Clubs have traditionally been the lifeblood of a city’s jazz scene. It was certainly that way for this “old dog” in the early part of my career, during the heyday when Toronto boasted numerous longstanding clubs such as George’s Spaghetti House, Bourbon Street and Basin Street, the Montreal Bistro and Top O’ the Senator, which presented both international and local jazz six nights a week.

If measured by this yardstick alone the health of jazz in Toronto now, with just three major clubs presenting the music on a multi-night-per-week basis – The Rex, Jazz Bistro, and the Home Smith Bar – can be called into question. However, it’s not as bad as all that, because in recent years new ways of hearing live jazz have arrived, thanks to the persistence and ingenuity of the jazz community at large – those who play the music, those who are trying to learn to play it, those who enjoy listening to it, and those who present it. These new models include:

Student Jazz Concerts at The Rex

For the past several years, Monday nights at The Rex have been given over to sets by student ensembles from the jazz programs at U of T and Humber College. These generally begin with three different U of T ensembles starting at 6:30pm and playing for 40 minutes each, followed by the Humber groups at about 9:30pm. I began teaching (and, unusually, also playing in) a jazz ensemble at U of T last year, which brought me into direct contact with this scene, and I liked what I saw and heard right away. Playing in a real club setting, one where their teachers often perform, brings out the best in the students, and I wish this opportunity had been on offer when I was a jazz student. Mondays are not a prime night out but I urge local jazz fans to attend, not just to support the students – which is worthy in itself – but because you will hear some interesting and sincere music. Both schools are brimming with young talent; in essence you will hear the future of the music in Toronto, a future I feel confident is in good hands after hearing some of these young people play.

Big Bands Are Back

Well, sort of. Phil Nimmons retired his big band years ago and following the deaths of Rob McConnell and Dave McMurdo, it seemed the future of big-band jazz in Toronto was in peril. Starting and running a big band in these times is perhaps the ultimate jazz labour of love, but John MacLeod has persisted in doing so with his Rex Hotel Orchestra, which has performed at its namesake club on the last Monday of every month for years now. The lion’s share of the arrangements are written by MacLeod in an eclectic style reflecting both modern and traditional elements, featuring stellar ensemble work and plenty of solo room for some of Toronto’s best players carrying on in the tradition established by those mentioned above. The band has produced several recordings and its latest, The Toronto Sound, will be released at a gala concert at the Old Mill on November 6, which I will be attending. Kudos to John MacLeod for his perseverance and talent in guaranteeing that high-quality big-band jazz can still be heard around these parts.

John MacLeodBut there’s more. Three days after the Old Mill event, November 9, the Wee Big Band will be heard in concert in the Garage at the Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst Street, starting at 7:30pm. The band has been a Toronto fixture for years and has survived the death of its founder-leader Jim Galloway and several of its key players, such as lead-alto stalwart Gordie Evans. But it continues in the capable hands of Martin Loomer, its longtime rhythm guitarist and principle arranger, or perhaps I should say transcriptionist. The band’s repertoire consists mostly of early big-band classics from masters like Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Benny Moten, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and many others, all lovingly transcribed by Loomer and played with authenticity and spirit by the musicians. It’s not possible to hear this kind of music performed live very often anymore and I for one look forward to the November 9 concert.

The House Concert

The old model of the salon concert has been revived in recent years, as an alternative to bigger clubs which can be crowded, noisy and expensive. Increasingly, dedicated fans are staging intimate concerts in their own homes, offering a unique up-close jazz experience. By necessity the audience size is small and the concerts are sporadic, which only makes them more special. Perhaps the greatest success story of these is the Jazz in the Kitchen series presented by John and Patti Loach in their spacious Beaches home, which is uniquely equipped for musical presentation. Opposite their large open kitchen is a music room sporting a wonderful Steinway grand and perfect natural sound that encourages the non-amplified jazz on offer. The audience is generally limited to 35 or 40 paying guests who sit very close to the band – Mark Eisenman’s trio plus shifting guests including John Loach on trumpet – and simply listen, enjoying both a real jazz experience and the verbal byplay between the musicians. The series started about four years ago and is always sold out. October 22 will be the 40th concert in what looked at first to be a risky proposition. I’m sure there are others run along the same lines, such as JazzNHouse in the Ottawa area, which I’ll experience for the first time when Mike Murley’s trio plays there on October 28 (also sold out).

A New Jazz Festival

The Kensington Market Jazz Festival made its debut in September of 2016, the brainchild of star singer Molly Johnson – long a neighbourhood resident – ably abetted by her organizational partners in crime, performers Ori Dagan and Genevieve (Gigi) Marenette, plus an army of volunteers. This year’s festival, a weekend affair held September 15 to 17, significantly built on the promise and success of the first one. Well over 300 local musicians performed in various small venues in the tight streets of Kensington in a dizzying array of one-hour concerts running from solo piano and guitar to trios and larger groups in various styles, all well- and enthusiastically attended. The recipe is simple, inclusive and refreshingly non-corporate – keep it small, because small is good, present “all jazz as we know it” played by local musicians of many generations, and use the vibe of the ’hood, its unique food, local businesses and “streetness” as a feel-good backdrop. As to the finances, I have no idea how they make it work, but there are ticketed events and free events; it’s cash only and all of it goes to the musicians save for a small percentage to cover costs. I played one concert in the first festival and two this year, enjoying each immensely while being paid very fairly. It was a pleasure to walk the streets and see so many musical friends all packed together so happily; this is an event which puts “festive” back into the jazz festival. Congratulations to Molly and company for their leap-of-faith vision in bringing this unique festival to Toronto at a time when the city desperately needed it.

CDs Galore

PJPerryThe self-financed CD is another way jazz artists can continue to reach and expand their audience, and good locally produced jazz records have spread like wildfire in recent years. One can barely keep up. These involve a leap of faith in that the outlay involved cannot often be recouped, but musicians keep making them anyway as a means of documenting their art. Even ones who have nothing left to prove, like PJ Perry. Now 75, a JUNO-winner and recent recipient of the Order of Canada, PJ has long been one of the best alto saxophonists in the world, although he doesn’t have that profile because he plies his trade in the relative isolation of Edmonton. His latest release, just out, is Alto Gusto, recorded live during two nights at Edmonton’s venerable Yardbird Suite. But here’s the real leap of faith on his part: while he had played with each member of the rhythm section – veteran Los Angeles pianist Jon Mayer; drummer Quincy Davis, originally from Michigan and until recently based out of Winnipeg, and yours truly on bass – the three of us had never even met before this gig. PJ just knew the chemistry would somehow work and it did, about two bars into our hasty rehearsal. The result is a very hard-swinging, inventive record, an honest portrait of musicians creating music in the moment.

As long as jazz has enough people – musicians, fans and presenters – who believe in it enough to make these leaps of faith, it will continue to evolve and flourish. Perhaps not as in the “good old days,” which are past, but by creating some good new days. 

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

Celebrity success in classical music is a strange amalgam. In very few disciplines do we give as much focus to the medium-like, necromancing qualities that a good performer must have. Using training, taste, research and the occasional séance, an interpreter must form a personal connection with composers who are most often long-dead, and emerge with an interpretation that is ingeniously creative and original, yet faithful to the written score.

The duty of the classical performer is similar in many ways to that of an actor who takes a script, often written by someone else, and absorbs the on-page style and personality of a character while fusing it with an individual, personal energy. A play script, much like a musical score, can be read without hearing it live, but the deeper meaning that can be wrung from the page through practice and experience is what separates the “pros” from the “Joes.” And, if one is lucky as well as good, he or she may be fortunate enough to be discovered and swept up through the ranks into the realm of the classical music elite, just as can happen for actors.

This link between performing as a musician and as an actor is likely the closest parallel we can find within the arts – in no other discipline is pure interpretation the primary focus and determinant of artistic achievement. Imagine, for example, if we bought a copy of There’s Gonna Be a God Damn Riot in Here!, the famous film of Charles Bukowski’s 1979 Vancouver poetry reading, only to find someone else reading his poems! In the same way, we cannot conceive of a person whose exclusive role might be to meander around art galleries, exhibits and openings to explain the works using great, erudite phrases and explanations. Certainly we have art critics, professors, curators and gallery owners, but they do not look at a Mapplethorpe photograph or Basquiat painting, stand there and tell us what to see, and expect to be thought of on the same artistic plane as the artist himself.

Since the late 19th century, when the roles of composer and performer began to exist independently, the classical musician as performing interpreter has existed in this rather paradoxical grey area. Where Beethoven, Liszt and countless others wrote the music they played, today’s batch of internationally renowned soloists with legendary technique may not have written a single note on staff paper since their student days. There are, of course, notable exceptions, including Leonard Bernstein, John Adams and Pierre Boulez, though these are often conductor-composers rather than instrumental virtuosi.

Modern academies and conservatories are compartmentalized, welcoming young, talented students to learn “more and more about less and less,” as the saying goes. When we ask “What are you studying?” they do not reply “Music,” but rather “Composition” or “Collaborative Piano” or “Conducting.” We categorize, break down and divide the encompassing art into smaller, easy-to-market bites, thereby enabling the young musician to become a rather pigeonholed, although superiorly skilled, superstar “[fill in the blank].”

This is the old-yet-new world of classical music in the 21st century, a roster consisting of a relatively small number of highly specialized, jet-setting superstars who tour the globe, guest-starring with the world’s top orchestras. Managed by a few artist agencies who book their clients in a manner reminiscent of pop music – the biggest venues in the biggest cities, for the biggest fees – the names are revered, and they need not be in good form, either. Recently Lang Lang, who is recovering from an injury to his left hand, took the stage with a teenage prodigy who literally served as his left-hand man for the performance.

Mind you, the phenomenon of the superstar performer is not a bad thing for the propagation of classical music. Superstars attract hype, and hype fills seats, which ultimately brings the music to a wider audience. Toronto is fortunate to host a spectrum of marquee artists from the international scene every year, which continues to foster interest in the revival and performance of music from long ago. This November is no exception. Here are some highlights from the early music world:

Angela Hewitt

Legendary Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt makes an extended stop in Toronto this month, playing a solo recital at Koerner Hall and two concerts with the TSO. (I wonder if her Fazioli piano will travel with her to each venue?)

Angela HewittOn November 12, Hewitt’s Koerner Hall recital, her third such appearance, will be an all-Johann Sebastian Bach program, which is part of her three-year exploration of the composer. Works include three Partitas (No. 3 in A Minor, BWV827, No. 5 in G Major, BWV829 and No. 6 in E Minor, BWV830) and the Partie in A Major, BWV832. This concert will be preceded at 7pm by a talk by Rick Phillips. According to the RCM box office, tickets are sold out, but industrious ticket seekers may dig some up through secondhand sources such as scalpers, rush tickets or StubHub.

The Toronto Symphony then features Hewitt as director and soloist on November 18 and 19 in a concert of works by Bach and Mozart. It will be interesting to hear how the modern grand-piano-with-orchestra instrumental approach to Bach and Mozart will come across, particularly in contrast with Hewitt’s solo recital. Will the TSO’s leader attempt to temper the Romantic tendencies of the full orchestra, or will we hear a more scaled-down, “HIP”-style performance?

Kristian Bezuidenhout

Speaking of Mozart, Tafelmusik welcomes South African-born, London-based guest director and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout from November 9 to 12, as he leads the orchestra through an early Classical-era program which includes Mozart’s Concerto for Piano in A Major K414 and symphonies by Mozart and two of his mentors, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christoph Bach.

Kristian BezuidenhoutThis performance will pair exceedingly well with the Hewitt/TSO concerts, as one ensemble interprets Mozart through a modern orchestra looking back in time, the other as a Baroque ensemble looking ahead. Both orchestras have deep roots in this style of music and it will be fascinating to hear the different approaches each group takes towards very similar repertoire.

In addition to his concert appearances, Bezuidenhout (who also plays the harpsichord and modern piano) will lead a masterclass on November 11 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, which is free and open to the public.

Ensemble Masques

Originally formed in Montreal, the international Baroque chamber group Ensemble Masques makes their Toronto debut on November 18 at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church. A classical supergroup featuring players from Collegium Vocale Gent, Tafelmusik and the English Concert, among others, this team of experts will perform a concert of music by Telemann. (Readers west of Toronto will be interested to know that Ensemble Masques will be performing the same program on November 16 in the Music Room of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society.)

Ensemble MasquesGeorg Philipp Telemann was enormously prolific, writing well over a thousand works, and was one of the most celebrated composers of his time before falling into relative obscurity. According to Ensemble Masques’ recent press release, their concert looks to “wipe clean generations of misunderstanding that kept Telemann in the shadows. Where Bach looked heavenward, Telemann’s genius was for life here on Earth. A brilliant observer of the world around him, his music translates all facets of human experience into works that are full of humour, wit and infinite invention.”

For modern audiences familiar with the contrapuntal density of Bach and the rhythmic vitality of Handel, Telemann’s music might seem rather simple and transparent. But do not be fooled. Hiding within Telemann’s massive oeuvre are works of remarkable beauty, and Ensemble Masques is undoubtedly well-equipped to put these pieces on public display. In advance of their Toronto appearance, explore their latest recording of Telemann’s Theatrical Overture-Suites on the Alpha label.


In addition to these international headliners, there are a number of other talents, both local and foreign, playing Toronto this month. Here are a few.

Nov 4 and 5: Cor Unum Ensemble - “Music from the Early Italian Baroque.”

Cor Unum Ensemble is one of Toronto’s newest groups, an orchestra and chorus comprised primarily of students and graduates from the University of Toronto’s Early Music program. This talented, homegrown group of players presented Bach’s St. John Passion last year and their take on music by Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Frescobaldi and other Italian composers from the early Baroque should be on point as well.

Nov 10: “At the Heart of Bach - Christian Lane plays CCDP.”

Winner of the 2011 Canadian International Organ Competition, American organist Christian Lane plays an all-Bach program on Christ Church Deer Park’s 1982 Karl Wilhelm tracker organ. This instrument, a perfect match for Bach’s inimitable organ music, should be like putty in Lane’s hands.

Nov 19: “Musicians on the Edge: Jazz Standards of the Seventeenth Century.”

Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presents a concert of 17th-century tunes with a focus on ensemble improvisation. With a continuo section of Ben Stein, whose doctoral work focuses on the ancient art of partimento and the development of improvisation, Erika Nielsen and David Podgorski, the bass lines in this concert should be tight and groovy.

Dec 1: Upper Canada Choristers – “Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit.”

Christmas comes early this year, particularly for Charpentier fans, as Upper Canada College’s choristers perform Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit pour Noël and Kodály’s Christmas Dance of the Shepherds. Charpentier’s mass is a time-tested masterpiece that will bring in the Christmas season with style.

While it might seem rather early to mention Christmas, another month of seasonal favourites will be upon us before we know it! To keep up to date on all the Messiahs, oratorios, concertos and other Baroque things happening in the city, check out next month’s column. Until then, drop me a line at

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Heading into the month of November remembrance, I’ve highlighted two performances: the first is by Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir, and the second by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with guests. The major works in these two performances commemorate two very different wars separated by 100 years, World War I and the war in Afghanistan. War continues to inspire stories, and to invoke teaching, reflection and discussion. But as we head towards Remembrance Day, it is worth reflecting on the fact that sonic remembrance has the power to evoke things that words alone can not. There are many options available to listeners across the region, particularly early in the month, to experience this, in the offerings of great composers and musicians alike.

Later in the month, on November 22, Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt, an icon in the choral world, director of choral activities and professor of conducting at the University of Toronto, releases her new book on the life of Ruth Watson Henderson, I Didn’t Want To Be Boring. Apfelstadt’s book tells the story of this remarkable musician, gathered through interviews over several years. With over 200 choral works, Watson Henderson’s story is anything but boring.

Lastly, at the tail end of my “quick picks” I have included a few early holiday concerts. Make sure you check out the full listings and get your tickets early. Holiday performances often sell out and are amongst the most fun performances you can find anywhere!

Last Light Above the World: A War Litany

November 4 at 7:30pm, Chorus Niagara presents the world premiere of Last Light Above the World: A War Litany by Allan Bevan. “I scoured war diaries,” shares Bevan on the Chorus Niagara Facebook page, “looked at war art, read letters and other war correspondence, and delved into the large body of poetry written by people involved.” From these sources, Bevan created a story of a couple. “He has gone off to battle, and she is left to consider it. They become the conscience of the work, the ones who portray the human cost of the war.” Shaw Festival actors Hailey Gillis and Colin Palangio bring this couple to life.

Robert Cooper helms these performances with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and soloists Maeve Palmer, soprano; Lillian Brooks, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Varahidis, tenor; and Alexander Bowie, bass. Bevan has written the soloists as “spirits” who represent the “dead” referred to in the famous lines of John McCrae’s In Flander’s Fields “We are the dead…” Bevan continues: “Last Light does not pretend that there are easy answers, it is not a simple comforting… In the poetry of WWI, generally speaking, war is neither glorified nor vilified, it is simply recorded: all its horror, sacrifice, as well as its unexpected beauty, compassion and forgiveness.”

The Orpheus Choir of Toronto, also conducted by Robert Cooper, performs the same work in Toronto on November 5 at 3:30pm, Grace Church on-the-Hill.

Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation

It has been almost 16 years since the official, Parliament-sanctioned intervention by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan began. In those days of constant war headlines and combat deaths, our country was at war on the other side of the planet. Afghanistan was a war unlike others, constantly changing and evolving, fought against an often unstructured and asymmetrical enemy. For those of us who read the news here in Canada, this war also strongly shaped our country in the last decade and a half. The war in Afghanistan has opened discussions on a great number of complex issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the role of the Canadian Forces in international conflicts, military investment, American imperialism, racism, child combatants, pacifism and so much more.

Art, music included, has done much to allow and facilitate some of these conversations,with its power to evoke contemplation and create change. Into this discussion, on November 9 and 11, we insert Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, including 130 choristers from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 50 from the Toronto Children’s Chorus, guest musicians from the Canadian Forces, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and soloists. The first half of this concert also features Canadian Forces guests on pipes, bugle and text.

Tania Miller, music director of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, takes the helm for these performances. Miller was the first woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra, ever, and her tenure began the year following the start of the war in Afghanistan. She is joined by Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano; Colin Ainsworth, tenor; and Brett Polegato, baritone.

The words come via Suzanne Steele, Canada’s war poet, who served in Afghanistan. Jeffrey Ryan put the words to music, including text from the requiem mass, alongside Steele’s poignant words which are often set in repetition: “if we could give you two days, just two days...;” “My son, my daughter, can you hear me?”

In the breaking open of lives lived and lost during war, music can help bridge the experiences and provide a united focus. Ryan describes his music as “a love letter. Not just to one person…but to each of us, to our country, and to a generation that will be paying for this war emotionally or financially (looking after the injured and next of kin) for another generation.” As Ryan concludes in the program note: “Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation marks one particular war for one particular generation, but its message is universal and timeless.”

On a Canadian National Treasure: Ruth Watson Henderson

Ruth Watson Henderson has had a storied career as a performer on piano and organ. Having served 29 years as the accompanist of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, with the Festival Singers under Elmer Iseler, and as a church musician, her prolific contributions to choral music have been incomparable. Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt has spent years interviewing and researching Watson Henderson for her new book I Didn’t Want To Be Boring.

Ruth Watson HendersonTo commemorate the book launch, the Canadian Music Centre is hosting a concert on November 22 featuring soprano Amy Dodington, accompanied by Watson Henderson herself, and joined by members of the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Exultate Chamber Singers as well as by Apfelstadt. Three days earlier at Kingsway-Lambton United Church, November 19, Dodington will sing Watson Henderson’s Prayer of St. Francis accompanied by the composer herself in an unofficial book launch and 85th birthday celebration.

In an excerpt, Apfelstadt describes Henderson: “Initially a highly gifted young solo pianist, Ruth became a collaborative artist whose work with choral ensembles led to her development as a composer whose music is frequently sung and respected for its craftsmanship and expressivity. And along the way, she embodied the term “working mother” as she raised a family of four, built a career as a practising musician and successful composer, and held a church music director position until the age of 80. As I write, she is 84 and still composing music. Hers is a remarkable story.” The paperback copy of the book is available in stores November 22.


Nov 4, 7:30pm. The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Celebration 150.” The Guelph choral community’s contribution to Canada 150 commemorations brings together five regional choirs: the Guelph Chamber Choir, Guelph Community Singers, Guelph Youth Singers, Rainbow Chorus of Waterloo/Wellington and the University of Guelph Symphonic Choir.

Nov 10, 8pm. The Kingston Road Village Concert Series presents “Remembrance Day Concert with Scott Good and Friends.”

Nov 11, 8pm. Barrie Concerts presents “Songs from the Great World Wars,” featuring the UTSC Concert Choir and conducted by Lenard Whiting.

Nov 11 and 12, 8pm. That Choir presents their annual first concert of the season “That Choir Remembers,” featuring the music of Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley and more.

Nov 12, 4:30pm. The Cathedral Church of St James presents “Service of Remembrance,” featuring the large choral work of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Songs of Farewell, a collection of six songs composed in accapella polyphony. These songs will be presented as part of a religious service.

Nov 15 and 16, 8pm. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents “Oundjian Conducts Vaughan Williams.” Marking one of the signature performances of the TSO with Oundjian at the helm in his outgoing year as music director, the orchestra is joined by Louis Lortie, piano; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Teng Li, viola; Carla Huhtanen, soprano; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; and the Elmer Iseler Singers.

Nov 29 to Dec 3, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir presents “Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation.” Promising a Baroque-inspired soundtrack to festivities, these performances mark the first choral performances for Tafelmusik this season. Musical celebrations written by Purcell, Lully, Handel, Pachelbel, John Blow’s Anthem for the Coronation of James II and Charpentier’s Messe des morts are all on the program.

Dec 3, 3pm, the Harmony Singers of Etobicoke present their holiday concert, including many pop and classics favourites. The choir is also singing We’re in the Same Boat Now, written by former Premier Bob Rae. The Singers also provide an annual scholarship to a student at the Etobicoke School of the Arts who performs with the choir. This year, that recipient is Martina Myskohlid.

Dec 5 and 6, 7:30, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Festival of Carols” featuring the Salvation Army Canadian Staff Band. The often-sold-out concert is being presented over two nights to accommodate extra patrons. 

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So far it’s been an odd fall here. Into the third week of October, it’s well past Thanksgiving, yet Toronto is still reaching daytime high temperatures we typically experience in June. There hasn’t even been a whisper of nighttime frost in town. The geraniums still bloom vigorously and peppers continue to redden on my north-facing balcony garden. Endless summer? Dire climactic implications aside, I for one am thankful for this cold weather reprieve, soon to be over, I suspect.

The GTA’s first Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), presented by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, will be well under way by the time you read this. The festival’s first concert was held at Koerner Hall on October 28, featuring a double bill with Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai and the Toronto world music group Sultans of String. Ever since its establishment in 2014 the professional CAO has sought to connect expatriate Arabs with classical Arabic musical culture in order to maintain this heritage in the hearts and minds of the present community in Canada, as well as to safeguard it for future generations. At the same time, the orchestra also seeks to engage with non-Arab Canadian communities. FAMA shows both objectives at work.

Arabic Music in Toronto: Rob Simms and George Sawa

To gain further insight into Arabic music today, in both the Arab world and here in Canada, I called Rob Simms, associate professor at York University’s Department of Music, a Canadian ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in Middle Eastern and West African traditions. Simms reminded me of the devastation to cultural life impacting large swathes of Iraq and Syria as a consequence of the recent invasions and sustained armed conflict in those countries. One of the results of this upheaval has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis and Syrians, many finding themselves as refugees in foreign lands – including recently, Canada.

Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is a prime example of this cultural devastation. It is considered an important centre of Arabic traditional music, historically supporting renowned practitioners of muwashshah, qudud halabiya and maqam (religious, secular and poetic-musical genres). Aleppo was also known for its sammi’a, a cadre of influential cultivated music connoisseurs. This ancient web of music production, patronage and appreciation has been tragically disrupted as a result of the current civil war.

I then followed up on the phone with longtime Toronto resident George Sawa, a renowned scholar, qanun (Arabic zither) player and music educator who holds a doctorate in historical Arabic musicology from the University of Toronto. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the multi-award-winning Sawa has over 50 years’ experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory. “I arrived in Toronto in 1970 to study at U of T,” he recounted. One of the draws was the university’s Robarts and Faculty of Music libraries, which according to Sawa “contain one of the best Arabic music collections in the world.”

George SawaWhat was the Arabic music scene like in 1970 Toronto? “At the time Arabic music was mostly encountered in cabarets and in clubs which featured belly dancing,” Sawa told me. He immediately sought to enrich the scene.

“In 1971 I founded a trio playing traditional Arabic music. Not long afterward, CBC radio recorded for broadcast a concert of Christmas carols sung by (leading contralto) Maureen Forrester, with me on qanun. The trio increased into a quintet, appearing in concert and on CBC over the next few decades. It became known as the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble.” Sawa also served as the music director of Toronto’s Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra from 1996 to 2005.

Today one of Sawa’s performing projects is Alpharabius, “an ensemble dedicated to exploring the musical interactions of the rich cultures of the Mediterranean. The group is named after one of the great philosophers of classical Islam, al-Farabi (d. ah 339/ 950 CE), who was renowned as both a musical theorist and a practicing musician… The ensemble is a collaboration of musicians trained in the classical Arabic and Western medieval musical traditions.”

He concluded our conversation by observing that the GTA’s “Arabic community has grown considerably in the past few decades. For example, I think it’s very significant and healthy that before securing support from Canadian Arts Councils, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra initially sought patronage from local Arabic businesses who believed in what they were doing. More power to them!”

Charbel Rouhana, oudist

November 3, FAMA in co-production with Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal presents Charbel Rouhana, the Lebanese composer, singer and oudist accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre. This program will be repeated November 5 at the Monument National in Montreal.

Possessing ancient roots, the oud – often placed into three general groups, Arabic, Turkish and Persian – is at the core of much of the traditional music played throughout the Middle East and in regions influenced by its people. The oud, which has numerous morphological variants highly dependent on region of origin, typically today has 11 or 13 strings grouped into five or six courses.

Its performance tradition has been particularly long-maintained in Iraq, where a popular saying honours its high value to the culture: “In the music of the oud lies the country’s soul.” The instrument was once common in Iraqi households, something like the guitar in Canada or the USA. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime however, the increasing power of Islamist extremists who consider secular music to be haram (sinful, forbidden) has forced many oud players and teachers to cease playing publicly, or even forced them into exile in order to pursue their oud-related careers.

Already a virtuoso of the instrument, several decades ago Rouhana established a new method of playing the oud. Published in seven volumes, it has been adopted by the National Conservatory of Music in Lebanon and by other music institutions, securing his standing among today’s leading masters of the Arabic oud. Rouhana is also a prizewinning composer: in 1990 he was awarded first prize in the Hirayama Competition for his work Hymn of Peace. He has appeared in concert with classical Hindustani bansuri (bamboo flute) virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia, and also with many other leading musicians.

FAMA Concerts

In addition to the November 1 FAMA concert at the Revue Cinema mentioned in my previous column, featuring the outstanding female Syrian oud player and singer Waed Bouhassoun, and the November 3 Charbel Rouhana concert referred to above, there are a several more FAMA concerts in the first half of November. Here are some highlights.

November 4, the group Golan, its members hailing from Tunisia, France and Palestine, takes the stage at the Lester B. Pearson Theatre in Brampton. Leader Hubert Dupont, Golan’s double bassist, gathered like-minded musicians from all over the Mediterranean, arranging a musical exchange between elements of contemporary European music, jazz and Arabic traditional music. Pascal Rozat wrote in France Musique that Golan is reaching for “an ideal of musical fraternity as much as a hymn to freedom, for an ‘oriental journey’ different from others.”

November 9, FAMA, in partnership with the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto and in association with the Aga Khan Museum and the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, presents the world premiere of Origins at the Aga Khan Museum. Tagged “Indigenous/Arabic,” this new production by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra in collaboration with poet and singer Hassan Tamim and St’at’imc (a.k.a. Lillooet) singer-songwriter and dancer Laura Grizzlypaws is perhaps the most ambitious of the FAMA offerings.

Origins showcases similarities as well as cultural divides between the people of two continents through dance and music, “in the spirit of truth and reconciliation and… peace and harmony through the cross-cultural medium of music.” In addition to Grizzlypaws and the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, Origins presents whirling dervish performers of Rumi Canada for part of the program, enhancing the spiritual journey theme of the work.

November 12, FAMA moves to Mississauga’s Hammerson Hall, at the Living Arts Centre. Iraqi-born Naseer Shamma, among the world’s top oud masters, headlines the concert accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra. Titled “On the Way to Baghdad,” the concert is billed as a veritable masterclass in classical Arabic music.

Born in 1963 in Iraq, Shamma received his diploma from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987. He has composed music for TV, films and plays since. In 1998 he established the Arabic Oud House in Cairo, as well as in Tunis and Dubai. His scholarly research consulting old manuscripts on Arabic music has aided in his reconstruction of the Al-Farabi (c. 870-951 CE) model oud, which can produce an expanded tonal range of four octaves, giving the player a vast improvisational terrain.

Naseer ShammaQUICK PICKS

The Aga Khan Museum hosts four concerts in addition to Origins: Nov 4:Fleur Persane by Perséides” featuring Amir Amiri (santur) and Jean Félix Mailloux (double bass); Nov 18: “Haram with Gordon Grdina” is an evening of indie-rock meets jazz and electronica; Nov 25:” All Rivers at Once: The Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative” is described as “jazz-like arrangements of traditional Israeli and Iranian folk songs.” The ensemble, directed by pianist Noam Lemish, includes Saeed Kamjoo (kamancheh), Pedram Khavarzamini (tombak) and Amos Hoffman (oud). Dec 2:Nazar by Turkwaz,” the Toronto quartet of world music divas Maryem Hassan Tollar, Jayne Brown, Sophia Grigoriadis and Brenna MacCrimmon. Expect Arabic, Balkan and Turkish folk songs in tight arrangements with a sprinkling of new charts.

Nov 22: 12 noon, the COC’s World Music Series continues with “Arabic Coffee House.” The Al Qahwa Ensemble, with Maryem Hassan Tollar (vocals), Demetri Petsalakis (oud), Ernie Tollar (flutes) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), animate the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

I’ll be sure to attend this concert of longtime local practitioners of Arabic and related music, bookending what promises to be an extraordinarily chockablock month of Arabic music in the GTA.

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

The heart of musical theatre in any time period is storytelling through the combination of words and music, where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts; and when the right creative team and performers come together the results can be uniquely satisfying.

October’s musical theatre season started strongly with Britta Johnson’s Life After at Canadian Stage debuting to rave reviews, sold-out houses and an extended run (so far to October 29). Audiences were bowled over with the sophistication of the music, the humanity and wit of the book, and the potential of many more new musicals to come from such a talent. An unexpectedly welcome addition to the summer and fall was the classic Euripides drama The Bakkhai (in the recent Anne Carson adapation) at the Stratford Festival, in which director Jillian Keiley made the radical and fascinating decision to have the chorus sing rather than speak and chose Vancouver composer Veda Hille (of the recent Onegin and King Arthur) to create their sound, a sultry, disturbing folk-like music. Back in Toronto, Red Sky Performance continued to assert their strength of vision with Adizokan (a collaboration with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall) that will continue with a remounting of Backbone at Canadian Stage Berkeley Street November 2 to 12.

As October ends and November begins there is even more of a wide range of music theatre offerings to choose from. Personally, I have been immersed in rehearsals for Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (October 26 to November 4 at the Elgin Theatre) which, in Marshall Pynkoski’s exquisitely detailed commedia dell’arte-inspired period staging, pulls those watching as if through a window into the 18th century, where words, music and movement are inextricably intertwined to serve the storytelling, obliterating the fourth wall and delighting in sharing the space with the audience.

Jake Epstein performing Only the Good Die Young in Uncovered: Elton John & Billy Joel - Photo by Joanna AkyolThe Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered concert series goes to the root of the storytelling concept, deconstructing and reconstructing the songs of popular singer-songwriters to uncover and share the stories at the heart of the songs. Artistic director Mitchell Marcus works side by side with music director Reza Jacobs and the individual performers, experimenting and exploring the material to create new uniquely theatrical arrangements that clarify and heighten the stories they discover.

November 14 to 16 they present “Uncovered: Dylan & Springsteen” at Koerner Hall with an exciting cast of leading musical theatre performers featuring Jake Epstein as Bruce Springsteen and Sara Farb as Bob Dylan.

Wanting to know more details, I approached Mitchell Marcus about how the series started and his ongoing collaboration with music director Jacobs.

Here is our conversation:

WN:What was your initial impetus or inspiration to create the concert series?

MM: The first Uncovered (in 2007) explored the musical catalogue of The Beatles. We both loved The Beatles and loved musical theatre, and wondered how the songs could be interpreted with a group of singing actors. It turned out to be revelatory as audiences started to hear the stories contained in these iconic songs in a way that they hadn’t previously. The combination of a great actor and an examination of the material from the perspective of character and narrative became something we were fiercely passionate about.

Uncovered seems to have become a cornerstone of your season. Is there a connection between your choice of singer-songwriters to feature with the mainstage show(s) that you are presenting in the season or is there instead (or as well) an arc of experimentation in the choices from year to year? How do you choose which songwriters to feature?

There is no specific connection between the Uncovered concert selections and the mainstage shows, except for the hope of always presenting exciting work of the highest quality. The choice of songwriter is a strange combination of intuition and zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s an artist that one of us loves and has been waiting to tackle. Sometimes it’s a circumstance like the death of David Bowie last year which prioritized Bowie/Queen over Dylan/Springsteen (which we had [already] been debating). I think we also try to ensure that the concert doesn’t stay too stagnant from one year to another, which has frequently resulted in alternating between rock/pop and folk music.

Has the shape of the show or your approach to the material changed since the series began?

When we first started, the concert was thrown together much more quickly, so what was onstage was really the version of the song that the artist wanted to try out. Since then, we spend a lot more time in rehearsal and really try to shape the overall evening into something whole rather than feeling like a cabaret. On the musical side, this has meant a more rigorous dramaturgical process of diving into the lyrics of the songs and making clear decisions around whose story we are telling and what story is being told. This becomes the foundation from which all musical decisions are made and the lyrics of the songwriter serve as our guide. Dramatically, we also started integrating text into the concert to serve as a bridge between numbers. We exclusively use quotes from the songwriters we are featuring and it has been a very effective way to capture their spirit alongside their music.

Could you tell us about your decision to sometimes cast female performers as male singer-songwriters, for example, Maev Beaty as David Bowie last year, and this year, Sara Farb as Bob Dylan? 

Ultimately we want to pay tribute to the spirit of the artists and share their words and music with an audience, without – in any way – trying to emulate or impersonate them. As such, the key criteria – whether it’s for delivering text from the songwriter, or singing their songs – is that the artist capture their spirit and intention, both of which transcend gender or age!

There also seems to be a core group of performers who return to take part. Is that just by chance or because they have become part of an Uncovered rep company, so to speak?

Over time we have realized that being a successful Uncovered performer is harder than it looks! Koerner Hall is spectacular, but its acoustics are so good that any imperfections are amplified tenfold. So we need fabulous singers who are also really, really good actors and who collaborate very well in the rehearsal process, since we start with a blank slate and build the arrangements together. We also need a very diverse group of performers so that we can tackle a broad spectrum of songs and styles.

So we try to find the balance between introducing new artists, showcasing returning artists who weren’t in the show the previous year, and bringing back some of the artists from the year prior. Each artist who has ever worked on Uncovered has brought something so unique and special to it. So it’s also a case of just trying to find the group who are interesting as a unit and also right for that particular songwriter.

Do either or both of you find that working regularly on the Uncovered series together has changed the way you work together, or with other collaborators, on other projects?

It has certainly built a very meaningful friendship for the two of us, and a shorthand which I think comes in handy on other shows that we do together. It’s also led to a lot of lessons when it comes to developing our new musicals. Looking at good songwriting from the perspective of narrative arc has come in handy when looking at new musical theatre songs.

Do you see the Uncovered series leading in turn to further experimentation with popular music, perhaps extending to exploring staging – or do you see it staying at the simpler level of song – words and music presented/sung live to the audience with the revelations in the new musical arrangements?

I think Uncovered is meant to stay simple in its concert format, with an emphasis on teasing out stories while just focusing on the words of the songwriter. But I think it has illuminated the power of pop music and so who knows what is possible as we continue to develop new musicals and new musical projects. We wouldn’t want to create a Mamma Mia per se, but I think it’s a very interesting exploration to examine how else pop music can be used to create contemporary and important musical works.


This month there is a wide range of music theatre to choose from. Music is the medium that transforms Shakespeare’s romance of forgiveness The Winter’s Tale into one of the most effective recent story ballets, through the choreography of Christopher Wheeldon combined with the score of Joby Talbot (the same team who brought us the popular Alice in Wonderland ballet). Winter’s Tale returns to the National Ballet of Canada November 10 to 19, only two years after its debut, because of its great initial success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum the record-breaking Canadian Evil Dead the Musical returns to Toronto yet again (to the Randolph Theatre November 9 to 19), proving that a cult classic musical version of a horror movie can have, perhaps, even greater staying power than the movie itself. Tickets are already selling quickly but at the time of writing there is still room in the “Splatter Zone” for the most ardent fans.


Nov 6 to Dec 31:Young People’s Theatre presents a streamlined (85-minute) Beauty and the Beast, giving fans of one of Disney’s best musicals the chance to catch their favourite story live.

Nov 10 to 12/16 to 18: Word has just come in about another new Canadian musical, Riding Off In All Directions . . . . the telling of lies, about the relationship between Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Leacock at Mississauga’s Maja Prentice Theatre. It will be directed by the well-known stage and screen star Colin Fox, who also plays the part of Leacock. The cast includes Bó Bardós as de la Roche; James McLean as Timothy Findley, and Marion Samuel-Stevens as de la Roche’s cousin and lifelong companion, Caroline Clement.

For more information—call 529-846-2552 or go online to:

Nov 11 to Dec 3, at Factory Theatre: Trace is a one-man show that follows three generations of mothers and sons from occupied Japan to 21st-century Canada combining virtuoso original piano compositions with lyrical text.

Nov 20 to Dec 8: At Crow’s Theatre (345 Carlaw) rock ’n’ roll takes centre stage in the world premiere of a new rock fable, A&R Angels, by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, directed by Chris Abraham.

Nov 10 to 25, at Hart House Theatre, the first of two musical offerings: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Nov 29 to Dec 1: Also at Hart House Theatre, the now-classic Canadian musical inspired by the old Astaire-Rogers films, The Drowsy Chaperone, arrives in a production by the Victoria College Musical Society.

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

What a way to kick off the fall music season. Although I had often heard of Quartetto Gelato since they first hit the Toronto music scene 25 years ago, I had never had the opportunity to hear them in person. Now, here they were almost on my doorstep, at the classic Uxbridge Music Hall, 15 minutes from home. If you have not heard of Quartetto Gelato, you have been missing out on first-rate entertainment provided by a very skilled, classically trained ensemble with the most unusual instrumentation of violin, oboe, accordion and cello. The group has had numerous personnel changes since 1992 with violinist and tenor singer Peter De Sotto being the only original member still in the group. Alexander Sevastian, who joined in 2002, was the winner of the renowned Coupe Mondiale International Accordion Competition in Washington in 2007. In 2009 they were joined by Colin Maier on a wide range of instruments including oboe, clarinet, violin, five-string banjo, electric/acoustic bass, flute, guitar and musical saw. In that year Elizabeth McLellan also joined the group on cello.

With the unique sounds of this instrumentation, and their years of classical training, the ensemble boasts an eclectic repertoire that ranges from Brahms, Bach and Weber to Argentinian tangos, gypsy music and much more. Initially, from my vantage point in the balcony, I assumed that the accordion was the fairly well-known large piano accordion. After watching the dazzling movement of the fingers of Sevastian’s right hand, I realized that this was not the instrument that I had assumed. It is a rare Bayan accordion where the right hand has an amazing array of buttons. (For those who might be curious about the Bayan accordion there is a 30-minute lecture on YouTube detailing its complexities.)

There was not a scrap of music in sight the entire evening. All of the shows musical and choreographic intricacies were performed by memory, with De Sotto switching routinely from violin to his fine tenor voice. Other than the cellist, who remained on her private podium, the others were often in movement. At one point, with De Sotto playing his violin while kneeling on centre stage, Maier put down his oboe, removed his shoes and socks and began a gymnastic routine flip-flopping back and forth over the violinist. It turns out that he is also a dancer and acrobat who spent a time in his career with Cirque du Soleil.

How does this musical group get away with such histrionic showmanship, and what does this all have to do with this column? The answer: first and foremost, is that, for community bands there is a lesson to be learned here. Quartetto Gelato displays outstanding musicianship. With the music under complete control, then a musical group can afford to indulge in showmanship. Unfortunately, in many community bands, either showmanship takes precedence or remains completely hidden. Either way, the end result can be a lacklustre show.


What’s the best way for a community band or orchestra to achieve their musicianship goals? I’m sure there are many ways, but we just heard of an interesting procedure used by Ric Giorgi, conductor of the Strings Attached Orchestra. Here’s the kind of email message he sends to members of his group after a rehearsal: “1. Keep working to make a difference in the sound of notes according to the staccatos, tenutos, caps or accents etc they have over or under them. The rhythm was starting to sound pretty classy once you started playing these. Check your accidentals and see how far into the section after letter E you can get. 2. After letter E the arranger throws the melody around in bits to different sections, so write in (in pencil) the beat numbers and sub-beat ‘and’s with vertical lines over them so it’s clear how much you have to rest between notes as well as how you play when you have notes. Remember that an accidental affects every note in a bar after the accidental and any note that’s tied into the next bar.”

This may all sound very elementary, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to honour the basics.

While on the subject of Strings Attached, we just received word of their Young Composers Initiative (YCI). In November they will be performing Cassiopeia with the 2016 YCI winner in Orangeville. Last year’s second-place winner (now 12 years old) has said that he’s determined to outdo his previous effort. More power to him.

A trip to London

Next recent musical journey for me was a trip to London, Ontario. The first part of this trip was to sit in as an observer of a class reunion of music graduates from Western University. While I did not attend this university, it was interesting to observe class mates of years gone by. Having not seen each other for years, they soon coalesced into a band and a choir in the morning and performed on stage in the afternoon. Again: musicianship at play.

Henry Meredith with part of his collection.The other part of my journey took me to the home of Professor Henry Meredith, also known as Dr. Hank, the conductor of the noted Plumbing Factory Brass Band. Having donated some of my older instruments to his collection of old brass instruments, I was expecting to see a large array of instruments including some obscure vintage items rarely seen in public these days. Astounding would be a better to describe what I saw. On the ground floor of his house there were a few instruments. Then, in the basement I saw rows of trumpets, cornets and bugles hanging six deep on pegs in one section, with larger instruments in nearby nooks. Then it was off to the two-car garage. There were two cars in the driveway, but no room for them in the garage. Hanging all over were framed pictures of town and military bands from years gone by. How many forms of tubas, sousaphones, ophicleides and other bass instruments could there be? Then we went up to the loft over the garage. More varieties of instruments, row on row, greeted us.

More about all this later, but, in short: I’d say all that Dr. Hank wants for Christmas is a museum to display his collection of 6.000-plus musical instruments.

Eddie Graf

It is with great sorrow that I report on the passing of Eddie Graf. Edwin John Graf was a composer, arranger, musician and bandleader. During WWII Eddie was a band leader in an army entertainment troop in Europe. It was there that he met his wife-to-be Bernice (Bunny), who was at his bedside when he passed away 73 years later. I first met Eddie in the late 1960s when I was acting as MC for many concerts in Toronto parks. Over the past few years Eddie had been gradually declining, but continued playing and writing music. He played in and wrote music for the Encore Band and his son Lenny’s band. He last played his clarinet at a band concert just a few days before his passing.

On my return from London I headed straight to a service to celebrate Eddie’s life. Such services are frequently very sombre memories of a person’s life, but not this time. This was truly a celebration of Eddie by hundreds of fellow musicians and family members. Son Lenny spoke and showed a video which he had compiled about his father. This was followed by music from a small band of friends. I personally met up with many people with whom I had played as long as 50 years ago. Before we knew it, people were dancing to the band’s music. Why, I even had a dance with Resa Kochberg the founder and director of Resa’s Pieces Band. (By the way, Monday, December 4 at 7:30, Resa’s Pieces, which over the years has grown to four distinct ensembles, presents “Music from your Favourite Films” at York Mills Collegiate, 490 York Mills Rd.)


Too late to attend, we learned of an interesting evening in Richmond Hill called “Notes and Quotes” on October 22. There was a lecture and concert on the music history of York Region by professor Robin Elliott, Chalmers Chair, University of Toronto. This was a partnership with the Richmond Hill Historical Society and Richmond Hill Heritage. The Richmond Hill Concert Band performed a newly commissioned piece by Bobby Herriot.

A different kind of missed concert for me, will be the Northdale Concert band’s 50th anniversary concert which will take place on Saturday, November 4, 3pm, at the Salvation Army Citadel on Lawrence Ave. E., at Warden. Having been a member of the band for several years, I had hoped to be able to attend their special concert but a long-term prior commitment has to be given precedence. On a visit to one of their recent rehearsals, however, I did manage to hear Gary Kulesha’s new Dance Suite for Concert Band and guest trombone soloist Vanessa Fralick’s stunning performance of Arthur Pryor’s Thoughts of Love.


Nov 2 and Dec 7 at 12pm: The Encore Symphonic Concert Band presents their “Monthly Concert” of big band, swing, jazz and film scores. John Liddle, conductor. Wilmar Heights Centre, 963 Pharmacy Ave., Scarborough.

Nov 3 at 8pm: Etobicoke Community Concert Band presents “Movie Magic” featuring current and past motion picture box office hits; Hollywood blockbusters, Disney at the movies, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and more. Etobicoke Collegiate Auditorium, 86 Montgomery Rd., Etobicoke.

Nov 19 at 3:30pm: The Wychwood Clarinet Choir presents “Harvest Song” featuring Claribel by Roland Cardon, The Lark in the Clear Air (arr. Roy Greaves), and many others too numerous to mention; conductor and clarinet soloist, Michele Jacot. Church of St. Michael and All Angels, 611 St. Clair Ave, W.

Nov 25 at 7:30pm: Silverthorn Symphonic Winds open their 2017/2018 season with “Fall Festival” at the Wilmar Heights Event Centre Concert Hall, 963 Pharmacy Ave, Toronto (just north of Eglinton).

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

Artword ArtbarArtword, as a name for what Judith Sandiford and Ron Weihs have always wanted to do, had its roots, as Artword Theatre, in Toronto’s King/Portland area – where, as my memory serves, it got overtaken by what gets called progress. So when we were contacted by Chris Ferguson, curator of Hamilton’s Steel City Jazz Festival, celebrating its fifth year from October 24 through 29 at Artword Artbar in the rapidly gentrifying James St. N. area of Hamilton, it felt like a good time to reach out to Weihs, for a little bit of looking back and looking ahead.

WN: Are there things in your present location that remind you of what you recognized “back then” starting up at King/Portland?

Ron Weihs: When Artword Theatre started, the King/Portland area was in a very depressed state. We began in what was essentially an abandoned, empty building. The building, and an adjacent building, were bought for a very low price. The new owners encouraged us to stay as tenants and helped us with practical and financial support in developing our theatre. We were also helped greatly by the city’s “Two Kings” policy, which encouraged development in King-Parliament and King-Bathurst by removing many of the zoning restrictions. We were surprised that it was easier than we expected to get approvals to do an extensive renovation.

The revitalization of the area went faster than we expected, and we certainly contributed to this! We knew all along we would not be there forever, that the building would be sold when the market went high enough. We were amazed how quickly the area was transformed, though. Our building was sold to a condo developer. We had four months to leave, but it really came down to eight days, because of commitments we had made. We cleared out as much as we could manage and packed it all in a 48-foot trailer.

Although we were sad, we were not resentful. We understood that “Two Kings” was designed to bring real estate investment into the area. The overheated real estate market was inevitable, as was the fact that this prime location would become unaffordable for us. It was that wonderful early revitalization phase when new ideas are springing up, artists are moving in, and people are discovering how much fun urban life can be. It would be lovely if it could stay that way, but it hardly ever does.

What’s different this time?

For us personally? When we came to Hamilton, we were determined that this time we would buy a building. Prices were low, and the downtown was in desperate need of revitalization. The city was specifically encouraging development along James Street, formerly the hub of the downtown, but fallen on hard times. Although we looked very hard, we couldn’t find a potential theatre, but we did find a lovely sports bar for sale just off James Street, a turn-key operation with everything we needed – glasses, cutlery, fully-equipped kitchen. We decided that Hamilton didn’t actually need a theatre, it needed an Artbar! And Artword needed a home, a laboratory, a haven for artists and musicians, and a laboratory to develop and showcase our own theatre work.

Do you end up involuntarily contributing to the gentrification problem the same way all again?

The gentrification of James Street is accelerating just as it did in Toronto. The big question is whether condos will be allowed to take over, or the essential character of the street be maintained. The political and economic battles are being waged. The downtown councillors are good, but amalgamation means that politicians who have no stake in the downtown can determine its fate. Very much like Toronto. We expect to continue to enjoy the same wonderful revitalization phase as in Toronto, for a little while.

When we moved to Hamilton, we knew nothing of its cultural life. We thought that we would be bringing culture to the frontier. We were humbled and delighted to discover how wrong we were. We discovered a firmly established and vibrant cultural scene that has flourished for many years, basically outside that formal support and funding structures. Theatre, visual arts and music all have deep roots and wide participation. In particular, the music scene in Hamilton is remarkable. Hamilton and the Niagara region are home to original musicians in every genre. Mohawk College has a first-rate jazz program, and we were impressed with the calibre of the students. We were happy to provide a place for them to play, and watched them mature into notable musicians.

Does the city of Hamilton understand how easily, in terms of arts and culture, progress could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? I mean in terms of maintaining affordability for arts workers and their audiences?

The city is making a significant effort to understand the needs of artists, and to provide an encouraging environment in which they can flourish. They are proceeding cautiously, and in consultation with artists. I think this is wise.

And  Artword Artbar’s role?
Essentially, Artword Artbar is “by artists for artists.” We look on Artword Artbar as an oasis where performers, artists and people who appreciate these things can meet together in a respectful environment. We are known as a “listening room.” People come to hear the music. There is no television, no clatter, no chatter; just people watching and listening intently to performers communicating to them. It seems odd to us that this is unusual, but it seems that it is.

Advice for others?
Probably not. In creating this kind of place, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and stick with it. Don’t listen to all the advice you get about programming this, or that. You have to be able to hang in without obsessing about the bottom line every week; it will take longer than you think. It helps to be a “Mom and Pop” operation, so that you can get through the lean times. And keep things simple. You don’t have to do everything, just a few things really well.

It was Chris and Linda Ferguson who got in touch with us about Steel City Jazz Festival’s relationship with you.

The Steel City Jazz Festival reflects our philosophy. It was started by Chris Ferguson just because he thought Hamilton needed a jazz festival. He did it on a shoestring, largely by himself with a few friends. When we found out what he was creating, and that he didn’t have either deep pockets or a support system, we offered Artword Artbar as a venue at no cost. We just sell beer, and the Festival keeps the box office. (This is our policy for musicians as well.) Judith [Sandiford] also offers advice and organizational help. We like the festival because it provides a mix of local and outside musicians, and a variety of flavours of jazz.

Postscript: Steel City Jazz Festival director Chris Ferguson offers this: “Listening to music at Artbar is such a pleasure. The bar has a really classic ‘jazz-club’ atmosphere, from the packed seating and round cocktail tables to the in-house grand piano. You feel so close to the musicians because you literally are, but this produces some of the most intense musical experiences.”

The Steel City Jazz Festival runs from October 24 through October 29, 2017. Most performances will be at Artword Artbar at 15 Colbourne St., in the James St. N. area. Tickets will be available at the venues or online in advance via Bruha and Ticketfly.

Kelly Marie Murphy - Alan Dean PhotographyPart of the life of being a composer is filling out grant applications and submitting proposals. Living with the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of all this work is part of the lifestyle. So imagine the feeling when you find out you just won a major prize, a $50,000 prize – the largest one available for Canadian composers. This was the experience that Ottawa-based composer Kelly-Marie Murphy had recently when she got the phone call from the Azrieli Foundation informing her she had been chosen as the winner of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music. Murphy was recently in Toronto attending the rehearsals and world premiere performance of her work Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on September 22 and 23, so I was able to sit down with her and talk about this exciting new development in her life.

To enter the competition, composers are required to submit a proposal as to what they would write if they received the prize. The only requirement is that the piece of music is to reflect Jewish culture in some way. Murphy began by asking friends and associates for ideas. Her daughter’s singing teacher suggested she look at Sephardic music, and once she began listening to the music that originated from the cultural mix of Jewish, Arabic and Spanish cultures from the Iberian Peninsula during medieval times, she was hooked. She loved the expressive quality of the music, the ornamentation, and the pitch bending similar to that in blues and slide guitar music, which she also has a passion for. After the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, the music also travelled with them, picking up influences from Morocco, Argentina, Turkey and Bulgaria for example. The question of how music changes in different contexts is what fascinates Murphy. The wonderful thing about winning this prize, Murphy says, is that it’s an “open invitation to explore the music of this culture, and to make it into something new and different with my own understanding. This is what makes me grow.”

As part of the process, she is consulting with music scholars who are experts in the field of Sephardic music traditions. One such person is Toronto-based Judith Cohen, who has carried out extensive fieldwork and research among Sephardic Jews in the Mediterranean, Portugal and Spain. Murphy sees her role not as a collector of sources however, but rather preparing herself to allow these musical influences to become part of her consciousness and eventually become part of her sound. Early on in her life as a composer, it was the music of Stravinsky and Bartók that really woke her up to different possibilities. She allowed the essence of that music to mix with jazz, bebop, and slide guitar influences to create her own expression. “Influences are a wonderful thing,” she says. “I like to bring it all in, let it steep, live with it and see what happens.”

She acknowledges that working with materials from cultures outside one’s own is a hot topic of debate in the cultural community. However, she states “I’m not appropriating, I am acknowledging and learning something and isn’t that a good thing? I’m learning about a culture I wouldn’t have known about.” The open invitation from the Azrieli Foundation is a perfect opportunity for this type of exploration. It also gives composers such as Murphy a chance to keep her orchestral writing skills in shape, which she admits is a challenge these days with limited opportunities to take on writing a lengthy work for orchestral forces. Murphy’s completed composition will be a 20-minute double concerto for cello and harp, premiering October 15, 2018 in Montreal and featuring the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

This has turned out to be a golden year for Murphy, as she is the winner of two other composition awards – the Maria Anna Mozart Award from Symphony Nova Scotia, as well as being selected by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto as their annual commissioned composer. For the WMCT commission, Murphy will compose a piece for eight cellos for a performance on May 3, 2018 at Toronto’s Walter Hall. This piece will be inspired by a story of painter Jackson Pollock who “went off the rails” during a Thanksgiving dinner, sending food and dishes flying. His wife’s response was simply: “Coffee will be served in the living room.” Murphy is intrigued by the dramatic and emotional possibilities of this scene, and will use the various combinations of duets, solos and quartets amongst the eight cellists to play out the tensions and dynamics suggested by this story.

Murphy’s curiosity and sense of musical adventure can be summarized by this question she poses: “If you don’t explore, don’t connect outside of yourself and your own experience, how can you move on? Wouldn’t you just keep creating the same sound?”

Canadian Electronic Ensemble

It’s a new look for the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, which can proudly boast of being the oldest continuous live-electronic group in the world. Formed in 1971 by David Jaeger, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and David Grimes, the CEE is gearing up for “New Look CEE,” their October 13 concert at the Canadian Music Centre. This concert marks their new configuration as a quintet, with the addition of David Sutherland to the current ensemble membership made up of founders Jaeger and Montgomery, Paul Stillwell (who joined in 1995) and John Kameel Farah (who joined in 2011) – fellow current member Rose Bolton is not playing in the October 13 concert.

In the early days when it wasn’t so easy to use synthesizers in live performance, members of the group would design and build their own instruments. Performing concerts of their own music as well as works by other composers became their focus, with their first Canadian tour happening in 1976. Other activities in the 1970s included being consultants for a sound synthesis project at the University of Toronto, as well as coordinating a research project on the work of electronic music pioneer Hugh Le Caine. Browsing through their website, one gets a strong impression of life as a pioneering electronic music ensemble, and all the rich experiences and professional associations that were had.

With improvisation being their standard mode of performance, the instrumentation is varied, using both old and new analog instruments, laptops, acoustic instruments, found sound and field recordings. So what will the new look sound like? Impossible to know at this point, but the group is excited to welcome Sutherland aboard. He brings expertise from both the digital and analog worlds, including a mastery of the EMS Synthi AKS (the iconic 70s analog synth). Definitely worth checking out this enduring ensemble whose activities span four and a half decades.

Spectrum Music

Heavyweights Brass BandOn the other end of building ensemble legacies, Spectrum Music continues its energetic agenda of bringing audiences a series of themed concerts that combine diverse traditions and intriguing cultural issues. This collective of composers and curators came together in 2010 with a mission to celebrate difference, inclusivity and community. Their October 28 concert is organized around the topic of legends and lore, combining mythologies about the lost city of Atlantis, Dutch folklore about the mermaid and stories of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. The Heavyweights Brass Band are the featured performers in this concert, which aims to bring jazz, classical and pop audiences together.

Worthy Mentions

Flipping through the pages of this month’s issue of The WholeNote, the reader will no doubt notice the abundance of events celebrating the music of Claude Vivier, an important Québécois voice who left behind an enduring body of musical works after his untimely death in 1983. I just happened to be in Montreal studying composition at McGill University during that year, and this devastating news shook the musical community there profoundly. Fortunately, his powerful and compelling music lives on, and the month of October will be an excellent opportunity to hear and experience the magic of his musical imagination with concerts by both Esprit Orchestra and Soundstreams.

Finally, an important reminder of two events I wrote about in my September column – the Music Gallery’s X Avant XII Festival (October 11 to 15), organized around the theme of Resistance, and New Music Concerts’ first program of the season featuring the Meitar Ensemble from Tel Aviv (October 22). The X Avant festival offers a variety of approaches and soundworlds created by artists who seek to combat the various threats currently facing the world – from oppressive regimes (including the USA) to climate disasters. Check out the listings for a full menu of what is on the agenda for this hot and cutting-edge festival. The Meitar Ensemble is a virtuoso group dedicated to commissioning and performing new works. Five players from their core membership will be visiting Toronto to perform compositions by Philippe Leroux, Ofer Pelz, Ruben Seroussi and Uri Kochavi. This concert will be a great chance to hear some leading-edge music by stellar performers.

Patrick Jang, Carla Huhtanen and Phillip Addis in Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro (2010). OA’s revival of Figaro runs from October 26 to November 4.This October offers opera lovers a wide range of choices. The COC is presenting a new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from October 11 to November 4. Opera Atelier is reviving its much-loved production of The Marriage of Figaro with American Douglas Williams making his OA debut in the title role from October 26 to November 4. And Toronto Masque Theatre begins its final season with a pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1687) and James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido (2007) on October 20 and 21. Besides these, there are two 20th-century works that have never before been staged in Toronto. One is Richard Strauss’ Arabella, running at the COC for seven performances from October 5 to 28. The other is Musik für das Ende by Québécois composer Claude Vivier, given ten performances by Soundstreams from October 27 to November 4.


Arabella (1933) was Strauss’ sixth and final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss asked Hofmannsthal for a “second Rosenkavalier” and Hofmannsthal was happy to oblige. Unfortunately, Hofmannsthal died in 1929 before he could revise the final two acts of the opera. Strauss, as a tribute to his friend, set the remaining libretto as it was.

The opera is a comedy set in Vienna in the 1860s, about a once-wealthy family who hopes an auspicious marriage for Arabella will restore the family fortunes. Erin Wall sings the title role and Jane Archibald the role of her younger sister Zdenka, a girl brought up as a boy to save money. Tomasz Konieczny is Mandryka, the wealthy man Arabella’s father hopes she will marry. And Michael Brandenburg is Matteo, the poor soldier who also loves Arabella but is secretly loved by Zdenka. Patrick Lange conducts.

I spoke with Tim Albery, who directed Arabella for Santa Fé Opera in 2012 in the same production we will see in Toronto.

Albery’s view toward directing a comedy like Arabella is that “there might be a tradition of playing it quite broad and that everyone should be aware of being in a comedy, but if that is a traditional approach, it’s not a very helpful one. I feel that the way to make a piece like this work is to play it as seriously as you can and if people laugh then it is because of the situation itself and not our intent to make it into a comedy.”

Albery finds an enjoyable paradox in Arabella: “Arabella is more concerned to reveal something of the human heart within a plot that, at one look, might seem inconsequential but at another strangely has a lot to say about how we want to live our lives; what love is and how what you think love is can change. In the case of Arabella, we see how one person can love parties and playing Beatrice-and-Benedick with men, and yet can meet someone who makes her realize that that’s utterly not what she wants at all. I find all of that within the neatness of the plot quite enticing because it’s a process we all go through in our lives. Over the course of our lives we often discover through meeting other people or being thrown into different circumstances that the life to live isn’t the one we thought ours would be.”

Erin Wall as Arabella and Zach Borichevsky as MaŠeo in the Santa Fe Opera production of Arabella, 2012Some see a dark side to Arabella, what with a family basically prostituting one daughter to raise money, and raising the other against her will as a boy. Albery agrees that there is such darkness, “but that to emphasize it is contrary to what the music is doing. And besides that, the libretto makes quite clear that both Arabella and Zdenka are bright, intelligent women who are totally aware of what their parents have done to them.” What he finds most interesting is that “the relationship between Arabella and Mandryka is really quite modern in the sense that they commit themselves to each other as equal partners.”

Some critics have felt that while it was noble of Strauss to honour Hofmannsthal by setting the unrevised last two acts as they were, this has led to Arabella being marked as “flawed.” Albery says that “there’s no doubt, especially in the third act, that we go over ground we’ve already gone over and we have conversations between characters we’ve already heard before. So there is a tradition of many cuts in the third act to remove sections that Hofmannsthal would likely have removed himself. It’s the kind of editing that Strauss didn’t like to do but which people of the future have done on his behalf. If it is not absolutely clear who knows what when, those are the kinds of decisions we have to make in the rehearsal room and as long as we know exactly what is happening so will the audience.”

Has Albery’s view of the opera changed since his production in 2012? Albery says, “What changes there are come from the different interactions of the performers, because different performers bring different things to the piece and I try really hard in my role to respond to what they offer.”


The other major work of music theatre this month in no way fits the traditional operatic mould. It is Musik für das Ende written in 1971 by Claude Vivier (1948-83), now regarded as one of Canada’s greatest composers. The work Vivier described as a “grande cérémonie funèbre” was originally written for 20 performers divided into three groups, two of which are visible with one offstage. All the singers play instruments and are given specific physical tasks to perform. These instructions written into the score demonstrate that Vivier intended the work to be staged.

The piece was first performed in concert in 2012; Soundstreams will have the honour of presenting the world premiere staging of the work. Vivier, a devout Catholic, writes in his preamble to the score that the work was the product of his meditation that we are all surrounded by human beings destined to die: “I experienced the increasingly strange ceremony of beings disappearing forever and becoming ‘an infinite moment’ in eternal silence. This became ... a Ceremony of the End, infused with the hope that humanity would understand the real meaning of its earthly experience and ultimately purify itself.”

Chris Abraham has been chosen as the director and he explained to me in an interview the makeup of the evening, of which Musik für das Ende is both the overall title and one of the three segments.

“The evening begins with a 20-minute-long play by Zachary Russell, which is a fictional imagining of a night with Vivier (played by Alex Ivanovici) in Paris shortly after a violent encounter with a male prostitute who assaulted him. We meet Vivier just in the process of finishing what would be his final work, Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul? Vivier is trying to write the text for the piece which, as it turns out, prefigures his own death.” (On March 8, 1983, Vivier was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute.)

“That play is followed by a staged performance of Immortality, an eight-minute piece for tenor and soprano and 12 singers intended as the final section in an immense opéra fleuve that Vivier imagined as his magnum opus. And then we finish with Musik für das Ende.

“The reason why we approached Musik this way is that we wanted to open a door into the piece for the public who don’t know his work. We wanted to investigate the biographical mythology around his music. We wanted to demonstrate the continuity of his thought across his works. And we wanted to theatricalize what would otherwise be presented most likely in program notes, [so as to] …provide some kind of toolbox for the listener to enter into a deeper relationship with the music. Musik für das Ende has a narrative within it but it is also extremely experiential and intuitive, so we wanted to create a context where both registers would be part of the listening and viewing experience.

Musik für das Ende has a number of textual sources – the Catholic Good Friday liturgy along with mantras, some which come from Eastern traditions and some which are invented. There are also passages that require individual performers to express fragments of text about their own lives.

“We have very freely interpreted the notations Vivier has made in the score about staging. Since individuality is central to understanding the piece, we have made some changes to allow the audience to engage with the ten celebrants as individuals first before the celebrants become a group.

“…The staging is ever evolving and what guides it are the rules that are set down in the score. The score requires the passing of melodic lines from one singer to another so that the positioning of bodies onstage in relation to each other dictates itself. I have been closely observing the group’s movements, so my staging is really a kind of attempt to preserve those organic features of what happens to the group when they try to perform the score from memory.”

As someone who is primarily a theatre director, Abraham says, “It has been interesting to think of the task-based nature of music performance. The effort of the singers actually constitutes the dramatic spine of the piece and my role is to create a dramatic environment that allows the audience to come as close as they can to that effort and those tasks.”

As Abraham notes, “Much as Vivier was obsessed with death, he was also obsessed with reunion with an eternal beyond this world, and music for him was a kind of tool that he worked with to try to understand that eternal presence.”

Maureen Forrester - photo by Frank Lennon GrayDer Abschied (The Farewell), the longest movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), is among the greatest achievements of humankind. I can already hear some readers objecting, why not the entire Song of the Earth – yes, the cycle is a superb creation, but other songs are overshadowed by the final chapter. I’ve always found the preceding short songs that Mahler gave to the tenor something of a prank, especially The Drunkard in Spring. Is this a sly comment on the silliness of tenor characters in the history of opera, one wonders? The tenor song that opens the cycle, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, cuts to the chase a little too quickly. His third song, Youth, sounds comparatively simple-minded, bordering on folksy, even though the lyrics are more ambivalent. The contralto or mezzo, the second voice in the cycle, is on the other hand immediately given gravitas and complex sonic tapestry in both of her shorter songs, The Solitary One in Autumn and Beauty. But I rush to any live performance of The Song of the Earth that I can find for the 30-minute mezzo-sung Der Abschied. I worship it impatiently, that I will concede. It is this song cycle’s summit; more precisely, it is its realization.

Susan PlattsOn October 19 and 20, it will be the TSO’s turn. Das Lied von der Erde will conclude the two concerts in honour of Maureen Forrester, Canada’s best known contralto of the previous generation, who has sung Mahler under the baton of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer and was in fact a crucial part of the postwar revival of interest in Mahler. While the hour-long cycle could warrant a concert all on its own, two shorter pieces are also on the program: the 15-minute-long TSO-commissioned L’Aube for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra by Howard Shore and a two-minute sesquie by John Abram titled Start. Mezzo Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade will sing; Peter Oundjian conducts; Ben Heppner hosts.

The poetry of The Song of the Earth has roots in classical Chinese poetry, but only loosely and by way of multiple mediations. It can be tracked down to the 1867 Le Livre de jade, a collection of adapted (read: rewritten) Chinese poetry by a 22-year-old amateur translator, Théophile Gautier’s daughter, Judith Gautier. Gautier was in her late teens when her father hired a tutor of Chinese origin, Ding Dunling, for the benefit of her and her sister’s education. Judith Gautier was an eager apprentice; so eager that a few years later, still not quite fluent in Chinese, she started copying Chinese poems from the French national library archives and took it upon herself to translate them. Very little Chinese poetry had been translated to any European language at the time, but there was clearly demand for it: The Book of Jade has since accrued many reprints and editions (latest French reprint was in 2004) and translations to several other European languages, including German. The version that reached Mahler and affected him so was the book’s third German adaption, Die chinesische Flöte by the poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), sent to him by a friend in 1907.

Mahler was recently bereaved (he had lost a daughter at the time) and had just learned of his own heart condition, a diagnosis that did not leave much reason for optimism (in fact, he died soon after, in 1911). For Der Abschied, he used two of Bethge’s poems attributed to Mong Kao-Jen and Wan Wei, to which Mahler liberally adds his own verses. The end result is beautiful, undemonstrative text – devastating yet somehow unsentimental, like the music Mahler set to it. A first person narrator awaits a friend for their final farewell, while observing nature’s quieting of a sunset. The friend finally arrives, goodbyes are said, departure takes place, but the final verses are given to the life that goes on, the cyclical regeneration of the natural world, the Earth that will continue even if we are not around to see it. Structurally, interludes, recitatives and arias alternate, orchestration ebbs and flows until the Funeral March gives rise to its own song within the song. The melodic material moves between the woodwinds, horns and violins, in physical, almost tactile ripples, twirls, sweeps and risings. When thoughts of the beauty of life appear among the verses, the music swells. Sometimes, the sound recalls familiar voices of nature, and at other times things get complicated; we are there to give in, not understand. Pauses are important. Each part gets extinguished before we move on to the next one. Morendo appears among Mahler’s markings in the score. Structurally, too, there is dying in Der Abschied.

Then, a change of voice mid-way. After the Funeral March, the first person narration turns to the descriptive third person – from an “I” that shares its impressions and feelings (“I stand and wait for my friend …where are you?”) to a “he” as if narrated by an observer. (Bethge’s version maintains the first person address; this change is entirely Mahler’s.)

So what is happening here? Interpretations vary greatly, but I was struck by the one I found in musicologist Andrew Deruchie’s paper in a 2009 volume of the journal Austrian Studies (‘Mahler’s Farewell or The Earth’s Song? Death, Orientalism and Der Abschied,’ Austrian Studies, Vol. 17, Words and Music), discovered while I was trawling the TPL article databases looking for new writing on Das Lied von der Erde. Death does not take place at the end of Das Lied, Deruchie argues; the first-person narrator dies before the Funeral March and the Funeral March is precisely for him/her, not in anticipation of departure. “In Part I the protagonist is the speaking (singing) subject, but in Part II his voice has vanished, and his words are merely quoted by the narrator. The music, one might say, no longer emanates from him,” writes Deruchie, connecting this to the Taoist tradition, “where in death individual subjectivity is folded into nature’s eternal cyclicism: just as spring follows winter, the narrator tells us, the earth blossoms anew after the protagonist’s death.”

I don’t know that it is exclusively about Taoism. Buddhists among my readers will interrupt with “But that’s us, too” and so could the atheists and the scientists. What’s certain is that Das Lied steps away from and leaves behind the Christian paradigm, not a small gesture by a composer who has used that same paradigm without moderation in many of his other works. (I cannot stand the Resurrection Symphony. It offers a coy, calculating consolation, as opposed to the radical, uneasy one of Das Lied.)

What the final part of the final part of Das Lied von der Erde, the ultimate song on finality, always brings to my mind is the pages near the end of the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s book The Following Story. It too is a unique and extraordinary work of art on trying to accept the fact of dying. Its protagonist goes to bed alone in his Amsterdam apartment one night, only to wake up in Lisbon next to the love of his life, except many years earlier than the present day. What is he doing there? The journey goes back in time (protagonist’s) and deep time (through antiquity, as the narrator is a classics professor) and we gradually gather that he has crossed the Lethe, and that time and space are not anymore how he’s known them to be. He is perhaps still lingering, for the duration of the novel, in the in-between before the final farewell, just like the spirits of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo tarry and refuse to understand their condition and really pass on. But in due course, Nooteboom’s professor too is ready to go (in translation by Ina Rilke):

It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined; it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings, never to be ousted from the universe, and so it would take part in the most fantastic metamorphoses, about which it would tell me nothing because it would long since have forgotten all about me. At one time the matter it had consisted of had housed a soul that resembled me, but now my matter would have other duties.

Narek HakhnazaryanJoshua Bell began taking violin lessons when he was four years old after his mother discovered that he had stretched rubber bands across the handles of his dresser drawer to pluck out music he had heard her play on the piano. Several decades later in January 2007, Bell performed incognito as a busker at a public transit station in Washington DC. More than 1,000 people passed by but only seven stopped to listen. He collected $52.17 from 27 people (including $20 from the one person who recognized him). Now in his 50th year, the celebrated American virtuoso returns to Toronto for a recital in Koerner Hall on November 4. The program, with the gifted Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, includes sonatas by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Brahms, as well as additional works to be announced from the stage. But the concert is sold out (one of several in that category this season) so unless you’re already a ticketholder (or one of the fortunate few able to secure rush seats on the day of the recital), you’ll miss the chance to hear the musician who has become only the second music director (after Neville Marriner) of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.

There is consolation the following afternoon, however. After winning the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 at the age of 22, Narek Hakhnazaryan was named a BBC New Generation Artist in 2014 and welcomed by the world’s most prestigious venues. His concert (75 minutes with no intermission) on November 5 in Mazzoleni Hall at 2pm is FREE (ticket required). Mentored by Mstislav Rostropovich, this is Hakhnazaryan’s Toronto recital debut after several orchestral performances, including the TSO in 2015. “I try to be honest with the composer’s music,” he told an interviewer last year. “I don’t really show off or do anything for the audience. The scores don’t need any changing because they are genius already. The musician is just the narrator, and the script is already written. It’s all about how you read it. It’s like Shakespeare: there’s millions of actors doing different things with his original works.”

Still on the subject of the Royal Conservatory’s new season, making their Canadian debut October 20 at Koerner Hall, the Khachaturian Trio (pianist Armine Grigoryan, violinist Karen Shahgaldyan and founding member, cellist Karen Kocharyan) has been active since 1999, taking the name of their Armenian countryman Aram Khachaturian in 2008. Their handful of recordings focus on the music of Armenian modern composers as well as Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Babadjanian and Shostakovich. The program for their Toronto recital includes Tchaikovsky’s intense, demanding, symphonic Piano Trio in A Minor, op. 50, “In Memory of a Great Artist”; Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, the composer’s personal memorial to Tchaikovsky whom he called the most enchanting of all the people and artists he had ever met (“His delicacy of spirit was unique.”); Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Spartacus Suite No. 2, Op.82b (the music for the Spartacus ballet from which this suite was taken is among Khachaturian’s most acclaimed works); and Babadjanian’s richly romantic, melancholic Trio in F-sharp Minor.

Music in the Afternoon

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz open the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto’s 120th season on October 5. What began in 1899 when a group of women musicians and music lovers met to share their passion has become Music in the Afternoon, a five-concert series on Thursdays in Walter Hall. After performing Franck’s justly celebrated Sonata in A Major for violin and piano, written as a wedding present for famed Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886, St. John and Herskowitz will play selections from her Shiksa CD (2015). Its 14 tracks feature traditional folk tunes from the Jewish diaspora, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, reimagined for the concert stage by contemporary composers. When St. John does a similar program two weeks later, at Wolf Trap outside of Washington DC, the program will include John Kameel Farah’s Ah Ya Zayn (Levant), Matt Herskowitz’s mashup of Hava Nagila, Nagilara (lsrael), Serouj Kradjian’s Sari Siroun Yar (Armenia), St. John/Herskowitz’s Adanáco and Martin Kennedy’s Czardashian Rhapsody (Hungary). That’s the kind of music the Toronto audience can expect, followed perhaps by an encore like the rambunctious Oltenian Hora, which St. John calls  “improvised Romanian violin tricks, twists and turns.”  

St. John told Laurie Niles on (November 5, 2015) that the idea for Shiksa had been percolating for a long time – since her first trip to Hungary when she was 11 years old. “I was astonished by all the music everywhere and thought that maybe I had been kidnapped by some Canadian family, because I felt like I belonged there. Since that time, and especially since my year of living in the Soviet Union when I was 17, I’ve been fascinated with songs and music from many cultures in, shall we say, that general area. The borders are always changing, but the music is the one thing that folks always respond to and recognize.”

U of T Faculty of Music/TSO

As Toronto audiences have come to recognize from the many appearances in the recent Toronto Summer Music Festival by the concertmasters of Canada’s two major symphony orchestras, Jonathan Crow of the TSO and Andrew Wan of the OSM, the two are consummate, generous musicians dedicated to conveying their joy in the music they play. And despite their considerable commitments to their principal orchestral roles, they still find time to come together for several concerts each season with the New Orford String Quartet, where they alternate in the first and second violin positions. Such is the case when the U of T Faculty of Music presents the New Orford on October 5 in Walter Hall. Ravel’s wistful, melancholic String Quartet in F Major, arguably the most performed string quartet of the 20th century, shares the stage with Tchaikovsky’s moving String Quartet No.3 in E-flat Minor and Steven Gellman’s Musica Aeterna (1994).

Faculty of Music free noontime concerts continue on October 19 with Crow joining his colleague Joseph Johnson, TSO principal cellist, to play music of Ravel and Kodály. Johnson’s TSM Shuffle Concert last August was enlightening and entertaining, with the personable cellist’s onstage patter illuminating his impeccable playing of selections from Bach’s solo cello suites mixed in with works for two, three and four cellos! Brooding, intense and sedate Bach contrasted with showpieces featuring Viennese musical twirls and swoops and Lisztian Hungarian rhapsodies, all smoothly led by Johnson at his collaborative best.

On October 30 Johnson teams up with the Gryphon Trio’s pianist, James Parker, in a U of T recital at Walter Hall with a substantial program comprising Debussy’s rapturous Sonata in D Minor, Beethoven’s densely packed, forward-looking Sonata No.2 in G Minor, Op.5 and Brahms’ bold and passionate Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99.

Marc-André Hamelin 

Juanjo MenaCrow and Johnson’s day jobs with the TSO find them supporting Marc-André Hamelin in Ravel’s ingenious one-movement Concerto for the Left Hand on October 25 and 26. It was the most successful of the works commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm during World War I. When Wittgenstein first saw the long solo cadenza that opens the piece he said: “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto.” But Ravel refused to change a note. When I spoke to Hamelin last winter he confirmed my suspicion that Ravel’s one-movement concerto in D Major was a piece he really enjoyed playing. “Very much so,” he told me. “Although I’ve also for the first time recently played the G Major [in Montreal with the OSM and Kent Nagano]. Can you believe? And that’s worked out well. I would like to offer a program in which I play both in a single evening. Which is perfectly fine.” Indeed, that would be quite a program.

This time, however, under the baton of visiting Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena (principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic), the TSO program is augmented by the Canadian premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s expressionist, dance-driven Ollantay, inspired by a pre-Columbian Inca poem and sounding like Aaron Copland’s music transposed to the Argentine landscape. Mena’s Chandos recording of this and other Ginastera works is considered by its publisher Boosey & Hawkes to be definitive. The major work of the evening is Schubert’s Symphony No.9 “Great,” an extensive melodic and rhythmic quilt that deserves its apt nickname. Schubert began writing the symphony in the year after he heard Beethoven’s Ninth and inserted a quote from the Ode to Joy melody into the middle of the last movement of it. See if you recognize it when you hear it.

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