I turned 62 last August and have been a jazz bassist for 46 years now and counting, so aging has been on my mind some for a while. It’s so bewildering on so many levels. On the one hand I’m amazed I’ve made it this far and feel the accumulated mileage, at least in my body. On the other hand, I often feel as though I’m just getting started and that, while I don’t quite have the stamina and energy I used to, I know much more now and can think my way around the music better than ever. But maybe that’s just my aging brain rationalizing, and there’s the rub: is jazz mostly a young person’s game or is there still room for those approaching their dotage, like me? Is the music primarily physical or mental? Obviously it’s both, but playing an instrument as large and demanding as the bass has me wondering occasionally how long I can keep up, physically speaking.

I recently had an epiphany which made me realize that because of its openness and constantly evolving nature, but also its considerable history, jazz is music for all ages and for all seasons. Jazz constantly puts you in the moment, so being involved with it at any age – whether as a player or a fan or a student – can act as a kind of anti-aging renewal of the mind, even if the body is showing signs of creeping rust. Before coming to this eye-opening experience though, I’d like to relate a favourite story on the subject, one involving one of our ageless jazz wonders, Phil Nimmons.

Phil NimmonsAbout 15 years ago my oldest (that is to say longest-standing) friend Robert Allair told me that a colleague of his had been to hear Phil Nimmons play with his quartet (which I was in) at the Montreal Bistro, and commented that he was amazed not only by Phil’s music but at the infectious energy and enthusiasm he put out. Robert asked, “Yeah, but do you realize how old Phil Nimmons is?” (He was a mere pup of 80 at the time.) And the colleague answered, “You know, when somebody is having that much fun, it’s hard to tell how old they are.”

The simple and profound truth of this observation delighted me then and has stayed with me ever since. It resurfaced in an unexpected way during the epiphany I mentioned earlier, which came from a lecture I gave on February 11 to a seniors’ jazz appreciation course, a part of the Academy for Lifelong Learning program which has taken place the last 25 years at Knox College, the center of theological studies at U of T. (The irony of delivering a lecture on the “devil’s music” in such a setting was not lost on me.)

The class, which meets every two weeks, is run by a charming and savvy gentleman named Colin Gordon, a long time and knowledgeable jazz fan. Members of the class are asked to make presentations and every once in a while they bring in a special guest. Mike Murley gave a lecture on Lester Young last October which was a resounding success, and he recommended me to Colin, who asked me some months ago to give a two-hour talk on a jazz subject of my choice. With some guidance from Colin, I decided to present an informal lecture on the role of the bass in jazz, how it has developed and changed over time, and some of the pioneers who helped move this process forward.

Colin suggested I bring along my bass so I could play and demonstrate some musical points directly, which I thought was a good idea. And to further avoid the monotony of my droning voice, I decided to pick some recorded examples of key bass innovators and present them in a more or less chronological sequence. These selections represented the bulk of my preparation along with a few notes, which I ended up mostly ignoring. I also resolved to weave the story of my own development as a bass player into the narrative to make the whole presentation more personal and less academic.

Hurtling toward senior citizenship myself, I was not concerned about the age of the 30 or so class members – they were largely in their late 60s, 70s or early 80s, about the same as many stalwart jazz fans on the local scene. I was a little concerned that what I had to say might be too dry or detailed for them and maybe too boring, but I needn’t have worried. To cut to the chase, after about five minutes it was clear from their faces – smiling, eager, engaged, loving the musical examples – that they were enjoying what I was presenting and I relaxed and started to wing it a bit.

I’d like to say their pleasure had to do with my insight or scintillating delivery, but no, it was mostly on them. They were bright, humorous, curious and eager to learn about something they were personally interested in. Not because of work or money or because they had to be there, but because they wanted to be there. Like Phil Nimmons in the previous story, they were having a ball and so was I, so they all seemed ageless and only a dolt could have turned off an audience like this. The two hours flew by with me covering only about two-thirds of what I had planned. Such is jazz and the value of preparation.

It was all very satisfying and afterward there were some takeaways I turned over in my mind. I love presentations that combine education with entertainment, and it was nice to watch these folks learn new things while also having fun. I’ve often thought that the keys to keeping your mind and outlook fresh are spending time with younger people, and learning new stuff. Teaching is just learning turned inside out and teaching younger students as I have recently has demonstrated this; their energy and enthusiasm rub off. But this was a little different; I felt the same inspiring feedback from folks who were my age or older. It occurred to me that jazz is not a trendy flavour-of-the-month music, but one which you can savour for your whole life. It’s not a race, there is no finish line and I felt my angst about aging fade. I also love the term “Lifelong Learning.” The minute you think you have nothing more to learn, your life may as well be over.

I was also struck by this paradox in the age-defying process of teaching/learning: that the very exhilaration of imparting information to a receptive audience is in itself exhausting – it lifts you up while wearing you out. Old and young.

It also occurred to me that the “new stuff” you may teach or learn doesn’t have to be contemporary to be relevant. If you discover a record or a song or any other piece of information that is interesting to you, its age doesn’t matter because if you’re experiencing it for the first time, it’s new to you, and that’s all that really matters. Learning about things from the distant past can lead just about anywhere and sometimes can offer a new and illuminating window from which to assess the often inscrutably chaotic present.

As a case in point, the first music track I played for the class was an off-script illustration of the brilliant-yet-obscure New Orleans bassist Sidney Brown, from 1927 with the Sam Morgan Jazz Band. I only vaguely knew of Brown and I’d like to say that this discovery was the product of my in-depth research for this lecture, but no. As is so often true, this nugget of new-old information came randomly from the invaluable musical grapevine: my friend Bill Kirchner sent a YouTube clip of Brown with Morgan which demonstrated Brown’s fluid and driving 4/4 bass lines, years ahead of the accepted notion that early jazz bass playing was all thumping primitive two-beat. This was back-to-the future modern and after 40-plus years of study and listening it forced me to reconsider my preconceptions about the past and I decided to include this in my survey to the class. Thus do we all learn, by ad-hoc sharing.

Knox College. Photo credit Mallika Makkar / The VarsityAn Aging Bassist’s Timeout

True to form, schlepping around a bass offered a dose of reality which almost counteracted all of this rosiness about the class and the youth-restoring mental benefits of learning. Namely, getting a bass into Knox College, built in 1828. I’m pretty sure the architects didn’t exactly anticipate anyone having to get a bass through its front doors. You know how there’s never a cop or a cab around when you need one? Well, picture this: there I was with a knapsack and the bass slung on my back to enter this Hogwarts, which proved next to impossible. For one thing, the doors are about 25 feet from St. George Street so nobody noticed my plight and for another, they’re really narrow, heavy as lead and begin to close on you immediately, even if you don’t happen to be carrying a large heavy log on your back. With nobody to help I got trapped and, inwardly laughing while inventing scathing new combinations of swear words and worrying that the weight of the door would crush my bass, I wrenched my shoulder in the ensuing and undignified lather. It was even worse on the way out and the result was a tight knot of pain which has been slow to dissipate, unlike me. The good news is that playing the bass seems to help it rather than hurt it. Go figure.

One more story which illustrates the anti-aging effects of music and learning about it, albeit a bittersweet one. About ten years ago when my mother’s cancer became terminal, the family decided for various reasons she should spend her remaining time at my place. It was tough, but being around my mom in her last days was a great gift. She was very passionate about music, mostly classical piano and ballet music. My clearest and dearest memories of those days are about hearing music with her. One day we were listening to a bunch of her beloved Chopin played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Among his many compositions, I’d forgotten about the macabre Funeral March, and in a surreal moment as its famous grave theme started, my wife Anna leapt for the fast-forward button. My mother, a gamer to the end, just chuckled and said, “Now, there’s some appropriate music.” One day while listening to her favourite Tchaikovsky ballet music, I decided to play her the Ellington/Strayhorn version of The Nutcracker Suite. I wasn’t sure she’d like it, but about a minute in she raved. “Oh my goodness, this is wonderful. I can recognize the music, but they’re making it dance in a new way, with their own colours. This really goes!”

Yes, Mom, it sure does. And that’s what discovery about music does for us: when least expected, it makes us GO.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

MAR 10, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers. Amanda Tosoff Quartet. 1570 Yonge St. Freewill offering. Religious service. A thoughtful and graceful pianist performing in a thoughtful and reflective setting. What’s not to like?

MAR 21, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. U of T Jazz Orchestra and 11 O’Clock Jazz Orchestra. Rathbun: The Atwood Suites; and other works. Tim Hagans, trumpet; Andrew Rathbun, composer; Gordon Foote, Director, U of T Jazz Orchestra; Jim Lewis, Director, 11 O’Clock Jazz Orchestra; Tony Malaby, saxophone; Terry Promane, director. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto Both these big bands are first rate and so are the guest soloists, making this doubleheader a bargain.

Michael Davidson (vibraphone) and Rob Fortin (bass)MAR 23, 8PM: Michael Davidson & Dan Fortin. Clock Radio CD Release. Works by Davidson. Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Dan Fortin, bass; Chris Pruden, piano. Canadian Music Centre, 20 St. Joseph St. A CD release by two of my favourite young Toronto players, Fortin and Davidson.

MAR 24, 7 TO 9PM: Mike Murley Trio with Reg Schwager and Steve Wallace Dakota Tavern, 249 Ossington Ave. 647-637-7491. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but what can I say? This is one of the best trios going, even though I’m in it.

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

Murray GinsbergA few weeks ago, when I first learned of the passing of trombonist Murray Ginsberg, I considered the possibility of writing an obituary. Although I had met Murray on a few occasions some years ago, I didn’t feel that I knew him well enough to do justice to such a project. I decided to do some research and come up with a more knowledgeable account of his contributions to Canadian music over his 70-plus years of performing.

Born in Toronto on October 4, 1922, his family history is worthy of a book by itself. In one of the stories which I have received there is an account of how his parents got to Canada. Murray was the son of immigrant parents from Russia and Lithuania. Were it not for a strange quirk of fate, the Murray Ginsberg story would never have happened. In 1912, having made their way across Russia and Europe, his parents worked their way through Holland and eventually arrived in Liverpool. There they boarded a ship headed for North America and a new life. Along with 300 other immigrants, they were simply placed in the hold of the ship for the trip. However, the ship was overbooked and they were ordered off. They had to wait for another one. As for that quirk of fate, the ship which they were forced from was the Titanic. We all know what happened to that ship.

Murray first discovered the trombone in the late 1930s. In January 1937, at the age of 14, he had his first formal lesson with Harry Hawe, then principal trombonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest MacMillan. More about his amazing musical career later. As his health failed in his mid-80s, Murray moved to the Veteran’s Wing of Sunnybrook Hospital. In more recent years his dementia gradually worsened. Surrounded by his family, Murray left us as Blue Skies was being sung to him on October 18, 2018 at age 96.

Now for more about Murray’s musical life. Not that long after his first trombone lessons at age 14, he became serious about music. Within two years he was playing professionally, even though he was still a student at Toronto’s Central Technical School. Then, on August 20, 1942, at age 19, Murray joined the army, and was soon playing in Canadian Army Bands to entertain the troops in Europe.

Army Show Orchestra, February 1943After the war, he was back in Toronto, pursuing an amazingly varied musical career. He played under diverse conductors, performed on weekly variety shows, and was the house trombonist for CBC’s The Music Makers. At some point he joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and continued with the TSO position for almost two decades. Elsewhere, he played under many conductors in a wide range of musical performances from highly classical to “low down jazz.” As one person remarked: “He played classical music by day and jazz by night, with The Murray Ginsberg Orchestra.” For many years he was the Toronto Musicians Association’s business representative and later wrote a book called They Loved to Play in 1998.

I have been told that, when Murray was in a singing mood, his favourite song was When the Saints Go Marching In. As someone said after his passing: “Look out heaven – you just got one more Saint who’s marching in.”

Now for a couple of my own personal reminiscences: one of Murray’s key memories was about his first trombone lessons with Harry Hawe at the age of 14. Some years later, in the late 1940s, Harry Hawe was my trombone teacher. I remember well Harry telling me how proud he was of a couple of his students in particular. Murray and Teddy Roderman, the apples of his eye, both spent years in the Toronto Symphony. The last time I saw Teddy Roderman, I happened to bump into him on the street. At that time his health was failing and he was going South with his sailboat. As for Murray, I don’t remember where or when we last met, but I do remember receiving a copy of his book shortly after it was published.

Well, a few days ago, on one of the days when Mother Nature decided to bless us with a stay-at-home white day, I was poking around through my book collection when out popped They Loved to Play subtitled Memories of the Golden Age in Canadian Music. There, on the inner title page in Murray’s handwriting were the words: “To Jack MacQuarrie, December 16, 1999. From one trombone player to another, all the best for the future.”

Truth be told, I don’t recall any of the details about that meeting.

Shortly after rediscovering Murray’s book I came across the May 1994 edition of The International Musician, the monthly journal of the American Federation of Musicians. That was where Murray wrote his regular column Canadian Scene. Here again a memory was re-ignited. His lead story was that the 1994 JUNO Award had gone to the Rankin Family, and that the big event on the horizon was the 100th anniversary of the opening of Massey hall on June 14. That means that we will celebrate Massey Hall’s 125th birthday with the building closed, anticipating how it will look after its major renovations.

A few other glimpses into the 272-page treasure trove of anecdotes contained in The Golden Age in Canadian Music. One of the first to catch my eye was about Eddie Graf and his wife Bernice (Bunny). You may remember I wrote a bit about Bunny’s birthday party in my column in the October 2018 issue of The WholeNote. Well, in Murray’s book I learned that, when Eddie Graf married Bernice O’Donnell at 9am on New Year’s Day 1945. Murray was their Best Man. They had chosen to be married “at the earliest hour on the first day of a new year when the promise of a long life filled with joy and happiness was strongest.” That was the case until Eddie passed away a few years ago.

Earlier I mentioned two of Harry Hawe’s protégés, Murray and Teddy Roderman. There they are in his book, together in a photo, two teenagers, playing side by side in a group called The Modernaires at the Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport in Toronto. It was 1942, Murray was 19 and Teddy was 17.

One of the most hilarious of the anecdotes in the book is about orchestra leader Luigi Romanelli. For many years Romanelli’s orchestra was the feature in the Crystal Ballroom of the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. In this particular event Romanelli and his orchestra were booked to provide the music for the introduction of new model cars by General Motors in Oshawa. As was the custom, this was a major event, with politicians, corporate executives and entertainment personalities all dressed in their finest formal attire. The orchestra was onstage behind the curtain. When the house lights dimmed, the orchestra struck up a fanfare with Romanelli dressed in full formal attire with his long-tailed coat almost touching the stage. As the roll-up curtain began to rise it caught his coattail and wound it up with the curtain. Soon, much to the amusement of all of the dignitaries, he was dangling by his coattail a few feet above the stage. Needless to say, the orchestra members joined in the hilarity. When he got back down on the stage, he ordered all of the orchestra members to pack up and leave the theatre immediately.

Recent Events

With the almost unending bad weather, my attendance at concerts so far has been limited, but early in February I did manage to get to the Oshawa Civic Band’s “Polished Brass” concert. Unfortunately the terrible driving conditions kept many people away, but those who braved the ice and slick roads were treated to quite a variety of music. Except for selections from Mary Poppins and the Phantom of the Opera, the works were unfamiliar to me. That said, music director Rita Arendz led us through a fine evening of challenging music in the traditional all-brass band style. The Naval Band of HMCS York took their small ensembles to the Naval Club of Toronto again this year, but freezing rain and ice pellets kept me at home 60 kilometres away. I have heard that they provided one of their usual fine varied concerts.

BANDSTAND QUICK PICKS

MAR 2, 7:30PM: The Barrie Concert Band presents “Last Night at the Proms” featuring. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite; Holst’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations, and other works. Collier Street United Church, 112 Collier St., Barrie.

MAR 3, 2PM: The Markham Concert Band will offer “Let’s Dance! Ballet, Waltzes and Swing” including Big Band Polka, El Bimbo, Flunky Jim and Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier. Flato Markham Theatre, 171 Town Centre Blvd., Markham.

MAR 3, 3:30PM: The Wychwood Clarinet Choir will have “CC at the Oscars” with Gershwin’s An American in Paris; Mozart’s Adagio from Gran Partita; Bernstein’s Tonight from West Side Story; Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow; and Loewe’s I Could Have Danced All Night. Michele Jacot, conductor. Church of St. Michael and All Angels, 611 St. Clair Ave. W. Toronto.

MAR 31, 2PM: Resa’s Pieces Concert Band, reaching out well beyond their usual Toronto locale, travels to St. Catharines for a Sunday concert. We have no details about repertoire yet.

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

The prospect of losing an hour of sleep due to the beginning of Daylight Saving Time – the clock change, I may remind you, will take place at 2am on Sunday March 10 – is a daunting one for musicians and music fans alike, many of whom are no strangers to that particular time of the night. Despite its official allegiance to the day that follows, 2am really does seem like the end of the evening that precedes it; suddenly finding oneself at 3am feels as though it is dangerously close to the following day, and to all of the duties and responsibilities that morning imposes upon us.

Daylight Saving Time, however, has one particularly pleasant feature, the effects of which will be felt immediately by the music-going community of Toronto: the sunset, which, since the winter solstice, has been depressingly early, will suddenly shift a full hour later, meaning that as of March 10, the sun will set at approximately 7:17pm – at least according to the dubious website I consulted during my extensive research – and will set progressively later as we settle into spring. The consequence of this happy change? Leaving one’s home in the early evening, so daunting when the sun sets on the frigid, ice-covered streets of Toronto at 4:40pm, will suddenly become much more appealing. Given the number of excellent shows happening in March, this is no small gift.

Joni Mitchell

The legendary singer Joni Mitchell, whose body of work touches upon folk, pop, jazz and many points in between, is a name that will likely be familiar to all WholeNote readers, not least because she has roots in Toronto; in her early 20s, she performed regularly in Yorkville at a time when the neighbourhood was better known for its folk clubs than for its boutique clothing stores. Mitchell, born in 1943, celebrated her 75th birthday on November 7 of last year; to commemorate the event, Decca Records organized a tribute concert, with artists such as James Taylor, Diana Krall, and Rufus Wainwright performing songs from Mitchell’s catalogue at The Music Center in Los Angeles. The recordings from this event will be released on March 8 as Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration.

James Taylor and Joni Mitchell at Joni 75: A Birthday CelebrationMitchell, of course, has had a profound influence on multiple generations of Canadian musicians, and it is no great surprise that March will see numerous Mitchell-themed concerts taking place at various venues in Toronto. At Hugh’s Room, singer Mia Sheard presents two consecutive nights (March 1and 2) of “Songs Are Like Tattoos,” a tribute to Mitchell, featuring bassist Chris Gartner, pianist Tania Gill, drummer Ryan Granville-Martin, saxophonist Ernie Tollar, guitarist Joel Schwartz, and guest vocalists David Sereda, Marla and David Celia, Lori Cullen and Jennifer Foster. (Sheard has been performing a version of this show since 2008, when she put on her first Mitchell tribute.)

Also at Hugh’s Room, on March 25: “The Life and Music of Joni Mitchell,” a lecture and concert presented by musicologist Mike Daley, who will lead a discussion about Mitchell, as well as a performance with Jill Daley and Mia Sheard. Fittingly, given Mitchell’s contributions to jazz, and her collaborations with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny, her work will also be represented at The Rex. On Wednesday March 20, jazz vocalist Aimée Butcher will lead “For the Roses III,”a tribute to Mitchell, accompanied by saxophonist Matt Woroshyl, guitarist Brandon Wall, keyboardist Joel Visentin, bassist Jeff Deegan, and drummer Robin Claxton.

Aimée ButcherWomen From Space Festival

While the abundance of Joni Mitchell tributes speaks to the enduring power of a singular artist’s living legacy, the inaugural Women From Space Festival – taking place from March 8 to March 11, in celebration of International Women’s Day – seeks to provide a platform for exciting newer musicians to showcase their craft and to develop their audience. One of the stated goals of the Women From Space Festival is to “celebrate women’s artistic voices and achievements and to draw attention to an underrepresentation of women in free improvisation and jazz.” Taking place at a different venue (Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, The Tranzac, Arraymusic, and Burdock Music Hall) for each day of its four-day run, the festival will include 16 separate acts, each of which will play a half-hour set. Organized by festival co-founders Bea Labikova and Kayla Milmine, both of whom will also be performing, the festival will feature a number of names that will be familiar to WholeNote readers, including Laura Swankey, whose EP Once More: for solo voice and electronics was covered in The WholeNote EP Review, Mingjia Chen, whose debut EP Feel Seen, featuring the Tortoise Orchestra, was also covered in The WholeNote EP Review, and Christine Duncan, who will be performing with Swankey and guitarist Patrick O’Reilly to close out the festival on March 11 at Burdock. Duncan is a prominent figure within the creative music community: she performs regularly, teaches in the jazz program at the University of Toronto, and conducts the Element Choir, a unique, improvising ensemble that has collaborated with artists such as Tanya Tagaq, that has been featured on the soundtrack to the major motion picture The Witch, and that has sung, in a variety of different incarnations, at major festivals throughout the country. Beyond these professional accomplishments, Duncan remains a leading vocalist in her own right, and her set with Swankey and O’Reilly (with whom she’s previously collaborated) is likely to be a festival highlight.

Laura Swankey and Patrick O'ReillyOn March 15, guitarist Nir Felder plays The Rex, joining the Montreal bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc’s band, which also features pianist Rafael Zaldivar and drummer Samuel Joly. Felder has made a name for himself over the past few years as an exciting new voice on the electric guitar, with credits on albums by artists such as David Weiss, Terri Lyne Carrington and Janek Gwizdala, as well as his own much-lauded album Golden Age, released in 2014. Felder’s performance with LeBlanc’s band represents an ongoing collaboration, which included performances at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in summer 2018, the TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival in February of this year, and in Guelph and Kingston on March 16 and 17, respectively, following the quartet’s performance at The Rex. While LeBlanc is a strong upright bassist, the focus of this ensemble is on the intersection of jazz, rock and funk, with strong electric bass grooves underpinning the group’s improvisational flourishes. 

MAINLY CLUBS, MOSTLY JAZZ QUICKPICKS

MAR 1 AND 2, 8:30PM: Mia Sheard, Hugh’s Room. Singer Mia Sheard presents two nights of music in tribute to Joni Mitchell at Hugh’s Room, a show that Sheard has put on, in various iterations, since 2008.

MAR 8 TO 11: Women From Space Festival, Various Venues. In celebration of International Women’s Day, the Women From Space Festival presents 16 acts over four venues, with an emphasis on improvised music.

Nir FelderMAR 15, 9:45PM: Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and Nir Felder, The Rex. American jazz guitarist Nir Felder joins Montreal bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc’s quartet for an evening of rock- and funk-inflected jazz.

MAR 20, 9:30PM: Aimée Butcher, The Rex. Jazz vocalist Aimée Butcher leads her band in tribute to Joni Mitchell, with an emphasis on the jazz side of Mitchell’s body of work.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto.He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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

Sir Andrew Davis with the TSO and TSYO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.A fellow concertgoer put it best: The real treat of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) Brahms and Dvořák program was spending the evening in the company of “local” talent. TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow and principal cellist Joseph Johnson took the lead as soloists for Brahms’s Double Concerto; the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO) joined for Morawetz’s Carnival Overture, Op. 2 in their annual “side-by-side” event; and interim artistic director Sir Andrew Davis (who, though not a true local, is certainly an honorary one) conducted. With no guest artists, Roy Thomson Hall felt appropriately intimate and warm – and “Brahms & Dvořák” provided a chance for our company’s own to command full attention in this highly enjoyable, cohesive program.

The night began with Oskar Morawetz’s punchy, 5-minute-long powerhouse Carnival Overture. Morawetz’s score is well-developed and was excellently paced for maximum dramatic effect: I found it impossible not to get swept up in the theatrics of the piece as it veered between bombastic climaxes and dreamy, hushed sequences. Repeated motifs retained the novelty of their initial impact, and each time the cymbal and triangle interrupted with exclamation and insistent ringing it was visceral, producing chills. It was a smart decision to present the Carnival Overture alongside the TSYO, and packing every inch of the stage with musicians – youth members quite literally rubbing shoulders with their TSO counterparts – only amplified the natural show-stopping qualities of the piece. I never found the effect to be too much or overdone: it was truly thrilling.

Brahms’s Concerto in A Minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, Op. 102 took an immediately more serious tone, opening with a bold orchestral theme that transitioned into a stark solo from cellist Joseph Johnson. He patiently drew out phrases and left the sound of pizzicato hanging in the air – one of the night’s more arresting and understated moments. Developing from this unembellished cadenza, the Allegro established a more elaborate, passionate attitude. The Andante movement, with its sweetly lyrical woodwind sections, furthered the Romantic inclinations of the piece, while the Vivace non troppo introduced a contrasting playfulness.

The real highlight of the Double Concerto, unsurprisingly, was the relationship between violin and cello. The two instruments, in the hands of Crow and Johnson, were so complementary it’s hard to believe the pairing was an unconventional and poorly received choice when the piece was first premiered in 1887. Brahms composed the concerto to repair his friendship with violinist Joseph Joachim, a fact that coloured my characterization of the musical relationship onstage. There was little to no sense of rivalry in the cello and violin’s interaction: in the Andante they collaborated in a pleasing, harmonious way, and in the other movements – particularly in the Vivace non troppo – there seemed more banter, a lively back-and-forth that infectiously spread to other sections of the orchestra. When Crow and Johnson attacked their instruments vigorously it was not in competition but with common purpose, to ignite the orchestra and provide momentum. Neither soloist has an ostentatious role here, and their performances integrated seamlessly with the rest of the orchestra.

Dvořák was an admirer and eventual friend of Brahms, who had a strong influence on the slightly younger composer. As the closing performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60 began, sweeping melodies quickly reminded me of the two composers’ contemporaneity. But as the first movement developed, it brought a liveliness and energy missing from the more austere Brahms: brass entered with joyful vitality bordering on urgency; woodwinds provided a lovely, lighthearted quality to counterbalance the developing intensity. In the Adagio section, despite impassioned moments, warmth and gentleness won out, as woodwinds mingled with delicate French horns for a serene effect.

Dvořák’s Symphony is known for its third movement, the Scherzo (Furiant): Presto, a symphonic treatment of the vigorous furiant folk dance. The TSO was masterful in its handling of the lively score, displaying strong musicality with accents in all the right places and a beautiful sense of phrasing. Davis accelerated the tempo as the movement raced to its conclusion, ending with a feeling of breathlessness that recalled the Carnival Overture. But the Finale: Allegro con spirito was no letdown after the Scherzo, and the entire orchestra was employed for significant stretches in this exuberant movement. Davis led the orchestra with complete dynamic control and deftness between passages, capping with a jubilant ending.

It was a superb finish to a well-organized program, rich in texture yet full of complementary qualities – and an excellent showcase for the TSO and TSYO’s artistry.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Brahms & Dvořák” on February 6, 7 and 9, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Dylan Schoenmakers is an editor working in educational publishing. He has previously worked at Harbourfront Centre and the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

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

Jonathan Crow (violin) and Joseph Johnson (cello) with Sir Andrew Davis and the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms and Dvořák program on the evening of February 6 saw the honey-hued stage resemble a beehive, with dozens of instrumentalists shuffling across the platform and bringing Roy Thomson Hall to life with a gentle buzz. Sir Andrew Davis (the TSO’s interim artistic director and the show’s conductor) took the microphone to explain that the overflowing stage owed to the TSO and the TSYO (Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra) appearing together to present their yearly side-by-side showcase. He then swiftly turned toward them and, raising his arms, invited an eruption of lush sound by way of Oskar Morawetz’s 6-minute Carnival Overture, Op.2. Starting with a roar, this playful, bright, expansive soundscape juggled ceremonial and festive motifs to set the mood for the remainder of the evening.

The glowing energy lingered past the showcase as the TSYO members briskly exited the stage, giving way to Johannes Brahms’s weightier Concerto in A Minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, Op.102. Featuring Joseph Johnson on cello and Jonathan Crow on violin, the piece began with thin, winding passages by each soloist in turn and then the two together in unison. Each solo elicited the feeling of a wistful inner monologue, with quickly-shifting rhythms that suggested an impulsive spontaneity. Then, as Johnson and Crow joined in a duet, they formed a conversation, echoing one another’s phrases with swift and deliberate timing like the speech of two people absorbed in candid dialogue: first like old friends catching up over tea, then like lovers whispering sweet promises, and then like the threat of a personal quarrel brewing.

After three minutes of this negotiation, the velvety violin and sinuous cello took shelter under a swelling transition: blooming full-force, orchestral sound swept over the hall, drowning out the urgency of the intimate conversation witnessed just moments before with a dense, towering lyricism. While the violin-cello duet was microcosmic, the orchestra offset this intimacy with something of the macrocosmic – like a bird’s-eye view over an entire city or a godly glance over an entire century. In this way, the performance of Concerto in A Minor was truly Romantic in style: each of its musical phrases, whether vast or brief, seemed to correspond to an inner emotional dilemma, a restlessness struggling to articulate and free itself into the world. As the orchestra waned toward the end, the melancholy inherent in Brahms’s writing springing to light through Johnson and Crow’s unflinching technique, a sense of termination settled in: the  meditation of a person on their deathbed, tenderly recalling the enormity and the minuteness of a life lived.

Though Brahms’s music looks back wistfully, it also at moments looks forward in awe. When drums reverberated intermittently during the piece, conjuring the sounds of a marching band, an assurance washed over the audience – triumphs lay ahead. These very triumphs were given closure in the third piece of the evening, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op.60. Dvořák’s composition takes the idea of music evocative of landscape to its summit. The opening melody was quick and fresh – while it harkened back to Dvořák’s mentor in Brahms, not a whiff of his predecessor’s lament remained. This piece leapt ahead, feeling like a speeding train ride over a grassy hillside to an unknown destination. As in the Brahms, sonic peaks and valleys abounded, but here they were more regulated and rhythmic, suggesting a confident departure, a takeoff toward some kind of victory.

Considering Brahms and Dvořák’s nearly simultaneous careers, both works reflect the Romantic attitude of nineteenth-century Europe, interpreted with conviction by the TSO. But while Brahms’s style signature is reminiscence – collapsing even into remorse – Dvořák’s music is more rooted in the optimistic echoes of folk rhythms, several moments of his symphony channeling old Slavic lullabies. With these idyllic moments sprinkled into a steady flow of sentimentality, Dvořák’s piece interestingly produces a continuum to the Brahms even though he composed his symphony seven years earlier – as if anticipating it. Symphony No. 6 asserts boldly some of the enduring existential themes about individuality and community that Brahms’s Concerto in A Minor only dares to fantasize about. That said, experienced as a pair they are full of intermingling jewels for the ear and, mirrored by Sir Andrew Davis’ exuberant conducting, are a sweet sonic treat amidst the monotony of the midwinter lull.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Brahms & Dvořák” on February 6, 7 and 9, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Anna Paliy is a former rhythmic gymnast and second-year doctoral student in the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto. Her academic research explores intercultural dance history (1890-1930), focusing on stories of emancipation through theatrical costume in ballet. Anna’s writing has appeared in the journals Kino, Semicolon, Transverse, and The Dance Current.

Escape the February doldrums and get a taste of spring! The National Arts Centre Orchestra is planting musical seeds with its February 23 concert at Roy Thomson Hall by making Schumann’s Symphony No.1 “Spring” the program’s centrepiece. Two years after he composed it, Schumann sent a letter to the conductor Wilhelm Taubert, in Berlin: “If only you could breathe into your orchestra, when it plays, that longing for spring! It was my main source of inspiration when I wrote the work in February 1841. I should like the very first trumpet call to sound as though proceeding from on high and like a summons to awaken. In the following section of the introduction, let me say, it might be possible to feel the world turning green; perhaps . . . a butterfly fluttering; and in the Allegro the gradual assemblage of everything that belongs to spring. However, it was only after I had completed the composition that these ideas came to my mind.” Before intermission, Jocelyn Morlock’s Cobalt, a concerto for two violins and orchestra, sets the table for French pianist David Fray who joins conductor Alexander Shelley and the NACO for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 with its lyrical Larghetto. Chopin was 19 when he wrote this elegant work.

February is a busy month for the TSO. Brahms’ final work for orchestra (1887), his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello showcases the considerable talents of concertmaster Jonathan Crow and principal cellist Joseph Johnson on February 6, 7 and 9. Conductor Sir Andrew Davis has recorded all nine of Dvořák’s symphonies so we can look forward to an insightful performance of the Czech master’s Sixth Symphony (1880). It may not have the cachet of the Eighth or Ninth, but Dvořák’s inimitable tunefulness is delightful in its own right. And its Brahmsian nature makes a good pairing with the concerto.

Barbara Hannigan. Photo credit Musacchio Ianniello Accademia Nazionale di Santa CeciliaThe force of nature that is Barbara Hannigan brings her immersive soprano voice and burgeoning conducting chops to a program that places Haydn’s Symphony No.86 squarely in the middle of a 20th-century mindset (Debussy’s sinewy Syrinx for solo flute and Sibelius’ ominous and icy tone poem for soprano and orchestra, Luonnotar, open the program). From Haydn to Berg brings Hannigan into her comfort zone with the Suite from Lulu. Bill Elliot and Hannigan’s arrangement of Gershwin tunes, Suite from Girl Crazy, brings the February 13 and 14 evening’s entertainment to a rousing finish. The orchestra even joins in to sing the chorus of Embraceable You.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.When Casablanca was released in 1942 it marked the beginning a beautiful friendship between moviegoers and this Hollywood classic. Currently No.2 on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Films List, this romantic tale of a cynical American expat/nightclub owner whose idealism triumphs over his broken heart has never lost its lustre – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman head the indelible cast. Max Steiner’s score subtly supports the movie’s mood without intruding on the action or the dialogue; but when called upon, as in the Paris flashback, its lush nostalgia rises to the occasion. The Austrian-born composer (his godfather was Richard Strauss) scored more than 300 films, from King Kong and Gone with the Wind to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Strategically programmed post-Valentine’s Day on February 15 and 16, the TSO’s live accompaniment to the film will make for a memorable cinematic experience.

February 20 and 21, Seattle Symphony principal guest conductor and music director-designate, Thomas Dausgaard, leads the TSO in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of the touchstones of the 20th century. Before intermission, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein brings her intensity and sensitivity to Shostakovich’s profound Cello Concerto No.2.

Reminders

Now to several February concerts that I wrote about more extensively in our December/January issue. The renowned klezmer violinist/vocalist/composer, Alicia Svigals, performs her original score to the 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket, along with virtuoso pianist Marilyn Lerner, at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on February 7, the Burlington Centre for the Performing Arts on February 8 and the Oakville Centre for the Arts on February 16.

The Heath Quartet returns to Mooredale Concerts on February 3 following their memorable Toronto debut two years ago. Their program includes Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet (one of his most famous string quartets), Britten’s First String Quartet and Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No.3, Op.59 No.3 “Razumovsky.”

Celebrated Finnish pianist, 37-year-old Juho Pohjonen – praised by The New York Times for “his effortless brilliance” – appears on the Jane Mallett stage February 5 playing Rameau, Mozart and Beethoven. Even more celebrated are the musicians in Music Toronto’s February 14 recital. After an early Beethoven quartet and a newly commissioned work by Lembit Beecher, the latest incarnation of the legendary Juilliard String Quartet is joined by the illustrious pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, for a performance of Dvořák’s sublime Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81, one of the greatest piano quintets ever written. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear Hamelin play chamber music!

The Royal Conservatory presents rising star, violinist Blake Pouliot, in a free (ticket required) concert in Mazzoleni Hall, February 3. The appealing program includes music by Mozart, Janáček, Kreisler and Saraste. Later in the afternoon of February 3, but in Koerner Hall, RCM presents Charles Richard-Hamelin in a recital of Schumann and Chopin (all four of the sumptuous Ballades). Jan Lisiecki, now almost 24, continues nurturing his international career. His March 3 Koerner Hall concert is sold out but a few rush seats will become available on the day of the performance. Works by Chopin, Schumann, Ravel and Rachmaninoff comprise the challenging program. 

CLASSICAL AND BEYOND QUICK PICKS

FEB 3, 2PM: Chamber Music Hamilton presents the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet playing Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Quartet and Janáček’s “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet before being joined by Chamber Music Hamilton’s co-artistic director, violinist Michael Schulte and veteran cellist David Hetherington for Brahms’ beloved String Sextet No.2.

FEB 3, 7:30PM: The LARK Ensemble takes its name from the first names of its members: National Ballet Orchestra principal flute Leslie Allt; COC Orchestra concertmaster and National Ballet Orchestra associate concertmaster Aaron Schwebel; TSO cellist Roberta Janzen; and COC Orchestra principal viola Keith Hamm. They write that their program features various combinations of keyboard, flute and strings: “We’ve put together an evening filled with unexpected gems, beautifully capped off by J.S. Bach’s joyous Musical Offering in its entirety, with illuminating commentary by [guest harpsichordist] Christopher Bagan. Also on offer (pardon the pun) are Bach’s D-Major viola da gamba sonata, along with Bohuslav Martinů’s cheery Promenades (flute, violin and harpsichord), and the quietly haunting Revenant, by Jocelyn Morlock (Baroque flute, harpsichord and strings).”

FEB 9, 8PM: Kristian Alexander conducts the Kindred Spirits Orchestra in a rousing program of Respighi’s crowd-pleasing Fountains of Rome, Prokofiev’s virtuosic Sinfonia Concertante Op.125 (with cello soloist Andrew Ascenzo) and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances Op.45.

FEB 10, 3PM: Amici chamber ensemble, augmented by TSO winds and Glenn Gould School students, presents Mozart’s marvellous Serenade No.10 in B-flat Major K361/370a “Gran Partita” and Mozart’s Piano Trio in C Major K548; in Mazzoleni Hall.

Joshua BellFEB 12, 8PM: Roy Thomson Hall presents acclaimed violinist (and music director of the renowned Academy of St Martin in the Fields) Joshua Bell in recital with pianist Sam Haywood. The program includes sonatas by Beethoven (No.4), Prokofiev (No.2) and Grieg (No.2). The rest of the program (à la Itzhak Perlman) will be announced from the stage.

FEB 17, 2PM: The always entertaining Eybler Quartet presents the aptly named “Esterházy to Vienna, A Road Well Travelled,” comprising string quartets by Asplmayr (Op.2), Haydn (Op.54, No.2) and Beethoven (the resplendent Op.59, No.2 “Razumovsky”).

FEB 22, 7:30PM: Since its formation in 2010 by four graduate students at U of T, the Ton Beau String Quartet “aims to highlight voices of young composers, particularly women composers and composers from under-represented communities.” Their upcoming recital, presented by 3 in the 6ix, features Joaquín Turina’s La Oracion del Torero, Toronto-based Laura Sgroi’s String Quartet No.1 and Debussy’s brilliant String Quartet in G.

FEB 27, 7:30PM: Getting to know Toronto even more since their Mooredale Concerts recital last September, the Calidore String Quartet, currently in residence at U of T’s Faculty of Music, performs Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op.77, No.2; Caroline Shaw’s new commission, Entr’acte and First Essay: Nimrod; and Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131. Anyone who heard Shaw’s delightful “ballad” Taxidermy, one of several highlights of Sõ Percussion’s 21C Music Festival concert on January 19, needs no urging to hear her piece for string quartet.

Joel QuarringtonFEB 28, 1:30PM: The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto presents “Bass Masters through the Ages” with double bass virtuoso Joel Quarrington and friends Yehonatan Berick and Blythe Allers, violins; David Jalbert, piano; Alisa Klebanov, viola; Carole Sirois, cello; and Gabriel Sakamoto, double bass. Music by Schumann, Korngold, Schubert and Tovey.

MAR 3, 8PM: Gallery 345 presents “Music from Marlboro”: Haydn’s Piano Trio in C; Kodály’s Serenade Op.12; K. Ueno’s Duo (Marlboro commission/premiere); and Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor. With Robin Scott and Tessa Lark, violins; the inspirational Kim Kashkashian, viola; Christoph Richter, cello; and Zoltán Fejérvári, piano.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Ian Cusson. Photo by John AranoIn early December of 2018, the Canadian Opera Company announced that Ian Cusson had been newly appointed composer-in-residence. A composer of Métis heritage, his work has largely focused on writing vocal music – both art song and opera – as well as orchestral music. Currently he is in residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and will begin this new appointment at the COC in August 2019. I spoke with him about what this new position will mean for him, and also about the broader issues he explores in his creative work. Being composer-in-residence will not only offer the opportunity to compose an opera for the COC, but also the opportunity for an inside look at the inner workings of an opera company: observing and participating in rehearsals for main productions; as well as observing vocal coaching and diction sessions. The commissioned opera will be a 50-minute work with librettist Colleen Murphy whom he met this past summer during Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory. They connected so well that Cusson invited her to participate in this opera project that will be geared towards families and young audiences. It will be a lively adventure story, he says, based on an urban tale of two young people trying to rescue a mother who has been taken captive.

On March 5, three of Cusson’s vocal works will be presented at the COC’s noon-hour Vocal Series held in the large Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre lobby space. The first work will be a song cycle for mezzo and piano quintet, Five Songs on poems of Marilyn Dumont, a Cree/Metis poet from Edmonton, and sung by mezzo Marion Newman, whose heritage combines Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish. The other two works on the program will be sung by Marjorie Maltais, with Cusson at the piano: J’adore les orages, a concert aria with text by Michel Marc Bouchard; and the premiere of Le Récital des anges, a song cycle based on poems of Émile Nelligan, a Quebecois poet whose life straddled the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

For Cusson, finding the natural dramatic arc within the texts he is working with is key, and he makes it a priority to write for the specific singer who will be performing the piece. “I have a great respect for singers and their ability to use their bodies in front of people, and I keep the fact that they are human beings, not machines, in mind while writing,” he said. He chooses to work with texts that are in either English or French, the two languages he speaks. He feels it’s essential for him to know the specific cadences of the language he is working with in order to write well for the voice.

He is also drawn to working with Indigenous texts and stories from his own tradition, seeing this as both an opportunity and a challenge. One topic we explored more deeply was how he approached integrating his classical background with his Métis heritage. He spoke about his current orchestral project, Le Loup de Lafontaine, to be performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in late September, and based on a particular personal story from his own community. “As I’m writing it, I’m thinking of the fiddle tradition – how it’s used and how it could exist or be referenced within a larger orchestral piece. This is the most direct connection I’ve had to my own Metis tradition in my composing.” In the past, one key way he has approached Indigenous culture is through texts and story and he has incorporated one such story in this piece. It tells of “a wolf coming to town and terrorizing farmers and people from a community comprised of Métis, First Nations and French settlers, none of whom communicate with each other. Although the wolf is killed in the end, the animal succeeds in bringing the community together.”

This question of integrating Indigenous tradition and classical concert music requires Cusson to think deeply both about how those stories are being told, and about what story his own participation tells. “It sounds wonderful to create an Indigenous opera,” he says, “but as you move into that work, many questions start to reveal themselves, such as the depiction and representation of people, and what it will sound like.”

Many of these pressures are internal and self-imposed. “I want to do this successfully and in a way that honours and doesn’t demean. It takes a process and appropriate consultation, patience, conversation, learning and growing. I’ve been doing that, and will probably continue for the rest of my life, as I think about how to create works within this classical tradition that touch on very difficult, sensitive, painful places, and often involving people who are still alive and have been traumatized by events in the past.”

So the question becomes, what stories should be put on stage, and how should they be told? “These are very complex questions with no quick answers. Also, it’s important to become more aware of the protocols and processes related to specific types of traditional music, like ceremonial songs for example, which are only to be sung at specific times, by specific people, for specific purposes, and not by anyone else. I’m also learning about this, especially within other Indigenous traditions that are not my own. There are many different nations and they all have different processes and protocols.”

Coming up in February, Cusson will be participating in a special ten-day gathering at the Banff Centre for the Arts that will bring together various Indigenous musicians involved in classical music. The goal is twofold: first to have some co-creation time together and second, to think through best practices and protocols for artistic companies, presenters and other artists, when working with Indigenous musicians. “It will be an opportunity to think through how things are, where things could go, and how we can be a part of leading that,” Cusson said. The goal is to come out of this meeting with a tangible document that will outline starting places for the entire classical musical community who want to have better information on how to integrate and support Indigenous culture in their concert productions and creative works. “What are the good steps we can take to insure that we are making well-informed projects that are acts of reconciliation? This seems to be missing in a formal sense, so this document will be helpful in continuing that dialogue.” From my birds-eye perspective of writing this WholeNote column focused on the contemporary music world, I envision that this will be a very rich and valuable conversation that I hope will having lasting impact on how we think, create and engage in building musical culture.

Pauline Oliveros in February:

The Music Gallery will be co-producing three events in February centred around the music of Pauline Oliveros, the well-loved composer, performer and pioneer of the Deep Listening process. For a special Valentine’s Day event on February 14, Oliveros’ longtime partner, IONE, will be presenting a reading titled Today With All Its Hopes And Sorrows where she will reflect on the topics of community, lineage, and the potency of text and sound as forms of remembrance. Two days later on February 16, IONE will join cellist and improviser Anne Bourne for an afternoon workshop experience exploring Oliveros’ text scores. And finally, on February 17 there will be a concert performance of Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, written in 1968 as a response to the turbulent political events of the time. Appropriately, it will be performed by a group of local musicians in the City Hall council chambers. In order to give the reader a more personalized account of the impact of these events exploring the ideas within Oliveros’ music, I am planning a follow-up concert report which should be available on The WholeNote’s website during the third week of February. 

IN WITH THE NEW QUICK PICKS

FEB 2, 8PM: Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Soundstreams offers up a special performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains with the Rolston String Quartet performing in tandem with a video realized by Spanish filmmaker Beatriz Caravaggio. Reich wrote this Grammy Award-winning work in 1988 as a musical meditation on the Holocaust. Perhaps the most personal of his works, Reich calls Different Trains a “music documentary” bearing witness to his childhood train journeys across the US in the 1940s, and the realization that as a Jew, had he grown up in Europe, his train journeys would have been very different. The concert will also feature Quartet #2 (Waves) by R. Murray Schafer, Swans Kissing by Rolf Wallin, and Streams by Dorothy Chang.

FEB 13 AND 14, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Barbara Hannigan. For lovers of the virtuosic contemporary music soprano, this will be an opportunity to experience her work as both conductor and vocal soloist. On the program is a series of mainly early 20th-century works by Debussy, Sibelius, Berg and Gershwin, as well as a classical period work by Haydn.

FEB 15 AND 16, 8PM: Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The Toronto Consort concert, “Love, Remixed”, offers a program of contemporary music written for early instruments and voice. James Rolfe’s Breathe uses texts by the 12th-century abbess, composer, poet and healer Hildegard of Bingen. Her texts often speak of rapturous experiences with the divine as well as of the greening life energy of nature. The Consort’s artistic director David Fallis will be presenting his Eurydice Variations, the story Monteverdi’s Orfeo tells, but from the point of view of Eurydice.

Moritz ErnstFEB 17, 7PM: Gallery 345. New Music Concerts offers this special fundraising event featuring the acclaimed German keyboard virtuoso Moritz Ernst performing the masterpiece Klavierstück X by Karlheinz Stockhausen, along with works by Mike Edgerton, Arthur Lourié, Miklos Maros and Sandeep Bhagwati.

FEB 22 AND 23, 8PM: Factory Theatre. The Music Gallery and Fu Gen Theatre present Foxconn Frequency (no.3) – for three visibly Chinese performers. This interdisciplinary work of “algorithmic theatre” combines real-time game mechanics, piano pedagogy, 3D-printing and the poetry of former Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi. The creative team includes the members of Hong Kong Exile – Natalie Tin Yin Gan, Milton Lim, Remy Siu, and musical performers Vicky Chow, Paul Paroczai and Matt Poon. The goal is to expand awareness beyond the musical instrument itself and bring attention to the performer’s identity by engaging both the eyes and ears, and thereby shifting the audience’s perception to multiple modalities.

FEB 23, 8PM: Gallery 345. Spectrum Music presents “The Rebel: Breaking Down Barriers” with the premiere of seven new works by Spectrum Music members Hanus, McBride, Victoria, Welchner, Wilde and others. This concert will be the second of five concerts this season that are exploring five prominent Jungian archetypes. Continuing in Spectrum’s tradition of pushing genre boundaries, the concert will combine classical and jazz elements.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

Welcome to the first WholeNote World View column of 2019.

Calendar years are human constructs, as is time itself. Yet as we all learned in Music 101, and as Leonard Bernstein repeated in his 1955 Art of Conducting TV lecture, “music exists in the medium of time.”

As we all know, the familiar Gregorian calendar, in use since 1582, and itself a correction of the earlier Julian calendar – both based on the Earth’s revolution around the Sun – pins January 1 as the very beginning of the year. The more ancient lunar calendar on the other hand is built on the monthly cycles of lunar phases.

Chinese culture has observed both a lunar and a solar calendar for millennia, complex computations resulting in a blended lunisolar calendar which reckons years, months and days according to astronomical phenomena, in 12-yearly cycles. The Chinese lunisolar New Year falls this year on February 5, initiating the Year of the Pig, which in some related Asian zodiacs is represented by its wild cousin the boar. Widely called chunjie (Spring Festival), it technically lasts 15 days in mainland China.

Participants mark the ritual start of a new year by planting crops, feasting, gifting, praying to the gods and the ancestors, and seeking to attract good fortune. Bright red auspicious decorations and lanterns are hung, negative forces are purged, fireworks fill the sky, and much more.

Lunisolar New Years are celebrated not only in mainland China and Taiwan but also widely in East and Southeast Asia and by Chinese and other communities around the world. One estimate pegs the number of participants at a quarter of the world’s population.

In modern China, workers travel home to enjoy reunion dinners and family visits at this time of year. Called chunyun, this roughly 40-day period has been tagged as the world’s largest annual migration. The numbers are truly mindboggling, like many things in China. Over 2.9 billion individual passenger journeys are projected during chunyun this year, well over twice the actual population of the country.

Chinese New Year in the Greater Toronto Area

The Chinese Spring Festival is undoubtedly the most significant community-wide celebration in China and the diaspora. In the GTA it already began in January.

I discussed how the Spring Festival season impacts GTA Chinese musicians, their repertoire and community patronage, in a series of late January messages with Canadian Chinese Orchestra artistic director and conductor Amely Zhou. (She was too busy for a sit-down due to her intensive rehearsal schedule.)

What is the New Year season like for Chinese musicians? Does it result in performing opportunities? “Very much yes… it’s a busy time for all Chinese musicians,” replied Zhou. “Private individuals, businesses and mass entertainment providers like TV stations want live Chinese music to demonstrate their allegiance to their culture of origin at this auspicious time of year.” It’s a significant form of community support for Chinese musicians in the diaspora, as well as for their Chinese instruments and repertoire.

The patronage of Chinese music and affiliated performing arts such as dance and opera are closely tied to GTA and international commercial interests. “These are ultimately linked to the economic strength of today’s China,” added Zhou. It reflects a complex and ever-evolving economic, cultural – and even at times political – dynamic between Canada and China, one which has very recently become significantly more tense.

Canadian Chinese Orchestra

Fête Chinoise at the AGO

A good example of this patronage at work was the Canadian Chinese Orchestra’s first Chinese New Year gig at an event organized by Fête Chinoise, the Markham, Ontario magazine and lifestyle event programming company. Held at the Art Gallery of Ontario on January 26, the event, also called Fête Chinoise, seeks to “empower individuals to deepen the connection between their [Chinese] identity and culture,” through a “curated lens and critical thinking.”

CCO’s repertoire for this event included Festive Overture for Chinese orchestra by veteran Chinese composer Jiping Zhao and the pop instrumental Summer by Japanese film ccomposer Joe Hisaishi, arranged by Malaysian composer Junyi Chow. CCO’s set was, however, only one among many experiences that night. They included fashion, art and design as well as food, drink and stationery that reflected motifs of abundance, opulence, wealth and philanthropy, all significant themes in Chinese New Year celebrations. The sold-out event presented aspirational products and experiences which put a curated, contemporary and urbane spin on ancient Chinese cultural customs.

Chinese New Year Gala 2019 at the Sony Centre

February 4, on the eve of the Year of the Pig, The 6th Chinese New Year Gala 2019 takes over the substantial stage of the Sony Centre, Toronto, produced by Canada National TV, a Chinese-Canadian television station.

The Sony Centre event page describes the event as follows: “Chinese and Western artists will sing and dance, and we will drum the bell to welcome the arrival of 2019. It will be Canada’s largest Chinese Spring Festival Evening by far! … The largest overseas Chinese New Year celebration, [the show] connects millions of viewers at home and abroad… through live television.”

A portion of the ticket sales will benefit a local hospital and the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care. It’s part of a long Chinese tradition of giving back to the community and taking careful care of elders.

The CCO performs a set at the New Year Gala 2019 including Dance of the Golden Snake (1934), a fast-paced orchestral composition by Nie Er, popular during New Year celebrations, drawing on Shanghai region folk melodies and featuring lively percussion. the CCO plays an arrangement of this work by Hong Kong composer and conductor Ng Chiu Shing.

“We’ll also be playing my Chinese orchestra arrangement of Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s hit 1982 song…just for fun,” added Zhou (with smile emoticon attached).

Why choose to cover a 1982 American pop song on Chinese instruments?

“I wanted to challenge old misconceptions of traditional Chinese music being sad and quiet.” And also, “because everyone [in China] knows Billie Jean … I made the arrangement for the CCO Youth Orchestra tour to China last summer and it was very well received, with audiences clapping and dancing. My drummer was particularly popular with the girls!”

Toronto Chinese Orchestra director Patty Chan.Toronto Chinese Orchestra

City Hall, Pacific Mall

The Toronto Chinese Orchestra (TCO) is the region’s oldest such orchestra. Under music director Patty Chan on the morning of February 4 – the eve of the Year of the Pig – it plays festive music at Toronto City Hall, our region’s civic hub and usually its political epicentre. Then at 10pm the same day the TCO reconvenes at the Pacific Mall playing a late-night set just before New Year. Located on the City of Markham side of Steeles Ave., the three-level Pacific Mall has reigned as the largest Chinese shopping mall in North America since opening its doors in 1997, a popular hub of an explicitly commercial kind. Both free concerts are open to the public.

COC’s World Music Free Noon-Hour Series

February 5 at 12 noon the TCO’s Chamber Players celebrate Chinese New Year in the Canadian Opera Company’s free World Music Series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Led by its erhu player Patty Chan, the Chamber Players form the professional core of the TCO, including Kenny Kwan, percussion; Dora Wang, dizi and Wendy Zhou, pipa. Boosting the lower end of the sound spectrum is cellist Jaimie Chan who was recently added to the TCOCP roster.

Their varied program celebrates the Year of the Pig with a mix of traditional and contemporary Chinese music. It continues with Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon composed by Ren Guang, the traditional Purple Bamboo Tune, Jiang Xianwei’s Journey to Gusu, Lu Wencheng’s Rising Higher Step by Step, and Romance on the Grasslands by Wang Luobin/Patty Chan. The program then concludes with Dance of Yi Tribe by Wang Huiren, Hand in Hand by Su Shi/Patty Chan, and the popular Racing Horses composed by Huang Haihuai.

ROM Gods in My Home: Chinese New Year

The TCO remains active during the New Year season playing public and private events. For example on February 16, 17 and 18, mornings and afternoons at the Royal Ontario Museum, its youth and small ensembles perform ensemble pieces and instrumental solos. They will also offer demonstrations and opportunities for the audiences to try playing selected instruments.

These interactive performances are part of the ROM’s current exhibition Gods in My Home: Chinese New Year. Drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition features a selection of ancestral portrait paintings and deity prints that were an integral part of Lunar New Year observances in Chinese households. Gods in My Home “explores the connections between the domestic, material and spiritual life of Chinese society…during the late Imperial period to the early 20th-century Republic era.”

Fo Guang Temple of TorontoPlenty of other events

I’ve focused attention on just two Chinese Orchestras in this account of Chinese New Year music in the GTA. Of course there are plenty of other events taking place in Chinese communities throughout the GTA. For example the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto holds its signature Year of the Pig Banquet on February 8 at its sprawling Scarborough facility, featuring an evening of community entertainment, many including Chinese music.

Finally, for those seeking musical experiences with a spiritual aim, the Fo Guang Shan Temple of Toronto marks the Chinese New Year with several activities in its Mississauga Mahayana Buddhist temple. In a message from the Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan, the Year of the Pig both symbolizes endings and brand new beginnings. “One homophone for pig is ‘all’ or ‘everything,’ which also represents a good wish for everyone to have a well-rounded and auspicious year.”

From January 26 to February 10, the Temple hosts Chinese New Year Festival activities such as lighting lamps to the Buddhas, sounding the bell of peace, and participating in Dharma services to welcome the New Year.

The Chinese New Year’s Eve Chanting Service is on February 4 starting at 8pm, while the New Year Chanting Service is on February 5 and 10 at 10am. The Temple invites everyone to visit during Chinese New Year. Please see their website for more details.

Perhaps, as the temple suggests, you will be among those fortunate enough to “bring home auspicious blessings and wisdom.”

In this KonMari-fuelled “tidying and purging” era, those are two possessions I wouldn’t mind more of. 

WORLD VIEW QUICK PICKS

FEB 2, 8PM: Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Aline Morales at Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. Toronto’s guerilla-punk-Balkan-folk-brass band shares the stage with Aline Morales, the Brazilian-Toronto singer, percussionist and member of KUNÉ – Canada’s Global Orchestra.

FEB 7, 12:30pm: York University Department of Music presents music professor Rob Simms playing a rare concert of tanbur and setar solos in its Faculty Spotlight Series in Room 235, Accolade East Building, York University.

FEB 9, 7:30PM: The “Queen of Klezmer” Alicia Svigals, a founder of the Grammy Award-winning Klezmatics and “the world’s foremost klezmer violinist” takes the stage of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, with her band.

FEB 9, 8PM: The Royal Conservatory of Music presents Cuban-Canadian piano giant Hilario Durán and his Latin Jazz Big Band with Horacio “El Negro” Hernández and Sarita Levya’s Rumberos; at Koerner Hall.

FEB 21, 22, 23 AND 24: Tafelmusik restages its moving transcultural Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House at Koerner Hall. Maryem Tollar serves as the gracious narrator and vocalist while Tafelmusik guests, Persian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and oud specialist Demetri Petsalakis, musically illustrate the Damascus end of the tale. Elisa Citterio conducts from the violin.

Jane Bunnett and MaquequeFEB 23, 8PM: The powerful Cuban female bolero, canción and son vocalist Yaima Sáez and her group splits the night with Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, her band of deep-groove, early-career Cuban women musicians, at the RBC Theatre, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Padideh AhrarnejadMAR 3, 1PM: The Royal Conservatory of Music presents Padideh Ahrarnejad, Iranian tar player and member of KUNÉ, performing a free concert (ticket required) with her sextet Partow at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, RCM.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Two upcoming choral concerts promise to take some of the chill out of winter. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, joined by alumni, premieres a new work, Hosea, to perform what artistic director Brainerd Blyden-Taylor calls a concert of “wonderful, inspirational, moving music.” This concert continues the Chorale’s 20th anniversary season. And two of the finest chamber choirs in Canada join forces to present a joint concert; the Vancouver Chamber Choir (VCC) is hosted by the Elmer Iseler Singers on their 92nd and last tour with Jon Washburn at the head of the VCC.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale's composer-in-residence, Dr. Stephen Newby in his role as national anthem singer for the Seattle Sounders FC.To Return, with Love: Hosea

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale takes the Koerner Hall stage to perform a new work, Hosea. “This year we have a composer-in-residence, Dr. Stephen Newby,” shares artistic director Blyden-Taylor. “He has written a mini-oratorio based on the Old Testament Book of Hosea. It is a fusion mashup of the classical, jazz and gospel genres.”

“When the Book of Hosea was written, it was a metaphor for God’s relationship with the children of Israel,” shares Blyden-Taylor. “Initially God tells Hosea he should marry a prostitute and take in her children.” Figuratively, Hosea invokes wayward Israelites, who have turned their backs on God, to turn back to God. “He calls them to repentance with an open heart of forgiveness should they return to him.” That path to repentance is one of inclusion, opening doors and hearts to the denigrated and lowly.

The Book of Hosea is controversial, more so now, for its disparaging depictions of “wanton women.” The metaphoric reading, though, is more nuanced than the literal text taken at face value. For Blyden-Taylor, “looking at it from our point of view today, it’s essentially the theme of unconditional love, reconciliation, and compassion.”

Composer-in-residence Newby is professor of music at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college rooted in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. He conducts the University’s Gospel Choir and teaches composition. Blyden-Taylor describes Hosea as “a combination of Newby’s two passions: music and theology.”

Hosea will be performed by the current Chorale. The other half of the concert will include alumni across the 20-year history of the ensemble. Blyden-Taylor says “there are about 18 to 20 alumni who are coming back to sing with the current ensemble. We’re doing a series of favourite spirituals in the other half of the concert. We’re doing pieces by Nathaniel Dett and Moses Hogan.” Added to this, Blyden-Taylor has programmed songs from young American composer, Brandon Waddles, making three generations of composers spanning 100 years.

It is a banner year for the Chorale, celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is also, Blyden Taylor shares, “a big year for Nathaniel Dett too. This season marks the 75th anniversary of his death, and the 90th anniversary of the school of music he founded in Hampton University, Virginia. Dett was also one of the founding members of the National Association of Negro Musicians in the US, and they’ll be celebrating their 100th anniversary in Chicago in the summertime.”

The ongoing process of exploring Afrocentric music has become a life’s work for Blyden-Taylor. “This ensemble is not just to commemorate Nathaniel Dett, but also his belief in Afrocentric music in its entirety,” he says. “It’s been a rich 20 years, and we’ve done a lot of things over that time, always striving to provide wonderful, inspirational, moving music.”

February 13, 8pm. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents Voices of the Diaspora… Hosea & Friends. Koerner Hall, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto.

Vancouver Chamber ChoirTwo of the Finest; One Beautiful Concert

The Vancouver Chamber Choir comes to Toronto on its final tour with Jon Washburn as artistic director. “We’re singing the top-ten-performed pieces from the choir’s history,” says Washburn, who keeps meticulous lists of performances and songs performed. “A lot of this repertoire is repertoire that has been toured quite a bit over the years. For example, we’re doing Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans by Debussy; we’ve done 113 performances of that piece. The Imant Raminsh Ave Verum Corpus we’ve given 64 times.”

The concert will also feature many of Washburn’s beloved, often-performed arrangements including music of Stephen Foster and Rise! Shine!, his setting of four spirituals. “There are so many concerts at home and they kind of fade into each other over time,” shares Washburn. “But when you’re on tour, you associate a concert with a certain hall in a certain community in a certain season of the year. They are very vivid memories. For instance, the Schafer A Garden of Bells, was written for us many years ago. I remember when we did our tour of the Soviet Union in 1989, the incredible reception we got for this piece. We travelled the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Ukraine, and Moscow, Russia. We finished that tour with the Moscow Chamber Choir in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.” The Choir has performed A Garden of Bells 82 times over the years since it was first written in 1984.

Washburn has named the tour and the performances “Music Sea to Sea: The Farewell Tour.” The tour is taking them from their usual home on the Pacific across the country to the Atlantic. Starting in Edmonton, then to Calgary, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, St. John’s, Halifax, Antigonish, Wolfville, Truro, Lunenberg, and back to Vancouver over 18 days. This will be the 92nd tour in the last 48 years and Washburn has been on all but one of them. This is his last as the artistic director of the VCC as they continue their search for a new leader.

The Elmer Iseler Singers are hosting this particular visit. “[Artistic director] Lydia Adams and I go way back and we’ve just always had a wonderful friendship and so it’s very special to do my last official event as artistic director in Toronto,” says Washburn. “I think there will be a lot of feelings that night.”

Adams feels the same. “For me, I’m really looking forward to this time together. I’ve known Jon since the early 90s when I played for the Ontario Youth Choir and he was the conductor. We hit it off. I was so taken by his work with the Youth Choir and the results he was able to get; his focus and attention. He was able to make great music with them, and that’s the case every time we work with him.”

The Elmer Iseler Singers, for their portion of the concert, will perform a selection of choral works new and familiar. For the new, Adams has chosen The Spheres, which is the opening movement of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass. For the old, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfully. Rounding out the program is Healey Willan’s anthem, Gloria Deo, and James MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver.

“It takes a lot to hand over a choir that you’ve taken care of for so long,” shares Adams. She knows herself what it is like to give up the reins; this is her final season at the helm of the Amadeus Choir. “There’s something about coming to the end of something. Things become more intense; every moment becomes very precious and there’s not a moment wasted. There’s nothing thrown away; everything has meaning.”

Washburn notes the long history of the two choirs: “We have a great working relationship that has gone back decades. It’s really nice that we have been able to work together on a regular basis.” Adams appreciates this history as well. “The choirs are so meshed,” she says, “when they come together, it’s old friends, with immediate friendship and music making.”

March 1, 7:30pm. The Elmer Iseler Singers present the Vancouver Chamber Choir “Music from Sea to Sea: The Farewell Tour.” Eglinton St. George’s United Church, Toronto. See elmeriselersingers.com for more information. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

FEB 16, 8PM: The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Glory: Music of Light and Joy.” The search continues for a new artistic director with candidate Charlene Pauls taking the reins for this concert. Earlier in the season, Patrick Murray tested the baton. Pauls has programmed Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Somewhere from West Side Story and a host of smaller works including Sid Robinovitch’s Prayer Before Sleep, and Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night. St. George’s Anglican Church, Guelph.

FEB 16, 8PM:The Living Arts Centre presents “O Happy Day: Ben Heppner and the Toronto Mass Choir.” The Mass Choir has joined Heppner on a few of these concerts over the last few years. Blending the power of Heppner’s renowned tenor with the powerful Mass Choir, this collab is surefire. Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

FEB 21 to 24, various times: York University, Accolade East Building. Finale Concert FEB 24, 7:30PM, Bayview Glen Church. The Toronto Mass Choir and guests run the annual PowerUp Gospel Music Workshop. The workshop features an entire gamut of classes from vocal technique, to keyboards, to running a choir, to gospel technique and masterclasses. The Workshop week culminates in a Finale Concert featuring the Workshop Mass Choir, Gospel Chorale and Gospel Youth Choir. Check out the full line up at powerupgospel.ca

FEB 27, 7:30PM: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Handel and Haydn.” Featuring the iconic Handel Coronation Anthems and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. St Andrew’s Church, Toronto.

MAR 2, 8PM: The Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Convivencia: Music Across Three Faiths.” With funding from the private Pluralism Fund, artistic director Lucas Harris has assembled a host of music to invoke the multi-religious period in medieval and Renaissance Spain. Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

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

History’s pruning shears are aggressively pragmatic, trimming away that which is not tremendously noteworthy, revolutionary, famous or infamous. Music history is no kinder to its members, the pantheon of perpetual fame reserved for those select few on whom we bestow the title of “genius.” In the movie Amadeus, which, by the way, is screening with live orchestra at the Sony Centre February 21 and 22, court composer Antonio Salieri “speak[s] for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.” He fully expects to be expunged from the record books because of his lack of prodigious talent, surpassed in every way by the young and inexplicably, divinely gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Almost as well-known as Amadeus itself is the understanding that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of the drama in the film is entirely fictitious. Salieri did, in fact, achieve great success during his career, not only dominating Italian-language Viennese opera, but also becoming one of the most important and sought-after teachers of his generation, with such pupils as Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Ludwig van Beethoven… not too bad for the “patron saint of mediocrities.” But while this particular instance of historical pruning may be false, there are many other examples of how time can act as an eraser, gradually wiping away traces of people, places, and events.

Let us consider, for example, the idea of national “schools” of music, which ebb and flow depending on the time period and corresponding socio-political circumstances of each country. Throughout the history of music there are three countries which consistently contributed to the development of European music from the medieval era to the 20th century: Germany, France and Italy; these nations produced some of the great composers of the past, including Bach and Beethoven, Couperin and Debussy, and Vivaldi and Puccini, respectively, as well as virtuoso interpreters. England has made valid contributions throughout history as well, particularly in the Renaissance and Baroque, with the Tudors and later composers such as Purcell, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through Parry, Elgar, Howells, Britten and others.

Europe, however, is an expansive continent and currently contains 50 separate countries – what are the musical histories of these other nations, the ones that have not received the legacies of Mozarts and Salieris? Who are their “patron saints of mediocrities”? This month’s listings are full of explorations of these lesser-known composers and their works; here are some of the highlights:

Poland in the 16th Century

On February 21, Gallery 345 presents harpsichordist Corina Marti, playing keyboard music from 16th-century Poland. Poland’s influence on classical music cannot be underestimated, with world-famous composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karol Szymanowski and Henryk Górecki, and renowned pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Krystian Zimerman counted amongst its artistic elite. While these composers and performers are largely from the 19th and 20th centuries, Poland has had a national musical identity since the 13th century, from which manuscripts have been found containing polyphonic compositions related to the Parisian Notre Dame School. During the 16th century, two musical ensembles led a rapid development in Polish music – both were based in Kraków and belonged to the King and Archbishop of Wawel. Music does not exist in a vacuum, however, and a number of Italian musicians were guests at the royal courts in the early 17th century, included Luca Marenzio, Giovanni Francesco Anerio, and Marco Scacchi. During the 17th century, Polish composers from this period focused on Baroque religious music and concertos for voices, instruments and basso continuo, a tradition that continued into the 18th century.

This concert is certainly worth exploring, in part because it provides more questions than answers: what will this Renaissance-era music from Eastern Europe sound like? Will it resemble the Tudor school and the pavanes and galliards of Byrd and Gibbons, or perhaps the more fantastical style of Frescobaldi? There is only one way to find out!

Convivencia

Another country that has not received significant recognition for its musical contributions is Spain where, particularly in the renaissance, creativity and experimentation abounded. The Toronto Chamber Choir delves into repertoire from mediaeval and renaissance Spain with their concert “Convivencia: Music Across Three Faiths” on March 2. Featuring Sephardic folk songs, classical Arabic melodies, and Spanish polyphony, this performance captures the cross-pollination that took place in a country with an unusually rich and complex musical and political history.

Over the course of its history, Spain has had more than 2,000 years of internal and external influences and developments that have combined to produce a large number of unique musical traditions, closely related to changing political climates. In the two centuries before the Christian era, Roman rule brought with it the music and ideas of Ancient Greece. Early Christians, who had their own differing versions of church music, arrived during the height of the Roman Empire, while the Visigoths, a Romanized Germanic people, took control of the peninsula following the fall of the Roman Empire. The rule of Moors and Jews in the Middle Ages added another influence to the musical climate, and the style of Spanish popular songs of the time is presumed to have been heavily influenced by the music of the Moors.

By the early 16th century, the polyphonic vocal style that developed in Spain was closely related to that of the Franco-Flemish composers. Composers from the North of Europe visited Spain, and native Spaniards travelled within the Holy Roman Empire, which extended to the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Tomás Luis de Victoria, for example, spent a significant portion of his career in Rome, developing a technique that was said to have reached a level of polyphonic perfection and expressive intensity equal, or even superior, to Palestrina and Lassus.

By blending Sephardic, Arabic and Spanish musics, the Toronto Chamber Choir’s Convivencia will provide an artistic reflection of the real-world exchanges that took place between the world’s three great monotheistic religions in a country whose history is punctuated by fascinating and wide-reaching influences. Featuring Lucas Harris as conductor and lutenist, as well as guest singers, guitars, oud, ney and percussion, this concert is ideal for those who wish to broaden their knowledge of classical music and get a big-picture look at what influenced the music we hear and perform today.

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig Damascus Coffee HouseTales of Two Cities

While on the topic of big-picture performances, Tafelmusik will remount their successful multimedia production “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House” from February 21 to 24. Conceived, scripted and programmed by Alison Mackay, this musical exploration of the links between 18th-century Saxony and Syria became one of the most talked-about projects in Tafelmusik’s history when it was first seen in 2016. Celebrating the rich musical traditions of East and West, and the renewed dialogue between those traditions in contemporary, multicultural Toronto, Tales blurs musical boundaries and alters our perspectives on musical history.

In terms of artistry, this concert brings an all-star roster to the Koerner Hall stage, featuring the Tafelmusik orchestra led by Elisa Citterio and Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski as stage director. The Tafelmusik team will be joined on stage by Maryem Tollar, vocalist and co-narrator, Alon Nashman, co-narrator, Naghmeh Farahmand, percussion, and Demetri Petsalakis, oud. In case you missed it in 2016, the musical selections are stellar, and include canonic works by Bach, Handel, Telemann and more, as well as traditional Arabic song and klezmer fiddle music.

If last year’s Safe Haven was your first exposure to Mackay’s multimedia prowess, don’t miss this opportunity to see Tales which is sure to impress, both through the superb skill of the performers and the surprising, captivating connections drawn between the “then” of centuries ago and our very present “now.”

While this month’s concerts might be slightly more outside the box than usual with regards to programming and presentation, the opportunity for cross-cultural exploration is one that shouldn’t be missed. At a time of xenophobic mania, and as the drawing of lines between “us and them” becomes increasingly aggressive, these performances provide an essential and contextual reminder that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Have questions about these or any other early music concerts in this month’s WholeNote? Get in touch at earlymusic@thewholenote.com. 

EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

FEB 3, 2PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. “Italian Celebration.” St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave. Old and new come together as folk music and compositions by Neapolitan Baroque composers are performed alongside works by Toronto composer Romina di Gasbarro.

FEB 15, 8PM: St. Basil’s Church, University of St. Michael’s College. “Litanies de la Vièrge.” St. Basil’s Church, 50 St. Joseph St. Glorious music from the pinnacle of the French Baroque, with choir and organ music by Charpentier, de Grigny and Couperin.

FEB 16, 7:30PM: St. George’s Cathedral. “Te Deum Laudamus.” St. George’s Cathedral, 270 King St. E, Kingston. A survey of music from England and anthems from the 17th to 20th centuries, including Handel’s Te Deum in D and Stanford’s stunning Te Deum in B-flat.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Emily Lukasik as Mindy in Hook Up. Photo by Dahlia Katz Michael Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera has said that his goal for the company is to present one new Canadian opera per year. This year Tapestry is presenting two. The first is Hook Up with music by Chris Thornborrow to a libretto by Julie Tepperman running January 29 to February 9. The second is Shanawdithit with music by Dean Burry to a libretto by Yvette Nolan running May 16 to 25. Since Hook Up will be playing through almost a third of February, I spoke with its creators about how the project came to be and what it concerns.

Tepperman points out that when Hook Up officially opens on January 30, it will mark five and a half years that she and Thornborrow have been working on it. Thornborrow and Tepperman met at Tapestry’s renowned LibLab (Composer-Librettist Laboratory) that brings eight composers and eight playwrights together to create ten-minute operas. These sometimes become the seeds of full-length works.

That is exactly what happened when Tepperman and Thornborrow met. As Thornborrow says, “The seed scene was about online bullying and slut-shaming at the time we were looking to tell a story that involves young people and women and a topic that was in the news quite a lot.” 

Tepperman says that “At LibLab we bonded over our both having worked with youth in schools and communities. Young women on both sides of Canada had recently committed suicide due to online bullying because of a sexual assault becoming public. Initially we were thinking of maybe a grade 7, 8, 9 audience and Tapestry was looking for an opera to tour schools. The seed scene was mostly filled with humour with the potential to go darker, which is where we eventually went with it.”

The final result is very serious in intent. Tepperman explains: “This is an opera that explores sexual assault and consent in the context of rape culture in a university setting, and though we are focusing on a university setting we realize today that these issues are widespread throughout society far beyond the university campus.”

“The opera follows three young people who enter university and have the chance to explore their sexuality but for them these are uncharted waters, and they are not prepared for the pressures of partying, drinking and having sex, or for the consequences.”

I ask whether there is a paradox here: a hook-up culture on campus where students have sex with no strings attached; and a culture of consent and shaming where sex turns out to have all kinds of strings attached. Both replied. “Within the context of our story we explore this in different ways,” Thornborrow says. “Two of the young people are already in a monogamous relationship, but being in university away from the guardianship of their parents they are free to have sex whenever they want – except that the woman begins to question whether that is all there is. She wonders if they are just turning into their parents. The problem comes with the pressure to drink and how that affects a person’s moral compass and the ability to make informed decisions. So we are questioning hook-up culture and the pressures on teens at university campuses.”

Julie TeppermanTepperman continues: “At the same time we’ve been very careful that this opera does not become simply a lesson or a brochure; we intentionally end in a place where there are more questions than answers. Hopefully that will spur further conversation. So from the very beginning Tapestry has been interested in engaging professionals who deal with these issues and will be present for talkbacks after performances. This is not about victims and perpetrators but whether any piece of art can contribute to a larger conversation.”

Why choose opera as the medium to tell this story? I ask. Thornborrow answers: “For me as a composer it is just the impulse to tell stories through music, and I feel opera is a really powerful medium to tell stories of high stakes. At the same time the aesthetic of this opera is not according to traditional opera. We’re doing this in a small theatre; we’re using microphones; the instrumentation is a drum set and piano; and it moves at a fast clip. People sing usually at the same speed that people would speak, although there are moments that call for full voice. You’re getting dialogue at real-time speed with the explosive power of music, with a fluidity between the sung dialogue and the moments of intense emotion. I think that the music amplifies the stories and the emotions from those stories.”

“Opera suits the new emotional environment that these 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds find themselves in” Tepperman adds. “And the gravity of the libretto really supports the world of the characters. Richard Greenblatt, who has been our dramaturge for the last two and a half years, has kept reminding us ‘Story, story, story’ and ‘clarity of intention.’”

Thornborrow also points to the presence of Greenblatt as dramaturge – he will also direct the opera – as a factor that made composing this opera a unique experience: “For me it’s been rewarding because the composing has happened in such close proximity to the writing. We [Tepperman and I] would get together every couple of weeks and work on a few more minutes of music and another scene of dialogue. I would play what I had written for Richard and was totally open to questions of speed and timing and whether the music was driving the story forward.

So often when you are composing you are all alone, he says. “With Richard, he would ask, ‘Why did you make this choice?’ and it was something I was open to and that I am so grateful for. It was such a different experience than writing a symphony or chamber music or even art songs. It was just extraordinary to get that feedback.”

Chris ThornborrowAbout the five-member cast, Thornborrow says, “We have a mix of musical theatre people and opera singers to achieve the authentic voice and aesthetic of this world. For me the show is a hybrid of opera and music theatre, but people can decide whatever they want to decide.”

Tepperman and Thornborrow are very curious about how Hook Up will be received. Theatregoers will be seeing an opera. Operagoers will be seeing an unconventional opera in an unconventional space for opera. And the two student matinees will allow students of the same age range as the characters to see themselves represented onstage. 

Tepperman says: “We had an almost endless audition process but once we chose our cast we made adjustments so that every singer would have moments when their voice could really soar.”

In the cast, soprano Emily Lukasik, who has recently been at the Shaw Festival, plays the main character Mindy. Alicia Ault, who is part of a jazz trio, plays Mindy’s best friend Cindy. In the story, the two friends had hoped to room together, but that was prevented by a mix-up in dorm assignments. Nathan Carroll, best known from musical theatre, plays Tyler, Cindy’s one-and-only boyfriend since Grade 11. Alexis Gordon, best known from musicals at Stratford, and Jeff Lillico, best known from acting for Soulpepper and for musicals with the Musical Stage Company, play all the other characters including professors, Mindy’s parents and various partygoers at a climactic party.

When asked why it took so long for the project to come to fruition, Tepperman answers: “It took five and a half years because the project kept evolving. We had written two separate 90-minutes pieces but after various workshops, we decided to throw them out. Under Richard’s guidance we finally decided exactly the story that we wanted to tell. In fact, we worked four or five months just on the story, so when we started to write we were really clear about what the story was.”

Thornborrow sums up: “Music heightens the emotion of every moment. Whether it is a pedestrian comedic dispute or a devastating revelation, all these moments are heightened by music. These kinds of stories need to be told again and again – first perhaps by theatre companies and now by opera.”

Hook Up had a preview on January 29, opened on January 30 and runs until February 9 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. Richard Greenblatt directs and Jennifer Tung conducts. 

ON OPERA QUICK PICKS

CONTINUING TO FEB 9: Hook Up, Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. Tapestry Opera presents the world premiere of this opera/music-theatre hybrid about three teenagers’ different experiences of sex and alcohol in their first year at university. The opera explores the issues of consent amidst the pressures to join university hook-up culture.

FEB 3, 2:30PM: VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert presents Fierabras, Jane Mallett Theatre, 27 Front St. E. This is an exceedingly rare chance not only to hear Franz Schubert’s opera written in 1823 (but not staged until 1897), but to hear it with an orchestra of period instruments played by the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon. The Moorish knight Fierabras, son of the King of Spain, fights against Charlemagne but is in love with his daughter who loves someone else, while in a subplot Fierabras’ sister falls in love with one of Charlemagne’s knights. Sung in German with English surtitles.

jacques arsenault against the grainFEB 16, 8PM: Against the Grain Theatre presents (La) voix humaine, Gallery 345, 345 Soraunen Ave. AtG usually presents its operas with a twist and in this case it’s Francis Poulenc’s monodrama for soprano, La voix humaine (1959), with a tenor, Jacques Arsenault as Lui instead of Poulenc’s Elle, confronting his ex-lover over the phone. Topher Mokrzewski is the pianist and Aria Umezawa directs.

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

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