With the Canadian Opera Company sleeping off the effects of Turandot and Rusalka, its two wildly contrasting fall main stage blockbusters, top spot in the operatic food chain this month goes to Opera Atelier’s remount of their convention-bucking, commedia-based Don Giovanni, in their new digs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Pantages) on Yonge Street, a big block north of OA’s longtime regular venue at the Elgin Theatre (now hosting an indefinite, and presumably lucratively lengthy, run of Come From Away)

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni. Photo by Bruce ZingerDon Giovanni opens October 31, one day before this issue hits the streets, but if you’re fast out of the blocks, you can still catch it November 2, 3, 8 and 9. And catch it you should, especially if you’re allergic to the heavy-handed Bergmanesque moralizing gloom that all too often accrues to this work. Mozart would have recognized the style of this production far more readily (and I dare say delightedly) than some of the other gloomily lit treatments it has received.

“Fast out of the blocks” will also need to be the operative phrase if you want to take advantage of the period covered in this issue to drill down into five other strata of activity that are the bedrock of opera as a lively art in our region: our universities and conservatories; our regional opera companies; a vibrant indie opera scene, constantly reinventing itself; a rich tradition of community-based performance – participation in opera for the sheer love of it; and a decades-long tradition of opera-in-concert presentation of works we might otherwise, for various reasons, never have the opportunity to see and hear.

Universities and conservatories: Nov 1 and 2, at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School gets things rolling with its fall chamber opera: a production of English composer Jonathan Dove’s Siren Song (libretto by Nick Dear). It’s a 70-minute work for five singers, one actor, and an orchestra of ten players (here conducted by Peter Tiefenbach), based on “a bizarre, true story of a young sailor who exchanges letters with a beautiful and successful model. Over time, a romantic and passionate relationship develops, but a meeting proves increasingly difficult to arrange.”

Later in the month, a short stroll down Philosopher’s Walk from the Royal Conservatory, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music gets into the act, twice. Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24, in the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building, the Opera School presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with two casts getting two shows each, and an “Opera Talk” lecture half an hour before each concert. And then, Dec 5, the U of T Symphony Orchestra gets into the act with a program titled Operatic Showpieces, featuring U of T Opera and the MacMillan Singers, conducted by COC chorus master Sandra Horst and Uri Meyer.

And if that’s not enough, or you live westwards, head down the 401 to the Don Wright Faculty of Music in London, where, on the same dates (Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24) Opera at Western presents Mozart’s The Secret Gardener (La Finta Giardiniera), penned at the ripe old age of 18! Stage direction by renowned baritone Theodore Baerg.

Natalya GennadiRegional and community opera: Nov 1 and 3 also offer an opportunity to observe Opera York in action, in Verdi’s La Traviata, at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, one of two fully staged operas they will present this season. (The other will be Lehar’s Merry Widow, Feb 28 and Mar 1.) This tenacious company’s mission is “to provide professional opera that is accessible financially, geographically and comprehensibly to the communities of York Region and surrounding communities, to encourage the development of the art form through educational and outreach activities and provide a platform for emerging and established Canadian artists” and they stick to it, as reflected in the quality of their casts. An example from this show: Natalya Gennadi (Violetta), whose Dora-nominated title role in Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G. in 2017 was widely praised. NOW Magazine called it “stunning... piercing in its openness and vulnerability.”

Jennifer TungLater in the month, and proudly rooted at the community opera end of things for 73 years, on Nov 21 and 23, Toronto City Opera, formerly known as Toronto Opera Repertoire, presents Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina. Founded in 1946, by an optimistic James Rosselino, as an “Opera Workshop” at Central Technical School, in collaboration with the Toronto School Board, and now under the artistic direction of the multi-talented Jennifer Tung (singer, vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor), they present at least two fully staged operas each year with early-career paid-professional soloists selected after open auditions, and an amateur non-auditioned community chorus that remains open to all. The result is a wonderful sense of community engagement that extends through the chorus to the audience, many of whom are often having their first opera experience. Their mission statement – passionately committed to opera for everyone – says it all.

Indie opera: With the recent buzz around Tapestry Opera’s 40th anniversary and the tenth anniversary tour of Against the Grain’s pub-based La Bohème, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that independent opera in this town is fertile soil for much more. Just one example: Nov 2, 3 and 4, at Heliconian Hall, Loose Tea Music Theatre, under the always searching and provocative direction of Alaina Viau presents Singing Only Softly/The Diary of Anne Frank - Operas from the Secret Annex which pairs two separate works: Singing Only Softly, (composed by Cecilia Livingston with libretto by Monica Pearce); and The Diary of Anne Frank composed by Grigory Frid. Singing Only Softly Is based on the original, unredacted texts of the diary, “voicing Anne Frank as a fully formed young woman describing her experiences while discovering herself. Freshly interpreted in a current female context, it explores Anne’s complex self-awareness and self-representation.” Anne Frank is variously portrayed by sopranos Sara Schabas and Gillian Grossman, with music direction by Cheryl Duvall.

Opera in Concert: From the scope and scale of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “Grand Opera in Concert” performances of Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet’s Thaïs, on Nov 7 and 9 at Roy Thomson Hall, to the intimate informality of Opera by Request’s Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Nov 15 at College St. United Church, opera in concert is alive and well as an art form in these parts. So it’s a fitting close to this exercise to give a special nod to a production by the company, now in its fifth decade, that pretty much single-handedly made the genre a natural and necessary part of the fabric of all things operatic around here: VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert’s presentation on Dec 1 of Leoš Janáček’s 1921 opera, Katya Kabanová.

Sung in English, the performance, in the company’s customary Jane Mallet Theatre surrounds, will feature Lynn Isnar, soprano; Emilia Boteva, mezzo; and tenors Michael Barrett and Cian Horrobin; with Jo Greenaway, music director/piano, and, as always, Robert Cooper, as chorus director. It’s not the opera that the brilliant 20th-century composer of Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair is best known for. But that is the whole point. Opera in concert allows presenters, as play readings sometimes do, to bring to the eyes, and more importantly ears, of audiences, works that, for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with artistic quality, might otherwise be consigned to archival oblivion. And we would all be the poorer for it.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Through the years, jazz in Hamilton has often been overshadowed by the bigger scene in Toronto, just as Toronto jazz has been dwarfed by the huge and active scene in New York. Part of it has to do with economics and sheer size, as jazz, not being a popular music for some time, has always required a large population base in order to flourish. Generally, the bigger the city, the bigger and better its jazz scene. While all sorts of jazz musicians have come from very small towns, they have cut their musical teeth either on the road or by moving to bigger cities. Part of it also has to with Toronto tending to see itself as the centre of the universe, as many big cities do.

None of this has been fair to Hamilton, which has had its own interesting jazz scene for many years and continues to. For one thing, Hamilton, like its steel-producing sister city Pittsburgh, has produced a remarkable number of significant jazz musicians for a city its size. For example, guitarist Sonny Greenwich is from Hamilton, and it’s hard to think of a more singularly original voice in the entire history of Canadian jazz. Granted, like musicians from Pittsburgh who gravitated to New York in search of more work, Greenwich settled in Toronto and later Montreal, but he got his start in Steeltown.

So did saxophonist/arranger Rick Wilkins, another hugely important figure in Canadian music, jazz and otherwise. Being so quiet and mild-mannered, Rick is perhaps the ultimate insider in Canadian music. By this I mean that one could randomly pick 100 people on the street aged 60 or older and ask them if they’d heard of Rick Wilkins and maybe one or two would answer yes. But all of them would have heard lots of his music in some form – a saxophone solo with the Boss Brass, countless scores for television or movies, an arrangement on somebody’s record, a jingle – often without realizing it. Most of his career has taken place in Toronto, but he was born in Hamilton. Torontonians who are boastfully proud of their city’s rich jazz history would do well to remember that an awful lot of the major contributors have come from somewhere else – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and yes, Hamilton.

David BraidA more recent example is pianist/composer David Braid, who has had a major impact with his sextet, the more recent quartet, The North, and as a composer and educator. He grew up not far from Mohawk College in Hamilton and, as much as any Canadian jazz musician, has taken his music abroad with frequent tours in China, Russia, Europe and elsewhere. There have been other important Hamilton-born jazz players – pianist Bruce Harvey, two excellent trumpeters in Jason Logue and Steve McDade, and no doubt many others I’ve forgotten or overlooked.

Mohawk and more

The jazz program at Mohawk College has had a major impact as a centerpiece of jazz in Hamilton in several ways. It draws talented young players from the surrounding region, provides a venue for concerts and has attracted, as teachers, important musicians, some of them previously Toronto-based, who have raised the level and profile of jazz in Hamilton in recent years. 

Mike Malone and the Writer’s Jazz OrchestraSome musicians who were full-time faculty, such as the late trombonist Dave McMurdo and trumpeter Mike Malone, moved to Hamilton from Toronto, reversing an age-old tradition. McMurdo had a huge impact on Hamilton jazz as a teacher and by starting his Mountain Access (sometimes affectionately known as “Mounting Excess”) Jazz Orchestra, which provided an outlet for writers and players both from Toronto and the Hamilton area. Malone has continued this with his Writer’s Jazz Orchestra, which performs regularly in and around Hamilton and at Toronto venues such as The Rex. More recently, the Hamilton-born, gifted pianist Adrean Farrugia and his equally gifted wife, singer Sophia Perlman, who both teach at Mohawk, have moved from Hogtown to Steeltown, perhaps attracted by a city that’s less hectic, more affordable, and still offers opportunities for cultural expression. With the Toronto jazz scene shrinking in recent times, the worm is beginning to turn toward smaller cities.

Hamilton has also boasted attractive musical venues and organizations through the years, often created and sustained by dedicated music lovers and arts activists. Liuna Station is an excellent example. It was originally a CN Railway station which had fallen into disrepair until a guild of local artisans was commissioned to give it a lavish facelift. The result is a unique and splendid venue for concerts as well as other functions. I’ve played there numerous times with the likes of Oliver Jones and David Braid and was bowled over by its extravagance. One of my favourite places to play in Hamilton was not really a jazz venue but a small Polish restaurant on Main St. called Izzy’s, named for its cheerful and generous proprietor Isidora, who loved jazz, cooking, jazz musicians and Irish whiskey, not necessarily in that order. I’ll never forget playing there one night with the Mike Murley Trio when Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Dave McMurdo and Mike Malone were in the audience. Wheeler and Winstone were in Hamilton as artists-in-residence for a week of clinics and concerts at Mohawk College, another example of how that institution has boosted jazz in Hamilton.

Steel City Jazz Festival

Hamilton boasts many other long-term jazz outlets – the Corktown Pub, Artword Artbar (on which more later), Fieldcote Park in nearby Ancaster, The Pearl Company, as well as concert venues at Mohawk College and McMaster University. Hamilton has also staged its own festival for the last seven years, The Steel City Jazz Festival. This year’s festival runs from November 6 to 10 and will feature shows at Artword Artbar, the Corktown Pub and The Pearl Company. It will return to its roots by showcasing pianist Paul Benton, a longtime seminal figure in Hamilton jazz, in its opening concert, and by focusing on the past 30 years of jazz in the area.

Other artists will include the Nick McLean Quartet, the Sextet of Smordin Law artist-in-residence Jason Logue, the Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Mike Malone, playing as part of the ECJ quintet led by bassist Evelyn Charlotte Joe. This year the festival is also launching performances at the legendary Corktown Pub – George Grossman’s Bohemian Swing featuring Brandon Walker on November 7 and Blunt Object on November 8. It’s a diverse and interesting lineup.

Farewell Artword, hail Zula

Unfortunately, this year’s festival will mark the end of one of Hamilton’s best music venues, Artword Artbar, a café-bar on Colbourne Street which has been hosting jazz and other interesting music and theatre for the past ten years. Proprietors Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford have sold the building and its future use is unclear, but it won’t likely have to do with music or the arts. This is a decided blow to the local scene and one hopes someone will step in with an alternative space at some point. I only played there once, some years ago with the Mike Murley Trio, and very much enjoyed the experience. Artword Artbar has (had) good natural sound and a relaxing, casual, grassroots feeling which combined the best of both worlds – a small concert space and a rustic pub – one which encouraged audiences to listen and inspired artists to play their best. It will be missed.

But not all is lost… finally, a word on another force in Hamilton jazz, one largely unknown to many Torontonians, including yours truly until recently: Zula, a bold and independent arts organization dedicated to presenting adventurous and under-the-radar music against long odds in Hamilton. It is the brainchild of music lover and arts activist Cem Zafir, who originally founded Zula in Vancouver way back in 2000, transplanting the concept to Hamilton when he moved there in 2012. It is supported by the Ontario Arts Council and has gathered a board of local artists including Donna Akrey, Chris Alic, Neil Ballantyne, Gary Barwin, Ted Harms, Connor Bennett, Taing Ng-Chan, Kay Chornook, Andrew Johnson, Heather Kanabe, Neal Thomas and above all Zafir, whose non-conformist and creative spirit is the driving force behind it all.

Since 2014, Zula has staged the Something Else Festival, presenting under-known and adventurous musicians from Canada and abroad who one would never expect to hear in Hamilton, never mind a larger city like Toronto. Such as William Parker, Samuel Blaser, Dave Gould, the Lina Allemano Four, David Lee, Ken Aldcroft and many more. Zula often coordinates with the equally adventurous Guelph Jazz Festival, another good example of uncompromising music flourishing in a smaller population centre against long odds, largely due to the vision and dedication of its founders.

So, as we’ve seen, bigger is not always better and jazz continues to grow in Hamilton, with all signs indicating that it will continue to.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

NOV 2, 8PM: Royal Conservatory of Music. “Music Mix Series: Toronto Sings the Breithaupt Brothers’ Songbook.” Jackie Richardson, Kellylee Evans, Denzal Sinclaire, Heather Bambrick, Patricia O’Callaghan and others. Koerner Hall. A lineup of first-rate Canadian singers performing the witty and artistic songs of the Breithaupt Brothers.

NOV 8, 7:30PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express and Larnell Lewis Band. Works by Monty Alexander and Larnell Lewis. Monty Alexander, piano; Hassan Abdul Ash-Shakur, bass; Jason Brown, drums; Andrew Bassford, guitar; Larnell Lewis Band. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Partridge Hall, 250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines. An attractive doubleheader featuring Monty Alexander, who needs no introduction, and local drummer Larnell Lewis, who has become something of a force in recent years.

NOV 21, 7:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band. 40th Anniversary celebration of swing-era music with special selections from Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Martin Loomer, guitar, arranger, leader. Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm St. Licensed facility. Even after the death of its founder, this band is always worth hearing because it is so unique and has been left in the capable hands of its chief arranger/transcriber and longtime rhythm guitarist, Martin Loomer.

Nick Fraser TrioNOV 30, 8PM: Zula. Nick Fraser Trio: “Rock on Locke.” Nick Fraser, drums/composition; Tony Malaby, saxophones; Kris Davis, piano. Church of St. John the Evangelist, 320 Charlton Ave. W., Hamilton. zulapresents.org. $15 or PWYC. A concert by a very interesting trio featuring three of the most inventive players on the local scene, or any other for that matter.

Toronto bassist Steve Wallace writes a blog called “Steve Wallace jazz, baseball, life and other ephemera” which can be accessed at wallacebass.com. Aside from the topics mentioned, he sometimes writes about movies and food.

Here we are midway through the last third of the year, and most community bands are busy rehearsing, for a variety of programs from formal concerts to Santa Claus Parades; the last thing that any band needs at this time of year is any disruption of rehearsals. Many community groups rehearse in schools, so for many bands in this part of the world there was near panic that these schools might be closed due to a possible labour dispute. Fortunately, at the very last minute the matter was settled. I, myself, received notices a few days later that all rehearsals would proceed as scheduled.

It was, however, a sobering reminder of a topic I have been known to occasionally rant about: the dilemma facing many community musical groups regarding rehearsal space. Most groups are tenants of schools, churches or community centres. Few have any real means of avoiding such matters. School music rooms are ideal rehearsal spaces, complete with music stands, and much of the heavier percussion equipment. However, most music teachers and many principals have concern for the safety of this equipment. I have known of a number of situations where a new music teacher, or principal, arrived at a school and expressed concern for equipment safety. All of a sudden, a band which might have rehearsed there for years, found themselves homeless. Even if they manage to obtain another kind of rehearsal space, where do they keep larger percussion instruments, stands and maybe music library?

Read more: Occasional Rants and Fanfarones

Ah, November. A month so rich in music that it causes one to strain against word limits, bridle at the constraints of the page and discard a number of truly perfect jokes, whose inclusion – if a writer took less seriously his charge to write about, well, music – would have sent this magazine’s readership into dangerous paroxysms of laughter, such that finishing the rest of this column would surely prove impossible. Out of kindness: let’s get to it. 

Gentiane MG TrioOn November 14 and 15, the Montreal-based pianist Gentiane MG (Michaud-Gagnon) leads her eponymous trio at Jazz Bistro in support of her recent album, Wonderland. Though Michaud-Gagnon may be a new name to Toronto audiences, she has been increasingly active on the Canadian jazz scene following her time at McGill, at which she studied with Rémi Bolduc, André White and Jean-Michel Pilc, among others. Her debut trio recording, Eternal Cycle, was on CBC Music’s list of 10 outstanding Canadian jazz albums of 2017, along with the likes of Matthew Stevens, Diana Krall, and PJ Perry. At Jazz Bistro, Michaud-Gagnon brings her working rhythm section, bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel. The trio’s playing runs the gamut from introspective, pensive ballads to uptempo swingers. Throughout it all, Michaud-Gagnon discharges her pianistic duties with aplomb, playing both single-note lines and lush chords with succinct clarity. 

Also at Jazz Bistro: vibraphonist Dan McCarthy, on November 26, appearing in quartet formation with guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren. McCarthy’s quartet appears in support of his recently released album, City Abstract, which features the same band. Recorded in May of this year at Canterbury Music Company, City Abstract is something of a homecoming for McCarthy, who, after living and working in New York for 15 years, has moved back to his hometown of Toronto. McCarthy is a superlative vibraphonist, with chops, tone and taste to spare; his performance/recording credits include work with American musicians such as Steve Swallow, Ben Monder and George Garzone, as well as with leading Canadian musicians, including Lorne Lofsky, Terry Clarke and Laila Biali. Though the vibraphone has been something of an uncommon instrument in modern jazz, McCarthy – along with other notable young players, including the American Joel Ross and Toronto’s Michael Davidson – serves as a good reminder of the instrument’s strengths and capabilities, and of the unique music that it makes possible. 

LandlineOn November 6 and 7, saxophonist Chet Doxas brings the group Landline to The Rex. Though currently a Brooklyn resident, Doxas was born and raised in Montreal, where he attended McGill for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees; his brother, Jim Doxas, is one of Canada’s better-known jazz drummers, and still based in their shared hometown. Landline – whose eponymous debut album will release on November 1 – is a quartet, made up of Doxas, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Landline is something of a family affair: in May of this year, George Doxas, Chet’s father, recorded the album in Montreal at Boutique de Son Studios. Landline gets its name from a two-year-long process of “collaborative composition” by all four members of the quartet, each of whom made contributions to each piece in a process reminiscent of the children’s game “broken telephone.” What this means isn’t precisely clear, but I imagine that all will be revealed at The Rex. What is clear is that Landline represents an intriguing new project from accomplished modern jazz musicians who have played together – both in this specific quartet and in other configurations – for a number of years, with a collective group dynamic that only comes with shared experience. 

Dan WeissSacks will be returning to The Rex later in the month with the Dan Weiss Trio, where he – along with Weiss (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass) – will be playing two consecutive nights on November 20 and 21. The last time that I wrote about Weiss for The WholeNote, it was in the wake of his 2018 Jazz Festival performance with his Starebaby project. Drawing influence from Twin Peaks, the album Starebaby was a study in Lynchian intensity, with bombastic and quiet moments sustained past conventional points of resolution. During the group’s packed Toronto show, this exploratory spirit was on display in full force; the show that I saw qualified as one of the loudest and quietest shows that I’ve ever seen at The Rex, or, for that matter, at any jazz club. Though Weiss’ trio may not have the same mandate for extreme dynamics, it does have the same mandate for intensity and intentionality. It is not hyperbole to say that Weiss is one of the preeminent jazz drummers of his generation; a brief look at his recent schedule reveals engagements with the likes of Nir Felder, Adam Rogers, Miles Okazaki and Chris Potter’s Underground Quartet, amongst many other notable gigs, including his own. As a drummer and as a bandleader, he is much the same: specific, exacting, exciting and, at unexpected moments, funny, in a way that complements the seriousness of his dedication to his craft. 

A final note on The Rex: guitarist Robb Cappelletto, who has crafted a unique musical identity that straddles the line between jazz, rock, blues, and other genres, releases his new album Double Red on November 14, in performance with keyboardist Michael Shand, bassist Andrew Stewart and drummer Amhed Mitchel. Cappelletto – a faculty member at York University – has been putting out consistently interesting music since his debut album !!! was released in 2012, both under his own name and with the instrumental group re.verse, which has been heard in its residency slots at 416 Snack Bar and The Drake, as well as at Koerner Hall, collaborating with the likes of Shad and DJ Skratch Bastid. Cappelletto is a fiery player, with ample technical command of his instrument, but what sets him apart from his peers is his conscientious attention to the nuances of tone, and his commitment to building a multilayered sonic world in which his music can live. 

MAINLY CLUBS, MOSTLY JAZZ QUICK PICKS 

NOV 6 AND NOV 7, 9:30PM: Chet Doxas’ Landline, The Rex. Landline, a new project helmed by Montreal-born saxophonist Chet Doxas, play in support of their new self-titled album, the material for which the band composed cooperatively through a musical version of “broken telephone.” With pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. 

NOV 14, 9:30PM: Robb Cappelletto Group, The Rex. Robb Cappelletto celebrates the release of his new album Double Red, the latest entry in the fusion guitarist’s discography. With keyboardist Michael Shand, bassist Andrew Stewart and drummer Amhed Mitchel. 

NOV 14 AND NOV 15, 9PM: Gentiane MG Trio, Jazz Bistro. An up-and-coming musician from Montreal, Gentiane MG (Michaud-Gagnon) leads her eponymous trio (bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel) at Jazz Bistro in support of her recent album, Wonderland.

NOV 20 AND NOV 21, 9:30PM: Dan Weiss Trio, The Rex. Playing compelling modern jazz, drummer Dan Weiss’ trio, with pianist Jacob Sacks and bassist Thomas Morgan, has been active for over a decade, and has developed a thrillingly intuitive musical connection. 

NOV 26, 8PM: Dan McCarthy Quartet, Jazz Bistro. Toronto-born vibraphonist Dan McCarthy returns from New York with a new project and a new album, both of which feature guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren. 

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, on Instagram and on Twitter.

vision string quartetThe Strings aspect of Music Toronto’s 48th season gets off to an auspicious start with the local debut of two European-based string quartets, the more established Quartetto di Cremona from Genoa, Italy, and the more recently formed (2012) vision quartet centred in Berlin. The Quartetto is said to be the spiritual heir to the fondly remembered Quartetto Italiano; the vision string quartet (like the Polish Apollon Musagète Quartet) plays standing up but in addition performs their concerts completely from memory. Both ensembles will be new for me, so I asked Music Toronto’s artistic producer Jennifer Taylor to give me some background. How long had they been on her radar? How did she discover them? What excites her about them?

She told me that in general she takes a lot of recommendations from artists, managers, other series presenters and concertgoers. She also does a lot of Internet research and listening. “Quartetto are a 20-year quartet; I had heard of them some years ago, but … then they made what I think was their first North American tour, and I wasn’t on it – too late for my planning. They have some well-regarded recordings. In fall 2017 they were entrusted with the Paganini Strads, owned by the Nippon Foundation, that the Tokyo [Quartet] played in their final years. They later signed with a New York management who by coincidence were the Tokyo’s original management three decades ago. It is easier to invite Europeans who have North American management because there may be a tour; very tough to bring anyone for a single date. So I invited them.

“The vision string quartet – they prefer no caps in their name (I’ve just recently been told) – won two European competitions in 2016, but as a four-year-old quartet, I hesitated. Then they signed with a British management I know well, and I started getting info and recordings in early 2017. Later in 2017 they signed with a New York manager I know even better, and we started talking. I made the arrangement in October 2018. Yes, the standing up – I think for the vision it is part of being edgy young guys. We’ll see.

Read more: October is a Chamberfest

Vania Chan (right) and RezonanceSoprano Vania Chan caught the Handel bug as a young voice student at York University. She had started her training believing she was a mezzo-soprano and was, as she describes it, just experimenting with her upper register. But then she began working with mezzo Catherine Robbin at York. “When I first met her she knew right away. She asked me to try higher repertoire and Oh had I Jubal’s lyre (from Joshua) was the first Handel I’d sung. I just loved getting into the coloratura. I was also given a recording of Alcina with Natalie Dessay as Morgana and heard her version of Tornami a vagheggiar. The sparkle of it amazed me. That’s when I started getting into my actual voice type.”

Morgana will return for an appearance in the program titled “Handel Heroines” that Chan is performing with the Rezonance Baroque Ensemble on October 6 at the Plaza Suite in the Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre. Chan and Rezonance’s artistic director Rezan Onen-Lapointe have known each other since high school years at the Cardinal Carter Academy of the Arts in North York. As young musicians still in training, they both attended the Halifax Summer Opera Festival and took part, alongside Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble, in a production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. This is where Cleopatra struck. The demanding eight-aria role is now one of Chan’s favourites and the forthcoming concert will include at least three of those: the slow V’adoro pupille and Piangerò, and the break-neck Da tempeste.

Read more: Handelian Heroines With Vania Chan

According to a fundamental theory of perspective in the visual arts (grossly oversimplified here), an image can be broken down into three distinct components: a background (the space furthest away from the viewer); the foreground (the area closest to the viewer’s eye) and the middleground, which defines the space between the foreground and background. Together, these areas combine to form the image’s composition. This idea of building perspective through layers of perception carries over well into other disciplines and, as we shall see, provides a useful platform for understanding an essential facet of classical music.

The concept of context affects every musical performance we encounter; and like the theory of composition outlined above, can be thought through in terms of background, middleground and foreground.

Some contexts are broader in scope and include those pieces of historical background information that are essential in understanding how an individual composer, style or work developed. In the case of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, for example, it is useful to know before listening that Beethoven was deaf when he composed and conducted this piece, and that the choral finale is Beethoven’s musical representation of universal brotherhood based on the Ode to Joy theme. For a composer as dense and innovative as Gustav Mahler, whose symphonic tomes can be immense and overwhelming to first-time listeners, a basic knowledge of the German symphonic lineage (Haydn led to Mozart, led to Beethoven, led to Brahms and Wagner, led to Bruckner, led to Mahler) can help provide some perspective and shape perceptions of a specific work in an informed way.

Middleground information includes those anecdotes and facts that inform our modern perspectives in relation to music. That the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of the Berlin Wall in 1989, soon after its toppling, is an important historical moment, as was the performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the site of the fallen World Trade Center 12 years later. Much like the composition of visual images, the musical middleground can easily be overlooked and even eliminated altogether, and the drawing of our attention to it is often a noteworthy and revelatory experience. (Consider the isolated girl in the middleground of Rembrandt’s Night Watch – how illuminatory, once made apparent!)

Perhaps the most important of the three layers of perspective, foreground context most informs our immediate perception of a musical work, taking the music, its venue and its audience and creating a micro-environment unique to that specific concert. Factors such as location (Is the concert in a formal concert hall, in an outdoor amphitheatre, or a converted parking garage?) and the social atmosphere (a white-tie fundraiser or gala is a very different experience from a jeans-and-T-shirt casual concert) provide different ways of looking at and listening to the musical works contained therein. Imagine, for example, hearing the Ninth Symphony in three places: in a concert hall; on the radio while caught in traffic driving to work; and blaring from tinny speakers outside McDonalds, in an attempt to keep misbehaving youth at bay. The musical work is the same each time, the performers may even be the same each time, but the environment in which we hear a specific piece of music inherently informs our response to that artwork on a case-by-case basis.

By changing essential components of a concert presentation, the performing artists themselves can redefine and recreate the contextual setup for a musical work. Because the back- and middleground contexts are essentially uneditable, the majority of these presenter-based decisions correspond with our foreground perceptions, as we shall see in three concerts this month, each of which varies a different aspect of the classical music experiential composition.

Place

Nuit Blanche is an annual cultural tradition in Toronto in which the city is transformed by hundreds of artists and nearly 90 art projects. This year’s event features a fascinating installation at the Aga Khan Museum; according to the project synopsis, Arrivals and Encounters: Sama will present music and art from around the world, inviting listeners “to listen to the rhythms and stories of artists whose roots extend around the globe. Sacred spiritual music and dance, including whirling dervishes, staged in quiet spaces will evoke the more contemplative side of the city. The museum grounds will host an illuminated sound installation, offering visitors the chance to experience art while feeling the pulse of the arrivals and encounters that shape our city.”

While this sounds like a fine opportunity to step outside of one’s musical comfort zone and a remarkably obfuscating and inappropriate inclusion within an early music column, it is perhaps even more remarkable (and redemptive for your columnist) to find Vivaldi on the program of such an event. At 7:30pm on October 5, musicians from Tafelmusik bring the music of the Red Priest to the Aga Khan, kicking off their Nuit Blanche exhibition with a disorientingly orthodox bang. The contextual question is clear: how will the venue and environment (whirling dervishes and all) change the audience’s experience and perception of Vivaldi’s music? One could certainly expect that the effect and affect originally intended by Vivaldi will be modified by the extraordinarily varied surroundings, and exactly how this is accomplished will undoubtedly be a highlight of the month.

Joni Mitchell on a flyer for the Riverboat, Yorkville 1967Genre

Johann Sebastian Bach and Joni Mitchell walk into a bar…

So continues Tafelmusik’s contextual subterfusion, this time with their Haus Musik: Café Counterculture concert at the Burdock Music Hall on October 10. Incorporating and juxtaposing music from the 18th and 20th centuries through a series of classical standards and new arrangements of popular hits, concertgoers can expect everything from, well, J.S. Bach to Joni Mitchell, tied together through the concept of the coffee house. In the words of Tafelmusik: “It’s 1730s Leipzig, Germany. J.S. Bach and his colleagues gather at Zimmerman’s coffee house for weekly concerts featuring the new music of the day. Fast forward to Toronto in the 1960s. Yorkville (now known as the ‘Mink Mile’) is a hub of subversion and anti-establishment activism. Undiscovered artists are making their breaks and international acts have come to sling it in underground dives and coffee houses. Legends of this counterculture scene pepper music collections across the world.”

An ingenious and creative programming idea, the inherently multi-genre concept of café counterculture provides an opportunity to combine music that does not at first appear to fit together at all, creating an opportunity to produce a concert experience greater than the sum of the parts. In this particular instance, the foreground context will be a constantly shifting, unexpected series of works that could give unsuspecting audience members a hint of temporal whiplash, but do so in favour of an innovative means of exposing fresh ears to the masterpieces of bygone eras.

Claude Le JeuneStyle

From extreme, genre-bending fluctuations within a single concert to more orthodox programming, the variation of context via musical means is a fluid and exploratory spectrum, as demonstrated by the Toronto Consort on October 25 and 26. In this instance, the fundamental organizational principle is the music of France, presented in a variety of forms and styles. Whether enjoyed in refined 16th-century courts or in today’s traditional music scene, the popular “voix de ville” songs and exquisite courtly music of Claude Le Jeune and his contemporaries or modern folk stylings, the appeal of French music has endured through the centuries. It is exactly these components, the countryside and court, combined with traditional fiddle and dance, that the Consort combines this month, a juxtaposition in triplicate that is sure to enthrall those in attendance.

With artistic direction by Katherine Hill, a well-known early music performer and director of music at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, and guest fiddler and dancer Emilyn Stam, the musical quality will undoubtedly be top notch and well worth a listen.

After a relatively slow September, this month is full of remarkable and worthwhile early music concerts for all who enjoy the genre in all its forms. From conventional concerts in traditional venues to more exploratory programming in contemporary spaces, there is something for everyone in this issue of the WholeNote, and I encourage you to support as many of our talented artists as possible. Have questions as you develop your own contextual compositions? Email earlymusic@thewholenote.com for your October tutorial.

EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

OCT 19, 2:30PM and OCT 20, 7:30 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Heliconian Hall. One of Handel’s miniature dramatic works (referred to as a ‘little opera’ in a letter by the composer while it was being written), Acis and Galatea was the pinnacle of pastoral opera in England, Handel’s most popular dramatic work, and his only stage work never to have left the opera repertory. This is a fine opportunity to hear the University of Toronto’s rising stars, led by the superbly talented Larry Beckwith.

OCT 27, 2PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. “Bach’s Extraordinary Oboe.” St. Barnabas Anglican Church. Dig deep into the Bach canon with his works for oboe, an instrument for which Bach was undoubtedly fond: not only does this instrument receive some of the most beautiful passages within the cantatas and passions, but Bach also composed four concerti, passed down in various forms and instrumentations and reconstructed for oboe and ensemble. Featuring U of T alum Ruth Denton on the double reed, this concert will surely be a delight.

OCT 31 TO NOV 9, various times: Opera Atelier. Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Whether intimately familiar with this opera or only aware of it from the death-premonition scene in Amadeus, this opera is a sublime opportunity for the operatic veteran and neophyte alike to experience Mozart’s masterwork through a historically informed lens. With a superstar cast and magnificent orchestra, you can’t go wrong with this classic.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Against the Grain's 2017 production of La BohèmeQuick now. What do Bob’s Burger Bar in Kenora, the Red Lion Smokehouse in Thunder Bay and the SRO Nightclub in Sudbury have in common? Answer: they are the last three stops, October 5, 6 and 8 on an 11-city cross-Western Canada tenth anniversary tour of Against the Grain Theatre’s groundbreaking production of La Bohème, before, fittingly, settling in for a further 11 performances at the Tranzac Club in Toronto. The Tranzac was where, in 2011, Against the Grain burst onto the Toronto opera scene with their interpretation of the classic Puccini love story updated from 19th-century Paris to the uncompromisingly unglamorous environs of this iconic Brunswick Ave watering hole. If you’ve missed the show so far (or just missed it while it was gone) you get 11 opportunities to make amends, between October 11 and 25, and they’ve put together an anniversary season that reflects both the company’s past and ongoing creative flair. Take a look. They are at againstthegraintheatre.com

Turning 40 in style

Take the streetcar almost as far south as you can down Bathurst Street from the Tranzac, and you come to Stackt Market, at 28 Bathurst, built entirely of shipping containers and home to more than 30 retailers, service providers, event spaces and, yes, a brewery. As unlike the Tranzac as one might imagine, if you make it down there October 10 at 6pm (and have $225 to spare) you can join a select group of opera aficionados in raising at least one glass to Tapestry Opera, celebrating 40 groundbreaking years on the Toronto and North American new opera scene. Originally the brainchild of artistic director Wayne Strongman and Claire Hopkinson, now heading the Toronto Arts Council, Tapestry has successfully weathered the proverbial succession storm, and in the capable hands of artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, continues to break new ground, carrying the essential storytelling power of the operatic art form into territories and media that were unimagined when the company was formed, intersecting in the past with punk rock, film, Persian classical music, physical theatre, turntablism and hip-hop. Next month, November 20 to 23, the ongoing program/project/series they call TAP:EX will take their operatic explorations into Sidewalk Labs experimental workspace at 307 Lakeshore E. for a night of “experiential opera.” (They will also be reviving Chan Ka Nin and Mark Brownell’s monumental 2001 mainstage opera, Iron Road, in an opera-in-concert remount next July 15 at Koerner Hall. But that will definitely be another story!) Go to tapestry.com for details of everything they have in store.

Erin Wall. Photo by Kristin HoebermannOpera in Concert

Tapestry’s Iron Road next July would be a very long time to wait for fans of opera in concert as an art form. But there’s never a dearth of the art form here. At one end of the spectrum, Opera by Request hits the ground running, October 4 and 5, at their intimate College St. United home base, with an OperOttawa presentation of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, with Cristina Pisani, soprano (Leila); Robert Martin, tenor (Nadir); Norman Brown, baritone (Zurga); and John Holland, bass (Nourabad). And at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of size of undertaking – November 7 and November 9 – the Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents an opera-in-concert rendition of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, with Erin Wall, soprano; Joshua Hopkins, baritone; Andrew Staples, tenor; Nathan Berg, bass-baritone; Liv Redpath, soprano; and others; along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the inimitable Sir Andrew Davis conducting.

Opera Atelier

Back in 1996, as a fledgling opera company, Opera Atelier took a Mozartian sacred cow by the horns, mounting what was not only the first period production of Don Giovanni in North America, but one which stood the Bergmanesque gloom of standard treatments of the opera on its head, by exploring with savage glee the darkness of the comedy inherent in the plot. Remounted in 2004 and again in 2011, this year’s iteration boasts a cast that as always, is a blend of familiar faces – performers for whom Atelier’s commedia-based, stylized gestural vocabulary is comfortable second nature – and newcomers who more often than not, once they get past the learning curve, understand and revel in the freedom of not having to worry about what their bodies are doing while their voices soar. This production features Colin Ainsworth, Gustav Andreassen, Mireille Asselin, Stephen Hegedus, Carla Huhtanen, Olivier Laquerre, Meghan Lindsay and Douglas Williams in the singing cast; Marshall Pynkoski, stage director; Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, choreographer; Artists of Atelier Ballet; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; and David Fallis, conductor. It opens October 31 and continues November 2, 3, 8 and 9. operaatelier.com

Canadian Opera Company

I talked a bit about the COC’s Turandot in the previous column, but the run, about to open as we go to press, continues to October 27, by which time, I predict, lovers and haters of Robert Wilson’s uncompromising staging will have lined up on opposite sides of the Four Seasons lobby to do battle. As I said then, having seen Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, it’s a production I would not miss.

At risk of getting lost in the fog of operatic audience wars is the second of the two fall COC productions, opening Oct 12 and running till October 26, Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano (Rusalka); Pavel Černoch, tenor (The Prince); Ŝtefan Kocán, bass (Vodnik); Elena Manistina, mezzo (Jezibaba); Keri Alkema, soprano (The Foreign Princess); Johannes Debus, conductor; and Sir David McVicar, stage director. MacVicar’s new production, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago has been getting rave reviews, and if the chemistry that Kerri Alkema (as Giovanna Seymour) and Radvanovsky generated in Anna Bolena here in May 2018 is anything to go by, we are in for a treat. coc.ca 

And there’s always more

Check out the Music Theatre listings in this issue of the magazine (or go to “Just Ask” under the listings tab on our website) for details on all the following:

OCT 8, 12 noon: Canadian Opera Company/U of T Opera. Vocal Series: Parlami d’Amore - Speak to Me of Love. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

OCT 19, 2:00: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Acis and Galatea. Handel: Acis and Galatea. Heliconian Hall.

OCT 31, 12:10: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Thursdays at Noon: Opera Spotlight - The Marriage of Figaro Preview. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto.

NOV 1, 7:30: Royal Conservatory of Music. The Glenn Gould School Fall Opera: Siren Song. Music by Jonathan Dove, libretto by Nick Dear. Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Telus Centre.

NOV 1 and 3, 7:30: Opera York. La Traviata. Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com. Opera-related leads and news should be directed to opera@thewholenote.com.

Two unconventional music theatre works opening in early October caught my eye right away for the excitement of their risk-taking and also for the clear desire each production has to find new ways to involve audiences in a deeper, more immersive way.

Ghost QuartetGhost Quartet: Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, a four-person ghost-storytelling “live concept album” presented in a joint production by the new Eclipse Theatre Company (Kiss of the Spiderwoman at the Don Jail) and the always innovative Crows Theatre, is the first. Malloy is best known for his Tony Award-winning popera take on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Ghost Quartet is a smaller show but hugely ambitious within a deceptively straightforward format. A camera breaks, and four friends drink whiskey and tell each other ghost stories in an interwoven narrative that spans seven centuries drawing on sources as varied as The Arabian Nights, a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Japanese Noh Drama, Grimmsian fairly tales, grisly urban legends and 19th-century broadsheet ballads. The music is equally eclectic including gospel, folk ballad, honky-tonk, electropop, doo-wop and jazz. The cast is made up of four of Toronto’s top actor/singer/musicians: Hailey Gillis (star of Soulpepper’s Rose), Kira Guloien (Doctor Zhivago on Broadway, The Who’s Tommy at Stratford), and Beau Dixon (Soulpepper’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Harlem Duet), led by Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players and Harrow Fair) who is also the music director.

Wanting to find out more about how this show works from the inside and how they will be approaching the production, I spoke with Andrew Penner and stage director Marie Farsi:

WN: What do you think led Dave Malloy to create this show in the format of a “live concept album”?

Marie Farsi: It was definitely an homage to great masterpieces made on vinyl. Dave explains that his desire was to take the narrative form of the rock concept album “with all of its vaguery and weirdness, symbolism and surrealism, adrenaline and angst” and theatricalize it. In the show, each of the songs is announced by one of the performers with its track number and title. I think the intention is to use it as a device to reframe the narrative and encourage a looser frame of mind.

How do the different styles of music contribute to the telling of the individual stories, and the overall theme of the show?

MF: Through different styles of music, we can paint different worlds for the audience to travel to through their own imagination; and the restlessness and unexpectedness of the music captures love, which is so beautifully complicated. It makes us feel alive and invincible until it’s gone, or stolen, or lost.

What is it like as music director, working with a cast of actor/singer/musicians to master all these different styles? 

Andrew Penner: The three other performers in the show are killers. We made sure of that before we went ahead with the show. They’re all amazing multi-instrumentalists with great instincts. Plus, we’re all really hard on ourselves in the best way. The styles are very genre spanning and we are trying to bend them as far as we can.

Will the staging be traditional or more immersive than we usually expect to mimic the telling of ghost stories and how they interconnect? 

MF: The staging will definitely be more immersive. Among the multiple storylines, one is simply the four performers (Hailey, Kira, Beau and Andrew) as friends, jamming, drinking whiskey and telling each other ghost stories. So I anchored the reality of the show in the “here and now” of the theatre: instruments, microphones, cables are all on stage. However, I’d say our production is even more theatrical than the original, which was presented at the McKittrick Hotel and had a real concert feel, because I’m creating a secret hideout for the band, placing it in a more natural environment. I was inspired by the Black Forest associated with the Brothers Grimm, and the stories we tell around the campfire. We’re bringing the magic of fairytales and the wonder of haunted forests a bit more to life on stage!

Have the different styles of music led to different styles of staging within the one show?

MF: I’d say the different worlds have led to different styles of music and staging. Many ghosts haunt (or come visit?) our four actor-musicians each night. We eventually understand piece by piece that the characters are reincarnations of each other, and ultimately past lives of the performers. Some of those past realities have very distinct atmospheres (created musically and sonically of course) that I am amplifying through visuals.

How do you expect audiences to react to this mix of storytelling elements?

MF: I’m expecting total disorientation and confusion at first, but in a very good and intended way. The show is a huge mishmash of various horror and fantasy tropes, and taps into our irresistible curiosity for mysteries (the murder kind along with the mystery of ghosts, life, love and death). The show is a very well-constructed puzzle to solve as well as an exciting adventure quest for the main character Rose. I have no doubt that the audience will be wrapped in the dreamy and dark.

Ghost Quartet runs October 5 to November 3 at Streetcar Crowsnest: crowstheatre.com.

Broken Tailbone. Photo by Erin BrubacherBroken Tailbone: The second show that caught my eye is even more immersive than Ghost Quartet, aiming to not only wrap the audience completely in the show’s context but to make them moving, dancing participants in the story. Broken Tailbone was inspired by multiple award-winning creator and performer Carmen Aguirre’s personal experience arriving in Vancouver as a child with her parents, all Chilean refugees, and helping her family recreate wildly popular makeshift Latinx dance halls. She also really broke her tailbone, which comes into the story.

While there are chairs around the sides for those who need to sit, most of the audience is literally on their feet learning to salsa, being taught by Aguirre as she takes them through a partly choreographed, partly improvised immersion in an irresistible musical environment that weaves together hilarious personal stories with tales of radical resistance in South American history.

The show was wildly successful in Vancouver in 2018 and I got in touch with its creator to find out more about the inspiration behind it and what it is like to perform.

WN: What made you decide to create this show – to share your own experience with audiences in this unusual format?

Carmen Aguirre: About six or seven years ago I spent two years touring the country with my one-woman show Blue Box, also dramaturged and directed by Brian Quirt, and also developed and produced by Nightswimming Theatre. In that show, I talk for 80 minutes. Non-stop. I literally stand in one spot for almost the entire show. The theatricality of that piece lies 100 percent in the text.

However, in the middle of the piece a loud salsa song comes on seemingly out of nowhere, and I break into dance. I invite the audience to join me onstage and we have an impromptu dance party. Once the song is over, they sit back down and I continue with the story. There were several reasons to have that moment in Blue Box, which did actually make sense in terms of the content of the play. Every night the response was different, of course. (There were a couple of times that every single person in the audience got up and danced and there was one time that no one did.) Brian Quirt and I were really taken with that part of the show and decided to create a piece where the audience is dancing with me the entire time. The fact that the form is simultaneously accessible and confrontational is compelling to us. 

How does the audience follow the story while they are in the midst of learning to salsa?

Interestingly, they follow the story far better than when they are seated. The act of listening while you’re moving makes you listen better. You are taking in a story about a dance hall while you are dancing in an impromptu dancehall, or a story about the dance form that you are actually doing in the moment, or geopolitical history of Latin America from a Marxist perspective, all while listening to a song with political lyrics and learning to dance to it. You are listening, processing, digesting with your entire body. It is embodied listening.

How does this change the usual performance experience for you?

I’m juggling a lot during the show. Remembering my lines; really watching the audience and interacting with them because it truly is a dance lesson; improvising based on what I’m seeing; translating bits and pieces of the songs; and dancing! It is completely immersive for me and for the audience. This type of performance requires you to be completely yourself. There are no filters. 

How intricate is the relationship of the music to the storytelling and immersive staging?

There are 15 songs in the play that were curated by Brian and I over a series of workshops. I brought in dozens of songs that mean something to me, each with a story attached. We played with all of them, and at the end of each workshop process we shared what we had with an audience. We finally distilled it down to the 15 songs in the play based on the particular story that was attached to it and how it fit in the over-all narrative arc.

Broken Tailbone runs from October 2 to 13 at Factory Theatre: factorytheatre.ca.

For some of the other exciting and varied shows opening this month please see my quick picks below.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

OCT 2, 8PM: No Change In The Weather, Jane Mallet Theatre. In a world where Come From Away is at the top of the musical theatre pinnacle, here comes another show from the Rock but this time looking at a story older than 9/11 The identity of Newfoundland and Labrador is explored through a historical lens focusing on the 23-year tenure of Premier Joey Smallwood and the controversial creation of the Churchill Falls power plant. Packed with traditional music the show has been on a cross-country tour and is garnering great word of mouth: nochangeinitheweather.com.

OCT 3 to 5, 9 to 13: Caminos Festival, Aluna Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts. Artscape Daniels Spectrum. An increasingly important launching pad for new work by Canadians from the South American diaspora and Indigenous populations, this year’s program features some exciting experimental music theatre content including The Art of Storytelling, Catarsis, We are, what we are, The Mente, and the free Aluna Cabaret (October 10 to 12) alunatheatre.ca.

OCT 9 TO 20: Something for the Buoys. Sapling Productions/Bygone Theatre. George Ignatieff Theatre, A new musical that sounds like a fun take on an old-style musical à la Anything Goes or On the Town, in one of Toronto’s best intimate theatre spaces.

OCT 13, 7:30 PM: ONE NIGHT ONLY. “Portrait of a Collaboration.” Meighan Forum, Stratford Festival Theatre Lobby. A rare treat of an evening with celebrated composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and many Disney shows) in conversation with one of the Festival’s best kept secrets, the multi-talented Marion Adler, interwoven with performances of songs from Little Pinks, the musical they created together from Damon Runyon’s short story.

OCT 20, 2:30PM: Fallis & Tiefenbach. Haliburton Concert Series. If you have never seen the inimitable Mary Lou Fallis (soprano) and Peter Tiefenbach (piano) in concert, now is your chance! Their theatrical concerts can leave you helpless with delighted laughter and this one promises to have songs from the very best of their Primadonna shows as well as “a sendup of every voice recital you’ve ever been to.”

OCT 25, 7:30PM: Urinetown, (The Musical) in concert. Toronto Musical Concerts. Al Green Theatre. TMC concert stagings of important musicals are getting stronger all the time. Urinetown is more of a parody than a serious look at the dangers of politics gone wrong, but this should be fun. Featuring Erica Peck from We Will Rock You and Kinky Boots.

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.

With the arrival of the fall season in the world of new and experimental music comes the next installment of the X Avant New Music Festival at the Music Gallery. Over the years, this festival has organized itself around various themes, many of which have focussed on different challenges inherent in the artistic practices of those who engage in the creation of adventurous ideas in the arts of music and sound. This year is of course no exception; the festival will be exploring the notion of how artists move forward in their careers and the various challenges and risks involved in that. Sometimes, as the Music Gallery’s David Dacks told me, the artist’s life is all about daily survival, which creates a tension when pursuing “the next big idea.” As Dacks notes, the political parties in the upcoming Canadian federal election have adopted the idea of “moving forward,” as a slogan, but what does this really mean for the creator and how should this idea which our culture takes for granted be challenged? It is, after all, the motivating concept behind capitalism – the idea of limitless growth, but, as Dacks points out, the current ecological crisis is forcing the culture to rethink the limits of growth – and to create new models of cooperation and collective action. This is needed in the arts too.

This month’s column delves more deeply into two curatorial visions: first, this year’s X Avant, and, second, a fall series of “Quiet Concerts,” at the Cedarbrae Public Library in Scarborough, curated by composer, musician and researcher Christopher Willes, as part of an artist-in-residency hosted by the Toronto Public Library. Willes’ series is an examination of the experience and practice of listening and performing in public spaces; the unique aspect of these performances is that they explore the use of headphones as an aspect of listening in a quiet public space.

Germaine LiuX Avant

To begin though, let’s return to this year’s lineup for the X Avant Festival, which opens on October 17 with a concert featuring the world premiere of Still Life by composer and percussionist Germaine Liu. The piece is a composition/sounding installation activated by five players: Susanna Hood, Julie Lassonde, Germaine Liu, Heather MacPhail, and Sahara Morimoto. Liu describes this work in the following way: “The installation is made up of a collection of found objects which will be prepared or left as they are and brought to life through sound and movement by the five players. The goal of the performance is to create an opportunity to honour these found objects with an attempt to focus on the exchanges and negotiations of partnership between object and human.” Liu states that she is “particularly interested in exploring play and imagining objects in fresh ways through living our processes rather than performing them. I have a deep curiosity for relationships like stillness and movement, negative space and positive space, silence and sound.”

Liu has an intriguing approach to the X Avant theme of moving forward: a desire to be still and take on the role of observer. From this position she seeks to learn “to listen and take mindful actions from inspiration.” Over the last year she has been revisiting scores by Pauline Oliveros, and has been particularly drawn to a direction given in one of Oliveros’ scores: “All that is required is a willing commitment to the given conditions”. Combining these words and her love for found objects that she has recently experienced in her work with composer Juliet Palmer, she states that she wants “to make living creations that have the goal of being inclusive and a space for any players to thrive in, with the only requirement being a willingness to participate.”

(Readers may recall my September 2019 column where I spoke about Palmer’s piece Ukiyo, floating world that was created from improvisations using floating ocean debris in Japan. Liu was part of the live interactions with these ocean objects along with Palmer and Sonja Rainey.)

On the Friday night of the X Avant Festival (October 18), Lido Pimienta will be performing songs from her new album – her next step after winning the 2017 Polaris Prize. However, these songs will be presented in a completely different way at the festival from how they appear on the album, being performed by brass ensemble and choir. Dacks quoted Pimienta’s description of this festival version as “the wind in the background” of the new album. Saturday’s concert on October 19 will feature a collaboration that Dacks himself was pivotal in setting up. He has brought together one of Toronto’s senior reggae and dub artists, Willi Williams, to perform with indie electronica artists New Chance. For Dacks, the inspiration behind this pairing was that mixing performers from different generations and different forms doesn’t happen much in Toronto, so this is an experiment to see what will emerge. The final concert on October 20 will highlight a 90-minute work by Ithaca, NY composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies, The Reinvention of Romance (2018), performed by Nick Storring on cello and Hennies on percussion. Toronto audiences will have heard the Thin Edge New Music Collective perform Hennies’ film and sound work, Contralto, at TIFF in 2018; her appearance at this year’s X Avant is a perfect example of artistic “next steps.”

Christopher WillesQuiet Concerts at Cedarbrae

In preparation for interviewing Christopher Willes about his Quiet Concerts Series, I attended the first of five headphone concerts in this series on September 15, with the remaining four concerts scheduled over the months of September and October. This concert featured Toronto-based vocalist/songwriter Robin Dann whose performance centred on the phenomenon known as ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. This practice has a cult-like following on YouTube whose practitioners focus on the close miking of sound, with the intention of creating sounds to stimulate the body with therapeutic results. In Dann’s concert she combined whispering, singing with electronic keyboard accompaniment, performing on such items as combs, brushes, and a foldout fan, the process of boiling water for the making of tea, and reading a children’s story. I experimented with taking off my headphones at several points to see how audible the acoustic sound was and to my surprise discovered I could barely hear what was happening. With the headphones on however, it was a completely different story – very close-up and intimate.

For Willes, curating this concert series is an opportunity to explore how listening can free one to have a different understanding and experience of a given space, and how listening functions in a public space to create a different type of gathering together. Using headphones in a traditionally quiet environment offers a uniquely individual way of experiencing the sounds being performed, and Willes is interested in what kinds of effects this has on the listener. For him as curator, these concerts are also a good way to meet people who use the library, and are part of his overall residency at Cedarbrae, a residency that will also include sound-based workshops for children and teenagers. Part of the challenge of the concerts is figuring out how to involve people as listeners, and he is devising various strategies to encourage the library patrons to listen in, including walking about as the concert unfolds. Although listening through the wireless headphones in the vicinity of the performance taking place is the main way of listening, the concert is also available for online listening for people working at their laptops while in the library, thus creating an invisible audience.

As I mentioned, there are four more concerts in this series, with three of them during the month of October. All the remaining concerts will feature a collaboration between a musician and a poet, thus mixing two types of sound making – textual sound and a musical/soundscape performance. On October 6, the concert will feature the work of Philippe Melanson and Christopher Dela Cruz. Both performers work strictly with electronics, so there will be no acoustic sound present. Melanson works with his own chance-operated synthesizers while Dela Cruz will be using one of his sound sculptures to operate a turntable to play poetry records from the vinyl archives of the library. On October 20, Germaine Liu will bring her fascination with the relationships between objects and with different forms of kinetic interactions to her collaboration with Aisha Sasha John. Likewise, John has an interest in presence and works with silence in her poetry. How they will approach performing quietly will be revealed during the performance. The final event of the series is on October 27, featuring Karen Ng and Fan Wu. Ng will be performing on her woodwind instruments using extended techniques and wants to create a close mike system for the performance. Wu is a prolific poet with a dry sense of humour and Willes is anticipating quite an entertaining afternoon between the two of them. The other concert will have already occurred before this issue is published – on September 29 Gayle Young performed on one of her stringed instruments in collaboration with poet Tom Gill.

With each concert offering a very different approach to the overall concept of listening together in a more isolated way through the headphone experience, this series is essentially an experimentation and exploration of how togetherness can be experienced in new ways in a public space we associate with quiet and internal focus. It could get a bit raucous and even quite political, Willes suggests.

More information about each concert can be found on the individual Facebook event pages, accessible through this link: tiny.cc/quietconcerts. Details about van transportation from both the downtown area and U of T’s Scarborough campus to the Cedarbrae library can also be accessed on these event pages. 

IN WITH THE NEW QUICK PICKS

OCT 3, 8PM: Soundstreams begins their season with “Top Brass,” a concert mix of classical and jazz genres featuring three trumpet performers performing world premieres by Anna Pidgorna (The Three Woes), Brian Current (Serenade for Three Trumpets) and Heather Schmidt (Titanomachy). For details see David Jaeger’s “Soundstreams and the Trumpets of October” elsewhere in this issue.

OCT 5, 7PM: Leaf Music/Gillian Smith. A CD launch of Into the Stone, featuring works for violin and piano by Alice Ping Yee Ho (Caprice), Veronika Krausas (Inside the Stone), Ana Sokolović (Cinque danze per violino solo), Canadian composer Carmen Braden, Belgian composer Ysaÿe (1858-1931), and Baroque-era composer Telemann.

OCT 6, 8PM: Esprit Orchestra launches their new season with I Hit My Head and Everything Changed, which is also the title of a new commissioned work by Brian Harman to be premiered at the concert. Compositions by Alexia Louie (Love Songs for a Small Planet), English composer Thomas Adès (Overture to The Tempest) and Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (Left, alone) complete the program.

OCT 19, 7:30PM: Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts along with Full Frequency Productions in Kingston present “Orchestral Virtuosity” with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A new work by Jessie Montgomery will be on the program.

OCT 20, 3:30PM: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 125th Anniversary Gala Concert, “Singing Through Centuries,” includes a newly commissioned work by Andrew Balfour, Mamihimowin (The act of singing praises), to represent the third of the three centuries the TMC has been active in.

DEC 6, 8PM: Music Gallery and Bad New Days present “Melancholiac: The Music of Scott Walker,” an event that is part concert, part spectacle, part existential talk show. Also on DEC 7, 4PM.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

I mentioned in my last column that I injured my left shoulder in a fall on June 20, just as the Toronto Jazz Festival was starting – timing has not always been my long suit. Like most accidental falls, it was silly and avoidable, but only in hindsight. I was about to put out the recycling bin, which was quite heavy owing to some stranger mysteriously filling it with an outrageous number of wine bottles. My neighbour Gary was standing at the bottom of the steps and, noticing I was struggling with the weight, decided to lend a helping hand by grabbing the bottom of the bin and pulling it. The sudden yank caught me off guard and I did a spectacular twisting tumble down the steps – the international judges would have given me 9.5s across the board for clumsiness, which has always been my long suit. Just as well I play the bass, but as I was about to discover, I wouldn’t be playing it for quite a while.

I was lucky in that the bin broke my fall and prevented my head from smashing on the pavement, preventing a concussion. But otherwise I was buggered; I’d landed in an awkward position with the left arm bent up behind my back at an angle I was pretty sure was not natural. My wife Anna, and Gary, helped me to my feet and the arm felt dead; I couldn’t move it or feel anything except a dull ache, which started to intensify.

John AlcornI iced the shoulder, which seemed to be the main problem, and took some Advil for the inflammation. As the shock wore off the reality set in – I could barely move the left arm, certainly not enough to play the bass. The next night I was to play a festival gig at Jazz Bistro with John Alcorn which I had been looking forward to because it involved such wonderful players – Drew Jurecka on violin and clarinet, Reg Schwager on guitar and Mark Micklethwaite on drums. I hated to do it but there was nothing for it except to call John and tell him he needed to get a sub, no easy task on such short notice. He took it well and, incredibly, Neil Swainson was available to take my place. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to cancel out of other upcoming gigs as well, and made the necessary phone calls.

An aside: Neil also subbed for me on a Pilot gig a few days later with Mike Murley, Harrison Argatoff and Harry Vetro. When a bassist as good as Neil is available twice on short notice during Jazz Festival time... well, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The morning after the fall I awoke and soon noticed another problem: my left wrist and hand were incredibly sore and swollen, roughly the size and colour of a ham hock. I hadn’t noticed this at first and immediately iced the hand, trying to fight off the growing panic that my issues were worse than I had first thought. It was a losing battle. An irony – one that I could have done without – is that my wife Anna has been suffering for months from a similar injury to the same shoulder, enduring a lot of pain and limited mobility. I wondered if it would be the same for me and how we would cope with basic daily functioning now that we both had broken wings. I realized it would be weeks, maybe months, till I could play the bass and this sent me to a dark place. Playing the bass and just schlepping to gigs has become harder with aging, but this had taken it to new level.

I came out of this despair after about a day or so. Despite having a deep cynical streak, I’m a cockeyed optimist at heart – probably one of the reasons I chose a “career” in jazz – and I began to feel more philosophical about the setback. I heard a voice inside me saying, “Steve, you’ve been pounding on that big goddamn log for 45 years now, you’ve given at the office, so maybe having to take a break from it for a couple of months is not the worst thing ever. Try to enjoy the summer, kick back and relax, watch some baseball, see how the other half lives.”

This small optimism was helped by my first visit to East Toronto Orthopaedic & Sports Injury Clinic, where I met Mackenzie Merritt, the splendid young man who would be my physiotherapist. He examined the arm and tested it for range of motion and told me I likely had a full tear of the supraspinatus tendon in the shoulder, part of the rotator cuff, a diagnosis later confirmed by an MRI. I explained to him about being a jazz bassist and tried to demonstrate the movements that bass playing required of the left am, which he understood immediately. He said this was typically a slow-healing injury and that I was probably looking at six to eight weeks of rehabbing before I would be able to start practising again. He showed me some simple exercises designed to increase strength and range of motion in the shoulder and also to loosen it. He also told me about “muscle guarding,” essentially the mind protecting the muscles by “telling” them not to do certain things which might be painful. He said there would be pain but the good news was that I couldn’t do further damage to the muscle unless I had another fall calamity.

This was heartening and I set about faithfully doing the exercises, while gradually the swelling and soreness in the hand and wrist subsided. I began weekly physio appointments where Mackenzie manipulated and stretched the shoulder and ramped up the difficulty of the exercises I was to do at home. These involved stretching and lifting the arm at various angles to increase flexibility, and some resistance training to strengthen the muscle. Gradually I began to notice improvement; there was still soreness but I was able to do more with the arm.

Meanwhile, back at the bass ... I was concerned about getting rusty and losing my calluses, so I began just plucking the open strings to keep my right hand in shape, which was pretty boring. Toward the end of July I decided to try lifting the left arm up enough to get on the fingerboard and begin fingering some notes. There was an initial pinch but I found that if I angled the bass back toward me – or better still, sat down – I could use my left arm to actually play some. It was a Eureka moment and I began practising this way a little every day, increasing from about ten minutes to half an hour. I was usually quite sore afterward and was concerned but Mackenzie told me not to worry about it, that this was progress.

I had an upcoming gig with the Mike Murley trio on August 18 at the PEC Jazz Festival, with my son Lee filling on guitar for Reg Schwager, and I decided I’d made enough progress to manage doing it. As it approached I grew more anxious – it would be my first real performance in over two months and practising is one thing but actually playing for a solid hour on stage is another. It was a leap of faith because until I was out there and got a tune or two under my belt, I had no real idea how the arm would hold up or how long I’d be able to go. What if I had to suddenly stop? What if my left hand wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do? I stanched down these doubts, telling myself it was like riding a bicycle and that Mike and Lee had my back; there are no two musicians I trust more than them.

In the end, the concert was a kind of out-of-body experience, but it went fine. I felt a pretty serious burn in the shoulder after the second tune, which went away, only to return a couple of times later. Playing wasn’t as easy as it should have been but that was to be expected; I was really rusty. But the arm held up, none of the tempos slowed down and I didn’t have to stop playing at any time, so overall I was pleased. We closed with Just in Time at a “manly” tempo which I was able to keep up with and I even managed to solo on it – not the best solo I’ve ever played, but I had enough gas left to pull it off. Best of all, both Mike and Lee said that I sounded like myself.

The following Sunday I had a Jazz In The Kitchen gig, which would raise the stamina ante some. Murley’s concert was just one hour, whereas this would be two one-hour sets, with no amplifier and playing with drums, so there would be some more grinding involved. It was the first JITK gig in some time and there were some unique emotional stakes involved. For one thing, others in the band were also in the process of physical recovery. John Loach, who co-hosts and plays trumpet, had been suffering from embouchure issues since the spring from dental surgery gone wrong. Saxophonist Perry White is suffering from multi-concussion syndrome and has had to greatly reduce how much he can play. Patti Loach, who always plays a piano piece before each concert, had broken her collarbone in early July in a biking accident. So I had company among the walking wounded; only pianist Mark Eisenman and drummer Mark Micklethwaite were healthy.

Beyond this, there were memorials involved. Just days before the gig, Patti and John’s good friend Tex Arnold, a first-rate pianist and composer based out of New York, died suddenly after suffering multiple strokes. They were devastated, but in tribute to him decided to play his arrangement (for Margaret Whiting) of a complex and obscure song called The Coffee Shoppe. They brought it off brilliantly, injuries be damned. And this was the first JITK since John Sumner died in June. He’d played on the vast majority of the nearly 60 concerts we’ve done and his absence was palpable. We played a trio version of Django dedicated to him.

I’ve always thought of JITK as an easy gig and in a lot of ways it is, being held in a relaxed, small venue with good sound and a listening audience. I told myself to take it easy, but it’s a funny thing. Once the music starts and the players start coming at you with all that energy and intensity, you can’t take it easy, you have to match them. I found myself digging in for all I was worth, pain and all, sweat streaming everywhere. It hurt and I started to develop some serious blisters but I was overjoyed to be back where I belong, in the crucible of a jazz band creating in the moment. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying gigs I’ve ever done and when it was over I realized I was mostly back. Amen to that.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

OCT 5, 7:30PM: Yamaha Canada Music. Yamaha Canada Jazz Orchestra Featuring Bobby Shew. Led by Rick Wilkins. Walter Hall. 416-408-0208. $25. A rare Toronto appearance by the estimable veteran trumpeter Bobby Shew, with Rick Wilkins directing the band – enough said.

OCT 13, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers: Tribute to Ray Brown. Dave Young. 1570 Yonge St. 416-920-5211. Freewill offering. Religious service. A tribute to one of the great jazz bassists by one of our best, Dave Young.

OCT 24, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. U of T 12tet. Walter Hall. 416-978-3750. Free and open to the public. A first-rate ensemble of U of T jazz students directed by trombonist-arranger Terry Promane.

Warren VacheOCT 31, 5:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. The Irresistible Spirits of Rhythm Halloween Jazz Party. Warren Vaché, cornet; Guido Basso, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ken Peplowski, reeds, Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Russ Phillips, trombone; and others. Old Mill Toronto. Call Anne at 416-515-0200. $200. Complimentary cocktail reception, gala dinner service and grand raffle. Not sure who the “others” are, but the list of headliners alone makes this attractive, even at that price.

Toronto bassist Steve Wallace writes a blog called “Steve Wallace jazz, baseball, life and other ephemera” which can be accessed at wallacebass.com. Aside from the topics mentioned, he sometimes writes about movies and food.

Back to top