berliozAs I write this, I’m getting ready to wrap up, via video call, what would have been the last 2019/20 ‘in-person’ session of one of The WholeNote’s newer annual projects: our participation in Toronto’s Emerging Arts Critics program, where we have been part of a team working with early-career writers to develop their skills writing about the performing arts in general – and about Toronto’s performing arts in particular.

An initiative started by the National Ballet of Canada and The Dance Current magazine, the EAC program offers early-career writers, ages 19-29, group workshops and one-on-one mentorship sessions with local arts publications, as well as tickets to shows from several Toronto arts presenters. In previous years, the program focussed solely on dance writing. When they decided to expand it to include classical music in 2017, we were invited by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to come on board. Now, in 2019/20, the program has expanded further to include collaborations with the Canadian Opera Company (with Opera Canada) and Soulpepper Theatre Company (with Intermission Magazine).

Normally, the eight participants in this program would have spent May and June of this year attending performances by the TSO, and submitting reviews of those performances for mentorship from WholeNote staff and music critic Robert Harris (and eventually, online publication here on the WholeNote website).

This year, concert cancellations due to COVID-19 rendered that impossible. So instead we planned a 4-session online workshop, co-led by Robert and I, on classical music writing, and asked participants to review a classical album, livestream, or online concert of their choice. 

You can find an ongoing list of their articles, as well as articles from past years’ cohorts, here

I can’t say that the shift to online – or the shift from a one-off group workshop to what ended up being a full-blown course – has been easy. But it has been extremely rewarding, and challenging in the best of ways. In being asked to guide others through our field in ways that sometimes felt totally estranged from the music, we had no choice but to confront the difficult questions: what is the point of writing about this stuff? Why are we doing it? And how can we do it better?

I don’t have any simple answers yet, but I have lots of complicated ones. I have lots of ideas – and, based on their efforts, their work, and their writing – so do our participants.

-Sara Constant

Music plays a role in absolutely everything I do, professionally and artistically! It is the reason why I started dancing as a child. I did play an instrument briefly as a teenager, but ultimately using my body as my instrument spoke to me more, and so this is the path I pursued. I danced for ten years with Opera Atelier, which deepened my love of Baroque music and introduced me to the world of opera. Through this exposure, I’ve been fortunate enough to create several choreographic works for opera companies, for both singers and dancers alike. Designing movement that complements vocal phrasing, not just for those who have to execute it, but for those experiencing it, is an entirely unique and satisfying process.

Read more: Quarantine-Fuelled Recalibration

Soon they realized that simply being together could be a risk. A quartet is, by its nature, an intimate gathering. Players can’t sit more than six feet apart and still hear each other, breathe together or respond to what are often subtle visual cues.

- James B. Stewart writing on April 19 about the Tesla Quartet’s coping with the coronavirus in The New York Times.

The New York Philharmonic had already cancelled its live performances through early June, but social distancing couldn’t stop more than 80 of its musicians from dedicating a special performance of Ravel’s Boléro to healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Orchestra members recorded their parts in their own homes for a virtual performance posted April 3 on YouTube.

Read more: Virtual Concerts Offer Some Consolation

Start by saying who you are and where music fits into that,” were my editor’s instructions for this piece. After which I was to move on to talking about what I was doing when COVID-19 hit: what I’d had to abandon, what I’m hoping to pick up on again, and how I am preparing for that. 
Be careful what you ask for!

Born midcentury as Tímár András in Szombathely, Hungary, as a young child I was an unwitting participant in my family’s Canadian immigration saga. We segued from the trauma and dislocation of the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution to the welcoming though utterly unfamiliar WASP-dominated environs of 1950s Toronto. These days I’m navigating another radical change - the challenging socially distanced landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: When Your Instrument Is a Collective Noun

The consequences of a pandemic are, as we have all experienced, incredibly far- reaching. The near complete closing down of life as we had known it has had such a sweeping effect on us all, we barely have any tangible evidence of what we might otherwise have accomplished in the spring of 2020. And of course, the projects we had proposed for this period of time all have roots in the past, with planned steps leading, one after the other, towards the completion of works of art we would have been proud to share with our public.

In my particular case, a unique project, several years in the making, was to have seen light of day in both Toronto and in Halifax late this past April. Poetry and Song was designed as a touring program in which I was to join two poets, a soprano and a pianist, to reveal not only recently composed art songs, but also to share the usually hidden processes used in the collaboration that led to the creation of these works.

Read more: Personal POV on the Pandemic

The economic ramifications of COVID-19 will play out in the coming months and years, and will have an effect on the artistic community unprecedented in recent memory. But long-term economic effects must, necessarily, be of less concern than the immediate, urgent need to stay inside, to save lives. One of the initial challenges of this period for many of us, no matter how community-conscious we strive to be, was to confront our own natural reaction to view with skepticism any potential changes to our everyday life. The coffee shop where I like to write, the studio space where I like to practise, the grocery store where I like to stop every few days and purchase more cheese than a single man living by himself should have any healthy reason to consume: these communal spaces were the sites at which I experienced the mundane foundational joys of my life. But now, things are different: the studio is closed, the coffee shop is open for takeout and delivery only, and the grocery store, though open, is no longer amenable to the contemplative cheese-counter flâneur.

Read more: Mundane Musings of A Cheese-Counter Flâneur

To wildly understate matters, these are not normal times. Neither will this be a normal WholeNote issue, nor is this a normal column for me, if such a thing exists. I don’t intend to make this seem all about me, but I do want to go into detail about how the pandemic shutdown has affected me as a musician and music teacher, in the knowledge that mine is just one of thousands of such stories, and in the hope that my experience will resonate with others in the same position. Or those who are worse off.

The crisis really hit home on March 11/12, when all professional sports shut down almost at once; this sent shockwaves about how real and serious this virus is, and remains. Within hours schools closed, social distancing measures were implemented and by March 16, Ontario had issued lockdown orders re non-essential businesses closing, limiting travel and large social gatherings, etc. To quote two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916: ”All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

On March 11, my wife Anna developed a sudden, burning cough, a concern for obvious reasons. It was diagnosed the next day as “only” pneumonia, perhaps the first time ever that a fairly serious illness was greeted with relief. On March 15, the last day I appeared in public, I developed a bad cold: sinus congestion, bad cough, but no other overt COVID-19 symptoms. We were laid up for about three weeks with these ailments and there were times we were certain that we had it. There’s nothing like a highly contagious and deadly virus to waken the inner paranoid hypochondriac in all of us. Like most others, we stayed home as much as possible and tried to stifle our uncertainties and anxieties.

Read more: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

Come What May

Readers of The WholeNote know me primarily as the Choral Scene columnist and an active participant in choral music in Toronto. My involvement and experiences in the rich cultural offerings of Toronto isn’t purely journalistic though, I’m also an avid theatregoer and it feels strange to me to go more than a few weeks without live art of some kind. This month I’m expanding our “What May Be” exploration beyond the choral world for some other touchpoints in the world of performing arts that I will miss.Choral Scene columnist Brian Chang at home recording a vocal part for a virtual choir project with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.. Photo by Jeff Slater.

What Was, and Yet Again May Be, Thoroughly Enjoyed

The biggest theatre event of the year, hands down, was the Toronto arrival of the touring production of Hamilton. Toronto was home to the “Phillip” cast of the tour, and this was the biggest selling, most expensive set of tickets ever released for a Toronto music theatre show. The state of emergency happened a month into the Toronto run. I had early tickets in February, a trick of luck with the subscription my mom and I have had for a decade. And then I was lucky enough to catch it again when a friend’s tickets became available and my boyfriend snatched them up so he could see it as well. I’m lucky, so very lucky to have experienced this magnificent theatre magic twice.

Read more: Maybe Soon? Or Maybe Not

Uxbridge Museum Heritage Day - I was dressed for the occasion and sitting on a bench that I donated.This month’s column is a very different perspective on the current status of music in our part of the world. There is no point in discussing in generalities the coronavirus pandemic. We have heard enough about it. As a columnist friend, Roger Varley, who writes for Cosmos, a weekly community newspaper in Uxbridge, recently remarked, “It’s rather like going to a Luciano Pavarotti concert only to hear him sing Nessun Dorma over and over again for two hours.” Instead, let’s have a more specific look at how this pandemic is affecting our musical world, starting by dividing our musical world into two groups: performers and listeners (with, hopefully, almost all performers being listeners to forms of music other than that which they perform). The coronavirus has forced us all into quarantine.

Performers

The regulations now in effect, affect music makers in several ways. First, as they stand, the laws have closed all possible locations where groups might rehearse or perform until further notice. Second, even if there were places, no groups larger than five individuals, other than those who live in the same location, are permitted to assemble. Third, all people in a group must maintain a separation of at least two metres.

Read more: Digitally Aided Rehearsals and Reminiscences

St James Cemetery crematoriumI stay sane these days by walking industrial wastelands, edges of construction fields, less travelled ravine trails and the dead-quiet side streets of Toronto’s east and north. Last time I clocked in just over 9.5km – it was raining, then overcast with nasty winds – while listening to This Jungian Life, a podcast in which three Jungian psychoanalysts talk amongst themselves. The recent shows have all been about the current situation, with titles like Facing the Fear, and When Everything Changes: Is There Opportunity in Crisis, and Nigredo: Finding Light Out of Darkness. As I was rounding the final stretch of Rosedale Valley Road where it joins Bayview Avenue, past the outlier graves on the slopes of the St James Cemetery, I could hear the analysts in my earphones saying, When the darkness descends, when the Nigredo is upon us, we will have to sit in it for a time. We can’t deny it away. We will have to stay in it, and then survive it. But the only way is through.

It’s been impossible to read fiction these last few weeks. I’ve been searching for something escapist and plotted, precisely the books I don’t enjoy in ordinary circumstances. My own library doesn’t contain anything carefully plotted and neatly resolved, so I call Book City on the Danforth and bike over for a curbside pickup. I’m now nursing what turned out to be the least-plotted thing Patricia Highsmith ever wrote, Found in the Street. Jenny Offill’s Weather was pointless; Jean Frémon’s Now, Now, Louison non-immersive and even self-indulgent. It’s been impossible to listen to recorded music too because you can’t give over to it. Seconds in, you’re besieged by thoughts about the future of live performance. I’m not a techno-optimist on the topic of performing arts. Every now and then a few singers start the conversation online with “how we can change and improve our profession for the future,” presumably by adding an aspect of digital distancing to it. You can’t. We can’t. Things are either live, or they’re not performing arts. Anything consumed on a screen at home is a different shebang.
We’d already begun self-isolating too much before the pandemic lockdown forced us to go full hermit. We as a society have already started preferring screens to live performance, digital communication to people in the flesh. Maintaining friendships outside the family unit was already made hard. Ticket sales for opera and song recitals have already been slowly but steadily declining in Toronto. We’ve already been living as citizens weary of other fellow citizens, not bothering to abstract out of our own condition to the life of the commons, in the public square. The end of the lockdown won’t reverse this trend.

Read more: Sojourn in the Deep Shade: The Only Way Is Through

Art of Time Ensemble was to have presented “S’Wonderful,” their Gershwin brothers’ tribute at the beginning of April and “Dance to the Abyss,” with music by Kurt Weill (and lyrics by Bertold Brecht), Schulhoff, Spoliansky et al, early in May, both already cancelled. To ease the pain, artistic director Andrew Burashko has created “The Self-Isolation Playlist” on Soundcloud, inviting everyone to listen, and saying this:

This song list is a desire to share with you some of the music we’ve made over the years - a kind of offering at a time when everything is being taken away. Suddenly, having more time than I know what to do with - trying to distract myself from the fear and madness outside my window, I’ve been digging through recordings of past concerts - some not heard in years, and reflecting on the immense privilege I have had of making music with such remarkable people/musicians. I hope you will enjoy it.

If you’re reading this online, go to: soundcloud.com/user-185119516/sets/the-self-isolation-playlist, where you can hear Art of Time’s take on nine songs by the likes of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Gilles Vigneault, Charles Trenet and Robert Charlebois.

Read more: The Cruellest Month: A Portrait of April 2020 as It Might Have Been
Back to top