a small low platform instead of a real stage, limited lighting possibilities, restricted parking, a low capacity of about 150 and a cramped orchestra space where the players could hardly move without hitting each other (I know – I played the first show), the next three shows were presented there in dinner-theatre style.
Could You Use Me?
I guess not: 2003 saw another dinner-theatre presentation in the equally small and parking-lot challenged Latvian Cultural Centre, where a side wall consisting entirely of windows made black-outs in the matinees for Anything Goes! something of a challenge.
Bidin’ My Time
The 2004 show, Annie Get Your Gun, was almost cancelled. But SCS finally took another school - the expensive but last-choice, last-chance and last-minute option, Stephen Leacock C. I. - as a stop-gap measure to buy time for a more thorough search.
Things Are Looking Up
Well, they certainly were at first when SCS moved into the brand new recital theatre at the Armenian Youth Centre. Sure, there were some problems from the start, including insufficient power for full stage lighting and backstage facilities that could most charitably be described as minimal, and the improvised green-room space could only be accessed through the gymnasium. But the auditorium size, seats and sight-lines were excellent, and there were promises of light and sound upgrading as rental use increased.
But Not For Me
Ah, promises, promises, as another show puts it. Upgrades were slow to appear, and the management was clearly moving towards single-use rentals in preference to long-term runs; in addition, technical hitches became an issue, with a jammed scrim lift halting The Music Man for 30 minutes one evening, and a brief but disastrous building power-failure almost completely derailing the first act of Fiddler On The Roof. When the rental cost increased for the second time, up 50 percent in two years, SCS saw the writing on the wall – or at least, they would have done if the lighting had been good enough. The musical nomads were on the road again.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me
Determined to keep their fifty-three-year unbroken run of shows intact, SCS discovered Bayview Glen almost by accident. A society member who lived nearby simply walked in off the street on a whim one day and asked did they happen to have a theatre, did they ever rent it out, and if they didn’t would they be interested in discussing it? Well, yes they did, no they didn’t, and yes they would. Brigadoon found a home, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So far, things are working out well. The stage is not huge, but over the past few years many of the SCS members have decided to choose either the Sounds of Christmas or the annual show as their focus for the year, with a good number of the older members in particular opting for the Christmas concert over the more time-consuming demands of the stage production. This in turn has given the Society a new freedom to choose from a wider range of shows that do not feature a large chorus, and this should also help them to continue to attract the new performers that are essential to the long-term health of a musical group.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
The other main community-theatre venues, meanwhile – Scarborough Village, Fairview Library, and Burnhamthorpe Auditorium – may not be completely problem-free, but their users all enjoy a dedicated theatrical facility and an established and secure home base. And if they don’t appreciate just how lucky they are then they should try giving Ron Turner a call.
You Can Catch SCS in Their New Venue
Onstage Productions presents Crazy For You at Bayview Glen Upper School, 85 Moatfield Drive; March 27, 28, April 3, 4 at 8pm; March 28, April 4 & 5 at 2pm. $25; Youths 16 & Under $10; (905)717-5808 (VISA & MC); (416)293-3981 (Cash or cheque)
You can also check out the other theatre facilities with the following Spring shows:
Fairview Library Theatre, 35 Fairview Mall Drive
Civic Light Opera Company: final week of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings; March 4-7; $20-$25; www.civiclightoperacompany.com
Curtain Call Players: Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods; April 2-5, 9-11; $22; (416)703-6181 or email@example.com
Burnhamthorpe Auditorium, 500 The East Mall
Etobicoke Musical Productions: Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!; April 17-19, 24-26, May 1, 2; $23; Youths $17; (416)248-0410.
Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road
Scarborough Music Theatre: Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along; April 30, May 1-2, 7-10, 14-16; $24; Students/Seniors $20; (416)396-4049
Two disparate recent events prompt these ruminations. The first is the massive downturn of the global economy with its inevitable adverse effect on disposable income. The second was the receipt in the mail of an excellent biography. The book, In The Firing Line by Toronto author Wallace L. Court, is a biography with a difference. It chronicles the life of noted Salvation Army composer, Colonel Bramwell Coles.
Recession woes led us to wondering what effect this financial situation might have on the health of community musical groups. In the tough times projected for the foreseeable future, will band and orchestra members curtail their participation to save money, or will they turn more to this form of recreation.
Gonna rise, gonna rise up singing
Gonna raise the bucket from down in the well
And I feel like I’m just beginning
Cause I made that choice, to raise that voice
And that bucket’s gonna rise, rise up singing
Reasons for singing are probably as many as all the colours in all the windows of every windowed place of worship in the world, real or imagined.
And at the same time, maybe there is after all, only one fundamental reason: to express a passion that cannot be conveyed so well in any other way. Shared passion is one of those things that keeps us feel fully alive, and fully human.
From start to finish the March listings illustrate this diversity within a unified purpose – to “rise up singing” as a way of sharing fear, hope, despair and joy. As the days begin to get a little longer perhaps you will feel more like going out to hear some inspiring choral music, so remember to be”alive” in the month which precedes traditional celebrations of rebirth and harbingers of spring in the natural world.
More often than not these days I can hear the sounds of new musical ideas coming through my walls, coaxed from the keys of my next-door neighbour’s grand piano. Living next to a composer is one of those curious joys of living in a big city like Toronto. If I’m patient, eventually I can hear those kernels of melody and harmony form into exciting new works that open brand new musical perspectives. But it’s not only my neighbour who’s been busy this winter, as March seems to be packed full with world premieres from local composers.
The month launches off with the TSO’s fifth New Creations Festival, which is focusing on music for string instruments and Far East influences (an odd connection, perhaps, but one that seems to work). This year’s special guest is Tan Dun, one of the world’s most accomplished living composers and perhaps most known for his Grammy Award-winning film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The first two dates of this three-concert festival (March 5, 7 and 12) will feature several of Tan’s concerti and large ensemble works, which marry together music of Eastern and Western heritage with avant-garde techniques to explore cultural and spiritual themes. While more concerti from Toru Takemitsu and Toronto-based Gary Kulesha will add to the overall experience, I’m most keen to hear the results of Alexina Louie’s latest commission, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra.
Pick of the month:
The Silk Road was a series of trade routes linking ancient China to the Mediterranean and Europe. Not only were silks transported along these roads, but also ideas, technologies and cultures, linking East and West. The Silk Road Ensemble, a pet roject of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, seeks to do the same, in music.
Made up of around sixty or so musicians, composers, artists and storytellers from around the world, the ensemble, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, performs in various configurations, transcending musical genres. The ensemble’s mission is “to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe”. “Every time I open a newspaper” writes Yo-Yo Ma, “I am reminded that we live in a world where we can no longer afford not to know our neighbours.”
Among the Silk Road Ensemble’s instruments is the Chinese pipa, a 2000-year-old pear shaped lute, played by virtuoso Wu Man. She has performed as soloist with many of the world’s great orchestras, and has an extensive discography, including several recordings with the Kronos Quartet. In addition to performing with Silk Road at their Roy Thomson Hall concerts on March 19 and 20 (they’re presenting two different programs), she’ll also be the soloist in the Canadian premiere of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto with the Toronto Symphony, as part of the New Creations Festival, March 7.
I’ll start off this month with mention of a few upcoming events which caught my eye and should catch your ears.
Mavis Staples with special guest James Hunter will be onstage at Massey Hall on March 21. Both artists have appeared here in recent years at the TD Canada Trust Jazz Festival and both were knock-out successes. From her early days with the family group, The Staples Singers, to her present day solo performances, Mavis Staples has been steeped in her gospel traditions. She has a great voice and she’s also a pretty neat lady. By contrast, English born James Hunter’s background is classic R & B. In the 80s he borrowed the name of classic blues performer, Howlin’ Wolf and in the 90s sang back-up for Van Morrison, who later described him as one of the best voices in British Soul music. Massey Hall will rock.
What would we do without conductors? Would we be wandering aimlessly around the musical streets, searching for direction signs? Conductors offer ideas, projects, sense of purpose, interpretations, and guidance, not to mention encouragement and inspiration.
For example, take the Classical Music Consort, conducted by the new kid on the block, Ashiq Aziz. If it’s Haydn that you’re seekin’, take a look at his extraordinary concert series dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn, marking the 200th anniversary of his death. Highlights of the CMC series include Haydn’s twelve London Symphonies, Nos. 93 to 104, in four concerts, in the order they were first performed, to allow the listener to hear the progression of compositional refinement.
Aziz clearly reveres this classical master and notes that interpretive clues are in the score. “I hope,” he says, “that we are somehow able to bring out the wonderful humour that is so inherent in his music. Often the cleverness and wit of his ideas are expressed through the manipulation of form, harmony and structure.” Aziz continues: “For example, the element of surprise in Haydn’s music is one that I feel is quite important to recognize in order to ensure a successful performance.”