This sentence notwithstanding, I try not to use too many personal pronouns when writing. Call it a parasympathetic reflex from my student days writing prosaic, academically sourced theses, but words like “I” and “my” seem too personal and isolating to use even in a communal column and publication such as The WholeNote; and I don’t write editorials (although I do express the occasional opinion or two!). This month is an exception, however, for we begin our two-month survey of the Toronto early music scene with two personal anecdotes – disparate occurrences that, although entirely independent in time and place, share a common, relevant and important theme.

A few weeks ago, I gave a recital at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The program for this little concert contained a blend of jazz, minimalist and avant-garde music, including György Ligeti’s Harmonies for organ. After the performance one audience member approached and asked, “Why bother with such music? You could have played that piece (Harmonies) forwards or backwards and we wouldn’t have known the difference!” It was ultimately a worthwhile question and one that many performers face, particularly in the realm of music written in the 20th century and onwards: why bother playing music that people won’t understand, music that is not necessarily tuneful, pretty, or accessible to the masses?

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Goh in 'Loving Vincent' - Courtesy of Mongrel MediaDays after my recital experience, I saw the new film Loving Vincent, an artistically oriented speculative recreation of the last days of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, incorporating elements of documentary and murder mystery. This film was screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is notable because of the way it was made. Each frame – 65,000 of them altogether – was hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh by an international team of artists, then photographed and digitized using animation software, thereby creating a literal motion picture. Before viewing Loving Vincent, I read a synopsis in The Guardian in which the reviewer questioned the painstaking process of producing the film, arguing that an equally visually satisfying production could have been generated using purely digital means without the trouble of hand-painting anything at all. In our digital age, the review queried, why bother with all the unnecessarily painstaking manual labour?

In early music circles, the question “Why bother?” is a relevant one, too. When we look at the frequency with which certain individual works are performed, there are inevitably moments where we question the rationale behind established conventions that have become normalized. For example, now that December is here, why bother playing Handel’s Messiah again across the city – haven’t we been up to our eyeballs in it every year for the past decade? Why bother with another performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto? Reprising these works year after year seems to be the bad end of a Faustian pact, the lure of a full auditorium paid off with the ceaseless repetition of the same stuff, taxing our ears with all-too familiar strains of “Hallelujah!,” “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” or some other predictable and overdone work – a festive and wintry Groundhog Day, if you will.

These are thought-provoking queries, many of which are difficult to answer. The questions of “Why?” and “Why bother?” will always be applicable to the arts, particularly when something new and unfamiliar (in the case of Ligeti’s Harmonies) or unusual and idiosyncratic (as we see in Loving Vincent) is put on display, but another little anecdote recounted to me by a former teacher may help answer why we always seem to return to the time-tested Baroque classics in December:

Once a conductor was in a dress rehearsal of Messiah – everyone involved had performed the work many times. One singer was rather lackadaisical about his part and seemed lazy and lacklustre throughout, irking the conductor enough that he confronted him about it afterwards.

“Listen,” the conductor said, “I know you have sung this many times, as I’ve conducted it many times, but you have a great responsibility as a performer. Tonight’s concert may be the first time that someone in that audience hears Messiah. And this performance may also be the last Messiah someone in that audience hears.”

My Grown-Up Christmas List

For many, Messiah is as much a quintessential seasonal favourite as mulled wine and a ten-pound fruitcake. With dozens of performers presenting various Messianic adaptations and interpretations across Toronto and its surrounding areas, it can be a tricky task to pick only one! Fortunately, The WholeNote is here to help: read my recent blog post on notable performances, or search for the word “Messiah” in our online listings to get a list of most of this year’s shows. Whether full-length or condensed, HIP or modern, symphonic or sing-along, we have the Messiah for you.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is another classic Christmas composition from the Baroque era, compiled and composed between 1733 and 1734 to celebrate the Christmas season in Leipzig. Although catalogued as BWV248 and now considered a single, freestanding work, this “oratorio” is in actuality a series of six individual cantatas that were performed during the time between Christmas and Epiphany (what we now call the Twelve Days of Christmas) and divided between the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, Leipzig’s two main churches.

Monumental in scope and brilliant in its musical expression of Bach’s beliefs and theology, the Christmas Oratorio is, along with the Passions, the closest Bach came to writing a narrative opera. Geoffrey Butler and the Toronto Choral Society perform the Christmas Oratorio at Koerner Hall on December 6, in what promises to be a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the commercially overloaded Christmas season.

Continuing their trend of melding old and new, the Toronto Masque Theatre presents their seasonal salon “Peace on Earth” on December 17 and 18. Featuring the performance of baroque Noëls and the Messe de Minuit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, these Franco-flavoured evenings will explore the simplicity, beauty and joy of the French Baroque Christmas, different in many ways from the immense and intricate forms we find in English and German oratorio.

To complement these French Baroque favourites, TMT also leaps forward into the 20th century with excerpts from The Birth of Christ, a cantata written in 1901 by Canadian composer Clarence Lucas (1866-1947) as well as seasonal readings by from T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. With this medley of music and word on display only one week before Christmas, these performances will surely banish the last “Bah humbug!” from even the Scroogiest of curmudgeonly misers.

But Wait, There’s More! A Taste of 2018

Fast forward to January 2018: Belts are loosened an extra notch (or two); turkey leftovers, eggnog and rum hangovers, and the last few sweet treats all linger longer than expected. New Year’s resolutions are resolutely made and broken, and we start looking ahead to the inevitable wintry weather that is to come. If we somehow ignore the temptation to snuggle up with a cup of cocoa and hibernate until March, there are many exciting events taking place across Toronto in January, including two promising projects by Tafelmusik (who might quite reasonably go into hibernation themselves after their busy December!).

The first is the Tafelmusik Winter Institute, a terrific opportunity for those with a passion for Historically Informed Performance. A one-week intensive for advanced students and young professionals, this year’s TWI culminates in a free public performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall on January 10. Featuring music by French composers Lully, Campra, Marais and Rameau, and this performance presents a rare opportunity to hear top-notch music from the height of the French tradition for an unbeatable price.

Over the last few years, Tafelmusik has pushed the boundaries of the early music concert experience with Alison Mackay’s creative multimedia conceptions and collaborations. This positive trend towards HIP-infused modernism continues with Safe Haven, a program exploring the musical ideas of Baroque Europe’s refugee artists, drawing parallels between 18th-century Europe and present-day Canada. At that time of year when the Christmas chestnuts have come and gone, this concert looks to provide a palate-cleansing leap forward in a genre that occasionally seems to specialize in blasé repetition.

Joëlle Morton Scaramella: While Tafelmusik peers into the future with Safe Haven, period performance group Scaramella looks back in time with their “Ode to Music” on January 27. Featuring Scaramella’s Joëlle Morton and guest virtuoso viol players Elizabeth Rumsey and Caroline Ritchie from Basel, Switzerland, this program uses a variety of 16th-century music for viol consort to explore the impact of the muses on Renaissance composers. This concert provides a wonderful opportunity for viol enthusiasts and novices alike to acquaint themselves with the spectrum of sound these antiquated instruments can produce, living musical relics linking our ears to past centuries.

As winter-themed advertising flashes across our smartphone screens and store windows are redecorated with miniaturized villages and resplendent hues of red, green and gold, it can be overwhelming and daunting to find time to attend a concert; despite the seasonal hustle and bustle, I encourage you to explore the vibrant musical offerings that are on display this December and January. Whether you prefer Handel’s Messiah, Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, a traditional Festival of Lessons and Carols, or any of the other listings in this double issue of The WholeNote, the richness and depth of Toronto’s classical music scene ensures that no concertgoer ever has to ask, “Why bother?”

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and New Year, everyone. See you in February! Until then, keep in touch at

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

It used to be that the only operatic productions that took place in December and January were from the Canadian Opera Company and Toronto Operetta Theatre. Now there are so many new small companies that there is quite a wide range of offerings available to see out the old year and see in the new.

COC: That being said, the production on the largest scale in these two months is the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of Verdi’s Rigoletto for ten performances from January 20 to February 23. The production, directed by Christopher Alden, was last seen in 2011. There is some controversy attached to the production, since Alden had previously created it for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. The action is set entirely inside a gentlemen’s gaming club in the early 1850s with the chorus onstage throughout the action. The various locations in the libretto are acted out using furniture from the club, the danger being that if people do not already know the story the staging provides no clues to help them. After its unpopular run at LOC, the production was deemed “unrevivable” and LOC now has a popular new production directed by E. Loren Meeker. When the COC and English National Opera approached Alden for a Rigoletto, he simply re-created the one he had done for Chicago.

In any case, the COC has revived the unrevivable and it features Roland Wood in the title role, Anna Christy as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, Stephen Costello and Joshua Guerrero (February 11, 17, 23) as the depraved Duke of Mantua, and Goderdzi Janelidze as the assassin Sparafucile. Stephen Lord conducts.

On a much lighter note, the COC has invited the public to see a new opera for children, The Magic Victrola, on December 1, 2 and 3. The opera also has a Chicago connection in that it was premiered by the LOC in 2015. In the opera, written by David Kersnar and Jacqueline Russell, two children stay at their grandfather’s place for the summer vacation. The grandfather has a Victrola and a set of opera recordings; the children find when they play the records that the characters come alive. The hour-long show includes well-known excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, The Tales of Hoffmann, The Elixir of Love, Lakmé, Gianni Schicchi and Carmen. The opera, suitable for ages five and over, is performed by members of the COC Ensemble Studio and is directed by Ashlie Corcoran, with music direction by Rachael Kerr and Stéphane Mayer.

Toronto Operetta Theatre has been helping Torontonians bridge the old and the new years with operetta for more than 30 years. This year it revives its production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), last staged here in 2007, which the composer himself designated as an “operetta.” The work follows the adventures of the eternal optimist Candide, whose tutor has taught him to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. This belief is sorely tested when Candide barely survives one disaster after another. Tonatiuh Abrego takes on the title role, while Vania Chan stars as his beloved Cunegonde and sings the show-stopping coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay. TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler sings the Old Lady, Nicholas Borg is Dr. Pangloss, Cian Horrobin is the Governor and Mikhail Shemet is Cacambo. Candide runs for six performances from December 28 to January 7. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Talk Is Free Theatre: This is likely the first time ever that a person can see two different productions of Candide in Ontario in the same month. The second takes place at a non-traditional operatic showcase, Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, which is in the process of presenting the Bernstein work in a run from November 23 to December 2. The cast includes Thom Allison, Holly Chaplin, Gabi Epstein, Mike Nadajewski and Michael Torontow; Richard Ouzounian directs and Lily Ling conducts.

Shi Pei Pu, the original Mr. ShiTarragon Theatre, another non-traditional showcase for opera, is presenting Mr. Shi and His Lover, a one-act work by Njo Kong Kie that runs in Toronto until December 17. In the new year it plays at the NAC in Ottawa from January 3 to 13. Mr. Shi is made up of seven scenes in which two characters, Mr. Shi and Bernard Boursicot, reflect on the the strange but true story of their relationship. Boursicot, a young French diplomat stationed in China in 1964, fell in love with Shi Pei Pu, a male performer of the Peking Opera specializing in female roles, believing that Shi was actually a woman. Amazingly, Boursicot and Shi’s relationship continued for 20 years without Boursicot ever realizing Shi was a man, much less a spy recruited to entrap him. This story is the basis for David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly. Jordan Cheng sings the role of Mr. Shi and Derek Kwan sings Boursicot. Njo Kong Kie conducts the singers and percussionist Yukie Lai from the piano in an eclectic score that ranges from Peking opera to traditional folk song, music hall, pop music, Western opera and the art song. Tam Chi Chun, the artistic director of Macau Experimental Theatre, directs.

Tryptych: Continuing its exploration of standard repertory with large orchestra, Tryptych Concert & Opera presents its final opera in Toronto before its co-artistic directors, Edward Franko and Lenard Whiting, move to Kenora to restart the company there. On December 9 and 10, Tryptych presents a fully-staged production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in English at the P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough, with the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Beaches Children’s Chorus. The cast features Meghan Symon as Hansel, Marion Samuel-Stevens as Gretel, Douglas Tranquada as the Father, Mila Ionkova as the Mother, Kira Braun as the Dew Fairy and Sandman and Whiting himself as the Witch. Franko directs and Norman Reintamm conducts. Despite Franko and Whiting’s move, the two plan to stage at least one opera with the CBSO in Toronto every year. Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is already planned for next year.

Tapestry: In the realm of new music is the welcome return of Tapestry Opera’s popular Opera Briefs. This year’s “Winter Shorts” consists of ten opera scenes developed during Tapestry’s 2016 Composer-Librettist Laboratory. Creators of the shorts have drawn inspiration from current events and contemporary concerns including the Syrian refugee crisis, robot warfare, the 1984 Quebec National Assembly shooting, voyeurism, fairy tales and dysfunctional millennial relationships. This year’s operas include three composed by Afarin Mansouri, three from Iman Habibi, three from Norbert Palej and one from Kit Soden. The librettists are Bobby Theodore, Marcia Johnson, Phoebe Tsang and Jessica Murphy Moo. The performers are Alexander Dobson, Erica Iris, Keith Klassen and Jacqueline Woodley. “Winter Shorts” runs from November 30 to December 3.

Against the Grain: In contrast to Tapestry’s “bite-size” offerings, from December 14 to 16 Toronto’s indomitable Against the Grain Theatre presents a “new” full-length Handel opera in the form of Bound – A Handel Mash-up. AtG’s artistic director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski have collaborated with award-winning composer Kevin Lau to create a pastiche of music from Handel’s operas and oratorios that will focus on current world events. According to the AtG website, “In the wake of the world’s refugee crisis, this workshop will explore the current state of those displaced, dehumanized and mistreated, with texts and stories drawn from real-life news articles and world events.” When I asked Ivany in November what drew him to Handel instead of, say, Verdi, who also wrote about so many dispossessed people, he responded, “There is something in the form in which Handel wrote most of his music which is interesting. His draw to a formula, a repetition of text and simplicity in how he set it, is profound. Yes, Verdi is a master composer, but his music takes on a much more propelling aspect to the storytelling. Handel allows you to reflect, assess and move forward.”

Some of the pieces that Bound draws upon are Acis and Galetea, Alcina, Alexander’s Feast, Ariodante, Orlando, Floridante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Jephtha, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Semele, Serse and Tolomeo. For the assembled score Ivany has written a new English libretto. The cast includes soprano Danika Lorèn, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, countertenor David Trudgen, baritone Justin Welsh and bass Michael Uloth. Ivany will direct and Mokrzewski will conduct.

Richard Margison and Lauren MargisonHighlands Opera premiere: Meanwhile, there is an important premiere outside Toronto. Opera lovers may know that the Highlands Opera Studio, based in Haliburton with Richard Margison as artistic director, presents opera in the summer. This year HOS will present a new work December 21 and 22, Mishaabooz’s Realm (Le Royaume de Michabous), with music and libretto by Cree composer Andrew Balfour. The opera, a co-production with L’Atelier Lyrique of L’Opéra de Montréal, will have its world premiere performances in Montreal on December 15 and 16 before moving to Haliburton.

The opera’s central figure is Mishaabooz, an important character in Anishinaabe storytelling. Mishaabooz is another name for Nanabozho, the great trickster spirit and shape-shifter, one of whose favourite forms is as a giant rabbit, who is often sent to earth by Gitche Manitou (the Creator) to teach the Ojibwe peoples. (Mishaabooz, in fact, means “Great Hare.”) In his composer’s statement, Balfour describes the opera as “a multi-media and multi-directional work, incorporating classical styles, unique choral and vocal perspectives, Indigenous musical and oral traditions, with a libretto in First Nations dialect, French and English, exploring contemporary issues concerning Canada’s relationship with our First People and the land of Turtle Island, past, present and future.”

Singers include soprano Lauren Margison and baritone Nathan Keoughan. Balfour and Cory Campbell will contribute vocals and play percussion while music director Louise-Andrée Baril will conduct from the piano. The chorus will be drawn from both Montreal and Haliburton. Valerie Kuinka is the stage director.

We clearly no longer have to wait until spring for variety in operatic activity in Ontario.

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

Vesuvius Ensemble - Photo by Scarlet O'NeillIf anything’s desperately needed in Toronto in December, it’s a dash of the south. The Vesuvius Ensemble to the rescue: the trio that specializes in Southern Italian music (mostly from Naples and Campania but also Calabria and Puglia) is preparing a pastoral Christmas program for mid-December, just as the Toronto winter is about to take over.

Vesuvius is a three-lad enterprise: Francesco Pellegrino is the voice of the group, while Marco Cera and Lucas Harris play a variety of plucked string instruments, and are most likely to be found manning Baroque guitar and theorbo respectively. Various other period instruments are added depending on the songs chosen, like tammorra, a large tambourine with bells, or ciaramella, an early oboe with an ear-trumpet-like shape. This instrumentarium is there to accompany the songs both folk and composed, roughly from the same period, the 1500s and 1600s. The most interesting part of the Vesuvius mission is this mix of the popular and the authored material. There have always been song composers open to the influence of the folk, and among those who have used either folk music or folk lyrics you are likely to hear in Vesuvius concerts are Andrea Falconieri (d. 1656), Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (1580-1651), Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730), and Francesco Provenzale (1624-1704).

The study of Italian folk song got a significant boost in the 20th century thanks to recording technology. In the mid-1950s, Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella travelled to villages up and down Italy to record traditional peasant songs sung in dialect. Some of the songs were work songs, some were dances like the tarantella (which, myth has it, cures poisonous spider bites and bilious moods of other kinds), and others were laments, or love songs, or wedding songs. Commercially released recordings of some of the Carpitella-Lomax treasures still exist – the Italian Treasury series of CDs divided into regions is not exactly easy to buy (an Amazon search will yield second-hand, vinyl or MP3 offers) and is best sought out in large and university libraries. Puglia: the Salento (2002), Calabria and Folk Music and Song of Italy: A Sampler (1999), for example, are available at the Toronto Reference Library and each includes booklets with lyrics and translations.

Another important figure of the Italian folk revival of the 20th century is the musicologist, theatre artist and composer Roberto de Simone (b. 1933). In addition to the research and archiving of the popular chant, de Simone incorporated folk practices into his own writing and stage directing and is probably best known internationally for the opera La gatta Cenerentola. (Look for Secondo coro delle lavandaie – The Second Chorus of the Washerwomen – on YouTube.)

Which of the Italian traditional and composed treasures will Vesuvius perform in their Christmas concert? We’ll find out on December 17 or 19 in Heliconian Hall, though a few days earlier is also a possibility since the group will perform a similar program at the Four Seasons Centre’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on December 12 at noon. When I spoke with Francesco Pellegrino for this article in mid-October, the program had not yet been finalized. What is certain is that Tommaso Sollazzo, a connoisseur of the Italian bagpipes called zampogne, will be joining in. The trio performed with him in Italy a few years back and now he’s making the trip to wintry Toronto.

And since the tarantellas and the tammurriatas are so danceable, will Vesuvius let the audience dance during their concerts, maybe preceded by some dance instruction? “Not yet,” says Pellegrino, “but we are expanding this program and in the next couple of years our concerts may also have dancers from Italy who are well versed in tarantella or tammurriata. We’re working on it.”

Outside Toronto, you can hear (though not yet dance to) Vesuvius’ Christmas concert on December 18 in Hamilton and December 20 in Montreal.


Twenty-five years after its world premiere, the song cycle Honey and Rue is still regularly performed by symphony orchestras and coloratura sopranos in the US. Carnegie Hall commissioned it and André Previn composed it for Kathleen Battle, who was a keen reader of Toni Morrison and wanted her as a lyricist. We don’t hear the cycle that often in Canada, and it’s St. Catharines, not Toronto, that got lucky this season, with two Honey and Rue performances with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in January. Morrison’s poems are a rich and intense read and should be relished without the music first (keep those programs, concertgoers: the poems are not easy to find).

Young soprano Claire de Sévigné will sing. Last time I heard de Sévigné was in the COC’s Arabella, where she effortlessly produced the coloratura for the Viennese ball ingenue, Fiakermilli. There probably isn’t another Canadian soprano whose timbre more resembles Battle’s. I caught up with the travelling soprano via email to learn more about her take on the piece.

Claire de SévignéWhen I ask her what it is that she likes about Honey and Rue, she starts with the orchestration. “Singing with an orchestra is always thrilling but singing a piece that’s in the style of ‘classical-jazz-blues fusion’ feels like a real jam. The fourth song is a huge contrast to the rest of the cycle in that it is a cappella, and this moment can be magic. I also adore the lyrics. Very strong text with stunning imagery.”

I tell her that my first impression of it was that it was extremely high. Her answer doesn’t surprise me: “I don’t notice it being all that high actually – but that’s coming from a coloratura soprano and my voice lives in the clouds, haha. I think that Previn knew how to write for the voice, since the performer doesn’t notice it being all that high! I actually find the set quite lyric – the highest note is only a B flat, a whole fourth lower than my high notes, and the set sits in quite a nice place for a light soprano’s voice to spin and shimmer while still being able to sing the text… It’s quite a pleasure to sing.”

The cycle was written by an African-American writer for an African-American singer originally, and although it’s still frequently sung by African-American singers, it’s become a cycle for any talented soprano who can meet its challenge. I ask de Sévigné what she thinks of the recent rise in discussions about what cultural material can be performed by who, and in what context. “It’s true, the cycle was originally commissioned after Battle read The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison. The poems of Honey and Rue are different however – they don’t explicitly or exclusively portray the same themes from the book, with the exception of the sixth song, which I would say is outwardly about slavery and abuse.” The final poem is based on the African-American spiritual Take My Mother Home, though with added lyrics and musical material. “The cycle as a whole,” writes de Sévigné, “explores questions around equality, suffering, freedom and acceptance, which are themes that humanity as a whole has experienced and can appreciate.”

This will not be the young singer’s first encounter with the piece. “It’s the second time I’ve been asked to sing it. I first performed it with piano in the Aspen Music Festival concert series in 2012 and have performed excerpts over the past years in several recitals. I find something new every time I perform it. I have found that my best way to interpret the songs is by switching between the first person and the narrator.”

And what is next on her schedule? “I’m currently doing a concert tour in China with the Hantang International Music Festival in collaboration with the Salzburg Festival (writing to you from Beijing right now!). I’m back to Canada in December for the Messiah with the Edmonton Symphony and in February, I’ll be at the Canadian Opera Company singing the role of Blonde in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. There’s also a Mozart C Minor Mass this season, and a Carmina Burana with the Grant Park Festival in Chicago.” 

But as the first thing in the new year, Honey and Rue: January 20 and 21, 7:30pm, with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Also on the program: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Mother Goose (complete ballet). Bradley Thachuck, conductor. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to

Welcome to this double edition of Choral Scene! By the time you get your hands on this magazine the holiday season will be well under way. Carols will get in your ear, festive sounds will echo out and bells will be a-ringing throughout the region. I hope you’ve got your concert tickets in hand. If not, hurry up and reserve your place in these amazing concerts before you’re disappointed. Balancing out the holiday season, I’m also going to highlight some interesting performances you should check out in the choral world into the new year. We’ll be back in February, just in time for Chinese New Year on February 16, 2018 – the Year of the Dog! But I’m going to highlight a few performances well beyond the date that you might want to circle in one of the seasonal calendars you will doubtless be acquiring in the coming weeks.

Stage Coughs

But first, from a chorister’s perspective, some thoughts on the dreaded cough and wintry illness for singers!

In November’s WholeNote, Vivien Fellegi wrote about major injuries and musicians and noted that 84 percent of musicians will have to deal with a significant injury affecting their ability to make music. If you ask any vocalist to name their performance terror, it usually involves being sick around performance time. Four years ago, during an especially illness-fraught Messiah run at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the flu and cold hit our soprano and bass soloists. Eventually, a sub for the bass needed to be called in to finish the run. Members of the choir were hit as well. Good performers put on a good show even when adverse conditions exist, but even then, there’s only so much one can do when your body is under bacterial or viral attack.

This past October, I got a pretty bad viral throat infection. It cleared, but the residual cough and throat irritation continued for a few weeks. The result was a lot of rehearsals spent sitting in the back, humming along as we began going through Suzanne Steele and Jeffrey Ryan’s Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. My voice returned in time for the Remembrance Day performances but there was coughing during the performance I just couldn’t control. A persistently irritated throat, diminished lung capacity, wonky musculature around the vibrating air and sudden bursts of coughing made it hard to rehearse and perform. It’s quite upsetting to find your instrument unreliable. Something is physically making your voice not work and it is quite distressing, because when it is your body, nothing can really make the healing process go faster than it takes.

And Audience Echoes

Let’s be clear though, illness sucks even if you aren’t a performer. If you’re in the audience, sometimes the tension of trying not to make a sound makes you uncomfortable to the point where you’re no longer enjoying the music and instead just trying to be silent. I know many of my colleagues feel very strongly about audience noises. Some barely notice, but some take great issue with coughs and shuffles and the noises that crowds of hundreds of people make just by existing.

For me, any good performer can do their job, even when there is noise; the aural presence of the audience adds an ambience to the overall process of performing. Performing without an audience is just glorified rehearsal. Real audiences are made of real people and they make noises. They react to the music and they respond in kind. Think about how the energy in the room changes when everyone stands for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Messiah – there is a visceral, physical and emotional change in the room. You don’t have to be a music aficionado to notice it, or more importantly, to feel changed by it. I like when there’s an audience, especially a big one, and I think most performing arts organizations would prefer you’re there, even if a bit noisy.

So, into this season of coughs, hacks, sneezes and other wintry ailments we go. Be healthy and get your flu shot! And be kind to the singers in your life, especially if we Purell ourselves religiously and take precautions to stay away from potential illness. We’re worried sick about losing our voices!

The Governor General’s Messiah

The newly installed Governor General, Julie Payette, once sang in the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. She famously carried a recording of Tafelmusik’s Messiah with her into space. Her Excellency’s love of music will surely serve her well in her position as a grand patron of the arts in Canada.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir - Photo by Sian RichardsTafelmusik’s annual Messiah continues to provide a period interpretation in the inimitable Koerner Hall, December 12 to 16. Ivars Taurins leads the ensembles. Presenting one of the smaller Messiah performances annually, Tafelmusik also presents the largest Messiah in town with its annual “Sing-Along Messiah” at Massey Hall, where 2,700 fans join the orchestra and choir in a grand tradition under the baton of the great maestro himself, Herr Handel (aka. Ivars Taurins), December 17 at 2pm.

A Solid Choral Holiday at the TSO

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has an exceptionally choir-filled holiday season.

Home Alone in concert is being performed live with the Etobicoke School of the Arts Concert Choir, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, November 30 to December 2. This beloved movie is very much a holiday favourite and one of John Williams’ most magical scores. “Somewhere in my Memory,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, has become a choral classic for the season.

Then, joining the TSO for the first time, Resonance Youth Choir from Mississauga makes its debut in Roy Thomson Hall on December 10 at 3pm. Only in its second season, Bob Anderson’s choir will join Tha Spot Holiday Dancers and TSYO Concerto Competition winner, cellist Dale Yoon Ho Jeong. Sing-along classics Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and more are part of the program, as well as an excerpt from Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1. David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony and the Atlantic Music Festival, leads the groups. The main presentation will be live accompaniment of Howard Blake’s score to the holiday favourite film The Snowman.

No holiday season is complete without the TSO Pops Concert, featuring the Canadian Brass and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus. Lucas Waldin conducts. The program December 12 and 13 looks magical, including bits from The Polar Express film, unique Canadian Brass arrangements like White Christmas, Go Tell it On the Mountain, The First Noël and carols arranged by TSO Pops conductor Stephen Reineke. (Waldin, who works with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was most recently in Toronto conducting the hugely popular and totally-sold-out TSO Carly Rae Jepsen performance.)

Last but not least, the TSO and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presentation of Messiah promises to be as grand as ever. Matthew Halls, British early music specialist, takes the helm. This performance has an impeccable set of soloists: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano; Frédéric Antoun, tenor; and Joshua Hopkins, baritone. December 18 to 23 in Roy Thomson Hall. (Barring an uncontrollable relapse into viral coughing, I’ll be there in my usual place in the Mendelssohn tenor section.)

The New Year

With most musical programming seasons running to the end of June, I’ve decided to highlight one performance from each of the next few months. They might make great gifts if you’re thinking ahead, and there are some you’ll surely want to secure seats to before they sell out.

January: Annually, at the end of January, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir hosts one of the most important training intensives for emerging conductors anywhere in North America. Under the supervision of Noel Edison, five symposium participants are exposed to a rigorous schedule of about 20 diverse songs from global choral repertoire and tested by the chamber-sized Elora Festival Singers and the symphonic, full Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The week culminates with a free concert and a chance to see these conductors in action on January 27 at 3pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto.

February: The Orpheus Choir presents “Nordic Light.” The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, have long captured the imagination and spirit of peoples in the far North. Indigenous peoples in Canada have an especially strong connection to their presence. Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian composer, has written Nordic Light Symphony. He will be in Toronto to introduce the work prior to the performance. This is the Canadian premiere of the work and a chance to experience Ešenvalds’ ethereal, atmospheric and deeply satisfying work, February 24 at 7:30pm, Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

March: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. Choir 21, soloists and instruments are conducted by David Fallis. I’m deeply intrigued by the program. Billed as a reimagination of the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Dun’s East Asian musicality will weave a blending of the words of Christ through the theme of water, guided by Eastern musical traditions. From Mongolian overtone singing to Peking Opera to the sound of water, this promises to be an experience, March 9 at 8pm, Trinity-St. Pauls Centre, Toronto.

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Christmas, and the liminal juncture between old and new years that follows, is for many of us a prime occasion for gifting and for helping those less fortunate. It’s also a time when daylight hours are at their shortest and even our waking hours are dominated by darkness. As such it’s a time which amply rewards introspection of the personal kind, when we can profitably reflect back on the past year and also look forward, hopefully, to a brighter new one.

At the heart of all this is observance of the winter solstice. The period around the year’s shortest day has been marked in the Northern Hemisphere with rituals of rebirth, celebrated in holidays, festivals and community gatherings, reaching back perhaps to the Neolithic period. Ancient Romans, Persians, Chinese, Theravada Buddhists, Northern European peoples – pagan and neo-pagan – as well as the Zuni of the American Southwest all celebrated the winter solstice. Some still do. Sensitivity to natural cycles seems to be hardwired in our human DNA.

It’s no coincidence that Christians of the Western tradition chose the winter solstice to celebrate the Longest Night (aka Blue Christmas). Falling at the end of the Advent season, these long and cold nights underscore believers’ own struggle with darkness and grief as they face the end of the growing season, and loss of many kinds. Christmas, the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, was strategically placed within the Roman annual calendar by the early Church to coincide with this period.

Timar family Christmas

My own family has celebrated Christmas for many generations but in recent decades the focus has increasingly shifted from long-time religious to secular rituals performed by our immediate Toronto family. In our ever-morphing clan new partners are added, names change, babies are born, people move away and some return; they grow up, grow old and yes, our elders ultimately enter the realm of the ancestors.

All dressed up, each year the extended Timar clan gathers at one of our homes to celebrate our seasonal traditions, ancient and new. We feast extravagantly into the night with special rich food and drink that speaks to our multiple ethnic and religious roots, identities and values. Helping refresh family bonds is the spirit of generosity, mutual care and the hospitality that permeates that late December evening.

65 Million Refugee Realities

Things aren’t so rosy however for everyone at this time of year. It’s a particularly sad time for families torn apart geographically, when some are compelled to flee their homelands. So it was too with my family when I was six. We were refugees from post-revolution occupied Hungary. Our first generation is forever grateful to Canada for giving five of us sanctuary, a fertile place to put down roots, make a home, to flourish.

Today, the plight of refugees of many kinds continues to confront every global citizen. Many millions of our fellow humans need aid or asylum at any given time. Celebrated Chinese multimedia artist and activist Ai Weiwei estimates the number at “about 65 million people.”

In October 2017 he opened a vast new installation Good Fences Make Good Neighbours at some 300 sites around New York City, aiming ultimately to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis. Good Fences criticizes “the global trend of trying to separate us by colour, race, religion, nationality ... against freedom, against humanity,” as Ai said at his October Manhattan press conference.

Reunite the Moneka Family

The mind-boggling numbers of displaced humanity around the world can be overwhelming in the absence of being able to put a human face on suffering. The dilemma of refugees, so passionately articulated by Ai in his art, is reflected in many ways here in Toronto. Not surprisingly, within our musical communities, it shows up particularly keenly among world musicians who have recently made Canada their home.

Early in November I received an email from Jaclyn Tam, manager of concerts and special projects – including New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO) – at the Royal Conservatory and TELUS Centre. “I wanted to tell you about a fundraiser I’m organizing on Monday, December 11 at Lula Lounge,” Tam’s email began. JUNO winners and nominee musicians Quique Escamilla, David Buchbinder, Maryem and Ernie Tollar, and many special guests will perform. They’re coming together to support Ahmed Moneka, an incredibly special musician and actor who now calls Toronto home, in his bid to bring his family here. I first met him last year when he auditioned for NCGMO.”

Ahmed MonekaI was immediately gripped. Here was a story with parallels to that of my own family of origin, as well as to ancient semi-mythic narratives of asylum, hopes of peace, reconciliation and gift-giving generosity. I called Tam at her Royal Conservatory office.

“Musician and actor Ahmed Moneka was forced to apply for asylum in Canada in 2015 after his family received death threats for his lead role as a gay Iraqi man in the [short] film The Society,” she told me. (The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and showed at TIFF.)

Moneka’s family, of African Sufi descent, was well established in Baghdad’s artist community. His father was a well-known Iraqi actor and comedian, and his sister Isra was one of the founders of the Cinema Department at the University of Basra. His younger sister Tara has an international career as a singer. She has performed on Iraqi TV and at festivals at a young age.

Having faced months of violent threats from the increasingly powerful militias in Iraq, however, the family was forced to flee to Turkey in 2016. Ahmed’s family has been torn apart and they are now “in a critical situation.” Moneka speaks powerfully of their present danger in his fundraising YouTube video. Moneka hopes to reunite his family in Canada “so that they may live together in peace.” All proceeds from the December 11 Lula concert will support his goal.

 “With Ahmed, it’s all personal,” Tam says. “I met him a few times, heard his music, and since there was a personal connection I felt compelled to act. It was simple really: here’s one person I could help reconnect with his family.”

At his NCGMO audition, “Ahmed radiated pure musical joy.” But as Tam explains, by the time the final roster was decided, he had already made a commitment to tour with another band. The NCGMO moved on without him, but he made abiding connections with artistic director David Buchbinder, who has hired Ahmed for other projects.

After hearing Ahmed’s story, Tam felt personally compelled to help. “I don’t have a lot of money to donate,” she says, “but I do have a large network built up over the years and also the producing skills to put together such an event.” So she reached out to Tracey Jenkins at Lula Lounge and to musicians who have worked with Ahmed. “I was touched by the response of Lula and of the musicians and artists. They didn’t hesitate to donate their talents.”

This is our community at work big time (and it promises to be a fine musical evening as well)! Ahmed plays cajón and sings maqam in a wonderful trio called Moskitto Bar, which will play at the fundraiser. (One of his bandmates, Tangi Ropars, is formerly of Lemon Bucket Orkestra.) Additionally, a group dubbed Orchestra of Love has been organized for the fundraiser, bringing together Toronto world music A-listers such as trumpeter David Buchbinder, singers Maryem Tollar and Roula Said, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid and wind player extraordinaire Ernie Tollar.

In addition to pure music, NAMAS will recite poetry to guitar accompaniment and Zeena Sileem, an Iraqi painter, will paint a canvas live during the evening. The completed canvas will be auctioned with proceeds benefitting the Moneka family reunification fund.

All in all, this promises to be a terrific community event guaranteed to put all who come out to support the Moneka family’s desire for reunification in a proper holiday spirit.

New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO): update

I promised in my summer 2017 column story about NCGMO that I would follow up on the ensemble’s progress. Since I was speaking with Jaclyn Tam about the Moneka story I asked her for an update on the orchestra as well. As it turns out, the Orchestra had a Banff Centre studio residency in September and October, recording its first album (which is being edited and mixed for concert release on April 7, 2018). Shortly after the Banff residency, in November, the NCGMO performed a showcase at “North America’s World Music Summit,” Mundial Montréal. And on February 24, deeper and no doubt whiter into winter, NCGMO will appear on the Isabel Bader Centre stage in Kingston, in what the Isabel’s listings describe as a concert of “transcultural music which connects and communicates in ways that words, politicians, and spiritual leaders cannot. Together, we all find a common language.”

Lula Music and Arts Centre

In its own words, Lula “nourishes a thriving Canadian world music scene … with a focus on local artists performing music of the Americas.” It fosters the Canadian world music scene “through concerts, festivals, cultural exchanges, education, outreach, audience and professional development.”

Lula’s Dundas West space appears to be in particularly heavy rotation this December. I counted 31 concerts and salsa classes on the site. That averages out to an astounding one scheduled event for each day of the month! In January the action announced so far settles down to eight music events, plus another six booked to date in February. It’s entirely possible more gigs will be booked in the interim, but in any case that is much too many to talk about here. I encourage readers to visit The WholeNote’s listings or Lula’s site calendar for updates.

Aga Khan Museum: concert picks for January and February 2018

Another premier Toronto venue for culturally diverse music performance is the Aga Khan Museum. It continues its programs of concerts and more casual pop-ups.

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues - Photo by Zohar RonJanuary 18 the AKM presents “Yemen Blues,” a truly transcultural band deliveringan explosive combination of Yemeni song and poetry, Jewish music, West African groove and funk.” With musicians from New York City, Uruguay and Tel Aviv, leader Ravid Kahalani’s charts set a high musical standard and have roused international audiences.

February 1 “Musical Inventions” by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr. Draw takes the AKM’s auditorium stage.

Paolo AngeliAngeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition blended with avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

February 16 the AKM presents “Under the Indian Musical Sky,” with Montréal group Constantinople and Grammy Award-nominated Carnatic venu (flute) virtuoso Shashank Subramanyam. Constantinople’s collaboration with Subramanyam “bridges not only East and West but [also musical] traditions … from across the globe,” much like the group’s namesake city.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

Jazz musicians earn part of what is laughingly referred to as their “living” by doing what they call “jobbing gigs,” on which they provide all-purpose music for various functions. Guido Basso calls what is generally required on these gigs “jolly jazz”: a variety of familiar songs – standards, bossa novas, maybe even the odd jazz tune – well-played at tempos which are danceable, or at least listenable. Not that anyone at these dos actually listens – the music is generally intended as background to deafening chatter – but just in case. The time-honoured m.o. of these gigs is “faking” – that is, playing umpteen songs without using any written music. Even when all of the musicians involved know a lot of tunes, there is a certain amount of repertorial Russian roulette involved. Nobody knows every song – well, Reg Schwager maybe – but even if you know the given song, it may not come to you until after it’s over and it’s too late. Generally though, faking works and it cuts down on schlepping music and music stands.

But a couple of bullets are added to the faking Russian roulette pistol every December, when seasonal music is thrown into the jobbing mix. Both the risks and stakes suddenly go up as musicians are naturally expected to play Christmas standards – familiar and dear to all – but which they haven’t played for a whole year. (By “Christmas standards” I mean more modern seasonal songs with some kind of jazz element such as Walking in a Winter Wonderland or White Christmas, as opposed to traditional carols which are generally performed by roving choirs or brass ensembles.)

On the face of it, faking seasonal standards doesn’t seem like such a challenge, because we all know how these chestnuts (no pun intended) go, right? But you’d be surprised. Not all Christmas standards are as simple as they seem, some are quite complicated and after a year in mothballs they can prove a little elusive. Even the easier ones – such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town or Let It Snow – present challenges because they don’t behave like other songs. Often their middle sections – or bridges – go into the key of the dominant, which very few other songs do. And because the bridges often occur only a quarter of the time, they’re harder to remember. I’ve been on many a seasonal gig where a faked Christmas tune is going along swimmingly until the middle is approaching and everyone gets a panicky look on their face which says, “Where the hell does the bridge go?” It’s ironic, but the seeming simplicity of the easier seasonal songs confound jazz musicians who spend the rest of the year negotiating the fiendish complexities of songs such as Lush Life or Round Midnight without a hitch, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Being accustomed to complex harmony, jazz musicians playing simple Christmas tunes are a bit like cryptic crossword experts who have difficulty solving regular crosswords.

There are two harmonically complex seasonal standards though: The Christmas Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, each of them a must-play. Both are ballads and their slow tempos exacerbate the chord change clashes which lurk around every corner. Taken in the key of E-flat, The Christmas Song has two quick and tricky modulations in its first eight bars alone: to the key of G-Major then immediately to G-flat Major. These key changes come as something of a surprise if you haven’t played it in 12 months, but even if you do remember them there are all sorts of chord-change options to trip over before the modulations. Altogether this makes faking Mel Torme’s classic for the first time in a year a sweaty experience.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas may be the best of the lot and is somewhat easier, but still has its scary moments. It’s smooth sailing up until the beginning of the bridge, which can start on one of two chords fraught with conflict for a bassist and a pianist. Again in E-flat, the first chord of the bridge could be A-flat Major 7, or the “hipper” option – an A Minor 7 flat-five chord which has all the same notes save for the all-important root. Notice the roots are a semitone apart, and there’s the rub. As the bridge arrives, a bassist has to make a split-second decision about which root to play, with a 50/50 chance of being dead wrong and sounding like an idiot. If he or she chooses the A and the pianist plays the A-flat chord it sounds awful and vice versa; it’s a game of chord-change chicken. If I had a dollar for every time I zigged when I should have zagged in this situation, I’d be a rich man. The smart solution would be for the pianist to omit the root altogether and leave the choice up to the bassist. But no, that would be too easy, and not many pianists think this way. This may seem like a small detail and it is, but the trouble with these clashes is that they leave you frazzled and jar your concentration, which can lead to further clunkers along the way.

The big problem is that these seasonal faking mishaps occur in a context riddled with expectation, memory and the potential to spoil the seasonal mood. It’s an important time of year and the people at a seasonal gig know all these tunes intimately from years of hearing them on records and in movies, usually in more deluxe versions with strings, choirs, Bing Crosby, etc. Messing up a Christmas tune leaves the band with eggnog on its face and is like messing up a national anthem – everybody hears it right away and sometimes offence is taken. As in, “Who hired these bums and how much are they being paid? They can’t even play White Christmas, for crying out loud!”

Ted Quinlan - Photo by Sanja AnticBut not all the disasters of seasonal gigs come from faking tunes; some of them have to do with the merrymaking of the audience. Here are a couple of Christmas party stories to illustrate this. About 15 years ago guitarist Ted Quinlan hired saxophonist Mike Murley, drummer Ted Warren and me to play a Christmas party, held on the third floor of The Senator, for a small company. Ted is prized for his musical versatility and his whacky sense of humour, both of which came in handy on this gig. After no time at all it became clear that the people weren’t going to pay any attention to the music, all was din. We were playing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman when, thinking of the lyrics, I glanced over at Ted, who had a typically maniacal grin on his face. Somehow I knew this meant that he was going to yell out “Satan!” from the carol’s fifth line and when the time came we both bellowed “Satan!” at the top of our lungs. Nobody noticed except the other two guys in the band, who proceeded to join us with “Satan!” in the next choruses. I still don’t know how we managed to get through the tune with all the laughing, but we had to take a break afterwards from sheer exhaustion.

A few years later, singer John Alcorn hired guitarist Reg Schwager and me – his regular band – to play a Christmas party for a small law firm, held in a private banquet facility in a downtown restaurant. It was a fairly intimate party with the people close at hand, some of them even listening to the music. All was going well until we came back from our second break and noticed that suddenly everybody was drunk. Particularly a large East Indian gentleman who really had the lamp shade on, like Peter Sellers in The Party, only louder. Alcorn called Route 66 – not a seasonal song, but a good party tune. As he began singing it, the Indian guy bellowed out “Oh goody, it’s Route 67!” and began dancing a ridiculous teetering boogie only he understood. Reg and I both doubled over laughing, but still somehow managed to keep playing. Alcorn didn’t bat an eye though; his face was a mask of composure and he kept singing as if nothing had happened. That, ladies and gentleman, is professionalism.

So these are a couple of examples of musicians getting their own back amid the minefield of Christmas gigs. A few years ago some of us found a new way of having fun with seasonal music: a mashup game in which we combined the names of Christmas carols/songs with jazz tunes and standards to form wacky new titles. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing Sing Sing,” “Joy Spring to the World,” “Sippin’ at Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night in Tunisia,” “What Child Is This Thing Called Love?” and “O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem” were among the first of these; later I expanded the game to include readers and wrote a piece about it. If you’re interested, google and look for the title “Birth of the Yule” (or use the direct link:–4462).

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous and safe holiday season and a Happy New Year. The latter usually comes with resolutions, some of which are easier to stick to than others. A few years back I resolved to stop taking New Year’s Eve gigs, only to discover they’d disappeared. All New Year’s resolutions should be so easy to keep.

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

Here we are, it’s December already, but with many community ensembles still more focused on sesquicentennial projects as the year draws to a close than on events that could be described as special for the Christmas season. Let’s start with two band projects we have recently learned of that warrant mention, both of which have significant historical aspects.

Cobourg: The first of these is the announcement of a CD by the Cobourg Concert Band. Although this CD, Pride of Performance, was officially released on Canada Day at the band’s concert in the Cobourg Victoria Park Bandshell, it did not come to our attention until a few days ago. There are a number of ways in which this CD is special. Not only is it a sesquicentennial project, but it marks the 175th year that there has been a town band in Cobourg. That’s 25 years longer than Canada has been a country. Whether that sets a record for the establishment of a town band in Canada will be left for this Cobourg band to dispute with the Newmarket Citizens’ Band and any others that might claim such a title. Every track on this recording is either a new arrangement of an established work or a completely new composition. All are by local musicians, including some band members. Even the cover artwork was created by contest winners from the local St. Mary’s High School. I hope to see a review of this CD in a future issue of The WholeNote.

(A side note: this band also bears the title The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Association – Ontario, and is allowed, by royal assent, to wear the uniform of the Royal Marines. How could this be, you might ask. Some years ago a man named Roland White moved from England and took up residence in Cobourg. He just happened to have been an assistant bandmaster in the Royal Marines working under the renowned conductor Sir Vivian Dunn, and had studied conducting under Sir John Barbirolli. When the town band needed a new conductor, there was White to take over, get that royal assent and change the image of the town band to its present pride of Cobourg.)

London: Where else might we look for a sesquicentennial band project? The first place that comes to mind, of course, is Henry Meredith’s Plumbing Factory Brass Band in London. On Wednesday, December 13, 7:30pm at Byron United Church – 420 Boler Rd., London, Ontario – the PFBB will celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with “The Golden Age of Brass,” featuring music from the 1800s on period instruments. Since Confederation-era music will be highlighted, von Suppé’s exuberant Jolly Robbers Overture, written exactly 150 years ago in 1867, will open the program. Then, band music by big name composers will include Beethoven’s Marsch des Yorck’schen Korps and Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests. The centrepiece of the program will be the challenging Raymond Overture by Ambroise Thomas.

Last month I mentioned the importance of musicianship for ensembles to really tell their story. Well, in this program, Dr. Hank has selected a set of four up-tempo compositions to test the skill of his band’s musicians. One highly regarded composer of the 1800s, famed for his toe-tapping pieces based on popular dance forms of the mid-19th century, was Claudio Grafulla. To demonstrate their skills, the band will play a set of four of his works: Cape May Polka, Freischutz Quick Step, Skyrocket March, and Hurrah Storm Galop. Another seasonal favourite, Johann Strauss Sr.’s famous Radetzky March from 1848, will bring the concert to a rousing close. I’m sure that many instruments from Dr. Hank’s vast collection will be front and centre at this concert.

(Another sidenote: While brass bands have many loyal followers, particularly in England and much of North America, that has not always been the case. With the origin of the brass band movement coming largely from company “works bands” in England, there were often considerable derisive comments about them. Sir Thomas Beecham was famous (or infamous) for two of these comments. “The British Brass Band has its place – outdoors, and several miles away” is perhaps his most often quoted. But the one that drew the most ire was  when he referred to the brass band as “that superannuated, obsolete, beastly, disgusting, horrid method of making music.” However, attitudes gradually changed, and in 1947 Beecham even guest-conducted a mass band concert at Belle Vue.)

Ukraine: Speaking of brass bands, recent Salvation Army news caught my attention. The Salvation Army is represented and active in 127 countries around the world. In many of these countries, Salvation Army groups have brass bands. Ukraine, in particular, is a country where there is a will but not the required leadership to develop the brass band movement. Several attempts have been made over the last 25 years to stimulate interest. While some attempts have been successful, with the political unrest of recent years, these have been difficult to sustain.

Enter Bob Gray, a Toronto high school music teacher, trumpet player and conductor with whom I play regularly, who has been active in the Salvation Army for many years. About six years ago, at the Salvation Army’s music camp at Jackson’s Point, he met two young men from Kiev, a cornet player and a euphonium player. After they had returned to Kiev, Bob decided to look into the SA band situation in Ukraine. After the revolution of 2014, Salvation Army churches throughout Ukraine closed, and now there are only two remaining in Kiev. Having learned of the demise of that Salvation Army movement, Gray decided to try to do something to rectify the situation. Item one on his agenda was language study. For over a year he actively studied in preparation for visits to Ukraine for Salvation Army activities. He went to Kiev for the first time in June 2016, then in May 2017, and again in October 2017. Gray, along with the people he met at Jackson’s Point years ago, are trying to resurrect the brass band movement in the Ukraine and, in particular, Kiev. A survey showed that there were 25 instruments in working order and a few players who were willing to commit time and effort to form what would be a divisional band base in Kiev.

The Salvation Army will be celebrating their 25th anniversary of operations in Ukraine this coming June. It is hoped that the divisional band in Kiev will have its debut during that weekend of activities. The Winton Citadel Band from Bournemouth in the United Kingdom will be the featured band for the festivities. The city of Kiev hosted the Eastern block countries Eurovision Song Festival this past June. During the event many groups entertained in local parks and squares. The Salvation Army provided a musical presentation in Victory Park. Bob Gray was a featured cornet soloist as part of these outreach concerts.

A trip to Belgium: A couple of months ago I heard from longtime friend Colin Rowe that he would be travelling to Belgium. I first met Colin some time around 1984 when we were both playing in a swing band at the Newmarket Jazz Appreciation Society. After that, he played trombone in the Governor General’s Horse Guards Band and subsequently became their drum major. Having moved East some years ago, Colin now has the same duties with the Cobourg Concert Band.

Drum major Colin Rowe with the Cobourg Concert Band in Plattsburgh NY, 2013 - Photo by Jack MacQuarrieTo commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele, Veterans Affairs Canada decided to mount a very different form of memorial. Specifically they identified nine recipients of the Victoria Cross from that era and the nine regiments in which they served. Then they selected a living representative of each regiment to go to Belgium, but that person could not be a currently serving member of the regiment. One of those VC recipients was Private Tommy Holmes VC from the 48th Canadian Mounted Rifles. At some time after WWI that unit’s name was changed to the Governor General’s Horse Guards. As the representative from the GGHG, Veterans Affairs selected Colin Rowe. All of regimental representatives, along with the band of the Royal 22nd Regiment, embarked on an RCAF transport for their trip to Belgium on November 5.

Another formerly local musician was Kevin Fleming, who was originally introduced to the GGHG by Colin as a trombone player. Later, like Colin, he continued to play trombone, but became Drum Major of the GGHG. Some time later Fleming transferred to the Regular Force, and a while ago to the Royal 22nd Regiment, nicknamed the Van Doos. Their band was selected as the lead band because Passchendaele was one of that regiment’s battle honours. While there were many ceremonies, the highlight for Fleming was at Passchendaele, with a torchlight parade from the WW1 monument to the town square followed by a concert.

Those who went on that trip commented that it had been meticulously organized by Veterans Affairs, and that on the flight over, they were presented with a six-page detailed itinerary for their ten-day visit to memorials and cemeteries, informing them of the time and place of their every move.

(Aside, again: speaking of Belgium, one significant recent event I attended was a concert by Toronto’s Wychwood Clarinet Choir on November 19. While most of the works performed at their concerts are special arrangements, the opening work, Claribel, was written by Belgian composer Guido Six specifically for his Claribel Clarinet Choir in Ostend. This was a wonderful rousing opening. The arranging talent of choir member Roy Greaves was certainly on display as the choir’s moods traversed from the Irish folk song The Lark in the Clear Air and a Mozart Serenade to three tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Harmonically the choir sounded better than I had ever heard it. Their harmonies were so well blended that one might think that their sounds were coming from a single source.)

Greenbank, Ontario: From the tiny Ontario hamlet of Greenbank, conductor and composer Stuart Beaudoin brought his Orpheus Symphonietta to the small town of Uxbridge for another memorable recent event – a concert featuring his new composition Elegy II: Lament and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. This was the first performance of his composition which conveys, in musical terms, some of the spectrum of the composer’s emotions arising from world events during his lifetime. It’s an interesting work which bears more listening. This same man will be back two weeks later with his Greenbank Cantorei sine Nomine choir and the same orchestra for a three-hour performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in English.

Flute Street: That other local same-instrument-family group, Flute Street, unfortunately had their most recent concert on the same date as the aforementioned Wychwood Clarinet Choir. Their featured soloist was Christine Beard playing alto flute and piccolo. Those types of same-instrument ensembles would seem to be competing for the same audiences, and it is unfortunate that there is not a central registry to avoid such overlaps. Flute Street’s Nancy Nourse had hoped to have her new contra alto flute, but it wasn’t available on time. She says that it will be the first of its kind in Canada. She intends to unveil it in time for their next concert, possibly in March. It’s an unusual instrument made in Holland. She may even travel there to get it and bring it home.

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

Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, and soon to be Isabel in another world premiere by the same composer, Lessons in Love and Violence. Title character in Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze. Ophelia in both Brett Dean’s Hamlet and in Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle let me tell you. Vermeer’s model in Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. The She character in Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. Title character in Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Mélisande in the Katie Mitchell-directed paradigm-shifting production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Berg’s Lulu in productions by Christoph Marthaler and Krzysztof Warlikowski. Voice of Salvatore Sciarrino’s cycle La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke per soprano e orchestra.

This is just a tiny selection of the world premieres and roles brought to life by Canadian soprano of global renown, contemporary music advocate and now also conductor, Barbara Hannigan. She returns to Toronto on November 10 for a Koerner Hall recital programmed around the Second Viennese School and the preceding generation of composers. Dutch pianist, composer and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw will be at the piano. De Leeuw has been music director and conductor of the Schönberg Ensemble since its founding in the mid-1970s. The ensemble, now known as Asko|Schönberg, continues to prioritize new music and perform the works of the 20th and 21st centuries exclusively.

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasHannigan is based in Paris, where she lives with her partner, actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric. I asked her a few questions via email about the forthcoming Toronto recital and its program consisting of songs by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

WN: Schoenberg’s Four Lieder, Op.2 and Webern’s Five Lieder have poet Richard Dehmel in common. Does this also make Schoenberg and Webern musical siblings? (They sound like it to me, I could be wrong.) Both atonal and Sprechgesang, poetry-driven, rather than songs as we know them from the Romantic and post-Romantic eras?

BH: Dehmel… well, he wrote a very important book in the 1890s called Weib und Welt, for which he was put on trial for obscenity. I mean, we read those poems now and we don’t feel that at all, but in the time, just to try and express sensual feelings, and from the imagined woman’s perspective… WOW! He was using imagery like… reflections in water, a beckoning hand from a window, a kiss outside marriage, a woman pregnant from a man she did not know or love… it was shocking. Dehmel was a huge influence for Schoenberg’s early vocal works (his writing was the reason we have Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht) and Berg, Webern and many others. So…is the music related because of Dehmel? Not necessarily. There are images, reflections, a fluidity of the music which was a musical development and style at the time. If it hadn’t been Dehmel it would have been Stefan Georg, who was a later influence for Schoenberg. The tonalities are not yet what I think of as atonal…that came a little bit later. Certainly the Schoenberg Op.2 are closer to Strauss than anything (but better than Strauss!). Webern’s five Dehmel songs are absolutely atonal. They avoid harmonic centre, though their endings always seem to confirm some kind of tonal centre which was elusive for the entire song.

How does the singer make them dramatic, as something unfolding before the audience? We rarely get to hear songs like this in recital, and the Romantic and post-Romantic songs have spoiled us in terms of drama, contrasts, things happening, and big, legible emotions.

I don’t need to make them dramatic. They already are dramatic. I just have to sing them, rather than interpret. I find the idea of “interpretation” very foreign. The emotions are deep, pure, full of instinct and that very Viennese idea of Sehnsucht… longing. It’s all there. I just need to get inside it. And with a pianist such as Reinbert de Leeuw…a huge mentor to me for over 20 years…this is a kind of musical heaven for me. An earthly heaven.

Berg’s Seven Early Songs come across as more varied. The texts are from different poets – but the songs differ musically too, for example the intense, soaring Die Nachtigall vs. the playful Im Zimmer. How do you approach this cycle? Berg is very much “your” composer, if I can put it that way – you’ve sung Lulu of course and your new CD is planned around the character of Lulu.

The Berg are more accessible I suppose. We have to remember that in this late-Romantic period, the song was still the centre of a composer’s expression. Every composer began with writing songs. They developed their harmonic style through the very intimate union of piano, voice and text. And from that, they expanded to larger works. Nowadays things are very different...

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasIntriguing that there’s Alma, but not Gustav Mahler on the program. We rarely get to hear her in recital. How would you describe her songs? (I thought Laue Sommernacht probably the most melodic song on the entire program?)

The Alma Mahler songs we chose were in part written when she was a student (and love interest) of Zemlinsky. And the songs we present of Zemlinsky were, by the way, written when he was teaching her. They seemed to be in love, before she met Mahler. Honestly, her songs are good but they are not great. They are the weakest on the recital program but we included them because she was such an important figure at that time. A muse, later a patron. She was the lover of Kokoschka and inspired his work, also Klimt, also the writing of Werfel; and the early death of her daughter Manon (with Gropius) inspired Berg’s violin concerto. She was a very, very important figure in the musical world of the early 20th century. These four songs show her potential but she did not develop it. Mahler told her before they married that she had to stop composing. So she only achieved a certain niveau in her work and then she stopped, and became Mahler’s wife. Laue Sommernacht … is it the most melodic? I don’t think so. Die Nachtigall of Berg is more soaring, I’d say. Or Irmelin Rose, the strophic fairytale song of Zemlinsky. And really, what does melodic mean? Something with a tune? I don’t know. I think melodic means something different to everyone.

The concert ends with Wolf’s extraordinary, almost operatic Kennst du das Land. How does a singer conserve the energy, physical and dramatic, up to that point and then deliver that Mignon mini-opera at the end?
I don’t know how other people do it but for me, there is a degree of strategy in the pacing of the recital and then… I count on adrenaline to get me through the final four songs of Hugo Wolf. I love them so much, I love Mignon and her need for secrecy. I just slip into her skin and she carries me through the music; her need to try to reveal herself, without explaining herself, is so powerful that the songs just… pour out. This recital program was devised by Reinbert de Leeuw. As I wrote earlier, my mentor. He is the guide and inspiration for me through this musical journey. And he carries me through it… every rehearsal reminding and insisting that I attempt the most delicate adherence to the composer’s wishes. Always searching for the real pianissimi that the composers demand, rather than the verismo of the earlier part of the 19th century. This world is one of reflection, of suggestion, of intimacy without explanation. And I am so thrilled to bring this program, with Reinbert, to Toronto.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to

Dedicated Toronto operagoers know that operatic activity in Toronto is not confined to the city’s two largest companies, the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier. Numerous smaller companies have helped make the opera scene in Toronto one of the most diverse in North America. There is therefore a pang of sadness whenever one of these companies ceases operations, as did Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in 2013 and as will Toronto Masque Theatre in 2018. Some may have seen on the website for TrypTych Concert & Opera that co-artistic directors Edward Franko and Lenard Whiting will be leaving Toronto and moving to Kenora. To find out more about the history of TrypTych and how the move will affect the company, I interviewed Franko and Whiting last month.

TrypTych was founded in the early fall of 1999 by Franko, Whiting and William Shookhoff. Franko had been working with Nina Scott-Stoddart’s company Opera Anonymous. As Franko says, “The three of us all got together and thought that we should do something together and utilize all our different skills and decided that with the three heads of the beast and the famous Il Trittico [by Puccini] we could convert that to TrypTych and just change the spelling.”

Then, about ten years ago Shookhoff had to pull out of TrypTych due to health reasons, leaving Franko to do the opera side of the productions and Whiting the choral side. But the TrypTych name stuck. (As it happened, Shookhoff recovered and founded his own company, Opera By Request.)

Franko emphasizes: “We were very strong at the beginning about not just being an opera company. We felt that we didn’t want to be beholden to opera even though all three of us had a very strong connection to opera. We were also working with singers from a lot of different musical backgrounds. We thought that singing as a whole isn’t just opera – you have to be able to fit into a lot of categories. That’s why we did cabarets that featured music like jazz, pop and rock and quite a wide range of things. Then we had the classical oratorio side and tried to do some things that aren’t done a lot like Dubois’ Seven Last Words, Gounod’s Messe solennelle, Saint-Saëns’ Mass for Four Voices and even the Widor Mass.”

Whiting explained the reason for this dual focus: “This is part of the reality of what Canadian singers really have to be exposed to. There’s a handful that find a really wonderful opportunity in opera, but if you don’t happen to break into that market you’ve got to find other ways to present yourself and to be diverse.”

Edward Franko (left) and Lenard WhitingTrypTych has presented quite a number of seldom-heard operas over the past 18 seasons, such as Marcel Mihalovici’s Krapp, ou la dernière bande (1961), Hugo Weisgall’s The Stronger (1952), Jack Beeson’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1996), Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), Quenten Doolittle’s Boiler Room Suite (1989) and the Canadian stage premiere of Verdi’s Oberto (1839).

Franko adds: “One of the big things we’ve been really happy with over the last five years has been our relationship with conductor Norman Reintamm and the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra, doing fully staged opera with a 60-piece orchestra at the 600-seat P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough. In fact, our shows get the best houses of all their concerts. We’ve done all three parts of Il Trittico now and two one-act operas last year. This December for the first time we’re doing a full-length opera, Hansel and Gretel, with the big orchestra, a children’s chorus and Lenard as the Witch with an LED screen for backdrops.

“A lot of the opportunities that opera school graduates get is singing opera in concert, which is great, but we and the CBSO give them a chance to incorporate all aspects of the art – singing, acting and movement on stage – with a full orchestra. Young people don’t get that chance very often.”

Toronto operagoers will be relieved to hear Franko affirm that “Even after we move north we’re keeping a connection with the CBSO and TrypTych so we’ll be able to do at least one production a year even though we’re far away.” Whiting has renovated the basement of their Toronto base at Trinity Presbyterian Church into a combined rehearsal space and concert/performance space for 125 people, “so there will be no need to rent since we already have space and a good working relationship all round.”

The main reason for choosing Kenora for their move is that is where Whiting is from. As Franko says, “We have a home up there on an island in Lake of the Woods and Lenard has been going back every year so that we now know lots of people in the community.”

Franko makes their goal clear: “TrypTych for us has always been a labour of love. We’ve never made money off it. Our goal now is to develop a real thriving arts company in Kenora that can operate all year round but with a summer focus. We want to work with the community and with young people to really develop a community organization. We want to make a great impact in a small place and give them a boost. We’re thinking of it as TrypTych North.”

On October 28 and 29, TrypTych staged the rarity H.M.S. Parliament (1880), in which the Canadian William Henry Fuller wrote a new libretto for Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) in order to satirize Canadian politics. “This will also be the first staged production we will do in Kenora,” Franko says. That being said, Franko and Whiting have already made plans for their next production in Toronto. “In February 2019 the CBSO and TrypTych will do Donizetti’sThe Elixir of Love. It will be performed in English because we’ve always been ones to make opera more accessible. We love the form and we want to make people more connected with it.”

Asked what some of the highlights were for them in Toronto, they agree that it was the workshops and the world premiere of Canadian composer Andrew Ager’s opera Frankenstein (2010). “It was a wonderful journey for us to work with him and make that piece come alive.”

Franko also lists the Canadian stage premiere of Grigori Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank (1972), starring Shoshana Friedman. The production was invited to the Three Rings Festival in Prague and was staged in the gorgeous Spanish Synagogue. “It was overwhelming for me as a producer-director to have my work performed there,” Franko says.

For Whiting, highlights include Stanford’s Stabat Mater (1906), with piano and organ reduction, which Whiting calls “just to die for” and the company’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion where he both conducted and sang the role of the Evangelist.

A huge challenge for Franko personally was both performing and directing himself in The Tell-Tale Heart (2006) for tenor and three cellos by German-born American composer Danny Ashkenasi, based on the tale by Edgar Allen Poe.

But they are not ready to talk about highlights only in the past tense. “We have at least 15 more years of being able to contribute to the arts scene up north in a really vital way,” Whiting says. “We have the energy and the imagination and the experience from working in Toronto, and we think that it’s time to bring our abilities to the people up north.” And when asked when they plan to retire, Franko states, “The artistic soul never retires.”

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

Mai Tategami began studying the violin at the age of six. As an orchestral player, she was concertmaster of the Seiji Ozawa Ongaku-juku Orchestra and became an academy student and temporary contract member of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (2012-2015). During the 2015/16 season, she performed with the Beethoven Orchester Bonn as concertmaster. At 28, she won the first edition of the Orford Music Prize in 2016. She makes her Toronto debut with a free Music at St. Andrew’s noontime recital on November 24 and follows that up November 26, when she joins the Rebelheart Collective in Mooredale Concerts’ third program of the season to play the second violin part for a performance of Mendelssohn’s exuberant String Quintet in B-flat Major, Op.87.

Mai TategamiShe told me in a mid-October email conversation that she started her musical education at three with the piano. “My teacher gave me some Bach to practise,” she told me. “His music was like a magical world. I have always felt peaceful and relaxed when I play/listen to Bach. He is still one of my favourite composers.” So Bach was the first composer she fell in love with. What about musicians? “I don’t remember which one was the first violinist that I liked, but I loved Itzhak Perlman and Gil Shaham when I was small. They were my superstars, and I fell in love with their brilliant and sweet Romantic sound.”  A few years ago, she had the chance to play with Gil Shaham as a member of the orchestra. “It was one of my great memories as a musician in my life.”

I asked when she knew she would devote herself to music and she told me that there had been two turning points in her life. When she was 12 years old she had to choose which private junior high school to get into. One was the best junior high school in the Osaka/Kobe area, but to get in there she would have had to go to cram school and give up on playing the violin as a professional player. The other was the academy connected to her elementary school. To enter it no cram school was necessary so she could continue practising the violin as much as she wanted. Her other dream was to be a lawyer and to pursue that dream she would have had to go to the best school and forgo studying the violin altogether. After much self-examination, she realized she couldn’t imagine her life without playing music so she decided to go to the academy which would allow her to study and play violin. “I think it was the first decision I made to devote my life to music,” she said.

I asked how winning the Orford Music Prize had changed her life. She was playing in the Beethoven Orchester in Bonn, Germany at the time, she told me, but winning the prize gave her opportunities to play solo and chamber music concerts in Asia and Canada, so she quit playing in the orchestra and concentrated on her music, studying again to get ready for her next step. “I think it was one of the biggest decisions I have made in the past few years,” she said.

At her St. Andrew’s recital she will be playing Mozart’s Violin Sonata K526 and Poulenc’s Violin Sonata with Canadian pianist Jean-Luc Therrien, whom she met at the Orford Music Festival a few years ago. They played an all-Mozart recital together in Salzburg last summer that included K526. The second movement of the Poulenc sonata was the encore piece that evening, but they had so much fun playing it they included it on their Canadian tour. She thinks the audience will enjoy hearing such “totally different style composers.”

She didn’t know the Mendelssohn Quintet until she was asked to play it at Mooredale but she relates to “this wonderful piece” in her own unique way. She explains that Mendelssohn wrote the piece when he was 36, just two years before his death. “He was resting in Frankfurt after spending a very busy few years in Leipzig including his musical trip to England,” she said. “I think he very much enjoyed his stay in Frankfurt, because I could feel his excitement in the music. And the fact that I have been to Leipzig and Frankfurt helps me think of how he liked it there and how it influenced his music. I somehow can feel his happiness and normal everyday life.”

She added: “I’m very much looking forward to playing in Toronto. I’ve never been there but heard many good things about the city. And of course to be able to play with such wonderful musicians is a great honour for me.”

Quartet for the End of Time

“The most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century,” Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker (March 22, 2004), “was first heard on a brutally cold January night in 1941, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany.” Messiaen wrote most of the Quartet for the End of Time, Ross goes on to explain, after being captured as a French soldier during the German invasion of 1940. The premiere took place in an unheated space in Barrack 27 where the German officers of the camp sat in the front row “and shivered along with the prisoners.” Ross concludes: “This is the music of one who expects paradise not only in a single awesome hereafter but also in the happenstance epiphanies of daily life. In the end, Messiaen’s apocalypse has little to do with history and catastrophe; instead, it records the rebirth of an ordinary soul in the grip of extraordinary emotion. Which is why the Quartet is as overpowering now as it was on that frigid night in 1941.”

Pianist Lucas Debargue discussed Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time for in advance of his Verbier Festival performance of it earlier this year:

Lucas Debargue“It’s a very challenging piece… but most of the difficulties are musical because you can consider this is a work still impressionist in the writing -- there are some effects with pedalling tonal pedal and right pedal -- some writing of chords with some modal harmonies, but at the same time there is a very moderne aesthetic that Messiaen has already developed. It’s a mature work. He knows exactly what he is doing and he has found his style and how to organize it to create a peak piece. Messiaen himself was very inspired by spiritual matters. He considered himself a very, very strong Catholic and so the whole work is inspired by some mystical subjects. The piece is not the traditional four-movement chamber music piece; it’s in eight movements. And Messiaen says himself it’s like the seven symbolic figures plus another one -- eight -- which symbolizes eternity. And it ends very peacefully with the most melodic movement of all; just the solo violin with piano accompaniment. It’s like a scale to heaven, to the sky. It’s an incredible piece to just go out of this pragmatic, material world. Because it’s all out of here. We are somewhere else, from the first notes.”

Debargue and his cohorts, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, Swedes Torlief Thedeen (cello) and Martin Fröst (clarinet), have been on a mini-trans-Atlantic tour since recording the Messiaen earlier this year for SONY (release date is November 3). Beginning at the end of May in Stockholm, they’ve performed the Quartet to great acclaim in Wigmore Hall, London and the Verbier Festival, Switzerland. A concert in Quebec City takes place on December 4, the day before their Koerner Hall performance December 5. An appearance in Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall wraps it up December 7. Jansen, incidentally, is the Perspectives Artist at Carnegie Hall this season. The North American tour’s program begins with Bartók’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, commissioned in 1938 by Joseph Szigeti and Benny Goodman. Bartók downplayed the piano part as if in deference to the skills of his commissioners but played up the three instruments’ differences in timbre. There is a 1940 recording of the three of them available on YouTube. Szymanowski’s incandescent Mythes for violin and piano completes the first half of the recital.

WCMT Career Development Award

The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto’s Career Development Award (CDA) is presented every three years to an exceptional young Canadian musician (or small ensemble) embarking on a professional performing career. The winner gets $20,000 and the opportunity to give a recital in the Music in the Afternoon concert series. The process for choosing the 2018 CDA winner is now well under way with the recent announcement of the ten candidates under consideration.

Five of them are likely familiar to our readers: Toronto native, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, well-known to local audiences, took a giant international step forward in March 2016, when she was one of five winners of the 2016 Metropolitan Opera Auditions at 21. Violinists Boson Mo and Blake Pouliot and pianists Mehdi Ghazi and Tony Yike Yang are also familiar fixtures here. Now, on November 4 and 5, another of the CDA candidates gets an opportunity to make his mark in the GTA. Timothy Chooi is the soloist in Bruch’s hugely popular Violin Concerto No.1, a piece that unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve; it promises to be a highlight of the Oakville Symphony Orchestra’s “50th Anniversary Fireworks” program.

Music Toronto gathers steam

The 46th season of Music Toronto is well under way with four concerts taking place under the umbrella of this issue of The WholeNote, beginning with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s highly anticipated return to the Jane Mallett stage on November 7. On November 16, Britain’s brilliant Anglo-Irish quartet, the Carducci, will fly in especially to perform a heavyweight program -- Beethoven’s Quartet No.11, Shostakovich’s Quartet No.4 and Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor -- following the unexpected cancellation (for medical reasons) by the Škampa Quartet. Described by The Strad as presenting “a masterclass in unanimity of musical purpose, in which severity could melt seamlessly into charm, and drama into geniality,″, the internationally-known Carducci Quartet studied with members of the Amadeus, Alban Berg, Chilingirian, Takács and Vanbrugh quartets. A Toronto solo piano recital debut by Timothy Chiu, who is profiled elsewhere in this issue, follows on November 28. And finally the Gryphon Trio, now in its 23rd year, makes its annual Music Toronto visit December 7 with a typically diverse program of Haydn, Mozetich and Brahms.

Donald Runnicles conducting the Orchester der Deutsche Oper BerlinQUICK PICKS

Nov 5: Nocturnes in the City presents the eminent Czech violinist Ivan Zenaty (who continues the Czech violin tradition he learned from his mentor Josef Suk) in works by Franck, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák (with pianist Dmitri Vorobiev).

Nov 5: Trio Arkel (with guest, cellist Shauna Rolston) paints a musical picture of Russia in the years before the Revolution: Taneyev’s Trio for Strings (1907), Arensky’s Cello Quartet (1894) and Cello Duos (1909) by Glière.

Nov 9: Women’s Musical Club of Toronto presents the Zodiac Trio in a recital geared to their unusual makeup: piano, violin and clarinet. Formed in 2006 at the Manhattan School of Music under the guidance of famed clarinettist David Krakauer and Beaux Arts violinist Isidore Cohen, the trio has made a career out of their unique sound palette.

Nov 12: Pocket Concerts’ ebullient co-directors, pianist Emily Rho and violist Rory McLeod, in a rare duo recital, play music by Kenji Bunch, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

Nov 15 and 16: Peter Oundjian leads the TSO in an all-Vaughan Williams program showcasing orchestra members Sarah Jeffrey (oboe) and Teng Li (viola) as well as Canadian superstar Louis Lortie (who also gives a solo recital Nov 19 at The Isabel in Kingston). On Nov 23 and 25, Deutsche Oper Berlin general music director Donald Runnicles leads the TSO in Mahler’s biographical Symphony No.6, a massive work the composer wrote as an answer to Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Often in this column I write about what’s happening in the world of new contemporary music from the composer and presenter perspective – their ideas, visions and inspirations. However, this month I want to focus on those who undertake to bring these ideas to life – the performers. New Music Concerts’ event “Concertos” on December 3 provides the perfect context for this conversation as it will feature three works designed to highlight the role of the solo performer. The concert will present concertos written for soloist and chamber ensemble by composers Robin de Raaff (Netherlands), Linda C. Smith (USA/Canada) and Paul Frehner (Canada), featuring percussionist Ryan Scott, pianist Eve Egoyan and clarinettist Max Christie, respectively. Frehner’s piece, Cloak, is a newly-commissioned work for clarinet and chamber ensemble, so I contacted Christie to find out more about the work from his perspective and also about his extensive career performing contemporary music for a number of the new music presenters in the city.

Christie began by explaining how he sees his role as a performer. “My job is to observe the language of the composer and then utter it. Every voice is unique, whether a performer’s or a composer’s. I don’t try to make my voice suit the music, I just try to hear and understand the piece and bring it out from the potential into the actual. That is often fun for me. I love puzzles. A new piece is a puzzle to solve. I don’t think that’s the composer’s intention, it’s just part of learning music of any era.”

Christie says that the musical language in Frehner’s Cloak makes sense to him. “He’s done a good job of choosing the multiphonics for the opening section, which is extremely mysterious yet approachable from a performance standpoint. The title, Cloak, is a hint; it’s word play really. There’s a masked quality to the opening, whereas the thematic material from the later movements could almost be from a noir thriller soundtrack What’s mysterious for me right now is what’s going on with the ensemble while I’m playing these long, held notes. Sometimes you get something to work on and it’s really hard, and you’re working on the hope that you hit 60 to 70 percent -- and if I can’t get 90 to 100 percent of this piece, I’m just bad. It’s definitely the kind of writing that makes you realize how wonderful it is to encounter a composer who writes that well for your instrument. It makes you look good and therefore you have a better chance of making him look good.”

Christie has been an active performer within the contemporary music community over the years as an ensemble member of Continuum, Esprit Orchestra and New Music Concerts. I asked him what it was about new music that sparked his interest and had him pursue a career with such commitment. “A huge part of what used to be my profile in so many groups was just my willingness to try stuff, and my flat-out refusal to give up on the hardest pieces. As you keep working in a particular area you get pegged as a such-and-such type of player. I’m pretty much at home with any era of music where the clarinet is involved, but I’ve come to accept this designation because it’s at least partly true.”

Max Christie - photo by Daniel FoleyThere is often a lot of additional pressure performing new music due to the usual constraints of limited rehearsal time being compounded by the challenge of the music itself. Christie enjoys rising to the challenge. “If something is difficult, I work hard to get inside the piece. I’m not so good at faking it.” Asked what he meant by “faking,” he explained. “Faking is doing things not being asked for, and most players do it. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil or skill to be able to come up with something. I once played a piece with a passage that was so hard that by the concert I realized I was never going to play it exactly right. So I composed something myself that took on the character of what was written. Not that what was written was impossible or wrong. What matters is that the character of what you’re playing reflects what the composer was after. A few years ago NMC played a concert of music by Jörg Widmann, an excellent clarinetist, composer and conductor. He realized how difficult a certain section was that had a large number of notes per second. During rehearsal, he admitted it – there was a recognition from this great musician that [while] we were mimicking an effect he had written out in great detail .... in fact he was just asking for an effect that was similar to what was written. That’s a good composer – when they recognize that what they’ve written is beyond the possible. It stretches you towards the impossible and makes you creative enough to solve some of the issues. That kind of faking is totally legitimate.”

Currently, Christie is only performing contemporary music with New Music Concerts, an ensemble that over the years has given him many opportunities to work with some of the great composers of our era. I asked him what experiences have stood out, and even though there have been so many, he immediately mentioned Elliott Carter. He had performed Carter’s solo clarinet work, GRA, and due to this experience, he had the opportunity to record it for the Naxos label. “Carter signed my copy of the piece and thanked me for the performance. Being able to record it was me putting a stamp on a particular piece – here’s one of the standards of how the piece can go. I hope it has had some influence, because it’s a great piece.” He also mentioned working with Pierre Boulez, commenting on how clean and crisp he was as a conductor, as well as with Michel Gonneville. “Being part of NMC has meant working regularly with Bob Aitken. He has tremendous knowledge and experience and his patience with me is all part of what makes NMC great.”

The “Concertos” concert includes a performance by Eve Egoyan of Path of Uneven Stones by Linda C. Smith. Egoyan has had a busy summer schedule and has just returned from a European solo recital tour. A recent residency in Quebec City gave her the opportunity to be involved in the creation of an intuitive interface for the piano that “explores the frontiers between notes played, those heard and those transformed until they meet the imaginary.” Elliott Carter’s 2011 String Trio is also part of the program, along with Ryan Scott performing the Canadian premiere of Robin de Raaff’s Percussion Concerto.

Beyond his role as an outstanding percussionist, Scott is also the artistic director of Continuum Contemporary Music, which will be launching its new season with “Urgent Voices” on December 8 and 9. This event is Continuum’s contribution to the commemoration of Canada 150, and they are doing so with a series of compositions by Anna Höstman, James Rolfe, Ann Southam and Scott Wilson that combine stories, reflections and dreams using song, spoken word and multimedia. They are also weaving in the honouring of Glenn Gould’s 85th birthday. While film is shown of Gould performing music from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Steinway’s latest player piano innovation called the Spirio will interpret Gould’s finger depressions and releases to recreate a live rendition of the original performance.

Additional Highlights

Esprit Orchestra’s November 19 concert offers an opportunity to hear Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, with a performance by Véronique Mathieu. Mathieu is another performer who has made the performance of contemporary music a priority, particularly music by Canadian and American composers. The program also features works by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, as well as by Canadians Douglas Schmidt and Ana Sokolović.

The Thin Edge New Music Collective presents “Sensing” with three shows at the Canadian Music Centre on November 11, featuring music by composers Höstman, Scime and Morton Feldman. Arraymusic has two events coming up – the first on November 22 is a celebration of the music of Wilhelm Killmayer, an underappreciated German composer whose surreal music is ardently supported by Array’s artistic director Martin Arnold. Then on December 2, American Sarah Hennies will perform her piece Gather & Release for vibraphone, sine waves, field recordings and bilateral stimulation. Her music is an immersive psycho-acoustic experience often realized by an endurance-based performance practice.

And finally, as we prepare to enter that ambiguous state of “holiday time,” Soundstreams presents a more edgy twist to the usual stream of music one hears. Their Electric Messiah returns for the third year December 4 to 6, with a special performance on November 24 by their resident artist, sci-fi turntablist SlowPitchSound. This will be part of a behind-the-scenes look by SlowPitchSound and other Messiah performers at what goes into the making of this fast-growing holiday favourite.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

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