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 youtube.com/watch?y=CC1HtFCaBys.

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.

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

Violinist Julia Wedman. Photo by M. MarigoldAfter releasing several recorded experiments on social media (including a Bach chorale sung via video call), Toronto-based Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra plunged bravely into virtual concerts on Wednesday, May 27 with Tafelmusik at Home: Prelude, the first of five ticketed performances streamed live to YouTube from the performers’ homes. Freed from conventional concert expectations, violinists Christopher Verrette and Julia Wedman and cellist Keiran Campbell exploited the digital medium to good effect by choosing an eclectic mix of early pieces written exclusively for solo violin and solo cello. Between chatty introductions and the occasional heavy-footed neighbour, this Tafelmusik subset delivered a clean yet relaxed performance of works both lively and sombre, famous and obscure, revealing each player’s unique musical response to confinement.

Tafelmusik veteran Christopher Verrette opened with two Préludes by little-known English composer (and occasional clock-maker) Davis Mell, a court musician for King Charles I and II who also spent a decade under Cromwell’s sober commonwealth. While occasionally outdone by flashy foreigners like German composer-violinist Thomas Baltzar, Mell “was a well-bred gentleman, and not given to excessive drinking,” according to 17th-century diarist Anthony Wood. Such restraint may have endeared him to Puritan sympathizers who, in their mission to suppress the adverse side effects of sensuous music, discouraged public performances in church or at court in favour of simple domestic recitals.

How fitting, then, that listeners should hear Verrette play from his living room, when music venues have once again become forbidden spaces. The first Prélude in G minor was a slow, humourless piece, so austere as to be nearly funereal. A high, yawning wail occasionally poked through in the violin, lending a dab of emotion to the otherwise staid atmosphere. While Verrette leaned into the occasional flourishes with elegance, the piece’s spare melody was more thick-stroked pencil sketch than vibrant oil – ah, how Puritan. It may have felt too bleak, considering the circumstances, had it not been answered by its cheerful friend – another Prélude in G major, which countered the first piece with bright chords and teasing tempo changes. An apt pair of works, if more notable for their historical relevance than Mell’s melodic genius.

Julia Wedman then dove heart-first into Heinrich Biber’s reverential Passacaglia, the conclusion of his Mystery Sonatas meditating on the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. This twisting, complex violin piece cycles through variations recalling the dramatic episodes of the Gospels. Wedman’s sensitive playing produced shrill cries, ringing with pain and melting briefly into solemn murmurs. She anchored this with a steady ground bass, whose four descending notes produced a slow ebbing, like the footsteps of a divine procession. The following piece – the Largo and Allegro Assai movements from J.S. Bach’s Sonata no. 3 in C Major – while impressive technically, lacked the unwavering intensity of the first and fell somewhat flat in the wake of Biber’s hypnotic spell.

Keiran Campbell, the final performer and Q&A session host, is an American cellist who became a member of the core Tafelmusik ensemble last autumn. By happy accident, he is quarantining with a loaned cello made in 17th-century Bologna, which may have crossed paths with Giovanni Vitali, composer of the first two of Campbell’s six short cello pieces. From this instrument Campbell coaxed and tamed a growling beast of sounds, at times rich and gravelly, at others smooth and clear. Campbell’s light touch created an illusion of spontaneity, perfect for Giuseppe Colombi’s Trompa, where quick runs mimicked gentle trumpet fanfares. Similarly, he played the Courante from J.S. Bach’s Suite in G Major with the ease of a pub fiddler, shaping confident phrases which built up tension before a final fluttering trill. He’s a delightful performer, and it will be exciting to see how he grows with the ensemble over the coming season.

It’s rare to hear so many solo works played in one sitting outside of a practice session or solo recital, which makes this format ideal for comparing, say, the modest lines of Mell with the rumbling passion of Biber. I admit that towards the end I began to suffer mild “Zoom fatigue,” missing the pulsing energy and resonance which can only be transmitted in person. Nevertheless, until large gatherings resume Tafelmusik at Home is a sophisticated salve for our dulled ears, to be enjoyed with dinner and a cool drink, a restless toddler, or any other companions more comfortable at home than at a concert hall.

Tafelmusik presented Tafelmusik at Home: Prelude on Wednesday, May 27, 2020 on YouTube.

Jane Coombs is a writer based in Toronto. She recently graduated from Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute.

q79xVU1QbannerThis article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.

Clara - Robert - Johannes: Darlings of the MusesClara - Robert - Johannes: Darlings of the Muses
Alexander Shelley, Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra, Gabriela Montero (piano)
Analekta AN288778 

 

We sometimes think of 19th-century composers as solitary souls, confined to a dimly lit room with a pen, paper and piano. But often, they were part of a community of artists and friends who inspire one another’s creative processes. This was especially, and famously, true for the Romantic-era trio of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, whose lives were inextricably linked through a web of shared experiences and a bond between Clara Schumann and Brahms that spanned nearly five decades. Robert Schumann and his wife Clara Schumann were mentors to the younger Brahms. Following Robert Schumann’s death, Clara Schumann and Brahms formed a strong friendship that continued until Clara’s own death (whether their relationship was anything more than a friendship continues to be debated among music historians).

The trio’s exchange of artistic ideas is the central focus of the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra’s latest album Clara - Robert - Johannes: Darlings of the Muses (Analekta), the first in a series of four albums exploring the personal and musical connections between the three artists. Darlings of the Muses pairs the two first symphonies of the men – Robert Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 in B-Flat Major Op. 38 with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor Op. 68 – and adds Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor Op. 7. The album is rounded out with five mesmerizing improvisations by Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, based on themes from Clara Schumann’s work.

The recording begins with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, a fine example of Romantic-era composition filled with all the characteristics of music from that time – dense chromatic runs, lyrical melodies that sweep across the instruments of the orchestra and dramatic tempo and dynamic changes. The idea of spring is peppered throughout Robert Schumann’s voluptuous score: at the top of the first movement, a roaring brass entrance announces the arrival of warmer days, trills in the flutes depict chirping chicks ready to take flight, and rhythmic patter from the violas serves as the ominous reminder of an imminent storm. The orchestra, under the direction of conductor Alexander Shelley, takes a restrained tempo. But in Shelley’s hands, this is a welcome trade-off, for every dynamic contrast is highlighted and every musical phrase is contoured to create beautiful lyricism – details which may otherwise be overlooked in a brisker interpretation.

It is fitting that this piece is followed by Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which is the centrepiece of the album. She was arguably the composer who had the greatest influence over the other members of the trio, inspiring and helping both her husband and Brahms compose their first symphonies. The Piano Concerto itself is a remarkable achievement, especially given that Clara Schumann was merely 16 years old when she completed the piece. It is also an incredible vehicle for a pianist to display their virtuosity – and in this recording, Montero makes full use of that opportunity. She plays the opening chords with such verve and robust energy that it makes the subsequent single-line melody sound all the more graceful as it gently floats above a dark murmur of strings. Montero’s compelling technical and emotional range is expressed throughout the entire concerto, but is especially apparent in the Romanze, when the initial melody from the first movement is transformed into a silvery, meditative duet for piano and cello (a wonderful Rachel Mercer). The final movement features a recapitulation of this theme, now heavier and more laboured. Montero strikes each note with a power that continues to grow incessantly until the final sustained chord.

The Piano Concerto is bookended with short improvisations by Montero, who is well-known for her improvisational work based on audience suggestions and themes from classical pieces. Before listening to this album, I felt that it was wrong to record improvisations; for me, they are ephemeral dialogues between an artist and a live audience that are not meant to be seared onto a permanent recording. But this album is an exception. It captures the exquisite intimacy of these jewel boxes of improvisations and Montero’s delicate touch, which evokes a sense of pensive reflection. Her creations – gentle atmospheric lullabies with melancholic melodies and undulating chords – faintly resemble Clara Schumann’s style. The way they organically grow from silence and wistfully fade off into nothingness is magical.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 follows Montero’s exquisite works and closes out the album. It begins on a sombre tone, with the strings sustaining long chords in syncopated rhythms, while the timpani cuts through with a series of relentless pulsing notes. As with Robert Schumann’s symphony, Shelley also takes a restrained tempo in this piece. But here, it results in a lack of forward momentum that is especially needed in the strings’ lively sixteenth-note runs. It is not until the final moments of the fourth movement – when the multiple melodies coalesce into a singular rhythmic drive to the finish, accompanied by the rumbling timpani – when that much-needed momentum finally begins to appear.

In spite of this shortcoming, the power of this album is in its ability to capture the listener’s imagination and inspire them to find connections between the works of these three musical giants. If this is the quality of the future albums in this series, we have a treat in store.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra released Clara – Robert – Johannes: Darlings of the Muses (Analekta) on May 8, 2020.

Joshua Chong is in his fifth year at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. For the past five years, he has been a student journalist for his school’s award-winning newspaper, Graffiti. He is also an avid violinist and violist.

berliozAs I write this, I’m getting ready to wrap up, via video call, what would have been the last 2019/20 ‘in-person’ session of one of The WholeNote’s newer annual projects: our participation in Toronto’s Emerging Arts Critics program, where we have been part of a team working with early-career writers to develop their skills writing about the performing arts in general – and about Toronto’s performing arts in particular.

An initiative started by the National Ballet of Canada and The Dance Current magazine, the EAC program offers early-career writers, ages 19-29, group workshops and one-on-one mentorship sessions with local arts publications, as well as tickets to shows from several Toronto arts presenters. In previous years, the program focussed solely on dance writing. When they decided to expand it to include classical music in 2017, we were invited by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to come on board. Now, in 2019/20, the program has expanded further to include collaborations with the Canadian Opera Company (with Opera Canada) and Soulpepper Theatre Company (with Intermission Magazine).

Normally, the eight participants in this program would have spent May and June of this year attending performances by the TSO, and submitting reviews of those performances for mentorship from WholeNote staff and music critic Robert Harris (and eventually, online publication here on the WholeNote website).

This year, concert cancellations due to COVID-19 rendered that impossible. So instead we planned a 4-session online workshop, co-led by Robert and I, on classical music writing, and asked participants to review a classical album, livestream, or online concert of their choice. 

You can find an ongoing list of their articles, as well as articles from past years’ cohorts, here

I can’t say that the shift to online – or the shift from a one-off group workshop to what ended up being a full-blown course – has been easy. But it has been extremely rewarding, and challenging in the best of ways. In being asked to guide others through our field in ways that sometimes felt totally estranged from the music, we had no choice but to confront the difficult questions: what is the point of writing about this stuff? Why are we doing it? And how can we do it better?

I don’t have any simple answers yet, but I have lots of complicated ones. I have lots of ideas – and, based on their efforts, their work, and their writing – so do our participants.

-Sara Constant

Music plays a role in absolutely everything I do, professionally and artistically! It is the reason why I started dancing as a child. I did play an instrument briefly as a teenager, but ultimately using my body as my instrument spoke to me more, and so this is the path I pursued. I danced for ten years with Opera Atelier, which deepened my love of Baroque music and introduced me to the world of opera. Through this exposure, I’ve been fortunate enough to create several choreographic works for opera companies, for both singers and dancers alike. Designing movement that complements vocal phrasing, not just for those who have to execute it, but for those experiencing it, is an entirely unique and satisfying process.

Read more: Quarantine-Fuelled Recalibration

Soon they realized that simply being together could be a risk. A quartet is, by its nature, an intimate gathering. Players can’t sit more than six feet apart and still hear each other, breathe together or respond to what are often subtle visual cues.

- James B. Stewart writing on April 19 about the Tesla Quartet’s coping with the coronavirus in The New York Times.

The New York Philharmonic had already cancelled its live performances through early June, but social distancing couldn’t stop more than 80 of its musicians from dedicating a special performance of Ravel’s Boléro to healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Orchestra members recorded their parts in their own homes for a virtual performance posted April 3 on YouTube.

Read more: Virtual Concerts Offer Some Consolation

Start by saying who you are and where music fits into that,” were my editor’s instructions for this piece. After which I was to move on to talking about what I was doing when COVID-19 hit: what I’d had to abandon, what I’m hoping to pick up on again, and how I am preparing for that. 
Be careful what you ask for!

Born midcentury as Tímár András in Szombathely, Hungary, as a young child I was an unwitting participant in my family’s Canadian immigration saga. We segued from the trauma and dislocation of the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution to the welcoming though utterly unfamiliar WASP-dominated environs of 1950s Toronto. These days I’m navigating another radical change - the challenging socially distanced landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: When Your Instrument Is a Collective Noun

The consequences of a pandemic are, as we have all experienced, incredibly far- reaching. The near complete closing down of life as we had known it has had such a sweeping effect on us all, we barely have any tangible evidence of what we might otherwise have accomplished in the spring of 2020. And of course, the projects we had proposed for this period of time all have roots in the past, with planned steps leading, one after the other, towards the completion of works of art we would have been proud to share with our public.

In my particular case, a unique project, several years in the making, was to have seen light of day in both Toronto and in Halifax late this past April. Poetry and Song was designed as a touring program in which I was to join two poets, a soprano and a pianist, to reveal not only recently composed art songs, but also to share the usually hidden processes used in the collaboration that led to the creation of these works.

Read more: Personal POV on the Pandemic

The economic ramifications of COVID-19 will play out in the coming months and years, and will have an effect on the artistic community unprecedented in recent memory. But long-term economic effects must, necessarily, be of less concern than the immediate, urgent need to stay inside, to save lives. One of the initial challenges of this period for many of us, no matter how community-conscious we strive to be, was to confront our own natural reaction to view with skepticism any potential changes to our everyday life. The coffee shop where I like to write, the studio space where I like to practise, the grocery store where I like to stop every few days and purchase more cheese than a single man living by himself should have any healthy reason to consume: these communal spaces were the sites at which I experienced the mundane foundational joys of my life. But now, things are different: the studio is closed, the coffee shop is open for takeout and delivery only, and the grocery store, though open, is no longer amenable to the contemplative cheese-counter flâneur.

Read more: Mundane Musings of A Cheese-Counter Flâneur
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