Exploring the history of classical music and its vast network of composers, interpreters and commentators is a fascinating task, nebulous yet surprisingly linear all at once. In many ways, the work of the musicologist resembles that of an archaeologist, who unearths and examines historical evolutions through the fossil record and physical structures, using the earth’s geological formations to tell us what came before and how that led to the modern world.

Where archaeologists use rock and sediment, the musical scholar uses manuscripts, treatises and libraries to explore the past, in both specific and wide-ranging ways. For example, the field of Bach studies has grown and improved immensely in the last five decades. This focused scholarly work on a single composer’s output has led to numerous reissues of Bach’s works, each an improvement and clarification of the previous volume. New works have been discovered as well, such as the Neumeister Collection, a series of chorale preludes found in the 1980s at Yale by Christoph Wolff and Wilhelm Krumbach, filling in our understanding of a great composer and his personal compositional evolution.

Read more: Digging Deeper Rewarded (Musical Archaeology)

Artists of many kinds feel like it should be the goal for their art to rise above the everyday – art is its own thing. Other artists strive to make the everyday the fulcrum of their art: to drive conversations to respond to them, to change narratives, and to leave people changed. Over the next month I’m highlighting two of the latter for you to attend and find yourself inserted into an ongoing conversation about the past, about now, about who we are, about who we want to be. I hope you don’t just accept the music passively and are instead empowered to respond to it. My kind of choral music is about conversations in song. Join me!

A previously unreleased conceptual design of a new $20 note that was produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and obtained by The New York Times depicts Harriet Tubman in a dark coat with a wide collar and a white scarf. This preliminary design was completed in late 2016.The Woman Donald Trump Took off American Money
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents a concert version of American composer Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom as part of their Voices of the Diaspora series. Harriet Tubman has been much in popular culture lately. Beginning in 2020, she should have been on American $20 bills in circulation across the US, but Donald Trump’s office has stopped this from happening. Tubman, born Araminta Ross, is part of the black history of Canada and her incredible story and leadership continue to inspire. Cynthia Erivo brought Tubman to life in the 2019 film Harriet and has earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song for it.

Read more: Conversations in Song and Choral Relevance

Juliet Palmer. Photo by Dahlia KatzHave you spent much time wondering about those mysterious things going on inside your body, and especially those processes that your life is utterly dependent upon such as your heart and circulation system, or your breath and the entire respiratory system? Ever been curious about how a hospital trauma team works together in such a coordinated and precise way while working to save a life?

Whether you have or not, you may now be wondering whatever does all this have to do with music? These are the questions that Toronto-based composer and interdisciplinary artist Juliet Palmer recently pursued during a research residency at Sunnybrook Research Institute in 2018. Arising out of this period are two works that will be performed in a concert on February 9 produced by Continuum Contemporary Music, that will also include a Continuum-commissioned work by composer Martijn Voorvelt from the Netherlands entitled Frederick’s Doctor. I talked with Palmer to find out more about her compositions and how the residency in a hospital informed her creative process.

Read more: Juliet Palmer at Continuum: The Body, Trauma and Trees

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz. Photo by Dahlia KatzToward the end of January I was invited to sit in on an early staging rehearsal of the new opera, Jacqueline, gaining a rare glimpse into the creation of this experimental world premiere that explores the life and legacy of celebrity virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who, at 23, began experiencing numbness in her fingers, at 28 was diagnosed with MS and stopped playing the cello, and in 1987 passed away at age 42.

While the work’s stated format, a duet for soprano and cello, sounds as though it might be very static on stage, what I saw in the rehearsal room was the exact opposite. It moves, is playful, fun, exciting, sad, and unexpected. The music, both vocal and instrumental, is gorgeous and sometimes startling in its layering and detail, echoing the same experimental nature of the libretto and the whole approach of the production. The staging that I saw is equally dynamic: as if happening in the moment, always grounded in the characters’ motivation and inspired by the music, using the full space of the stage, finding a physical shape for everything happening in Jacqueline’s mind and memory. Versatile soprano Marnie Breckenridge embodies Jacqueline du Pré, but at many different ages and stages of her life; the second “character,” is the cello itself – Jacqueline’s closest friend, partner of her greatest successes, witness and sharer in her failures and losses, and finally a potent symbol of her legacy to the world – portrayed by renowned cellist Matt Haimowitz.

Read more: New Opera for Soprano and Cello Promises Multilinear Magic

Here we are on the cusp of the month of February, eager to know what’s in store for us in the year’s shortest month. There is always February 2 to look forward to, namely Groundhog Day, for prognostications about what to expect weather-wise in the coming weeks. However while our trusty Canadian groundhogs, Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam are renowned for their weather forecasting, they have never told us anything about upcoming community musical events. Where can we turn for such information? Right here, one might hope to say, if we were hearing, with some regularity, from community musical ensembles regarding their coming events. Alas, such communication is rare. We have heard very little so far this year from the band world. Send your listings in, folks, and I will let readers know about them.

Novel Seasonal Celebration
It is quite common for bands to have an end-of-season party before the Christmas break. Such parties provide the opportunity for band members and their families to mix and meet. Spouses or partners get to meet band members other than their mates, and band members get to chat with other band members that they may see from a distance every week, but really don’t know. How often do tuba players chat with clarinet players, after all? This year the Newmarket Citizens Band took a different approach. They decided on a 45-minute open rehearsal where family and friends sat and listened. After that, all in attendance mingled and partook of several tables of tasty goodies arrayed on tables at one end of the band’s rehearsal room. Two birds with one stone, you might say.

Read more: Impeachment Polkas and Bugles (again!)

Russell MaloneOn February 7, the American guitarist Russell Malone plays at Hugh’s Room Live. For those unfamiliar with his work, Malone is a swinging, bluesy player, steeped in the hard bop tradition, who has worked with many of jazz’s leading names, including bassists Ron Carter, Ray Brown and Christian McBride, keyboardists Benny Green, Jimmy Smith and Monty Alexander, and crossover star vocalists Harry Connick, Jr. and Diana Krall. It is unusual to see someone of Malone’s stature playing in Toronto outside of a major festival setting; to see him in a club, as opposed to a soft-seat theatre, is more unusual still, and speaks to the singular nature of this event. Malone favours large, hollow-body guitars, minimal effects and clear, articulate right-hand technique. He is a representative of a jazz guitar tradition that extends back to George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, and he is an expert interpreter of the Great American Songbook. A highly recommended show, for fans of the guitar generally, Malone specifically and, really, anyone who has an interest in the living history of jazz. 

Read more: Jazz History at Hugh’s with Russell Malone

On two recent performances I experienced epiphanies which reminded me of something that often gets overlooked amid the hubbub and organized chaos of gigs: that, at the core of live jazz there is a process of generosity and giving, an exchange of gifts, which is the essence of what we celebrate during Christmas and other religious holidays. The exchange is circular, as there is an unspoken pact between jazz players and their audience which goes something like this: give us your attention, your ears, and we musicians will give you our very best – or at least try to – and make some music, out of thin air, you’ve never heard before and will never hear again. This commitment to playing one’s very best holds for all good musicians, but because jazz involves so much improvising, and thus risk, the giving in a jazz performance is much more personal, coming from deep inside the musicians themselves in a sort of spontaneous, high-wire communion. It has very little to do with money. Yes, musicians are paid for performances and must be – after all, it is their work and they have to survive like everyone else. But the level of effort and commitment put forth by jazz players has nothing to do with how much a gig pays; indeed I’ve been involved in many sessions and after-hours jams where there is no money involved and everyone plays out of their skin. Why? Simply because they love music and wouldn’t think of letting it, or each other, down. Jazz players give to each other, too.

Read more: Circular Exchange - Jazz and the Spirit of Christmas

Messing with Winterreise is a growing and delightful industry within classical music performance. Schubert’s best-known song cycle has been fully staged and orchestrated for a chamber ensemble (Netia Jones/Hans Zender/Ian Bostridge), divided between three female singers (Toronto’s Collectìf ensemble), multi-mediatized (William Kentridge’s video projections), arranged for singer, puppet, guitar, and piano with animated drawings (Thomas Guthrie) and staged with the piano and illustrated backdrops (Ebbe Knudsen). On January 17, Toronto will have a chance to see another contribution to the conversation on the meaning of Winterreise, when Le Chimera Project, with baritone Philippe Sly, bring their klezmer- and Roma-inflected take on it to Koerner Hall.

Philippe Sly. Photo Courtesy of Columbia Records.“The inspiration came when I saw a video clip of two friends, Félix de l’Étoile and Samuel Carrier, performing Gute Nacht on accordion and clarinet at a recital,” says Philippe Sly on a Skype call from San Francisco. “I thought, Oh my God, that sound suits this musical content so well. I approached Felix and asked what he thought would be the best arrangement if we were to continue with this klezmer-Gypsy-like aesthetic and he came up with the idea of having trombone, clarinet, violin and accordion instead of the piano.” De l’Étoile and Carrier wrote the draft arrangement and the entire group with Sly worked intensely on the piece for two secluded wintry weeks at the Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, where the Chimera Winterreise had its premiere.

Read more: Winterreisse Unmasked - Le Chimera at Koerner

November’s early twilights serve as a reminder of the upcoming festive season, a harbinger of what is to come. As the days grow shorter, we see a transition taking place in the world around us, a gradual evolution in which sandboxes are overtaken by Santa and road trips by reindeer. Lights and decorations are extracted from their hibernating hiding places until, one house at a time, our neighbourhoods begin to look like those in cheesy TV movies, though perhaps without the requisite miracles and an ageless, white-bearded neighbour conspicuously named “Nick.”

Musical programming undergoes similar changes at this time of year, following the seasonal trajectory in a way that mirrors the outside world: one by one, concerts are announced which accumulate in quantity until the month of December is saturated with choral, orchestral and many other presentations, each celebrating the spirit of the season in different ways. Scores and parts are extracted from their boxes – Messiahs, Christmas Oratorios and Concerti - in the same way as household decorations, ready to be dusted off and brought back to life for a few short weeks. 

Read more: The Season's Treasures Unpacked

Along with gift exchanges and eggnog giggles with loved ones, listening to Handel’s Messiah has become a Christmas staple for me. Especially in recent years, I repeatedly listen to this masterpiece of a work, my interest for it never wavering. Even after singing it several times and watching a number of performances, I have yet to tire of the soaring harmonies and elegant solos.

Grand River Philharmonic: This year, I’m looking forward to Messiah as performed, in an annual tradition going back decades, by the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener. With orchestral accompaniment by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the concert will be conducted by Mark Vuorinen and will feature soloists, soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tennekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. Choosing to see this particular version is part of my quest to broaden my knowledge of the choirs around me, and attend concerts outside of the Greater Toronto Area. Their Messiah will be held at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario on December 7. Ever the one to want to introduce the Messiah to new ears, I have gifted a ticket to a friend of mine who (aside from knowing the “Hallelujah” chorus) has never listened to the work in its entirety. 

Read more: Handel's Messiah and the Glee Effect

Seong-Jin Cho, the 25-year-old South Korean winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, is a polished performer whose life changed as a result of his Warsaw triumph. From playing 20 to 30 concerts a year, he went to 80 to 90; and, thankfully, no longer needed to participate in competitions. Because of The WholeNote’s production schedule, I missed his sold-out Koerner Hall recital on October 26, 2018, so I’m looking forward to his upcoming TSO appearance January 8, 9 and 11 in Beethoven’s revolutionary Piano Concerto No.4 conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo © Harald HoffmannSome critics have called Cho’s playing “poetic,” something he discussed on the British blog, Where Cherries Ripen, published on October 1, 2019. “What others say about my performances may accurately reflect some aspects of my playing style, but I cannot say I ever intend to sound ‘poetic’. If I may put it differently, there are times when I receive bad reviews, but I never intend to play badly. I think an instrumentalist’s unique sound is like the human voice. Everyone has a unique voice given to them, regardless of their intentions. For example, a tenor can never be a bass. Of course, I can force myself to perform wearing my heart on my sleeve, but this would not change who I fundamentally am. Everyone has a natural way of performing, and I play in my given way. I think audiences have been able to sense that personality.”

Read more: Looking Ahead to 2020
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