The Toronto spring season continues to be a hotbed of music theatre creation and revival, from traditional works to many variations on cross-genre experimentation.

The National Ballet of Canada brought back one of the jewels in its crown with Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty. Over many years of watching ballet I had become disenchanted with the great Russian classics but when given the chance to see first, the dress rehearsal, and then the opening night of Sleeping Beauty in March, I found myself swept away by the company’s delighted ownership of Nureyev’s version of Petipa’s masterpiece and newly enchanted by the theatrical and dramatic variety in Tchaikovsky’s famous score. The dress rehearsal also featured a captivating last-minute pairing at the dress rehearsal of Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James as Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund for Act Three. On opening night Heather Ogden was an incandescent Princess Aurora, dancing as if without any thought of the technical demands of the rose adagio or grand pas de deux, for example (which she danced brilliantly). Ogden brought to life in every moment, with every gesture, the 16-year-old princess of Act One, the yearning dream princess of Act Two, and the newly mature, newly awakened princess of Act Three. Also outstanding was Tanya Howard as the Lilac Fairy, slim authority personified in her flowing lilac fairy dress, with echoes of her equally authoritative performance of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale last fall.

The Ballet’s spring season also brought to the Four Seasons Centre the mixed program Made in Canada featuring a fascinating piece by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite: Emergence, to an original score by Owen Belton. While the first two pieces of the program were lyrical and beautiful, Emergence startled with its stark, spiky, modern, almost science fiction-style choreography and music. Exciting in its energy and unexpected dangerous quality of movement, this piece was atavistically disturbing and sometimes terrifying to watch; the dancers all in black seeming to be a cross between black swans and insects, an impression enhanced by a score made up of unusual sounds, most disturbingly what sounded like a horde of beetles’ mandibles clicking.

Betroffenheit - photo by Michael SlobodianPite, recognized internationally as an innovative choreographer with commissions around the world as well as for her own company Kidd Pivot, also returns to Toronto April 19 to 22 with Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage, her co-creation with playwright-performer Jonathan Young (of Vancouver’s Electric Theatre Company) originally co-commissioned by Canadian Stage and presented as part of the 2015 Panamania Festival. Inspired by the real tragic event of Young’s young teenage daughter and two cousins dying in a cabin fire and his own spiral into despair that followed, the show was first conceived as a one-man play but with the collaboration of Pite as director and then choreographer it developed into something much more. The show interweaves play text (mostly through voiceover) with dance in a way that allows the creators and performers to go beyond the literal into the metaphysical and imaginary to explore the ideas and emotions in great depth. It has been described as a “harrowing representation of trauma and suffering” but is also heralded by almost everyone who has seen it as phenomenally powerful and inventive, particularly in its combination of dance and theatre. Almost a signature piece for Canadian Stage as an example of this type of cross-genre collaborative creation, it is also a cousin to another show in the Canadian Stage season: The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, which opens with previews on March 27. The world premiere of the new opera/musical version of Gogol’s short story by director and librettist Morris Panych with a score by James Rolfe and movement choreography by Wendy Gorling promises to be an exciting event, and particularly fascinating for anyone who saw Panych and Gorling’s original famously physical theatre “silent movie” style production of The Overcoat which wowed audiences here and around the world.

Also opening March 27 is the Toronto run of the touring production of An American in Paris, presented by Mirvish Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre. A more traditional musical offering, the draw for me is to see how the newly expanded and darker book by Craig Lucas will work with Christopher Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning choreography, and how both will compare to the beloved Gene Kelly film.

Mirvish Productions is also presenting another Tony Award-winning musical, the Musical Stage Company’s new production of Fun Home, coming to the intimate CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre April 13 to May 6; the first time that a local musical production has been part of the Off-Mirvish Program.

On a much smaller scale than the shows I have been talking about above, Fun Home tackles issues much bigger than the size of its cast in a show described as both heartbreaking and fiercely funny. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s best-selling semi-autobiographical 2006 graphic novel, it tells the story of Alison, a 43 year-old lesbian cartoonist, struggling to untangle her complex relationship with her deceased father. Moving between past and present, and connecting directly with the audience, Alison relives an unusual childhood growing up in a funeral home, her sexual awakening, unanswerable questions about her father’s secret life and eventual suicide and the effect that has on both herself and her family.

Hannah Levinson in 'Fun Home' - photo by Adam RankinAdapted by Lisa Kron, and with a 70s-inflected score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), this production of Fun Home will be brought to life by the Musical Stage Company’s usual brilliant creative home team of director Robert McQueen, music director Reza Jacobs and choreographer Stephanie Graham. The dynamite cast includes Stratford stars Cynthia Dale and Evan Buliung as Alison’s parents Helen and Bruce Bechdel, with Laura Condlln as Alison at 43, the narrator who holds the show together; Hannah Levinson as Small Alison (age 10), and as Medium Alison (age 19, university student), Toronto native Sara Farb.

As Toronto audiences may remember, Farb was one of two young Janes in the musical Jane Eyre that had its world premiere at the Royal Alex back in 1996. In a 2015 interview for In the Greenroom, she talked about her thoughts a few years earlier of getting out of the theatre business because “what [she] offered was too astray from the norm [of] musical theatre” and yet over the last five years at Stratford and in Toronto, she has developed into a powerful presence, most notably recently as the powerful goth-like Mary Tudor in The Last Wife (Stratford and Toronto) and The Virgin Trials, and her enigmatically sardonic Bob Dylan in the Musical Stage Company’s most recent Uncovered concert: Dylan and Springsteen – a fascinating segué to exploring the role of Medium Alison, a character discovering and coming to celebrate that she is a lesbian, and the effect that has on her family. You can hear Farb singing one of the signature songs of Fun Home, “Changing My Major” on Youtube in a promotional video shot at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library.

As you will hear in this song, Jeanine Tesori’s score has that almost indescribable quality of sounding like real people singing – just that one step beyond talking – before soaring into melody, that can pull the audience immediately into the story. Interestingly, the story itself, centering on a daughter trying to come to terms with the death of her father and their earlier troubled relationship, irresistibly brings to mind Britta Johnson’s Life After which opened the Musical Stage Company’s season in September. Did they plan it that way?

Other echoes of the Musical Stage Company appear in the first previews of the Stratford Festival’s musicals this month. Dan Chameroy, who was so good as the motivational speaker father in Life After, shakes things up in the Tim Curry-associated starring role of Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show at the Avon Theatre, and Daren A. Herbert, who was so charismatic and effective as Onegin in the new Canadian musical of the same name last spring, takes on the iconic Robert Preston role of Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Festival Theatre.

Breaking news this week as we prepare to go to print has it that the new musical Jukebox Hero, being created around songs from classic rock band Foreigner’s hit list, will follow up its debut performances this summer in Calgary and Edmonton with a Toronto engagement (of only five performances so far) in February 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre under the Mirvish umbrella. Excitingly, the cast is all Canadian, featuring musical veterans Richard Clarkin and Jonathan Whittaker as the two fathers, and the creative team is top shelf, led by director Randy Johnson (A Night with Janis Joplin), choreographer Tracey Flye (Mirvish Productions, Ross Petty Productions), music director Mark Camilleri (Mirvish, Dancap) and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (best known for their films The Commitments and Across the Universe, as well as their one previous stage musical Billy which starred Michael Crawford). Tickets go on sale on Ticketmaster on March 26.

QUICK PICKS

Ongoing: The wonderfully life-affirming Canadian musical Come From Away continues its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, now extended to October 2018.

Apr 10 to 12: “On Broadway”: A rare chance to see Canadian (born in Iran but brought up in Brampton) Ramin Karimloo, star of Broadway and London’s West End and a brilliant Jean Valjean in the recent remount of Les Miserables in Toronto and New York, in a concert of Broadway favourites with Stephanie J. Block (Wicked) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Reineke at Roy Thomson Hall.

Apr 21 and 22: “Broadway Reimagined.” Sarah Slean brings her unique Canadian pop sensibility to a program of Broadway classics with the Mike Janzen (jazz) Trio and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

Apr 26 to May 6: Picnic in the Cemetery, is a multimedia performance/concert presented by Canadian Stage and created by Toronto composer Njo Kong Kie with the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project. Described as a combination of the whimsical and the macabre, Picnic (which previously played at the Edinburgh Festival) was originally inspired in part by the composer having lived near the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

In any year, April is often the month with the single highest concentration of opera presentations in Toronto and environs – and 2018 is one of those years. In this April alone there are examples from every period of opera from the 17th century to the present. For newcomers or frequent operagoers April offers an unusual opportunity to gain an overview of the entire genre. The following are in chronological order based on the year they premiered.

Dancers Tyler Gledhill and Juri Hiraoka pose as Ulysses and Penelope from 'The Return of Ulyssess' - photo by Bruce Zinger1639/40 – The Return of Ulysses (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) by Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi’s Ulisse, one of the first great operas in music history, recounts Ulysses’ return to his home of Ithaca after 20 years’ absence, only to find his wife Penelope besieged by suitors convinced that he must be dead and pressuring her to remarry. Opera Atelier first staged the opera in 2007 and this will be its first remount. Krešimir Špicer, an OA favourite who has sung the title role throughout Europe, will be Ulisse. Mireille Lebel will sing his wife Penelope, Christopher Enns will be his son Telemaco, Laura Pudwell will be the Nurse and Carla Huhtanen, Kevin Skelton, Stephen Hegedus and Meghan Lindsay will sing the deities Fortuna, Jupiter, Neptune and Minerva, respectively. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs. April 19 to 28.

1733 – Orlando (composed 1719) by George Frideric Handel. The COC has been delving more into Handel’s operas but has so far not staged this work, which is counted one of the composer’s masterpieces. In it the Christian knight Orlando falls in love with the pagan princess Angelica, who is already in love with someone else. Orlando’s unrequited love drives him to madness. Opera by Request presents the opera in concert with mezzo Kinga Lizon singing the castrato role of Orlando. Vania Chan sings Angelica and Shannon Halliwell-McDonald sings Medoro, the man she loves. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director. April 7.

1791 – The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Those seeking to add Mozart to their April lineup will have to travel to Windsor to see a new, young opera company there perform this classic. The company’s name is Abridged Opera and in their mission statement they call themselves “an indie opera company designed to bring a taste of this grand art form to a community that has limited access. They condense classic operatic works without compromising the opera’s integrity.” The singers have not been determined but the stage director will be Tracey Atin. April 14 and 15.

1813 – The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri) by Gioachino Rossini. Fans of Rossini will also have to travel out of Toronto to see the work of another new, young company, Vera Causa Opera, that has sprung up in the Waterloo region in the past couple of years to provide performance opportunities for emerging artists. The operas are presented staged, costumed and with orchestra. L’Italiana is one of Rossini’s best-known comic operas (even though it has not been seen at the COC since 2003). Katerina Utochkina sings Isabella, the Italian girl of the title. Domenico Sanfilippo is the Bey Mustafà, who wants to marry her. David Boan is Lindoro, the young man in love with her, and Kimberley-Rose Pefhany is Elvira, who wants to win back the love of her husband the Bey. Michaela Chiste directs and Dylan Langan conducts. April 6 in Cambridge and April 7 in Waterloo.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a scene from the Washington National Opera production of 'Anna Bolena.' - photo by Scott Suchman1830 – Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti. With this opera the COC completes Donizetti’s so-called Three Queens trilogy of operas about Tudor monarchs, all starring superstar soprano and recent Canadian citizen Sondra Radvanovsky. In 2010 she sang the title role in Maria Stuarda and in 2014 she sang Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Roberto Devereux. Now she sings the title role of the doomed Anne Boleyn, which Toronto audiences last heard back in 1984 sung by no less than the great Joan Sutherland. Eric Owens sings the role of Enrico VIII, Keri Alkema is his new love-interest Giovanna Seymour, Bruce Sledge sings Lord Percy and Allyson McHardy is Anna’s devoted page Smeton. Corrado Rovaris is again the conductor and Stephen Lawless, as with the previous two Three Queens instalments, is the stage director. April 28 to May 26.

1835 – Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Opera Belcanto of York is also performing Donizetti this month in Richmond Hill. Alicja Wysocka sings the title role, Berg Karazian is Edgardo, David Babayants is Enrico and Henry Irwin is Raimondo. Edward Franko is the stage director and David Varjabed conducts the Opera Belcanto of York Chorus and Orchestra. April 19 and 22.

1843 – Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. Those seeking Donizetti in a lighter vein should look for Opera by Request’s concert performance of one of the composer’s best-known comic operas not seen at the COC since 1994. Bass-baritone Mikhail Shemet sings the title role, soprano Grace Quinsey sings Norina, the wife who tries to tame the gruff Pasquale, and tenor Fabian Arciniegas sings Ernesto, the young man who loves Norina. Claire Harris is the music director and pianist. April 21.

1848 – Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. Opera by Request can also help those suffering from Wagner withdrawal. OBR is presenting Lohengrin, a standard repertory work that the COC last staged back in 1983. Lenard Whiting sings the title role of the mysterious knight, Vanessa Lanch is Elsa, goaded into asking a forbidden question, Jillian Yemen is the scheming Ortrud, Andrew Tees is Telramund and Steven Henrikson is King Heinrich. William Shookhoff is the music director and indefatigable pianist. April 13.

1859 – Orphée by Christoph Willibald Gluck as revised by Hector Berlioz. Toronto’s enterprising Against the Grain Theatre has collaborated with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Opera Columbus and New York’s Company XIV to create a new version of Orphée et Eurydice, the 1762 opera by Gluck, revised by Berlioz in 1859. Opera Atelier presented Berlioz’s version straight in 2015. Against the Grain has different plans. It says, “In 2018, we think this would become an electronic, baroque-burlesque descent into hell. While staying true to the original score ... and honouring the traditions of Baroque opera, this new production pushes the boundaries of operatic presentation through an orchestra that mixes acoustic and electric instruments, features captivating choreography from burlesque dancers, aerial artistry and a global virtual chorus.” The global virtual chorus is made up of videos from 100 people who answered AtG’s request by singing their choral parts in the score which were then electronically mixed.

Siman Chung - photo by Soyoon MoonKorean countertenor Siman Chung sings the title role, Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin is his love Eurydice and American aerialist and soprano Marcy Richardson portrays Amour. Topher Mokrzewski conducts an ensemble of 11 musicians, including electric guitar and synthesizer, and Joel Ivany directs. As a side note, the artistic director of co-producer Opera Columbus is none other than Opera Atelier favourite Peggy Kriha Dye, who sang Eurydice for OA in 2015. April 26 to 28.

1864 – La Belle Hélène by Jacques Offenbach. Toronto Operetta Theatre concludes its 2017/18 season with the company premiere of Offenbach’s famous satirical Trojan War operetta. The COC last presented the work in 1983. Beste Kalender sings the title role, Gregory Finney is her aged husband Menelaus, Adam Fisher is her young Trojan lover Paris and Stuart Graham is Agamemnon, who thinks Helen’s abduction is a just cause for war. Peter Tiefenbach conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. April 27 to 29.

1904 – Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. The fourth Opera by Request concert presentation this month is a staple of standard repertory. Deena Nicklefork sings Cio-Cio San, Will Ford is the faithless Pinkerton, Keith O’Brien is the American consul Sharpless and Madison Arsenault is Cio-Cio San’s faithful servant Suzuki. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director. April 27.

2009 – The Nightingale and Other Short Fables including Le Rossignol (1914) by Igor Stravinsky and Renard (composed 1916; premiere 1922) by Igor Stravinsky. The COC concludes its 2017/18 season with a revival of Robert Lepage’s unique take on two short operas by Stravinsky mixed with the composer’s settings of Russian folksongs. The production that premiered to huge acclaim in 2009 is most notable for placing the orchestra and chorus on stage and filling the pit with water for Vietnamese water puppets and other effects. The cast and conductor are completely different from those in 2009. This time Jane Archibald will sing the Nightingale, Owen McCausland will be the Fisherman, Christian Van Horn will be the Emperor and Johannes Debus will conduct. April 13 to May 19.

2018 – The Overcoat by James Rolfe. The first half of April will allow audiences to see the most recent Canadian opera to be fully staged in Toronto. This opera is an attempt to convert the wildly popular wordless 1997 physical theatre piece by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling into an opera. The original piece told the 1842 story by Nikolai Gogol through movement to selections of music by Shostakovich. It told of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a government clerk who becomes obsessed with the notion that he must have a new overcoat to secure a promotion.

While the look of the opera will be the same as the theatre piece, Panych, who is also the stage director, has had to write a libretto. This has been set by James Rolfe, one of Canada’s most successful and prolific opera composers. In the 13-member cast, Geoffrey Sirett will sing Akaky, Peter McGillivray will be both the Tailor and the Head of Akaky’s Department and Andrea Ludwig will be Akaky’s Landlady. Leslie Dala conducts this co-production of Tapestry Opera, Vancouver Opera and Canadian Stage. March 29 to April 14.

2018 – Opera Peep Show. For a sampling of all sorts of opera, four indie opera companies have banded together to create a pay-as-you-go show at the Campbell House Museum. Four rooms of the 1822 downtown mansion are devoted to each company. Liederwölfe presents an assortment of some of the most famous scenes in opera. Essential Opera presents favourites from its past seasons. re:Naissance presents three dramatic scenes combining texts from Shakespeare with music by John Dowland and his contemporaries. And Urbanvessel presents the interactive performance Boots about a young woman’s relationship with her footwear. April 28 to 30.

From all of these offerings this April, new operagoers can acquire a wide background in the genre, while seasoned operagoers can easily construct their own festival.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

Quick, how many Gounod fans have you encountered in your life? Before meeting pianist Steven Kettlewell, the man behind the Castle Frank House of Melody’s new concert offering, “Ga-Ga for Gounod” (April 7 at St. Andrew’s United on Bloor St. E.), my answer would have been scarcely any. Composer of very Catholic operas and of the overplayed Ave Maria? Not a lot to be excited about there. When the early listing for the Gounod song recital arrived in this magazine’s inbox, I found myself intrigued. Of course he would have composed songs, as most of his peers did, but what were they like – how much unlike his arias, how Catholic, how Romantic, how French? Most of French 19th-century song before Debussy and Ravel remains little performed, with one notable exception, Berlioz’s masterwork Les nuits d’été.

Charles Gounod as photographed in 1859, at the time of the premiere of his opera Faust.Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is certainly best known for his operas, says Kettlewell when we meet in his apartment in a charming mid-rise, a short walk up the hill from behind the Castle Frank subway station. Some of Gounod’s better-known arias will be in the program—two from Roméo et Juliette and three from Faust. The motley selection of Gounod songs in the program contain several in the English language, to poetry by Tennyson, Wordsworth and Shelley. Was he an ardent English poetry reader? “He lived in England for a period of time. During the war of 1870 between France and Prussia, Gounod moved his family to England. His wife returned after the Paris Commune was defeated, but Gounod ended up staying another four years. He met there a certain Georgina Weldon, an eccentric battleaxe of many causes… One of her pet causes became Gounod.”

Gounod’s English-language songs sound very “English regional composer of the Victorian era,” says Kettlewell. “Even a bit like Arthur Sullivan. And some of the poetry is very sentimental.” One of the poems in the program is The Worker (1872), written by the then-in-demand lyricist Frederick Weatherly, also known for Danny Boy and Roses of Picardy. It could be taken for a social-realist song about the harsh conditions of a worker’s life were it not for the Catholic resolution, with angels arriving to take his soul to the higher plane of the afterlife for a well-deserved reward.

Gounod’s French songs, on the other hand, are very much salon songs, says Kettlewell. “He’s a lyrical composer who knows how to compose for the voice, and that comes across in songs as well.” Thematically, they involve “lovely, simple poetry, simple emotion. ‘I love you,’ or ‘It’s a beautiful spring day,’ or ‘A beautiful night’. Soprano Cara Adams is going to sing one called Boire à l’ombre, which has more meat to it than some of his other songs. Years ago I bought a collection of 15 duets by Gounod for soprano or mezzo and baritone, and here I’m including a selection.” Adams and two other sopranos, Patricia Haldane and Lorna Young, with mezzo Martha Spence and baritone Michael Fitzgerald, make up the soloist roster. Kettlewell mans the piano.

It was a heady operatic century for France, the 19th, and the program will show some of its range. We’ll hear some arias from Bizet’s Carmen, but also the more obscure Benjamin Godard and Fromental Halévy. And one song by Fanny Mendelssohn. What’s the connection there? “She met him while they were in Rome – where Gounod won the Prix de Rome. She wrote a letter to her brother in which she describes him as ‘charming.’ She extolled to him the virtues of modern German music at the time, and also Bach. Later, on his way back to France via Vienna, Gounod visited them in Weimar for a few days and got to know the brother Felix as well.”

On his return to Paris after the extended stay in Rome, Gounod seemed to be in no rush to become an opera composer. “What you’d normally do as a young composer is try to hook up with a librettist and start composing, maybe a short opera, in the hope that say the director of Opéra Lyrique would see it and give you a commission. He instead took a job as a church organist. He was that for a few years. He wrote masses and choral pieces and didn’t try hard to get invited to salons and meet librettists, schmooze, get to know people.” He also got a job writing music for schoolkids.

Steven Kettlewell, Martha Spence and Tricia Haldane rehearsing.It was Pauline Viardot who jump-started his career, says Kettlewell. “He had met her in Rome. Then in Paris, when they met again, she remembered him. Ah, le prêtre voluptueux! She asked him if he was writing any operas and promised to set him up with Émile Augier. She had just had a big hit at the Opera Garnier, they wanted her to come back next year, and she said to Gounod that she would if he composed that opera for her. And that was Sapho, his first.” It wasn’t a great success then and the intervening centuries did not re-evaluate it. The thoroughly heterosexual Sappho takes her own life over a man, and there’s even a ballet added to the story in a later version. What survives of the first Viardot-Gounod collaboration is the aria O ma lyre immortelle, which is still heard in concerts and which will be sung by Lorna Young in this program.

A lot of the operatic works of that time underwent rewrites and recycling, extensions and cuts, demanded by opera house directors, star singers or the state censor. “The second version of Gounod’s Faust, with recitatives instead of spoken dialogue, was much more successful than the first one,” says Kettlewell and hands me a book that’s been lying on his coffee table. “I’m reading this right now, Second Empire Opera: The Théàtre Lyrique Paris, 1851-1870 by T.J. Walsh, it’s hilarious. It’s about Théâtre Lyrique, the house that wasn’t subsidized by the government, unlike Opéra de Paris. [There are] a lot of composers in this book that we’ve never heard of, operas we’ve never heard of. The Lyrique would put on an opera and if it wasn’t very successful, they’d put a work on that was successful last year but rejig it for this year’s use. The stuff popular with the audience would push other works aside. They had to make money off opera.”

The works commissioned by the state-subsidized Opéra de Paris were always under the eye of the censor. Even Sapho was sent back for an edit because in one scene there was a hint of a sexual bargain between two minor characters. “All the while, the subscribers had the right to go back stage and flirt with the ballerinas. Viardot once said something to the effect that ‘what we were doing onstage was no worse than what was happening in the wings during the performance’.” The pestering of the ballerinas was part of the subscription package.

The censors also kept a close eye on anything that might cause political unrest. “They didn’t want people getting excited at the opera house and then running out to the streets and rioting … which was a French tradition.” Gounod’s own opera on Ivan the Terrible never saw light of day because there was never a good time to show regicide and assassination attempts onstage. While Gounod was writing it, Napoleon III was nearly assassinated on his way to the opera with his wife: somebody threw a bomb under their carriage. Gounod’s opera plot, coincidence would have it, also contained an assassination attempt. “People began saying to him, you’ll never get this on stage, start something else.” So he did. He relinquished the libretto to Bizet and moved on to other matters.

An example: the opera Cinq-Mars, which Gounod created for Opéra-Comique, and which was revived only in 2017 in a German opera house and recorded by Palazzetto Bru Zane as part of their lavishly designed French Romanticism series. (Kettlewell of course owns the CD.) When I tell him that Opéra-Comique is reviving Gounod’s second opera, La nonne sanglante, in June this year and that I have a ticket, since one of my favourite conductors is on the podium, the conversation veers into the phenomenon of nunsploitation (nun + exploitation), known to us from genre movies but already familiar to 19th-century operagoers. Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is still probably the best known of the type. “Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable also has some of that with the dance of the ghosts of nuns who rise from their tombs,” Kettlewell says.

As to the question of how Gounod fits in with the idea we have of French Romanticism: “I’d always offer some other names first in that context – certainly Berlioz – but with Gounod, there’s always a bit of restraint there, I think,” he says. He also mentions the then-star Meyerbeer as a more typical exponent. “What operas by Meyerbeer I’ve heard, I liked a lot. You sometimes wonder why some things fall out of fashion… and Meyerbeer has.” His Les Huguenots has seen some revival success in Belgium, France and Germany in the last few years. “Yes, and I just got a DVD of Margherita d’Anjou… and Robert le diable was done at the Covent Garden recently.”

Of all of Gounod, what would be his top five that everybody should hear? “Remember the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series? The opening credits music? That’s Gounod, the Funeral March of a Marionette, and he wrote it to poke fun at a British music critic.” Also on that list, the Jewel Song from Faust and Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette. “O ma lyre immortelle from Sapho is beautiful, as is the one from Cinq-Mars that we’re including in the program, Nuit resplendissante,” he says.

“And, of course, the Ave Maria.”

Ga-Ga for Gounod takes place inside the modernist concrete beauty that is St. Andrew’s United Church, 117 Bloor St. E., on April 7 at 7:30pm. Tickets $20 in advance (triciahaldane@gmail.com to arrange an e-transfer) or $25 at the door, cash only. There will be a salon party after, directions to the location to be given from the stage.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

The act of musical transcription has existed as long as notation has, used over the past millennium to facilitate artistic cross-pollination and the exchange of ideas across international borders. Utilized in centuries past as equal parts pedagogical tool, musical tribute and vehicle for musical propagation, transcriptions exist from some of music’s greatest figures, including Johann Sebastian Bach.

Historically, transcribing involves some element of copying, whether for pedagogy, plagiarism, or practicality, such as copying performing parts from a full score, a task for which Bach received much help, often from his wife and children. It is often from these copies that a work is passed down through centuries. According to the late-18th-century German musicologist Johann Rochlitz, even the Thomaskirche did not possess the full score for Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, but only the vocal parts which were preserved “as if they were a saint’s relics.”

Bach’s use of transcriptions extends throughout his lifetime, from his student days copying forbidden scores by candlelight to his organ tablature transcriptions of music by Reincken and Buxtehude, as well as his transcriptions for organ of Vivaldi concerti and his own Schübler Chorale Preludes. In fact, a well-documented theory postulates that Bach’s most famous organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, wasn’t written for organ at all, but was an organ transcription of an earlier work for violin.

In its modern conventional use, the term transcription refers to two similar but distinct actions: notating a piece or a sound which was previously unwritten, such as Bartók’s folk song transcriptions or Messiaen’s notations of birdsong; and rewriting a piece of music, either solo or ensemble, for another instrument or other instruments than those for which it was originally intended, including Liszt’s piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies.

Transcription in the latter sense is often conflated with arrangement. In theory, transcriptions are faithful adaptations, whereas arrangements change significant aspects of the original piece. In practice, though, there are many works which fit equally well into either category. Consider, for example, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven and Schumann symphonies. There is an equal amount of faithful adaptation and significant change in each of these examples, which ride the line between transcription and arrangement.

The act of transcribing is, at first glance, an uncomplicated one – nothing needs to be changed in a work’s notes or rhythms – the piece simply needs to be re-notated for a different instrument. It is in this adaptation, however, that the art and craft of the transcriber is made apparent, for each instrument contains its own idiosyncrasies, technical challenges and limitations, particularly if the music being transcribed and the instrument being transcribed for have their origins centuries apart – Hildegard von Bingen for saxophone and theremin, for example!

Better by the Dozen

One of the relatively recent instruments for which old music is regularly arranged is the modern classical guitar, designed in the 19th century after earlier classical models. Although not in existence during Bach’s time, a great deal of J.S. Bach’s music has been transcribed for the modern guitar, including preludes, fugues, sonatas, partitas, cello and orchestral suites, as well as lute, keyboard and ensemble music by other Baroque composers. One of the most interesting facets of these arrangements is the constant accommodation and adaptation being made by the transcriber and performer, particularly in fugues, where it is nearly impossible for all three or four voices to be as distinctly present on a guitar as they would be on a keyboard. This adjustment creates another arranging/transcribing hybrid, for Bach’s original counterpoint must be compromised to be played, often resulting in a work that is familiar yet new when heard in performance.

While many of us are acquainted with the classical guitar, April brings a supersized surprise to fans of the instrument. On April 15, the Quebec-based ensemble Forestare makes their Toronto debut in Mooredale Concerts’ 2017/18 season finale. What makes this program unusually interesting is the instrumental makeup of Forestare, consisting of 12 guitars and two basses. According to their media release, “Since its 2002 inception, Forestare has participated in the creation of 50 original works and adapted nearly another 100 for its unique configuration – as a result creating the largest repertoire for guitar orchestra in the world.”

ForestareFor their April Toronto debut, Forestare’s program is comprised entirely of arrangements made by David Pilon (also Forestare’s conductor), David Ratelle and Jürg Kindle, taken from their Baroque album. Works including Lully’s Le bourgeouis gentilhomme, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata (La folia) and numerous works by Bach, including Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, ensure a mixture of familiar earworms and less-familiar discoveries. This concert presents a rare and unique opportunity to experience something that is, for many of us, entirely new: well-known works transcribed for an extraordinary and novel combination of instruments.

Looking Ahead

Scaramella, April 7: In addition to the new and exciting debut of the Forestare guitar orchestra, Toronto hosts a number of other worthwhile early music events this month, including Scaramella’s “Boccherini and Friends,” a survey of Boccherini’s music in the context of his contemporaries, on April 7. With works by Boccherini, Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Josef), Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang) and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, this dip into the late 18th century features those who were lost in the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods, as popular tastes shifted and changed, and many worthwhile and successful composers faded into premature obscurity. According to the late-18th-century author Jean-Baptiste Cartier, “If God wanted to speak to men through music, He would do it with the works of Haydn, but if He wanted to listen to music, He would choose Boccherini.” But don’t take Cartier’s word for it – check out this concert and decide for yourself.

Music @ Met, April 22: Last month’s issue of The WholeNote featured an interview with Dr. Patricia Wright, Metropolitan United Church’s Minister of Music. In her interview Dr. Wright explained that for decades Metropolitan United has hosted a successful and ongoing series of concerts, recently rebranded as the Music at Metropolitan (Music @ Met) program. The next performance in the Music @ Met calendar features Musicians on the Edge and Rezonance Baroque Ensemble in “Mystery of the Unfinished Concerto” on April 22. With music by Corelli, Vivaldi and others, as well as new compositions created on the spot, this presentation continues Rezonance’s exploration of partimenti and Baroque improvisational technique, in both the context of written and unwritten music.

Cantemus, May 5 and 6: Looking ahead to early May, Cantemus Singers present what should be a sublime concert of works from the early Tudor period on May 5 and 6. Although written in social, political, and religious conditions that were decidedly less than ideal, the music produced by such composers as Tallis, Sheppard and Mundy overcame the limitations of their time and began the progression towards what is now considered the English Cathedral style of music. With a rich historical background full of fascinating tales and anecdotes, this performance is ideal for fans of Renaissance music and history buffs alike.

As winter departs, the days grow longer, and the mercury rises, take advantage of a beautiful spring evening or two and explore a concert. If nothing in this month’s column strikes an interest, explore this magazine for hundreds more shows, recitals and presentations – all happening within the area – and find the music that’s right for you. Your feedback is always welcome: send me a note at earlymusic@thewholenote.com or say “Hi” in person; either way, don’t let April showers keep you indoors.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Emotion is at the core of every musical performance and storytelling is at the heart of emotion. Sometimes the stories can be esoteric, sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they challenge us to find them. There is an extra dimension that conductors put into their concerts when programming songs that tell a story to evoke certain feelings. Take in a well-constructed choral concert this month and see the part that musical storytelling plays. I’ve highlighted a few below.

“I’ll be Your Refuge”

“Music has a way of softening the edges around a message, of getting at its true emotional core, and of transmitting that to a broad range of people,” says Annabelle Chvostek, JUNO-nominated singer-songwriter and artist-in-residence for Echo Women’s Choir. She continues: “Having music carry ideas can make things feel less preachy or didactic. It’s just giving it from the heart.” Chvostek is answering some of my questions by email. I’ve asked her about her experiences creating and adapting her solo music for Echo Women’s Choir.

Annabelle Chvostek - photo by Ximena GrisctiI’ll Be Your Refuge is Chvostek’s feature song that gives the Echo Women’s Choir spring concert its title. This isn’t Chvostek’s first time writing or arranging music for Echo. She has adapted her songs Black Hole and Firewalker for them, amongst others. But “this year is the first time I am actually presenting a song that is a choral song first. I’ll Be Your Refuge is a song I want to be singing, but it is so much more poignant to do it with the intent and attention of these women supporting its delivery. And it was a magical process to have room for four vocal parts to carry it instead of my one.”

The story she’s telling here is one that is deeply personal for her. Her partner is a former refugee and Chvostek is sharing a story of acceptance, belonging and open arms. “Observing the global refugee crisis of the last few years has been powerful. Some of the most moving news moments for me have been around [refugees], including watching Canadian families and communities respond to the crisis with openness and generosity,” she continues.“And frustratingly, some people respond with fear.” Echo is sharing this music to move beyond fear.

Echo is unlike any other choir in the city that I’ve met. It is a gathering of female-identified voices rooted in a compassion and drive for social justice. Their concerts are community gatherings centred around music, much of which is uniquely arranged for Echo by Alan Gasser. Becca Whitla and Gasser are co-directors with Chvostek. They want you to think and be challenged by their music and storytelling. There is deep thoughtfulness behind the music they program and the issues they want you to confront.

Echo Women's Choir - photo by Katherine FleitasDene singer Leela Gilday comes to Toronto as the choir’s special guest. Based out of Yellowknife, Gilday shares stories and describes herself as having “a sense of humour as well as a sense of social justice and an ironic appreciation of human folly.” Her music and stories will be welcomed by the choir.

“Music is one way we can express the things that we hope will contribute to a fairer, more just society,” says Chvostek. “One that cultivates joy within all its diversity of expression. Music can actually get at things in a way that words alone can’t.”

Echo Women’s Choir presents “I’ll be Your Refuge” with special guest Leela Gilday and co-directors Becca Whitla, Alan Gasser and Annabelle Chvostek, Sunday April 29 at 3pm, at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto.

Now the Guns Have Stopped

For the Oakham House Choir upcoming concert “Better is Peace than Always War,” artistic director Matthew Jaskiewicz has paired Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Two distinct works, they are companion pieces in their ability to channel a message of peace in the form of a mass. The concert’s title comes from the opening words of the 12th and final movement of Jenkins’ piece. The Armed Man is popular amongst community choirs for its universal message of peace and its musical accessibility. The work includes poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift and Sankichi Tōge, a Japanese survivor of the Hiroshima bombing by the USA. The hymn L’homme armé, for which the work is named, is based on an ancient tune. The hymn tells us “the armed man should be feared,” a warning against those who carry and use weapons.

Paired with The Armed Man, Jaskiewicz has chosen the Fauré Requiem. A beloved staple of French music and the requiem canon, this is a mass for the dead. Put into the context of a call for peace, this requiem performance will not be used for actual commemoration. Audiences will instead be challenged to think about the areas of the world plagued by conflict at this very moment. And as we approach the centenary of the end of World War I, it serves to remind us of past conflicts as well. This concert commemorates the end of the First World War and is a collaboration with the European Union consulates in Toronto. Members of the armed forces from the Scottish Regiment and Haller’s Army (Blue Army) will be in attendance. Oakham is also pleased to welcome the Novi Singers of Toronto to this performance.

Oakham House Choir Society presents “Better is Peace Than Always War” on April 28, 7:30pm, at Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

“Let there be light!”

Pax Christi Chorale is joined by the Toronto Mozart Players for a presentation of Haydn’s masterpiece oratorio: Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The Creation represents the highest form of oratorio,” shares David Bowser, artistic director of Pax Christi, via email. “It was written with love for the listener. Haydn paints colourful and vivid musical depictions of darkness and light, water and weather, plants, birds, animals and people, all framed in grand angelic choruses.”

David BowserBowser is presenting the work in its original German because the “text is closer to today’s spoken German, and gives the music a more buoyant phrasing and crisper articulation. It should be underlined that neither Haydn nor van Swieten, who wrote both versions, spoke English with any fluency and the settings are clumsy,” he says. Many a chorister has frowned when confronted with the awkward English of “And to th’ ethereal vaults resound” or “achieved” in three syllables. The original German allows the choir to move beyond such awkwardness.

Pax Christi is joined for this concert by Sandy Rossignol, a video artist. Bowser explains the creative process and the reasoning behind the inclusion of this added dimension to the music. “Often audiences are buried in their programs reading along with the text,” he says. “And they are not as connected with the performers. A video of images compiled and manipulated by Sandy will serve as abstract surtitles to assist the audience in following the German text. The music is so visual that Sandy was immediately inspired. He is also incorporating themes of science, equality, diversity and conservation to bring modern relevance to the performance.”

Rossignol’s live visual accompaniment promises to give the concert a unique visual storytelling dimension.

Pax Christi ChoralePax Christi Chorale presents Die Schöpfung (The Creation) with the Toronto Mozart Players, Danika Lorèn (soprano), Charles Sy (tenor), Oliver Laquerre (bass-baritone), and live video performance by Sandy Rossignol on April 28 at 7:30pm, at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

QUICK PICKS

Apr 6: Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Play!” As noted in last month’s Choral Scene, Dr Hilary Apfelstadt is retiring from the University of Toronto and as artistic director of Exultate. She brings the Toronto Winds to her final concert with Exultate, which features the premiere of Resurgam by Canadian composer Matthew Emery, the choir’s composer-in-residence. Emery has blended Renaissance polyphony with contemporary compositional techniques to create a work for an interesting pairing: voice and small wind ensemble. St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 28 and 29: DaCapo Chamber Choir and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto present This Thirsty Land. Joined by instrumentalists, the choirs present the local premiere of DaCapo artistic director Leonard Enns’ work This Thirsty Land, recently commissioned and premiered by the University of Guelph. Other smaller works include Toronto-based composer Hussein Janmohamed’s Sun on Water and Norwegian Trond Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella. April 28, 8pm at St. John’s Lutheran, Waterloo, and April 29, 3:30pm at St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 29: Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto presents “I Saw Eternity.” Artistic director Lydia Adams conducts the choir’s final concert of the season featuring music by Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Hussein Janmohamed, Stephen Chatman and more. The inspiration for the concert comes from Henry Vaughan’s poem The World, which opens with the lines: “I saw eternity the other night.” Leonard Enns’ and Stephen Chatman’s settings of The World are presented along with other spacious works including Ola Gjeilo’s Serenity and Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. Eglinton St. George’s United Church, Toronto.

May 5: Mississauga Festival Choirs present “Generations,” with the Mississauga Festival Choir, the Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir, their youth choir, Resonance, and their intergenerational choir Raising Voices. The signature work of the evening will be John Rutter’s Mass of the Children. Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

May 6: St. Anne’s Anglican Choir presents “A Hubert Parry Tribute.” The Junction Trio joins a larger orchestra and the St. Anne’s Choir under music director John-Luke Addison. The concert commemorates 100 years since the death of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Royal music aficionados will know him for his coronation anthem I was Glad, which was written for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The famous Anglican hymn Repton, a staple of congregations around the world was set to music by Parry. St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto. clip_image001.png

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

St. Patrick’s Day came and went between this issue of WholeNote and the last, so I thought it would be fun to acknowledge my Irish descent – the key word being descent, as in “into madness” – by taking a look at the grand legacy of Irish jazz piano. There have been many more fine Irish jazz pianists than many people realize and here they are, in chronological order:

Ellis LarkinsEllis Larkins – Larkins hailed from Baltimore, County Cork. He was something of a child prodigy, performing with local orchestras by the age of ten. After graduating from the distinguished Peabody Conservatory in his hometown, Larkins became the first jazz pianist to attend the famed Jewel Yard School of Music in Dublin and began his long career after graduation. Larkins had a gossamer touch resulting in a translucent sound, a deft harmonic sense and a sensitivity which made him a great accompanist, especially of singers. He spent many years as a vocal coach and was the regular pianist for a number of fine vocalists including Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms and the First Lady of Irish Song, Ella Fitzgerald. Along with his own natural reticence, this supportive role meant Larkins was one of the more overlooked Irish pianists, although musicians like Ruby Braff, with whom he often recorded in a duo, knew his true worth.

Harold McKinney – McKinney was born into a musical family in that hotbed of Irish jazz, Moughtown (pronounced “mow”), County Monaghan. One of his brothers, Bernard, played the euphonium and another, William, was a bassist. They bear no relation to the William McKinney who led the seminal Irish big band McKinney’s Flax Spinners. Harold McKinney might have achieved more notoriety had he left Moughtown for Dublin, as did many of the city’s younger pianists, but he preferred to remain there in the role of elder and mentor, for which he was much treasured.

Dave McKenna – McKennna was from the Aran Islands and eventually emigrated to Boston and later New York, where he was the favourite pianist of such American-Irish greats as Bobby Hackett and Zoot Sims. A huge, anvil-headed man with massive hands who looked like the captain of a whaling boat, he was the most two-fisted of Irish pianists, developing a driving and very full style often displayed in solo outings. His two-fistedness was often seen offstage as well, with a pint of Guinness in his left hand and a small one of Jameson’s in his right. He was also renowned for his almost limitless repertoire, often weaving seemingly disparate songs into long and ingeniously witty medleys.

Tommy Flanagan – Easily my favourite Irish pianist, Flanagan was part of the large wave of young musicians, many of them pianists, to emerge from Moughtown in the mid-1950s. His very fluent playing showed both the delicacy of Teddy Wilson and the toughness of Bud Powell, his two main influences. He was very much of the lace-curtain school of Irish jazz piano; there never was one who played with more lilting grace or elegance. Like Ellis Larkins, he was naturally standoffish and served a long apprenticeship as a sideman, including several stints as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist in the 1960s and 70s. He appeared on hundreds of records, including a couple of seminal ones in Irish history: Giant’s Causeway Steps with the great Ulster tenor John Coleraine, and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, with Eire’s most celebrated plectrist. Eventually in his forties, Flanagan lit out on his own as a leader with a long series of fine trio records. By the time he died in 2001 he was known as “The Poet of the Piano.”

Armagh J. O’Malley – Born Fritz Peterson, O’Malley eventually adopted a more Irish name taken from his home county in Ulster. He later emerged in the centrally located Shightown with a fine trio, which exerted considerable influence on both the repertoire and rhythmic approach of the mid-1950s’ Miles Davis quintet, bringing him lasting fame in spite of indifference from many critics. Despite virtuosic technique, he played with a very sparse, probing style, often concentrating on the piano’s upper register, and displayed a brilliant knack for arranging unlikely pieces for piano trio, using ingenious vamps and interludes to fully integrate the bass and drums. He was one of the first jazz pianists to become a Steinway Artist and is still going strong. He will turn 88 this July, a special age for a pianist given the number of keys on the instrument.

Wynton Kelly – In contrast to Tommy Flanagan, Kelly developed a hard-swinging, funky, blues-infused style of great craic and spirit much more in keeping with the thatched-roof school of Irish jazz piano. He hailed from the large Dublin borough of Brooke Lynn and went on to form important associations with Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, often in the company of his long standing trio of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobh, who hailed from the small port just south of Cork. He died far too young, but Kelly was the most joyous of Irish pianists.

(For those not familiar with the designations lace-curtain and thatched-roof Irish, the former tend to be more urban and genteel, more prosperous and “of the quality” as the Irish would put it. Thatched-roof Irish are more lively, down to earth and working class, often dwelling in modest rural cottages. The following old joke may help drive the distinction home: What’s the difference between lace-curtain Irish and thatched-roof Irish? The lace-curtain Irish take the dishes out of the sink before they pee in it.)

Roland Hanna – Hanna is another of the fine pianists to emerge from the hyperactive Moughtown jazz scene. He had an eclectic modern approach and was one of the few players influenced both by bebop pianists and Erroll Garner. A great favourite of that noted jazz fan Queen Elizabeth II, he was knighted by her and thereafter known as Sir Roland Hanna, causing no small dismay among his more republican fans, some of whom referred to him as “that poxy royalist bastard.” He survived a couple of knee-capping attempts but eventually won over his doubters by remaining true to his Irish musical roots of lyricism wed with inventiveness.

McCoy Tyner – Tyner came to prominence as a young man when he joined the classic 1960s quartet of renowned Ulster tenor John Coleraine. Tyner developed a rhythmically powerful attack using the 6/8 rhythms and triplets common to Irish jigs and reels, while exploring the modern applications of traditional Irish modality using Uilleann pipe modes and the quartal harmonies of the puntatonic scale. Apart from the Coleraine quartet he made many fine trio recordings as a leader.

Chick O’Rea – O’Rea began in his teens as a percussionist, playing the bodhran in traditional Irish groups. His inherent brilliance as a pianist soon took over, as did his more modern tendencies. He was one of the key Irish pianists in the fusion movement as leader and sideman and has shown a restless spirit in switching back and forth between both electric and acoustic bands and instruments. Indeed, #Corea (as he hashtags himself these days) has at times had difficulty deciding whether he wants to be a popular musician or an uncompromisingly creative one and this dichotomy shows in his music. His 1978 release The Leprechaun was an unabashed exploration of his Irish musical heritage.

Joanne Brackeen – Against all odds, Brackeen (nee Joanne Grogan) managed to break through the more hidebound strictures of traditional Irish society, demonstrating the deeply matriarchal roots of the small island, all those priests notwithstanding. Early in her career she accompanied the noted Irish tenors Stan Getts and Joe Henderson before establishing herself as a leader. Her style can be a little on the challenging and explosive side, but her inventiveness could also be very lyrical and melodic. She often performed with the Irish rhythm team of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Aloysius Foster.

Todd O’Hammer – O’Hammer is a stalwart of modern Irish bebop, both as an active sideman and as a leader of his own trios. He has performed with such veterans as Charlie Rouse, Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, and George Coleman, and regularly accompanied the singer Annie Ross. His playing is steeped in the jazz tradition but he continues to look forward, always sounding fresh.

Rossano SportielloRossan O’Sportiello – At just 43, O’Sportiello is the most recent arrival on this list, and yet he is something of a stylistic throwback, often performing in a mainstream/swing style of catholic breadth. He is a dynamic virtuoso in the tradition of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, also showing a fondness for such pianists as Ralph Sutton, Barry Harris and the aforementioned Dave McKenna. He has built a solid international reputation working with many fine jazz artists as well as through his own recordings. Toronto fans may know him from his sparkling performances at the last few Ken Page Memorial Trust All-Star fundraiser concerts at the Old Mill.

So there you have them, the great Irish jazz pianists. To all music fans, sláinte, and a belated Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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.

Looking out my window, Old Man Winter is still with us, but according to my calendar, spring has officially arrived. However, the fact is that this is the time of year when community bands frequently experience transition, if not evolution. Organizations, just like humans, age, and have growing pains or other disruptions which require timely attention. With the passage of time every band will have changes in membership, leadership, sponsorship, rehearsal locations and performance venues. Similarly, some new groups will arise while a few may not survive another season. In some cases, if a group prospers and grows, much of the administrative workload must be delegated to a broader crew. So it is with that in mind that I decided to see how some such transitions are in progress this spring. If you are a member of a musical group and have not gone through the problems of some sort of transition, be patient. Your day will come.

New Horizons

Currently the most dramatic of these is New Horizons Band of Toronto. When Dan Kapp first started the New Horizons Band of Toronto, little did he know how many adults were looking for places to learn and play music. They started their first year with only 25 people of varying degrees of musical experience, and a small executive of five people. Through Kapp’s dedication, expertise and enthusiasm for music, the program has grown to seven concert bands and two jazz bands, with six music directors, as well as a number of other New Horizons Bands in surrounding communities.

I remember well their very first concert in the Glenn Gould Studio. When I first heard that this startup amateur band, with many who had never played a concert in their lives, was scheduled to present their very first offering in this prestigious venue, I questioned the sanity of leader Dan Kapp. As would be the case with any such startup group, a few vacancies had to be filled with ringers. In retrospect I can now say that I am proud to have been one of those ringers. How did it go over? To my surprise the hall was packed.

Almost immediately the year-end showcase concerts became a major goal to work for. The next performance step other than full band concerts was the establishment of small ensembles which provide an excellent practice mode for developing musical skills, particularly the skill of listening to the other members of the group. Soon came the Chamber Sweets program, which features ensembles from all band levels playing in concert for family and friends. These have become great social gatherings around the GTA, particularly at holiday times, and include a large array of tasty treats in addition to the music, hence the name.

As is the case with any organization, growth comes with its challenges. One man, now with nine bands and six music directors, can’t be expected to assume the multitude of responsibilities. To ensure their future success, last year the entire association was registered as a not-for-profit organization and established a formal board of directors. Randy Kligerman, one of the original band members, was named as president and Dave Barnes, another early member, as secretary. Soon after, Donna Dupuy, conductor of the most senior band, was contracted to be head of education for NH Bands in Toronto. 

Next year they are planning to offer sectional masterclasses to members, thereby providing further support to enhance their learning and playing experience. This appears to be the first time that this type of program will be will be offered in a community band environment. As the numbers grew they required larger, reliable rehearsal space; they were fortunate to get a long-term commitment for the use of the Salvation Army Hall in Toronto at Dovercourt Rd. and Bloor St. W. in central Toronto. They have been able to lease space to store their equipment and hold practice five days per week. They would never be able to run such a program without this help.

As for Kapp, director since the band’s inception, he is moving on. During a vacation trip to Nova Scotia last summer he and his wife Lisa fell in love with the town of Wolfville. They purchased a home there and will be moving this summer. Consequently, he announced his retirement from New Horizons Band of Toronto, as he and Lisa prepare for their big move. I understand that their reputation precedes them, as the New Horizons Band and local theatre/music groups in Wolfville have already been in contact with them. They may well be busier than ever. As they leave, their legacy will continue, as NHB Toronto starts preparing for next year’s registration. Toronto’s loss will be Wolfville’s gain.

For those not familiar with New Horizons, the Toronto band is a member of a much larger group, New Horizons International Music Association. (Their website is newhorizonsmusic.org.) Roy Ernst, a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, founded the New Horizons movement in 1991, emphasizing entry and reentry points to music-making for older adults. His motto of “Your best is good enough – no auditions required” has inspired over 6000 people in approximately 200 bands across North America to get involved with music.

New president Kligerman says: “I felt very lucky to have met Dan seven years ago, as the band has been a truly enriching part of my life.” Three years ago Kligerman became a member of the NHIMA board, so that he could “further help spread the word of this amazing opportunity to learn music, to anyone looking to enrich their lives through music.”

Having not had much contact with the Toronto New Horizons groups for some time, I decided to visit the most senior group with which I have had contact over the years and also to visit their jazz band. After I introduced myself to the jazz band’s director Patricia Wheeler, I was invited to sit in. Since they did not have a bass trombone in their group and I had one in the car, I was soon holding my own at the bottom of the band. I was very impressed at how Wheeler helped instill the concepts of the jazz idiom into those new to that type of music. After that rehearsal I stayed to listen to the newest of the many groups. This was a woodwind choir with a difference; it consisted of three flutes, four clarinets and one bass clarinet but augmented by piano, bass and drums, similar to their jazz band. The key was to make a different form of music.

My next visit, a few days later, was to the rehearsal of the concert band. Still with several members of that original band, which began seven years ago, the band is now under the direction of Donna Dupuy. Here again, band members don’t just sit down and play the notes from the printed page. They are challenged to get comfortable with the finer aspects of the harmonies and rhythms to produce a distinctive quality performance.

(from left) Donna Dupuy (concert band conductor); holding euphonium, Randy Kligerman (president, NHB Toronto); Bill Condon, who gifted the euphoniumShortly before it was time to wind up that rehearsal there was a visit by Wheeler and her husband Bill Condon. In a brief ceremony Condon was there to present the surprise gift of a euphonium to the NH bands. My timing couldn’t have been better: a rehearsal, the most senior band, the president, two conductors and a generous friend of the band. What better instrument to receive as a gift! When prospective members attend a session to learn about band instruments, more often than not the euphonium is the one instrument they have never heard of. After this brief ceremony I was granted the honour of being the first to make sound on this euphonium. With great flair, the band members heard a B-flat major chord on their new instrument.

Anyone interested in learning more about New Horizons Band of Toronto can contact them at newhorizonstoronto.ca. Remember their motto: “It’s never too late!” Or you can contact Randy Kligerman directly, at randy@jaragroup.org.

Other news

Although I wrote quite a bit about Johnny Cowell last month, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent Celebration of the Life of Johnny Cowell, which took place on March 12 at Scarborough Bluffs United Church. With friend and colleague Stuart Laughton acting as MC, we heard not only reminiscences from many, but an amazing musical program. There were recordings of Johnny’s performances, as well as a wide spectrum of live performances of his compositions, from the song Walk Hand in Hand to a number of works for trumpet. The most stirring moment for me was a flugelhorn solo by Jens Lindemann, who came to Toronto specially for the occasion. Normally, the tune Amazing Grace is close to the top of my dislike list, but Lindemann’s rendition was so emotional that I was speechless. I have never heard that number or the flugelhorn sound so wonderful.

From time to time we hear of unusual instruments arriving on the local scene. A couple of years ago it was Jeff Densham with his subcontrabass flute from the Netherlands. He first saw such an instrument when a visitor from overseas played one with the Flute Street ensemble. Now, Nancy Nourse, director of Flute Street, is showing off her new contr’alto flute, also from the Netherlands. In her words: “It has such a rich, flutey baritone voice, capable of reaching well past the tenor range into the mezzo-soprano.”

This instrument’s very first outing with Flute Street will be on April 6 in Reston, VA in the Washington DC area, at the First International Low Flutes Festival (lowflutesfestival.org). Flute Street is one of a number of invited ensembles, amidst groups from Hungary, USA, England and Japan. Then on Sunday, April 15 at 7:30pm, Flute Street will present the same program, including a special contr’alto flute feature, at Christ Church Deer Park in Toronto.

Speaking of new groups, Borealis Big Band, mentioned last month, has risen to local stardom, in a recent edition of snapd Aurora. For those interested visit https://aurora.snapd.com/events/view/1118828. 

Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at bandstand@thewholenote.com.

Johannes Moser, cello, with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Dvořák, supposedly, never liked the cello – but if he could have heard cellist Johannes Moser’s captivating and emotive performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto in B Minor with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last month, I think he surely would have changed his opinion.

The February 21 concert program promised a varied combination of works, with the Cello Concerto spanning the first half of the evening, followed by Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major after the intermission. Despite their differences, these pieces revealed themselves to work together in a unique way. They all utilized contrasting instruments and textures to shift organically between tones and moods, with the light punctuating the dark. Gustavo Gimeno conducted the night’s concert, and I believe he held back slightly to allow these grand pieces to speak for themselves.

I arrived early in the evening of February 21 to Roy Thomson Hall, ready for the night’s repertoire. I settled in my seat, the lights dimmed, and a hush fell over the audience. Moser strode confidently onto the stage and proudly settled down directly next to the conductor’s platform.

The cello concerto began quietly, with a simple theme that instantly made me think that John Williams must have used Dvořák as inspiration for Rey’s Theme, a leitmotif from a recent Star Wars film. The orchestra built the melody with great force, until delicate plucking from the violins led to slow, lyrical phrases from the woodwinds. This moment of quiet provided the perfect stage for a new voice to burst in, as Moser began to play.

Everyone’s gaze locked onto Moser as he opened the movement with fervour and passion. The audience sat, transfixed, at this man whose effort and emotions were tangible. He moved almost violently at times, rocking back and forth on his bench, even shaking with the flow of the melody. An ecstatic smile filled Moser’s face after some of the particularly intense moments. The orchestra supported him with beautifully textured performances throughout.

Clarinets gently introduced the second movement, a wholly calmer experience. It had a more wistful tone, filled with longing. Around the time of completing this work, Dvořák lost his sister-in-law, and his love and loss resonate loudly through this more tender Adagio. The movement begins as it ends, with the clarinets gradually leading us to quiet.

The first and third movements serve as bookends to the piece, holding up the more tender second movement with their stronger dynamics and passionate, rich sounds. The piece seemed to tease an ending, growing louder and bolder, before softening once more. The orchestra came alive in the last few seconds, bringing the piece to a confident and swift end.

Bridging the gap between the two main pieces of the night was Ligeti’s four-movement Romanian Concerto. This work is influenced by folk music and culture, allowing for a freer feel than both Dvořák and Beethoven’s pieces.

Each movement of the Romanian Concerto felt unique and new. The first movement began with a sense of melancholy, with crafted, elegant phrases, while the second, with its lively tempo, caught me off guard. It was short-lived, but uplifting and energetic. In these moments, Gimeno brought vigour into the orchestra with his sprightly conducting. The third movement slowed down again and felt like a great contrast to the previous. The woodwinds provided a mysterious feel, luxuriating in their hypnotizing notes. And finally, the last movement brought back the energy and folk influences of the second. In the very last moments, the piece came to an abrupt end, with a crash of cymbals and blaring of trumpets.

Despite being considered one of Ligeti’s tamer pieces, it is still, quite honestly, strange at times. There were dramatic changes, from somber to jovial and back again with split-second transitions. I, however, found this enjoyable and surprising, and as the piece ran for a mere 12 minutes, even those who thought it too bizarre could hardly complain.

The final piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No.4. The first movement began almost mournfully (although swiftly moving into a lighter section), but overall, the symphony felt dignified, and as such, filled with the semblances of Classical convention. It is a masterful work in its technique and form, and the interjections of darker moments add tension. However, compared to the full emotion of Dvořák and the novelties of Ligeti, I found Beethoven could not hold my attention as intensely. The length of the piece, combined with the late hour, also disrupted my enjoyment.

As the lights returned and the final patter of applause died out, I left the concert hall slightly tired, but satisfied with the music I had just experienced. I welcomed the slightly bizarre nature of Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, and even though my attention wavered, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony still allowed for a magnificent performance. And yet, it was Moser’s standout performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto from that night that will stay with me, as a wholly engaging performance – and an unforgettable show of passion.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Dvořák & Beethoven” on February 21 and 22, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Jaimie Nackan is currently studying media at the University of Guelph-Humber. She is a pianist and former ballet dancer, with further passions in literature, writing, and film. She is pursuing a career in critiquing the arts, while also working on her first novel.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Turning the corner onto Simcoe Street, I always wonder whether I'm on the right block. My eyes follow the symmetric buildings, up and down, until the gleaming rounded concrete case brings relief. Roy Thomson Hall stands proudly isolated from its surroundings, and on the evening of February 21 there was a sense of camaraderie between the building and the concert inside it – both unconventional, both beautifully different.

Though the “Dvořák & Beethoven” concert program seemed at first glance like standard orchestral fare, both of the title works – Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, featuring cellist Johannes Moser, and Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B-flat Major – were experimental pieces in the careers of these two composers. With the exception of his early A-major concerto (which was left unorchestrated), Dvořák had never written a cello concerto before, while for Beethoven, Symphony No.4 represents a subversion of the Classical symphony structure. Ligeti’s rarely-played Romanian Concerto rounded out the program. Throughout, conductor Gustavo Gimeno, in his TSO debut, expertly navigated the orchestra through abrupt musical changes in each of the three works.

Opening the program was Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B Minor. The tender Allegro was introduced with an opening theme in the clarinets and lower strings, echoed by the first violins and oboes, that quickly built to a full orchestral climax. The Czech composer, desperately homesick while writing this piece, introduced into the second theme the strong flavour of Bohemian folk music. A violinist himself, Dvořák was not impressed by the range of the cello and did not intend for this piece to be a traditional 19th-century virtuoso performance. Instead, he treats the cello as a voice supported by the orchestra, and it was only after this orchestral build that cello soloist Johannes Moser began to play.

This German-Canadian phenomenon left no doubt as to how he earned his third ECHO KLASSIK award in 2017 as “Instrumentalist of the Year.” Absolutely absorbed in the music, he swayed silently onstage for the full three-minute orchestral introduction before launching into his performance. I was amazed by the fervour of his stage presence. Moser executed the series of speedy variations of the opening theme with devilishly dexterous fingers before building towards the first movement's end with rising octaves, perfectly balanced against the orchestra’s drum rolls and militaristic trumpets.

In contrast to the first movement's triumphant conclusion, the slow Adagio evoked emotions of great sadness. Here, Dvořák alludes to Josephina's song, one of four songs written for his dying sister-in-law. Breaking from tradition, the piece has no cadenza; the third and final movement closes gradually in a diminuendo like a sigh, a supposed reference from Dvořák to the grief he felt when losing Josephina.

A brilliant performance of this work by Moser and the TSO had the audience on their feet before the last note faded away. If the cello was ever at risk of being swallowed by the orchestra, Moser's passionate performance certainly convinced us otherwise. Playing off the lyrical quality of Dvořák's concerto, Moser surprised the audience with an encore: a technically perfect rendition of the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite 1.

After intermission, the folk music theme continued with Ligeti's four-movement Romanian Concerto. The first Andantino movement began with a moderate, comforting melody, while the Allegro vivace provided a strong, cheerful folk flavour. Instruments were unconcealed and each was given a moment to shine, with particularly impressive solo performances by Jonathan Crow on violin and Camille Watts on piccolo. In contrast, the third Adagio movement is more dissonant and the village band elements Ligeti added filter through. The finale movement is slightly frenzied and the folk themes are echoed by all the instruments, but dies down quietly with the violins and horns. Here, the whole orchestra joins in abruptly, signalling the end of the piece.

Ligeti's composition served as a good juxtaposition and bridge to the more classically structured work of Beethoven. The darker timbre and more subdued, moody feel of his Symphony No.4 in B-flat Major were a welcome change from the upbeat Romanian Concerto. From his middle period, this symphony adheres loosely to Classical structure but throws the audience about throughout, with bursts of quick musical passages and rapid tempo changes. It suggests a mood of anger, hurt and frustration – which is understandable, seeing as it was composed around the time when Beethoven realised he was losing his hearing.

The work surprises the audience throughout. In the first movement, the opening dissonances and lyrical theme were built up in the orchestra, before dissolving into staccato, soloistic passages. An abrupt end to the second movement left the audience in anticipation for the third movement – a lively Allegro vivace, with the unusual feature of a repeated scherzo and trio section. The fourth movement concludes with a sweet, classical build in the flutes that slows down dramatically before the violins and trumpets sounded the final three fast-stroked notes, leaving the audience with a sense of unresolved anticipation.

These three pieces created a perfect marriage between the known and unfamiliar, and Gimeno commanded an easy flow between works, staying fluid even when the music was abrupt. This charismatic guest conductor left listeners standing as proud as Roy Thomson Hall itself – and deserves the admiration of the audience and orchestra alike.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Dvořák & Beethoven” on February 21 and 22, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Formally trained in classical ballet, music theory, piano and flute, Esther van Eeden fostered a deep appreciation of the arts from a young age. To her, art is threaded into all aspects of life, and through her pursuit of a career in architecture, she strives to create environments that express human emotion.

In this exciting month Toronto will see the world premieres of two new Canadian operas. The first, The Overcoat by James Rolfe, opens March 29 and is covered elsewhere in this issue. The other is The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies, which will be presented March 24 and 25 by VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert. Having interviewed Davies last month and pored through his background paper for the work, the opera looks to be one of his most important compositions.

Victor Davies - photo by Graham Lindsay Wavelength MediaAs a play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga is considered one of the classics of Canadian drama. It premiered in Vancouver in November 1967 as a Canada Centennial project. As Davies explains: “Its impact was electric, as no Canadian play had been written which confronted issues head-on between Indigenous and mainline society.” In simple terms it follows the life of Rita Joe, who leaves her reservation in search of greater freedom in the city only to face racism, drugs, prostitution, rape and murder. Ryga uses the word “ecstasy” to refer ironically to her final moments before death. Interwoven with Rita Joe’s life is that of her friend Jaimie Paul, who also meets a tragic end. 

The play has had many subsequent productions, most recently at the National Arts Centre in 2013 with an all-Indigenous cast. In 1971 the Royal Winnipeg Ballet produced a ballet based on it choreographed by Norbert Vesak to music by Ann Mortifee, revived most recently in 2011.

In answer to the question of how Davies came to create an opera based on the play, he writes in his background paper: “The genesis of the idea, that I should make an opera of the play, came from the insistence/encouragement of two dear friends: well-known Indigenous stage and screen actor August Schellenberg, the original Jaimie Paul in the premiere production of the play in 1967, and director/producer John Juliani who produced the CBC radio adaptation of the play for which I composed the music. Both were convinced the play contained an opera.

“Ultimately, my two friends were right. The play is wonderful material for an opera. It is richly textured and contains vibrant larger-than-life characters, a classic tragic love story, the theme of young ideas and ambitions thwarted, the clash between value systems, both societal and generational, pathos, moments of wonderful humour, the underlying inner drive which calls for music to emerge in song, and richly poetic dramatic prose to inspire heightened lyric melody.”

Nevertheless, Davies was still concerned whether today a self-described “old white guy” should write an opera about Indigenous people. To determine if he should undertake the project, he consulted Rebecca Chartrand, a singer and friend with whom Davies collaborated for the Indigenous music in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg and who is the Aboriginal Consultant for Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg.

As Davies explains, “Her immediate reaction was that I must write the opera. She said it spoke directly to the current and important discussion about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. This was a turning point for us both. Since this initial meeting until the present she has been a constant force in urging us to bring the opera to life.”

In addition to Chartrand, Davies consulted and was encouraged in the creation of the opera by such members of the Indigenous community as playwrights Thomson Highway and Kevin Loring, and the chiefs of various First Nations including Chief Len George (son of Chief Dan George, who appeared in the play’s premiere).

In answer to the question why the play should become an opera, Davies lists four goals: “to bring the story, characters and their issues to new life powered by music; to put the story into a new frame to engage new publics; to create an important and viable vehicle for Indigenous opera singers; and to be a catalyst in the discussion about issues between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society at large.” 

A further question Davies addresses is why a play from 1967 should become an opera now. “This opera speaks to the important topic of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Fifty years since the play’s creation, many serious issues are still unresolved in Indigenous life: tensions between the reserve and the city and the values they represent regarding stewardship of nature vs. modernity, conflicts between generations, the Indigenous world vs. the legal system, and prejudice against Indigenous people in general, all issues which underpin the problem of the missing and murdered women, and the residential school system.”

Davies says that Chartrand and Chief Isadore Day in Toronto and Chief Nepinak in Winnipeg “all spoke about how important they felt the opera would be in bringing Indigenous issues to mainline audiences in a new, more powerful way. They felt that bringing their story to the stage for audiences to whom the Indigenous story was nothing but a TV clip or a newspaper footnote would have an enormous impact. With characters with whom the audience could identify, who were alive, had aspirations, humour, and though their lives have a tragic end, the portrayal of these lives powered by music would bring home their story.”

Davies approached Opera in Concert three years ago about producing the work, and OiC organized a two-day workshop focusing on the libretto, which he also wrote. In transforming the play to an opera Davies made many changes. One was to eliminate the character of the Singer, a figure present in the play primarily to satirize the lack of understanding of liberal white people about what is happening to Indigenous people. While the action shifts back and forth in time, Davies’s libretto tells the story in chronological order. The five times Rita Joe is called before a magistrate become part of the libretto’s organizing structure. 

In commenting on the score, Davies says: “This work will be unlike anything I have done, rooted in the ethos of the contemporary worlds of the reserve, the streets and the city. There will be no actual Indigenous music or language, but I will create music which reflects Indigenous music, the characters themselves and their place in both reserve and city with the necessary contemporary grit, energy and texture of the 60s. However melody, rhythm, accessibility and immediacy are hallmarks of my music and will be in this work too. The score will be eclectic in style as befits characters and action.” Davies says that the music will range from the tonal and melodic for arias for Rita Joe and Jaimie Paul to the atonal and dissonant for scenes of violence and conflict. The music is not organized through leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense, but it is shaped through the use of recurring themes associated with certain characters and actions. 

Marion Newman - photo by Ellen NewmanFor the VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert production, all the principal roles will be sung by Indigenous Canadian artists. Mezzo Marion Newman will sing the title role. Baritone Evan Korbut, a recent Stuart Hamilton Memorial Award winner, will sing the role of Jaimie Paul. Mezzo Michelle Lafferty will be Sister Eileen, baritone Everett Levi Morrison will be Father David Joe and mezzo Rose-Ellen Nichols will be the Old Woman. The Opera in Concert Chorus will take on a wide array of roles: members of the court, street women, women on the reserve and in jail and more. 

For the OiC production Guillermo Silva-Marin will serve as dramatic advisor. Robert Cooper will conduct the cast, the OiC Chorus and an ensemble of piano, cello, violin, clarinet and saxophone. The latter four instruments Davies says will add more “colour and weight” to the music than would piano alone. (While his last opera for Manitoba Opera, Transit of Venus (2007), employed an orchestra of 68, Davies says that for a full production of Rita Joe, he would be happy with an ensemble of 16.)

Attending the OiC performances will be representatives of Manitoba Opera and Vancouver Opera who may determine whether Davies’ opera moves on to future productions with their companies. For now, Davies is filled with gratitude. He writes that he gives “many thanks to dear friends both past and present who have given me... the passion and joy to search for the truth in the beautiful poetry of George Ryga. My hope is that those who see it as it emerges, will feel the same.”

Revised, 20/03/18: The third-to-last paragraph of this story has been revised to remove the statement that mezzo Marion Newman, who sings the title role of Rita Joe, also served as an advisor on the project. While she met twice, informally, with the composer during the development of the project,  the nature of the input offered and the extent to which it was accepted were not sufficient to warrant describing the role as advisory. Permission was neither sought by the composer nor given by Ms. Newman to characterize her role as that of advisor.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

I recently had an email exchange with Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the celebrated Takács Quartet, in anticipation of the Takács’ upcoming recital in Koerner Hall on March 25. I began by congratulating Dusinberre on his recent book, Beethoven for a Later Age (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), which I found to be a wonderful reading experience, rich in its multi-layered outlook and filled with keen insights into the string quartet experience in general and his in particular. The way he integrated the historical context of Beethoven’s own involvement with his quartets into the narrative was novel and instructive. And tying the history of the Takács to specific performances of specific Beethoven quartets was, I told him, an organic and deft touch.

The Takács Quartet: (from left) Geraldine Walther, viola; Edward Dusinberre, violin; András Fejér, cello; Károly Schranz, violin.WN: Does the quartet still rehearse four hours at a time? How much rehearsal time per week? Your Koerner Hall concert on March 25 begins at 3pm. What effect will that have on your rehearsal process?

ED: I’m glad you enjoyed the book! We rehearse between three to three and a half hours a day, five days a week when we are at home. On the road it’s more a matter of “maintenance” rehearsals, tweaking things here and there. The hard preparation work is done in Boulder. For an afternoon concert we usually meet two hours before the concert.

Please speak about the importance of conveying emotion in the music.

Conveying emotion is the end goal, but each audience member’s emotional response to a piece is unique. So we spend a lot of time discussing what character we want a phrase, section or movement to convey. The means for achieving that are of course many: bow stroke, type of sound, pacing, dynamic contrast, body language, etc. We hope if the characters are vivid and immediate, then the emotional responses they inspire will be stronger.

How does the Koerner Hall acoustic influence your playing there?

What a gorgeous hall and acoustic! Such a space creates the possibility for more varied dynamics and colours of sound: in particular it is more rewarding to play very quietly. Also timing can be affected. The last chord of a slow movement will fade beautifully into silence, where in a less good hall it might stop abruptly, so one is encouraged to linger.

You wrote extensively about the interpretive challenges and your various approaches to Beethoven’s string quartets in your book. “Performing Opus 131 is always an adventure,” you wrote. And: “Of all the Beethoven quartets, Opus 131 is the most ambitious.” Please elaborate on those two statements.

The emotional range of the piece is staggering. And often the juxtapositions of fiercely contrasting emotions require a nimble approach from the performers. For example, after a lyrical fourth movement full of whimsy and fantasy, one is hurled into a helter skelter scherzo which requires fast fingers and finesse. Immediately after that, the sixth movement is a lament, again with the minimum of time to prepare. The piece is an adventure because traversing such a range of emotions feels a bit different each time.

What is your approach to Opus 131 today? How might it change on March 25 in Toronto? How does the energy of the audience bear on it?

The opening bars of the piece are like the beginning of a long story. Sometimes the opening feels introspective, sometimes more overtly despairing. This is music that can accommodate many different approaches, just like a Shakespeare play. The purpose of rehearsing Opus 131 is to feel comfortable enough to be open to minute changes of character, balance and pacing that can occur spontaneously onstage. Beethoven modestly remarked that in this music there is “less lack of fantasy (imagination).” It is hard to predict from one concert to the next how our feeling about performing the piece will change but our job is to be open to how that fantasy may unfold.

How would you characterize the two other works on your Koerner Hall program – The Haydn E-flat Major, Op.76 No.5 and the Shostakovich No.11 in F Minor, Op.122?

The Haydn is a wonderfully varied piece with a luminous slow movement worthy of a late Beethoven quartet. The outer movements are full of surprises. The first movement starts rather gently before delivering a rambunctious coda. The last movement is full of high spirits, comic turns and pregnant pauses – one of our favourites.

The Shostakovich is an extraordinary piece. Like Opus 131, the movements are played without a break. And like Beethoven, Shostakovich takes simple thematic material and transforms it in imaginative ways, creating a satisfying narrative arc.

Speaking of Quartets (2): The Rolston String Quartet’s international profile has recently been raised even higher, having been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award, the first time a Canadian ensemble has received this prestigious biennial award which honours young string quartets on the cusp of a major international career. It is given out by the Cleveland Quartet, Chamber Music America and eight notable chamber music presenters across the United States. Winning quartets receive a concert tour of the United States, including performances at Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The prize is the latest in a string of accolades for the fast-rising ensemble since winning the top prize at the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2016. Currently the fellowship quartet-in-residence at the Yale School of Music, the Rolstons now join the ranks of previous Cleveland Quartet Award winners Brentano, Borromeo, Miami, Pacifica, Miro, Jupiter, Parker, Jasper, Ariel and Dover Quartets.

As Bill Rankin wrote in La Scena in June 2017, Barry Shiffman, a founding member of the St. Lawrence Quartet and associate dean and director of chamber music at the RCM’s Glenn Gould School (GGS), recognized the group’s adventurous spirit from the outset. “There’s a bit of craziness to them, which I like in a young quartet,” he said. “They’re risk takers. They don’t play it safe. They have a concept, and they go for it.”

“Some people think of a string quartet as a 16-string instrument; others see it more as four individuals, with a very distinct identity and characteristics. We lean more toward the latter,” Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo said.

Cellist Norman Fischer, an alumnus of the Concord Quartet and a specialist in contemporary music, explained that at Rice University, the Rolstons found a deeper way of listening. During their three years of study there, they developed “the ability to hear sounds in very specific ways, the ability to hear what’s going on with all the players around you – to be able to anticipate changes in the music, but also to be able to anticipate changes from one another and to quickly respond. This is really complicated perceptual training.

“You’re always looking for that X factor, the exceptional thing in the playing that you’re not expecting, that makes the performance of music at the moment something memorable, and the Rolstons have that capacity.”

Shiffman says: “They bring a joyous A game to everything they do. I’m sure at times they’re tired and crabby and they don’t want to be on the road. But you would never know it. They’re as excited to play for you whether it’s Carnegie Hall or it’s Timmins, Ontario.”

The Rolston String Quartet plays at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society March 7, the Jeffery Concerts in London March 10, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre March 11 and the Royal Conservatory’s Mazzoleni Hall April 8. The programs will include combinations of Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy and Tchaikovsky in support of Schumann’s hugely popular Piano Quintet.

The Eybler String Quartet came together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser-known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler. The group plays on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs. Violinist Julia Wedman and violist Patrick G. Jordan are members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; violinist Aisslinn Nosky is concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and principal guest conductor of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Wedman and Nosky are also members of I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. Cellist Margaret Gay is much in demand as both a modern and period instrument player. Their March 9 Heliconian Hall recital includes early Haydn, late Mozart and their contemporary Franz Asplmayr (1728-1786).

The Elias String Quartet has been together since they were students in Manchester in 1998. Music Toronto’s Jennifer Taylor brought them here in March 2015 for a memorable local debut which I chronicled in these pages: “French sisters Sara and Marie Bittloch on violin and cello set the tone for the quartet’s intimate sound and its impeccable sense of ensemble. Equally attentive were second violinist Scotsman Donald Grant and Swedish violist Martin Saving. Together the foursome brought heavenly pianissimos and wonderful silences that allowed Mozart’s music to breathe in his ‘Dissonance’ Quartet K465 and unrelenting anger and passion to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet without losing the ruminative lyricism of its slow movement.” Their upcoming recital for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto on March 8 features three pillars of the repertoire: Schubert’s Quartettsatz, Janáček’s heartfelt String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters” and Beethoven’s mighty String Quartet No.12 Op.127. The following day the Elias performs the same program in Carnegie Hall.

The Penderecki String Quartet, currently celebrating their 25th year as quartet-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, returns to Music Toronto March 15 for a concert of Schumann’s String Quartet No.3, Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Oblique Light (2016), commissioned as a sesquicentennial project by the Pendereckis and meant to depict the quality of light in our northern land, and Elgar’s Quartet in E Minor Op.83, which captured the spirit of his country cottage where it was written at the end of WWI. As we go to press Music Toronto has announced their 2018/19 season. Highlights include two appearances by Marc-André Hamelin: a season-opening solo piano recital and a Valentine’s Day chamber music concert with the Juilliard String Quartet; and Cleveland Quartet Award winners, the Ariel Quartet, who make their local debut.

Assorted Strings. The final concert of the Academy Concert Series season on March 10 sees the return of violinist Scott St. John and guitarist Lucas Harris, joining cellist Kerri McGonigle and violinist Emily Eng in a remounting of one of ACS’ most talked about and popular concerts from five years ago, “A Portrait of Paganini.” The repertoire will include a Paganini guitar quartet – he wrote 15 – his amiable Terzetto Concertante (for viola, cello and guitar) and one of his 24 virtuosic solo violin caprices. The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society brings together the estimable Lafayette and Saguenay (formerly the Alcan) Quartets on March 25 for a rare evening of octets for strings by Mendelssohn, Niels Gade and Russian-Canadian composer Airat Ichmouratov. (Music Toronto will present the identical program March 14, 2019.) A completely different string confection will be served on March 31 when 5 at the First Chamber Music Series presents Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 for violin, viola and two cellos; Jocelyn Morlock’s Blue Sun for violin and viola; and Dohnányi’s String Sextet in B Minor.

Dénes Várjon - photo by Andrea FelvégiAnd a Pianist. Dénes Várjon, admired by professional musicians and European audiences but less well-known in North America, makes a return visit to the Jane Mallett Theatre on March 27 under the auspices of Music Toronto for a recital laden with music by his Hungarian countrymen Bartók and Liszt. It begins with Beethoven’s late Bagatelles Op.126, the composer’s final music for the piano. Beethoven described it as “Six bagatelles or trifles for solo piano, some of which are rather more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written.” Fiona Maddocks wrote in The Guardian in February 2012 that Várjon’s ECM recording of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor “demands attention for its grandeur, clarity and incisive virtuosity. Várjon makes rigorous sense of the work’s episodic structure, showing powerful ease in the fugue but enjoying the rhapsodic nature of the rest.” It will be exciting to hear him play it live.

TSO and Friends. Stéphane Denève, recently appointed music director of the St. Louis Symphony (effective 2019/20) leads the TSO in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last completed work. Fun facts: it was the first time Rachmaninoff wrote for the saxophone and he got advice from violinist extraordinaire Fritz Kreisler on string bowings. Also on March 28 and 29, versatile German pianist Lars Vogt is the soloist in Brahms’ ravishing Piano Concerto No.2.

Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, violinist Ray Chen won the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in 2008 and the prestigious Queen Elisabeth [of Belgium] Music Competition the following year. Adept at social media and elegantly clad in Armani, Chen is the epitome of a modern musician. He is the soloist April 5, 7 and 8 in Bruch’s beloved Violin Concerto No.1 under Sir Andrew Davis, who also leads the orchestra in one of Mendelssohn’s programmatic concert overtures and Sibelius’ magnificent Symphony No.5.

Then, on March 24, the TSO cedes the Roy Thomson Hall stage to the National Arts Centre Orchestra and its conductor Alexander Shelley for performances of a new work, Earworms, by Vivian Fung, Brahms’ serene Symphony No.2 and Shostakovich’s lively and sardonic Piano Concerto No.2 (with Russian-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, winner of the 2013 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition).

The Associates of the Toronto Symphony present “The Companion’s Guide to Rome” on March 26, featuring Amanda Goodburn, violin, Theresa Rudolph, viola, Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron, cello, and Samuel Banks, bassoon, in Mozart’s Sonata for Bassoon and Cello K292, Devienne’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings Op.37 No.3 and Andrew Norman’s string trio, The Companion Guide to Rome.

QUICK PICKS

Mar 10: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts presents the exceptional pianist Jan Lisiecki.

Mar 18: Salzburg-born-and-raised cellist Clemens Hagen (of the celebrated Hagen Quartet) and Russian-born American, multi-faceted pianist Kirill Gerstein perform three of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, Op.5 No.2, Op.102 No.1 and Op.102 No.2 as well as his 7 Variations in E-flat Major on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; presented by the Royal Conservatory in Koerner Hall.

Mar 22 to 24: In “Sound and Colour: Scriabin and Synesthesia,” Art of Time artistic director, pianist Andrew Burashko, performs Scriabin’s 24 Preludes in conjunction with lighting designer Kevin Lamotte’s light-field show.

Mar 23: Belgian pianist Olivier de Spiegeleir adds his own commentary to his Debussy recital presented by Alliance Française de Toronto, 100 years after the composer’s death.

Apr 6: The Royal Conservatory presents “Bernstein @ 100,” featuring German pianist Sebastian Knauer, Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter), mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and the ARC Ensemble. 

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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