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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is our conversation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere

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

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

QUICK PICKS

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

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

For more information—call 529-846-2552 or go online to: bit.ly/TellingLies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musicianship

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

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

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

A trip to London

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

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

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

Eddie Graf

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

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

Missed

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

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

Upcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s different this time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Electronic Ensemble

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

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

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

Spectrum Music

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

Worthy Mentions

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

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

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

Arabella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vivier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music in the Afternoon

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

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

U of T Faculty of Music/TSO

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

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

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

Marc-André Hamelin 

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

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

"Classical music is dying!" Charlie Albright reported for CNN back in May 2016, and its death is not a quick and abrupt one but rather slow and painful, like a cancer that kills from the inside out. “With [its] stifling atmosphere of rules and ‘appropriateness,’ it is no wonder that people (especially youth) are apprehensive and often uninterested in the whole idea of classical music. Somehow, classical music has become inaccessible and unwelcoming."

October is here and based on the above we can anticipate a wave of the same old junk, identical to what came before, and identical to what will come next, a musical merry-go-round of the first degree: obsessive etiquettal xenophobia, predictable programming falling into pretty, compartmentalized categories (like a mother cutting up a pork chop for her child – easy to eat and it just tastes better this way) with attention-grabbing headlines that ensure that the conductor’s circle donors (who give more in a year than you’ll make in five) will remain happy, contentedly perennial boons to the budget.

Wanna hear something German? Here’s some Bach…

Wanna hear something French? Here’s some Lully and Rameau…

Wanna hear something English? Here’s a Handel oratorio…

Wanna be up to your eyeballs in gentrified groupies spewing vapid pleasantries? Here’s a post-concert reception…

Want something different?

Regeneration

In recent years there have been some interesting and original performances built around rather conventional repertoire, combining standard tunes with new visual and environmental stimulation. Alison Mackay’s multi-disciplinary Tafelmusik presentations of The Galileo Project and House of Dreams, among others, have broadened the horizons of many stiff-necked concertgoers in a way that is both familiar yet new, good for business but also for the regeneration of old music through new art forms. (“Thank Wotan for multimedia!” Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk ideals are whispering somewhere in the celestial ether.)

Multimedia collaboration is just one way that we can use old music in new incarnations. Last month I wrote about the fresh, modern movement that gets the cobwebs out of the canon by bringing classical music to bars, clubs and taverns. (You can read my review of the ClassyAF performance at Dakota Tavern on The WholeNote website.) These stripped-down yet high-quality performances declassify art music, removing the frills and snobbish attitude, making it less like a liturgical rite and more like the pop music it was when it was written. If you’re the guy who cringes when someone claps between movements at a concert or a member of the conductor’s circle, stay far, far away (and get your snotty nose out of my column!). If, however, you long for a way to take in the music you love without all the extra chi-chi superfluities, get out there and explore. Toronto is a wonderfully diverse city with dozens of concerts and events taking place every night, hundreds each month, thousands every year. I encourage you to go to as many as you can and step outside your comfort zone. Explore the different sections of this magazine, not just the ones you always do, and support the artists that bring this city to life!

(As a side note, if you own a bar and want to host a mean set of Bach and Brubeck, give me a shout…)

Aeneas and Dido?

Larry Beckwith conducting Toronto Masque Theatre's 'A Soldier's Tale'Henry Purcell, particularly his opera Dido and Aeneas, has become something of a fixture the last few years – Google “Dido and Aeneas Toronto” and watch the 275,000 hits pop up. Musically, the relative simplicity of Dido’s score has long permitted conductors, producers, choreographers and directors free reign over the dramatic and visual components of the theatrical production, resulting in a wide spectrum of aesthetics. The beauty of Purcell’s opera, from a programming perspective, is its brevity; the 40-minute-or-so runtime allows another work, similar or contrasting, to be placed cheek to jowl with it, thereby creating a more dynamic performance than the Purcell does as a freestanding piece of music.

Larry Beckwith’s Toronto Masque Theatre is doing just that – pairing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido to form a uniquely expressive concert. Far from being just a convenient inversion of the title, Rolfe’s Aeneas (commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2007, with a libretto by 2015 Giller Prize-winning novelist André Alexis), “tries to imagine Aeneas’s interior life. What drives Aeneas to choose an uncertain quest for a new homeland over Dido’s offer of love and country?” (from jamesrolfe.ca) This performance takes place on October 20 and 21 and features soloists Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley, as well as orchestra and chorus.

It will be fascinating to see and hear how the Purcell and Rolfe complement, juxtapose and intertwine with each other, being separated in time by so many centuries. Choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière will add another dimension to the performance, perhaps paving the way for even more adventurous interdisciplinary collaborations in the future as the Toronto Masque Theatre disbands after this season, and its creative minds seek stimulation elsewhere.

The Holy Gospel According to Gould

Art of Time Ensemble's Andrew BurashkoTaking a leap well beyond the usual scope of this column, from November 2 to 4 the Art of Time Ensemble will present “…Hosted by Glenn Gould: Gould’s Perspectives on Beethoven and Shostakovich,” via screenings from CBC’s Glenn Gould on Television as introductions to live performances of music by Beethoven and Shostakovich.

In addition to being an interesting and exciting concert idea, a voice-from-the-grave presentation similar to holographic posthumous appearances by Frank Sinatra and Elvis, it will be fascinating to hear Gould’s perspectives on Beethoven, whose music has been comfortably and successfully interpreted by a great number of historically informed performing groups. Gould was equal parts genius and eccentric, certainly not at all a traditional performer in the historical sense, and those of us indoctrinated with the idea of fidelity to the score above all else should look forward to this concert as an opportunity to broaden our horizons, especially those of us (myself included) who were not fortunate enough to experience Gould in person during his lifetime.

Speaking of Beethoven…

This month is a good one for fans of Beethoven and his symphonic music. In addition to the release of Tafelmusik’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle featuring Bruno Weil directing the Tafelmusik orchestra and chorus (look for the CD review in this issue of The WholeNote), on November 4 and 5 former Tafel violinist Aisslinn Nosky leads the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Hearing a modern orchestra tackle historic repertoire while led by an expert in historically-informed performance practice is a stimulating and thought-provoking experience. For those who have been trained to play a certain type of music a certain way, it is often difficult to reorient yourself around a different style and method of interpretation. I often spoke with Ivars Taurins on this topic while at the University of Toronto, and it was enlightening to hear his ideas on approaching Baroque and Classical symphonic repertoire with a modern orchestra such as the Calgary Philharmonic, where Taurins is a frequent guest conductor, versus a more specialized group such as Tafelmusik.

So take a trip down to wine country, partake in a tasting or two, and enjoy an evening of one of Beethoven’s greatest symphonies. (And if someone wants to clap between movements, for chrissakes, let them!)

I said at the beginning of this article that classical music as we know it is dying – that’s a good thing, for it is also being reborn under our noses.

Back to CNN’s Charlie Albright for the final word:

Breaking down ‘classical’ rules will kill ‘classical’ music – and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting, allowing for all of us to share more emotion and passion through the music. It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert. It will encourage more young people to have fun with the performing arts instead of viewing them as a necessary evil that requires a boring practice each day after school. And it is this death of “classical” music that will bring true classical music more life than ever.”

If you want to drop me a line, email me at earlymusic@thewholenote.com or talk to me in person at one of this month’s concerts – I’ll be at the bar.

Perhaps more than any other subset of collective music-making, the choral scene is subject to the dictates of the average working individual’s personal calendar, weekly and monthly. A case in point: of the 25 to 30 upcoming choral concert listings I perused in preparing to write this column, all but one fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And none dare intrude on the sanctity of the October 7 to 9 Thanksgiving weekend!

CCOC at 50

Karina Gauvin, former CCOC chorister graces the CCOC Gala - photo by Michael SlobodianThat one, by the way, is a bit of an exception to the rule in terms of the nature of the event as well as the weekday on which it falls. The event in question, October 26 (a Thursday) is a gala concert at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company (formerly known as the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus). And while the company’s several choirs will doubtless shine, there will be solo star turns by some of Canada’s opera elite, either former members of the CCOC themselves, or parents of past or present choristers. (Regular choral scene columnist, Brian Chang spoke of this event and other highlights of the CCOC’s upcoming season in the previous iteration of this column, so I won’t go into more detail here.)

As for Mr. Chang, he is on brief hiatus from this column while, as all good tenors should, once in a while, he throws himself into supporting a candidate in one of the political leadership races that are as predictable a feature of the fall landscape as homecoming choral concerts featuring alumni as soloists, and occasionally even en masse, as will be the case with the CCOC gala October 26.)

Those of you who like your choral columns less prone to meandering will be relieved to know he is scheduled to return in November!  

Alumni

While on the topic of alumni, though, one might be tempted to argue that the number of alumni who can free themselves up to participate in a youth and/or children’s choir’s fall homecoming concert is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of them who have kept up their music. But this is to undervalue the strength of the ties that bind individuals to the ensembles in which they discovered for the first time the particular power of lending one’s voice to a common musical cause.

Two such concerts come to mind. Saturday October 21, the Toronto Children’s Chorus (Training Choirs, Choral Scholars, staff and a fistful of distinguished alumni will foray from home base at Calvin Presbyterian Church on Delisle Avenue to the visually and acoustically radiant environs of St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue for a 3pm concert titled “Autumn Radiance,” featuring Ryan Downey, tenor, Giles Tomkins, bass-baritone and Stan Klebanoff, trumpet. The choir is heading into its 40th season in 2018/19, so one would imagine that this will be the start of a concerted campaign to reach out to the thousands of individuals who honed their appetite for music-making under their auspices.

And a week earlier, on Friday October 13, a throng of St. Michael’s Choir School alumni will make pilgrimage (if it isn’t too strong a description) for a 7pm Founder’s Day Concert at the newly restored St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Bond Street. Note the placement of the apostrophe in “Founder’s” by the way. The event still honours the singular memory of Monsignor John Edward Ronan, who founded the Choir School in 1937.

According to the SMCS website, tradition has it that the day after the Founder’s Day concert, the SMCS Alumni Association comes together to “sing Mass as part of an alumni homecoming, followed by a reception and open mic night at which the alumni share their talents, and catch up with friends old and new.” With alumni like Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, opera stars Robert Pomakov and Michael Schade, and Kevin Hearn of the Bare Naked Ladies among their ranks, one would think that the mic would hardly be necessary!

Period Ensembles

All kind of patterns emerge when you use the Just Ask! search function in our online listings to look for music of a particular type instead of ploughing through acres of print. One pattern, among many that caught my eye going through this date range just for choral music, was the number of period choral ensembles among them.  

Oct 14 at 3pm Melos Choir and Period Instruments in Kingston presents “A Tea and Recital: Virtuosic Vocals 12th-18th Centuries” covering the evolution of western bel canto singing from the monastery to the Baroque opera house. And if I really hurry back I can boot it back to Toronto by 7.30pm in time to hear the Tallis Choir, under the direction of the ubiquitous Peter Mahon perform “Six Bach Motets” to kick off their 40th anniversary concert season. Or if I am running late, take in Opus 8’s “A Musical Bestiary” at 8pm, offering works from Monteverdi to Stockhausen. Moving on, Oct 28 and 29, U of T early music vocal ensemble, Schola Cantorum, with Baroque orchestra offers up a period treatment of Handel’s Messiah under the expert direction of Jeanne Lamon and Daniel Taylor, at Trinity College Chapel. Also on Oct 29 at 10:30am Royal York Road United Church celebrates the “500th Anniversary of the Reformation” with Bach’s Cantata No.79 “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” BWV79. And the same day at 3pm Toronto Chamber Choir offers up a program titledThe Architecture of Music (Kaffeemusik),” with works by Dufay, A. Gabrieli, Charpentier, Purcell, Telemann and others. Finally, Cor Unum Ensemble on November 4 and 5, also at Trinity College Chapel offers up polyphonic madrigals and “a string band of 16th-century Italy.”

The Big Choirs

And that, dear reader is no more than a flag on the tip of a choral iceberg growling its way towards us. Because, make no mistake, we are at the point when all of the region’s large choirs, professional and community alike, are gearing up for at least one serious undertaking before December’s seasonal frivolity sets in. October 21 Grand Philharmonic Choir offers “Big Choruses: From Brahms to Broadway.” Oct 29 Pax Christi Chorale’s new music director gets a first chance to show off the fruits of his new labours in a program titled “Romantic Masters” featuring Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, and a stellar array of soloists. Chorus Niagara (on November 4) and Orpheus Choir (on November 5), both under Robert Cooper’s direction, offer up “Last Light Above the World: A War Litany” featuring the premiere of a searing new work by that name. And the list goes on. (As I mentioned at the outset, perusing the listings I found myself with a good 25 to 30 concerts worth writing about, or better still, attending.) Check them out for yourself.

In my column last month I introduced two new Toronto initiatives, both barely launched in September, and both in their way aiming to address issues of interest to students, performers, presenters and audiences of globally sensitive music. So I’ll begin this month’s column by following up on these.

Polyphonic Ground

Polyphonic Ground, an umbrella organization of 12 live music presenters “committed to building and sustaining Toronto as a global music city” kicked off its first monthly concert at the Revival Bar on September 14.

On October 12 the series continues at the same venue, this time presented by two well-established local organizations. Batuki Music Society promotes African music and art, while Uma Nota Culture is a “cultural production house focusing on Brazilian, Latin, Caribbean, Funk and Soul music.” As in the first concert, these two organizations collaborate to present a program geared to spark transcultural musical discovery.

Three groups are featured in the concert. Matatu Express performs a highly dance-friendly blend of pan-African music genres including Ghanaian highlife and palm wine, Malagasy salegy and blues, and East African benga and rumba. West-African dancer Mabinty Sylla demonstrates how it is done back home.

Beny Esguerra & New Tradition serves up live hip hop, R&B and soul with Afro-Colombian percussion, a blend they evocatively dub “Afro-Native Colombian music from an inner city perspective via Jane-Finch, Tkaronto.” The third group, Future Primitive, presents what they have dubbed “tropical soul” with elements of Latin American and Caribbean, along with catchy bespoke songwriting.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario Launch

I was on hand for the September 15 Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario launch and fundraiser held at the 918 Bathurst Centre. The concert and reception had a warm, mixed-community feel. The buzzy excitement of the launch of a new venture hung in the air and was reflected in the music: there were four ample sets by various groups and individual musicians. They covered aspects of Persian, Southeastern European, Turkish/Kurdish and Middle Eastern musical ground.

The most unusual single item was the joint group performance of the tender lilting Kurdish wedding song Dar Hejiroke, bringing all the performers together onstage. For me this performance perhaps most clearly reflected LMWO’s mission, which includes the fostering of “detailed study of particular modal musical traditions and encounters between different traditions, encouraging intercultural understanding, artistic development and an appreciation of music as embracing all aspects of life.”

LMWO is a significant development on the Toronto music scene, one which not only connects with the transnational movement Ross Daley instituted in Greece, but also animates regional musical threads here in the GTA. LMWO’s website, www.labyrinthontario.com, is now fully operational. It’s worth a visit to see what workshops by leading modal music practitioners are planned for next May.

Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA)

Canadian Arabic OrchestraThe Festival of Arabic Music and Arts launches October 28 at Koerner Hall, then moves to various locations in the GTA and in Montréal until November 12. Its presenting organization is the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO) based in Toronto, co-founded by the husband-and-wife team of qanun expert and CAO president Wafa Al Zaghal, and pianist Lamees Audeh, its music director.

Not only is this the festival’s inaugural year, but it’s my first encounter with the CAO. Audeh filled me in on the backstory in a phone interview.

“Wafa and I formed our duo in 2009,” Audeh recounted. “Then in 2014 we formed an ensemble of five musicians: piano, Arabic violin, oud, qanun and tabla [aka. darabuka]. This group initially performed a repertoire of well-known classical songs drawn from across the Arabic world, both instrumental and vocal.”

Today the orchestra boasts a much larger complement including ney, oud, piano, clarinet, a string section of violins, viola, cello, bass and three percussionists. This instrumentation reflects the mission of the CAO to combine Western and Arabic classical musics.

“Our repertoire is evolving, along with the makeup of the orchestra,” noted Audeh. “The arrangements for our upcoming festival were prepared by me, Wafa, and composers and arrangers drawn from the orchestra and across the Arabic diaspora. Our approach puts less emphasis on [Arab] ethnicity and rather more on the [Arabic] music itself.

The first FAMA concert on October 28 at Koerner Hall brings Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai together with the Toronto instrumental group Sultans of String. Al-Madfai formed The Twisters, Iraq’s first rock and roll band, in 1961. His subsequent synthesis of Western guitar, popular song and Iraqi music has kept his popularity as a performer alive in his native country and throughout the Middle East. Led by Canadian violinist and music producer Chris McKhool, the multiple award-winning Sultans of String quintet presents audiences with a “genre-hopping passport.” Celtic reels, Manouche jazz, flamenco, South Asian ragas, and Cuban and Arabic folk music mix onstage, “all presented with pop sensibilities, forms and lengths,” notes McKhool.

October 29 FAMA presents “Jazzy Arabia” at the Maja Prentice Library, Mississauga. Five members of the Canadian Arabic Orchestra perform jazz standards reinterpreted through an Arabic musical lens, as well as Arabic songs rendered in a jazz idiom. The common ground here may well turn out to be the spirit of melodic improvisation and taqsim, which animates both jazz and Middle Eastern performance practices.

November 1 the festival takes a deeper, more mystical turn, when Syrian oud virtuosa and singer Waed Bouhassoun performs solo at the Revue Cinema, Toronto. In 2008 Bouhassoun – who has been performing onstage since she was 10 – received star billing at the inaugural concert of “Damascus, Cultural Capital of the Arab World” held at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, receiving extensive international media coverage. In 2010 she was awarded the Coup de Coeur by the Académie Charles-Cros for her first solo album.

Six more concerts in the first half of November round out FAMA’s first iteration. Please return to these pages next month to find out more about them.

Autorickshaw’s 15th Anniversary Season

Autorickshaw's Ed HanleyI’ve followed the Toronto band Autorickshaw’s career through its release of award-winning albums, concerts and international tours. This season marks its 15th anniversary, a good time to take stock and reflect on the changing landscape of global music and how it has developed for musicians and audiences alike.

By the time you read this, Autorickshaw will have already officially released its fifth studio album Meter on September 28 and 29 at Small World Music Centre. They will tour the album this fall in Southern Ontario and then in India, with a follow-up concert back in Toronto. I’ve had a quick listen to Meter’s 12 tracks. The music moves confidently between commissioned compositions, covers and many overt as well as covert references to the music of the subcontinent.

I spoke to founding band member Ed Hanley about Autorickshaw’s evolution, first asking about changes in the scene since the early 2000s.

“The music industry’s completely changed, of course,” he says. “For instance, our first CD wasn’t even on iTunes (though it was on Bandcamp). Our new release will be available on a number of online stores.”

Hanley directed the video of one of the songs on Meter, the polished Hare Shiva, recently published on YouTube. I was struck by the presence of the personal, the trans-musical genre references, the easy musicality of the Autorickshaw trio, as well as by the prominence of Odissi dance.

“That’s certainly another change from 15 years ago,” commented Hanley. “YouTube has become the main discovery platform for music, and you really need to have a music video now – though it is of course a major extra expense. I feel you need two types of videos now: live videos to show presenters and audiences what the music looks and sounds like in concert, and an ‘art video’ to serve as a companion piece to the album.”

Presenting music with roots on several continents often means having to explain the various constituent elements. “I feel we have to explain less about our music today,” said Hanley. “Speaking for myself, more people seem to know what a tabla is than during Autorickshaw’s early days. I get much less ‘is that bongos?’”

“When we started out we were aware of the world music category, specifically the Indo-Jazz sub-category we felt our music fit. Since then we’ve moved in many different musical directions, and the industry has also evolved. Musically speaking, today we don’t feel the need to be concerned with genre. We’re more comfortable in our musical skins now.”

I’ll be keeping tabs on Autorickshaw as they roll out their season and embark on their cross-India tour.

The fall theatre season in Toronto is usually overshadowed by TIFF, so most seasons launch after the end of that festival. One company that did start during the film festival in mid-September was Red Sky Performance, launching their 2017/18 slate of shows with the magical Miigis transforming the military colonial setting of Fort York into a site of myth and reconciliation. Red Sky is all over the city this year, it seems (as well as touring internationally), and, as such, is a perfect exemplar of two themes emerging from season announcements: the increased presence of Indigenous artists and companies on the Toronto scene on their own and in collaboration with other companies; and collaboration itself, which can be seen across the board in the arts scene.

On October 7, Red Sky partners with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to present, as part of Canada 150, the world premiere of Adizokan, a new genre-bending creation that explores an image-rich experience of Indigenous dance, video, music, electroacoustic and orchestral music. Next they collaborate with Canadian Stage to present the Toronto debut of Backbone (November 2 to 12), a cutting edge Indigenous dance creation noted for its masculine ferocity, inspired by the spine of the continents (originally co-commissioned with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity).

Canadian Stage

BackboneCollaboration is at the heart of the Canadian Stage season, a theme chosen to celebrate their 35th year and featuring a plethora of genre-bending creations from around the country, most involving music, and many choreographed movement, as integral ingredients. Their first production (before Backbone), as previewed in our September issue, is a collaboration with the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals: Life After, a newly expanded and developed version of the Toronto Fringe Festival musical hit by Britta Johnson, directed by Robert McQueen. Opening on September 29 and running until October 22, Life After is already generating a lot of buzz. Along with theatrical productions at the Bluma Appel and Berkeley Street Theatres there is also an intriguing wide-ranging music series which includes (in March) a bringing together of multi-award-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq with trailblazing Greenlandic mask dancer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in a concert event combining tour-de-force vocals, kinetic movement and powerful spoken word.

Buddies in Bad Times

Bathory also collaborates with Canadian poet, composer and performance artist Evalyn Parry for Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (October 24 to November 5) at Buddies in Bad Times, in a co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille as part of a new initiative between those two companies to share resources and introduce audiences to the work being done on other stages in Toronto. Both powerful storytellers, Parry and Bathory, who met on an Arctic expedition from Iqaluit to Greenland, will use music, movement and video as well as spoken word to map new territory together in a work that gives voice and body to the histories, culture and climate we’ve inherited, and asks how we reckon with “these sharp tools.”

Tarragon

Across the city, Tarragon Theatre has two musicals as part of its mainstage season: in January Richard Rose directs a new version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, reimagined through the powerful lens of rock ‘n’ roll with a score and music direction by Thomas Ryder Payne. Earlier, in November, Tarragon presents the Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic/Point View Art Association Production of Mr. Shi and His Lover, another show that began life at a festival, in this case the 2016 SummerWorks festival where it was an award-winning hit. Performed in English and Mandarin and with performers from Toronto and Macau, Mr. Shi and His Lover, written by Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie with music and music direction by Kie, tells the real-life story of a French diplomat in China who falls in love with a mysterious opera singer. With music inspired by Chinese opera and vintage pop from both East and West, the show will be performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.

(Kie, who is also the long-serving music director of Montreal’s La La La Human Steps, also collaborates with Canadian Stage toward the end of their season [April 26 to May 6], introducing the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project in their Toronto debut with the hybrid musical performance Picnic in the Cemetery.)

Soulpepper

Almost cheek by jowl with Canadian Stage downtown, Soulpepper presents a more traditional season but again, music plays an important part, with the blues-infused Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the spring. Soulpepper’s expanded concert series also begins in October with Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene (October 6 to 14), bringing to life the 1964 launching pad of Canadian singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Murray McLauchlan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Mike Ross will music-direct a lineup of multi-disciplinary artists as they celebrate the stories and songs that made Yorkville the place to be in the free-loving 60s. The series also includes A Very Soulpepper Christmas (December 15), Prohibition, the Concert (February 9, 10, 14) and A Moveable Feast; Paris in the 20s (March 30 to April 2). Created by Albert Schultz, with overall music direction by Mike Ross, the scripted concert series has a lively energy marked by its collaborative nature and its bringing together of different Toronto artists and musicians for each event.

Soundstreams

Michael Greyeyes - photo by Jeremy MimnaghDowntown and uptown, venue depending on the type of event, is Toronto’s eclectic and experimental yet classical Soundstreams, where music combines with dance and theatre in ever-evolving combinations.

Soundstreams’ 35th season opens very strongly with two productions in October. On October 16 at Koerner Hall, Northern Encounters celebrates Canada 150 and Finland at 100 with Europe’s northernmost professional orchestra, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, performing music by Jean Sibelius, Harry Somers and Claude Vivier and, most interestingly for me, includes a new dance piece by powerhouse Canadian choreographer Michael Greyeyes to Vivier’s Zipangu exploring the idea of “the city of gold.”

A bit later in the month (October 26 to November 4) at Crows Theatre’s new permanent space (at 345 Carlaw) Soundstreams collaborates with Crows’ artistic director Chris Abraham (whose production of Moliere’s Tartuffe is currently electrifying and delighting audiences at the Stratford Festival) on the world premiere of the first staged production of Claude Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

The wonderful Soundstreams Salon 21 series has also begun and continues throughout the season, offering audiences the opportunity to meet artists involved in upcoming events and to explore the inspiration behind those events, usually in the intimate setting of the Gardiner Museum. The Salon on October 19 (at Crows Theatre), “Endings: Lieke van der Voort and Jumblies Theatre,” will feature a special rapid-creation performance inspired by Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

Quick Picks

Sept 22 to Oct 7: Hart House Theatre pushes the boundaries with what should be a strong production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s rock ‘n’ roll Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (WARNING: Coarse language, mature themes and sexually explicit scenes.)

Oct 24 to Dec 24: For fans of Meatloaf, David Mirvish presents the North American premiere of Brian Steinman’s Bat out of Hell The Musical at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. A critical and popular hit already in England, the run here has quickly been extended to December 24.

October 20 and 21: Catch one of Toronto Masque Theatre’s iconic double bills in TMT’s final year: Dido and Aeneas/Aeneas and Dido, pairing Purcell’s classic with James Rolfe’s contemporary take on the same tale, starring Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley. At Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

October 28 and 29: Gilbert and Sullivan fans might want to catch TrypTych’s production H.M.S. Parliament  at Trinity Presbyterian Church West Hall, 2737 Bayview Ave. With a script by Canadian William Henry Miller and music by Arthur Sullivan, it’s an intriguing music-theatre piece featuring eminent Canadian figures Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

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