Bekah Simms - photo by Bo HuangOne of the inspiring things about the new music scene in Toronto is the plenitude of presenter organizations and collectives that are constantly springing up, each one with their own unique vision and mandate. One of the newer players in this trend is the Caution Tape Sound Collective, formed in the summer of 2015 by composers Bekah Simms and August Murphy-King. On March 24 in Array Space, Caution Tape will present “Spark to Stone” in collaboration with the Association of Canadian Women Composers (ACWC).

The concert features the work of seven Canadian composers, including five world premieres and two Toronto premieres. I invited Bekah Simms to have a conversation about the concert, the collective and her own compositional work.

Caution Tape has a unique combination of elements in their artistic mandate. One focus is on repertoire development for both underused combinations of instruments and instruments that don’t have a lot of solo works. Another strong aspect of their vision is the incorporation of electronics and influences from sound art and drone music into the repertoire they support. As Simms pointed out: “Toronto doesn’t have much concert activity of electroacoustic music, unlike Montreal for example, so Caution Tape seeks to make the technology more available for younger composers, as well as offering mentoring and pedagogical support for those who wish to combine the worlds of sound art and concert music.”

The core membership of the collective is made up of Simms, Murphy-King, Julia Mermelstein and Patrick Arteaga. They also support a rotational membership, since bringing in new voices is important. There is no core performer ensemble, but they generally draw from the same pool of people interested in new and experimental music, with the key goal being to experiment with creating unusual instrumental combinations. An example of this was an ensemble used in their last season that was made up of bassoon/contrabassoon, synthesizer, piano, percussion and viola. “It sounded really great,” Simms commented. And not least, they are committed to representational programming. Simms explains: “If you are working with living composers in a city like Toronto, the demographics of your concert programming should roughly represent the demographic of your city. This includes gender, race, experience, age, emerging and early career.”

Their upcoming March 24 concert is one example of their focus on representational programming as they join forces with the ACWC, which was formed in September of 1981 with the aim of addressing the lack of women composers being programmed in the Canadian music scene. The Caution Tape/ACWC collaboration is a natural one: Simms has served on the board of the ACWC, and together they put out a call for works – both existing as well as proposals for new pieces. As a result of this call, the Spark to Stone concert will include works by composers Amy Brandon, Sarah Reid, Ivana Jokic, Hope Lee and Lesley Hinger, along with Caution Tape core members Simms and Mermelstein.

Mermelstein’s work is an acousmatic piece, a form of electroacoustic music that is specifically created as a listening experience using only speakers, as opposed to a live instrumental performance. She has used the mundane and background sounds of everyday life and through various forms of digital processing brought this world to the forefront of an intriguing listening experience. Brandon’s work uses a soundscape created from unique piano preparations – nylon fishing wire attached to the wall and woven into the lower strings of the piano. Jokic’s piece uses the concept of the palindrome, a sequence of events that reads the same backward as forward. There is an allusion to matryoshka dolls, the Russian nesting dolls, as the snaking palindromes weave their way throughout the ensemble. Reid, a trumpet player who is both an improviser and composer, created a piece for prepared piano, cello, and amplified objects performed by a percussionist. This includes the playing of the grain of a piece of wood that has been covered with contact mics, a pair of vampire-like chattering teeth and a cassette player. Lee’s work …I, Laika…, composed in 1996, will finally receive its Toronto premiere. A 20-minute work for flute, cello and piano, the piece is based on the idea of doomed flight, referencing Laika, the first dog launched in space by the Russians, as well as the loss of Lee’s father who went missing in a military plane in China.

Hinger’s participation is an example of the value of putting out a call and connecting with unfamiliar voices. Once the jury for the concert heard her music, they unanimously agreed that her work must be selected. Hinger’s piece for solo violin is informed by her current studies in spectralism and focuses on slow microtonal unravelling over time.

The concert will also present the world premiere of Simms’ piece Granitic, a word she was initially exposed to a few years ago when used by her composition professor to describe one of her compositions. Surprised by this unfamiliar word which means “unyielding firmness and aversion to soft emotions,” she decided it resonated with her and wanted to explore more of what was stylistically emerging for her. Granitic is her Toronto Emerging Composer Award-winning composition, and is scored for a large ensemble including electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, synthesizer, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, trumpet and flute. In this piece she explores the world of just intonation, a tuning system based on pure or just intervals between the notes of the scale, rather than the standard equal temperament system that uses the same or equal distance between intervals. For the performers, this means playing in microtones, something that is difficult and challenging to do when playing on instruments designed for equal temperament. Simms described her emerging style as “event and sound based. I don’t map out harmonies or melodies, but rather focus on timbre, colour and the unravelling of initial ideas. I’ve become interested in distortion, quotation and using degraded allusions to other styles of music, using noise-based techniques on instruments and transitions from noise to sound. Electronics also help to obscure the original source material.”

As for future directions, what drives her is to integrate more complex and intricate technologies into her music. In a recent mentorship with Montreal acousmatic composer Martin Bédard, she was able to learn a variety of electroacoustic techniques, and had an opportunity to work with live diffusion, the process of moving the sound amongst a multi-speaker system. The next step for Simms will be to work in partnership with a programmer to create an intuitive interface to perform live processing of instrumental sounds. The composition she is creating will be scored for solo cello, electronics and orchestra, and is scheduled to be performed by Esprit Orchestra in February 2019 during their New Wave Festival. Having a skilled electronics performer working alongside her is her ideal situation, for it allows her to focus on composing the electronic component, which can then be realized externally by an expert.

Representational Programming

As mentioned above, Caution Tape is committed to representational programming. One reason for this is that “we found the local programming disappointing” Simms acknowledges. As an example, she mentions the upcoming 21C Music Festival that promotes itself as bringing forward fresh new sounds and ideas. Looking at this year’s press release, of almost three dozen premieres being programmed (which includes both world, Canadian, Ontario and Toronto premieres), there is only one work by a woman composer. (I noted in my February column a similar thing occurring in this years New Creations Festival happening from March 3 to 10, with only one composition by a woman being programmed, despite last year’s festival having highlighted diversity.)

Simms notes the tendency for presenters to be satisfied with having had one successful experience and then to stop thinking about it. “You have to be actively questioning your programming every step of the way. It’s so easy to find good and interesting work by women that if you’re not programming it, you’re just being lazy.” She mentioned a 1990s article in the Toronto Star that noted the lack of programming of works by women amongst the new music organizations – and that was 25 years ago!

Caution Tape attempts to “be steadfast about our programming. If one concert ends up being a 70/30 mix between male and female composers, we shuffle things around in the overall season to get closer to 50/50.” She noted that it’s easier for chamber music groups to have more diverse programming, and that many local groups regularly program music by women on every concert. “The problem is with the larger ensembles, that’s where the numbers are the worst. You hope that your efforts in the chamber music realm will bleed into the larger sphere of orchestral music,” Simms says, mentioning as an example, that the rising star of orchestral composition globally is Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir who was chosen in 2015 as the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer. The Philharmonic will give the world premiere of Thorvaldsdottir’s latest commissioned work, Metacosmos, on April 4 to 6.

(Coincidentally, during the writing of this column, I received a press release regarding the Chicago Sinfonietta’s concert on March 11 celebrating women composers. This orchestra is dedicated to modelling and promoting diversity, inclusion and racial and cultural equity in the arts. In light of these initiatives, it feels like Toronto is lagging behind; all the more reason why the Caution Tape Sound Collective is a much-needed voice in the city.

Vivian Fung

An important footnote to this conversation about orchestral programming: I would be remiss not to mention two upcoming orchestral performances of works by composer Vivian Fung. On March 24, the National Arts Centre Orchestra will give the Toronto premiere of her newly commissioned piece Earworms, and on March 3, Fung’s 2011 piece Dust Devils will be performed by the TSO as part of the New Creations Festival. 

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

From its earliest years York University fostered a unique music environment which embraced what was then the fringe. Experimental music, research into biofeedback as a musical controller, interdisciplinary performance studies, jazz, improvisation, period musical performance and world music were all on the curriculum. Did geographic isolation encourage and help incubate such an adventurous and exploratory musical spirit?

York University Subway StationYork’s Keele campus is located in northwestern Toronto. Back when I first attended, it felt a world apart from the downtown classical music scene anchored in the established programs at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. The sheer distance between the two institutions and the time it took to travel between them emphasized the cultural gulf. Yet in the traffic between the two universities’ world music ensembles there are threads we can trace, via the public transit web that connects both institutions.

There has been talk of a York University subway station on the Keele campus ever since the Music Department was incorporated in 1969 as part of the Faculty of Fine Arts. Rumours continued to rumble as the decades rolled on about a York subway stop until the new TTC Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE), finally opening to great fanfare on December 17, 2017, made it a reality. For the first time, downtown travellers can take the subway beyond the city limits – and vice versa. Significant reductions in travel time are being touted by the TTC for their beneficial long-term impacts. Asked for her comments as to what these longer-term impacts of the TYSSE may be on music and other kinds of performances at the Keele campus, York University media relations spokesperson Janice Walls put a positive, if fairly obvious, spin on things in an email: “Now that the subway stops at York University, it makes it much easier for people to access the many music and theatre performances available on campus.”

Equally obvious, perhaps, but perhaps less spin-worthy, York students can now also take the subway to an evening concert at a downtown venue and then get back home at a reasonable time!

The Advantages of New Frontiers

Already evident during its foundational 1970s decade, among the York Music Department’s strong suits were its world music ensembles. In 1970, the first year they were offered at York, I took the Carnatic, Hindustani and kulintang ensemble classes. But what exactly are the roots of this kind of ensemble?

The concept of the world music ensemble can be traced back to the late 1950s at UCLA, when it entered the discipline of ethnomusicology partly being developed there. It was introduced by American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (1918-2005), a specialist in Indonesian music, who took on the mission of bringing the fieldwork and academic study of ethnomusicology into the realm of practical musical experience and eventually performance. (I well recall a visit by the dramatic, black cape-wearing Hood to my undergraduate York music class circa 1970, the visit arranged by Sterling Beckwith, the Music Department’s first chair.)

The world music ensemble was one way in which Hood’s notion of bi-musicality, a term he coined in a 1959 paper, could be acquired within an educational institution. His approach encouraged the researcher to learn about music “from the inside,” and thereby experience its technical, conceptual and aesthetic challenges. Another of its aims was to enable the learner to better connect socially with the community being studied and have increased access to that community’s performances and musical practices. Many institutions all over North America have since incorporated a myriad of world music ensembles, presenting many music genres, into their course offerings.

York’s Music Department was among the world music ensemble’s very early Canadian adopters, in part perhaps because of its need to make an adventurous virtue of its isolation from the well-established downtown musical mainstream. Its world music courses have continued to grow in number and variety over the decades. I’m a first-person witness to that evolution as a member of the first Music Department undergrad class, and then later establishing its first Javanese gamelan music performance course there in 1999.

Perhaps what is most significant, however, is not so much the individual careers of professors or their courses, but that collectively they and thousands of their students have in many ways fed the interest and appetite for world music discovery, creation, appreciation, making and public performance in our community. In this way, York’s world music ensembles have served as a sort of R&D studio. They have made a substantial contribution to establishing the Toronto region as one of the most welcoming and productive hybrid music-friendly places on the globe – a real music city!

York University Music Department’s World Music Festival

Every year the Music Department holds a series of late winter concerts celebrating its near five decades of introducing yet another cohort of students to learning musics new to them. It also affords audiences – potentially coming from across the region care of the shiny new TYSSE – to explore musics they may never have heard live in student performances. Bonus: it’s all free.

This year the World Music Festival includes ten concerts representing many music traditions at halls located in York’s Accolade East Building, just south of the new giant white boomerang-shaped subway station.

(Please refer to the WholeNote listings for exact concert times. But here’s an appetizer.)

March 15 promises to be a long world music-rich day at York. Audiences can take in six concerts, starting at 11am with the Cuban Ensemble, directed by Latin music scene veteran Rick Lazar and Anthony Michelli at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. It’s followed by guitarist and dedicated klezmer expert Brian Katz’s Klezmer Ensemble, upstairs in the Martin Family Lounge. All the remaining concerts also alternate between these two venues

After lunch, master Ghanaian drummer and longtime gifted instructor Kwasi Dunyo directs the “West African Drumming: Ghana” concert, then the Escola de Samba takes the stage, directed by the multitalented Rick Lazar.

At 4pm the West African Mande Ensemble performs, directed by Anna Melnikoff. The day closes with Lindy Burgess’ Caribbean Music Ensemble in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall.

York’s World Music Festival continues the next day, at noon on March 16, with the Korean Drum Ensemble directed by Charles Hong at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. Sherry Johnson then directs the Celtic Ensemble, followed by the Chinese Classical Orchestra directed by Kim Chow-Morris. The festival wraps at 7:30pm with a performance of ethnomusicologist Irene Markoff’s Balkan Music Ensemble.

Master drummer Kwasi Dunyo leads ensembles in both festivals.

World Music Ensembles: Spring Festival, University of Toronto

Now just a 13-stop, single-line subway ride south from York U to Museum Station, U of T’s Faculty of Music also has a rich history of offering world music classes and engaging Toronto audiences in their performances. I attended world music ensemble concerts at Walter Hall in the 1980s and in following decades. I always encountered new and ear-opening music that enriched my multicultural palette.

The Faculty of Music’s World Music Ensembles website states that the “program at the University of Toronto has for many years enriched the musical lives of our students and has provided alternative perspectives on learning and making music by offering training in various world traditions. The ensembles vary from year to year. We have also been able to take advantage of an ensemble led by our annual visitor in the World Music artist-in-residence program [between 2007 and 2016].”

So we continue our “world music goes to college” theme back downtown, with a concert March 23 at 12 noon featuring the popular, long-running African Drumming and Dancing Ensemble. Under the dynamic direction of the Toronto-based master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, the event takes place at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building.

A couple of weeks later, on April 7 at 2:30pm, other World Music Ensembles take the Walter Hall stage in the Faculty of Music’s annual spring concert. The Latin American Music Ensemble, directed by veteran percussionist and composer Mark Duggan, and Steel Pan Ensemble, directed by pan music educator, percussionist and arranger Joe Cullen, have been confirmed.

It’s far too soon to tell what the impacts of the TYSSE will be, positive and negative, on the health of nodes of local culture within the region.

But for sure I’ll be taking the subway more often in search of music. In both directions. clip_image001.png

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

Auditions are terrifying experiences for any musician. An important job, an academic scholarship, the future of one’s career, any and all of these can depend on a few nerve-wracking moments in front of a jury or audition panel. Johann Sebastian Bach was no stranger to auditions, applying for a number of positions, titles and designations throughout his career, in constant pursuit of the next level of 18th-century professional development.

In 1733, at the age of 48, Bach sought a court title from Friedrich August II, the newly appointed Elector of Saxony, by presenting a Kyrie and Gloria, submitted as a “trifling product” and gift to the Elector. These two movements constitute the opening of what would become the Mass in B Minor, a monumental (and decidedly Catholic) essay in the Latin rite. A fascinating piece of auto-plagiarism and self-adaptation, the Mass was completed by Bach reusing a Sanctus from the Christmas of 1724 with only minor adjustments and drawing much of the material for the Gloria and Credo from existing works, including a cantata or two. Despite the incredible beauty, complexity and ingenuity displayed throughout its hundreds of pages, there are no records of a performance from Bach’s lifetime and it is assumed that he died before hearing the Mass in B Minor in its entirety.

Bach’s Mass, much like Beethoven’s equally majestic and complex Missa Solemnis, is far too long for any practical liturgical use, but we are fortunate that it is performed in concert relatively often, somewhere between the frequency of the St. John Passion and the rarity of the St. Matthew Passion. We are even more fortunate this month as there are three large Bach-themed performances in March, two of which feature the Mass in B Minor.

Bach... in B Minor and Beyond

The first performance of the Mass in B Minor takes place at the end of March at Metropolitan United Church on Good Friday. A longtime annual tradition featuring the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra, this is a modern-scale performance featuring a relatively large chorus and modern-instrument ensemble, led by Dr. Patricia Wright. Bach’s music, loaded with Affekt, expressive gestures and profound spirituality, provides an ideal musical backdrop for Good Friday, solemn yet hopeful, with hints of the joy to come on Easter Day.

Dorothee Mields - photo by Harald HoffmannTafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus focus their attention on Bach’s Mass in B Minor just a week later, April 7, approaching the work with their trademark historically informed outlook. Led by Ivars Taurins and featuring a stellar lineup of soloists including soprano Dorothee Mields, mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, tenor Charles Daniels and baritone Tyler Duncan, this performance will, as Tafelmusik writes on their website, “captivate your heart and soul from the very opening notes of the Kyrie to the majestic close of the Dona nobis pacem.” Tafelmusik’s previous Mass in B Minor was my first concerted introduction to the beauty of Bach’s choral music, and it remains one of my favourite and most emotionally moving live musical experiences.

The third Bach performance taking place this month is not religious in theme, is unrelated to Lent and Easter and does not involve orchestra or chorus. On March 11 in Mazzoleni Hall, pianist and harpsichordist David Louie presents Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a two-volume collection of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys that rivals the Mass in B Minor in monumentality, creativity and ingenuity. Louie will play the first set on a two-manual harpsichord designed and modelled after an instrument built by the French harpsichord and piano maker Pascal Taskin (1723-1793).

Taskin’s instruments are fine examples of the French school of harpsichord building, featuring a wide range, well-distributed pitch divisions (two eight-foot ranks and a four-foot rank) and a warm and rich tone well-suited for the contrapuntal complexity of late Baroque repertoire, both German (Bach’s partitas, suites and fugues, for example) and French (the masterpieces of Rameau, Couperin and Lully). Not only worthwhile for the repertoire being performed, Louie’s use of a period-inspired instrument will illuminate Bach’s contrapuntal genius in a different light than we hear on a piano, while showcasing Louie’s own technical facility on an instrument with its own unique demands and limitations.

David Louie at the harpsichord.

Eine Kleine Lentmusik

The season of Lent, commonly associated with ashes, sackcloth and penitential abstinence (“What are you giving up for Lent this year?”) abounds with music that, although appropriately dark and dour, is nonetheless beautiful and worth hearing. Here are some notable performances taking place this month:

On March 3 the Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Bach’s Foundations,” with works by Johannes Bach, Johann Christian Bach and Johann Michael Bach. Focusing on musically influential members of J.S. Bach’s extended family, this concert will be a fascinating look at the people and pedigree responsible for producing one of music’s greatest minds. I look forward to hearing the similarities and differences in their works and listening for the influence of their great precursor, around whom the entire Bach galaxy revolves.

Cor Unum Ensemble, one of Toronto’s up-and-coming Baroque ensembles, presents Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on March 10 and 11. The text of the Stabat Mater is a popular one – a Catholic prayer to the grieving mother of Christ as she witnesses her son carrying his cross to Calvary – set throughout the centuries by composers including Rheinberger, Dvořák and Rossini. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater takes the form of a duet for soprano and alto with obbligato instruments, a simple and straightforward setting relative to the massively Romantic settings penned by later composers (which can also be inappropriately cheeky and jovial – I’m looking at you, Rossini…). In addition to music by Pergolesi, Cor Unum will also perform Bach’s Cantata 170 “Vergnügte Ruh” for solo alto and a suite by Lully. Taking place in the visually appealing and acoustically superior Trinity College Chapel, this concert is definitely worth exploring.

March is shaping up to be the Month of Bach, both directly and by association! On March 24 the Musicians in Ordinary and St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum present Dieterich Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri, a set of cantatas focusing on the varied corporal sufferings experienced by Christ over the course of his trial and crucifixion. Buxtehude was a significant influence on J.S. Bach, the young protege travelling hundreds of miles to Lübeck to study the master’s organ music. (By foot, the story in Bach’s obituary goes, though John Eliot Gardiner finds this a bit melodramatic, likening it to an old man “padding his resume,” recounting stories of his youth after a pint or two.) Buxtehude and the North German style of organ playing was indeed influential on the young Bach and provided a model for his early organ works, particularly from the Weimar years. Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri cantatas are written in an older style and often incorporate modal writing with hints of a conventional tonal system, a style quite similar to the stile antico moments found in the Credo and Gloria of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Lent and Easter are extraordinarily rich musical seasons and this year’s concert calendar is an embarrassment of riches. Not only are there numerous performances of some of Bach’s finest works but also explorations of Bach’s familial and national musical influences, as well as a Bach cantata presented by the exciting and fresh Cor Unum Ensemble. If Bach’s insurmountable genius and erudite musicality is not your personal preference however, check out this magazine for other concerts and events taking place and support Toronto’s vibrant arts scene – there’s something out there for everyone! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.

The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.

I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?

The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.

The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.

I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)

So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?

Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?

I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?

In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.

Collectìf

Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.

Happenstance

Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.

Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.

Happenstance (from left: Adanya Dunn, Brad Cherwin and Nahre Sol)In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.

I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”

He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.

Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.

“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.

Boldly Go

There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.

But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.

Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.

Against the Grain's Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle ClubWill Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?

With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.

Some March highlights

Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.

March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.

March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.

March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.

Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.

Am I wrong about the future of art song in Toronto? Send me an email at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

The opening Kyrie of the Bach Mass in B Minor is one of the hardest starts of any major work for a choir; with no starting pitch, the precisely placed hard “K” prior to any other sound, and careful phrasing that starts right away – the opening has much to say about how the rest of the performance will play out. Bold and full should be the effect. Bach’s masterpiece is not a light undertaking for any choir. This April, it’s safe to assume that Tafelmusik will take up this estimable work with its usual intense professionalism, deep artistry and impeccable technique.

“This is the seventh time Tafelmusik has [programmed] the Mass, with some 25 performances behind us,” shares Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik harpsichordist and organist. Instrumentalists and choristers alike relish revisits to Bach’s work, finding “new details and more depth in the score every time.” Nediger continues: “The Bach Mass in B Minor is a very challenging piece on every level, for all performers on stage …[It] demands an extremely high level of skill, virtuosity and artistry of every single singer, and the combined result is astonishing.”

Ivars Taurins takes the reins with early music soloists. Dorothee Mields, a German early music specialist, takes on the soprano. Laura Pudwell, Canadian, is the mezzo-soprano. English tenor Charles Daniels joins Canadian Tyler Duncan to round off the soloists. The essential horn solo in the Quoniam will be performed by Scott Wevers.

On the performance, Nediger concludes: “To say that it is inspiring is an understatement – it is also humbling, in the best sense. Tafelmusik is an ensemble in which everyone brings absolutely everything they can to every performance, and I think you sense that in the audience.” Nediger herself has an enviable position to take it all in, placed at the heart of the stage in front of the orchestra. With the surrounding forces of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, she is uniquely positioned to enjoy the music as she works her way through the intense score.

Tafelmusik performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor April 5 to 7, 8pm, April 8, 3:30pm at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre and April 10, 8pm at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

As discussed elsewhere in this issue, on March 30 at 7:30pm at Metropolitan United Church, the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra also perform the Mass in B Minor for Good Friday, with a top-notch set of soloists: Ellen McAteer and Gisele Kulak, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo-soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Daniel Lichti, baritone. Metropolitan United Church.

Hilary Apfelstadt and the University of Toronto at Lincoln Center

Hilary Apfelstadt, (soon to be retiring) director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, last visited Lincoln Center, New York City, to perform as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York City (DCINY) concert series for an International Women’s Day concert in March 2014. This month she returns for DCINY’s March 17 concert, conducting the combined forces of singers and orchestra in the major choral work on the program, Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem. Among the 200 singers from across the US and Canada, including the Luther College Choir from Regina, will be singers from Toronto’s Kingsway-Lambton United Church Chancel Choir and a few dozen singers from the four major choirs of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. The Cherubini shares the ticket with a set of smaller choral works conducted by Martha Shaw, and the premiere of a concerto for flute, harp and orchestra by DCINY composer-in-residence Dinos Constantinides, led by DCINY principal conductor Jonathan Griffith.

Hilary ApfelstadtOf the Cherubini, Apfelstadt says: “It’s a lovely work, a little unusual, in that it has no soloists. The choir is singing almost nonstop. It was performed at Beethoven’s funeral because he admired it so much, but was originally created for the memorial of King Louis XVI of France.” This work follows the standard requiem format, but with Romantic and Classical elements reflecting the transition period beginning in 19th-century European music. The opening two movements are performed without violins. The deeper sound and broad crescendos provide a dramatic edge without the higher pitches. Apfelstadt also notes that the instrumentation lacks flutes, further contributing to a profound bass and heaviness in the music.

Early Romantic ideals are apparent in the bombastic Dies Irae, with the unusual programming of a gong. The same movement also shows a more classical ideal, with fugal runs and strings typical of Mozart and other classical contemporaries. The choir provides the dramatic energy of the piece, consistently singing in chorale throughout. The fugal runs of the Offertorium are particularly exciting.

Apfelstadt is mindful of the intense time commitments and existing rehearsals music students must juggle. “From a pragmatic point of view, when you’re teaching at school, you’re always trying to find things that are vocally challenging, without being overtaxing.” The goal is to set up the students for success and the Cherubini represents “a choral piece that is a challenge, with enough elements in it to be surprising.”

“They seem to like it, have a feel of accomplishment,” says Apfelstadt. “Virtually none of the students have encountered [Cherubini’s] work, or heard much about this composer. It’s really well written, bits remind me of Mozart, bits remind me of Beethoven. And because Beethoven was such a fan of the work, it’s like a stamp of approval.”

Those students who join Apfelstadt in New York will have the privilege of experiencing Lincoln Center from the stage. Here in Toronto, later in the month, on March 24 at the MacMillan Theatre, you can catch the entire massing of the four main faculty choirs, the Women’s Choir, the Women’s Chamber Choir, the Men’s Chorus and the MacMillan Singers, along with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra as they present the Cherubini Requiem. With 200 singers and the power of the U of T Symphony Orchestra at her fingertips, Apfelstadt looks forward to this performance capping off her distinguished career at the University of Toronto.

QUICK PICKS

Mar 8 and 9: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. David Fallis helms this performance with instrumentalists and Choir 21. Dun has not often composed for choir and this complex work invokes the circular passage and flow of life, intimated by the story of Christ, and evoked by the presence and sound of water. Helmuth Rilling, founder of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four new interpretations of the Passion of Christ from the four Gospels in 2000. Tan Dun was given the commission for St. Matthew’s. Mar 8, 7:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Kingston; Mar 9, 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

For a more conventional performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, Chorus Niagara under Robert Cooper performs it the week prior. Mar 3, 7:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Mar 28 and 30, 7:30pm: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space.” All the choristers (myself included) always love this annual Easter tradition. Performing on Good Friday, in the aural and visual splendour of St. Paul’s Basilica, maintains an annual tradition of emotionally deep a cappella music presented by Toronto’s finest. Artistic director Noel Edison has programmed a horn of plenty including Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, John Tavener’s Song for Athene, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo and works by Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Łukaszewski and others.

Mar 30, 3pm: The Trinity St. Paul’s United Church Choir are joined by VIVA! Youth Singers and the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth in presenting “Good Friday Choral Concert.” Part of the programming is Andrew Balfour’s Take the Indian: A Vocal Reflection on Missing Children, a remarkable piece built from the pain of the Canadian government’s residential school atrocities and the longstanding institutionalized racism and neglect of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Balfour, himself an Indigenous child taken by and into state care, is artistic director of Camerata Nova, an early, contemporary and Indigenous-infused music ensemble based in Winnipeg. Balfour is being brought in to help prepare the choirs. If sufficient weight is given to the work’s performance, its power and its discomforting narrative, I anticipate a significant and moving display.

Mar 31, 7:30pm: The Guelph Chamber Choir bids farewell to conductor Gerald Neufeld after 37 years at the helm. Neufeld, a longstanding music educator, has taught in the faculties at the University of Guelph and Western University. His final performance will be Brahms’ masterpiece: A German Requiem at the River Run Centre, Guelph.

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

This column will offer more questions than answers, more speculations than solutions, and may offend some. This is not intended and I will try to deal with any potential fallout later on, but first, the idea for this column, which was suggested by a musical evening several months ago.

This past November 6, I attended the gala concert by John MacLeod’s big band, the Rex Hotel Orchestra, held in the dining room of the Old Mill. The event doubled as a launch of the band’s new CD, The Toronto Sound, and was an unqualified success in both musical and box-office terms.

The 19-member band played all the selections from the new disc over two generous sets, most of them arranged and composed by MacLeod himself, with single charts provided by Rick Wilkins (Canada’s greatest living arranger, also present this night and a major inspiration to MacLeod), and band members Terry Promane and Andy Ballantyne. Like MacLeod himself, the very absorbing music reflected both traditional and modern elements, sometimes within the same piece, and there was tremendous solo work all around – along with their stellar ensemble playing, just about everyone in the band is an accomplished jazz soloist.

John MacLeodIt was a special evening, but perhaps more so for me than most. John MacLeod and I met in high school some 45 years ago where we began playing jazz together; indeed, you could say John was responsible for me taking up the bass (I was an aspiring guitarist at the time when he inducted me into the Dixieland band he began leading after school hours). We have been musical friends ever since and have played together countless times in all kinds of bands, including the Boss Brass for many years. Going so far back with him and sitting just a few feet away, listening to the rousing sound of his compositions emanating from this band he created, I was overwhelmed: I felt enormously proud of him, and for him. The band has been around for years now, but this felt like a step forward, a culmination of much blood, sweat and tears, and probably some laughs too. Oh, and by the way, the beautifully recorded CD sounds every bit as good as the band did live. Buy one immediately, if not sooner.

As is often the case with musical events at this particular venue, this one was presented through the auspices of JAZZ.FM91 and bore its imprimatur. Ross Porter and Jaymz Bee each made (mercifully) brief speeches, and Fay Olson was her usual tireless self in organizing and promoting the whole affair. But the real founder of this musical feast, and of the CD it celebrated, was an individual who I won’t name because he’d likely prefer to remain anonymous, so I’ll call him “DT,” short for “Deep Throat”. A passionate jazz fan since the mid-1930s (!), DT has been a major benefactor of jazz in this city since the late 60s, when the Boss Brass and CJRT-FM got under way. He has drummed up interest in jazz with his considerable oratorical skills but time and time again has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by donating to countless recordings, tours, festivals, bands, concerts, broadcasts and other jazz projects.

In the case of MacLeod’s new CD, DT not only footed the considerable bill for its overall production, but also contributed to the promotion of the event as well by inviting at least two large tables’ worth of people – friends, musicians and/or both – to attend as his guests and picking up the tab for everything – admission, dinner, drinks. I would have attended anyway, but Mrs. W and I were among these guests and it wasn’t the first time I’ve been floored by DT’s class and generosity.

DT is getting on and in the last couple of years has expressed a concern for the future of jazz in Toronto and a keen desire to get local government involved in supporting it beyond the usual cosmetic ribbon-cutting measures. He is well connected and has been trying to sell local politicos, including our mayor, on the idea of establishing a permanent performance home for jazz in Toronto, funded by both public and private money. He was hoping this could perhaps be a part of the Massey Hall revitalization project, for example.

DT was hoping to use the release of The Toronto Sound – a partially strategic title – as a means of demonstrating to local politicians the viability of jazz in Toronto – the high quality of the music and the enthusiastic support for it among local music fans. He invited Mayor Tory and others to attend, only to run into a brick wall of shrugging indifference.

This apathy caused DT no small chagrin, so I’ve decided to take up his cause here by asking a few pointed questions. Why is it after all these years that jazz in Toronto still doesn’t have a dedicated and permanent performance centre, the way other art forms like opera, ballet, theatre or symphonic music do?

Yes, we’ve had clubs, but those have taken a hit in recent times. Wouldn’t you think a city the size of Toronto, where jazz is taught at three post-secondary institutions (York University, U of T and Humber College) and which boasts a 24/7 jazz radio station in JAZZ.FM91, could support – and deserves – such a venue? The TSO has Roy Thomson Hall, the COC and the National Ballet of Canada share the Four Seasons Centre and there are numerous other venues for various forms of theatre and dance.

Most, if not all, of these rely upon some sort of government funding as well as a well-orchestrated pipeline of private donors to keep them running. I realize jazz – usually the out-of-town, big-ticket variety – occasionally sneaks into these places as an interloper – and that jazz is sporadically heard at Koerner Hall, Massey Hall, the Sony Centre and other theatres. I also realize jazz is not as big a ticket or as entrenched as some of these other art forms, but neither is it a cultural Johnny-come-lately; it has existed for over a century now and has a long and rich history in Toronto. The talent has certainly always been here but the support for it has been sorely lacking in any official sense.

I’m not suggesting that jazz needs anything as grand as some of these cultural palaces. I’m proposing a centrally located and modest-sized concert hall with the usual amenities, seating perhaps 400, with an adjoining club space for more casual presentations, the screening of jazz films, lectures and so on.

So why is jazz treated as a second-class citizen here? Is it because it’s seen as an American import? Well, don’t look now, but most of the music played at the aforementioned venues is European in origin. And if nationalism is your game, then consider this: as a primarily improvised music, jazz comes from inside the musicians playing it, so jazz played by Canadians is directly Canadian. When you listen to a Mike Murley or a Neil Swainson or a John MacLeod play, you’re listening to quintessential Canadians.

The notion of a dedicated jazz centre isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Many cities in Europe, which values art and culture more highly than North America does, have full-time state-sponsored jazz orchestras with composers-in-residence performing and broadcasting regularly in state-of-the-art venues. Canadian composers are frequent guest artists with these groups – why doesn’t Toronto have something like this?

Harley Card Quartet at the Yardbird Suite, November 2017We needn’t look as far away as Europe though. Let us consider Edmonton, which for 60 years now has had the Yardbird Suite, entirely run by volunteers from the city’s jazz society. It’s easily the best jazz club in Canada and recently received a much-needed renovation, courtesy of the Alberta Heritage fund. Yes, that’s right, government money being poured into jazz. The recently and lamentably departed Tommy Banks, an Edmonton cultural icon and senator, likely had much to do with this, but that only demonstrates what political support of jazz can achieve. If a smaller and more isolated city like Edmonton has this, why can’t Toronto? What’s our excuse?

My advocacy for a full-time jazz performance centre is not intended to take anything away from other Toronto jazz institutions such as The Rex, Jazz Bistro, Home Smith Bar, JPEC, or JAZZ.FM. Their contributions are all laudable and essential – it’s just that Toronto jazz could use more of a central home which could work hand-in-hand with these other sites and organizations.

Such a centre would not only require political support, but that the Toronto jazz community mobilize itself and get organized. So if all you hardcore jazz fans – and I know you’re out there – want to know what you can do, try writing a letter to your local representative urging greater support for jazz. Or the next time you’re in a club that doesn’t have a cover charge for the music, suggest to the management that they institute one so the band could be paid better. I know it sounds crazy, but it might just work. For years now, Toronto has in its heart of hearts wanted to be New York. Well, New York has Lincoln Center and Toronto has nothing of the kind; New York also has citizens who know that jazz costs money. Coincidence? I think not.

If any of this sounds bitter or querulous, it’s not. I’m not personally bitter because I’m 61 and have been playing jazz successfully for over 40 years, with just about everybody imaginable. I’ve had my innings; it’s the future of jazz and young musicians I’m speaking on behalf of. This may seem like a longshot jazz fantasy but we have to start somewhere, perhaps with just the articulation of this simple wish and idea. Besides, as the old song asks, I can dream, can’t I? 

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.

Shortly after I wrote my February 2018 column I had the unexpected opportunity to see a show that at first I wouldn’t have categorized as belonging to music theatre but which, after seeing, I think fits this category as much as it fits any category at all. Brodsky/Baryshnikov offered the extraordinary experience of listening to the great dance artist Mikhail Baryshnikov speak the poetry of his friend and fellow Russian exile, Joseph Brodsky, intermittently breaking into poetic and achingly evocative moments of choreographed movement in reaction to and interpretation of a soundtrack consisting of profound and mostly darkly sorrowful poetry spoken in the recorded voice of his friend. Not a play, not a musical, there was no music at all except for the sonorous quality of the two male voices, mellow and alternately melancholic and passionate, speaking in the traditional Russian poetic cadence. A fascinating evening.

February continued with exciting variations on the music theatre theme with the latest edition of Tapestry Opera’s Tap:Ex (a series created to explore the future of opera, particularly through cross-disciplinary hybrids). Tap:Ex Forbidden, based on an idea of Iranian-born composer Afarin Mansouri, combined her mix of classical Persian music and opera with a libretto by Afro-Caribbean hip-hop artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, in the service of a story that featured a very strong and talented small cast and an unexpected use of Lucifer as an instigator of rightful rebellion. The show equates the biblical eating of the apple to not only the acquiring of knowledge but, through that knowledge, the freedom and strength to rebel against a wrongfully authoritarian regime and to rise up for what is right. This heady mix of genres (including rapping in Farsi) gave power to the expression of a Persia aching to find a new modern identity. Seeing many members of the Persian/Iranian community in the audience clearly moved by the experience only added to the power of the evening.

February also saw the homecoming to the Royal Alexandra Theatre of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s heartwarming, hilarious, foot-stomping and inspiring Canadian musical Come From Away, with an almost entirely Canadian cast who astound with their talent and versatility. This innovative, deceptively simple yet complex musical – based on the true events of 9/11 when 38 planes carrying 7000 passengers were stranded for five days in Gander, Newfoundland – grabs at the heart while also making you laugh. So explosively positive was the opening week that the run was immediately extended another six weeks to October 21. (I reviewed the opening performance on our website and can’t wait to see the show again.)

March on, March on!

March looks to be equally full of musical highlights, the biggest of which is the world premiere at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, with music by Canadian composer James Rolfe and libretto and direction by prolific theatre creator and director Morris Panych. (Please see the feature article elsewhere in this issue.) In terms of categories, this new Overcoat could be seen as part opera (it is sung through) but also as part musical, in terms of pace and drive, in both the words and the music, in the service both of the narrative and of breaking open the ideas at the heart of Gogol’s original short story

Fides KruckerAlso at Canadian Stage is another experimental work on a smaller scale: in this body (March 14 to 18), a new creation by acclaimed Canadian vocalist Fides Kruker and her ensemble, along with some of Canada’s top contemporary dancers, Laurence Lemieux, Heidi Strauss, and the luminous Peggy Baker who also choreographs. (Peggy Baker is very much on the Toronto scene these days having also just presented Map By Years with her own company at the Theatre Centre last month, a retrospective of her solo creations with a new solo created for her by Sarah Chase.) Using choreography and voice, in this body will explore “the wilderness of a woman’s heart” through a score made up of Canadian popular song by Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, k.d. lang, Feist and more.

Meanwhile, over at Soulpepper, their extremely popular concert series turns to Paris in the 20s for A Moveable Feast, interweaving song and story to bring alive the world of post-WWI expats and European artists in the City of Light.

An American at the Princess

Paris is also at the heart of another big musical coming to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre towards the end of the month: An American in Paris. The 2015 Tony Award winner and Broadway and London hit is finally coming to Toronto, starring McGee Maddox, a favourite of ballet fans as a beloved former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.

An American in Paris touring company The 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron has always been one of my favourites (as it is of many people) so I am curious to see how I will feel about this new stage version. Although inspired by the film and its beloved Gershwin score, it has also gone beyond those templates to try and create a darker or more realistic version of a Paris recovering from the ravages of occupation and privation during WWII.

So why try to recreate this beloved movie onstage when you can watch it any time? The answer, it seems, was that the success of the 1990s Gershwin musical Crazy for You (developed by Mike Okrent from the original Girl Crazy) prompted the Gershwin estate to inquire into making a stage musical out of An American in Paris as well. According to broadway.com, they approached producers Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan with this idea but it took years to find the right path and the right creative team. Eventually Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light in the Piazza) came on board to write the book, and ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (who had choreographed An American in Paris as a ballet for the New York City Ballet in 2005) came on board as director and choreographer.

What Lucas and Wheeldon have brought to the original story of Jerry, an American G.I. painter staying on in Paris after the war and falling in love with Lise, a sweet but spunky Parisian girl, is the added dimension of a Paris more affected by the war, and characters also with a darker or sadder side. There are hints of this in the original movie (Lise’s parents worked for the resistance, Jerry fought through and survived the war and doesn’t want to return to the States), but here they are given more emphasis. Oscar Levant’s role of Adam (Jerry’s concert pianist friend in the film) has also been given more depth, and Lise has been made an aspiring ballet dancer, so that, as Christopher Wheeldon has said, the new version plays on two fronts: “the friendship and the bonding and the love story,” but also the “creation of art and the struggle to create art.”

Adaptation is a difficult and fascinating art whatever the original material; while this adaptation of a beloved classic film musical has been lauded and given many awards, it will be interesting to see for ourselves how well it works for Toronto audiences. I am curious about the added darkness (Leslie Caron herself suffered through the occupation of Paris so it must have informed her original performance despite how Hollywood-happy the movie is). I’m curious as well about the choreography and how well it will stand up to Gene Kelly’s original dances for the film (for which he received an honorary Academy Award). When something is that iconic and entrenched in people’s memories, how do you match it?

McGee Maddox as Jerry in An American in ParisFinding the right triple threat performers for the two main leads has reportedly been a difficult and time-consuming process, but if the choice of McGee Maddox as Jerry is any indication, we’re in luck. Already very familiar with Wheeldon’s choreography, Maddox made a considerable impact as Leontes, the role of the jealous king in Wheeldon’s ballet version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (a ballet created after An American in Paris, but seen in Toronto both in 2016 and this past fall).

Altogether, March is shaping up to be an exciting month for music theatre in the city.

News has just broken as I write this that a year from now Dear Evan Hansen, the musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book) which won the Tony award for best musical in 2017, will have its first international production beginning in Toronto in March 2019, in partnership with David Mirvish. Another good opportunity for Canadian music theatre performers, and exciting for music theatre fans.

QUICK PICKS

Mar 8 to 18: Rudolph Nureyev’s version of the classic Petipa ballet Sleeping Beauty, to Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, features his famous introspective solos for the prince, as well as the classic rose adagio for Princess Aurora and the fabulous fun of the wicked fairy Carabosse. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Mar 14 to 25: Gobsmacked at the newly renamed CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic) sounds intriguing as it promises an evening of interwoven stories told solely through a cappella singing from “traditional street corner harmonies to cutting-edge, multi-track live looping.”

Mar 16 to 17: newly rebranded Toronto Musical Concerts (TMC), a professional not-for-profit company with a mandate to provide educational and community outreach through the performing arts, presents a staged reading of Sondheim’s classic Company at Eastminster United Church (310 Danforth Ave.) to benefit The Canadian Safe School Network (647-298-9338).

Mar 16 to 25: On the community music theatre front, the North Toronto Players present Lear Incorporated, their own new “operetta meets musical comedy” version of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, featuring music by Arthur Sullivan, Bizet and others.

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

It is with deep sadness that I have to report on the loss of another giant from our musical world. On January 22, just 11 days after his 92nd birthday, we lost Johnny Cowell, one of Canada’s most outstanding trumpet soloists. Rather than write some form of formal obituary, I would prefer to just recall a few situations over the years where our paths crossed. As is so often the case in the world of music, I cannot state with any certainty when or where I first heard the name Johnny Cowell or when I first met him. As I have mentioned in previous columns, there was a time when band tattoos were a significant part of summer festivities in many towns in southwestern Ontario. I know that his first band experience was with the Tillsonburg Citizens’ Band. At that time, I was a regular member of the Kiwanis Boys’ Band in Windsor. In a conversation with Johnny a few years ago I learned that we had both played in many of same tattoos. I know that he had played trumpet solos in some of these events. I may well have heard his solos then. However, the only young star trumpet player from those days that I remember was Ellis McClintock, later with the Toronto Symphony for many years.

Johnny CowellFast forward 20 or more years, and there I was playing in the same band as Johnny, with Ellis as the leader. It was a band, now long forgotten, for the Toronto Argonaut football club. Yes, even though the Argonaut head office appears to have no record of this band, from 1957 to 1967 the Argos had a 48-piece professional marching band which performed fancy routines on the field at all home games. Why would musicians of Johnny’s stature play in a football club band. Well, if you like football, why not get well paid union fees to watch a game? Since I was playing trombone in the front row and Johnny was playing trumpet in the back, we certainly had no contact with each other during rehearsals or performances. However, that is where we first met.

During the times between rehearsals and performances there were usually small groups chatting. Frequently, the topic would turn to Johnny’s many compositions, particularly those on the hit parade. His 1956 ballad Walk Hand in Hand, which was just one of his many hits, could be heard on every radio station in those days. Actually, it was reported that at one time Johnny had more numbers on the US hit list than any other writer of popular music. However, his writing wasn’t limited to that genre. He was equally at home writing for trumpet and brass ensembles. I frequently play selections from the Johnny Cowell CDs in my collection. I am amazed at the gamut his trumpet works run. At one end of the spectrum there is his dazzling Roller Coaster and on the other end, his Concerto in E Minor for Trumpet and Symphony Orchestra.

My contact with Johnny was limited over the years, but there are a few meetings that come back to me regularly. Shortly after I began writing this column, I arranged to meet Johnny to get an update on his musical activities. Our meeting was anything but formal. It wasn’t at his home or at The WholeNote office. It was on a park bench in the town of Stouffville, not far from my home and close to the home of a family member of his. A few years after that it was a chance meeting during a break in one of the Hannaford Silver Band’s weekend events. Along with Jack Long of Long & McQuade, we discussed a somewhat less-than-serious subject, i.e. whether or not the names that we were using were the names on our birth certificates. The name “Johnny” was, in fact, the name on his birth certificate. For the other two of us, “Jack” was not our given name.

Then there was the time two years ago when I had the privilege of attending Johnny’s 90th birthday party. During that event, for a short while, I was flanked by two great figures in the Canadian music scene, Johnny and Eddie Graf. Now we have lost them both. At times one wonders how things might have been if Johnny had not turned down attractive offers which might have brought him fame by writing for stage productions or getting involved in the Nashville scene. While the trumpet was his all-abiding first musical love, that for his wife Joan and their family always had precedence.

By the time this issue is released, the Encore Symphonic Concert Band will be presenting a “Tribute to Johnny Cowell” in their regular noon hour concert, playing many of Johnny’s arrangements, on Thursday March 1. I’m sure that similar tributes will be presented by many other bands in the area over the coming months. Tell me about them and I’ll pass the word along.

A public memorial/celebration of life for Johnny will be held on Monday, March 12 at 7:30pm. It will take place at Scarborough Bluffs United Church, 3739 Kingston Rd, near the intersection of Kingston Rd. and Scarborough Golf Club Rd.

Junior Bands

Speaking of junior bands, it has just come to our attention that the 2018 National Youth Band will be hosted this year in Montreal by the Quebec Band Association. The guest conductor will be Wendy McCallum from Brandon University. We understand that this will be taking place in May, but don’t yet have confirmation on precise dates or location. The Yamaha Guest Soloist, on clarinet, will be Simon Aldrich from McGill University.

Changes

Over the years new bands spring up, old ones disappear and some undergo a significant transition. One group undergoing a major transition is the several New Horizons Bands in the Toronto area. Since their beginning close to ten years ago, the man at the helm has been Dan Kapp. However, not only is Dan relinquishing his leadership on the Toronto New Horizons scene, he is moving to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, soon after his wife Lisa retires from her teaching post this coming June. Rather than have a single person at the helm, now with quite a number of New Horizons bands in the Toronto area, there is scheduled to be a governing committee made up from the membership of the various NH bands. I hope to have more details on New Horizons activities soon.

It is always refreshing to learn of new groups arising from scratch. We just learned of a new swing band which is starting to make its mark. A frequent dilemma is how to give a new band a distinct name for people to associate with them. So, last summer a group forming up in Aurora decided that they should have a name that was unique, but easily recognized as having an affiliation with the name Aurora. Their name: the Borealis Big Band. The band is under the musical direction of Gord Shephard, a longtime resident of Aurora. He is the music director of the Aurora Community Band, as well as an instructor and conductor at York University where he is a PhD Candidate studying community music.

I was invited to attend one of this band’s rehearsals on January 31 and was almost blown away by a group that had just had its first rehearsal in September 2017. I heard a real powerhouse with a repertoire unlike that of any group that I have known. I asked a couple of members to describe this, and I received a variety of answers. The answer from Shephard was: “The Borealis Big Band was set up to provide an opportunity for members to play a wide variety of big band jazz styles including swing, funk, smooth and Latin/Cuban, and to play it to the highest quality possible with lots of room for improvisation for all interested members.” Unlike most such groups, when the band was formed they had designated leaders for each section. Their Debut Concert” went amazingly well. In the words of bassist Carl Finkle: “It was so much fun playing to a sold-out house for our first ever gig.” Their next scheduled performance will be on Friday June 22 at 8pm at the Old Town Hall, Newmarket, 460 Botsford St. We’ll have more on that in a later column.

Coming

On Sunday, March 4 at 3:30pm, the Wychwood Clarinet Choir will present their “Midwinter Sweets” program featuring an assortment of selections arranged by Roy Greaves, Alan Witkin, Richard Moore, Maarten Jense and Frank J. Halferty. Featured will be Five Bagatelles, Op.23 by Gerald Finzi, with artistic director Michele Jacot as clarinet soloist. Steve MacDonald, as tenor saxophone soloist, will perform Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on my Mind. Also on the program will be Minuet from “A Downland Suiteby John Ireland, Rikudim, Four Israeli Folk Dances by Jan Van der Roost and Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk. This concert will be held at The Church of Saint Michael and all Angels, 611 St. Clair Ave. W.

While it is a bit in the future, we might as well look ahead a bit to spring. The Clarington Concert Band’s annual spring concert will take place at 7:30pm on Saturday April 21 at Hope Fellowship Church in Courtice. As always, the program has something for everyone, with music from the band Chicago, to jazz and Broadway standards sung by their popular vocalist, Liza Heitzner. Clarinetist Katherine Carleton will perform Gordon Jenkins’ Blue Prelude and alto saxophonist Liz Jamischek will pay tribute to longtime Ellington soloist Johnny Hodges, with her rendition of Harlem Nocturne. The band’s regular conductor will be away and the band will be under the direction of Shawn Hills. Now retired after decades of heading the music program at Bowmanville High School, she is excited to direct her inaugural post-retirement concert with the Clarington Concert Band.

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

In the February issue of HalfTones, our between-print-issues e-letter, we ran a story by Sara Constant on this year’s recipients of the TD Toronto Jazz Discoveries Series Awards, now in its eighth year.

As described in that story, the series started in 2011 as a part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s outreach to local performers creating original work, and to year-round, multi-venue jazz programming in the city. “Each year, an assembled Toronto Jazz Fest jury selects four projects to receive support and funding from the festival. Over the last eight years,” the story continues, “the series has accumulated an alumni list that serves as a veritable who’s who of local jazz innovators –[helping] transform the festival from an annual affair into a year-round showcase of local music-making.”

It’s not hard to see how this year’s four recipients fit the bill: Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble at Lula Lounge, March 1; the Heavyweights Brass Band at Lula Lounge, March 29; Adrean Farrugia and Joel Frahm at Gallery 345, April 27; and a show curated by Aline Homzy titled The Smith Sessions Presents: Bitches Brew at Canadian Music Centre, April 28.

Just as interesting as the alumni, from the perspective of this column, is taking a look at the venues that have been the most active participants in this initiative over the years, both the ones you’d expect to find mentioned regularly here, and also the ones you might not usually associate with jazz.

The Heavyweights Brass BandLula leads: of the usual venues you’d expect to be involved, Lula Lounge leads the pack, starting with the series’ first-ever concert, a Fern Lindzon CD release in April 2011. Since then the Dundas St. W. venue has hosted series concerts by Jaron Freeman-Fox in February 2013, a Heavyweights Brass Band CD release concert in March 2014, Alexander Brown in March 25, Sundar Viswanathan’s AVATAAR in March 2016 and Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School CD release in January of last year. And this year the beat continues with Harley Card, March 1 and The Heavyweights in a return visit on March 29.

The Rex and Jazz Bistro: as you might expect, the city’s two premier mainstream venues are both in the running for silver and bronze, with three appearances each over the eight years. The Rex has been venue of choice for a Barry Elmes Quintet CD Release in March 2011, a Nick Fraser double-CD release in May 2016, and The Further Adventures of Jazz Money (Dillan Ponders, Apt and Ghettosocks) in March 2017. And the Bistro has hosted a Beverly Taft Meets the Nathan Hiltz Orchestra CD release concert in April 2014, a first big gig for the Alex Goodman Chamber Quintet in April 2015 and Robi Botos’ Movin’ Forward CD Release in March 2015.

Gallery 345: When you get past those three obvious choices, though, you’re entering some interesting territory – venues with audiences more often in other genres but offering fertile ground for jazz. Gallery 345 on Sorauren heads the list: Mike Downes in March 2012, Shannon Graham and The Storytellers in April 2013, and the Nancy Walker Quintet in 2014. Adrean Farrugia and Joel Frahm (April 27 this year) will actually push Ed Epstein’s little-gallery-that-could ahead of its more storied mainstream colleagues into the silver medal spot.

The Best Rest

Space doesn’t permit the same level of detail for the rest of the venues used to date for the series, but the point is that there are venues out there for putting on shows for audiences that are there to listen. The Music Gallery, previously at St. George the Martyr Church on John St., and its new housemates at 918 Bathurst Cultural Centre have been used four times so far. Small World Music Centre, Alliance Française, the late-lamented Trane Studio, the Lower Ossington Theatre, Knox Presbyterian and Beit Zatoun have also all been used. This year the Canadian Music Centre on St. Joseph joins the list.

If the series continues to encourage adventurous venue hunting as much as it does adventurous music-making, it will continue to serve a worthwhile purpose.

publisher@thewholenote.com

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

John Storgards conducts The Planets with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.On the evening of January 25, I walked one lap around Roy Thomson Hall’s circular theatre lobby before ascending to my mezzanine seat, and felt the world starting to spin. Attending a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, I questioned whether the pieces on the program would work together – a composition by a 20th-century Russian-born composer, a new Canadian work, and a widely-known orchestral masterwork – but under the expert leadership of guest conductor John Storgårds, they did. Common dynamics and dispositions threaded together feelings of mystery and triumph, and recurring arpeggiated motifs created circular orbs of sound that seemed to spin themselves right out to space. Storgårds’ energizing style, and ability to draw out these common threads, made this one of the most exciting orchestral concerts I have ever seen.

The concert opened with the Canadian premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s recently rediscovered Funeral Song, which he wrote in honour of his deceased mentor, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was thought lost for years until musicologist Natalia Braginskaya and librarian Irina Sidorenko unearthed it in 2015 from the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory archives in St. Petersburg. It began almost inaudibly, with rapid wavering notes from the basses that denoted a sense of tantalizing horror. Storgårds thrust his baton in the air, ordering the strings into stammering phrases. I originally anticipated a nostalgic mood for music in remembrance of the dead, but was surprised to experience an eerie tone that almost signified a fear of death – magnificent enough to reach beyond the piece’s 12-minute length.

There was a short transition on the stage before JUNO-nominated John Estacio’s Trumpet Concerto, featuring TSO Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless as the soloist. The three movements took inspiration from Greek mythology – particularly Poseidon’s son Triton, whose conch shell was used as a trumpet to control the ocean waters.

The first movement, “Triton’s Trumpet,” reminded me of a coastline thunderstorm, with the trumpet and orchestra ruthlessly battling. The strings sounded like gusts of wind hitting cliffs, while the trumpet – the determined bird – dodged dynamic bursts of percussive lightning. At one point, McCandless put his trumpet mute in as if to indicate that he was finally being overcome, but this was short-lived. He played so frequently that he often wiped the condensation on his upper lip. After a climactic finish, the audience hesitated to clap, until he spoke up, saying: “It was really hard work!”

The following “Ballad” movement sounded, in contrast, like the morning after a storm, while the final “Rondo” movement had a quicker tempo and triumphant trumpet lines. With an abrupt ending to the concerto, McCandless hit a final note, as if a ribbon of hope was being pulled out of his horn. The act ended with a heartfelt embrace between him and Storgårds.

After the intermission, the hall was buzzing with excitement over the impending planetary phenomenon. Composed by Gustav Holst from 1914 to 1916, The Planets is his most popular work, with seven movements inspired by seven different planets.

The first – “Mars, The Bringer of War” – is believed to have a connection to the First World War with its cold resonance. The high-energy pace was dictated by the strings’ bouncing bows, with Storgårds literally jumping into phrases. This movement in particular shares similarities with Star Wars’ “Imperial March” – and in fact, Holst was a big inspiration for John Williams when composing for the film.

The second movement phased from night to day. “Venus, The Bringer of Peace” was calm and collected, while the harp delicately fluttered overtop smooth and quietly executed harmonies. This paved the way nicely for “Mercury, The Winged Messenger” – which, for the smallest and fastest-spinning planet, proved to be an act of swift call-and-response with a sudden finish.

The brass section came back in full force for the majestic “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity.” Here, their warm tones made me feel the safest I had felt all night. A gentle beast – the sound of the biggest planet – this movement was triumphant and celebratory, with playful tambourines reminiscent of happy movie music.

“Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” was a bit of an odd movement. With two wavering notes that slowly repeated throughout, I was reminded of an ancient grandfather clock, ticking ever so slowly enough to lull me into a trance. Following this, the start of “Uranus, The Magician” was like an elephant parade entering the circus. Storgårds worked hard to keep up with the varying tempo, and began to look like a magician himself as he cast the cymbal crashes. At one point, the bass and cello players seemed almost to headbang in time, and I wanted to put up my devil horns – rock on!

The final movement – “Neptune, The Mystic,” inspired by the farthest known planet at the time – capitalized on the mysterious nature of space. The side stage door eerily opened to a wormhole of darkness. The phosphorescent tone and pace seemed to slowly create a glowing orb of light sparkling with magical dust. Coming from the darkness offstage were the voices of the Elmer Iseler Singers, who mesmerized patrons with haunting phrases until the door slowly shut and their voices diminished into near-silence.

The expertly curated program and Storgårds’ elaborate conducting style deserved the explosive standing ovation. It was a night that felt larger than life, and looking down at the full-size orchestra, the higher elevated seats proved to be the best place to hear the orchestra’s sound. I left the performance feeling as though I could take on the strength of any planet.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Holst The Planets” from January 25 to 27, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Arianna Benincasa has a lifelong passion for all things music and currently works at an audio post-production and recording studio. With a dedication to sharing her many concert experiences, she now is in pursuit of starting her own music blog. It is her goal to continually support the arts and culture communities in Toronto.

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

Andrew McCandless (trumpet) plays Estacio's Trumpet Concerto, with the TSO under John Storgards. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Music, one suspects, could take an audience travelling through time and space. It captures sentiment, it encases zeitgeist, and it embodies so much truth for those who are passionate about it. On the evening of January 25, when I settled in for “Holst The Planets” at Roy Thomson Hall, the musician-laden stage seemed to me like a full-fledged starship bridge. Within two hours’ time, a mundane life could be decanted and fermented; the imagination could be set free to relish every moment in the past, present and future.

Under the baton of Finnish conductor John Storgårds, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) took its audience on a celestial journey, which included three orchestral works: Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song for Orchestra, Op. 5., John Estacio’s stunning Trumpet Concerto and the titular Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

It started with the Canadian premiere of the 12-minute Funeral Song. For 106 years the piece had been lost, after its first and only performance in 1909. After years of searching, the sheet music was miraculously rediscovered in the archives of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

“There is not one living person who had this music performed…” said Valery Gergiev, who conducted its modern premiere in 2016. Despite the vicissitudes of the past century, the music itself remains intact, free of dust or rust: it opens with the murmuring double bass, soon joined by dark tones in the brass and woodwinds. Solemnly heavy, it reveals Stravinsky’s sorrow – that of a student’s towards his beloved teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s, death. The strings amplify his lament, sustained by the lowest instruments of the orchestra, with piercing flutes afloat overtop. At one point, a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov’s chromaticism starts to weave in and out; Storgårds handles it with subtlety, as if he is speaking in the language of music with the two Russian maestros. During the standing ovation following the piece, Storgårds held the full score in his hand and saluted the audience, and I saw in him and the orchestra a sincere fulfillment at having retrieved the lost gem – an expression almost like faith.

John Estacio’s newly-composed Trumpet Concerto, featuring TSO Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless, followed. The first movement, “Triton’s Trumpet,” begins with a misty sea of strings, in which the opening ascending trumpet melody stirs up the brutal waves of a storm. McCandless captures all of these changes in texture, with a rendition that possesses some romantic softness. In an introductory online video about the piece, McCandless says of the second movement “Ballad”, “…it reminds me of the kind of music that might be playing as you sit in the planetarium on your back, gazing at the ceiling to see the stars.” The last movement, “Rondo”, with flashbacks of the first, is vigorous and vivid – like a Flamenco fan being flicked open and shut, with notes running along the folds.

Then Holst’s The Planets takes off. Written to capture the astrological character of the planets, this suite can be considered a precursor to cinematic sci-fi music composition. With Storgårds’ precision and tastefulness, “Mars, The Bringer of War” is full of vital force and energy. The strings, playing col legno (using the wooden part of the bow to strike the string), bring a crisp clarity to the menacing opening. The fanfare soon follows, and ignites a jumping flame. Then in the second movement, “Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” all the musicians quickly immerse themselves in supreme tranquility and sweetness. The contrast is beautifully executed by the violins, harps and flutes; their voices are scattered throughout the delicate orchestration.

Playfulness is prominent in “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” where an ostinato cascades between different instruments to create a light-hearted atmosphere. Storgårds’ interpretation of “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” is on the slow side – likely only slightly faster than Eugene Ormandy’s 1977 rendition with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Majestic and powerful, it is the earworm that perpetually encourages one to explore outer space, or in a sense, the realm of gods.

In “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” and “Uranus, The Magician,” it is as if one can hear time being compressed, warped and distorted, particularly with the metallic touches from the harps, brass and percussion. The ethereal women’s choir at the end of “Neptune, The Mystic” that concludes the suite – here sung offstage by the Elmer Iseler Singers – resembles a black hole devouring all of the instrumental power. I was left spellbound.

One interesting thing to note was the etiquette for clapping. After McCandless gave a sublime performance of the first movement, the audience was eager but somewhat hesitant to applaud (due to the conventional “no clapping between movements”) – and he gestured as if to say “go ahead.” Later, some excited audience members burst into applause between movements of The Planets, but were hissed at by some others who obviously considered it a faux-pas.

In researching this further, I found a riveting special report on applause by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. He made note of a conversation with pianist Emanuel Ax, where Ax said, “I think that if there were no ‘rules’ about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always.”

I came away happily concluding that the TSO is attracting people with new ears, such that it continues to be a starship taking new passengers on unprecedented adventures. Classical music, to trained ears, is intriguingly about forms, concepts and styles, on the conscious level; subconsciously, to everyone, going to a concert is an inexpressible act of love. Norms and traditions are constantly changing – but from the intricate sections of folded time and place where music lies, one can always find moments to enjoy.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Holst The Planets” from January 25 to 27, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Wei Shen studied management and finance at the University of Toronto. Passionate about literature, classical music and visual arts, she is launching her career as a film director.

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