One thing that has been consistent with the University of Toronto’s annual New Music Festival over the years is the presence of a visiting composer from another country or Canadian city. During last year’s festival in January 2019, it was Toshio Hosokawa, a leading composer from Japan, and the year before that in 2018, Canadian Nicole Lizée was given the honours. This visitorship is named the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition, and was established by Roger Moore, a longtime supporter and philanthropist of new music. Sadly, Moore passed away in March of this year, and there will be a concert, as part of the festival, to honour him on January 21. More about what is on the program for that night below. This year’s visiting composer is André Mehmari, a leading Brazilian composer, pianist and arranger in both classical and popular music. Because of his diverse artistic accomplishments many of the events of the festival span both the jazz and contemporary music worlds, with the opening concert on January 12 combining electronic jazz, visuals and live electronics.
Beat Columns (Live Music)
The only way to stay at the cutting edge of anything for 40 years, as Tapestry Opera has done, is to zigzag with the changing times – to go big when opportunity knocks, to hunker down when danger threatens, and, most important, to be able to recognize the difference between the two scenarios.
TAP:EX is Tapestry Opera’s instrument for just that – figuring out when to go for broke and when to duck and cover. The name is short for Tapestry Explorations and TAP:EX Augmented Opera, presented this past November 20 to 23 at Sidewalk Labs, was its fifth iteration since its founding in 2014 by Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Tapestry’s artistic director.
TAP:EX’s stated goal is to redefine the “elemental bounds of opera by challenging its notions of tradition, legacy, and purity, emphasizing emotional and artistic power over rules and norms.” Each of the four iterations so far has been different from the ones that preceded it: exploring the limits of the voice’s resistance to extreme physical exertion; probing the intersections between turntablism, film, soundscape and opera; inviting “local hard-core heroes F*cked Up to help frame a work that asked punk to look at opera and opera to look at punk”; and most recently, in 2018, bringing together Iranian composer Afarin Mansouri with emcee, playright, librettist, agitator Donna-Michelle St. Bernard “in a conversation with the devil.”
The holiday season is almost here, overflowing with family-oriented musical theatre offerings, beginning with YPT’s beautiful new production of The Adventures of Pinocchio in a musical version by Canadians Neil Bartram and Brian Hill. Originally commissioned by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, this is the Canadian premiere of a delightful 75-minute version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real human boy.
I have to admit that Pinocchio has never been one of my favourite fairy tales, even in the iconic 1940 Disney animated film, but I was completely won over by this version. At its heart is a warmth and gentleness that focuses on how the impulsive puppet learns through his (sometimes scary) misadventures and impulsive mistakes how to start thinking of others before himself, that life is about making (sometimes very hard) choices, but if he has courage, and looks inside himself, he can find the right choices to make and achieve his dream of becoming a real boy. Sheila McCarthy’s imaginative production is fast-paced and fun, with the young dynamic cast moving nonstop through multiple scene and character changes. Veteran Shawn Wright as a sympathetic Geppetto and Malindi Ayienga as a majestic Blue Fairy anchor the story while Connor Lucas as Pinocchio, though wearing a half Harlequin-like mask, wins the audience’s heart with his impulsive energy and vulnerability – and fantastic tap dancing. Joanna Yu’s storybook design for set and costumes perfectly matches the material, and hearing the children in the theatre reacting audibly as events unfold adds to the fun.
Last night, as I drove home after a rehearsal, I heard on the radio to expect a once-in-a-lifetime event at precisely 11:15pm – the most spectacular meteor shower in over 30 years. As I looked out of the window, though, I was barely able to see the road in front of me, through the dense fog. Now, sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, I am dealing with a dearth of information, unusual at this time of year, about happenings in the band world. Usually at this time of year, I would expect to receive quite a quantity of information on Christmas concerts, festive-season events or holiday shows. A temporary blip perhaps, or maybe just a sign of the busy times we live in. Since I can’t write about what I haven’t been sent, though, it gives me permission to write about what I like.
At a recent concert of the combined bands of HMCS York from Toronto and HMCS Star from Hamiton, I was stunned to see Lieutenant Commander Jack t’Mannetje sitting in the audience rather than on stage conducting. I then learned that Jack, who has been the Director of the York Band for many years, has been promoted. He is now executive officer of HMCS York, Navy lingo for second-in-command. It’s rare to see a military band conductor promoted to a position of command. Congratulations, Jack. As for the duties of band director, that falls to longtime band member, chief petty officer Maggie Birtch. Again, congratulations to Maggie.
Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid
The plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland
Winter Wonderland, Felix Bernard/Richard B. Smith. 1934.
“Christmas starts on November 1;” so goes the knowing refrain, spoken in tones of world-weary authority to those affronted by the instant shift from Halloween to Christmas in retail displays, both digital and physical. Those who repeat this defeatist bromide are not necessarily less affected by the sudden onslaught of candy canes and evergreens, of reindeer and elves, of living in a dystopian paternalistic surveillance state ruled by the Clauses. No, they are simply stating the obvious: that the secular advertorial spectacle of Christmas constitutes an overwhelming, inescapable part of our experience of the season, even in households for which the holiday holds a primarily religious significance.
Not a lot of people in Canada know a whole lot about Colombia, the third largest country in South America, and what we manage to gather usually comes from American television shows and media reports on drug wars. The November 5 Toronto edition of Crossing Borders, the recital series founded by the Halifax-based soprano Maureen Batt, which pairs up Canadian composers with foreign ones in creatively themed evenings, may just change things on this score. Batt’s key partner in programming this time is Colombia-born, Ontario-based tenor Fabián Arciniegas, whom Toronto audiences may remember from the productions with Essential Opera and Opera in Concert. He left the Republic of Colombia in 2010 to complete a master’s at U of T, and stayed. “If any Latin American music is presented here in Canada,” he tells me on the phone from Coburg, where he now lives, “it’s usually a zarzuela – and that’s rare enough. When people think of music from Hispanic places, Spain included, they think either dance, or zarzuela, or de Falla. Composers from South America that are being performed outside South America are few. Carlos Guastavino is one – and he died in 2000. Piazzolla is another. And that’s where it ends.”
One day not so long ago, Batt and Arciniegas were chatting over instant messenger when the tenor mentioned in passing that he really wanted to put on a recital of songs by living composers from Colombia. Batt liked the idea and offered to produce it as a half-half evening, Canadian and Colombian/Latin American, and soon enough they were posting public calls for scores. Arciniegas urged the Colombian composers that he knew or knew of to submit, but nobody’s placement in the program was guaranteed. It was, unusually, a blind submission process, which upon completion of the first round, Batt, Arciniegas and pianist Claire Harris tweaked here and there for diversity of themes and musical approaches.
This month there is a panoply of young talent on display in various stages of development with many opportunities to see and hear potential musical stars, some of them in more intimate surroundings than the future may bring.
Nicolas Namoradze: One such artist is Nicolas Namoradze, who came to international attention when he was 26 years old after winning the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. Honens is proud of their reputation for discovering and nurturing talent for the 21st century and Namoradze is now in the second year of Honens’ three-year development program that includes management and mentorship opportunities. He will do well if he is able to follow in the footsteps of 2012 laureate Pavel Kolesnikov, now reaping the rewards of his Hyperion Records exposure, and indications are that he may well do so. Namoradze’s performances to date have been hailed by critics as “sparkling… sensitive and coloristic” (New York Times) and “simply gorgeous” (Wall Street Journal). One of his former teachers, the widely respected Emanuel Ax, said that Namoradze is set to become one of the truly important artists of his generation.
Born in Georgia and raised in Budapest, he grew up on a diet of great Hungarian composers like Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtág, as well as Liszt. But as he told Pamela Kuhn on her radio program Center Stage: “Everyone plays Liszt.” As an infant he would “get stuck” listening to Verdi and Wagner. “You could not drag me away,” he said. He began instrumental studies at seven with the piano, but before that he was obsessed with The Beatles and for a short period, AC/DC. Once he began to play, he lived strictly within the classical world. And apart from an interest in jazz, he still does.
Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.” – John Rutter
Some of my earliest memories of community are from being a member of choir. It has always held great prominence in my life. A few weeks ago, I watched a short YouTube video from J.W. Pepper of an interview with John Rutter, a renowned composer of choral music. Although the clip is only a few minutes long, his words resonated with me, for he spoke so eloquently and profoundly of the significance of choir.
My Introduction to the Choral World
I was seven years old when my family immigrated to Canada. Shortly after settling down in Toronto, my mother became involved with the choir of our then-community church as their pianist. Soon after, she encouraged my sister and me to join it. In addition to singing in church, my sister and I also became members of a choir called VOCE, a children’s choir affiliated with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. The rehearsals were held at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts. (We would go on to attend the high school a few years later.)
Because I was considerably younger than the other members of the church choir, attending rehearsals weekly was something I did primarily because of my mother. However, being part of VOCE, with other singers my own age, was a completely different experience. As Rutter says during the interview, “When you get together with a group of other singers […] all of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony.” I felt at ease in choir as I mingled with like-minded children; all of us bonding over music, learning our parts together, competing for solos but also supporting one another. I remember having a lot of fun.
I recently was affiliated with VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, as I worked part-time with them and sang with their Main Chorus. Founded in 2000, VIVA! is a welcoming space inclusive to singers with disabilities. After listening to the Rutter video, I was moved to discuss this theme of community with someone deeply rooted in the choral scene, so I reconnected by email with Carol Woodward Ratzlaff, founder of VIVA!, to get her perspective both as a conductor and a chorister.
When schools started eliminating arts programming 20 years ago, Ratzlaff, who was working for the Toronto District School Board at the time, felt she needed to turn to the private sector to respond. She tells me: “We need to work to inform education leaders and those in government of the personal advantages, educational benefits and holistic impact of arts opportunities. Too often, adult-centred economic concerns inform educational outcomes. I was aware of many other excellent private-sector choral experiences in the GTA, but I was not focused on what the market was already providing; it was not a business response. I was motivated by the fact that there were many children (as well as youth and adults with disabilities) who were not being provided with opportunities to sing and to create beautiful music together.” Ratzlaff’s words resonate strongly with Rutter’s. As he states: “Politicians need to take note […], and our educators, those who decide education budgets, church budgets, just need to remember [choral music is] not a frill.”
Ratzlaff’s first experiences in choir were from middle school in St. Catharines ON. Since then, she has sung with several esteemed choirs, including the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. She shares: “Choral singing has been one of the great joys of my professional and personal life. I am temperamentally suited to group singing and collaborative creative work. I am particularly intrigued by the rich connections that are fostered between choristers themselves, between choristers and audience, and the changing role of the conductor in this landscape.”
I asked her what she tries to instill in singers as a choral director. She replied: “I try to empower them to make decisions along with me, to take ownership of our creative journey, and to make something beautiful with their voices. […] I seek a balance between meeting individual and group needs.” Ratzlaff shares that she loves “the process of discernment in seeking how to teach a piece of music. [She loves] sound and the capacity of the human voice to produce many expressive colours to tell a story.”
The last word on this topic goes to John Rutter again: “Choral music is like a great oak that rises up from the centre of the human race and spreads its branches everywhere. That’s what music does for us. And choral music must stand as one of the supreme examples of it.”
Concerts around the GTA
Speaking of Rutter, we can listen to some of his works that will be included in a few concerts over the next months. Under artistic director, Oliver Balaburski, the King Edward Choir will perform Rutter’s Angels’ Carol and Candlelight Carol during their concert, “Gloria!” on November 30. The Aurora United Church Chancel Choir and Handbell Ensembles, will have a Carols by Candlelight service on December 8. The first movement of Rutter’s Gloria will be one of the pieces sung. The MCS Chorus Mississauga will take you on a musical and literary journey with Christmas with Anne, also on December 8. Along with readings from Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, savour the sounds of Rutter’s Carol of the Children and Angel’s Carol.
With all this dialogue on choral music and community, you may feel inspired to get out and join a choir right away. But circle your calendar too for a great choral event, the inaugural Choral Mosaic Festival, taking place from June 25 to 27, 2020. Organized by the Mississauga Festival Choir and Festival Team, under the direction of David Ambrose, it will be three days of choral merriment; the choral Osheaga, if you will. Complete choirs, as well as individuals, are welcome to participate in the festival. Take the opportunity to hone your vocal skills and gain insight from professional speakers, be challenged by a variety of workshops and enjoy fraternizing with other singers. In addition, some notable features include an act by comedian Mary Lou Fallis and a closing gala performance by all the participants. The Festival will be held at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. If this has piqued your interest, look for more details on the festival website, choralmosaic.com. And take note! Early-bird registration has already begun.
CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS
NOV 16, 7:30PM: The Bach Elgar Choir presents Brahms’ Requiem at Melrose United Church in Hamilton. The choir, under the direction of Alexander Cann, will perform with the accompaniment of a full orchestra.
NOV 23, 6:30PM: Join the VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto with “The World in a City,” an interactive family-friendly concert. The concert will pay homage to Toronto with works conveying Indigenous roots and waves of migration. Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.
NOV 30, 7PM: The Incontra Vocal Ensemble presents “Creator of the Stars of Night,” under the direction of Matthew Otto. Look forward to hearing the works of Britten, Mendelssohn, and Chilcott, among others. The concert will serve as a fundraiser for the Institute for Christian Studies. At Knox College Chapel, U of T.
DEC 6, 7:30PM AND DEC 7, 2PM AND 7:30PM: Cue the Home Alone face. Relive the joyous and laughter-filled memories with this beloved Christmas film. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with the Resonance Youth Choir, will present Home Alone in Concert under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos. The music by John Williams will be ringing once again at Roy Thomson Hall.
DEC 7, 7:30PM: The Christmas season always feels complete with the soaring harmonies of Handel’s Messiah. Take in the beautiful sound of the Grand Philharmonic Choir with soprano soloist Mireille Asselin, mezzo Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tenekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. The Choir will be accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener.
Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via email@example.com.
Of the many music theatre events in October, one that stood out for me was the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s annual festival of new musicals in progress at the beautiful Winter Garden Theatre. An international incubator for the creation of new musicals based at Sheridan College, the CMTP also gives fourth-year Sheridan musical theatre students an unparalleled opportunity to be part of the creation and development of new works alongside working professionals, and, on top of that, to have this exceptional showcase of their own abilities. Of the three musicals presented in excerpt, one in particular caught my eye: Pump Up The Volume by Jeff Thomson (music) and Jeremy Desmon (book and lyrics). Although based on the 1990 film by Alan Moyle, this show exploded onstage with youthful energy echoing the energy and passion of the growing number of youth-led movements to fix what is wrong with our world today, whether the proliferation of guns or the imminence of climate disaster. Songs, script and performances added up to more than the sum of their parts. If the whole musical is this strong, I can see young audiences responding to it in a big way.
This same energy was captured by Hanna Kiel’s world-premiere dance piece for Human Body Expression at the end of September: Resonance, explicit in its own language of movement and 80’s inspired rock music about the need for all of us to stand together to fight for what is right. (See my review on The WholeNote blog).
Music, as an essential ingredient in portraying youthful passion and idealism, will also be seen in the upcoming new “play with opera,” A Million Billion Pieces by David James Brock (book) and Gareth Williams (music). Though a creative extension of The Breath Cycle Project the duo began with Scottish Opera in 2013, Brock explains that the play stands on its own, set in a “SciFi/Fantasy realm where a simple touch can cause the two main characters to explode into a million billion pieces, due to a rare genetic illness.” Isolated by their illness, two 16-year-olds, Pria and Theo, craving connection, create online personas and correspond as these ‘ideal” selves for a year before daring to meet in person. This online ideal world is set apart from the real world by being “heightened cosmically and sonically,” as Brock says, not just with singing but “through vocal effects and scoring, so that the music evolves into fuller vocal lines and scenes as the relationships do,” to the point where music enters the real world as Pria and Theo dare to actually meet in person. When I asked Brock if his writing process changed for this project since he was writing for a teenage audience, he said, “not much. The characters are teenagers, but they’ve lived their whole lives being told they wouldn’t survive to adulthood, so they’ve had to fit as much as possible in on a countdown. These characters are hyper aware of the finite amount of time in a life. I think we all have a sense we’re not using the time we have correctly – I certainly do. As a side note, at the climate march recently, I overheard a conversation where two teens truly didn’t think the planet would be around when they were 50.”
A Million Billion Pieces is directed by Philip Akin and runs November 25 to December 13 in YPT’s studio theatre. Paired with it in the season, and beginning two weeks earlier, is a heartfelt musical version of the classic fairy tale of the boy whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie: Pinocchio. Created by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill (who first met as cast mates in the Toronto production of Forever Plaid in the 1990s), this Canadian premiere will be directed by Canadian musical and television star Sheila McCarthy, notable for past incarnations as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to name just two.
Over at the National Ballet of Canada, another classic tale is being explored and revisited through two short ballets: George Balanchine’s 1975 Chaconne, and the world premiere of Robert Binet’s Orpheus Alive. Both ballets are inspired by the classical tale of the musician, Orpheus, who petitions the gods to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. Balanchine’s piece, while set to some of Gluck’s score for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, is mostly abstract, whereas Binet’s new work sets out to really tell the story, setting it in our own times and switching the gender of the leading roles, making Orpheus a woman artist, and Eurydice a man, her husband. He also turns the audience into the gods who must judge their case. Set to a new score by the award-winning composer Missy Mazzoli, and including projections, and text spoken by some of the dancers to the audience, this looks like a must-see for fans of contemporary ballet.
Another must-see in November is the Toronto premiere (after the world premiere in Vancouver two weeks earlier) of The 9th!, A dance work ten years in the making by co-choreographers Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek of ProArteDanza. Set to Beethoven’s famously iconic Ninth Symphony and inspired by its connection with the celebration of of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago (almost to the day of the opening), the full-length work also uses the full four movements of the symphony to explore the idea of the need to demolish inhibiting walls in our lives, both tangible and metaphysical. (November 6 to 9, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront). (See my upcoming interview with Roberto Campanella on The WholeNote blog.)
The powerful image of a wall is central as well to Another Brick in the Wall, a new opera inspired by and based on Roger Waters’ music from the famous Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The album predated the fall of the Berlin Wall by ten years, but the themes being explored by composer Julien Bilodeau and director Dominic Champagne – “the difficulties of a whole generation confronted with the destruction of its dreams” – are certainly similar. (November 13 to 23 at Meridian Hall, the former Sony Centre).
Storytelling through song
Old and new, traditional and experimental, were combined in another October highlight over at Crow’s Theatre in collaboration with Eclipse Theatre, with the Toronto premiere of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet in a production that – with a stage the size of a postage stamp – managed to create a multi-layered, magical, eerie world of time travelling, interconnected characters, and a wild variety of mixed genre music, folk tale and dialogue that created a hypnotically fascinating world via the stories told by the songs of a concept album that forms the first layer of the show’s structure.
Brilliantly directed, designed and performed, this show was/is unique, and yet it also made me think of two ongoing Toronto concert series that in their own ways, create their own magic by revisiting classic songs in new contexts, creating new and enthralling music-theatrical world’s for audiences to experience. Both series have shows coming up this month. First is The Musical Stage Company’s 13th edition of Uncovered, this time looking at the connected lives and works of Stevie Wonder and Prince, inspired by the fact that the two artists knew and admired each other and influenced each other’s work. Following the gender-blind casting tradition begun in 2017 when Maev Beaty played David Bowie, and followed by Sara Farb as Bob Dylan in 2018, this year Sarah Afful takes on the role of Stevie Wonder, with Chy Ryan Spain appearing as Prince.
Toronto’s other storytelling-through-song tradition, Soulpepper’s concert series curated by music director Mike Ross, brings back its 2017 hit Riverboat Coffee House:The Yorkville Scene, November 5 to 17. Written and directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, this concert weaves together songs by and stories about such iconic Canadian singer-songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan and Neil Young, to recreate the anarchic excitement of Yorkville in the 60’s.
Bands on stage
Onstage bands are the anchors of two more new plays with live scores opening in Toronto this month. The world premiere of The Wager is inspired by the true story of a scientist in the 19th century who accepted a bet to prove that the planet Earth is round rather than flat, only to have his proof rejected by the hostile flat-Earthers. Provocative and timely in our era of climate denial, the play employs Theatre Gargantua’s signature combination of physical theatre, innovative use of technology and a live vocal score to tell the story, with the cast doubling as the live on-stage band. (November 14-30 at Theatre Passe Muraille).
Opening shortly after The Wager, down the street at Factory Theatre (November 20 to December 8) is the Toronto premiere of Between Breaths, an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production written by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keiley (famous for her very physical, almost stylized, productions at the NAC and Stratford). Inspired by the real life of Jon Lien known as “the Whale Man” the play tells the story of his inspiring career during which he freed more than 500 whales from fishing nets off Newfoundland’s coast. As might be intuited from the title, there are also links here to A Million Billion Pieces, as later in his life Jon Lien suffered from dementia ending his days in a wheelchair, chronically short of breath. Between Breaths begins at the end of the story and travels back to Lien’s very first whale intervention, the whole story buoyed and infused by the live music, vocal and instrumental, of famed Newfoundland folk trio The Once.
MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS
NOV 4, 8PM: One show only. Stratford Festival. Avon Theatre. The House of Martin Guerre in concert. A wonderful chance to see Leslie Arden’s musical version of this classic tale, starring the luminous Chilina Kennedy, directed by Richard Ouzounian.
NOV 4 TO NOV 17: Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. The Pianist of Willesden Lane. A play that makes classical music a character of its own through the piano playing of the protagonist. An intriguing premise.
NOV 6 TO NOV 10: National Ballet of Canada. Giselle. Music by Adolphe Adam. Sir Peter Wright, choreographer. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. One of the most beloved romantic ballets, and one of my favourite productions at the NBC. There will be some notable debuts and farewells in the role of Gistelle this fall.
NOV 12 AND NOV 14, 8PM: Mirvish. Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries. Ed Mirvish Theatre. A rare chance to see a great musical theatre star live. Mandy Patinkin is electric onstage whether playing Che in Evita or singing concert material with Patti Lupone, or alone with a band.
NOV 28 TO DEC 22: Theatre Orangeville. Little Women. Canadian composer Jim Betts’ musical version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. It debuted to acclaim in 2001 with a great cast that included Douglas Chamberlain, Tracey Michailidis and Michael Therriault.
Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.
For this month’s column, I’ll be taking a look at two different events during the month of November that involve large-scale forces. The first involves the mainstay of communal soundmaking – the symphony orchestra, while the second is a significant new amalgam of voices coming together to create two operas.
I’ll begin with what’s happening with the Toronto Symphony and their affiliate composer, Emilie LeBel, who is currently in the second year of her position. One of the benefits of this position is that she is given the opportunity to compose one new piece each year for the orchestra. This year’s work, unsheltered, will receive its Toronto premiere on November 13, after performances on November 11 in Ottawa and November 12 in Montreal, part of an upcoming TSO tour. I spoke with LeBel about her new work, as well as another of the projects she is involved with at the TSO, titled Explore The Score.
Currently living and teaching in Edmonton, Alberta (when not engaged in her TSO commitments), LeBel says that she began composing unsheltered during the spring of 2019, while all around her wildfires were blazing north of Edmonton, amidst various public conversations and controversies about building more pipelines. She spoke about the general uneasiness and tensions that exist right now everywhere in the world and how her composition took on that atmosphere. She stressed that “the piece is not about politics or climate change in an overt way, rather I’m picking up on an uneasiness that feels very palpable right now.” In juxtaposition to this, LeBel said, is the natural beauty of the area she is currently living in, how different that environment is for her personally, and how it helps her aspire to be hopeful as well.
In her own note on unsheltered, she quotes a poem by Joanna Doxey as inspiration – speaking, as it does, to the importance of human connection during those moments we have with people, as well as to our experience of time, particularly when we look back on such moments in a more nostalgic way. The poem is from Doxey’s Book of Worry and begins “…in this humming and doubled land, hold worry, only me”.
It is the word humming that LeBel frequently referenced while speaking of the piece, to describe the overall atmosphere being invoked in her composition. Musically, it started off as a bass line from a Baroque piece that she has been studying with her students. “I was thinking about Baroque bass lines and how everything on top of it is like a textural landscape. This is often what I do in orchestral pieces. There are sections with slippery glissandos and high string harmonics that create an atmosphere where things feel tenuous.” The poetic except from Doxey continues: “and I get older or I grow farther from myself and I always most love the moment before now…” It is a sentiment that is also reflected in LeBel’s piece; she chooses to end it on a note that, while part of the humming atmosphere, is both nostalgic and hopeful.
LeBel’s responsibilities as TSO affiliate composer have also entailed involvement in another hopeful venture. This year is the eighth season in which the TSO has supported opportunities for composers to have their works read by the orchestra. Last year, along with Matthew Fava from the Canadian Music Centre, they devised a new approach to the project. They changed the jury process from being anonymous to asking people to send in their scores, along with informational statements outlining what they wished to get out of the program. This way, composers who would get the most from this opportunity would be selected, regardless of age or stage in their career. Around the same time, there was a conversation at the TSO about opening up the process to the public, to offer them an experience of how a new orchestral work is rehearsed. A new name was given to the program – Explore the Score – and they have received great feedback from both the public and the composers about the experience. This November 30 will mark the second year for this new approach, and will include works by composers Ian Cusson, Matthew Emery, Fjóla Evans, and Jared Richardson. In advance, the composers will have received guidance from the orchestra’s librarian on how to prepare the score and parts, with the new compositions being conducted by Gary Kulesha – the TSO’s composer advisor. After the performance, feedback from both Kulesha and LeBel will be given to the composers and during a lunch with representatives from the different sections of the orchestra, the composers will receive additional feedback from the musicians’ point of view. They will also have access to LeBel for a follow-up session for both compositional and/or career advice.
Beyond her TSO commitments, LeBel remains an active composer within the Toronto music community and she will be premiering a new work with Continuum on November 3 as part of their 35th anniversary celebration concert, alongside works by Canadians Jason Doell, Christopher Goddard, Cassandra Miller and Michael Oesterle.
The second project that caught my eye this month is the upcoming production of Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit running from November 13 to 17 at Daniels Spectrum. Produced by Soundstreams with partners Signal Theatre and the Sámi National Theatre, the performance will present two operas that are the first such works to be sung and narrated in the Indigenous languages of both Cree and Sámi (the language of the Sápmi people, whose territory today encompasses large northern parts of Norway and Sweden, northern parts of Finland, and the Kola Peninsula within the Murmansk Oblast of Russia. Both works will be directed collaboratively by Michael Greyeyes from Signal Theatre and Cole Alvis from lemonTree creations.
Pimooteewin (The Journey) was first premiered in 2008, a performance that initiated a collaboration between Soundstreams and Greyeyes. Since that time, through a series of performances, connections, meetings and creative thinking, the initial venture has now evolved to the current production that has expanded to include a second companion opera, Gállábártnit, written in the Sámi language. The libretto for Pimooteewin was written in Cree by the celebrated Indigenous playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. Canadian composer Melissa Hui was selected to compose the music for the libretto and this task demanded her full commitment to understanding how to work with the Cree language. The librettist for Gállábártnit is Norwegian and Sámi playwright/author Rawdna Carita Eira. Swedish composer Britta Byström, who received the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers in 2015 from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was selected to bring her unique artistic language to bear in the creation of the music.
In the casting of Two Odysseys, great care was taken to reflect diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. The performers include two narrators—Yolanda Bonnell and Heli Huovinen, each fluent in their respective languages of Cree and Sámi, as well as vocal soloists Melody Courage, Asitha Tennekoon and Bud Roach. The musical performers also include a choir assembled by Soundstreams as well as a chamber ensemble. Métis soprano soloist Melody Courage provides a quick peek into her experience of the rehearsal process in a short excerpt from the promotional video available on the Soundstreams website, in which she reflects on “…the amount of pride I feel performing with so many ridiculously talented Indigenous artists that I’ve met for the first time … It’s in the stages of coming together and it feels very magical.”
Both works examine the question of how we live together as a human community on this earth, and how we journey on to the land of the dead. Each piece is based on ancient stories from the two traditions. The Cree story tells the tale of the Trickster character Weesageechak (coyote) and Migisoo (eagle) and their desire to be reunited with loved ones. The Gállábártnit of the Sámi story are the “sons of the son of the sun,” hunter/inventor star beings who come to earth from the “belt” of the constellation known in European cosmology as Orion. This mix of Indigenous stories, languages, directors, librettists, narrators and soloists intermingle here in an art form with European roots, in music created by two composers who bring their own sensibilities and artistic voices to the project. It is a dialogue that explores the edges of the possibilities available when people of diverse cultures are able to work collaboratively with sensitivity, respect and a willingness to listen to each other. Soprano Melody Courage sums it up this way: “You can expect to be moved and transformed, musically and spiritually.”
IN WITH THE NEW QUICK PICKS
NOV 12, 8PM: New Music Concerts/Faculty of Music, U of T. Kasemets@100. Palestrina: Tu es Petrus; Kasemets: Trigon; Märt-Matis Lill: When the Buffalo Went Away; Kozlova-Johannes: Horizontals; Kasemets: 4’33” Fractals; Future is past…is…now. Ensemble U:; Stephen Clarke, piano. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building.
NOV 17, 8PM: The Music Gallery. History Series: Celebrating Casey Sokol. An evening with one of the Music Gallery’s co-founders as he moves on from a storied career teaching improvisation at York University. The evening will be part improvised soirée/part interview with food and drinks.
NOV 24, 8PM: The Music Gallery. Emergents I: Sarah Albu & Mári Mákó + Anoush Moazzeni. Blend of electronics, improvisation and notated works. Sarah Albu, vocalist; Mári Mákó, composer/sound artist; Anoush Moazzeni, piano/improvisation/composer.
NOV 24, 8PM: Toronto Improvisors Orchestra. TIO Celebrates Casey Sokol. Casey Sokol, piano; Eugene Martynec, laptop; Rod Campbell, trumpet; Bill Gilliam, piano; Ambrose Pottie, percussion. Array Space
NOV 26 AND 27, 8PM: Confluence Concerts. “An Evening with Marion Newman: What Is Classical Indigenous Music?” Marion Newman, mezzo; Rebecca Cuddy, mezzo; Evan Korbut, baritone; Gordon Gerrard, piano; Ian Cusson, composer. Heliconian Hall.
DEC 1, 8PM: Esprit Orchestra. “Sustain.” Andrew Norman: Sustain, for orchestra; Adam Scime: Afterglow, concerto for violin and orchestra; José Evangelista: Accelerando, for orchestra. Véronique Mathieu, violin; Alex Pauk, conductor. Koerner Hall.
Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time is an equal opportunity employer” – Denis Waitley
While time may provide equal opportunity to those now living, history can be much less kind to the legacies of those who have gone before us. For example, when reviewing composers of classical music, we see specific instances of how such artists are grouped into seemingly infinite pyramid-shaped hierarchies, their status as “genius” determined as much by the quality of their output as their enduring and perennial appeal. Starting at the top, we encounter the universally revered composers, the capital-G Geniuses: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and the other craftsmen whose works have transcended time and transfixed audiences for centuries. These are the figures after whom busts are sculpted and monuments built, and who can be trusted to draw large audiences year after year.
Another tier of the legacy tower is that of the well-respected, yet under-performed composer. Arnold Schoenberg and subsequent proponents of the Second Viennese School belong here, as do many of the 20th century’s finest musical minds, such as Ligeti, Berio and Stockhausen. While their works might not tickle the ears of every person who happens upon them, or fill up a concert hall, they nonetheless played significant roles in the development of new forms of musical expression. Yet another category is that of composers who achieve renown by virtue of their writing for a specific instrument, such as Josef Rheinberger’s compositions for the organ or Franz Liszt’s piano works; while both of these examples wrote a wide variety of material for a range of vocal and instrumental forces, their legacies rest primarily on a specific segment of their output.
No matter how we categorize the characters in our history books, these theoretical organizational principles are just that – theoretical. From a practical perspective, how does one choose which of these compositional strata to draw from when deciding what to perform next week, month, or year? Balance is key when constructing a concert program, and finding a stimulating and satisfying blend of composers and repertoire is the challenge of artistic directors across the globe. A quick case in point: when Pierre Boulez assumed control of the New York Philharmonic in 1971, succeeding Leonard Bernstein, his attempts to incorporate higher volumes of contemporary music led to much criticism and a drop in annual subscriptions to the orchestra’s seasons. While there was great merit to Boulez’s contemporary crusade, the slight change in emphasis from the easily digestible, top-tier “Genius” to the more sinewy Schoenbergian genius did not resonate with his audience and led to a challenging tenure for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-conductors.
Much like the categorization of composers, there is a near-infinite number of approaches that can be taken to program-building and we will encounter some of them in this column, exploring a variety of early music through numerous combinations and juxtapositions, both of the music itself and the people who wrote it.
Discovering Antonio Lotti
A relatively unknown figure in a scene dominated by such heavyweights as Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Lotti was an Italian composer who spent his career at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, working his way up the musical hierarchy from singer to maestro di cappella. Lotti wrote in a variety of forms, producing masses, cantatas, madrigals, nearly 30 operas, and instrumental music, thereby influencing some of the era’s great geniuses: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Jan Dismas Zelenka owned copies of Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae, consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria scored for chorus and orchestra, transcribed from the manuscript by each in their own hand.
This connection between Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae and the music of Bach, Handel and Zelenka is made apparent in Tafelmusik’s “Lotti Revealed”, presented from November 14 to 17 and directed by Ivars Taurins. This is the first time Tafelmusik has performed music by Lotti and it will be paired with excerpts from Bach and Zelenka masses, as well as Handel’s Carmelite Vespers. Sumptuous and expressive, Lotti’s music will prove a valuable addition to Tafelmusik’s repertory and stimulating listening for those who enjoy the richness and depth of late-Baroque music.
This Sounds Familiar…
The turning back of our clocks signals more than the arrival of colder temperatures; it also commences the annual transition to Christmas music, which regularly features combinations of classic works and interesting revelations. On November 24, the York University Concert and Chamber Choirs join forces to present a seasonal selection of music by Dieterich Buxtehude, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and Camille Saint-Saëns. Two of these composers are famous largely for their organ works: Buxtehude for his masterful praeludia, chorale preludes and pieces in free style; Saint-Saëns for his Third Symphony, which gives the organ a prominent place in what is an overall glorious masterpiece. Pergolesi, meanwhile, is renowned for his Stabat Mater, a passiontide classic that makes multiple appearances each year. While the names may be familiar, the York University choirs will not be performing a greatest hits concert, but rather a series of pieces that focuses on various aspects of the Christmas story.
Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël is a cantata-oratorio hybrid written for soloists, chorus, organ, strings and harp, composed while he was an organist at La Madeleine in Paris. Distinctly French in harmonic language, yet clearly indebted to the form of the Baroque cantata and dramatic element of the oratorio, this work combines arias, recitatives and chorus movements with the Latin texts of the Catholic lectionary, creating a piece of music with distinct characteristics and fascinating form. The cantata theme continues with Buxtehude’s Das neugeborne Kindelein, a Protestant church cantata for chorus and chamber orchestra, and Pergolesi’s Magnificat. These works will not only frame Saint-Saëns’ unconventional cantata with more traditional essays in the form, but delight the audience with infrequently performed works by renowned masters of their craft.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are stunning masterpieces, as virtuosic a display of compositional prowess as their instrumental interpreters must be to convey the secrets contained therein. This November, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin visits Kingston on November 26 and Koerner Hall on November 27 in a performance of the first five Brandenburgs, a not-to-be-missed musical event. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Akamus for short), founded in East Berlin in 1982, is one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras on period instruments. It has established itself as one of the pillars of Berlin’s cultural scene, holding its own concert series at the Konzerthaus Berlin for more than 30 years, as well as a concert series at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. Having sold more than one million CDs, their highly successful recordings have won all important awards for classical recordings; with such extraordinary international performers making a rare Canadian appearance, tickets for these concerts will certainly be in high demand.
Now in its 18th season, the Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC) continues to impress with their high level of skill and devotion to the art of their namesake composer. As a testament to their dedication and continued excellence, the OBC has been invited to return to Leipzig for the 2020 Bachfest as one of a select number of ensembles worldwide to present Bach’s entire chorale cantata cycle, a remarkable and imposing proposition! On November 30, the Ottawa Bach Choir, led by founding artistic director Lisette Canton, will visit Toronto for A Bach Christmas, providing us with the opportunity to hear a miniature Bachfest of our own. This program includes the cantatas the choir will perform at Bachfest Leipzig 2020 (Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht, BWV124; Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV3; Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, BWV111), as well as the Christmas interpolations from the Magnificat, BWV243 (Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubiliert, Gloria in excelsis Deo, Virga Jesse floruit), the celebratory motet, Singet dem Herrn, BWV225, and more. Featuring the Ensemble Caprice baroque orchestra with strings, oboes d’amore, horn, as well as soprano Meredith Hall, countertenor Nicholas Burns, tenor Philippe Gagné and bass Andrew Mahon, there is little doubt that this concert will give Bach aficionados much to rejoice about this Christmas season.
Whether discovering the profundity of Antonio Lotti for the first time, hearing a rare performance of Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël, or basking in the resplendent genius of Bach, the month of November is full of magnificent music that is well worth the price of admission. There is also much to look forward to in the following weeks, as the ushering in of the Christmas season brings with it many more opportunities to take in landmark works by both renowned and less-known composers. See you in December – until then, feel free to get in touch at email@example.com.
EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS
NOV 19, 7:30 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Purcell’s King Arthur. Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Containing some of Purcell’s most lyrical music and adventurous harmonies, King Arthur is a mystical journey through Arthur’s battle against the Saxons, with cameo appearances by Cupid, Venus and more! Much like last month’s Acis and Galatea, this is a fine opportunity to hear the U of T’s rising stars.
NOV 23, 7:30PM; NOV 24, 3PM: Cantemus Singers. “A Boy is Born.” Church of the Holy Trinity, 19 Trinity Square (Saturday)/St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, 70 Silver Birch Avenue (Sunday). In a column devoted to building a program, Cantemus deserves a special mention, as their concerts regularly consist of a fascinating variety of material. This month’s presentation features carols and motets from Renaissance England, including Thomas Tallis’ stunning Missa Puer natus est nobis for seven voices.
NOV 24, 7PM: Cantorei Sine Nomine. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Uxbridge), 59 Toronto Street South. And so, it begins! This season’s first performance of the Christmas Oratorio features six cantatas drawn from the larger work, one of the finest Christmas choral pieces ever written and an unbroken sequence of drama and beauty that continues to inspire audiences, despite being premiered almost three centuries ago.
DEC 4, 7PM; DEC 5 TO 7, 8PM; DEC 8, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. “O Come, Shepherds.” Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. With a diverse program connected through an underlying pastoral theme, this concert promises a unique combination of Baroque Christmas concertos and the soulful folk music of Southern Italy, with its own rhythms, instruments, and spirit – a fine continuation of Tafelmusik’s mission to broaden its horizons and those of its listeners, through innovative and unexpected presentations.
Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.