Achill Choral Society, in happier days.The Canary Pages choral directory in this issue has been a fixture of the May WholeNote for the past 17 years. Until this year, that is, when the magazine decided to hold it back to September, given the climate of uncertainty that has gripped the choral community since March. 

Better late than never: the directory remains welcome a reminder that hundreds of choral organizations across Ontario sustain and uphold communities that celebrate art and beauty from the largest cities to the smallest communities throughout Ontario. 

March feels a long time ago now. Seasons shuttered, theatres closed, rehearsals stopped, and as the shutdown continued, choirs started thinking towards the fall and onwards. If you look at the language amongst the Canary profiles, there’s new terminology that has become standard – postponed, indefinite hiatus, online rehearsals, Zoom, suspended, TBD. The good thing is, the choirs and the people who make music are still around.

Read more: Just a bit different as choirs forge ahead

Photo by Willie KingIt’s almost impossible to believe that this most Twilight Zone of summers is rapidly drawing to a close. How did September come so fast despite many of us enduring so many long, empty and isolated days? Days upon days of not working, of not going out much save when necessary, of not seeing people, except on a computer screen or in brief “Dare we?” encounters. Indeed, with everything still pretty much upside down and our sense of normalcy and time in tatters, it’s hard to even say what the passing of summer means anymore. More on this later, but it reminds me of one of the many wonderfully droll lines from the great relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry: “I’ve seen the future; it’s a lot like the present, only longer.”

A Blizzard of Cancellations

In the old days, during inevitable patches when work was slow (we didn’t know what slow was), musicians would jokingly say “I looked in my gig book the other day and got snow blind” – as in too many blank, white squares, a blizzard of empty dates. It’s like that now, only the vast white spaces are interspersed with dates that have been scratched out, looking like little scruffs of dirt poking through the snow. And COVID-19 has brought a new gig convention: the courtesy cancellation, when a bandleader calls or emails the other musicians they’d booked on a job to tell them it’s been cancelled.

Read more: PANDAMIT!

Elisa Citterio, David Costello, and Marco Cera in Jeanne Lamon Hall at work on Elisa's Midsummer Night's Dream, a short film by Marco Cera, which conjures an imaginary return to the stage. It was filmed June 1-4, 2020 at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre observing physical distancing requirements with all musicians filmed individually, but the full orchestra brought together by movie magic. Photo credit TafelmusikIf the past seven months have taught us anything, it might be that the post-COVID world will move at a different pace than that which came before. Everyday decisions previously motivated by personal, social, and economic factors are now tempered by input from public health officials and other medical professionals attempting to contain and control the transmission of this new and deadly pathogen, resulting in exceedingly cautious and temporally conservative steps forward that have made dining at a restaurant feel like a momentous occasion. While social interactions and public spaces continue to reopen, at least for the time being, those things that were previously taken for granted and assumed to be perpetual have been reframed by the pandemic and forced to undergo a societal reevaluation through a new kind of cost-benefit analysis. 

For public performers and those who make their living within arts organizations, these public health interventions have appeared as doomsday prophecies, requiring unprecedented quick action and the changing of entire business models in mere weeks or months. Although soloists and smaller groups are able to pivot relatively quickly and efficiently, larger organizations – such as orchestras – face a more daunting challenge, having to implement novel guidelines and codes of conduct that ensure the safety of their performers and prospective audiences as the possibility of reopening draws closer. As September approaches and new seasons launch, how are arts organizations grappling with, and managing, these new and essential factors?

Read more: How to Get Back to the Concert Hall? Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.

The writer, sounding to a tree on the Toronto Island. Photo by Margaret IrvingIn these days of limited performances, for this month’s column I decided to take up a suggestion made by my ever-inventive editor at The WholeNote, and write a story related to some aspect of my own creative work during this time.  

On New Year’s Day of 2020, I had awoken with the inspiration to start a video-audio blog, something that is very new for me. Titled Earth Soundings, my original vision was that for each blog entry I would select a particular natural environment in which to take photos and videos, andf then create the soundtrack in response to the images and my experiences in each specific environment. My overall intention in creating these short nature-based videos was to invite people to take a brief pause in their day to remember and attune to their connection with the Earth, the elements and all beings. A short time of reflection or meditation. At the heart of the project: my desire to contribute in one way toward the restoration of our relationship with nature, for I believe that one of the root causes behind our climate crisis is due to our cultural disconnect from nature.

The guideline I set for myself for these blog posts was to take the photo and video footage on specific days of celebration, connected to either cultural holidays or days on the Earth calendar related to the passing of seasons or phases of the moon. For the music I would select various members of the wider community to collaborate with me.  Initially, I released these videos on my Facebook page Earth Soundings (, again on days significant in the calendar. The videos are also available on my website

Read more: Creative (E)mergings in these days of isolation

September 1, 2020 is fast approaching, and that date has quite some significance for The WholeNote. It was 25 years ago on September 1, 1995 that the very first edition of The WholeNote was introduced to Ontario’s music lovers. As for my association with this magazine, it was 14 years ago, on September 1, 2006 that my first Bandstand column appeared. I asked myself: “What has changed?” The answer: “What hasn’t?”

In that very first column I started by mentioning: “The Canadian National Exhibition has just opened for another season.” It won’t be open this year. I also stated: “For most of us that event is the harbinger of changes soon to come; shorter days, cooler weather, vacations over, back to school, and for many, back to band rehearsals after a summer recess.” No band rehearsals any time soon. Then I stated: “For others in the band community, it heralds the end of a busy round of park concerts.” No park concerts this year. 

So that leaves us with two questions. What were our community bands able to do this summer? Where does it leave our bands for the months to come?

Read more: The more it changes, the more it changes!

While most club performances are still off the table for musicians, relaxed physical-distancing guidelines have meant that artists have been able to return to some form of live gigs. Near the end of August, I interviewed three different bandleaders – Joanna Majoko, Jenna Marie Pinard and Allison Au – about their recent performances, their quarantine experiences, and moving forward into “the new normal.” 

Joanna Majoko. Photo by SEAN STORYThe Artist: Joanna Majoko
The Performance: Live-to-air concert for JazzFM, as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival Summer Concert Series, July 24 
The Band: Joanna Majoko, vocals and percussion; Jeremy Ledbetter, keyboards; Andrew Stewart, bass; Larnell Lewis, drums

Finding balance in quarantine:

“Thankfully, quarantine has not affected my ability to create or practise. It’s been a blessing to have had this time to create a harmonious work environment here at home, and to set up a small home studio and explore and diversify my musical interests, such as getting more comfortable and experienced with recording as well as trying my hand at vocal mixing. I don’t think I would have explored these avenues had it not been for quarantine. The only major aspect quarantine has affected is my ability to perform.”

Read more: Three bandleaders on then, now, and next

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

Composer Laura Sgroi (L) and poet Rebecca Thomas (R).On the evening of Friday June 26, 2020, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS) presented its final Friday night online video broadcast of archival concerts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this performance the KWS showed a pre-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, conducted by Edwin Outwater, followed by a pre-recording of We’re Not Done Drumming, composed by Laura Sgroi with poetry by Rebecca Thomas. Though originally performed in different concerts, the pairing of the two for this broadcast brought to light the multifaceted issues of colonization, the displacement of Indigenous people – and suggested one path forward for how these issues might be approached in the context of western classical music.

The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 opened up with the rich, deep sound of horns in a solemn proclamation of duty and a call to arms. In the aftermath of this opening, the violins entered with a breathless tune that caressed the listeners into a false sense of hope ­– for there was no rest in this first movement. Ever moving with anticipation and anxiety, the winds and strings climbed into a vibrant crescendo met by the grand crashing of percussion.

Tchaikovsky’s second movement ushered in an empty feeling induced by the high, lonely sounds of the oboe’s solitary notes. The violins echoed this call but soon seemed to resonate with a certain cold beauty of their own, lifting the audience up in an empty promise of safety and hope while the high-pitched cries of the winds maintained a desolate sorrow. The third movement offered a shift, emerging with an upbeat lively rhythm – though underscored by the low, deep murmur of the percussion instruments, evoking a sense of something brooding underneath the surface. The fourth movement dismissed this subtle warning and ascended to a climax of horns, cymbals, percussions and winds – a bright and brilliant finish that filtered out into a calm silence.

The feeling of unease that seeps into the shadows of Tchaikovsky’s work is the main discourse of Thomas and Sgroi’s We’re Not Done Drumming. In her opening remarks specifically garnered for this livestream event, Thomas, a Mi’kmaq poet and spoken-word artist, asked the audience to revisit the past and to try and understand the hardships Indigenous people have faced.

The first movement of the collaboration between Sgroi and Thomas was imbued with a majestic quality. The high notes of the clarinets and strong, deep voices of the bassoons created an atmosphere of something magical and far in the distance. When Thomas’s words first appeared in the score, the violins began to create a low dark sound, like the coming of a storm – a deep underbelly over which Thomas recounted an unromanticised history of Indigenous experience. The second movement became more intense as the destruction of Indigenous culture was depicted through the conversation of two distinct voices. Through her words Thomas illuminated the betrayal of Indigenous people: “You locked us in place, enough is enough, you lied, you were pleased with our despair.” Then the violins and cellos entered with a new intensity and Thomas assumed the voice of the settler in the conversation: “you should be pleased we taught you savages how to read.” In the wake of her powerful words the precise notes of the flutes and clarinets in agreement with the rich vibrations of the percussion invaded the space in a depiction of colonial violence.

The third movement brought a new quality to the piece. The violins dragged along a sad melancholy feeling, supported by elongated notes in the winds. But then Thomas proclaimed, “Like it or not, we are in this together,” and warm vibrant horns and guttural drums transported the audience to a place of majesty. We’re Not Done Drumming was a voice for Indigenous people and a call to action.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 and We’re Not Done Drumming are two pieces in conflict with one another. Tchaikovsky’s work, created in the late 1800s, is a staple of European classical music – whereas the collaboration of Sigroi and Thomas, composed in 2019, deliberately communicated the oppression of Indigenous people under the guise of westernization. Yet there are glimmers of regret in Tchaikovsky’s music that are brought to light in Thomas’s words, demonstrating the benefits of hearing these pieces back-to-back. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s decision to configure an evening composed of these pieces was an important statement on remembering our past as we go into our future.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony presented Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 and Sgroi and Thomas’s We’re Not Done Drumming as an online video broadcast, on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Nicole Decsey is a writer and performance artist based in Toronto and Mississauga. She graduated from Ryerson University with a BFA in performance dance in June of 2019 and has been a freelance writer and editorial intern with the Dance Current since December of 2018.

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

Pianist Angela Park. Photo credit: David Leyes.There’s something intimate about livestream concerts: watching musician and instrument in their space waiting, you can almost feel the anxious excitement as you wait for the concert to begin. On June 18, that feeling was palpable as a digital audience awaited “Water Play” – an hour-long livestream concert by pianist Angela Park, inspired by different musical views of water.  

The performance was part of the Toronto-based Xenia Concerts series, bringing music to isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially to those who might not otherwise be able to access classical music concerts. Xenia is a registered Toronto-based charity focused on breaking down barriers to music and art in an environment accessible to neurodiverse audiences. Everything, from the performance length to Park’s enthusiastic explanations of the pieces she was about to perform, to allotting a brief “stretch break,” made this event feel welcoming for music enjoyers of all experience levels. (This was evident by the heartwarming virtual Q&A following the performance – some of Park’s commenters were as young as 5 or 6!)

This artful program featured works by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, and Debussy – each composer’s piece inspired by a radically different view of water out the window. The afternoon began with Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle, slow and rolling on the piano keys, like a gondola down a centuries-old canal. It’s a shame that the peaceful, nostalgic mood of Chopin’s melodies in this piece is impossible to bottle.

The next three pieces Park played were a set by Franz Liszt, inspired by his awe of peaceful lakes in Switzerland, but also by turbulent storms raging above the Swiss mountains. The first, Au lac du Wallenstadt, was peaceful and melodic – but Park’s rendition of Liszt’s Au bord d’un source really stood out. Meaning “beside a spring,” Park's interpretation was sunny and sparkly. In the tinkling of her crystalline high notes, you could hear ice-cold water trickling over pale stones.

The final Liszt piece Park played was Orage or “storm.” After having begun the concert with such serenity, the deep, barrelling crescendos and tense chords of this work felt electric. Powerful, booming chords told the story of thunder and lightning dancing menacingly together in the sky about the lakes surrounding the Alps. The experience was turbulent yet cathartic, leaving listeners in the sleepy, hazy calm of the beach after the storm as the final, calming notes faded away.

In the second half of the concert, Park performed Maurice Ravel’s Jeux D’eau – “water games” – with appropriate playfulness, emphasizing the music’s gleaming glissandi. Next came the crowd-pleaser Claire de lune by Claude Debussy, a timeless encapsulation of the shadowy magic of moonlight. Here, Park’s playing was graceful yet powerful. With water on the forefront of the mind, it was easy to imagine the haunting coastal fog of the slow opening chords, silvery ripples gliding across the glass-like surface of the sea.

The concert ended with Debussy’s less-often heard L’Isle Joyeuse and it stole the show, stepping out of the moonlight and closing the event on a sunnier note. Debussy was inspired in this work by French artist Watteau’s 18th-century painting The Embarkation for Cythera, of a joyful group of companions embarking a ship to the mythical island of Cythera. The painting’s playful nature is echoed in the beginning of the piece, its upbeat tempo and exciting phrases filling the air with fluttering notes of anticipation of romance. As the piece developed, its melody grew more triumphant and confident – a successful voyage and a blissful jig for all.

After the grace of the Barcarolle and undulant drama of Orage, L’Isle Joyeuse was a pleasant resolution. “Water Play” was fun, accessible and thoughtfully curated – and Park was a thoughtful one-woman show, guiding the voyage with elegance and emotion.

Xenia Concerts presented “Water Play”, featuring pianist Angela Park, on June 18 at 3pm EDT, via Facebook Live.

Leah Borts-Kuperman has completed her Master of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her work has also been featured in Broadview, Opera Canada, and Dance Current magazines.

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
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