Not a lot of people in Canada know a whole lot about Colombia, the third largest country in South America, and what we manage to gather usually comes from American television shows and media reports on drug wars. The November 5 Toronto edition of Crossing Borders, the recital series founded by the Halifax-based soprano Maureen Batt, which pairs up Canadian composers with foreign ones in creatively themed evenings, may just change things on this score. Batt’s key partner in programming this time is Colombia-born, Ontario-based tenor Fabián Arciniegas, whom Toronto audiences may remember from the productions with Essential Opera and Opera in Concert. He left the Republic of Colombia in 2010 to complete a master’s at U of T, and stayed. “If any Latin American music is presented here in Canada,” he tells me on the phone from Coburg, where he now lives, “it’s usually a zarzuela – and that’s rare enough. When people think of music from Hispanic places, Spain included, they think either dance, or zarzuela, or de Falla. Composers from South America that are being performed outside South America are few. Carlos Guastavino is one – and he died in 2000. Piazzolla is another. And that’s where it ends.”

One day not so long ago, Batt and Arciniegas were chatting over instant messenger when the tenor mentioned in passing that he really wanted to put on a recital of songs by living composers from Colombia. Batt liked the idea and offered to produce it as a half-half evening, Canadian and Colombian/Latin American, and soon enough they were posting public calls for scores. Arciniegas urged the Colombian composers that he knew or knew of to submit, but nobody’s placement in the program was guaranteed. It was, unusually, a blind submission process, which upon completion of the first round, Batt, Arciniegas and pianist Claire Harris tweaked here and there for diversity of themes and musical approaches.

Read more: Crossing Borders Builds Bridges

This month there is a panoply of young talent on display in various stages of development with many opportunities to see and hear potential musical stars, some of them in more intimate surroundings than the future may bring.

Nicolas Namoradze. Photo by Andrea FelvegiNicolas Namoradze: One such artist is Nicolas Namoradze, who came to international attention when he was 26 years old after winning the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. Honens is proud of their reputation for discovering and nurturing talent for the 21st century and Namoradze is now in the second year of Honens’ three-year development program that includes management and mentorship opportunities. He will do well if he is able to follow in the footsteps of 2012 laureate Pavel Kolesnikov, now reaping the rewards of his Hyperion Records exposure, and indications are that he may well do so. Namoradze’s performances to date have been hailed by critics as “sparkling… sensitive and coloristic” (New York Times) and “simply gorgeous” (Wall Street Journal). One of his former teachers, the widely respected Emanuel Ax, said that Namoradze is set to become one of the truly important artists of his generation.

Born in Georgia and raised in Budapest, he grew up on a diet of great Hungarian composers like Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtág, as well as Liszt. But as he told Pamela Kuhn on her radio program Center Stage: “Everyone plays Liszt.” As an infant he would “get stuck” listening to Verdi and Wagner. “You could not drag me away,” he said. He began instrumental studies at seven with the piano, but before that he was obsessed with The Beatles and for a short period, AC/DC. Once he began to play, he lived strictly within the classical world. And apart from an interest in jazz, he still does.

Read more: November’s Panoply of Future Stars

Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.” – John Rutter

Some of my earliest memories of community are from being a member of choir. It has always held great prominence in my life. A few weeks ago, I watched a short YouTube video from J.W. Pepper of an interview with John Rutter, a renowned composer of choral music. Although the clip is only a few minutes long, his words resonated with me, for he spoke so eloquently and profoundly of the significance of choir.

My Introduction to the Choral World

I was seven years old when my family immigrated to Canada. Shortly after settling down in Toronto, my mother became involved with the choir of our then-community church as their pianist. Soon after, she encouraged my sister and me to join it. In addition to singing in church, my sister and I also became members of a choir called VOCE, a children’s choir affiliated with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. The rehearsals were held at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts. (We would go on to attend the high school a few years later.)

Because I was considerably younger than the other members of the church choir, attending rehearsals weekly was something I did primarily because of my mother. However, being part of VOCE, with other singers my own age, was a completely different experience. As Rutter says during the interview, “When you get together with a group of other singers […] all of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony.” I felt at ease in choir as I mingled with like-minded children; all of us bonding over music, learning our parts together, competing for solos but also supporting one another. I remember having a lot of fun.

Carol Woodward RatzlaffChoral Community and Inclusivity

I recently was affiliated with VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, as I worked part-time with them and sang with their Main Chorus. Founded in 2000, VIVA! is a welcoming space inclusive to singers with disabilities. After listening to the Rutter video, I was moved to discuss this theme of community with someone deeply rooted in the choral scene, so I reconnected by email with Carol Woodward Ratzlaff, founder of VIVA!, to get her perspective both as a conductor and a chorister.

When schools started eliminating arts programming 20 years ago, Ratzlaff, who was working for the Toronto District School Board at the time, felt she needed to turn to the private sector to respond. She tells me: “We need to work to inform education leaders and those in government of the personal advantages, educational benefits and holistic impact of arts opportunities. Too often, adult-centred economic concerns inform educational outcomes. I was aware of many other excellent private-sector choral experiences in the GTA, but I was not focused on what the market was already providing; it was not a business response. I was motivated by the fact that there were many children (as well as youth and adults with disabilities) who were not being provided with opportunities to sing and to create beautiful music together.” Ratzlaff’s words resonate strongly with Rutter’s. As he states: “Politicians need to take note […], and our educators, those who decide education budgets, church budgets, just need to remember [choral music is] not a frill.”

Ratzlaff’s first experiences in choir were from middle school in St. Catharines ON. Since then, she has sung with several esteemed choirs, including the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. She shares: “Choral singing has been one of the great joys of my professional and personal life. I am temperamentally suited to group singing and collaborative creative work. I am particularly intrigued by the rich connections that are fostered between choristers themselves, between choristers and audience, and the changing role of the conductor in this landscape.”

I asked her what she tries to instill in singers as a choral director. She replied: “I try to empower them to make decisions along with me, to take ownership of our creative journey, and to make something beautiful with their voices. […] I seek a balance between meeting individual and group needs.” Ratzlaff shares that she loves “the process of discernment in seeking how to teach a piece of music. [She loves] sound and the capacity of the human voice to produce many expressive colours to tell a story.”

John RutterThe last word on this topic goes to John Rutter again: “Choral music is like a great oak that rises up from the centre of the human race and spreads its branches everywhere. That’s what music does for us. And choral music must stand as one of the supreme examples of it.”

Concerts around the GTA

Speaking of Rutter, we can listen to some of his works that will be included in a few concerts over the next months. Under artistic director, Oliver Balaburski, the King Edward Choir will perform Rutter’s Angels’ Carol and Candlelight Carol during their concert, “Gloria!” on November 30. The Aurora United Church Chancel Choir and Handbell Ensembles, will have a Carols by Candlelight service on December 8. The first movement of Rutter’s Gloria will be one of the pieces sung. The MCS Chorus Mississauga will take you on a musical and literary journey with Christmas with Anne, also on December 8. Along with readings from Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, savour the sounds of Rutter’s Carol of the Children and Angel’s Carol.

Mary Lou FallisChoral Mosaic: Invitation to Choirs

With all this dialogue on choral music and community, you may feel inspired to get out and join a choir right away. But circle your calendar too for a great choral event, the inaugural Choral Mosaic Festival, taking place from June 25 to 27, 2020. Organized by the Mississauga Festival Choir and Festival Team, under the direction of David Ambrose, it will be three days of choral merriment; the choral Osheaga, if you will. Complete choirs, as well as individuals, are welcome to participate in the festival. Take the opportunity to hone your vocal skills and gain insight from professional speakers, be challenged by a variety of workshops and enjoy fraternizing with other singers. In addition, some notable features include an act by comedian Mary Lou Fallis and a closing gala performance by all the participants. The Festival will be held at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. If this has piqued your interest, look for more details on the festival website, choralmosaic.com. And take note! Early-bird registration has already begun.

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

NOV 16, 7:30PM: The Bach Elgar Choir presents Brahms’ Requiem at Melrose United Church in Hamilton. The choir, under the direction of Alexander Cann, will perform with the accompaniment of a full orchestra.

VIVA! Youth Singers of TorontoNOV 23, 6:30PM: Join the VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto with “The World in a City,” an interactive family-friendly concert. The concert will pay homage to Toronto with works conveying Indigenous roots and waves of migration. Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

NOV 30, 7PM: The Incontra Vocal Ensemble presents “Creator of the Stars of Night,” under the direction of Matthew Otto. Look forward to hearing the works of Britten, Mendelssohn, and Chilcott, among others. The concert will serve as a fundraiser for the Institute for Christian Studies. At Knox College Chapel, U of T.

DEC 6, 7:30PM AND DEC 7, 2PM AND 7:30PM: Cue the Home Alone face. Relive the joyous and laughter-filled memories with this beloved Christmas film. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with the Resonance Youth Choir, will present Home Alone in Concert under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos. The music by John Williams will be ringing once again at Roy Thomson Hall.

DEC 7, 7:30PM: The Christmas season always feels complete with the soaring harmonies of Handel’s Messiah. Take in the beautiful sound of the Grand Philharmonic Choir with soprano soloist Mireille Asselin, mezzo Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tenekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. The Choir will be accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Of the many music theatre events in October, one that stood out for me was the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s annual festival of new musicals in progress at the beautiful Winter Garden Theatre. An international incubator for the creation of new musicals based at Sheridan College, the CMTP also gives fourth-year Sheridan musical theatre students an unparalleled opportunity to be part of the creation and development of new works alongside working professionals, and, on top of that, to have this exceptional showcase of their own abilities. Of the three musicals presented in excerpt, one in particular caught my eye: Pump Up The Volume by Jeff Thomson (music) and Jeremy Desmon (book and lyrics). Although based on the 1990 film by Alan Moyle, this show exploded onstage with youthful energy echoing the energy and passion of the growing number of youth-led movements to fix what is wrong with our world today, whether the proliferation of guns or the imminence of climate disaster. Songs, script and performances added up to more than the sum of their parts. If the whole musical is this strong, I can see young audiences responding to it in a big way.

This same energy was captured by Hanna Kiel’s world-premiere dance piece for Human Body Expression at the end of September: Resonance, explicit in its own language of movement and 80’s inspired rock music about the need for all of us to stand together to fight for what is right. (See my review on The WholeNote blog).

David BrockA Million Billion Pieces

Music, as an essential ingredient in portraying youthful passion and idealism, will also be seen in the upcoming new “play with opera,” A Million Billion Pieces by David James Brock (book) and Gareth Williams (music). Though a creative extension of The Breath Cycle Project the duo began with Scottish Opera in 2013, Brock explains that the play stands on its own, set in a “SciFi/Fantasy realm where a simple touch can cause the two main characters to explode into a million billion pieces, due to a rare genetic illness.” Isolated by their illness, two 16-year-olds, Pria and Theo, craving connection, create online personas and correspond as these ‘ideal” selves for a year before daring to meet in person. This online ideal world is set apart from the real world by being “heightened cosmically and sonically,” as Brock says, not just with singing but “through vocal effects and scoring, so that the music evolves into fuller vocal lines and scenes as the relationships do,” to the point where music enters the real world as Pria and Theo dare to actually meet in person. When I asked Brock if his writing process changed for this project since he was writing for a teenage audience, he said, “not much. The characters are teenagers, but they’ve lived their whole lives being told they wouldn’t survive to adulthood, so they’ve had to fit as much as possible in on a countdown. These characters are hyper aware of the finite amount of time in a life. I think we all have a sense we’re not using the time we have correctly – I certainly do. As a side note, at the climate march recently, I overheard a conversation where two teens truly didn’t think the planet would be around when they were 50.”

A Million Billion Pieces is directed by Philip Akin and runs November 25 to December 13 in YPT’s studio theatre. Paired with it in the season, and beginning two weeks earlier, is a heartfelt musical version of the classic fairy tale of the boy whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie: Pinocchio. Created by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill (who first met as cast mates in the Toronto production of Forever Plaid in the 1990s), this Canadian premiere will be directed by Canadian musical and television star Sheila McCarthy, notable for past incarnations as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to name just two.

Orpheus Revisited

Over at the National Ballet of Canada, another classic tale is being explored and revisited through two short ballets: George Balanchine’s 1975 Chaconne, and the world premiere of Robert Binet’s Orpheus Alive. Both ballets are inspired by the classical tale of the musician, Orpheus, who petitions the gods to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. Balanchine’s piece, while set to some of Gluck’s score for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, is mostly abstract, whereas Binet’s new work sets out to really tell the story, setting it in our own times and switching the gender of the leading roles, making Orpheus a woman artist, and Eurydice a man, her husband. He also turns the audience into the gods who must judge their case. Set to a new score by the award-winning composer Missy Mazzoli, and including projections, and text spoken by some of the dancers to the audience, this looks like a must-see for fans of contemporary ballet.

Another Brick in the WallWalls

Another must-see in November is the Toronto premiere (after the world premiere in Vancouver two weeks earlier) of The 9th!, A dance work ten years in the making by co-choreographers Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek of ProArteDanza. Set to Beethoven’s famously iconic Ninth Symphony and inspired by its connection with the celebration of of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago (almost to the day of the opening), the full-length work also uses the full four movements of the symphony to explore the idea of the need to demolish inhibiting walls in our lives, both tangible and metaphysical. (November 6 to 9, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront). (See my upcoming interview with Roberto Campanella on The WholeNote blog.)

The powerful image of a wall is central as well to Another Brick in the Wall, a new opera inspired by and based on Roger Waters’ music from the famous Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The album predated the fall of the Berlin Wall by ten years, but the themes being explored by composer Julien Bilodeau and director Dominic Champagne – “the difficulties of a whole generation confronted with the destruction of its dreams” – are certainly similar. (November 13 to 23 at Meridian Hall, the former Sony Centre).

Storytelling through song

Old and new, traditional and experimental, were combined in another October highlight over at Crow’s Theatre in collaboration with Eclipse Theatre, with the Toronto premiere of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet in a production that – with a stage the size of a postage stamp – managed to create a multi-layered, magical, eerie world of time travelling, interconnected characters, and a wild variety of mixed genre music, folk tale and dialogue that created a hypnotically fascinating world via the stories told by the songs of a concept album that forms the first layer of the show’s structure.

Brilliantly directed, designed and performed, this show was/is unique, and yet it also made me think of two ongoing Toronto concert series that in their own ways, create their own magic by revisiting classic songs in new contexts, creating new and enthralling music-theatrical world’s for audiences to experience. Both series have shows coming up this month. First is The Musical Stage Company’s 13th edition of Uncovered, this time looking at the connected lives and works of Stevie Wonder and Prince, inspired by the fact that the two artists knew and admired each other and influenced each other’s work. Following the gender-blind casting tradition begun in 2017 when Maev Beaty played David Bowie, and followed by Sara Farb as Bob Dylan in 2018, this year Sarah Afful takes on the role of Stevie Wonder, with Chy Ryan Spain appearing as Prince.

Toronto’s other storytelling-through-song tradition, Soulpepper’s concert series curated by music director Mike Ross, brings back its 2017 hit Riverboat Coffee House:The Yorkville Scene, November 5 to 17. Written and directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, this concert weaves together songs by and stories about such iconic Canadian singer-songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan and Neil Young, to recreate the anarchic excitement of Yorkville in the 60’s.

Bands on stage

Onstage bands are the anchors of two more new plays with live scores opening in Toronto this month. The world premiere of The Wager is inspired by the true story of a scientist in the 19th century who accepted a bet to prove that the planet Earth is round rather than flat, only to have his proof rejected by the hostile flat-Earthers. Provocative and timely in our era of climate denial, the play employs Theatre Gargantua’s signature combination of physical theatre, innovative use of technology and a live vocal score to tell the story, with the cast doubling as the live on-stage band. (November 14-30 at Theatre Passe Muraille).

Steve O'Connell and Berni Stapleton in Artistic Fraud’s Between Breaths. Photo by Rich BlenkinsoppOpening shortly after The Wager, down the street at Factory Theatre (November 20 to December 8) is the Toronto premiere of Between Breaths, an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production written by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keiley (famous for her very physical, almost stylized, productions at the NAC and Stratford). Inspired by the real life of Jon Lien known as “the Whale Man” the play tells the story of his inspiring career during which he freed more than 500 whales from fishing nets off Newfoundland’s coast. As might be intuited from the title, there are also links here to A Million Billion Pieces, as later in his life Jon Lien suffered from dementia ending his days in a wheelchair, chronically short of breath. Between Breaths begins at the end of the story and travels back to Lien’s very first whale intervention, the whole story buoyed and infused by the live music, vocal and instrumental, of famed Newfoundland folk trio The Once.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

NOV 4, 8PM: One show only. Stratford Festival. Avon Theatre. The House of Martin Guerre in concert. A wonderful chance to see Leslie Arden’s musical version of this classic tale, starring the luminous Chilina Kennedy, directed by Richard Ouzounian.

NOV 4 TO NOV 17: Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. The Pianist of Willesden Lane. A play that makes classical music a character of its own through the piano playing of the protagonist. An intriguing premise.

NOV 6 TO NOV 10: National Ballet of Canada. Giselle. Music by Adolphe Adam. Sir Peter Wright, choreographer. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. One of the most beloved romantic ballets, and one of my favourite productions at the NBC. There will be some notable debuts and farewells in the role of Gistelle this fall.

NOV 12 AND NOV 14, 8PM: Mirvish. Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries. Ed Mirvish Theatre. A rare chance to see a great musical theatre star live. Mandy Patinkin is electric onstage whether playing Che in Evita or singing concert material with Patti Lupone, or alone with a band.

NOV 28 TO DEC 22: Theatre Orangeville. Little Women. Canadian composer Jim Betts’ musical version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. It debuted to acclaim in 2001 with a great cast that included Douglas Chamberlain, Tracey Michailidis and Michael Therriault.

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

For this month’s column, I’ll be taking a look at two different events during the month of November that involve large-scale forces. The first involves the mainstay of communal soundmaking – the symphony orchestra, while the second is a significant new amalgam of voices coming together to create two operas.

Emilie LeBel. Photo by Phillipa C PhotographyI’ll begin with what’s happening with the Toronto Symphony and their affiliate composer, Emilie LeBel, who is currently in the second year of her position. One of the benefits of this position is that she is given the opportunity to compose one new piece each year for the orchestra. This year’s work, unsheltered, will receive its Toronto premiere on November 13, after performances on November 11 in Ottawa and November 12 in Montreal, part of an upcoming TSO tour. I spoke with LeBel about her new work, as well as another of the projects she is involved with at the TSO, titled Explore The Score.

Currently living and teaching in Edmonton, Alberta (when not engaged in her TSO commitments), LeBel says that she began composing unsheltered during the spring of 2019, while all around her wildfires were blazing north of Edmonton, amidst various public conversations and controversies about building more pipelines. She spoke about the general uneasiness and tensions that exist right now everywhere in the world and how her composition took on that atmosphere. She stressed that “the piece is not about politics or climate change in an overt way, rather I’m picking up on an uneasiness that feels very palpable right now.” In juxtaposition to this, LeBel said, is the natural beauty of the area she is currently living in, how different that environment is for her personally, and how it helps her aspire to be hopeful as well.

In her own note on unsheltered, she quotes a poem by Joanna Doxey as inspiration – speaking, as it does, to the importance of human connection during those moments we have with people, as well as to our experience of time, particularly when we look back on such moments in a more nostalgic way. The poem is from Doxey’s Book of Worry and begins  “…in this humming and doubled land, hold worry, only me”.

It is the word humming that LeBel frequently referenced while speaking of the piece, to describe the overall atmosphere being invoked in her composition. Musically, it started off as a bass line from a Baroque piece that she has been studying with her students. “I was thinking about Baroque bass lines and how everything on top of it is like a textural landscape. This is often what I do in orchestral pieces. There are sections with slippery glissandos and high string harmonics that create an atmosphere where things feel tenuous.” The poetic except from Doxey continues: “and I get older or I grow farther from myself and I always most love the moment before now…” It is a  sentiment that is also reflected in LeBel’s piece; she chooses to end it on a note that, while part of the humming atmosphere, is both nostalgic and hopeful.

LeBel’s responsibilities as TSO affiliate composer have also entailed involvement in another hopeful venture. This year is the eighth season in which the TSO has supported opportunities for composers to have their works read by the orchestra. Last year, along with Matthew Fava from the Canadian Music Centre, they devised a new approach to the project. They changed the jury process from being anonymous to asking people to send in their scores, along with informational statements outlining what they wished to get out of the program. This way, composers who would get the most from this opportunity would be selected, regardless of age or stage in their career. Around the same time, there was a conversation at the TSO about opening up the process to the public, to offer them an experience of how a new orchestral work is rehearsed. A new name was given to the program – Explore the Score – and they have received great feedback from both the public and the composers about the experience. This November 30 will mark the second year for this new approach, and will include works by composers Ian Cusson, Matthew Emery, Fjóla Evans, and Jared Richardson. In advance, the composers will have received guidance from the orchestra’s librarian on how to prepare the score and parts, with the new compositions being conducted by Gary Kulesha – the TSO’s composer advisor. After the performance, feedback from both Kulesha and LeBel will be given to the composers and during a lunch with representatives from the different sections of the orchestra, the composers will receive additional feedback from the musicians’ point of view. They will also have access to LeBel for a follow-up session for both compositional and/or career advice.

Beyond her TSO commitments, LeBel remains an active composer within the Toronto music community and she will be premiering a new work with Continuum on November 3 as part of their 35th anniversary celebration concert, alongside works by Canadians Jason Doell, Christopher Goddard, Cassandra Miller and Michael Oesterle.

Two Odysseys

The second project that caught my eye this month is the upcoming production of Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit running from November 13 to 17 at Daniels Spectrum. Produced by Soundstreams with partners Signal Theatre and the Sámi National Theatre, the performance will present two operas that are the first such works to be sung and narrated in the Indigenous languages of both Cree and Sámi (the language of the Sápmi people, whose territory today encompasses large northern parts of Norway and Sweden, northern parts of Finland, and the Kola Peninsula within the Murmansk Oblast of Russia. Both works will be directed collaboratively by Michael Greyeyes from Signal Theatre and Cole Alvis from lemonTree creations.

Britta ByströmPimooteewin (The Journey) was first premiered in 2008, a performance that initiated a collaboration between Soundstreams and Greyeyes. Since that time, through a series of performances, connections, meetings and creative thinking, the initial venture has now evolved to the current production that has expanded to include a second companion opera, Gállábártnit, written in the Sámi language. The libretto for Pimooteewin was written in Cree by the celebrated Indigenous playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. Canadian composer Melissa Hui was selected to compose the music for the libretto and this task demanded her full commitment to understanding how to work with the Cree language. The librettist for Gállábártnit is Norwegian and Sámi playwright/author Rawdna Carita Eira. Swedish composer Britta Byström, who received the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers in 2015 from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was selected to bring her unique artistic language to bear in the creation of the music.

In the casting of Two Odysseys, great care was taken to reflect diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. The performers include two narrators—Yolanda Bonnell and Heli Huovinen, each fluent in their respective languages of Cree and Sámi, as well as vocal soloists Melody Courage, Asitha Tennekoon and Bud Roach. The musical performers also include a choir assembled by Soundstreams as well as a chamber ensemble. Métis soprano soloist Melody Courage provides a quick peek into her experience of the rehearsal process in a short excerpt from the promotional video available on the Soundstreams website, in which she reflects on “…the amount of pride I feel performing with so many ridiculously talented Indigenous artists that I’ve met for the first time … It’s in the stages of coming together and it feels very magical.”

Both works examine the question of how we live together as a human community on this earth, and how we journey on to the land of the dead. Each piece is based on ancient stories from the two traditions. The Cree story tells the tale of the Trickster character Weesageechak (coyote) and Migisoo (eagle) and their desire to be reunited with loved ones. The Gállábártnit of the Sámi story are the “sons of the son of the sun,” hunter/inventor star beings who come to earth from the “belt” of the constellation known in European cosmology as Orion. This mix of Indigenous stories, languages, directors, librettists, narrators and soloists intermingle here in an art form with European roots, in music created by two composers who bring their own sensibilities and artistic voices to the project. It is a dialogue that explores the edges of the possibilities available when people of diverse cultures are able to work collaboratively with sensitivity, respect and a willingness to listen to each other. Soprano Melody Courage sums it up this way: “You can expect to be moved and transformed, musically and spiritually.”

IN WITH THE NEW QUICK PICKS

NOV 12, 8PM: New Music Concerts/Faculty of Music, U of T. Kasemets@100. Palestrina: Tu es Petrus; Kasemets: Trigon; Märt-Matis Lill: When the Buffalo Went Away; Kozlova-Johannes: Horizontals; Kasemets: 4’33” Fractals; Future is past…is…now. Ensemble U:; Stephen Clarke, piano. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building.

NOV 17, 8PM: The Music Gallery. History Series: Celebrating Casey Sokol. An evening with one of the Music Gallery’s co-founders as he moves on from a storied career teaching improvisation at York University. The evening will be part improvised soirée/part interview with food and drinks.

NOV 24, 8PM: The Music Gallery. Emergents I: Sarah Albu & Mári Mákó + Anoush Moazzeni. Blend of electronics, improvisation and notated works. Sarah Albu, vocalist; Mári Mákó, composer/sound artist; Anoush Moazzeni, piano/improvisation/composer.

Casey SokolNOV 24, 8PM: Toronto Improvisors Orchestra. TIO Celebrates Casey Sokol. Casey Sokol, piano; Eugene Martynec, laptop; Rod Campbell, trumpet; Bill Gilliam, piano; Ambrose Pottie, percussion. Array Space

NOV 26 AND 27, 8PM: Confluence Concerts. “An Evening with Marion Newman: What Is Classical Indigenous Music?” Marion Newman, mezzo; Rebecca Cuddy, mezzo; Evan Korbut, baritone; Gordon Gerrard, piano; Ian Cusson, composer. Heliconian Hall.

DEC 1, 8PM: Esprit Orchestra. “Sustain.” Andrew Norman: Sustain, for orchestra; Adam Scime: Afterglow, concerto for violin and orchestra; José Evangelista: Accelerando, for orchestra. Véronique Mathieu, violin; Alex Pauk, conductor. Koerner Hall.

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

Time is an equal opportunity employer” – Denis Waitley

While time may provide equal opportunity to those now living, history can be much less kind to the legacies of those who have gone before us. For example, when reviewing composers of classical music, we see specific instances of how such artists are grouped into seemingly infinite pyramid-shaped hierarchies, their status as “genius” determined as much by the quality of their output as their enduring and perennial appeal. Starting at the top, we encounter the universally revered composers, the capital-G Geniuses: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and the other craftsmen whose works have transcended time and transfixed audiences for centuries. These are the figures after whom busts are sculpted and monuments built, and who can be trusted to draw large audiences year after year.

Another tier of the legacy tower is that of the well-respected, yet under-performed composer. Arnold Schoenberg and subsequent proponents of the Second Viennese School belong here, as do many of the 20th century’s finest musical minds, such as Ligeti, Berio and Stockhausen. While their works might not tickle the ears of every person who happens upon them, or fill up a concert hall, they nonetheless played significant roles in the development of new forms of musical expression. Yet another category is that of composers who achieve renown by virtue of their writing for a specific instrument, such as Josef Rheinberger’s compositions for the organ or Franz Liszt’s piano works; while both of these examples wrote a wide variety of material for a range of vocal and instrumental forces, their legacies rest primarily on a specific segment of their output.

No matter how we categorize the characters in our history books, these theoretical organizational principles are just that – theoretical. From a practical perspective, how does one choose which of these compositional strata to draw from when deciding what to perform next week, month, or year? Balance is key when constructing a concert program, and finding a stimulating and satisfying blend of composers and repertoire is the challenge of artistic directors across the globe. A quick case in point: when Pierre Boulez assumed control of the New York Philharmonic in 1971, succeeding Leonard Bernstein, his attempts to incorporate higher volumes of contemporary music led to much criticism and a drop in annual subscriptions to the orchestra’s seasons. While there was great merit to Boulez’s contemporary crusade, the slight change in emphasis from the easily digestible, top-tier “Genius” to the more sinewy Schoenbergian genius did not resonate with his audience and led to a challenging tenure for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-conductors.

Much like the categorization of composers, there is a near-infinite number of approaches that can be taken to program-building and we will encounter some of them in this column, exploring a variety of early music through numerous combinations and juxtapositions, both of the music itself and the people who wrote it.

Discovering Antonio Lotti

A relatively unknown figure in a scene dominated by such heavyweights as Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Lotti was an Italian composer who spent his career at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, working his way up the musical hierarchy from singer to maestro di cappella. Lotti wrote in a variety of forms, producing masses, cantatas, madrigals, nearly 30 operas, and instrumental music, thereby influencing some of the era’s great geniuses: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Jan Dismas Zelenka owned copies of Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae, consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria scored for chorus and orchestra, transcribed from the manuscript by each in their own hand.

This connection between Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae and the music of Bach, Handel and Zelenka is made apparent in Tafelmusik’s “Lotti Revealed”, presented from November 14 to 17 and directed by Ivars Taurins. This is the first time Tafelmusik has performed music by Lotti and it will be paired with excerpts from Bach and Zelenka masses, as well as Handel’s Carmelite Vespers. Sumptuous and expressive, Lotti’s music will prove a valuable addition to Tafelmusik’s repertory and stimulating listening for those who enjoy the richness and depth of late-Baroque music.

This Sounds Familiar…

The turning back of our clocks signals more than the arrival of colder temperatures; it also commences the annual transition to Christmas music, which regularly features combinations of classic works and interesting revelations. On November 24, the York University Concert and Chamber Choirs join forces to present a seasonal selection of music by Dieterich Buxtehude, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and Camille Saint-Saëns. Two of these composers are famous largely for their organ works: Buxtehude for his masterful praeludia, chorale preludes and pieces in free style; Saint-Saëns for his Third Symphony, which gives the organ a prominent place in what is an overall glorious masterpiece. Pergolesi, meanwhile, is renowned for his Stabat Mater, a passiontide classic that makes multiple appearances each year. While the names may be familiar, the York University choirs will not be performing a greatest hits concert, but rather a series of pieces that focuses on various aspects of the Christmas story.

Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël is a cantata-oratorio hybrid written for soloists, chorus, organ, strings and harp, composed while he was an organist at La Madeleine in Paris. Distinctly French in harmonic language, yet clearly indebted to the form of the Baroque cantata and dramatic element of the oratorio, this work combines arias, recitatives and chorus movements with the Latin texts of the Catholic lectionary, creating a piece of music with distinct characteristics and fascinating form. The cantata theme continues with Buxtehude’s Das neugeborne Kindelein, a Protestant church cantata for chorus and chamber orchestra, and Pergolesi’s Magnificat. These works will not only frame Saint-Saëns’ unconventional cantata with more traditional essays in the form, but delight the audience with infrequently performed works by renowned masters of their craft.

Academie für Alte Musik BerlinTwo Bits of Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are stunning masterpieces, as virtuosic a display of compositional prowess as their instrumental interpreters must be to convey the secrets contained therein. This November, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin visits Kingston on November 26 and Koerner Hall on November 27 in a performance of the first five Brandenburgs, a not-to-be-missed musical event. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Akamus for short), founded in East Berlin in 1982, is one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras on period instruments. It has established itself as one of the pillars of Berlin’s cultural scene, holding its own concert series at the Konzerthaus Berlin for more than 30 years, as well as a concert series at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. Having sold more than one million CDs, their highly successful recordings have won all important awards for classical recordings; with such extraordinary international performers making a rare Canadian appearance, tickets for these concerts will certainly be in high demand.

Ottawa Bach ChoirNow in its 18th season, the Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC) continues to impress with their high level of skill and devotion to the art of their namesake composer. As a testament to their dedication and continued excellence, the OBC has been invited to return to Leipzig for the 2020 Bachfest as one of a select number of ensembles worldwide to present Bach’s entire chorale cantata cycle, a remarkable and imposing proposition! On November 30, the Ottawa Bach Choir, led by founding artistic director Lisette Canton, will visit Toronto for A Bach Christmas, providing us with the opportunity to hear a miniature Bachfest of our own. This program includes the cantatas the choir will perform at Bachfest Leipzig 2020 (Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht, BWV124; Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV3; Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, BWV111), as well as the Christmas interpolations from the Magnificat, BWV243 (Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubiliert, Gloria in excelsis Deo, Virga Jesse floruit), the celebratory motet, Singet dem Herrn, BWV225, and more. Featuring the Ensemble Caprice baroque orchestra with strings, oboes d’amore, horn, as well as soprano Meredith Hall, countertenor Nicholas Burns, tenor Philippe Gagné and bass Andrew Mahon, there is little doubt that this concert will give Bach aficionados much to rejoice about this Christmas season.

Whether discovering the profundity of Antonio Lotti for the first time, hearing a rare performance of Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël, or basking in the resplendent genius of Bach, the month of November is full of magnificent music that is well worth the price of admission. There is also much to look forward to in the following weeks, as the ushering in of the Christmas season brings with it many more opportunities to take in landmark works by both renowned and less-known composers. See you in December – until then, feel free to get in touch at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

NOV 19, 7:30 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Purcell’s King Arthur. Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Containing some of Purcell’s most lyrical music and adventurous harmonies, King Arthur is a mystical journey through Arthur’s battle against the Saxons, with cameo appearances by Cupid, Venus and more! Much like last month’s Acis and Galatea, this is a fine opportunity to hear the U of T’s rising stars.

NOV 23, 7:30PM; NOV 24, 3PM: Cantemus Singers. “A Boy is Born.” Church of the Holy Trinity, 19 Trinity Square (Saturday)/St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, 70 Silver Birch Avenue (Sunday). In a column devoted to building a program, Cantemus deserves a special mention, as their concerts regularly consist of a fascinating variety of material. This month’s presentation features carols and motets from Renaissance England, including Thomas Tallis’ stunning Missa Puer natus est nobis for seven voices.

NOV 24, 7PM: Cantorei Sine Nomine. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Uxbridge), 59 Toronto Street South. And so, it begins! This season’s first performance of the Christmas Oratorio features six cantatas drawn from the larger work, one of the finest Christmas choral pieces ever written and an unbroken sequence of drama and beauty that continues to inspire audiences, despite being premiered almost three centuries ago.

DEC 4, 7PM; DEC 5 TO 7, 8PM; DEC 8, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. “O Come, Shepherds.” Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. With a diverse program connected through an underlying pastoral theme, this concert promises a unique combination of Baroque Christmas concertos and the soulful folk music of Southern Italy, with its own rhythms, instruments, and spirit – a fine continuation of Tafelmusik’s mission to broaden its horizons and those of its listeners, through innovative and unexpected presentations.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

With the Canadian Opera Company sleeping off the effects of Turandot and Rusalka, its two wildly contrasting fall main stage blockbusters, top spot in the operatic food chain this month goes to Opera Atelier’s remount of their convention-bucking, commedia-based Don Giovanni, in their new digs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Pantages) on Yonge Street, a big block north of OA’s longtime regular venue at the Elgin Theatre (now hosting an indefinite, and presumably lucratively lengthy, run of Come From Away)

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni. Photo by Bruce ZingerDon Giovanni opens October 31, one day before this issue hits the streets, but if you’re fast out of the blocks, you can still catch it November 2, 3, 8 and 9. And catch it you should, especially if you’re allergic to the heavy-handed Bergmanesque moralizing gloom that all too often accrues to this work. Mozart would have recognized the style of this production far more readily (and I dare say delightedly) than some of the other gloomily lit treatments it has received.

“Fast out of the blocks” will also need to be the operative phrase if you want to take advantage of the period covered in this issue to drill down into five other strata of activity that are the bedrock of opera as a lively art in our region: our universities and conservatories; our regional opera companies; a vibrant indie opera scene, constantly reinventing itself; a rich tradition of community-based performance – participation in opera for the sheer love of it; and a decades-long tradition of opera-in-concert presentation of works we might otherwise, for various reasons, never have the opportunity to see and hear.

Universities and conservatories: Nov 1 and 2, at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School gets things rolling with its fall chamber opera: a production of English composer Jonathan Dove’s Siren Song (libretto by Nick Dear). It’s a 70-minute work for five singers, one actor, and an orchestra of ten players (here conducted by Peter Tiefenbach), based on “a bizarre, true story of a young sailor who exchanges letters with a beautiful and successful model. Over time, a romantic and passionate relationship develops, but a meeting proves increasingly difficult to arrange.”

Later in the month, a short stroll down Philosopher’s Walk from the Royal Conservatory, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music gets into the act, twice. Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24, in the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building, the Opera School presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with two casts getting two shows each, and an “Opera Talk” lecture half an hour before each concert. And then, Dec 5, the U of T Symphony Orchestra gets into the act with a program titled Operatic Showpieces, featuring U of T Opera and the MacMillan Singers, conducted by COC chorus master Sandra Horst and Uri Meyer.

And if that’s not enough, or you live westwards, head down the 401 to the Don Wright Faculty of Music in London, where, on the same dates (Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24) Opera at Western presents Mozart’s The Secret Gardener (La Finta Giardiniera), penned at the ripe old age of 18! Stage direction by renowned baritone Theodore Baerg.

Natalya GennadiRegional and community opera: Nov 1 and 3 also offer an opportunity to observe Opera York in action, in Verdi’s La Traviata, at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, one of two fully staged operas they will present this season. (The other will be Lehar’s Merry Widow, Feb 28 and Mar 1.) This tenacious company’s mission is “to provide professional opera that is accessible financially, geographically and comprehensibly to the communities of York Region and surrounding communities, to encourage the development of the art form through educational and outreach activities and provide a platform for emerging and established Canadian artists” and they stick to it, as reflected in the quality of their casts. An example from this show: Natalya Gennadi (Violetta), whose Dora-nominated title role in Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G. in 2017 was widely praised. NOW Magazine called it “stunning... piercing in its openness and vulnerability.”

Jennifer TungLater in the month, and proudly rooted at the community opera end of things for 73 years, on Nov 21 and 23, Toronto City Opera, formerly known as Toronto Opera Repertoire, presents Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina. Founded in 1946, by an optimistic James Rosselino, as an “Opera Workshop” at Central Technical School, in collaboration with the Toronto School Board, and now under the artistic direction of the multi-talented Jennifer Tung (singer, vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor), they present at least two fully staged operas each year with early-career paid-professional soloists selected after open auditions, and an amateur non-auditioned community chorus that remains open to all. The result is a wonderful sense of community engagement that extends through the chorus to the audience, many of whom are often having their first opera experience. Their mission statement – passionately committed to opera for everyone – says it all.

Indie opera: With the recent buzz around Tapestry Opera’s 40th anniversary and the tenth anniversary tour of Against the Grain’s pub-based La Bohème, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that independent opera in this town is fertile soil for much more. Just one example: Nov 2, 3 and 4, at Heliconian Hall, Loose Tea Music Theatre, under the always searching and provocative direction of Alaina Viau presents Singing Only Softly/The Diary of Anne Frank - Operas from the Secret Annex which pairs two separate works: Singing Only Softly, (composed by Cecilia Livingston with libretto by Monica Pearce); and The Diary of Anne Frank composed by Grigory Frid. Singing Only Softly Is based on the original, unredacted texts of the diary, “voicing Anne Frank as a fully formed young woman describing her experiences while discovering herself. Freshly interpreted in a current female context, it explores Anne’s complex self-awareness and self-representation.” Anne Frank is variously portrayed by sopranos Sara Schabas and Gillian Grossman, with music direction by Cheryl Duvall.

Opera in Concert: From the scope and scale of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “Grand Opera in Concert” performances of Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet’s Thaïs, on Nov 7 and 9 at Roy Thomson Hall, to the intimate informality of Opera by Request’s Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Nov 15 at College St. United Church, opera in concert is alive and well as an art form in these parts. So it’s a fitting close to this exercise to give a special nod to a production by the company, now in its fifth decade, that pretty much single-handedly made the genre a natural and necessary part of the fabric of all things operatic around here: VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert’s presentation on Dec 1 of Leoš Janáček’s 1921 opera, Katya Kabanová.

Sung in English, the performance, in the company’s customary Jane Mallet Theatre surrounds, will feature Lynn Isnar, soprano; Emilia Boteva, mezzo; and tenors Michael Barrett and Cian Horrobin; with Jo Greenaway, music director/piano, and, as always, Robert Cooper, as chorus director. It’s not the opera that the brilliant 20th-century composer of Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair is best known for. But that is the whole point. Opera in concert allows presenters, as play readings sometimes do, to bring to the eyes, and more importantly ears, of audiences, works that, for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with artistic quality, might otherwise be consigned to archival oblivion. And we would all be the poorer for it.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Through the years, jazz in Hamilton has often been overshadowed by the bigger scene in Toronto, just as Toronto jazz has been dwarfed by the huge and active scene in New York. Part of it has to do with economics and sheer size, as jazz, not being a popular music for some time, has always required a large population base in order to flourish. Generally, the bigger the city, the bigger and better its jazz scene. While all sorts of jazz musicians have come from very small towns, they have cut their musical teeth either on the road or by moving to bigger cities. Part of it also has to with Toronto tending to see itself as the centre of the universe, as many big cities do.

None of this has been fair to Hamilton, which has had its own interesting jazz scene for many years and continues to. For one thing, Hamilton, like its steel-producing sister city Pittsburgh, has produced a remarkable number of significant jazz musicians for a city its size. For example, guitarist Sonny Greenwich is from Hamilton, and it’s hard to think of a more singularly original voice in the entire history of Canadian jazz. Granted, like musicians from Pittsburgh who gravitated to New York in search of more work, Greenwich settled in Toronto and later Montreal, but he got his start in Steeltown.

So did saxophonist/arranger Rick Wilkins, another hugely important figure in Canadian music, jazz and otherwise. Being so quiet and mild-mannered, Rick is perhaps the ultimate insider in Canadian music. By this I mean that one could randomly pick 100 people on the street aged 60 or older and ask them if they’d heard of Rick Wilkins and maybe one or two would answer yes. But all of them would have heard lots of his music in some form – a saxophone solo with the Boss Brass, countless scores for television or movies, an arrangement on somebody’s record, a jingle – often without realizing it. Most of his career has taken place in Toronto, but he was born in Hamilton. Torontonians who are boastfully proud of their city’s rich jazz history would do well to remember that an awful lot of the major contributors have come from somewhere else – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and yes, Hamilton.

David BraidA more recent example is pianist/composer David Braid, who has had a major impact with his sextet, the more recent quartet, The North, and as a composer and educator. He grew up not far from Mohawk College in Hamilton and, as much as any Canadian jazz musician, has taken his music abroad with frequent tours in China, Russia, Europe and elsewhere. There have been other important Hamilton-born jazz players – pianist Bruce Harvey, two excellent trumpeters in Jason Logue and Steve McDade, and no doubt many others I’ve forgotten or overlooked.

Mohawk and more

The jazz program at Mohawk College has had a major impact as a centerpiece of jazz in Hamilton in several ways. It draws talented young players from the surrounding region, provides a venue for concerts and has attracted, as teachers, important musicians, some of them previously Toronto-based, who have raised the level and profile of jazz in Hamilton in recent years. 

Mike Malone and the Writer’s Jazz OrchestraSome musicians who were full-time faculty, such as the late trombonist Dave McMurdo and trumpeter Mike Malone, moved to Hamilton from Toronto, reversing an age-old tradition. McMurdo had a huge impact on Hamilton jazz as a teacher and by starting his Mountain Access (sometimes affectionately known as “Mounting Excess”) Jazz Orchestra, which provided an outlet for writers and players both from Toronto and the Hamilton area. Malone has continued this with his Writer’s Jazz Orchestra, which performs regularly in and around Hamilton and at Toronto venues such as The Rex. More recently, the Hamilton-born, gifted pianist Adrean Farrugia and his equally gifted wife, singer Sophia Perlman, who both teach at Mohawk, have moved from Hogtown to Steeltown, perhaps attracted by a city that’s less hectic, more affordable, and still offers opportunities for cultural expression. With the Toronto jazz scene shrinking in recent times, the worm is beginning to turn toward smaller cities.

Hamilton has also boasted attractive musical venues and organizations through the years, often created and sustained by dedicated music lovers and arts activists. Liuna Station is an excellent example. It was originally a CN Railway station which had fallen into disrepair until a guild of local artisans was commissioned to give it a lavish facelift. The result is a unique and splendid venue for concerts as well as other functions. I’ve played there numerous times with the likes of Oliver Jones and David Braid and was bowled over by its extravagance. One of my favourite places to play in Hamilton was not really a jazz venue but a small Polish restaurant on Main St. called Izzy’s, named for its cheerful and generous proprietor Isidora, who loved jazz, cooking, jazz musicians and Irish whiskey, not necessarily in that order. I’ll never forget playing there one night with the Mike Murley Trio when Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Dave McMurdo and Mike Malone were in the audience. Wheeler and Winstone were in Hamilton as artists-in-residence for a week of clinics and concerts at Mohawk College, another example of how that institution has boosted jazz in Hamilton.

Steel City Jazz Festival

Hamilton boasts many other long-term jazz outlets – the Corktown Pub, Artword Artbar (on which more later), Fieldcote Park in nearby Ancaster, The Pearl Company, as well as concert venues at Mohawk College and McMaster University. Hamilton has also staged its own festival for the last seven years, The Steel City Jazz Festival. This year’s festival runs from November 6 to 10 and will feature shows at Artword Artbar, the Corktown Pub and The Pearl Company. It will return to its roots by showcasing pianist Paul Benton, a longtime seminal figure in Hamilton jazz, in its opening concert, and by focusing on the past 30 years of jazz in the area.

Other artists will include the Nick McLean Quartet, the Sextet of Smordin Law artist-in-residence Jason Logue, the Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Mike Malone, playing as part of the ECJ quintet led by bassist Evelyn Charlotte Joe. This year the festival is also launching performances at the legendary Corktown Pub – George Grossman’s Bohemian Swing featuring Brandon Walker on November 7 and Blunt Object on November 8. It’s a diverse and interesting lineup.

Farewell Artword, hail Zula

Unfortunately, this year’s festival will mark the end of one of Hamilton’s best music venues, Artword Artbar, a café-bar on Colbourne Street which has been hosting jazz and other interesting music and theatre for the past ten years. Proprietors Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford have sold the building and its future use is unclear, but it won’t likely have to do with music or the arts. This is a decided blow to the local scene and one hopes someone will step in with an alternative space at some point. I only played there once, some years ago with the Mike Murley Trio, and very much enjoyed the experience. Artword Artbar has (had) good natural sound and a relaxing, casual, grassroots feeling which combined the best of both worlds – a small concert space and a rustic pub – one which encouraged audiences to listen and inspired artists to play their best. It will be missed.

But not all is lost… finally, a word on another force in Hamilton jazz, one largely unknown to many Torontonians, including yours truly until recently: Zula, a bold and independent arts organization dedicated to presenting adventurous and under-the-radar music against long odds in Hamilton. It is the brainchild of music lover and arts activist Cem Zafir, who originally founded Zula in Vancouver way back in 2000, transplanting the concept to Hamilton when he moved there in 2012. It is supported by the Ontario Arts Council and has gathered a board of local artists including Donna Akrey, Chris Alic, Neil Ballantyne, Gary Barwin, Ted Harms, Connor Bennett, Taing Ng-Chan, Kay Chornook, Andrew Johnson, Heather Kanabe, Neal Thomas and above all Zafir, whose non-conformist and creative spirit is the driving force behind it all.

Since 2014, Zula has staged the Something Else Festival, presenting under-known and adventurous musicians from Canada and abroad who one would never expect to hear in Hamilton, never mind a larger city like Toronto. Such as William Parker, Samuel Blaser, Dave Gould, the Lina Allemano Four, David Lee, Ken Aldcroft and many more. Zula often coordinates with the equally adventurous Guelph Jazz Festival, another good example of uncompromising music flourishing in a smaller population centre against long odds, largely due to the vision and dedication of its founders.

So, as we’ve seen, bigger is not always better and jazz continues to grow in Hamilton, with all signs indicating that it will continue to.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

NOV 2, 8PM: Royal Conservatory of Music. “Music Mix Series: Toronto Sings the Breithaupt Brothers’ Songbook.” Jackie Richardson, Kellylee Evans, Denzal Sinclaire, Heather Bambrick, Patricia O’Callaghan and others. Koerner Hall. A lineup of first-rate Canadian singers performing the witty and artistic songs of the Breithaupt Brothers.

NOV 8, 7:30PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express and Larnell Lewis Band. Works by Monty Alexander and Larnell Lewis. Monty Alexander, piano; Hassan Abdul Ash-Shakur, bass; Jason Brown, drums; Andrew Bassford, guitar; Larnell Lewis Band. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Partridge Hall, 250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines. An attractive doubleheader featuring Monty Alexander, who needs no introduction, and local drummer Larnell Lewis, who has become something of a force in recent years.

NOV 21, 7:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band. 40th Anniversary celebration of swing-era music with special selections from Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Martin Loomer, guitar, arranger, leader. Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm St. Licensed facility. Even after the death of its founder, this band is always worth hearing because it is so unique and has been left in the capable hands of its chief arranger/transcriber and longtime rhythm guitarist, Martin Loomer.

Nick Fraser TrioNOV 30, 8PM: Zula. Nick Fraser Trio: “Rock on Locke.” Nick Fraser, drums/composition; Tony Malaby, saxophones; Kris Davis, piano. Church of St. John the Evangelist, 320 Charlton Ave. W., Hamilton. zulapresents.org. $15 or PWYC. A concert by a very interesting trio featuring three of the most inventive players on the local scene, or any other for that matter.

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

Here we are midway through the last third of the year, and most community bands are busy rehearsing, for a variety of programs from formal concerts to Santa Claus Parades; the last thing that any band needs at this time of year is any disruption of rehearsals. Many community groups rehearse in schools, so for many bands in this part of the world there was near panic that these schools might be closed due to a possible labour dispute. Fortunately, at the very last minute the matter was settled. I, myself, received notices a few days later that all rehearsals would proceed as scheduled.

It was, however, a sobering reminder of a topic I have been known to occasionally rant about: the dilemma facing many community musical groups regarding rehearsal space. Most groups are tenants of schools, churches or community centres. Few have any real means of avoiding such matters. School music rooms are ideal rehearsal spaces, complete with music stands, and much of the heavier percussion equipment. However, most music teachers and many principals have concern for the safety of this equipment. I have known of a number of situations where a new music teacher, or principal, arrived at a school and expressed concern for equipment safety. All of a sudden, a band which might have rehearsed there for years, found themselves homeless. Even if they manage to obtain another kind of rehearsal space, where do they keep larger percussion instruments, stands and maybe music library?

Read more: Occasional Rants and Fanfarones

Ah, November. A month so rich in music that it causes one to strain against word limits, bridle at the constraints of the page and discard a number of truly perfect jokes, whose inclusion – if a writer took less seriously his charge to write about, well, music – would have sent this magazine’s readership into dangerous paroxysms of laughter, such that finishing the rest of this column would surely prove impossible. Out of kindness: let’s get to it. 

Gentiane MG TrioOn November 14 and 15, the Montreal-based pianist Gentiane MG (Michaud-Gagnon) leads her eponymous trio at Jazz Bistro in support of her recent album, Wonderland. Though Michaud-Gagnon may be a new name to Toronto audiences, she has been increasingly active on the Canadian jazz scene following her time at McGill, at which she studied with Rémi Bolduc, André White and Jean-Michel Pilc, among others. Her debut trio recording, Eternal Cycle, was on CBC Music’s list of 10 outstanding Canadian jazz albums of 2017, along with the likes of Matthew Stevens, Diana Krall, and PJ Perry. At Jazz Bistro, Michaud-Gagnon brings her working rhythm section, bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel. The trio’s playing runs the gamut from introspective, pensive ballads to uptempo swingers. Throughout it all, Michaud-Gagnon discharges her pianistic duties with aplomb, playing both single-note lines and lush chords with succinct clarity. 

Also at Jazz Bistro: vibraphonist Dan McCarthy, on November 26, appearing in quartet formation with guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren. McCarthy’s quartet appears in support of his recently released album, City Abstract, which features the same band. Recorded in May of this year at Canterbury Music Company, City Abstract is something of a homecoming for McCarthy, who, after living and working in New York for 15 years, has moved back to his hometown of Toronto. McCarthy is a superlative vibraphonist, with chops, tone and taste to spare; his performance/recording credits include work with American musicians such as Steve Swallow, Ben Monder and George Garzone, as well as with leading Canadian musicians, including Lorne Lofsky, Terry Clarke and Laila Biali. Though the vibraphone has been something of an uncommon instrument in modern jazz, McCarthy – along with other notable young players, including the American Joel Ross and Toronto’s Michael Davidson – serves as a good reminder of the instrument’s strengths and capabilities, and of the unique music that it makes possible. 

LandlineOn November 6 and 7, saxophonist Chet Doxas brings the group Landline to The Rex. Though currently a Brooklyn resident, Doxas was born and raised in Montreal, where he attended McGill for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees; his brother, Jim Doxas, is one of Canada’s better-known jazz drummers, and still based in their shared hometown. Landline – whose eponymous debut album will release on November 1 – is a quartet, made up of Doxas, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Landline is something of a family affair: in May of this year, George Doxas, Chet’s father, recorded the album in Montreal at Boutique de Son Studios. Landline gets its name from a two-year-long process of “collaborative composition” by all four members of the quartet, each of whom made contributions to each piece in a process reminiscent of the children’s game “broken telephone.” What this means isn’t precisely clear, but I imagine that all will be revealed at The Rex. What is clear is that Landline represents an intriguing new project from accomplished modern jazz musicians who have played together – both in this specific quartet and in other configurations – for a number of years, with a collective group dynamic that only comes with shared experience. 

Dan WeissSacks will be returning to The Rex later in the month with the Dan Weiss Trio, where he – along with Weiss (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass) – will be playing two consecutive nights on November 20 and 21. The last time that I wrote about Weiss for The WholeNote, it was in the wake of his 2018 Jazz Festival performance with his Starebaby project. Drawing influence from Twin Peaks, the album Starebaby was a study in Lynchian intensity, with bombastic and quiet moments sustained past conventional points of resolution. During the group’s packed Toronto show, this exploratory spirit was on display in full force; the show that I saw qualified as one of the loudest and quietest shows that I’ve ever seen at The Rex, or, for that matter, at any jazz club. Though Weiss’ trio may not have the same mandate for extreme dynamics, it does have the same mandate for intensity and intentionality. It is not hyperbole to say that Weiss is one of the preeminent jazz drummers of his generation; a brief look at his recent schedule reveals engagements with the likes of Nir Felder, Adam Rogers, Miles Okazaki and Chris Potter’s Underground Quartet, amongst many other notable gigs, including his own. As a drummer and as a bandleader, he is much the same: specific, exacting, exciting and, at unexpected moments, funny, in a way that complements the seriousness of his dedication to his craft. 

A final note on The Rex: guitarist Robb Cappelletto, who has crafted a unique musical identity that straddles the line between jazz, rock, blues, and other genres, releases his new album Double Red on November 14, in performance with keyboardist Michael Shand, bassist Andrew Stewart and drummer Amhed Mitchel. Cappelletto – a faculty member at York University – has been putting out consistently interesting music since his debut album !!! was released in 2012, both under his own name and with the instrumental group re.verse, which has been heard in its residency slots at 416 Snack Bar and The Drake, as well as at Koerner Hall, collaborating with the likes of Shad and DJ Skratch Bastid. Cappelletto is a fiery player, with ample technical command of his instrument, but what sets him apart from his peers is his conscientious attention to the nuances of tone, and his commitment to building a multilayered sonic world in which his music can live. 

MAINLY CLUBS, MOSTLY JAZZ QUICK PICKS 

NOV 6 AND NOV 7, 9:30PM: Chet Doxas’ Landline, The Rex. Landline, a new project helmed by Montreal-born saxophonist Chet Doxas, play in support of their new self-titled album, the material for which the band composed cooperatively through a musical version of “broken telephone.” With pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. 

NOV 14, 9:30PM: Robb Cappelletto Group, The Rex. Robb Cappelletto celebrates the release of his new album Double Red, the latest entry in the fusion guitarist’s discography. With keyboardist Michael Shand, bassist Andrew Stewart and drummer Amhed Mitchel. 

NOV 14 AND NOV 15, 9PM: Gentiane MG Trio, Jazz Bistro. An up-and-coming musician from Montreal, Gentiane MG (Michaud-Gagnon) leads her eponymous trio (bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel) at Jazz Bistro in support of her recent album, Wonderland.

NOV 20 AND NOV 21, 9:30PM: Dan Weiss Trio, The Rex. Playing compelling modern jazz, drummer Dan Weiss’ trio, with pianist Jacob Sacks and bassist Thomas Morgan, has been active for over a decade, and has developed a thrillingly intuitive musical connection. 

NOV 26, 8PM: Dan McCarthy Quartet, Jazz Bistro. Toronto-born vibraphonist Dan McCarthy returns from New York with a new project and a new album, both of which feature guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren. 

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

vision string quartetThe Strings aspect of Music Toronto’s 48th season gets off to an auspicious start with the local debut of two European-based string quartets, the more established Quartetto di Cremona from Genoa, Italy, and the more recently formed (2012) vision quartet centred in Berlin. The Quartetto is said to be the spiritual heir to the fondly remembered Quartetto Italiano; the vision string quartet (like the Polish Apollon Musagète Quartet) plays standing up but in addition performs their concerts completely from memory. Both ensembles will be new for me, so I asked Music Toronto’s artistic producer Jennifer Taylor to give me some background. How long had they been on her radar? How did she discover them? What excites her about them?

She told me that in general she takes a lot of recommendations from artists, managers, other series presenters and concertgoers. She also does a lot of Internet research and listening. “Quartetto are a 20-year quartet; I had heard of them some years ago, but … then they made what I think was their first North American tour, and I wasn’t on it – too late for my planning. They have some well-regarded recordings. In fall 2017 they were entrusted with the Paganini Strads, owned by the Nippon Foundation, that the Tokyo [Quartet] played in their final years. They later signed with a New York management who by coincidence were the Tokyo’s original management three decades ago. It is easier to invite Europeans who have North American management because there may be a tour; very tough to bring anyone for a single date. So I invited them.

“The vision string quartet – they prefer no caps in their name (I’ve just recently been told) – won two European competitions in 2016, but as a four-year-old quartet, I hesitated. Then they signed with a British management I know well, and I started getting info and recordings in early 2017. Later in 2017 they signed with a New York manager I know even better, and we started talking. I made the arrangement in October 2018. Yes, the standing up – I think for the vision it is part of being edgy young guys. We’ll see.

Read more: October is a Chamberfest
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