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

Thomas Dausgaard conducting the TSO on February 20. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.If familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps similarity can too.

At the outset, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s evening performance on February 20 was full of promise. Comprising the North American premiere of Rued Langgaard’s Prelude to Antikrist, a guest performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126 by cello virtuoso Alisa Weilerstein and the typically crowd-pleasing finale of Concerto for Orchestra from Béla Bartók, it was a program designed for dramatic orchestration and exhilarating rigour. Yet there can be too much of a good thing, and it was this sentiment that became pervasive by the night’s conclusion.

It isn’t surprising to find similarities between the three pieces. All were composed during the early- to mid-20th century and mix tradition with modern experimentation. In an opening speech, guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, a familiar face who previously conducted Weilerstein’s performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 with the TSO in 2012, suggested that the three works collectively express a longing and hope for a better life and world. Bartók and Shostakovich’s compositions perhaps reflect the chaos of their oppressive societies – Bartók living amidst the backdrop of World War II and Shostakovich under the USSR’s strict regime – while Langaard’s Prelude offers a contrasting portrait of paradise. Having the conductor introduce the program was charming, and Dausgaard’s enthusiasm set a positive tone for the evening.

The Prelude to Antikrist begins with an expansive swell that softens into a serene interplay of horns and strings. Airy and light melodies contrast with invigorating crescendos, and layers of instrumentation are continually added and removed throughout to dramatic effect. Like the two pieces to follow, the Prelude features noticeable percussion: chimes evoke the bells at heaven’s gate, gentle timpani cuts through otherwise-silent pauses and ringing xylophone chords all add to the celestial feel. Building to a climax of blaring horns, calmness is restored once more with gentle pizzicato at the conclusion.

Following a brief pause, Weilerstein took the stage for the highlight of the evening, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126. A brilliant technician, Weilerstein boldly plunged into the dark waters of Shostakovich’s concerto. Beginning with a mournful cadenza, Weilerstein was gradually joined by the cellos, basses and violas in the largo first movement before the violins made a bursting entrance. If Langgaard’s Prelude envisioned a glorious paradise, Shostakovich’s piece can almost be heard as a mocking parody, as sweeping melodies build towards frantic climaxes marked by heavily detached, accented staccato.

There is a labouring heaviness to the concerto that Weilerstein brought forth with precise control of dynamics, continually building tension with fiery crescendos before pulling back. She was a force to be reckoned with, her dramatic and emotional performance filled with intense pizzicato and mournful tones.

As the concerto moves into the second and third movements (both Allegretto), French horns make their presence known at jarring outbursts before retreating as slow, legato phrasing returns. Xylophone and snare drum continually drive the piece forward, evoking the sense of time marching onwards amidst dark internal despair. Blazing horns help build the piece to a fortissimo climax before it collapses once more into a gentle, haunting exchange between cello and woodwinds to close.

Following the emotional turmoil and dark introspection offered by the Shostakovich, it would have been a welcome choice to end the evening on a brighter, or at least more peaceful, note. However, in almost a continuation of the previous piece, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra opens with mournful legato phrasing from the cello section. Bursting trumpets give the first movement an element of fanfare, yet the dramatic outbursts are highly reminiscent of the previous work and become increasingly less jarring and impactful as the night goes on.

Lighter in tone, the second movement is characterized by lively percussion and horns before the third movement, “Elegia,” darkens once again: ethereal flutes and piccolo give it a mystical tone, contrasting with thunderous horns and a strings section playing with fortissimo rigour. The fourth movement lightens slightly, with sweeping melodies and bursts of horns, before the fifth and final movement returns to staccato and glorious fanfare, the interplay of horns and strings building to an uninhibited and rousing conclusion.

Yet by the time the orchestra got there, the full dramatic effect of Bartók’s finale was lost. There are noticeable stylistic similarities between all three works, particularly those of Shostakovich and Bartók, and placing the latter two side-by-side on a bill hindered the sense of drama. By the searing conclusion of the Concerto for Orchestra, there was a desensitization from nearly two hours of bold and dramatic musical material. More expansive melodies rose into furious crescendos and frantic bow strokes. More blazing horns collapsed into eerie pianissimo softness. Although Dausgaard formidably conducted the TSO orchestra to soaring climaxes, the overall sameness of the programming blunted the full impact of the evening.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Alisa Weilerstein” on February 20 and 21, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Erin Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Toronto. A former violist and dancer, she graduated from the University of Toronto with her Masters in English. She currently runs Truths + Edits, a literary blog that examines all things books.

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

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and conductor Thomas Dausgaard with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.For better and worse, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) February 20 performance reminded me of a fundamental (if discomfiting) truth about the art of music: it doesn’t have to make you feel good to be good. While the program billed solo cellist Alisa Weilerstein as its headliner – and gave her ample room to blow the audience away with her vigorous interpretation of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2 – it was aesthetically anchored by conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s presentation of two other 20th-century European works, Rued Langgaard’s Prelude to Antikrist and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Briefly addressing the audience prior to the performance, Dausgaard described the works as depictions of crisis, confusion and sociocultural “upside-downness” – not dissimilar from the times we live in today. Yet all three composers, he added, also expressed hope for a better world through the sheer beauty of their music. Dausgaard’s comments conveyed a vision of classical music as something that can elevate us beyond the everyday, delivering a nobler and better feeling than any available in reality. Where the evening’s performances really shone, though, was in their exhibition of something quite different: a demanding, even stressful disunity that made the audience work – with both their minds and their hearts – to be compelled by the frictions, tensions and disparities of the modern world.

The concert opened with the North American premiere of the Prelude to Antikrist by Rued Langgaard – a prolific Danish composer whose works Dausgaard, also Danish, has premiered abroad before. In the piece’s opening salvos, Dausgaard’s quavering hands guided sounds both epic and trancelike, perfectly capturing the sense of moral aimlessness he had alluded to in his introductory address. These early passages also made brilliant use of layered dynamics, as individual notes by the violins, violas and cellos stood out only briefly before fading back into the haunting swell. But as soon as the brass began to dominate the sound, I found myself pulled out of the reverie: the cohesion between the orchestra’s instrument groups dissolved, and the rhythm began to feel flatter and more mechanical than the divine presence that had inspired it. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but the orchestra seemed unable to deliver the sense of salvation Langgaard hoped would counteract Antikrist’s apocalyptic setting.

Of the night’s three works, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126, composed in the Soviet Union in 1966, most highlighted the evocative disjunctions between instruments, styles and sounds that defined the evening. Several phrases of Shostakovich’s composition felt like interruptions – especially the xylophone, which sounded perversely bubbly against the sombre solo cello. But I soon realized that these jarring contrasts were exactly the point: the interruptions themselves made the music what it was. This came to the fore in a duet (of sorts) between the bass drum – whose thwack and boom seemed excessively, even disturbingly loud – and Weilerstein’s cello, which jerked between harshly contrasting phrases like a puppet of the drummer’s whims.

Weilerstein’s performance as soloist easily surpassed expectations. As the composition evolved beyond the languorous and bone-chilling melodies of its first movement, she pushed her instrument further and further, clawing and shaking the cello as she engineered queasy pitch slides and convulsive pizzicatos. In one moment, I was airily borne along by soft, smooth trills, while the next would stop me dead with the sawing of an intense bow stroke. The effect was deeply and provocatively frightening, and I stepped out into intermission with my head rattled.

With the evening only half over following Weilerstein’s exit, the audience was left in Dausgaard’s hands for the duration of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s 1944 Concerto for Orchestra, originally composed for an American audience in the last years of his life. The piece brought out stellar performances by all sections of the orchestra as it careened through dizzying transitions of pitch, volume and texture, all reliably signalled by Dausgaard’s conducting. These were especially poignant during the work’s second movement, which used rousing, dancelike rhythms to set up single-instrument showcases including, notably, a sad and stately passage by the trombones against a snare drum. By the piece’s rambunctious fifth movement – described as a “life-assertion” by Bartók – Dausgaard was literally dancing on his conductor’s platform.

It seemed like the concerto’s final vibrant burst was exactly what the audience had been waiting for, and a standing ovation erupted almost immediately. I wondered, though, whether the night’s harmonious conclusion had been earned too easily, especially after Weilerstein’s virtuosically agonized performance in the evening’s first half. Personally, my favourite part of the Bartók had come not in the lively fifth, but the brief fourth movement, when the broken, brassy whine of a parade band evoked a deeply disunited, yet also diverse and compelling, territory of contrasting parts.

As a whole, the evening felt indebted to an enduring question about music: do we listen for the transcendent pleasure of things fitting together, or to reflect more deeply on the many ways they don’t? It may not always be comfortable – but for this performance at least, my lot was with the latter.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Alisa Weilerstein” on February 20 and 21, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

John Nyman is a poet, critic and scholar from Toronto. In addition to reviewing for Opera Canada and The Dance Current as part of the 2018/19 Emerging Arts Critics program, he has reviewed literature for publications including Broken Pencil and The Puritan as well as visual art for Border Crossings and Peripheral Review.

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

Barbara Hannigan with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.On the night following a brutally silencing storm, Toronto welcomed the illustrious Barbara Hannigan to the stage at Roy Thomson Hall, in her role as singer and conductor. I am part confused, part curious, and wholly excited to witness a woman spin a conventionally “man’s” position on its head. In anticipation of the performance, my friend asks, “Do you think she sings and conducts at the same time?” I respond, “Surely not.”

I was wrong. Over the course of the evening, Hannigan sang and conducted with keen devotion. Her uncompromising precision and vocal tenacity were astonishing – and with what felt like great risk and immense passion, she executed the seemingly impossible with comfortable ease. The result was nothing short of magnificent.

The evening consisted of five works spanning different centuries, regions and styles. It began with Debussy’s Syrinx performed by TSO principal flutist Kelly Zimba, who played from the fourth ring under a meek spotlight. The decision to locate her away from the orchestra created a whimsical atmosphere, as the sound hovered above the audience, a sensuous cloud of longing.

Syrinx was originally composed for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey. In the play, the piece is performed by the god Pan, after foolishly killing his unrequited lover, Syrinx. The brief solo is ominous and laced with tragic irony. Zimba had a quiet presence as she dipped her knees alongside the crescendo of her breath into her flute. I became transfixed with her translation of music into movement – and when the light turned towards the orchestra revealing Hannigan at its centre, I was ready.

Sibelius’s Luonnotar was the perfect transition. The Finnish tone poem, written for orchestra and soprano in 1890, depicts the divine process of creation, and here we got to witness Hannigan as both conductor and soloist. The piece began with a sudden rush of violin, punctuated with delicate vocals, and finally, ethereal layers of harp and clarinet.

Hannigan was striking as a singer, cutting the air with her glassy soprano. As a conductor, often facing us rather than the orchestra, Hannigan’s movement rested in her shoulders. They moved forward and jolted back as if being tugged by an invisible string, successfully determining cadence and steering dynamics.

It became clear to me, by the exactitude with which the orchestra operated, that each gesture, from the curl of a lip to a furrow of a brow, produced sound. The timpani player hushed its vibration with his palm, as the harpist snapped her wrist back to let her instrument ring. Towards the haunting end of the poem, Hannigan delivered a fierce cry against the gentle softness of the flute. The orchestra then fell completely silent, crystallizing the air – a silence ruptured by thunderous applause.

The third performance was Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 in D major. The orchestra was noticeably smaller and this time, Hannigan held a baton. She was magnetic, tiptoeing with the introduction of the trumpets, and using both hands to summon the percussion. Symphony No.86 is joyful and bound by contradictions, beginning cautiously only to turn into suspense and later celebration. The second movement, Capriccio, introduces a main theme that repeats itself in various unexpected instances – it is a stunning interplay of grace and urgency, and I found myself nodding my head in accordance with the twisting melodies.

Perhaps the most ravishing piece of the evening was the symphonic suite from the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu tells the story of a tormented woman adored by men – and eventually murdered by, oddly enough, Jack the Ripper. It is shrieking with violence and intense desire. For Hannigan, Lulu is not only her signature role played to critical acclaim but also what inspired her Grammy Award-winning album, Crazy Girl Crazy. As an audience member, it was evident Hannigan was in her most comfortable element.

In Berg’s Lulu suite, a larger orchestra began by offering lush, full sound suggestive of subtle yearning. There is a simple divinity in the synchronized dip of violin bows. This atmosphere of pained longing soon turned to a rapid search with the introduction of percussion, specifically the mysterious notes of the vibraphone. By the second movement, the mood was transformed into a hurried urgency, as if attempting to thwart a predicted collision. All the while, Hannigan conducted with precision, collecting anger, fear and grief in her shoulder and wrist movements. It was in this arresting motion, during the third movement, that she began to sing.

Her song took possession of her body as she was transformed into a frantic Lulu. At this instance, she was moments away from killing her lover, Dr. Schön. Hannigan’s searing soprano was fierce, justifying Lulu’s right to survive against the violent plea of the violins. Hannigan commanded both orchestra and her voice with remarkable ease.

The final performance launched us into the present day. In a suite derived from Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy, arranged by Hannigan and longtime collaborator Bill Elliott – themes exploring past love and present regret unfolded against a wonderfully catchy jazz melody. It was an apt finale, and a perfect continuation of Lulu’s anguish.

At one point, the musicians of the orchestra erupted in song, harmonizing with Hannigan and spontaneous laughter wrapped the auditorium. The result was spellbinding, effectively breaking the fourth wall between musician and listener, revealing that, much like Hannigan, orchestral musicians are multifaceted. In another instance of candid humour, the double bassists spun their instruments around to accent a chord. It is no surprise, then, that as they struck their final note and Hannigan stretched her arms in the air, we were instantly brought to our feet. Lasting applause ensued and welcomed multiple bows from Hannigan and the orchestra.

Throughout, Hannigan’s virtuosic sensibility shone brightly and her position as singer and conductor defied expectation. In a carefully curated evening of diverse works, we were left simply delighted. As I departed for the subway, I refrained from plugging my ears with headphones and instead enjoyed the perfect environment of sound remembered.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Barbara Hannigan Sings & Conducts” on February 13 and 14, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Brannavy Jeyasundaram is a writer and bharatanatyam dancer based in Richmond Hill. She has been dancing for over fifteen years and writing, at least privately, since she was eight. Her work exploring cultural identity and political histories has been published in HuffPost, The Dance Current, NOW Toronto and Tamil Guardian.

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

Barbara Hannigan with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.“Barbara Hannigan Sings and Conducts” was a rather humble title for what was a stunning performance by the Toronto Symphony Wednesday, February 13 at Roy Thomson Hall. It was an evening that encompassed an entire range of human experiences – an indelible moment in time. And Barbara Hannigan did far more than just sing and conduct: from her graceful gestures to her effortless singing, she and the TSO carried the audience away into another world.

The evening began with principal flutist Kelly Zimba performing Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute. Yet we were in for a surprise from the very first notes: the lights were dimmed to near darkness with a single spotlight on Zimba, standing in the first balcony in the audience. Her sound soared into the hall, offering a tone of such supreme delicacy and elegance – reminding one of a feather gliding through the air.

As the final notes of the Debussy lingered, the lights brightened onstage to reveal Barbara Hannigan already at the podium. Luonnotar for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 70 by Sibelius began without applause – a very well-thought out decision so that the spell cast by the Debussy was not broken. This piece was a milestone for Sibelius, as it marked the beginning of his later compositional style, and is seldom performed due to the immense technical difficulties it poses for the singer. One would never know that there were any in Hannigan’s performance: she sang with the utmost ease. The effect was mesmerizing; the audience sat unusually silent, as though in a trance. With the supportive leadership of concertmaster Jonathan Crow, the orchestra lay down the perfect velvet backdrop for Hannigan’s crystalline voice.

Following the Sibelius, the audience was transported from a land of mythical fantasy to that of courtly majesty with Haydn's Symphony No. 86 in D Major. Some moments lacked unity in the orchestra (perhaps due to Hannigan’s circular and maybe slightly ambiguous beats), but what was never missing was the spirit of each phrase. This work is known for its striking contrasts in dynamics and textures, which were exemplified in the orchestra’s playing from the first few minutes. The second movement is full of the unexpected, with many twists and turns written into the music, and the TSO’s playing heightened this effect of the unpredictable. The first two movements felt a bit rough around the edges, but by the third and fourth movements the entire orchestra seemed entirely engaged in the vibrant music-making.

Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera “Lulu, a suite of five movements composed in 1934, brought us to a world of madness and mania. Lulu was the last work that Berg wrote before he died and, in fact, he passed away before completing it. It uses the twelve-tone system combined with more traditional music forms to not only tell the story of the main character Lulu’s life and death, but also as a way of commenting on the dishonesty of bourgeois men. This suite features music from some of the most emotionally-charged, dramatic moments in the opera.

For the Toronto Symphony’s performance, the suite provided many instruments in the orchestra with an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, including some very fine playing by oboe, clarinet, and saxophone. Principal leaders of the violin, viola, and cello sections also played expressive solos that emerged above the orchestral texture. The “Lied der Lulumovement showcased Hannigan singing as she conducted. The downside of this was that she occasionally sang with her back to the audience – yet this also had a certain effect as it added to the otherworldly aura of the music-making, Hannigan’s transcendent voice arising out of seemingly nowhere.

The final movement of the Berg was the most thrilling of all. The music features an ominous, dense sound that creeps towards a climax. Hannigan had us holding our breath as she pulled the orchestra towards this impending doom. And what a climax it was when, after a brief silence, the entire orchestra launched into this tidal wave at full force while Hannigan shook her baton wildly in the air.

It comes as no shock to reveal that the Berg and the final piece on the program, a suite arranged by Barbara Hannigan herself from Gershwin’s Crazy Girl, are featured on Hannigan’s Grammy Award-winning CD, Crazy Girl Crazy. This was no doubt the grand finale and highlight of the concert as we entered yet another musical world – that of 1930s glamour and sparkling dances. Hannigan was in her element as her voice, with the aid of a discreetly-added microphone, filled the hall and she transformed the TSO into a lively, swinging big band. There was impromptu applause for the orchestral members who briefly put down their instruments to sing a very charming (and in tune!) verse of “Embraceable You, and I couldn’t withhold the smile that spread across my face as Hannigan embodied the theatricality of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm. The audience was on their feet roaring with applause before the final note had even finished sounding in the hall; it was a perfect way to end a transcendent musical experience.

Hannigan was the music during this entire concert – capturing the spirit and essence of every single piece and composer on the program. Many conductors coax refined playing out of orchestras that is beautiful, cohesive, and sensitive to the composer’s indications. Barbara Hannigan offered something beyond this, though: she immersed herself fully in the music and as a result enthralled the orchestra and the audience in an engaged, magnetizing experience.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Barbara Hannigan Sings & Conducts” on February 13 and 14, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Leslie Ashworth is a violinist and composer studying her Bachelor of Music Performance degree as a recipient of the Tim & Frances Price Scholarship at the Glenn Gould School, Royal Conservatory of Music. Leslie is passionate about reading and writing and is a participant in the 2018/19 Emerging Arts Critic program.

Claude VivierClaude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus was commissioned in 1978 by the University of Montreal’s Music Faculty. Supported by the Canada Council, Vivier received a fee of $7,000 (approximately $22,000 in 2019 dollars), which allowed him to focus entirely on composition. Finished in May 1979, Vivier dedicated Kopernikus to “my maître and friend,” Gilles Tremblay. Kopernikus was premiered a year later, on May 8, 1980 at the Théâtre du Monument National in Montreal.

Since its premiere Kopernikus has travelled extensively, making it the most restaged Canadian opera in Canadian history with over 55 performances. Ranking in second place is the opera Louis Riel (1967), with under 30 performances. However, whereas Louis Riel was performed only once outside of Canada, Kopernikus, mostly unknown at home, is highly celebrated in Europe with almost yearly performances. Canadian restagings have been sporadic: Montreal in 1986 by friends of Vivier via the Événements du neuf; Vancouver in 1990 via the Vancouver New Music Society; the large-scale tour de force of Thom Sokoloski and Autumn Leaf Performance that led to performances in several European and Canadian cities in 2000 and 2001; and the most recent iteration, a 2017 Banff Centre production coming to Toronto in April via Against the Grain Theatre.

“No one is a prophet in their own land” is a not unfamiliar expression in Canadian arts and, considering Vivier’s profound relationship with religion and all things mystical, the expression is fitting; however, it is not much of an explanation for why Kopernikus is seldomly restaged here. In my search for answers I turned to the many Canadian articles and reviews about Kopernikus in the press over the past 20 years. Although producers and directors praise Kopernikus as a genius work of art, both the critics and the public generally express discontent over three recurring themes: the genre (the opera is not really an opera), the plot (there is no plot to follow, so how do you stage nothingness?), and its incomprehensible language (the opera is in French, German, and Vivier’s own invented language).

Thinking back to my own experience with Kopernikus at the Toronto premiere in June 2001, I wish I had been better prepared to receive Vivier’s work. When the performance ended, I was mesmerized, my head filled with complex sounds, syllables and meanings that took weeks to process. I also remember vividly the complete disconnect between various members of the audience; at the end of the performance the man sitting next to me was sleeping, but the one directly in front of me was on his feet madly clapping and hailing bravos at the performers. Since I have this wonderful opportunity to write about Kopernikus before the next set of performances, I hope I can not only help bridge that disconnect but also acknowledge and normalize the uneasiness that can come from it.

Kopernikus, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2017Pushing the boundaries

Although Vivier himself declared Kopernikus an opera, both seasoned critics and the public alike seem more comfortable with labelling it musical theatre (there are no arias) or oratorio (the theme is religious and the staging is minimal). Vivier, however, was insistent in calling this work an opera. In remarks prepared for the 1979 premiere, quoted here from Bob Gilmore’s 2014 book, Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life, Vivier defends his categorization when he states that “opera, as a form of expression of the soul and of human history, cannot die. The human being will always need to represent his/her fantasies, dreams, fears, and hopes.”In a later interview, with Angèle Dagenais in Le Devoir, March 3, 1980, when asked why he wrote an opera, a genre that is sometimes considered passé, he responded that “l’opéra permet la représentation d’états excessifs, et d’une dimension fantaisiste inconnue du théâtre.”Clearly, Vivier did not conceive Kopernikus as either a work of musical theatre or as an oratorio.

Vivier does push the boundaries of the operatic genre but not, as some believe, as a rejection of the old masters. Vivier was an avowed fan of Mozart; Agni, the main character in Kopernikus, undertakes a journey not unlike the main characters in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. This expansion of boundaries is simply a composer evolving into his own mature style, finding new ways to disrupt expectations, and creating new roles and sounds for melody. In fact, and this could be the topic of an entirely different article, the style of melodic writing that draws breath in Kopernikus ultimately serves as a stepping stone for several of Vivier’s later works.

In scanning reviews, it also became apparent to me that part of Vivier’s contextualization of Kopernikus in the score of the opera was misunderstood in translation. Vivier wrote: “Il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire, mais une suite de scènes...” The first part, “il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire” has been translated, interpreted, and served to the public as “there is no actual story,” which is a mistranslation. ‘À proprement dit’ or ‘à proprement parler’ is one of those very common, and confusing, francophone expressions. Add a negative in front of it and a language barrier is erected. As a native Francophone, however, I understand that Vivier is saying that Kopernikus is not a story in the traditional sense, rather than that there is no narrative. Granted, Vivier’s opera is devoid of villains or external conflict and this, perhaps, adds to the confusion. However, Agni, the central figure in Kopernikus undergoes a series of initiations that ultimately lead her to reach her final and purest spirit state, her dematerialization. The story is inherent in the series of scenes, in her ritualistic journey, where she encounters historical and mythical beings (her mother, Lewis Carroll, Mozart, the Queen of the Night, Tristan, Isolde and Copernicus) who accompany her from one world to the next.

Admittedly, the bare staging that typically accompanies Kopernikus can also be taken as a lack of narrative direction. It is, however, very much in line with Agni’s journey towards the purest of spiritual forms. Vivier explicitly left behind paragraphs of texts explaining each scene of the opera so that creative staging decisions could be left to the directors. Perhaps an unusual choice, but an explanation can be found in Vivier’s own words, again quoted from Gilmore’s book, when he states that he loves many operas of the standard repertory but “I rarely go see them because I usually don’t like the staging.”

Although Vivier kept out of staging decisions, he very much injected traces of himself throughout the staging of Kopernikus: the opera is scored for seven singers and seven instrumentalists (the number seven makes several appearances in other works and Vivier’s birthday is April 14); and in iconography Agni, the Hindu God of fire, is represented by a ram (Vivier’s astrological sign is Aries, a fire sign).

Fascinated with languages (he could speak at least five fluently), Vivier is perhaps the only composer to use an invented language throughout his entire compositional career, beginning with his first vocal work, Ojikawa (1968), and ending with his last, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (1983). In Kopernikus, as in all of his previous works, his invented language is not a series of aleatoric nonsensical syllables, but rather a combination of automatic writing and the use of grammelot (coined by Commedia dell’arte players, grammelot refers to sounds, such as onomatopoeias, used to convey the sense of speech). Vivier’s invented language also seems to function as a code for Agni who most often speaks in the invented language to other characters but speaks French when expressing her inner thoughts.

Kopernikus also shows early indications of spectralism, a musical practice where compositional decisions are often based on visual representations (spectrograms) of mathematical analysis of harmonic series. Vivier’s spectralism of the late 1970s is an exploration of sounds as living objects and what he calls colours in both the sounds and textures he creates. Vivier’s linguistic skills, combined with his strong predilection for vocal writing and his early foray into spectralism, elevate the opera to a stunning work of art where simple lines of music are turned into extraordinary meaningful moments that surpass any semantic value.

Kopernikus, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2017Looking ahead

In one of his last letters, Vivier wrote to Montreal conductor Philippe Dourguin and laid out his outline for a second opera. His “opéra fleuve” on the explorer Marco Polo was to consist of seven parts and use previously composed materials. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble) and director Pierre Audi (Nederlandse Opera) reconstituted Vivier’s opera in the 1990s. Because their version was different than what Vivier originally lays out in his letter, the opera was renamed Opéra-fleuve en deux parties, with Kopernikus as part one and Rêves d’un Marco Polo as part two. Part two ends with Vivier’s final composition, the very much discussed Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the soul’s immortality). In 2000, as part of the Holland Festival, Vivier’s Opéra-fleuve en deux parties received eight performances in Amsterdam, marking the world premiere of Rêves d’un Marco Polo. The production was subsequently revived, also in Amsterdam, in 2004, recorded by the Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble and released on DVD in 2006. Perhaps, we too, can soon have a premiere of Vivier’s Opéra-fleuve en deux parties and discover Rêves d’un Marco Polo.

Until then, we have Against the Grain Theatre’s Kopernikus to look forward to. Since the company’s past productions have audaciously reinterpreted operas of the classical repertoire, it seems a natural fit for AtG to move towards shaking things up in the unexplored world of Canadian opera (there are over 300 Canadian operas to choose from!). In the company’s press release, stage director Joel Ivany proclaims Kopernikus as “Canada’s greatest opera ever written” and promises an “an epic journey of fire, life, death and ultimately, hope.” His passion for the opera, and the stellar team that surrounds the production, does indeed give much to hope for: hope that Kopernikus receives the recognition it deserves and hope for a leading opera collective to guide us in towards a new era of (re)discovering our own Canadian works.

Kopernikus is not only a work of great vision and originality, it is also the legacy of a deeply spiritual and intellectual man. From life to death and timeless mystical spaces, the opera transports its listeners on a journey without the usual grounding semantic references. What then, is a listener to do? As Paula Citron reminds us, in her 2001 article on Kopernikus for Opera Canada, Vivier said it best on opening night in 1979: “... Let things go and just listen to the sound.”

Against the Grain Theatre presents Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus on April 4 to 6 and April 11 to 13 at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace.

Sophie Bisson is a PhD student in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.

Community-engaged arts practices have experienced tremendous exponential growth over the last few decades with many musical presenters taking on this mandate alongside their usual concert production activities. At the heart of this artistic practice is a dialogue between professional artists and community organizations with the outcome being a collective artistic expression. The process involved is considered as important as the final artistic result. In this month’s column, I’ll be looking at a cross-section of different community-based projects to give you a bird’s-eye look at different community-focused events in March.

Melody McKiver improvising in Jumblies' touring project, Four Lands of Sioux Lookout, 2016.First though, a very preliminary view of an intriguing work in progress being co-produced by Soundstreams and Jumblies Theatre. Anishinaabe composer Melody McKiver has been commissioned by these two organizations to compose a work for string quartet and recorded voices.

As synchronicity would have it, I was introduced to McKiver in a local restaurant, in early February, by Jumblies’ artistic director Ruth Howard, just before Soundstreams presented a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, also a work for string quartet and pre-recorded tape. (My concert report of that evening can be viewed on The WholeNote website). Little did I realize at the time McKiver’s upcoming connection to what we were about to hear that night.

Wanting to find out more about the project, I spoke recently on the phone with McKiver who was just ending a residency at the Banff Centre that brought together various Indigenous composers and performers. In our conversation, McKiver told me that Reich’s music has been a major influence and inspiration, particularly while studying for an undergraduate degree in viola performance at York University where they spent endless hours listening to Different Trains –.“at least 100 times,” they said. The new commissioned work is titled Odaabaanag, which means trains or wagons in Ojibwe, and is their response to Different Trains, composed in 1988. They will be using Reich’s methodology but looking at a different subject. Different Trains is Reich’s reflection as a Jewish-American composer on the Holocaust which he, living in the USA during the war, did not personally experience. McKiver’s work will also be for string quartet and recorded voices and will be McKiver’s reflection as a young Anishinaabe composer who did not live through the residential school era, but lives with the impact of what happened.

In much the same way that Reich created his work from the speech rhythms of various interviews he conducted, McKiver will be interviewing Indigenous elders from their community—the Lac Seul First Nation—as well as others from Sioux Lookout in Northern Ontario, the home of a large Indigenous population. They will use excerpts from these recordings to form the melodic and rhythmic content of the work. Currently, McKiver is in the beginning stages of the compositional process, conducting the interviews and transcribing and reviewing the recordings to find those key phrases to use in the composition. The first elder they interviewed was Garnet Angeconeb, a well-known residential school advocate. I was shaken up when McKiver told me the story that Angeconeb spoke about in the interview. During the 1930s, the Lac Seul First Nation community was flooded causing the loss of their entire land base. The cause of this flooding was a hydro dam project which the community was not told of and almost overnight, up to 40 feet of water appeared, destroying people’s homes and livelihoods. It was an apocalyptic moment, McIver said, that continues to have an ongoing impact on the community.

While Jumblies and Soundstreams are based in Toronto, McKiver has been given the opportunity and flexibility to work from their own land base. “This is so integral to being an Indigenous composer, to still live on my ancestral homelands and to be able to share this work.” They’ll be providing excerpts from the interview tapes as well as Skyping in to dialogue with Jumblies’ community groups in Toronto. “There will be a long discussion process throughout the creation of the work,” McKiver said. “People won’t just be meeting the voices of my elders through the format of a string quartet, but the community will be able to listen to a 20-minute story rather than just a three-minute excerpt used in the string quartet. This way they can become acquainted with the stories and teachings that are being shared with me in multiple ways.” Working with these stories has profound meaning for McKiver and navigating the transition point between the recorded stories and the string quartet form is challenging. McKiver seeks to “honour the stories that have been shared with me and this process is giving me a moment to deeply reflect on the teachings that I have been gifted. An important part of the process for me is to find a way where I can amplify these voices in a manner that is respectful.” A work-in-progress performance is planned for May 2019 with the premiere performance scheduled for November 2019. Additional plans include a potential tour to Sioux Lookout as well as possible inclusion of interdisciplinary elements arising from the overall process. As well, there will be a companion choral piece composed by Melody’s mother, Beverley McKiver, using the same themes and source material to be performed by the Gather Round Singers, Jumblies’ mixed-ability, mixed-age community choir.

History of Bathurst Street Sounds

The History of Bathurst Street Sounds is another community-based partnership project, bringing together the Music Gallery, A Different Booklist, 918 Bathurst and Myseum of Toronto. On March 24, people can learn about the history of Bathurst Street soundscapes during a panel discussion and photo gallery launch at A Different Booklist to be followed by a parade to 918 Bathurst St. for an exhibition of Bathurst St. music archives. The history of music on Bathurst St. largely centres around various clubs, shops and the prominent Western Indian community historically located on Bathurst around Bloor. The extensive cluster of influential clubs in the Bathurst area included The Trane Studio, Lee’s Palace, the Annex Wreckroom/Coda, and even Sneaky Dee’s, originally located across from Honest Ed’s. Clothing stores such as Too Black Guys helped supply the apparel for many golden-age hip-hop videos, and even Honest Ed’s was once a destination for record buyers before its tenant Sonic Boom moved elsewhere. Various calypso mas ensembles were associated with spots in the area and the bookstore A Different Booklist has hosted a variety of Afrocentric cultural activities over the years. With all the changes happening in the neighbourhood and with the reconstruction of the Bloor/Bathurst intersection and much of Markham St, this event offers a rare opportunity to listen in to soundworlds both past and present.

Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan

Gamelan music originates from Indonesia where its unique and complex sound textures have provided an essential and vital role in Indonesian community life with every town having its own gamelan and local musical traditions. The word gamelan refers to an orchestra of mainly percussion instruments crafted of metal arranged in rows on the floor including gongs hung from carved wooden racks. Other instruments include voice, a wind instrument called the suling and solo string-based instruments.

Canadian composer Colin McPhee (1900–1964) is well known for being the first Western composer to study the music of Bali and Java, and his associations, with American composers Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison for example, helped to usher in what became known as world music. Despite current sensitivities about cultural appropriation, this phenomenon of bringing non-Western influences into Western concert music has had far-reaching impact.

Ade SuparmanIn 1983, composer Jon Siddall, with the assistance of Lou Harrison, established Canada’s first ensemble performing on Indonesian gamelan instruments in Toronto – the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan. The ECCG will be celebrating 35 years of commissioning, performing and recording contemporary music for gamelan with a concert on March 7 featuring music by master musician-composers Ade Suparman and Burhan Sukarma from West Java, Indonesia; Gilles Tremblay and Estelle Lemire from Quebec; as well as Peter Hatch and Bill Parsons from BC and Ontario. Playing on a grouping of instruments indigenous to West Java known as a gamelan degung playing in the Sundanese style, this pioneering Canadian ensemble has made a significant mark on the global gamelan scene and is committed to including Indonesian musicians and their music in their repertoire, as this concert demonstrates. One of ECCG’s distinctive characteristics is the pursuit of a hybrid sound, combining gamelan, electroacoustics, minimalism, field recordings and elements of acoustic ecology, for example. Currently, they provide opportunities for the larger Toronto community to play their instruments at an ongoing meetup that happens on the second Sunday of the month at Arraymusic.

Barbara Croall

On March 31, a newly commissioned oratorio, Miziwe… (Everywhere… ), by Odawa First Nation composer and musician Barbara Croall, will be premiered by the Pax Christi Chorale and sung in Ojibwe Odawa with surtitles. In October 2018, I had the great honour of attending another one of Croall’s premieres in Montreal – Saia’tatokénhti: Honouring Saint Kateri. I attended two performances of this work – the first at the Kahnawake Catholic Church located on Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, and the second at St. Jean Baptiste Church in Montreal. The music was performed by the McGill Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Boris Brott, who played a key role at various stages of the work’s gestation, both in terms of his mentorship of Tara-Louise Montour, the work’s solo violinist, and in suggesting that Croall consider composing the music for the project. The texts (by Darren Bonaparte) were spoken in Mohawk by a member of the Kahnawake community. The piece also included traditional Mohawk music sung by community members. The work told the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a17th-century Mohawk young woman who converted to Catholicism after a traumatic exodus from her traditional homelands in upstate New York due to her villages being razed by fire. She ended up with the Jesuit mission on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and was believed to have extraordinary healing abilities. She was eventually canonized as a saint.

To create that work, Croall spoke at length with elders from Kahnawake and Kanasatake, as well as elders in her own community, particularly about their Catholic faith and how they understand that in light of the church’s treatment of Indigenous people in residential schools. In an interview she gave before the performance, she spoke about how these elders understand their Christian faith as being different from the European form, and in their mind they have transformed Catholicism into a matriarchal belief system, blending Mary with the traditional corn goddess.

In this latest commissioned work, Miziwe… (Everywhere…), Croall will be performing on cedar flute and voice along with Rod Nettagog, an Ojibwe (Makwa Dodem/Bear Clan) performer from the Henvey Inlet First Nation who also performed in Croall’s orchestral work Midwewe’igan (Sound of the Drum). Other performers include Krisztina Szabó, mezzo soprano; Justin Welsh, baritone; and the Toronto Mozart Players. Croall has recently been appointed artist-in-residence and cultural consultant by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.


MAR 16, 8PM: Array Space, Arraymusic. The latest in the Rat-drifting series curated by Martin Arnold features artist and improviser Juliana Pivato. This performance will include various experiments on popular song.

MAR 19, 7:30PM: Canadian Music Centre. Pianist R. Andrew Lee performs Ann Southam’s Soundings for New Piano.

MAR 24, 8PM: Esprit Orchestra’s “Grand Slam!” concert features Trompe l’oeil, a world premiere by Canadian Christopher Thornborrow; Japanese composer Maki Ishii’s Afro-Concerto; and Unsuk Chin’s (Korea) Cello Concerto.

Jana LukstsMAR 29, 8PM: Music Gallery. The latest concert in the Emergents Series with pianist Jana Luksts and the ensemble Happenstance who will present recital projects shaped around reimagining how classical music can sound, transforming the chamber music format into something new.

APR 5 7:30: Esprit Orchestra presents their New Wave Reprise Festival featuring world premieres by five emerging composers: Emblem by Eugene Astapov; Music about Music by Quinn Jacobs ; Foreverdark by Bekah Simms; as within, so without by Christina Volpini; and Temporal by Alison Yun-Fei Jiang. A keynote address by Montreal composer John Rea will round out the evening.

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

Christian Blackshaw. Photo by Si BarberOn March 17, Christian Blackshaw, now 70, brings a selection of works from his acclaimed Complete Mozart Sonata Series, performed and recorded at London’s Wigmore Hall, to Walter Hall. Hailed as “magical,” “captivating,” and “masterful,” the fourth volume of the series was named as one of the Best Classical Recordings of 2015 by The New York Times. Blackshaw’s all-Mozart program for Mooredale Concerts will include Sonata No.11 in A Major, K331 and Sonata No.14 in C Minor, K457.

In a 2013 interview with Gramophone after his year-long Wigmore Hall series, Blackshaw spoke of Mozart as a particular passion. “It was a sort of penny-dropping moment discovering Mozart,” he said. ‘”I think I’m a frustrated singer and to me the sonatas can be construed as being mini-operas. I find his whole being informed by the voice and the vocal line.” In the interview he rejected a characterization of Mozart’s music as being “restrained.” “There have got to be elements of joie de vivre,” he responded. His own ultimate goal in performance is a state of “slow, calm release” where he can reach “a sense of communion.” And does he find music more conducive to communion than words? “Yes,” he said instantly. “There’s no small talk [in music].”

Nuné MelikCOC Noon-hour Concerts

Born in Siberia to a family of medical PhDs, Nuné Melik started playing the violin at the age of six; her first solo performance with orchestra took place a year later at the Kazan Symphony Hall. A prizewinner of numerous competitions and audience awards, she has performed across the globe, including the Stern Auditorium and Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall and our own Glenn Gould Studio. In 2010, as an umbrella for her exploration of new repertoire, Melik founded the Hidden Treasure International Project, comprising research, performance and lectures of rarely heard music. By way of performances and lectures she also advocates for and promotes the music of the Caucasus, her heritage. Together with her longtime collaborator, pianist Michel-Alexandre Broekaert, in October 2017 she launched Hidden Treasure, a CD featuring unknown works by Armenian composers with Melik’s own original program notes; CBC radio called it a “love letter to Armenia.”

A multi-talented artist who speaks five languages, Melik produced and directed a documentary last year about Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian. She has published books of poetry in Russian, which were translated into Armenian by the Writer’s Union of Armenia in 2016. Together with her CD, a book of French and English poetry was simultaneously released in October 2017.

COC presents Nuné Melik’s “Hidden Treasures – Armenian music unearthed” on March 12, with collaborative pianist Michel-Alexandre Broekaert, a free concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre.

Castalian String Quartet. Photo by Kappa KikkasThe Castalian String Quartet, founded in 2011 and based in London, England, was a finalist in the 2016 Banff Competition won by the Rolston String Quartet. Last year they were named the winner of the first Merito String Quartet Award/Valentin Erben Prize which includes €20,000 for professional development, along with a further €25,000 towards sound recordings and a commission. The award came as a complete surprise to the quartet since there was no application process or competition for it; instead a secret jury assembled a shortlist of five quartets which were then observed in at least two concerts during the course of a year, always without the musicians’ knowledge.

According to the award announcement, “The aspects that were evaluated included their professional approach, repertoire, programming, the artistic quality of the concerts, their musical profile, and also the imagination and innovation displayed by the musicians. Their artistic career to date and recordings, where applicable, were also evaluated.”

The award is an initiative of Wolfgang Habermayer, owner of Merito Financial Solutions, and Valentin Erben, founding cellist of the Alban Berg Quartet. “The critical factor for us is how the young musicians behave in ‘everyday life’ on the concert stage,” said award co-founder Erben. “The human warmth and aura radiated by these four young people played a key role. They are never just putting on a show – the music is always close to their heart. You can feel their intense passion for playing in a quartet.”

The Castalian String Quartet performs in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre in a COC free noon-hour concert on April 4. The program includes Haydn’s String Quartet Op.76, No.2 “Fifths” (a reflection of the Castalians’ passion for the inventor of the string quartet), and Britten’s String Quartet No.2, written just after WWII to mark the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death.

Mariam BatsashviliWomen’s Musical Club of Toronto

Now in her mid-20s, Georgian pianist Mariam Batsashvili is another promising young artist. She began studying the piano at four; by seven, “completely in love with the instrument,” she knew she wanted to be a pianist for the rest of her life. She gained international recognition at the tenth Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht in 2014, where she won First Prize as well as the Junior Jury Award and the Press Prize. This success led to performances with leading symphony orchestras, and to an extensive program of recitals in more than 30 countries. She was nominated by the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO) as Rising Star for the 2016/17 season. A BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, she is performing at major festivals and concert venues across the UK as part of that award.

Her comprehensive April 4 recital in the Music in the Afternoon series of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto begins with Busoni’s soaring arrangement of Bach’s iconic Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004, taps into  Schubert’s fountain of lyricism, the Impromptu Op.142, No.1 D935, moves on to Mozart’s haunting Rondo in A Minor, K511 and Liszt’s virtuosic Hungarian Rhapsody No.12; then concludes with Beethoven’s notoriously difficult Sonata No.29 in B-flat Major, Op.106 “Hammerklavier.” In Walter Hall; just a few weeks after a performance in London’s Wigmore Hall.

Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society

Janina Fialkowska’s March 11 recital for the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, marking her 37th year of performing for KWCMS, features an ambitious, well-packed program that begins with Mozart’s beloved Sonata in A Major, K310. An impromptu by Germaine Tailleferre; a nocturne by Fauré; an intermezzo by Poulenc; two pieces by Debussy; and Ravel’s Sonatine – a selection of music by French composers, reminiscent of a French program by Fialkowska’s teacher, Arthur Rubinstein – lead into three mazurkas, a nocturne (Op.55, No.2), scherzo (No.3) and ballade (No.4) by Chopin (the composer with whom she is most identified) performed in Fialkowska’s inimitable style.

Later in the month, clarinetist James Campbell joins the Penderecki String Quartet for Brahms’ splendid Clarinet Quintet. Dvořák’s Quartet No.10 in E-flat Major, Op.51, “Slavonic” is the other major work on the March 20 program.

Timothy Steeves steps away from his usual role as pianist with Duo Concertante for a recital of four adventurous Haydn sonatas on April 1, his second all-Haydn recital for the KWCMS.

Music Toronto

Danny Driver’s March 5 recital was the subject of my conversation in our February issue with the Hyperion Records artist, who “may be the best pianist you’ve never heard.” Works by CPE Bach, Schumann, Saariaho, Ravel and Madtner will be performed by this uncompromising artist who demands a lot of himself: “When I feel I have come close [to achieving what I set out to achieve artistically], it’s an intensely rewarding experience.”

The following week on March 14, the Lafayette String Quartet – artists-in-residence  at the University of Victoria since 1991 – who have spent more than 30 years together with no changes in personnel – partners with the Saguenay (formed in 1989 as the Alcan) String Quartet to perform three string octets. Join them in this rare opportunity to hear Niels Gade’s String Octet in F Major, Op.17, Russian-Canadian Airat Ichmouratov’s String Octet in G Minor, Op.56, “The Letter” and Mendelssohn’s deservedly famous Octet in E-flat Major, Op.20.

The Saguenay String Quartet) and the Lafayette have played together many times, a reflection of their special musical bond and creative friendship.


MAR 8, 8PM AND 9, 2:30 & 8PM: Critically acclaimed violinist Nikki Chooi is the soloist in Vivaldi’s indispensable The Four Seasons with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. Nicolas Ellis, who was recently named artistic partner to Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, leads the KWS in Beethoven’s essential Symphony No.6 “Pastoral.”

Gemma New. Photo by Fred StuckerMAR 9, 7:30 AND 10, 3PM: Gemma New leads the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s kinetic Symphony No.5; Kelly Zimba, flute, and Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, harp, take charge of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp K299/297c, the first work Mozart ever wrote for that combination of soloists.

MAR 10, 2:30PM: Bradley Thachuk leads the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow in Sibelius’ richly Romantic Violin Concerto Op.47. Sibelius’ satisfying Symphony No.3 completes the nod to the great Finnish composer.

MAR 16, 7:30PM: Gemma New conducts the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in a heavenly program featuring Debussy’s hypnotic Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and his impressionistic Nocturnes. Holst’s riveting The Planets completes the exciting evening.

MAR 20, 2:30PM: Georgian Music brings the Lafayette and Saguenay String Quartets to Barrie for a repeat of their Music Toronto program of March 14 headed by Mendelssohn’s youthful masterwork, his Octet in E-flat Major, Op.20.

MAR 23, 7:30PM: Barrie Concerts presents the Penderecki String Quartet in an evening of Dvořák’s chamber music. Included are the composer’s String Quartet No.10 “Slavonic” and, aided by pianist Benjamin Smith, both of his piano quintets, the second of which (Op.81) is one of the masterpieces of the form.

MAR 23, 7:30PM: The Oakville Chamber Orchestra celebrates their 35th anniversary with a performance of Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos, an invigorating choice of music for such an auspicious occasion.

MAR 27 AND 28, 8PM: Gunther Herbig, TSO music director from 1989 to 1994, conducts two pillars of the 19th-century repertoire: Schubert’s moving  Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” and Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, the fourth movement of which the composer left unfinished on the day he died, leaving only the first three movements complete.

MAR 30, 7PM: Mandle Cheung continues to realize his conducting dream, leading his orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 (Kevin Ahfat is the soloist) and Mahler’s titanic Symphony No.1.

MAR 30, 8PM: The Canadian Sinfonietta, with guest violist Rivka Golani, mark the onset of spring with the world premiere of David Jaeger’s Raven Concerto for viola and chamber orchestra, Copland’s lovely Appalachian Spring, Britten’s Lachrymae Op.48a for viola and strings and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Tak Ng Lai conducts.

MAR 30, 8PM AND 31, 2PM: The Oakville Symphony celebrates the musical friendship between Brahms (Symphony No.2) and Dvořák (Violin Concerto). Leslie Ashworth is the violin soloist; Robert De Clara, music director since 1997, conducts.

APR 7, 1PM: Gramophone magazine called American-born Marina Piccinini “the Heifetz of the flute.” Find out why at the RCM free (ticket required) concert at Mazzoleni Hall; with Benjamin Smith, piano.

APR 7, 3PM: RCM presents the justly celebrated American pianist Richard Goode in an all-Beethoven recital that includes the “Pastoral,” “Moonlight” and “Les adieux” sonatas, and selections from the Op.119 Bagatelles, all topped off by the master’s final sonata, the celestial Op.111.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

World music: a sometimes contentious term that entered the lexicon twice, 25 years and two continents apart.

Too few sources reflect that the term “world music” was first used around 1962 in US academia as an inclusive catchall for performance and lecture courses; they focus, rather, on its re-application as a new marketing tag by UK record producers, label owners and retailers in 1987.

The 1962 US world music ensemble course bug took a few years to infect schools north of the border. But after a rocky initial startup period, it slowly spread across Canada, mostly in the decades bracketing the new millennium. Although it should be said that York University was probably the site where world music ensemble credit courses were first launched in this country by its Music Department founding chair, R. Sterling Beckwith, as early as the 1969/1970 academic year.

Fifty years later, world music courses are no longer the exotic music school outliers they were initially seen to be by many. They have become mainstays at some of the largest Ontario universities and colleges, offering practising professional musicians teaching opportunities, while introducing thousands of students to a wide diversity of approaches to making music – far beyond what classical and jazz programs can offer. I would argue that they prepare students to open their minds via practical experience, potentially allowing them to meet the challenges of cultural diversity in our increasingly multicultural urban and internet spaces.

York U’s Department of Music’s pioneering commitment to global music doesn’t show signs of slowing down, with nine concerts alone in its March World Music Festival and an advertised “20-plus international cultures represented.” It’s followed closely by early April concerts by the University of Waterloo Balinese Gamelan and University of Toronto’s World Music Ensembles.

UW Balinese Gamelan directed by I Dewa Made Suparta (November 2018)So, What’s In a Name?

Judging from the liberal use of the term “world music” at these three universities, all appears to be well with this 20th-century term and learning approach. Looking deeper however the tag is facing increasingly frequent challenges from voices on all sides: academics, presenters, labels and performers.

So let’s take the pulse of three Ontario university world music ensembles today, and the direction they may be headed, by looking at what they are up to, and talking with some of the instructors.

York University’s World Music Festival, March 14 and 15: report from the front lines

Produced by Prof. Sherry Johnson, York U’s mid-March World Music Festival, according to the Music Department website “…[is a] global sonic tour … of York’s world music program.”

All the concerts are at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East Building, York U.

March 14 at 11am the festival launches with the Cuban Ensemble directed by Rick Lazar and Anthony Michelli. Lazar also directs the Escola de Samba later the same day. West African Drumming: Ghana directed by respected master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, West African Drumming: Mande directed by Anna Melnikoff, and Caribbean Music Ensemble directed by Lindy Burgess, all on March 14. Then on March 15, Charles Hong directs the Korean Drum Ensemble, Sherry Johnson the Celtic Ensemble, and Kim Chow-Morris conducts the Chinese Classical Orchestra. It then wraps, March 15, with an evening concert by the Balkan Music Ensemble directed by Irene Markoff. (Please refer to our listings for exact times for all concerts.)

Rick Lazar: Escola de Samba and Cuban Ensemble director

I contacted Lazar about his world music teaching practice. He emailed a very detailed report on his teaching approach and on the music his students are presenting.

Lazar has had extensive experience teaching various ensembles at Humber College (1995 to 2005) and since 2003 at York University. Make no mistake; he’s no ordinary sessional instructor. His knowledge of and passion for world drums makes him a first-call drummer for a diverse array of artists. Voted Percussionist of the Year five times by Jazz Report magazine for his work with many bands and headline singers, his popular Toronto groups Montuno Police and Samba Squad (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) have both released multiple albums.

At York, “I teach two ensembles: Escola de Samba and Cuban Music, each divided into two classes,” he began. “My classes are mostly made of non-music majors. While most of the class time is devoted to getting these often untrained students to gel into a group, I also provide notes on the history of the music [giving students essential cultural context] – and test them on it too!“The Escola de Samba classes feature hands-on percussion: all the students have to play a standard samba instrument including the surdo (bass drum), caixa (snare drums), agogo (bells), tamborim and ganzas (metal shakers). These classes may have up to 30 participants. [As for genres in our repertoire] this year we’re covering samba, samba reggae, and axé another popular music genre from Bahia, Northeast Brazil.

“[My teaching strategy] is to simplify rhythmic patterns for the lead instruments as none of the students are drummers and can’t play the typical patterns up to speed. For example, while the students won’t be able to master the tamborim carreteiro (“ride” technique) in a single term they can learn idiomatic fanfares and rhythmic patterns.

“For the March 14 concert, one class is doing a samba reggae dance feature [since dance is integral to the genre]. Songs we’ll be doing this year are  (samba), Enquanto Gente Batuka in the pagoda genre, , and Embala Eu in samba de roda, an older Afro-Brazilian dance type.”

“In the Cuban Music ensembles I teach a section of first and second year undergrads plus a section of senior-level students. Both perform Cuban folkloric music with drums, dance and songs. Most of the rhythms only have six to eight drum parts, so the class must also learn the dances and the songs which go with them. The Cuban class is a little harder than the Escola de Samba as it takes time to get a decent sound out of the hand drums, while in the Samba class all the instruments are played with a stick or mallet so you can have many players on each part.

“I teach bell, kata (woodblock),  (gourd shaker) and tumbadora (conga drum) parts, one learner on a part. Class A is doing Palo, Guanguanco, and Bata Toque Yesa, all with songs and dance. They are also performing Comparsa, the Cuban carnival rhythm, with songs and dance.”

Lazar concludes: “In Class B we learn the makuta  along with dances and five different songs, including  and. We’re also performing [originally ceremonial music] from the santeria tradition along with several songs. Most of these songs are in the Yoruba language and students learn the lyrics phonetically.”

Irene Markoff, Balkan Music Ensemble director

I asked the ethnomusicologist, musician, conductor and veteran York U. lecturer and ensemble instructor about her geographically inclusive course:

“We cover music from the Balkans (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania),” Markoff wrote, “as well as Azerbaijan and Turkey (a better part of the Balkans were a part of the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years). We also perform Kurdish music from Iran, music of the Roma, and a little repertoire from Iran, as I often have Iranian students in my ensemble.

“This year there’s a Greek student in the class who helps with Greek pronunciation and also two Iranian students who help with Farsi pronunciation. I transcribe and arrange music for the ensemble according to the instruments the students play and sometimes teach vocal music by rote as that is the way the repertoire would be taught in the village context.

we will perform repertoire from all the countries I mentioned including Ederlezi by Goran Bregovic, based on a .”

Markoff sees the debate about terminology this way: “I don’t have a problem with the term as it has been used and accepted by ethnomusicologists and universities for many years now. In a general sense world music means music of the world’s cultures.

“Also, there is a lot of hybridity happening in countries such as Turkey these days. Folk music ensembles seen on national TV and elsewhere include Western instruments such as acoustic/electric guitars and electric bass guitars, adding harmony to a music that was essentially monophonic [and modal]. … What do we call that music then?

As for other candidates for an accepted term, Markoff notes: “Finding a general cover term is problematic … You may be aware that in the past other terms used were ‘primitive,’ ‘non-Western,’ ‘ethnic’ and ‘folk.’ Some have suggested ‘roots’ and ‘local.’ I don’t believe that any of those are appropriate overall terms.”

University Of Waterloo Balinese Gamelan Ensemble

April 3, the UW Balinese Gamelan and the Grebel Community Gamelan perform at the Humanities Theatre, University of Waterloo. Ethnomusicologist Maisie Sum introduced world music ensembles at UW in Waterloo ON in 2013 with a Balinese gamelan semaradana course.

Directed by Sum and featuring Grebel artist-in-residence I Dewa Made Suparta, the Balinese gamelan will perform a mix of contemporary and traditional Balinese repertoire. As they did last year, they may include Balinese dance in the concert, a near-essential performative ingredient in Bali. After the free concert the audience is invited to try their hand playing the instruments.

University of Toronto’s World Music Ensembles Concert

April 6 at 2:30pm, University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents its World Music Ensembles at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto. Directing their groups are Ghanaian master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, Steel Pan Ensemble director Joe Cullen, and Alan Hetherington directing the Latin American Ensemble.

While I was unable to reach these instructors before press time, this time round, I was able to connect with percussionist and composer Mark Duggan. Active on Toronto’s world music, jazz and classical concert music scenes for decades, he’s taught ensembles at Humber College as well as at U of T, with a specialty in Brazilian musics. He’s taking a sabbatical from U of T this year, but generously weighed in on the topic.

“Unfortunately, the term ‘world music’ does serve to hegemonize all music traditions outside the Western mainstream,” he said, “so these days I choose to not use it. My students do use world music freely to refer to a plethora of different styles of traditional and/or hybrid musics, including pop and jazz. [But I believe] the term has outlived its usefulness.”

 Judith R. CohenJudith Cohen, World Music Performer

Ethnomusicologist, musician and long-time York University faculty Judith R. Cohen is also very active as a world music performer. March 16, Alliance Française Toronto presents “Judith Cohen & her guests: Women of the World” at the AFT’s Spadina Theatre with Kelly Lefaive (vocals, violin, mandolin, guitar), Naghmeh Farahmand (Persian percussion), Veronica Johnny (Indigenous hand drummer, vocals) and other surprise guests.

I emailed Cohen about my topic of the month, and she wryly replied, “Haven’t noticed anyone making music who is not part of the world. And what are the alternatives? ‘Global’? And the difference between the world and the globe is…?”

She was just returning from the February ethnomusicology summit at the Folk Alliance International Conference (FAI) in Montreal. The FAI held a panel critiquing “world music.” However, “We did not end up condemning the term, even though FAI dropped it some years ago,” Cohen noted.

Moreover, she doesn’t see the benefit of yet another moniker. “Commercial showcases such as FAI and WOMEX are going to market, brand and sell no matter what term people come up with. Is ‘culturally diverse’ a candidate for replacing that increasingly (and needlessly, I think) shamed term ‘world music’? It sure doesn’t have the marketing zip of ‘world,”’ Cohen concludes.

So what’s the future of culturally diverse music teaching and performance in Ontario music education? 

Irene Markoff is encouraged: “York U [Department of Music] is now trying to find ways to draw more music majors to the world music ensembles, which is a good sign. … I believe that any Ontario music university student who has a desire to teach at the public or high school level should be required to take a few world music ensemble classes when offered. That would prepare them to meet the challenges of cultural diversity in the classroom.”

Rick Lazar adds: Mark Duggan gets the last word among these contributors in our discussion: “The reality is that we have to start referring to specific styles of music or specific regions with their proper names, the names that the creators and purveyors of those traditions use. I think the next step is to stop exoticizing non-Western musics and put them on equal footing with privileged traditions. Like integration in a multicultural society, that means giving them equal space in music schools, or perhaps creating schools that specialize in one or more non-Western traditions without including any European classical perspectives.”

At the same time as we reach toward increasing diversity, entrenched attitudes remain in music education – as in other reaches of our society – which marginalize certain musics, particularly non-Eurocentric ones, such as Indigenous voices. What music is “ours”? And what place should so-called “other” musics have in our music education today?

These are bracing, far-reaching questions.


Regular readers of this column over the years will know that this is not the first time I have delved into aspects of these topics. My September 2018 column Rebooting the Beat: Thoughts on the “World Music” Tag explored the implications of the 1962 and 1987 disparate points of entry for the “world music” tag. For more on the spread of world music as a discipline in Canada, see my March 2016 column, York Music’s World Class Role. And for more insights into the Waterloo Balinese Gamelan Ensemble, see my April 2014 conversation with ethnomusicologist Maisie Sum in Smartphone Serendipity Not The Only Way.

This column has been revised (March 12) to accurately reflect Judith R. Cohen's current teaching status at York University.

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

Dear Evan HansenToronto musical theatre fans have been eagerly waiting for the advent of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s 2017 Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, and now the waiting is almost over. Previews begin at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on March 5, with the official opening later this month. Not only is this the very first international production of the massive hit, but following an eight-month casting tour across the country, the cast led by Robert Markus is almost entirely Canadian (with almost every province represented) making this a great showcase for Canadian musical theatre talent. On top of that, this is a “sit down” production that can run as long as there is a demand for tickets; and there is a great demand, the run having already been extended to June 30.

There is something about this show that connects with audiences as well as critics in such a strong way that Dear Evan Hansen won the top musical theatre Tony Awards in 2017 (Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical), over the gloriously life-affirming Come From Away. Why has there been such a strong reaction?

Perhaps it is because it is so unexpected that a musical could be written about bullying, loneliness, and suicide and yet, with its unique groundbreaking recipe of authentic characters, popular score and uncannily modern use of social media, also manage to be upbeat and positive, taking the audience through a sometimes painful, cathartic journey to a place of hope and human connection.

Pasek and Paul are now famous for their award-winning lyrics for the movie La La Land and songs for The Greatest Showman, but when they were still young students in college (University of Michigan) they started talking about something that had happened at Pasek’s high school that, as they discussed it, would turn into the unlikely inspiration for musical creation. Over one summer a student had passed away, and although he had been almost anonymous at the school, because of his death, became a celebrated figure with everyone looking for a way to be connected to him. Talking about how this need to be part of a collective mourning process seemed to be something that wasn’t exclusive to that event but also belonged to other tragic events as well, such as school shootings, or 9/11, they decided to create a musical around a similar event, not ever expecting it to be a hit.

Even without the infectious pop-musical score at hand, the book and lyrics are interwoven seamlessly and pull the reader into the world of Evan Hansen, a lonely, high school senior, bullied for his shyness and extreme anxiety, who, through the mistaken attribution of a letter, finds himself a hero on social media, thereby changing not only his own life but those of many others. In song after song, even the lyrics alone go beyond the spoken thought, reaching for the feelings hidden behind, without sentimentality, and with an almost uncannily recognizable rightness.

The musical’s creators have talked in interviews about how audience members approach the actors saying that they “are, or know Evan Hansen” or the other characters, and are grateful for this chance to be able to talk about difficult social and personal issues with their friends and families. While there are cynical and mocking elements to the story, for example, looking at how quickly people can jump onto the bandwagon of popularity, the composer/lyricists credit working with book-writer Steven Levenson with the emerging discovery of how to make the show both funny and uplifting as well.

Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t stand alone in its ambitious contemporary storytelling. Looking at the current music theatre landscape there seems to be an increasing appetite for musicals with stories about today, about complex, dark issues that are difficult to talk about otherwise. Pasek and Paul credit this at least in part to their generation growing up during the renaissance of the movie musical (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc.) and the resulting expectation that characters in movies or onstage will express themselves and their emotions through music. The expected music then becomes a way to go beyond the spoken word to what lies beneath, and so to create a deeper more profound experience for the audience.

In Toronto last month, Tapestry New Opera premiered Hook Up, a new musical/opera hybrid about campus rape by Julie Tepperman and Chris Thornborrow. It struck a profound chord with audiences, combining the authenticity of a very real contemporary setting and characters with humour and compassion to bring a discussion of a very sensitive topic into the shared space of the theatre. Sting’s The Last Ship, which is making its North American debut of a revised script, at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24, does something similar, though on a different scale, using wonderful pop- and folk-inspired music to explore the darker side of government interference and industrial privatization, giving life to a community’s desperation at the threatened closure of its shipyard, and also to the resurgent strength of that community as hope is found in banding together against the threat.

Leo Frank, the subject of ParadeParade

Both recent and older musicals that deal with difficult issues are also being revived more and more frequently, in full productions and in concert format. One of the darker shows inspired by real-life events, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s 1998 Tony Award-winning musical, Parade, is one of these, although the true story can be difficult to handle, even filtered through the medium of the stage. Based on the real false arrest, 1913 trial and eventual lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia. Parade was revived here in 2011 by The Musical Stage Company and is being performed again this month as a professional staged concert reading by Toronto Musical Concerts on March 21 and 22.

Toronto Musical ConcertsSpeaking to TMC’s artistic producer, Christopher Wilson, about why he feels this is an important show to revive, I couldn’t help but see another reason why there is a resurgent hunger for musicals that deal with difficult topics; the world we are living in now is fraught with political and social extremes, and we need a way to comprehend and find a way to deal with those issues. As Wilson says about this show: “Though Parade is set in 1913, a (post-Civil War) era fraught with immense racial tension and religious intolerance, it is both shocking and disconcerting how prevalent that same systemic antisemitism, divisiveness and violence exists in our world’s current political and social climate. As artists, I feel it is our responsibility to share powerful and moving stories that both examine and reflect the darkest corners of humanity.”

Talking about the prolific movements of hatred and racism currently being spread not only south of the border, but also here and around the world, Wilson passionately believes that shows such as Parade “serve as cautionary tales, inviting those both brave and conscious enough to challenge systemic intolerance, and to promote both discourse and change.” As well, he says, “the poignancy of presenting this disturbingly topical musical at the Miles Nadal JCC further punctuates the importance of the work.”

As Wilson said to me about Parade, it is important to keep works like this alive in the repertoire to “continue to promote discourse and awareness of difficult and important issues.” Toronto’s Musical Stage Company is a great champion of works of this type, with last season’s Toronto premiere of Fun Home based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel dealing with issues of gender identity and family dysfunction; and coming up in April, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal, which explores issues of mental health and the impact of a bipolar parent on her family.

The Lightning Thief

Even on the lighter side of music theatre these days, serious issues of identity and social belonging find their place. In Soulpepper’s world premiere in February of Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross’ new musical Rose (based on Gertrude Stein’s children’s book The World Is Round), a brightly coloured symbolic and lighthearted world is anchored on a nine-year-old girl’s desperate need to understand “who, what, where and why” she is; and the power of those questions makes her journey a profound one for the audience. In the upcoming visit to the Ed Mirvish Theatre (March 19 to 24) of the Off Broadway musical The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical based on Rick Riordan’s hugely successful series of books for the 10- to 12-year-old set, our hero, Percy, suffers from ADHD (as Riordan’s son did) and an awful home situation at the beginning of the story, but then discovers his true heritage as a son of the Greek god Poseidon (and his own innate strength of character) through his escape to Camp Half-Blood and the meeting of other sons and daughters of the gods as he helps to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt.

Even Alice in Wonderland, the National Ballet of Canada’s returning hit ballet (March 7 to 17), based on Lewis Carroll’s classic story, can be looked at through a serious lens, though this production is famed more for its wonderfully colourful set, costume and projection designs, and the exuberant physical choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, all of which have been acclaimed both here and abroad as creating an “exhilarating spectacle.”

In short, there is no shortage of rich music theatre this season, whether your taste leans more to the socially serious or fantastically escapist, or to all of the combinations in between.


MAR 3, 3PM: Perchance to Dream. Toronto Operetta Theatre. TOT’s first production of a musical by famous English composer Ivor Novello (Keep the Home Fires Burning). and one of his greatest hits. The original ran in London from 1945 to 1948.

Toronto Dance Theatre's Persefony SongsMAR 5 TO 9: Persefony Songs. Toronto Dance Theatre. Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre. Christopher House’s reimagining of his early piece based on The Odyssey.

MAR 6 TO 10: Kiss of the Spider Woman. Toronto’s (former) Don Jail. Eclipse Theatre’s debut site-responsive production starring Tracey Michailidis and Kawa Ada.

MAR 17, 3PM: Bijan and Manijeh: A Love Story. Aga Khan Museum. Experience the art of Naqqali (ancient Persian dramatic storytelling involving music, dance, painted scrolls, role playing, gesture, verse, prose and improvisation).

MAR 20 TO 25: If/Then. George Ignatieff Theatre. Trinity College Dramatic Society production of this moving story (by the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt of Next to Normal) explores what might have been as the story follows one woman, but two possible paths which her life might have taken. Brian Yorkey is also co-writer of the book of Sting’s The Last Ship.

MAR 23, 7:30PM: The Erik Bruhn Prize Competition. Four Seasons Centre. Balletomanes’ chance to spot future stars of the ballet stage as they perform pieces of both classical and new choreography. Hosted by principal dancer Harrison James with National Ballet of Canada Corps de ballet members Jeannine Haller and Siphesihle November representing the company. Dancers from American Ballet Theatre, The Hamburg Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet will also compete.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Nashke miziwe bi-bepeshaabang ishpiming giizhigong.
Look everywhere how streaks of light appear above in the sky in the heavens.
Miziwe… Everywhere…

-Barbara Croall

odawa composer barbara croallOn March 31, Pax Christi Chorale premieres Barbara Croall’s Ojibwe Odawa oratorio, Miziwe…(Everywhere…). As far as the creative team knows, this is the first time that the choral tradition of oratorio and the language of Ojibwe Odawa will have been united, as Pax Christi, under artistic director David Bowser, bring to life to the stories, musical evocations and spirit that Barbara Croall embodies in her new oratorio.

Croall is Odawa First Nations from Manitoulin Island. Her music education includes degrees and diplomas from the Musikhochschule (Munich), the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. Croall’s extensive repertoire includes many settings of music for solo vocal, ensemble vocal, chamber, orchestral, theatre, film and more.

“I think the complete picture [of Croall’s depth] is really important,” says Bowser in an interview with The WholeNote. “It’s no small task to write a full oratorio for choir, orchestra, and soloists. The quality of the music is exceptional.” The entire oratorio will be performed in Odawa. “It will have surtitles in English and French,” continues Bowser. “The story is one that involves characters who are animals, wind, sun, different elements and creatures.” The choir evokes different aspects and elements of the world through Croall’s composition.

“I always aim for a connectivity between the human and non-human aspects of life as intertwined,” explains Barbara Croall in a written project description of Miziwe… given to The WholeNote. In it she describes the work’s “expansive use of vocal and instrumental techniques and expressive/meaningful breathing in various ways [to] extend beyond merely human notions of sound, to include sounds that we hear in nature.” Some of those sounds include one of Croall’s signature instruments, the pipigwan, a traditional cedar, wooden flute. Bowser is particularly enamoured with the timbre of the flute, a depth of sound not easily matched in similar instruments. Miziwe… includes Croall on the pipigwan as well as a vocalist.

Pax Christi ChoraleOratorio as an art form requires a a major assembly of musical forces including vocalists and instrumentalists, and Pax Christi Chorale –  an advanced 100-voice ensemble, particularly known for its focus on oratorios – fits the bill. Joining them will be mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, baritone Justin Welsh, singer and dancer Rod Nettagog and the Toronto Mozart Players, particularly known for its annual Toronto Mozart Master Class Series, which for 2018/2019 featured soprano Nathalie Paulin and first prize-winner Jennifer Routhier, and of which Bowser is also the artistic director.

What unifies this particular oratorio is the essence of shared spirit. These are not sacred or religious texts or stories, though. “I never use ceremonial or sacred material in my music,” writes Croall. “Most often, the basis of a piece of music I create will be a song of my own – often influenced or inspired by sounds I hear in my time spent outdoors within nature in remote areas … this reflects my own personal need to feel interconnected with the rhythms and flow of life within nature.” The oratorio evokes and shares in the message Croall has composed, focusing on the “manidoo” – “the spirit essence, mystery, spiritual energy and life force, … “a continuity of life of all forms that can be known as ‘spirit’.”

Bowser treasures the composition he’s been entrusted and the larger context it both comes from and participates in. “Barbara wanted to create something that was more unifying and more uplifting and hopeful. And the common element is the sense of spirit that we all have together. It’s a story that ends with some sense of resolution. It’s so interesting to me that in so much oratorio there’s a moral. Here, it’s really about finding a connection. There’s no sense of imposed morality. It’s observation and the sense that we’re all connected through all these elements, and risk, and danger, and opportunity, and release and forgiveness.”

In her writing, Croall describes the work as “focusing toward the light … to always consider hope and continuity as the neverending thread of life.” In her approach, Croall’s generosity of spirit reaches beyond just her musical composition. The work of bringing the work to life in a meaningful way with each musician requires more than just a few reads through vocal lines in rehearsal. Something more was required for this particular project, and Bowser and the choir have had to adjust.

To help facilitate this, Croall has welcomed the choir into the world she has created. “The whole choir went out to Crawford Lake in November,” shares Bowser. “[Barbara] did a lot of talking about the traditional, historical, and also modern practices of different First Nations.” The choir was responsive to the learning, and Bowser was pleased: “It’s really exciting to see people opening their eyes and their ears and their hearts.”

“It’s a full relationship we’re engaging in,” says Bowser. In scale and scope, oratorio is to the choral music tradition what opera is to music theatre. Pax Christi, Bowser and Croall have all risen to the challenge of building a full relationship as the one way to ensure the best chance of success – guiding the work to a truer performance where artists, direction and composer align.

Croall has been generously present in the rehearsal process, making herself available in the teaching and the learning. “Barbara is coming to all the rehearsals, teaching us Odawa,” says Bowser. “She’s telling us about the stories and the characters and the imagery and the traditional practices and ways.”

In this process of breathing Miziwe… itself to life, the very joining of all these musical forces together starts to embody the notion of Croall’s “spirit” and her hope for the work  – that in the coming together, Pax Christi Chorale and Miziwe… will “uplift” us all.

On March 31 at 3pm, Pax Christi Chorale presents Miziwe… a world-premiere oratorio composed by Barbara Croall. Featuring Krisztina Szabó, Justin Welsh, Rod Nettagog, Barbara Croall, and the Toronto Mozart Players conducted by David Bowser. Performed in Ojibwe Odawa with surtitles at Koerner Hall, Toronto.


MAR 8, 7:30PM: Orpheus Choir of Toronto presents “Raising Her Voice: Celebrating the Choral Art,” in celebration of International Women’s Day. Artistic director Bob Cooper has partnered with Diaspora Dialogues to commission four new musical compositions, enhancing the female contribution to choral music in Canada. Diaspora Dialogues is an intercultural bridge that supports a community of diverse writers with multiple programs. In this exchange, Diaspora Dialogue authors Yaya Yao, Priscilla Uppal, Shadi Eskandani, and Phoebe Wang were paired with composers Katerina Gimon, Christine Donkin, Anika-France Forget and Tawnie Olson, respectively, for four new commissions by Orpheus. Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Charles Daniels. Photo by Annelies van der VegtMAR 9, 7:30PM: The University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. The concert features Daniel Taylor and Jeanne Lamon at the helm of the U of T Theatre of Early Music Choir, Schola Cantorum, and Baroque instrumentalists, Collegium Musicum. Joining them will be members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and tenor Charles Daniels. Handel’s oratorios, of which there are many, are often dominated by Messiah. This is a chance to see some of his other great work. In the expert hands of a period interpretation, you can be sure of a fantastic period performance of Handel’s work. St Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

MAR 21 TO 23, 7:30PM & MAR 24, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, five soloists and members of the Toronto Children’s Chorus all meet to present the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Last year, Tafelmusik presented the Mass in B Minor to great acclaim. Baritone Tyler Duncan, featured last year, returns to sing in the St Matthew Passion under maestro Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is one of the most renowned interpreters of Bach’s works and has never conducted Tafelmusik. This is one not to miss. With several performances to choose from, early music and Bach fans should hurry and get tickets. Carry a friend while you’re at it! Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Cheryll Chung. Photo by Richard Jonathan ChungMAR 22, 7:30PM: Cantabile Chamber Singers present “Social Justice,” a program that conductor Cheryll Chung calls “an eclectic mix of contemporary works that speak to justice and equity in the world.” The works to be performed include a premiere of Unheard: Voice of the Children, for mixed media and choir by Laura Sgroi. Other great Canadians featured include Matthew Emery and Saman Shahi. All the works touch “on issues such as the environment, the #MeToo movement as well as serenity, eternity, and hope,” shares Chung. Church of the Redeemer, Toronto.

MAR 30, 4PM: Exultate Chamber Singers present “When We Were Young.” Artistic director Mark Ramsay has gathered the Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir and their artistic director, Amanda Nelli, in this “celebration of joy and youth.” Featuring John Rutter’s Mass of the Children with its blending of William Blake poetry and different mass traditions. Other music includes music from Timothy Corlis, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Eric Whitacre and more. St Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

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Bach plays the organThe Baroque era was a time of international cultural exchange and groundbreaking creativity. Composers from across Europe brought music from the last vestiges of Renaissance modality to the systematic hierarchy of tones and semitones as defined by functional harmony. If there is one composer whose name is synonymous with the Baroque era and its developments, it is most likely Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was an inherently paradoxical figure, practical yet prickly, pious yet prideful, conservative yet radically progressive, a musical visionary with one foot in the past. We need look no further than the B-Minor Mass to see Bach’s equal comfort in the old modal style and a new, highly chromatic tonal system, evident in the contrast between the Credo fugue, based on cantus-firmus models of earlier times, and the comparatively shocking Crucifixus. The latter is an extended exploration of semitone relationships and enharmonic modulation masquerading as a ground-bass chaconne, using harmonic techniques that would not become frequently and fluently exercised until almost a century later.

The reasons for Bach’s powerful presence in the Western music canon are too many to number; the sheer intensity of his skill has captivated generations of composers, students and performers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler. This impact on those who followed him, coupled with Bach’s ability to blend the cerebral with the spiritual in a way unsurpassed by his peers or successors, has led to Bach’s place in the musical cosmos being like a musical black hole, on a scale perhaps only equalled by Beethoven, dividing all of musical history into before and after. All that came before led to this apotheosis of ingenuity; all that comes after is a successor, related in some way to this progenitor of revolutionized compositional ability. (A recent online post describing Handel as “a more religious Bach,” a premier example of musicological perfidy if there ever was one!)

Defence of Bach’s placement among the greats in the pantheon of musical history, is superfluous and unnecessary. The preceding paragraphs simply attempt to illustrate just how significant the contributions of this one composer are. To look at Bach’s music from another perspective, we can ask ourselves why Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations is one of the bestselling Classical albums of all time. (Before this recording, after all, the Goldbergs were considered museum pieces, old stuck-up essays in variation form that were unworthy of public performance.) The answer, most likely, is that, in the hands of someone who truly understands its intricacies and is able to express them, Bach’s music is the ideal repertoire to perform, challenging the interpreter and the listener and creating an atmosphere that borders on the sublime. No two live performances of the same work are ever identical, but this is all the more so with Bach, whose music is conducive to elastic and creative interpretations; a performer can adopt and adapt, making them endlessly subjective – and thereby communicative – experiences for an audience.

Masaaki SuzukiTafelmusik’s Matthäus-Passion

In case this extended preamble wasn’t a sufficiently obvious lead-in, March is full of Bach’s music, performed across Southern Ontario by a variety of ensembles. On March 21 to 24 in Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Tafelmusik presents a much-anticipated performance of the Matthäus-Passion (St Matthew Passion), led by Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is a Japanese organist, harpsichordist and conductor, and the founder and musical director of the Bach Collegium Japan, with which he is recording the complete choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach. To give a brief overview of Suzuki’s output to date, Bach Collegium Japan completed their 55-volume series of Bach’s church cantatas in 2013, the secular cantatas in 2018, as well as all of Bach’s Lutheran Masses, motets, and large choral works. Suzuki is also recording Bach’s concertos, orchestral suites and solo works for harpsichord and organ, as well as guest conducting with ensembles around the globe.

The St. Matthew Passion is a monumental work for vocal soloists, two choirs, and two orchestras, and Bach’s largest single piece of music, running almost three hours in an average performance. Containing some of Bach’s most beautiful and exquisitely crafted material, the St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday 1727 at the St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig. One of the challenges of performing this work involves the distribution of forces within the performing space; how does one ensure that the division of the large choir and orchestra into two distinct parts is clear and apparent, particularly in such essentially antiphonal movements as the opening “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen”?

In Bach’s time St. Thomas Church had two organ lofts: the large organ loft that was used throughout the year for musicians performing in Sunday services, and the small organ loft, situated at the opposite side of the sanctuary, that was used additionally in the grand services for Christmas and Easter. The St. Matthew Passion was composed so that a single work could be performed from both organ lofts at the same time: Chorus and orchestra I would occupy the large organ loft, and Chorus and orchestra II performed from the small organ loft. In a space lacking these vehicles for spatial separation, it will be fascinating to see how the dynamism of Bach’s score is realized onstage in this don’t-miss performance of Tafelmusik’s 40th-anniversary season.

OCO’s Brandenburgs

A short drive away in Oakville, the Oakville Chamber Orchestra celebrates their 35th anniversary with a complete performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era, this collection of six instrumental works was presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. While Bach took the opportunity to revise the concerti before presenting the scores to the margrave, each copied in his own hand rather than by a copyist, the material itself was likely not freshly composed, but rather selected from concertos he had composed over a number of years while at Köthen, and possibly extending back to his employment at Weimar.

After their gifting to the margrave, the Brandenburgs had a rather unfortunate history: because King Frederick William I of Prussia was not a significant patron of the arts, Christian Ludwig lacked the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform the concertos. The full score was left unused in the Margrave’s library until his death in 1734, when it was sold. The autograph manuscript of the concertos was only rediscovered in the archives of Brandenburg in 1849 and published in the following year. While Bach undoubtedly led performances of the original movements as Kapellmeister at Köthen, he never heard a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos as we now know them.

Fortunately, such opportunities are not lost on the modern concertgoer, though it is a rare treat to be able to hear all six works in one performance. Each concerto has a unique character and body of soloists, the fifth concerto perhaps the most renowned for its extraordinary harpsichord part. (It seems very likely that Bach, considered a great organ and harpsichord virtuoso, was the harpsichord soloist at the premiere of an earlier version in Köthen). Modern interpretations of these pieces range from one-to-a-part chamber ensembles of period instruments to pared-down symphony orchestras on modern instruments; regardless of the forces involved, these masterpieces are essential listening for fans of early music and worth exploring by anyone who appreciates Bach’s instrumental works.

 Rezonance Baroque EnsembleRezonance’s Bach Tradition

Known now as a brilliant composer of vocal and instrumental works, Bach was more renowned in his time as an improviser, keyboard virtuoso and organ consultant. (Whenever he tried a new organ, Bach’s practice was to start off by playing with all the stops pulled out, with every rank of pipes sounding at once. In this way, he said, he could see what kind of “lungs” an instrument had.) Bach famously displayed his skill at extemporization in front of King Frederick II of Prussia at Potsdam in May 1747, when the king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach obliged, playing a three-part fugue on one of Frederick’s fortepianos, before reworking the King’s theme into the Musical Offering.

On April 6, Rezonance Baroque Ensemble and Musicians on the Edge explore Bach’s improvisatory skill through their concert “The Bach Family and the Improvising Tradition” at Metropolitan United Church. The Bach family was an imposingly gifted family, producing generations of musicians of the highest calibre, and it will undoubtedly be a compelling experience as the audience is introduced to the largely lost art of extemporization. There may even be a fugue or two, made up on the spot!

While this month’s column is devoted to one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music, there are many other great composers represented within the pages of this magazine who you are encouraged to explore. As we slowly thaw after another Canadian winter and the days grow longer, it is the perfect time to get outside, go to concerts, and see what the world looks like underneath all that snow and ice! In the meantime, contact me with any questions or comments at


MAR 9, 7:30 PM: Theatre of Early Music. Israel in Egypt. St. Patrick’s Church, 131 McCaul Street. Not only was Handel born in 1685, the same year as Bach – he wrote some pretty good tunes too! Don’t miss this extraordinary oratorio full of dramatic story and magnificent music.

MAR 17, 4PM: Hart House Singers. “Handel and Mozart.” Great Hall, Hart House, 7 Hart House Circle. Two of music’s great dramatic composers come together for a concert featuring Handel’s extraordinary Zadok The Priest and Mozart’s Vespers. (Yes, Mozart has connections to Bach as well.)

MAR 27, 7:30 PM: Julliard415. “Baroque and Beyond: Bach and Vivaldi.” Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, 390 King Street West, Kingston. Violinist Rachel Podger and the Juilliard415 Baroque ensemble visit Canada to perform works by two masters of chamber music. (Bach was quite familiar with Vivaldi’s output and even transcribed a number of concerti for the organ.) Ideal music for an absolutely stellar concert hall.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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