The writer, sounding to a tree on the Toronto Island. Photo by Margaret IrvingIn these days of limited performances, for this month’s column I decided to take up a suggestion made by my ever-inventive editor at The WholeNote, and write a story related to some aspect of my own creative work during this time.  

On New Year’s Day of 2020, I had awoken with the inspiration to start a video-audio blog, something that is very new for me. Titled Earth Soundings, my original vision was that for each blog entry I would select a particular natural environment in which to take photos and videos, andf then create the soundtrack in response to the images and my experiences in each specific environment. My overall intention in creating these short nature-based videos was to invite people to take a brief pause in their day to remember and attune to their connection with the Earth, the elements and all beings. A short time of reflection or meditation. At the heart of the project: my desire to contribute in one way toward the restoration of our relationship with nature, for I believe that one of the root causes behind our climate crisis is due to our cultural disconnect from nature.

The guideline I set for myself for these blog posts was to take the photo and video footage on specific days of celebration, connected to either cultural holidays or days on the Earth calendar related to the passing of seasons or phases of the moon. For the music I would select various members of the wider community to collaborate with me.  Initially, I released these videos on my Facebook page Earth Soundings (, again on days significant in the calendar. The videos are also available on my website

Read more: Creative (E)mergings in these days of isolation

September 1, 2020 is fast approaching, and that date has quite some significance for The WholeNote. It was 25 years ago on September 1, 1995 that the very first edition of The WholeNote was introduced to Ontario’s music lovers. As for my association with this magazine, it was 14 years ago, on September 1, 2006 that my first Bandstand column appeared. I asked myself: “What has changed?” The answer: “What hasn’t?”

In that very first column I started by mentioning: “The Canadian National Exhibition has just opened for another season.” It won’t be open this year. I also stated: “For most of us that event is the harbinger of changes soon to come; shorter days, cooler weather, vacations over, back to school, and for many, back to band rehearsals after a summer recess.” No band rehearsals any time soon. Then I stated: “For others in the band community, it heralds the end of a busy round of park concerts.” No park concerts this year. 

So that leaves us with two questions. What were our community bands able to do this summer? Where does it leave our bands for the months to come?

Read more: The more it changes, the more it changes!

While most club performances are still off the table for musicians, relaxed physical-distancing guidelines have meant that artists have been able to return to some form of live gigs. Near the end of August, I interviewed three different bandleaders – Joanna Majoko, Jenna Marie Pinard and Allison Au – about their recent performances, their quarantine experiences, and moving forward into “the new normal.” 

Joanna Majoko. Photo by SEAN STORYThe Artist: Joanna Majoko
The Performance: Live-to-air concert for JazzFM, as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival Summer Concert Series, July 24 
The Band: Joanna Majoko, vocals and percussion; Jeremy Ledbetter, keyboards; Andrew Stewart, bass; Larnell Lewis, drums

Finding balance in quarantine:

“Thankfully, quarantine has not affected my ability to create or practise. It’s been a blessing to have had this time to create a harmonious work environment here at home, and to set up a small home studio and explore and diversify my musical interests, such as getting more comfortable and experienced with recording as well as trying my hand at vocal mixing. I don’t think I would have explored these avenues had it not been for quarantine. The only major aspect quarantine has affected is my ability to perform.”

Read more: Three bandleaders on then, now, and next

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
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