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

Cellist Margaret Gay (L) and violist Patrick Jordan (R). Photo credit: Sian Richards.For many, working from home on June 17 meant another day at the well-worn computer desk. For the players of Tafelmusik, it meant presenting Caprice, the spirited fourth video broadcast in their ticketed Tafelmusik at Home online series. Showcasing lesser-known 18th-century composers, players from the ensemble gave both educational commentary and performance, all delivered from their own living rooms. Though the video series came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project is a serendipitous fit for Tafelmusik – so much 18th-century chamber music was written to be performed and heard at home, and this digital platform gives audiences new access to that intimate experience.

The program opened with four selections from William Herschel’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin (ca. 1760), performed by violinist Thomas Georgi. After more than 30 years in the ensemble, Georgi announced that this performance would be his last for Tafelmusik before entering retirement. Despite sharing a title with Paganini’s Caprices, Herschel’s offerings emphasize sensitivity over devilish showmanship. They are as charming as they are brief – even at a relaxed tempo, Caprice No. 7 burned through its entire 22 bars in less than a minute. Making the most of what’s there, Georgi performed with a consistently sweet sound, carefully shaping long notes during the plaintive theme of Caprice No. 9. In Caprice No. 13, Georgi sensitively controlled the density of his tone to differentiate ornamental filigree from delightfully lengthy cadential appoggiaturas.

Read more: Concert report: Tafelmusik at Home’s “Caprice” brings fresh nuance to 18th-century works

Mezzo Wallis Giunta (left) and Jennifer Nichols (right) in the TSO’s June 2017 Seven Deadly Sins, by Kurt Weill. Photo by Jag GunduI have been friends with Jennifer Nichols since meeting as colleagues working at Opera Atelier more than ten years ago, and I have followed her freelance career with great interest ever since, sometimes reviewing or previewing her shows for The WholeNote: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony in 2017, for example which she choreographed and performed in, with mezzo Wallis Giunta; or 2019’s Dora-nominated Pandora for FAWN Opera which, again, she both choreographed and danced in. One of the things I love about her work is how she is always looking for new challenges, new ways to push herself and discover more of what is possible in terms of choreography and performing to music. 

In the May/June issue of The WholeNote, we found ourselves as virtual colleagues again – she wrote a moving guest article about how music is at the heart of all she does: dancing, choreographing, teaching, producing and, as she said to me the other day, even just walking down the street. Now, with the continuing need to physically distance ourselves from each other, thanks to the ongoing world pandemic, even walking down the street is bounded by restrictions; most of her other activities have had to be recalibrated, reinvented, moved online as much as possible, but somehow trying to keep that human connection that is created by dancing with, and in the live presence of, other people. 

Read more: Music in the Dance of Life: Responding to a changing world

Grand Philharmonic ChoirAnyone who sings in a choir has likely seen the tragic story of the Amsterdam Mixed Choir where after a performance of the Bach St John Passion, 102 of the 130 choristers were sickened by COVID-19. One of those members would pass away from the virus in the following weeks, just as news also broke of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State where 52 members would ultimately be infected, with two deaths. Smaller group outbreaks were noted in other choirs around the world such as the Berlin Cathedral Choir and in many faith-based settings. The headlines are enough to make any person take pause. The choral community has been shaken particularly hard by these stories as, for many, choir is their escape from the pain and stress of the world, not the cause of it. 

In the absence of clear scientific evidence, the precautionary principle has provided the only guidance available to choirs throughout much of the pandemic so far. Organizations have not waited to take strict action, instead choosing to comply with blanket safety, quarantine and shutdown measures. For every choir in Ontario, it is now over three months since any rehearsals. Seasons were ended early, summer festivals are cancelled, tours are out of the question, and uncertainty reigns, with planning for next season made difficult by differing assumptions of what may be. 

Read more: In the Absence of Singing, Uncertainty

James Ehnes and Jonathan Crow at a TSM launch in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Photo by Chris HutchesonOf all the musical events I’ve taken in online recently, the highlight was watching new TSO music director Gustavo Gimeno in Amsterdam conducting the regathered Concertgebouw, the orchestra in which he played percussion for 11 years beginning in 2001. 

Both Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (recorded June 2 and broadcast June 3) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 (livestreamed on June 5) are now available on YouTube. The Dvořák, its live aura palpable, struck special notes of smooth and sweet, its dance movements floating effortlessly. The musicians observed quite distinct social distancing rules, with the strings separated by 1.75 metres, the winds and brass by two metres, which led to many members being placed on the steps behind the stage.

I was in the midst of a telephone conversation with TSO concertmaster and Toronto Summer Music artistic director, Jonathan Crow, when I wondered. Had he seen it? Yes, he had. Wasn’t it extraordinary, I asked rhetorically.

Read more: “As Live as We Can Do It” – TSM Reborn

Photo Credit: Small World MusicEstablished in 1997 by Toronto music curator Alan Davis, Small World Music Society has for years maintained its position as one of the city’s premier presenters of culturally diverse music. All in, they reckon they have presented and partnered on close to 800 concerts and related events in venues ranging from top-tier concert halls to their own venue, from outdoor festival stages to clubs across Greater Toronto, making SWMS one of the this country’s most significant global music presenters, reaching audiences of many kinds.

Full disclosure: I first met Davis when he was a programmer at The Music Gallery, probably back in the late 1980s. Later on he joined Gamelan Toronto, a community music group I started in 1995; in fact, one of Small World Music’s first projects, in 1997, was to present the Gamelan Summit Toronto, a ten-day festival of which I was the founder and artistic director. I have also performed as a musician at SWM-produced concerts since. And over the last decade I’ve followed various aspects of Small World Music Society’s programming and evolution here in The WholeNote. One example was when its Small World Centre, a hub for the culturally diverse arts community, opened six years ago; another was my summer 2017 World View column about the 2017 launch of Polyphonic Ground, a multi-organization umbrella group of ten GTA-based music presenters working collaboratively to showcase the voices and sounds of Toronto’s global music scene.

So I was all ears when, early this year, SWM announced not only its annual springtime Asian Music Series, but also an ambitious Global Toronto conference. It was all set to go in May as a showcase for select culturally diverse Canadian musicians, plus a place where Canadian and international buyers could meet, greet, hear and book them. Then the COVID-19 crisis suddenly locked (almost) everything down, and both those events were cancelled. End of story it seemed.

Read more: One More Pivotal Moment For Small World Music

Steve Wallace, centre, in friendlier times, with the Barry Elmes Quintet. Photo by Don Vickery“Playing the changes” is jazz argot (jargot?) for navigating the chord changes of any given piece or tune being played, a hard-earned skill, the challenge of which varies depending on how many chord changes there are, and how complex they might be. It’s also referred to as “making the changes,” as in playing notes which fit the chords – a sort of entry-level requirement – or “running the changes,” which can carry a negative connotation of a soloist robotically playing a lot of notes without necessarily making a coherent musical statement of any melodic value.

However, the difficulty of negotiating the labyrinthine chord changes of, say, Giant Steps, or I Got Rhythm, pale in comparison to the challenges facing jazz musicians during the COVID-19 lockdown of the past three months and counting. “Playing the changes” has taken on a whole new meaning – as in adapting to the catastrophic changes wrought by this virus. These have affected all of us deeply of course, but I would like to address them from a jazz perspective.

I’m slightly reluctant in doing so lest this take on a “woe is me” tone of self-pity, as if jazz players have suffered more than other live performers such as actors, dancers and musicians in other fields. Everyone has surely suffered from the lockdown measures, but as a largely in-the-moment, collectively improvised music – and an economically vulnerable one at that – jazz and its practitioners have been particularly set back by social distancing.

Read more: Playing Changes

As the days drag on into weeks and the weeks drag on into months, with no live music, we are all suffering in some way or other. Finally I have learned from a local columnist that there is a name for our problem. He told me that we are all suffering from “pandemic fatigue.” 

While this column has a focus on instrumental music, we recently learned of a vocal number which sums up the feelings of almost all musicians at this time of isolation. There are a couple of choral versions of What Would I Do Without My Music. They can be found at youtube.com/watch?y=CC1HtFCaBys.

Staying In Touch

In many cases we have heard nothing from bands about how their members are coping. Most, though, are staying in touch with members at least by email. So I have two questions: 1) How are all the bands and their members coping with this situation while they cannot play together? 2) What are the plans for the bands when that distant day arrives, and how will the long absence have affected their morale and performance? 

Read more: How to Fight Pandemic Fatigue? Practise.

The RexIn the wake of ongoing worldwide protests in support of anti-racist social reform, major Canadian arts institutions have expressed statements of commitment to look inward and address their own programming selections, hiring practices and artistic choices. 

Amidst promises to do better, major institutions have the benefit of time and major financial resources to stay afloat; meanwhile, Toronto’s clubs face an uncertain future. Though it is imperative that venues of all sizes think critically about their own internal biases, it is small venues, rather than large, that have the greater capacity to provide space to diverse programming, having a mandate to develop and serve their communities, rather than their donor base. 

So, with the advent of summer, and a recent move into Stage 2 of the province’s reopening framework, I connected with representatives of three Toronto venues – The Rex, The Emmet Ray and Burdock Music Hall – to discuss the suspension of live performances, surviving the financial hurdles of quarantine, and moving forward.

Read more: Small Venues – Surviving Suspension, and Moving Forward

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

Parry Songs of farewellParry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood
Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor)
Hyperion CDA68301

Parry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood, the Westminster Abbey Choir’s latest offering on the Hyperion label, brings together in death two composers often fiercely at odds in life: the sometimes-friends, sometimes-rivals Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. As English choral composers working at the turn of the 20th century and colleagues at the Royal College of Music, the two alternately championed and criticized each other’s work. In pairing these two artists’ late-career compositions with selections from their lesser-known contemporaries Charles Wood and Alan Gray, the Westminster Abbey Choir has created a fascinating conversation on visions of life, death, and eternity within the English sacred music tradition, shaped by four composers experimenting and excelling in the genre. The all-boys Abbey Choir interprets with sensitivity both the subtlety and grandeur of these compositions, and I found myself listening to excerpts again and again to uncover their detail.

Stanford’s Three Latin Motets open the album. Director James O’Donnell expertly leads the choir through the arc of Justorum animae, the first motet: from resonant exhortation for righteousness, into the ominous warnings of the “trials of evil” with echoing minor repetitions, to a final major-key promise of peace. Coelos ascendit hodie is a triumphal Ascension hymn, with repeated “alleluias” that climb to a jubilant “Amen” at the motet’s majestic conclusion. Beati quorum via is comparatively gentler, a dialogue between overlapping upper and lower voices contrasting two lines from Psalm 119 before resolving in still union.

Stanford was less successful, I think, with his Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat. He composed this after reconciling with Parry near the end of Parry’s life, and dedicated it to him in publication (though Parry died before seeing it). Perhaps Stanford was overcompensating in his attempted atonement, but the Magnificat lacks the religious reverence we hear in his Motets. The Magnificat opens with boisterous counterpoint, the choir’s sopranos rapidly ascending and descending in a confusing first stanza. This indulgence is echoed in the doxology, and both sections consequently feel incoherent in their detail. The choir achieves a greater tonal clarity in the middle verses, where Stanford comes closer to the eloquent simplicity typical of the late English choral style. More successful still were the canticles by Alan Gray and Charles Wood, Stanford’s contemporaries at Cambridge. Wood’s Nunc dimittis is especially strong in its varied dynamics; O’Donnell guides the choir through the motet’s ebbing and flowing phrases to the striking Gregorian-inspired doxology.

Though Stanford’s attempted homage to Parry falls short of the mark, Parry’s own valedictory composition of the same time is a comparative triumph. The album’s high point is Parry’s six motets, collectively titled Songs of Farewell. Written shortly before his death in 1918, Parry’s compositions echo the sacred music of this period, but take lyrical inspiration from English poets contemplating life beyond death.

The first four motets move swiftly, dramatic in their rhythmic variation. I was struck by I know my soul hath power to know all things, with its repeated, hesitant “and yet,” a reflection on human frailty. Never weather-beaten sail, with its contrapuntal wanderings, evokes the sailboat on still water at sunset, embarking on life’s final journey. And the wistful There is an old belief is sustained throughout by constant overlapping voices yearning into the upper octaves, fulfilling poet John Gibson Lockhart’s lyrics as the choir reaches “beyond the sphere of grief.”

Each of Parry’s Songs offers an inventive vision, but it is the fifth and sixth motets which I found most moving. The penultimate At the round earth’s imagined corners is Parry’s melodic invention at its richest: the lively motet is mystical in its many voices as the basses recount the resurrection of the dead, and the sopranos in eerie chromaticism sing of beholding God. The choir’s harrowing pleas coalesce in the motet’s last line of prayer, leading us to Parry’s final farewell, Lord let me know mine end, its plaintive text taken from Psalm 39. Here, O’Donnell’s keen sense of silence shapes the motet into a powerful declaration – the mournful echoes of “mine age is as nothing” and “thy heavy hand” hang in chilling, empty space. The choir’s repeated murmuring of the word “fretting” is another delightful moment of dynamics, as with the crescendo in the Psalm’s final plea, “O spare me a little,” with each choral section excelling in clear, bold tones.

Parry reportedly denied that the Songs of Farewell had any significance for the end of his life, but the intimate revelation of each motet suggests his deep contemplation and thematic attention in composition. In seeming to write his own adieu, he reconciled himself with his past and anticipated an unknowable future. It is Parry’s visions of the fearful now and the imagined beyond which will remain active in my memory long after I’ve stopped playing this album on repeat.

The Westminster Abbey Choir with James O'Donnell (conductor) released Parry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood (Hyperion) on May 29, 2020.

Marie Trotter is a Toronto-based writer, avid theatre-goer, and occasional director. She studied Drama and English at the University of Toronto with a focus on directing and production, and recently completed her MA in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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