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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sara Constant

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

Read more: Quarantine-Fuelled Recalibration

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

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

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

Read more: Virtual Concerts Offer Some Consolation

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

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

Read more: When Your Instrument Is a Collective Noun

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

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

Read more: Personal POV on the Pandemic

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

Read more: Mundane Musings of A Cheese-Counter Flâneur

To wildly understate matters, these are not normal times. Neither will this be a normal WholeNote issue, nor is this a normal column for me, if such a thing exists. I don’t intend to make this seem all about me, but I do want to go into detail about how the pandemic shutdown has affected me as a musician and music teacher, in the knowledge that mine is just one of thousands of such stories, and in the hope that my experience will resonate with others in the same position. Or those who are worse off.

The crisis really hit home on March 11/12, when all professional sports shut down almost at once; this sent shockwaves about how real and serious this virus is, and remains. Within hours schools closed, social distancing measures were implemented and by March 16, Ontario had issued lockdown orders re non-essential businesses closing, limiting travel and large social gatherings, etc. To quote two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916: ”All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

On March 11, my wife Anna developed a sudden, burning cough, a concern for obvious reasons. It was diagnosed the next day as “only” pneumonia, perhaps the first time ever that a fairly serious illness was greeted with relief. On March 15, the last day I appeared in public, I developed a bad cold: sinus congestion, bad cough, but no other overt COVID-19 symptoms. We were laid up for about three weeks with these ailments and there were times we were certain that we had it. There’s nothing like a highly contagious and deadly virus to waken the inner paranoid hypochondriac in all of us. Like most others, we stayed home as much as possible and tried to stifle our uncertainties and anxieties.

Read more: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

Come What May

Readers of The WholeNote know me primarily as the Choral Scene columnist and an active participant in choral music in Toronto. My involvement and experiences in the rich cultural offerings of Toronto isn’t purely journalistic though, I’m also an avid theatregoer and it feels strange to me to go more than a few weeks without live art of some kind. This month I’m expanding our “What May Be” exploration beyond the choral world for some other touchpoints in the world of performing arts that I will miss.Choral Scene columnist Brian Chang at home recording a vocal part for a virtual choir project with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.. Photo by Jeff Slater.

What Was, and Yet Again May Be, Thoroughly Enjoyed

The biggest theatre event of the year, hands down, was the Toronto arrival of the touring production of Hamilton. Toronto was home to the “Phillip” cast of the tour, and this was the biggest selling, most expensive set of tickets ever released for a Toronto music theatre show. The state of emergency happened a month into the Toronto run. I had early tickets in February, a trick of luck with the subscription my mom and I have had for a decade. And then I was lucky enough to catch it again when a friend’s tickets became available and my boyfriend snatched them up so he could see it as well. I’m lucky, so very lucky to have experienced this magnificent theatre magic twice.

Read more: Maybe Soon? Or Maybe Not

Uxbridge Museum Heritage Day - I was dressed for the occasion and sitting on a bench that I donated.This month’s column is a very different perspective on the current status of music in our part of the world. There is no point in discussing in generalities the coronavirus pandemic. We have heard enough about it. As a columnist friend, Roger Varley, who writes for Cosmos, a weekly community newspaper in Uxbridge, recently remarked, “It’s rather like going to a Luciano Pavarotti concert only to hear him sing Nessun Dorma over and over again for two hours.” Instead, let’s have a more specific look at how this pandemic is affecting our musical world, starting by dividing our musical world into two groups: performers and listeners (with, hopefully, almost all performers being listeners to forms of music other than that which they perform). The coronavirus has forced us all into quarantine.


The regulations now in effect, affect music makers in several ways. First, as they stand, the laws have closed all possible locations where groups might rehearse or perform until further notice. Second, even if there were places, no groups larger than five individuals, other than those who live in the same location, are permitted to assemble. Third, all people in a group must maintain a separation of at least two metres.

Read more: Digitally Aided Rehearsals and Reminiscences
Back to top