Evan Buliung (left) and Tess Benger in Sunday in the Park with GeorgeIn Act Two of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, Dot sings to George: “Move on! Anything you do let it come from you, then it will be new.” This double idea, of continually trying new things but anchoring them in personal experience or passion, was at the heart of three of my music theatre highlights of February, and promises to be so for three of the shows coming up in March.

Caroline or Change, presented at the Winter Garden Theatre by The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company is anchored in Tony Kushner’s semi-autobiographical book and this powerful production amped up the electricity by casting as Caroline, R & B Queen Jully Black, who, in her musical theatre debut, gave a performance of great passion and integrity. Tapestry New Opera’s Jacqueline, a fascinating journey into the internal thoughts of virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré as her career and life were both being tragically cut short by MS, was an exciting risk-taking experiment in storytelling, inspired by personal connections to the artist and envisioned as a duet for soprano and cello. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton finally arrived in Toronto, showing us why it has been acclaimed as the “reinvention of the American musical,” a thrilling example of unexpected medium (hip-hop and diverse casting) melding with inspiring message (surprisingly interesting biography of lesser-known American founding father Alexander Hamilton) to create a truly satisfying evening of music theatre.

As March approaches, three more exciting productions, all wildly different, are blending personal passion and innovation to share with us both new and familiar stories in new ways designed to give them more immediacy and/or urgency in the telling.

Read more: Newness Anchored in Passion and Experience

It seems the longer I’m involved with jazz, the less I understand it. I’ve been immersed in it now for nearly 50 years in many ways – studying it, playing it, reading about it, collecting records, listening to it, and more recently writing about it and teaching it – and yet at times I feel I know less and less about it and would be hard-pressed to offer a succinct definition of its essence. If it even has an essence anymore.

Part of it is the truth of that old saw: the more you learn about a subject, the less you know about it, or so it seems. As knowledge of jazz expands, so do the boundaries; the forest keeps getting bigger to the point where you can’t see it for the trees.

Perhaps this is as it should be, because jazz is not a simple music, though often at its best it seems so. But it’s quite complex, and part of the problem in trying to get a fix on what jazz actually is, is that it never stands still. It’s constantly shifting and expanding, taking on new influences while also exerting an effect on other types of music. Like many things in the digital age, this cross-pollination process has sped up in recent years, leading to a bewildering array of hybrids, which I call “hyphen-jazz”: Acid-jazz, smooth-jazz, jazz-rock, vocal-jazz, Latin-jazz and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Well, okay, these are contrived terms to describe narrow sub-genres of varying validity, but increasingly I hear people asking – and often ask myself – “Well, yeah, but what about ‘jazz-jazz’”? Does that exist anymore, and if so, then what the heck is it?

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part One: The Forest and the Trees

Beware the Ides of March! Thus spoke the soothsayer as he, correctly, warned Julius Caesar of his impending doom. While “impending doom” is probably not the cause, we haven’t heard much of anything from our current band world about any activities planned for the month of March of this year, at least not in time to report on here. On the bright side, while waiting for information on coming band activities, I had time to check on the meaning of the Ides of March. While the term originally referred to the full moon, in ancient Rome it was the time for several religious observances and was also a deadline for settling debts. It is the word “deadline”, particularly, that caught my eye. In fairness to bands in our part of the world, it may be that the month of March may be one of preparation, but not performance. In a few cases, notices we receive, about concerts that have been in the works for months, arrive only a few days before the event. For us to mention an event we must receive any notice no later than the 15th of the month prior to the event. Be aware of the Ides of March (Sunday March 15) is therefore my message this month. Send me your April concert listings by then and I will be sure to make mention of them here.

Newmarket Citizens BandBehind the Scenes
As many of you know full well, keeping a concert band going requires a few activities other than concert preparation and performances. These include library updating, financial matters and executive elections among others. As I think about such non-performance activities, a few stand out. Obviously a well-organized and well-catalogued library tops the list. There isn’t space here to detail the many possible formats, but with most bands having access to computers, a spreadsheet where searches may be easily done based on title, composer, library catalogue number, style etc. is easy to create and maintain! A few bands I know have a numbering system for all selections in their libraries, but others just stick to names. I’m a big proponent of a numbering system. When the conductor calls out a number to rehearse, everyone knows what to get. If the conductor should call for a selection such as Pop and Rock Legends: Elton John, and filing is alphabetical, one might look for Pop, Rock or Elton John. Numbering all of the charts would eliminate any confusion. Years ago I played with someone who filed any chart with a name starting with The under the letter T.

Read more: Tenth Anniversary: NHB’s Expanded Horizons

Sarah Thawer kicks off Drum Week March 8. Photo by Brendan MarianiIn my column last month, I wrote about the February 7 appearance of the American jazz guitarist Russell Malone at Hugh’s Room Live, an unusually high-profile show to occur in the bleak Toronto winter. What looked like an anomaly for the Dundas West venue, however, now seems as though it’s part of a growing trend. During the week of March 8, Hugh’s Room Live hosts a special event: Drum Week, sponsored by Yamaha. With seven acts taking the stage from Sunday, March 8, to Saturday, March 14, Drum Week will feature leading Canadian and American drummers from multiple generations and stylistic backgrounds.

Starting things off on March 8 is Sarah Thawer, who plays at 2pm. Thawer – who stays busy both locally and internationally as a bandleader, sideperson, and educator – is an exciting, high-energy drummer with a wealth of technique, whose own music incorporates elements of jazz, hip-hop, fusion and other genres. Next up during drum week: the legendary Jimmy Cobb, who, at the age of 91, is the only surviving contributor to the seminal Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959. Active since the 50s, Cobb has played with a wide range of jazz luminaries in addition to Davis and co., from Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Stan Getz, to younger players such as Peter Bernstein, Brad Mehldau and Vincent Herring.

Read more: Drum Week at Hugh’s and Women From Space

Clockwise from top left: Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan, Lee Wiley, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan photo by William P. GottliebFebruary is the shortest month of the year, which is merciful, because it is also surely the bleakest. By the time it rolls around, winter has been with us for what seems like an eternity, with still plenty to come. The festivities of Christmas and Hanukkah are a distant memory and the bloom is off the rose of the new year. Of course there’s Valentine’s Day on February 14, but even that special day of celebrating romance is a mixed blessing to some, and many have sworn off it. Those not blessed with a partner, or who have recently lost one, find it lonely and painful. And even many with partners find it an empty and contrived occasion filled with pressure, a cash-in day for florists, candy makers, card companies, swanky restaurants and the like.

Despite these misgivings, I thought it might be interesting to explore the history of the song most associated with the day, My Funny Valentine, one which has become an essential part of jazz history and its repertoire, and also one which has been much misunderstood. It has been recorded over 1,600 times by more than 600 artists, both instrumentally and vocally, and is permanently associated with Frank Sinatra, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, among others. It was written in 1937 by perhaps my favourite songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers had the supreme gift of writing simple, pure melodies which stuck in the ear and which he would often flesh out with more interesting chords. And Hart stood alone as a lyricist; his words had great wit and charm, ironic humour, interior rhythm and often plumbed emotional depths worthy of poetry. As a team, they were incomparable; Rodgers’ later songs with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein are far less successful simply because the words don’t work nearly as well. (As an aside, this didn’t stop Cole Porter’s “beard” wife, Linda Lee Thomas, from asking pointedly of Rodgers & Hart after meeting them at a party: “Two guys, to write one song!?”)

Read more: My (Not So) Funny Valentine: A Brief History

Stephen Hough. Photo by Sim Canetty-ClarkeIn Billy Wilder’s classic 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, Tom Ewell fantasizes seducing his upstairs neighbour (Marilyn Monroe) while playing a recording of the slow movement of a piano concerto – “Good old Rachmaninoff,” he says, “the Second Piano Concerto, it never misses.” Monroe replies, “It’s not fair. Every time I hear it I go to pieces.” Indeed, the power of the concerto was extensive. Its second movement played a major role in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945); Eric Carmen’s All by Myself (1975), notably used in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), is also derived from the second movement; Full Moon and Empty Arms, a song written by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman derived from the third movement, has been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra (1945) and Bob Dylan (2014). And that just scratches the surface of the impact of some of the most romantic music ever written. It’s an appropriate valentine to Toronto as Stephen Hough and the TSO, conducted by Elim Chan, perform it February 14 to 16 – the evening’s other major work is Rimsky-Korsakov’s crowd-pleasing Scheherazade with TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow as soloist.

A leading pianist of the generation that includes Marc-André Hamelin, Hough is also a polymath, the first classical performer to receive the MacArthur Genius Award, an exhibited artist, a published author and newspaper columnist. He’s also a lively participant on Twitter, engaging with his audience, posting personal photos (especially of food) and links to musical nuggets out of the past.

Read more: Romancing Rachmaninoff, and Ophelia Gets Mad

Exploring the history of classical music and its vast network of composers, interpreters and commentators is a fascinating task, nebulous yet surprisingly linear all at once. In many ways, the work of the musicologist resembles that of an archaeologist, who unearths and examines historical evolutions through the fossil record and physical structures, using the earth’s geological formations to tell us what came before and how that led to the modern world.

Where archaeologists use rock and sediment, the musical scholar uses manuscripts, treatises and libraries to explore the past, in both specific and wide-ranging ways. For example, the field of Bach studies has grown and improved immensely in the last five decades. This focused scholarly work on a single composer’s output has led to numerous reissues of Bach’s works, each an improvement and clarification of the previous volume. New works have been discovered as well, such as the Neumeister Collection, a series of chorale preludes found in the 1980s at Yale by Christoph Wolff and Wilhelm Krumbach, filling in our understanding of a great composer and his personal compositional evolution.

Read more: Digging Deeper Rewarded (Musical Archaeology)

Artists of many kinds feel like it should be the goal for their art to rise above the everyday – art is its own thing. Other artists strive to make the everyday the fulcrum of their art: to drive conversations to respond to them, to change narratives, and to leave people changed. Over the next month I’m highlighting two of the latter for you to attend and find yourself inserted into an ongoing conversation about the past, about now, about who we are, about who we want to be. I hope you don’t just accept the music passively and are instead empowered to respond to it. My kind of choral music is about conversations in song. Join me!

A previously unreleased conceptual design of a new $20 note that was produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and obtained by The New York Times depicts Harriet Tubman in a dark coat with a wide collar and a white scarf. This preliminary design was completed in late 2016.The Woman Donald Trump Took off American Money
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents a concert version of American composer Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom as part of their Voices of the Diaspora series. Harriet Tubman has been much in popular culture lately. Beginning in 2020, she should have been on American $20 bills in circulation across the US, but Donald Trump’s office has stopped this from happening. Tubman, born Araminta Ross, is part of the black history of Canada and her incredible story and leadership continue to inspire. Cynthia Erivo brought Tubman to life in the 2019 film Harriet and has earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song for it.

Read more: Conversations in Song and Choral Relevance

Juliet Palmer. Photo by Dahlia KatzHave you spent much time wondering about those mysterious things going on inside your body, and especially those processes that your life is utterly dependent upon such as your heart and circulation system, or your breath and the entire respiratory system? Ever been curious about how a hospital trauma team works together in such a coordinated and precise way while working to save a life?

Whether you have or not, you may now be wondering whatever does all this have to do with music? These are the questions that Toronto-based composer and interdisciplinary artist Juliet Palmer recently pursued during a research residency at Sunnybrook Research Institute in 2018. Arising out of this period are two works that will be performed in a concert on February 9 produced by Continuum Contemporary Music, that will also include a Continuum-commissioned work by composer Martijn Voorvelt from the Netherlands entitled Frederick’s Doctor. I talked with Palmer to find out more about her compositions and how the residency in a hospital informed her creative process.

Read more: Juliet Palmer at Continuum: The Body, Trauma and Trees

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz. Photo by Dahlia KatzToward the end of January I was invited to sit in on an early staging rehearsal of the new opera, Jacqueline, gaining a rare glimpse into the creation of this experimental world premiere that explores the life and legacy of celebrity virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who, at 23, began experiencing numbness in her fingers, at 28 was diagnosed with MS and stopped playing the cello, and in 1987 passed away at age 42.

While the work’s stated format, a duet for soprano and cello, sounds as though it might be very static on stage, what I saw in the rehearsal room was the exact opposite. It moves, is playful, fun, exciting, sad, and unexpected. The music, both vocal and instrumental, is gorgeous and sometimes startling in its layering and detail, echoing the same experimental nature of the libretto and the whole approach of the production. The staging that I saw is equally dynamic: as if happening in the moment, always grounded in the characters’ motivation and inspired by the music, using the full space of the stage, finding a physical shape for everything happening in Jacqueline’s mind and memory. Versatile soprano Marnie Breckenridge embodies Jacqueline du Pré, but at many different ages and stages of her life; the second “character,” is the cello itself – Jacqueline’s closest friend, partner of her greatest successes, witness and sharer in her failures and losses, and finally a potent symbol of her legacy to the world – portrayed by renowned cellist Matt Haimowitz.

Read more: New Opera for Soprano and Cello Promises Multilinear Magic

Here we are on the cusp of the month of February, eager to know what’s in store for us in the year’s shortest month. There is always February 2 to look forward to, namely Groundhog Day, for prognostications about what to expect weather-wise in the coming weeks. However while our trusty Canadian groundhogs, Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam are renowned for their weather forecasting, they have never told us anything about upcoming community musical events. Where can we turn for such information? Right here, one might hope to say, if we were hearing, with some regularity, from community musical ensembles regarding their coming events. Alas, such communication is rare. We have heard very little so far this year from the band world. Send your listings in, folks, and I will let readers know about them.

Novel Seasonal Celebration
It is quite common for bands to have an end-of-season party before the Christmas break. Such parties provide the opportunity for band members and their families to mix and meet. Spouses or partners get to meet band members other than their mates, and band members get to chat with other band members that they may see from a distance every week, but really don’t know. How often do tuba players chat with clarinet players, after all? This year the Newmarket Citizens Band took a different approach. They decided on a 45-minute open rehearsal where family and friends sat and listened. After that, all in attendance mingled and partook of several tables of tasty goodies arrayed on tables at one end of the band’s rehearsal room. Two birds with one stone, you might say.

Read more: Impeachment Polkas and Bugles (again!)
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