The dictionary defines a conflagration as an extensive fire that destroys a great deal of land or property. (The recent Notre Dame fire in Paris on April 15 can be considered such an event.) It is also the very word that the beloved Toronto-born poet and novelist Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) used, metaphorically, to describe Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer who brought us alternating current (AC) – the electricity system we use every day. In the last paragraph of the opening section of Tesla, MacEwen’s verse-play for radio, she states: “He set the entire earth in electrical vibration with a generator that spouted lightning that rivalled the fiery artillery of the heavens….Tesla was a conflagration.”

Gwendolyn MacEwenTesla was one of two MacEwen verse-plays that were commissioned by and broadcast on CBC’s Anthology program in the early to mid-1960s. The Tesla piece explores Tesla’s achievements and his AC current that was used in the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, the first of its kind. It also covers the highly controversial “War of Currents” he was engaged in with Edison and his direct-current (DC) system to determine which system would power the world. Tesla won. The second was Terror and Erebus, the names of the two ships used in the Franklin expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Franklin’s Arctic expedition, had a less auspicious outcome: the two ships became icebound for three years, and despite several attempts to find them, the entire crew eventually died. Only the Inuit knew where they were.

Eugene MartynecTIO at Array: May 26 at the Array Space, the Toronto Improvisers Orchestra (TIO) will present a performance of both of these radio verse-plays, featuring actors Rod Campbell and Randi Helmers with an original score by composer Eugene Martynec for the Tesla piece, in an event that promises to be something of a conflagration of mixed art forms. Using the wireless technology that Tesla himself foresaw, I had a Skype conversation with TIO members Martynec and Campbell to hear more about the TIO in general and about this upcoming performance which is part of a series of events that the TIO has initiated to celebrate great artists and improvisers from Toronto.

The orchestra itself is the inspiration of Martynec who started it up about seven years ago after returning from a three-year stay in London UK where he played several times with the well-seasoned London Improvisers Orchestra. One of the hallmarks of that ensemble is the use of conduction cues, a series of hand signals used by a conductor to guide the musicians through an improvisational performance. These were originally designed by American cornet player and composer Butch Morris and have become a standard system used by many improvising ensembles in Europe and North America.

Currently, the TIO performs twice a month – at the Tranzac Club and the Array Space – and is a very musician-centric ensemble. These gatherings consist of a one-hour rehearsal beforehand to warm up and go over the cues, and then the actual improvisational performance begins. “The hand signals are there to help us out, not to tell people what to do” Martynec explains. The basic guidelines are that players are asked not to play in their usual genre (jazz, classical, blues, etc), melodies are to be atonal only and extended techniques on one’s instrument are highly encouraged.

Toronto Improvisers Orchestra at Array Space with Christine Duncan and the Element ChoirListening is key to making the music work, and for improvisers this includes not playing too much or louder than everyone else, enhancing what is happening, and knowing when to stop. Sometimes doing nothing at all can be the most appropriate contribution to the whole. There is a core of about six to eight players; for special events, such as this one in May, the orchestra grows to about 18 players. Instrumentation varies according to who participates, but usually consists of trumpet, piano, classical guitar, zheng (Chinese zither), flute, banjo, soprano sax, electric guitar and Martynec’s unique and custom-made laptop instrument that emulates an old Atari computer. He has designed several digitally based instruments that can be accessed through different types of controllers and mouse gestures.

For the Tesla piece, as I mentioned above, Martynec has created a score, which may seem contradictory for an improvisational ensemble. Martynec, though, describes the score as “a series of cues that are constrained improvisations.” Campbell will be conducting it and although the musicians will have seen the score before arriving, they will not have read the radio scripts and so it will truly be an improvisatory interaction. One aspect Martynec wants to include is the electronic sounds created when one unplugs a guitar from an amplifier, for example. These sounds are at 60 Hz, the frequency of alternating current (AC) and he is also requesting players tune to 60 HZ if possible, which is between B flat and B. The plan is to create a drone-like effect at one point during the Tesla performance. There will be no score for Terror and Erebus, and players will be asked to be ready to play sounds that reflect the ideas of ice and the North. Of course for Tesla, other encouraged sounds will be electronic and crackling in nature. Interestingly, in the original CBC production of Tesla, MacEwen had an instruction in the script that stated: “Wherever sound effects are indicated in the play, I have assumed these would be electronic. Oskar Sala’s Five Improvisations on Magnetic Tape would be an ideal record, although not necessarily the sole possibility.” Apparently, that’s not what was used in the end, and Campbell said when he listened to the archival recording, there were a lot of oscillator-like sounds used.

To conclude our conversation, I asked both Campbell and Martynec why they are drawn to improvisation. Campbell said he enjoys both listening to and playing improvised music and feels it is a natural thing for musicians to want to engage in. He is particularly curious about where it can go and especially those occasions when everyone stops at the same moment. “How did that happen?” they both exclaimed in chorus. Martynec enjoys the conversation that occurs along with the surprises, and due to the nature of his digital instrument, it’s the only situation he can play in, he said. They also both spoke about how sometimes things can go wrong, but that’s okay because it’s improvised music. For example, Campbell said, “The conductor can give a cue to a player, and then it goes somewhere different. It’s not wrong but different enough that everyone will then switch to accompany that person. It takes its own direction and eventually things work out.”

No doubt there will be plenty of surprises, and alternating currents, taking place during the performance of these two legendary radio verse-plays by MacEwen, whom author Michael Ondaatje referred to as “the last great bardic poet” since all her readings were done by memory.


MAY 2, 8PM: Spectrum Music presents Coding Chaos with compositions inspired by the Creator archetype, with a pre-concert chat with software artist Ryan Kelln at 7:30. New compositions exploring artificial intelligence and a deeper look into the digital world by Spectrum composers Mason Victoria, Chelsea McBride, Jackson Welchner, Suzy Wilde with guest composers Nebyu Yohannes and Harrison Argatoff.

MAY 3, 8PM: The Music Gallery. In this final Emergents concert of the season, the experimental music theatre group Din of Shadows will present their newest project Material Mythology with a team of performers, composers, dancers and visual artists. The piece speculates about the hidden meanings and mythologies behind everyday actions, objects and spaces.

MAY 9, 12PM: Canadian Opera Company presents “Between Sound and Silence,” in their chamber music series, featuring Movement by German composer Helmut Lachenmann. Performed by the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble directed by Brian Current. Free.

MAY 10, 7:30PM: Upper Canada Choristers mark their 25th anniversary with the world premiere of Teasdale Love Songs by Canadian composer Stephen Chatman, a song cycle in six movements set to the poetry of Sara Teasdale. The evening includes Five Hebrew Love Songs by American composer Eric Whitacre and performances by the Cantemos Latin Ensemble performing the music of Venezuelan composer César Alejandro Carrillo.

Maxime Corbeil-PerronMAY 10, 8PM: Continuum Contemporary Music presents “RADIOfänik” filled with music from various new genres including Sub-Club Drone, Indie Crossover and Gen-X Jams. Canadian works on the program include a new commission by Maxime Corbeil-Perron, two by Nicole Lizée including the world premiere of her Marsh Chapel Experiment and Doubt Is a Distance by James O’Callaghan. Pieces by Israeli composer Yair Klartag, Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen and Polish composer Jagoda Szmytka complete the program. The Continuum Ensemble will be joined by Rob MacDonald on electric guitar.

MAY 26, 8PM: New Music Concerts presents “Iridescence,” their last concert of the season, featuring works by three Canadian composers: Matthias McIntire’s Cathedral Grove (and the Gray Jay) for solo violin with electronics; Samuel Andreyev’s Iridescent Notation for soprano and ensemble; and Ana Sokolović’s Evta for solo violin and ensemble. Violin soloists Matthias McIntire and Andréa Tyniec will join the New Music Concerts Ensemble directed by Robert Aitken.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

Founded in 1994 by pianist Janina Fialkowska, Piano Six and Piano Plus brought live classical music events – mostly solo performers – to under-serviced parts of Canada until 2010. Over a period of 16 years, Fialkowska’s efforts reached over 100,000 people directly – and tens of thousands indirectly – through over 430 events across Canada. In addition to Fialkowska, the other original members of the powerhouse ensemble were Angela Cheng, Marc-André Hamelin, Angela Hewitt, André Laplante and Jon Kimura Parker.

At each destination, a musician would collaborate with local presenters, schools and volunteers to provide multiple experiences directly with audiences, through concerts, workshops, masterclasses and Q&A sessions.

The initiative was launched in February 1995 with concerts in Toronto (broadcast on CBC) and Quebec City. Although the program concentrated on individual rather than ensemble visits, the pianists occasionally appeared together – at the Festival international de Lanaudière in 1999 and the 2000 Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, for example.

Daniel Wnukowski. Photo by Claudia ZadoryIn 2017, pianist Daniel Wnukowski resurrected the original Piano Six model and relaunched it as Piano Six – New Generation. The new ensemble consists of Marika Bournaki, David Jalbert, Angela Park, Ian Parker and Anastasia Rizikov. Using many technological advances including web 2.0, social media and video streaming, Wnukowski has shifted the model to focus on the next generation of Canadians, especially post-millennials. Five colleagues joined the board having only met via Skype and Facetime.

Piano Six – New Generation will begin its first season of touring this month, starting with Wnukowski visiting Rainy River and Fort Frances in Ontario on May 6 and 8 respectively, and Fort Nelson BC on May 9 and 10, in a program he calls Piano through the Ages (Handel, Mozart, Chopin and Morawetz). Park and her program, Scenes from Nature (Chopin, Ravel, Burge, Beethoven, Lizst and Debussy), travel to Fort St. John BC (May 13 and 14) and Slave Lake in Alberta (May 16 and 17).

Then, on May 25, Bravo Niagara! will present a special Piano Six Gala Concert at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake featuring Bournaki, Jalbert, Park, Parker, Wnukowski and special guest Godwin Friesen.

Wnukowski told me that the goal of the gala concert is “to leave audiences awed and inspired by the solo, four and six hands repertoire – with performances that range from scintillating to formidable. We are aiming through the May 25th concert to generate awareness about our cross-Canada tours and to garner enthusiasm and support for next year’s tour,” he said.

“The idea behind this particular concert program is to showcase the individual personalities of each pianist. First, we commissioned jazz composer Darren Sigesmund to write a short work involving all six pianists,” he said. “And each pianist was then asked to submit a short solo piece as well as suggestions for four-hand/two-piano repertoire.”

To Wnukowski’s surprise, every pianist submitted a French work as their choice of a solo work! Bournaki submitted Poulenc’s Trois novelettes; Jalbert chose Fauré’s Nocturne No.6; Park picked Ravel’s Miroirs No.3, Une barque sur l’ocean; and Friesen selected Debussy’s Clair de lune. “This was an interesting coincidence,” Wnukowski said, “as the harmonic progressions of Impressionism have long been considered a catalyst to the development of the jazz idiom.” Ian Parker and Wnukowski also decided to jump onto the jazz bandwagon and contributed several jazz works to provide the program with better form. [Parker chose Gershwin’s Three Preludes and Wnukowski picked Bill Evans’ sublime Peace Piece; together they will play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for their four-hands/two-piano selection.]

The French/Jazz theme has at this point taken on a life of its own, “offering a fine balance between bombastic and artful, introspective” Wnukowski said. “The program ends on a whirling tone with ecstatic, two-piano arrangements of Bernstein’s West Side Story, followed by Darren Sigesmund’s commissioned work for 12 hands on two pianos. We spend a great deal of time curating our programs in order to immerse our audiences in an extrasensory experience,” he adds, “providing commentaries between pieces, pulling the music apart and suggesting why certain components generate specific emotional responses within listeners.”

For Wnukowski, having the concert in the Niagara region is extremely meaningful; he spent his early childhood in Niagara Falls where his mother owned a children’s clothing shop. “There is a great deal of sentiment for me in having the first Piano Six Gala Concert where my most precious childhood memories were formed,” he said.

The Montreal Chamber Music Festival: Ludwig van Beethoven was born mid-December of 1770, likely on December 15 or 16 – his baptism was recorded as December 17 – so 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth. Beethoven’s music is always in the air, but there have been serious rumblings of ambitious celebrations to come in recent weeks, in programming by the TSO and Mooredale Concerts. So too the recent announcement that the Montreal Chamber Music Festival’s 24th anniversary season – June 7 to 16, 2019 – will be the first of a three-year project to celebrate Beethoven, with the master composer’s 250th birthday coinciding with the Festival’s 25th anniversary. “Unlike any programming Montreal has ever heard,” according to founder and artistic director Denis Brott, each of the 2019, 2020 and 2021 “Beethoven Chez Nous!” festivals will feature “significant cycles of complete works by Beethoven. Not only is Beethoven perhaps the greatest classical composer of all time, he also wrote the most chamber music, perfected the string quartet form, and single-handedly transitioned classical music from the classical to the Romantic era.”

Two complete surveys highlight the 2019 program: 2019 Grammy Award-winner James Ehnes, with longtime pianistic partner Andrew Armstrong, will perform Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano over three evenings (June 13 to 15). Gramophone magazine, in an Editor’s Choice review, called the duo’s recording of Sonatas 6 & 9 for Onyx Classics “a compelling addition to Ehnes and Armstrong’s remarkable discography.” And in an even more ambitious programming stroke, the Festival will present Franz Liszt’s astonishing transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies over a span of five late-afternoon concerts at Salle Bourgie (June 11 to 15). Among the most technically demanding piano music ever written, Liszt’s remarkable reproductions will be performed by six pianists including Alexander Ullman, First Prize winner of the 2017 Liszt International Piano Competition (Symphonies 1 & 3); Vancouver’s Jocelyn Lai (Symphonies 2 & 6); Juilliard alumnus Carlos Avila (Symphonies 8 & 7); Conservatoire de musique de Montréal faculty member, Richard Raymond (Symphonies 4 & 5); and the virtuosic David Jalbert and Wonny Song (artistic director of Orford Music and Mooredale Concerts) in a two-piano version of the Ninth Symphony. The 5pm concerts include a complimentary glass of wine!

Cameron Crozman. Photo by Nikolaj LundAnother festival highlight: a new series of five free noon-hour concerts (June 11 to 15 at Salle Bourgie) spotlights emerging artists under 30: pianist Alexander Ullman; cellists Cameron Crozman and Bruno Tobon; and violinists Christina Bouey, Byungchan Lee and Emmanuel Vukovich. Tobon opens the series with a program devoted to cello duets (artistic director Denis Brott is the other cellist); British pianist Ullman’s June 12 hour includes late Liszt and two dynamic suites (Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker arranged by Pletnev; Stravinsky’s The Firebird); Lee’s program on June 13 moves from Bach to Kreisler to Prokofiev, and Ryan to Hermann in music for a combination of violinists including Martin Beaver, Heemin Choi and Amy Hillis; the June 14 concert headlined by Bouey and Vukovich also features violinists Hillis and Carissa Klopoushak and cellist Crozman in music by Ysaÿe, Honegger and Ernst’s Last Rose of Summer; Crozman and violinist Lee bring their solo and collaborative skills to the June 15 program which ranges from Bach to Ysaÿe and Casado to Glière and Handel-Halvorsen.

Eager to get a start on the summer festival season? There are plenty of reasons to start in June as spring winds down. Beethoven Chez Nous beckons.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra: The TSO’s season intensifies this month as the 2018/2019 season moves toward June and the next visit of music director-elect, Gustavo Gimeno. On the heels of Kerem Hasan’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” the TSO turns to another English guest conductor, 33-year-old Nicholas Collon, to lead the orchestra May 11 and 12 in Beethoven’s fateful icon, the kinetic Symphony No.5. Born in London, Collon trained as a violist, pianist and organist, and studied as Organ Scholar at Clare College, Cambridge. He is founder and principal conductor of the groundbreaking Aurora Orchestra, chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Residentie Orkest in The Hague, and principal guest conductor of the Guerzenich Orchester in Cologne. Israeli-born, New York resident and Juilliard grad, 43-year-old Shai Wosner is the soloist in Mozart’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No.21 K467.

A month after their stirring performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 “Resurrection,” under guest conductor Matthew Halls, on May 15 and 16, the TSO takes on the composer’s Symphony No.7, a work of contrasting moods, from darkness to light, an orchestral chiaroscuro, under the baton of interim artistic director, Sir Andrew Davis. The elegant Louis Lortie is the soloist in Franck’s exuberant Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. A week later, May 24 and 25, Lortie and Davis return with a program of showpieces – Rossini’s familiar Overture to William Tell, Saint-Saëns’ late-Romantic masterwork, Piano Concerto No.4 and Respighi’s electric crowd pleaser, Pines of Rome.

Jeremy DenkKnown for what The New York Times calls “his penetrating intellectual engagement,” pianist Jeremy Denk, winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, has concocted an all-Mozart program which he will lead on May 29, May 30 and June 1. Included are the Piano Concerto No.14 (generally considered the first of the composer’s mature works in that genre) and the magisterial Piano Concerto No. 25 (separated in the evening by the darkly melancholic and ethereally beautiful Rondo for Solo Piano K511).

Karl-Heinz Steffens. Photo by Michael BodeFormerly principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic, German-born conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens makes his TSO debut, June 5, 6 and 8, in Brahms’ inspired Symphony No.4. Earlier in the evening he and the orchestra are joined by Jan Lisiecki, the rapidly rising former wunderkind, in Mendelssohn’s infectious Piano Concerto No.1 (a version of which you can find on Lisiecki’s most recent Deutsche Grammophon CD).


MAY 11, 7:30PM: The Georgian Bay Symphony and TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow perform Sibelius’ lush Violin Concerto at the Regional Auditorium in Owen Sound.

MAY 11, 7:30PM: Gemma New leads the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No.5. According to Sir Simon Rattle: “Of all Mahler’s symphonies, this is the one most rooted in Viennese rhythms. This makes it much tougher to play. You don’t play what you see in the score. You have to play what it means.”

MAY 12, 1PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts presents pianist Jamie Parker, hornist Brian Mangrum and violinist Boson Mo in a sparkling program that ranges from solo piano (a Debussy Book Two Prélude and Brahms’ quintessentially Romantic Intermezzo Op.118, No.2), piano and horn (Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op.70) piano and violin (Franck’s glorious Sonata in A Major) to all three instruments (Brahms Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat Major). Stratus Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

MAY 12, 2PM AND MAY 13, 7:30PM: Canzona Chamber Players present Richard Strauss’ early Serenade Op.7 for 13 Winds and Mozart’s great Serenade K361 “Gran Partita.”

MAY 12, 5PM: Nocturnes in the City presents Montreal-based Duo Ventapane (Martin Karlicek, piano, ManaShiharshi, violin) in works by Martinú, Janáček, Dvořák and others at St. Wenceslaus Church, 496 Gladstone Ave.

MAY 21, 12PM: COC presents pianist Stéphane Mayer playing Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Free.

MAY 24 AND MAY 25, 8PM: Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society presents cellist Cameron Crozman and pianist Philip Chiu performing music by Bach, Debussy, Françaix and Mendelssohn on May 24. The following evening, Jeffery Concerts presents the same program at Wolf Performance Hall, London.

MAY 25, 8PM: Gallery 345 presents James Giles in an ambitious program in their Art of the Piano series. Giles, who is based at Northwestern University in Chicago, follows a selection of Brahms’ Waltzes Op.39 and Schubert’s final sonata (D960) with miniatures from the piano’s golden age by Godowsky, Levitski, Rosenthal, Friedman and Paderewski.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Toronto’s music theatre scene in April was notable for two plays which had music playing a thematically essential role, as I previewed in my last column.

Under the Stairs at Young People’s Theatre was a fun, theatrically imaginative tale of children sorting out the world in which the characters in the “real world” all sang, and those hiding “under the stairs” spoke, though often in a mix of prose and poetic language. What became very interesting was when the characters overlapped, particularly at the end when the children who have been hiding emerge to reunite the family, even taking in a stray “lost boy” in a subconscious tribute to Peter Pan.

In Lorena Gale’s Angélique, music played a different role, underlying and accenting almost the entirety of the action with a spare but thematically attuned percussion score composed and played by acclaimed ensemble Sixtrum. The play is shockingly relevant and revelatory. I had no idea previously that there was legal slavery in Quebec in 1734; and the horrors of that reality, and its seemingly acceptable entrenchment in society, were powerfully shown in director Mike Payette’s staging. There are several scenes where the music truly took centre stage: the vigorous washing of the sheets, and the wonderful dance scene where the rather rigid Quebecois step dancing is juxtaposed with the more sinuous and supple African dancing of Angélique also pointed to the fact that this would be great material for a serious musical or operatic adaptation.

The Brothers Size

This month another play that uses music as an integral storytelling tool is The Brothers Size, the second in a trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer of the unpublished semi-autobiographical play that Barry Jenkins transformed into the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.

Set in the Deep South of Louisiana this is an explosive contemporary story of the return from prison of the fun-loving Oshoosi to live with his serious older brother Ogun (named for the Yoruba god of hard work), but it is also a poetic tale interwoven and imbued with the power of African Yoruba mythology and music. As Oshoosi’s former prison mate Eregba (named for the Yoruba trickster god) arrives to turn their lives upside down, the play interweaves the dreaming and waking lives of these three “brothers” using music as the medium of transfer and emotion. Masterminding the music for this production as composer and onstage percussionist is Waleed Abdulhamid, who praises the three-man cast for being really strong singers and inspiring him to experiment with harmonies and arrangements for the vocal music. Drawing on both his youth in Sudan and an award-winning career in Canadian theatre and film, Abdulhamid describes the music he is creating as a “melting of the worlds” of North America and Africa, incorporating influences from the blues to Yoruba, from the songs of Nigeria to those of Harlem and Mississippi.

FAWN’s Pandora

Also coming up in May is Pandora, a new opera/ballet created by indie company FAWN, inspired by the Greek myth of the girl who unleashes all the evils into the world from a sealed jar (or box) that has been entrusted to her, only closing it in time to keep hope inside.

Intrigued about FAWN and their new take on this classic tale, I contacted the creative team – founding artistic director and stage director of Pandora, Amanda Smith, choreographer and dancer Jennifer Nichols, and librettist David James Brock – to learn more.

Amanda Smith, FAWN’s founding artistic director and resident stage director. Photo by Dahlia KatzWN: FAWN is a relatively new company on the opera/music theatre scene. Can you tell me about why you founded FAWN and what your goals with the company are? 

AS: I founded FAWN because I wanted to be able to create the kind of work I specifically was interested in and in the way I was interested in creating it. Of course, these interests have changed over time as FAWN has grown to include new company members and collaborators. We’ve been active in the new music and indie opera scene for about six years.

Where did the name FAWN come from, and how does it fit with your company mandate?

AS: I always wanted the company to be about developing new content and investigating the possibilities of what the new classical music sound can be in Canada. I loved the idea of a fawn being born, testing its environment, exploring and eventually growing to be a beautiful animal. To get there, it requires nurturing, and the same can be said about the creative process.

How did the new Pandora project come about?

AS: Three years ago, FAWN put out an open call for submissions, from which we selected the works of six composers for a performance in our Synesthesia series that was intending to bring together music and movement. With these works, I created a narrative path for choreographer Jennifer Nichols and I to develop into a dance-theatre piece. Since FAWN has a rather different audience, including a lot of young people and those who don’t typically patronize opera and classical music, I wanted to give them the opportunity to have input. So, at the Synesthesia performance, we asked our audience to select the three composers featured in the show that they most wanted us to work with, and they chose Joseph Glaser, Kit Soden and David Storen. Our three selected composers were then asked to write a 20-minute opera-ballet that we would then produce, and to participate in a one-week devised creation workshop with our team to provide them with the seeds of inspiration for their work. We workshopped the music last summer and it was decided by the team that we would like them to be presented as one piece, thus allowing it to be one experience for the audience. To accomplish this, the composers and our librettist, David James Brock, created a through-line between all three pieces, which I think has been very effective.

Pandora librettist David James BrockJennifer and David, what it is like working with Amanda and FAWN? How is it the same or different from other projects or companies you have worked with? 

JN: The experiences I’ve had working with FAWN have emphasized a fully collaborative approach to new work, with all artistic contributors sharing ideas from the beginning of the process, rather than inserting their work into an already formed production structure. There are benefits to a variety of different processes, but I find this allows for growth that is organic, rather than pre-conceived. The work takes shape via the contribution of all, and is guided along the way by Amanda. It makes for a very balanced work.

In the very first stage of this process, Synesthesia IV, I also worked very closely with Amanda in the studio, just the two of us. We dissected and discussed all of the movement as it was created, a director and choreographer working intimately together as the work took shape.

I’m very excited to apply a similar approach to working with David on Pandora. He and I first worked together on the Canadian Art Song Project’s staged production of Sewing the Earthworm.

DJB: FAWN is asking some pretty big questions about what it means to create new opera. What stories are we telling? Who is telling them? And how can something as labour-intensive as opera be developed and performed in a way that maybe opens things up a bit? Amanda’s organic connection with artists and artistic forms that aren’t often part of opera (I’m particularly thinking of her connection to electronic music) has really opened up the possibility of not just how opera is made, but who it’s made for.

Can you talk about the specific development of Pandora for each of you and how your part of the creative process overlapped with the other members of the creative team? 

JN: As I write this, I am still in the beginning stages of my biggest creative process, movement-wise. The next month in studio will be where the choreography takes shape; however, the conceptual and research process began over a year ago in our devised workshop. There was a great deal of table discussion, improvisation and workshopping with an invited audience which informed the composition and libretti and choreographic structure. My job now is to flesh out the layers of movement that support both of these and focus on character development.

DJB: When I first met everyone there wasn’t a story, yet. We would find it together. But once we all got together in a room, and I think this goes for any new creative relationship, we had to learn each other’s approach (or unlearn whatever approaches we might have come in with). Informed by that first week of exploring ideas, I went away and started writing a piece with each composer. About a year later, when we needed to find a vehicle to carry them all, I added the Pandora framing with interlude text (which the composers then also set). It was really important that even though this was being created with three composers, that this became one show written by the four of us: Pandora.

As you move into the final stage of rehearsals for the performances in May, is there any more you can tell me about how each of the different elements: music, libretto and dance, come together to tell your new take on the classical story of Pandora?

DJB: Pandora, the mythical character, often gets a raw deal – I mean being blamed for all the world’s evils is a lot to lay on one woman. I liked the idea that we could take some of the heat off her and share some of the blame. So, in this retelling, though Pandora exists, we have this new character written specifically for tenor Jonathan MacArthur who also opens the jar (as we all probably would have) and is subjected to the myriad things that escape. Without giving away too much, things don’t go so well for him.

JN: I think our interpretation of the classical story of Pandora is such that not only is she not entirely to blame for “releasing and bringing into existence the evils of the world,” she is actually the presence that subsequently ensures a balance of hope and despair. She is vulnerable yet strong, and perhaps her damned curiosity is representative of mankind’s curiosity in general. Music, text and choreography come together to impose limits on her through separate, unique narratives, yet her presence is consistent and timeless. In mythology, Pandora is known as the first “human woman” (and the one who just couldn’t resist…). Our extrapolation of the story makes her timeless and far more complex than mischievous. And of course Jonathan’s character shares this onus.

It’s always been incredibly important to me as a choreographer to place as much emphasis and attention on the text as the score (if there is accompanying text) and when working with a writer like David, I have to ask myself some big questions. It’s not about simply layering aesthetically pleasing or interesting movement onto the libretto. The text drives the motivation of the choreography and the music shapes it.

DJB: Unique to Pandora’s creation for me was that dance was much more up front for me than it has ever been, and it really does inspire much of the text (and subsequently the scores). I knew Jennifer Nichols was going to be a part of this, both as choreographer and dancer, so I wrote very much with her in mind. Jennifer truly understands and cares about the words, and in writing something I knew she’d be a part of, I tried to create Pandora’s dramatic beats so that they’d demand (and in some cases, restrict) movement. So it was important to me in Pandora that Jennifer was a character integral to the stories, not something “added” later, or a reflection of an emotion, or simply part of the spectacle. Each of the composers was onboard with this, so you’ll see that in each of the pieces, filtered through each of their unique musical sensibilities. Though my part in the creation is largely done, I am excited to see how Amanda and Jennifer interpret the movement written into the scenes.

Pandora plays at Geary Lane (360 Geary Avenue) May 23 to 25. 


ONGOING TO MAY 5: Mirvish. Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King . Runs to May 5. An unexpectedly practically perfect biographical jukebox musical full of songs you didn’t know you knew. Canadian star Chilina Kennedy glows and delights as Carole King. Catch it while you can!

ONGOING TO MAY 19: Mirvish/Musical Stage Company. Next to Normal. Ma-Anne Dionisio and Louise Pitre lead a strong cast directed by award-winning Philip Akin, in this timely musical.

MAY 4, 3PM AND 7:30PM: The Canadian Music Theatre Project presents, an Off-Sheridan staged reading of Stars of Mars. Theatre Passe Muraille. A new musical comedy by Canadians Daniel Abrahamson and Ashley Botting, set inside the first human colony on Mars, about a mother and daughter who are worlds apart.

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

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème continues to May 22 and its production of Verdi’s Otello to May 21. Yet, May is not simply devoted to revivals of standard repertory. The month also sees the premiere of a brand new Canadian opera from Tapestry Opera and the revival of two operas by American composer Dominick Argento who died on February 20 this year.

Neville Marriner (left) and Dominick ArgentoArgento wrote works in many genres but is best known for his operas, of which he wrote 13, and his dramatic song cycles that he termed “monodramas.” His best known operas are Postcard from Morocco (1971), Miss Havisham’s Fire (1977, rev. 1995) and The Aspern Papers (1988). Postcard from Morocco was last staged in Toronto by the University of Toronto Opera Division in 2015, but Argento’s other works have seldom been seen or heard in Ontario. 

Opera by Request, Toronto’s opera-in-concert company where the singers choose the repertoire, will be presenting a double-bill of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (1981) and one of Argento’s monodramas, A Water Bird Talk (1977). Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night focuses on the famous character in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations (1861) who was jilted on her wedding night and now, 50 years later, still replays the events in her mind. It is a prequel to another opera by Argento about the same character in Miss Havisham’s Fire. A Water Bird Talk is inspired by Chekhov’s one-person play On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco (1886). In Argento the gentleman lecturer does not deliver a talk about tobacco but about water birds, yet as in Chekhov’s play, the lecturer can’t refrain from mentioning illustrative points drawn from his private life.

The singer behind the selection of OBR’s double bill is soprano Brianna DeSantis. In April DeSantis provided me with a detailed account of how she was drawn to these works and how they function as a double bill. She writes: “I came across Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night when looking for a piece for my opera literature class. Being an avid reader, I first went to opera adaptations of literature. I came across Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire and Wedding Night and saw that we had a copy of the score and CD in the library at Western. I took a listen and loved it. I read Great Expectations as a child and was always attracted to Miss Havisham’s character – why was she like that? Argento’s work gives us a glimpse into her psyche.

“I decided to perform a small excerpt of the monodrama in a recital and loved it so much that I thought I should learn the whole piece one day. I believe we [Shookhoff and I] met sometime about a year ago and discussed doing Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night with Opera by Request. We thought of programming it with its frequently paired piece, Argento’sWater Bird Talk, because they both discuss the ins and outs of relationships, specifically, marriages.

“Since then, we have found ourselves a baritone [Parker Clement] to sing the role of the Lecturer, and I will be singing Miss Havisham. This project is special because it shines a light on gender disparity in madness, specifically in Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night, which is basically one long mad scene written in the vein of Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera provides a commentary on madness during the 19th century, where madness was often viewed as the irrational ‘female’ reaction to the rationality of the ‘male.’ We seek to highlight this gender disparity and offer a different perspective on what madness involves – that way the audience can decide. While the music may be unfamiliar, the message the operas seek to send is one that will resonate with many.”

The double bill, titled “Til Death Do Us Part? – A Dominick Argento Commemoration,” will have one performance in Toronto on May 3 at the College St. United Church with William Shookhoff as pianist and music director and Claire Harris on keyboard. The program will then be repeated in Windsor on May 4 at the Paulin Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Shanawdithit: A commemoration of another sort is the purpose behind Tapestry Opera’s second new opera of the season after its highly popular presentation of Hook Up by Chris Thornborrow earlier this year. This is the world premiere of Shanawdithit by Newfoundland composer Dean Burry to a libretto by Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan. Its title is the name of a woman (1801-29) encountered by a white settler William Cormack in 1829 in Newfoundland and thought to be the last member of the Beothuk Nation. Cormack took Shanawdithit to St. John’s where she created ten drawings that are the only first-person account of the life of the Beothuk.

In March, Tapestry Opera artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori provided me with invaluable information about the creation and importance of the opera which Burry and Nolan have been working on for the past three and a half years. Mori states: “This project came about a few years after a conversation between Dean Burry and Yvette Nolan about the subject of Shanawdithit for an opera.

Yvette Nolan. Photo by Alex Felipe“Yvette was very keen on finding a way to tell the story without relying on the texts of Cormack and other settler historians. The challenge with Shanawdithit was that there are no Beothuk Elders, there was little Indigenous documentation of the Beothuk, and even if there were surviving bloodlines, they had been mostly absorbed into the Mi’kmaq almost 200 years ago.

“Yvette turned to the ten drawings Shanawdithit did in her last year of life as one of the only first-person accounts of Beothuk life and Shanawdithit’s perspective. She proposed we work with the ten drawings and five to ten Indigenous artists to interpret them, with the intent of retelling the last days of Shanawdithit and questioning the prevailing dominant settler scholarship and history.

One of Shanawdithit’s drawings“Yvette, Dean and I met, and we proposed an unconventional approach to creation. Yvette would write the libretto, with elasticity for collaborative artist input, and with specific vessels for where the drawings would come to life, with a dominant point of view from a collaborating artist. The artists would meet with Yvette and depending on their discipline, also Dean and myself, to reflect on the drawings and work through their thoughts and what was possible within a musical-dramatic-narrative and design framework. 

“Dean would compose soundscapes, not music, to start. Drawing on his shared familiarity with the same lakes, land, rivers and weather that Shanawdithit grew up and lived in, he would experiment with capturing those sounds rather than risk imitating or appropriating ‘Indigenous’ music sounds or stereotypes.

“Five of our seven performers are also Indigenous performers (all of the named characters portrayed as Indigenous are Indigenous performers), Asitha Tennekoon plays Peyton and Clarence Frazer plays Cormack. Every step of the way the Indigenous performers were active participants in shaping and responding to the story and its potential treatment (e.g. engaging in the conversation of whether Cormack was a hero, a villain, or just out of his ken).

“Chronologically this meant that instead of Yvette completing a final libretto and sharing it with Dean for him to take over, as is most often the case, in-depth meetings with all of the collaborators following the first draft libretto led to changes in the libretto. New art commissions based on the artists’ interpretations had to have their directions finalized before Dean would compose that section. All in all, the process was complex and instead of hierarchical, it was collaborative and organic.”

In response to the question whether anyone saw a difficulty in having a non-Indigenous person compose the music, Mori writes, “Reconciliation on the truth and reconciliation website begins with the text ‘Reconciliation is an ongoing journey, one that will take a collective effort to find a new way forward.’ Many First Nations colleagues have stressed that the necessary dialogue is two-way. Indeed our history of violence and injustice against First Nations is also our history.

“That said, this is not another settler artist explaining what happened. The key to the success of Shanawdithit is in its welcoming Indigenous voices to shape and lead the work in creation and performance. This is meant to be a contrast to previous artistic works, histories and academic publications that ignored Indigenous voices and placed a positivist settler perspective on history. This work challenges that one-sided historical perspective. 

“Considering the collaborative and facilitation role of composition in how Dean is approaching Shanawdithit, it should be understandable why the team is not completely Indigenous. It is Indigenous led and as a result many will see the piece as a true coming together of settler and Indigenous arts and artists, where the Indigenous voices are privileged. In working in opera we can explore a story that requires Indigenous voices and leadership, which will have the story and its retelling reach a different and new public through the mixing audiences of opera, multimedia theatre and Indigenous arts in Toronto and St. John’s.”

Shanawdithit will be performed at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto May 16, 18, 21, 22, 23 and 25 with Marion Newman in the title role and Clarence Frazer as William Cormack. The cast also includes Asitha Tennekoon, Rebecca Cuddy, Deantha Edmunds, Evan Korbut and Aria Evans. Michael Hidetoshi Mori and Yvette Nolan co-direct, Michelle Olson is the choreographer and Rosemary Thomson is the music director. On June 21 the opera, a co-production with Opera on the Avalon, will be performed at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre. 

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at

Luc BeausejourFor the past three years, the Toronto Bach Festival has presented a three-day intensive series of concerts, recitals, and lecture presentations focusing on Johann Sebastian Bach, his world, and his works. Increasing in size and scale each year, the festival attracts magnificent performers and interpreters. This year it runs from May 24 to 26 and includes ensemble performances of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and his Lutheran Masses, as well as solo performances by harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour and cellist Elinor Frey, and a lecture on Bach and the French Style featuring renowned musicologist Ellen Exner. With such a full and fulfilling roster of events, Bach aficionados have much to look forward to.

Elinor Frey. Photo by Elizabeth DelageThe Toronto Bach Festival is led by founding artistic director and renowned early music specialist John Abberger, perhaps most immediately recognizable as the principal oboist of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, who will be at the helm for both the Brandenburg Concerto and Lutheran Mass concerts. In preparation for this year’s festival, Abberger shared his thoughts on Bach, the master’s works, and how the Toronto Bach Festival provides a unique perspective in the interpretation of this timeless music:

John AbbergerWN: Toronto is a city full of classical music of all types, including strong proponents of Early Music. What led you to establish the Toronto Bach Festival in such a culturally dense arts scene?

JA: First of all, despite the high name recognition that Bach enjoys, and despite the fact that everyone knows he wrote truly great music, a good 70 percent of his music is seldom performed. This is because many major musical organizations have a broader mandate to perform music from a huge repertory and cannot program more than a few works by Bach in the course of their regular offerings. A Bach festival provides an obvious context for performing lots of Bach, and while the Toronto Bach Festival may occasionally perform works by other composers (whose works illuminate our understanding of Bach’s achievements, or works that show his influence on later composers), our mandate is to perform Bach, and to explore as many of his works as possible, the well-known and the less well-known. Consider the wealth of amazing music contained in the over 200 cantatas: in my 30 years with Tafelmusik we have performed a complete cantata on only a small handful of occasions.

Second, I am interested in applying the performance practice research findings of the last 30 years that indicate that Bach habitually used a much smaller vocal group when he performed his choral works. Apart from age-old Victorian assumptions about large choirs performing Bach, many musical organizations are structurally set up to use these larger choirs, such as the Mendelssohn Choir at the Toronto Symphony. I find performing Bach’s vocal works in the way we do (with one or two singers to each part) to be artistically compelling, and I think our audiences deserve an opportunity to hear these great works performed this way.

Third, many cities (large and small) have a regular Bach festival. A city with such a strong and vibrant cultural landscape surely deserves to have a festival devoted to one of the greatest composers of all time. Look at the wonderful success of the Toronto International Film Festival. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a Bach festival that is a cultural destination to celebrate here in Toronto?

This year’s festival features an eclectic mix of Bach’s secular and sacred music. Is there an organizing principle or underlying idea that permeates your concerts and programming?

Absolutely! From day one, a guiding principle for the programming has been that the three main genres in which Bach worked, choral, keyboard and instrumental, should be represented at each festival. This is why we will always have a keyboard recital, generally alternating between harpsichord and organ. Another important artistic mandate is to perform cantatas each year. With so many to choose from, we won’t run out for quite a few years! The instrumental works comprise works for solo instruments (violin, cello and flute) as well as chamber and orchestral music. I strive each year to find a nice balance with the great diversity of genres in which Bach worked.

Why Bach?

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Bach and his music on the musical landscape of the ensuing 250 years of Western European musical culture. None of the great achievements of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms would have been possible without the path-breaking creations of Bach. But what we really want to celebrate is the uncanny ability of Bach’s music to reach into our souls and speak to us. Many writers and musicians speak of the timeless beauty and transformative power of his music. I believe these qualities have the ability to transcend cultural boundaries and create a bond of shared community among audience and performers alike.

But Wait, There’s More...

...More Bach, that is! Abberger joins his Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir compatriots in an exciting concert featuring J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s extraordinary Missa Divi Xaverii at Koerner Hall on May 9-12. The Magnificat is one of Bach’s best-known small-scale choral works, shorter in duration than the double cantatas but enormously wide-ranging in style and expression. Jan Dismas Zelenka, likely a new name to many concertgoers, is a perfect pairing for Bach, as his pieces are characterized by a very daring compositional structure with a highly spirited harmonic invention and complex counterpoint, providing a musical experience that is simultaneously thrilling and uplifting.

Zelenka (1679-1745) was a Czech composer who was raised in Central Bohemia, educated in Prague and Vienna, and spent his professional life in Dresden. His works are often virtuosic and difficult to perform yet fresh and surprising, with sudden changes of harmony and rhythm; an accomplished violone player, Zelenka’s writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era, writing fast-moving continuo parts with driving, complicated rhythms. A prolific and well-travelled musician, he wrote complex fugues, ornate operatic arias, galant-style dances, baroque recitatives, Palestrina-like chorales and virtuosic concertos. Zelenka’s musical language is closest to Bach’s, especially in its richness of contrapuntal harmonies and ingenious usage of fugal themes. Nevertheless, Zelenka’s language is idiosyncratic in its unexpected harmonic twists, frequent use of chromatic harmonies, large usage of syncopation and unusually long phrases full of varied musical ideas.

Sometimes considered Bach’s Catholic counterpart, Bach held Zelenka in high esteem, and the two composers knew each other, as evidenced by a letter from C.P.E. Bach to the Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. According to this document, Bach was trusted enough by Zelenka for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann to copy out the “Amen” from Zelenka’s Magnificat to use in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where J. S. Bach was cantor. In addition to composing, Zelenka was a teacher, instructing a number of the most prominent musicians of his time, including Johann Joachim Quantz; his close friends included renowned composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Georg Pisendel.

Why, then, do we not know more works by this extraordinary composer? Zelenka never married and had no children, and his compositions and musical estate were purchased from his beneficiaries by the Electress of Saxony/Queen of Poland, Maria Josepha of Austria after his death. These were considered valuable court possessions and were kept under lock and key for a century, only being rediscovered in the Dresden archives in the late 19th century. Interest in Zelenka’s music has continued to grow since the 1950s and his works have become much more widely known and recorded since then. It is wonderful to see Tafelmusik presenting Zelenka in live performance, making this a don’t-miss concert that will illuminate, inform, and inspire anyone with an interest in early music.

Musical Women Who Persisted

Here’s a challenge for you: name five female composers of Western art music from the years 1100 to 1900. If you came up empty, the Toronto Chamber Choir has just the concert for you on May 24: A Voice of Her Own – Musical Women Who Persisted focuses on female composers and their works from the last nine centuries, enhanced with a multimedia presentation to both elucidate and entertain. With music by Hildegard of Bingen, Maddalena Casulana, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and more, there will be much to learn about the various stereotypes, societal constructs, and utter indifference that prevented the free expression of creativity among female composers. Featuring conductor Lucas Harris, organist Stephanie Martin and narrator Katherine Larson, this performance will not only be musically excellent, but also edifying for those who take the time to make themselves aware of what life was like for the female creatives of the past and, perhaps, the present as well.

Stephanie MartinSpeaking of female composers, Stephanie Martin is a musician who wears many hats: composer; conductor; organist and teacher and a fixture of Toronto’s musical scene. In addition to the Toronto Chamber Choir, Martin also makes an appearance with I Furiosi Baroque Ensemble this May 17 as composer of I Furiosi: The Opera, a pastiche Baroque opera with music by Handel, Purcell and Martin, and libretto by Craig Martin. What can we expect from an I Furiosi opera? You’ll have to see it to find out!

Drop me a line if you have any questions on what’s happening this month, or want some more info on why Zelenka might be the best composer you’ve never heard of: 


MAY 4, 8PM: Toronto Consort. “Night Games.” Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor Street West. With so much early music being obsessed with religious propriety, it’s nice to let your wig down once in a while. Check out this irreverent evening of madrigal comedy with the Toronto Consort and triple-threat director/actor/dancer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière.

MAY 5, 3PM: Windermere String Quartet. “Alpha and Omega.” St. Olave’s Anglican Church, 360 Windermere Avenue. Hear three quartets by the masters of the genre: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – the pinnacles of Viennese quartet writing – and rediscover how ingenious these composers can be with only four instruments… no orchestra required!

JUN 2, 3PM: Rosewood Consort.Love, Loss, and Passion: A Musical Tour of Renaissance Europe.” Grace Lutheran Church, 1107 Main Street W., Hamilton. Take a trip down the QEW and take in stunning music by des Prez, Willaert, Palestrina, and more, pinnacles of the 16th-century polyphonists.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Bassist Michel Donato moved to Toronto from Montreal in the mid-70s and though he was here a relatively short time, perhaps six or seven years, he became an integral part of the Toronto jazz scene. He certainly had a huge impact on my development as a bassist in a number of ways: his powerful playing provided a model and inspiration; he began giving me work subbing for him; and he took me under his wing as a mentor. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was that if I wanted to become a good jazz player, I had to play every day. Not just practise and study on my own, but play. With other musicians, preferably some who were better than me. I took it to heart and spent a lot of time as an aspiring musician playing daily “sessions” as we called them, which were arranged much like gigs but with no audience or money involved. (The jaded wags out there will note that these conditions sound a lot like some real jazz gigs, but never mind.)

Michel DonatoMichel’s advice was true then and, as jazz education has expanded and evolved in the intervening years, is just as true now. Any post-secondary jazz program must stress performance and provide students with a lot of group-playing opportunities, not just in classroom ensembles, but in actual performances – i.e. in front of an audience, which heightens the whole experience by providing both pressure and inspiration. There’s nothing like playing in front of a listening audience to make musicians, young or otherwise, focus and play their best, and everything else – individual practise, study, learning about theory and harmony, repertoire development, listening to records, etc. – should run through live playing.

Live performance is certainly stressed in the jazz program at U of T where I’ve become increasingly involved as a teacher, and I assume it’s similar at the three other local schools offering jazz programs – Humber College, York University and Hamilton’s Mohawk College. I hope so, anyway. At U of T, each of the numerous small jazz ensembles, which meet once a week, must do three live performances during the year – one at Upper Jazz, the makeshift concert hall in the music building at 90 Wellesley St., and two at The Rex on Monday evenings. Three performances over two semesters may not seem like that much, but remember there are a lot of jazz ensembles to fit in, and each student likely plays in more than one, so it works out to a fair amount of playing for each. Three for each band feels about right.

In terms of my small jazz ensembles over the last three years, I’ve had a unique window into these performances because I don’t just coach the bands, I play bass in them as well, so I’m wearing two hats. (The opportunity of playing with me is somehow seen as a draw – go figure.) It’s interesting to experience the difference between performing in Upper Jazz and at The Rex. The concerts in Upper Jazz are attended by fellow students, members of the public and some teachers, so they’re real performances and the students certainly raise their game for them. But they’re on school grounds so somehow feel safer – invariably the students get up more for playing at The Rex as it’s a more public venue and a real jazz club. And while there is no cover (something I feel could be rethought) for the student concerts, people are there spending money on food and drink, plus the students receive some pay from the proceeds of the tip jar, which brings a small stamp of professionalism and realness to the proceedings – attendance is generally good and people are fairly generous, so the students walk away with some money for a 40-minute set. Along with the all-important complimentary jug or two of draft beer provided to each ensemble – yes, this is part of jazz education too. But above all, my ensembles always play better at The Rex, only in part because we generally play there later in the year – but mostly because the students realize they’re playing on the same stage as the professionals have over many years. It’s palpable and stretches them.

Of course the jazz students also take a lot of initiative in creating playing situations for themselves. There’s always a lot of jamming going on at the school at all hours and I’m constantly seeing posters advertising performances at venues like the Tranzac, The Emmet Ray, the 120 Diner, The Rex, the Cavern, Alchemy, The Dakota Tavern, Burdock and others.

Due pay: As key as live playing is to the musical growth of young jazz players, getting paid for performances is equally important to the development of professionalism. Or, to put it more bluntly: to hell with internship, and the sooner, the better. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, as there are initiatives afoot to ensure that young people are getting work opportunities, being paid, and paid fairly. Some of these have come from policy at U of T itself. At any school performance, jazz students who are skilled at sound design, usually two of them, are paid to do the sound and this includes year-end recitals, of which there are many. Also at these recitals, a student is hired to “do the door” – greeting people, making sure that they get seating and a program, and that everything runs smoothly. I’m not privy to how much the students are paid for these services, but to hear them tell it, it’s generous, fair and they’re very glad of it. It fosters professionalism and more importantly, it helps them get by. Apart from how busy they are with school, a big challenge to being a student is keeping the wolf from the door, just as it is for professional jazz musicians. And the jazz program at U of T has a good record of hiring graduates as part-time teachers and of creating employment opportunities for them in other ways. For example, a position of social media co-ordinator was created for next year and a recent graduate, Jenna-Marie Pinard, as skilled with the Internet as she is at singing, has been hired.

JPEC: The Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC), has always made the inclusion of opportunities for young jazz players a priority of their mandate, and deserve credit for this. Apart from their many jazz education outreach programs, student groups have always been featured prior to regular JPEC concerts, often playing in the lobby of the venue, and have always been paid for this. The idea is not only to provide young people a chance to ply their trade, but to create a younger jazz audience by doing so. Yes, young players go out to hear veteran musicians, I see them all the time in numbers at gigs I do. But they really come out to hear their peers, it’s the way it works, and they represent the future of jazz – not only as players, but as an audience.

JPEC takes its student concert series to the Aga Khan Museum’s Diwan RestaurantJPEC has expanded this with a recent initiative at the Aga Khan Museum, its preferred concert venue – a Student Concert Series at the Museum’s Diwan Restaurant. As part of a pilot program, four different trios consisting of saxophone, guitar, and bass – it’s not a large space – have been organized from the four jazz schools and will be performing in this intimate setting. The trios are properly paid and also receive free meals and paid parking. As an incentive to attract audiences, attendees are given free admission to the museum’s permanent collection as well as to special exhibitions. This resulted in a 90-percent-capacity audience for the first concert in Diwan. JPEC has been supported in this by the Trio Restaurant in North York’s Novotel Hotel, where student groups have been hired and compensated, also receiving free meals. These are small steps, but steps in the right direction. As Duke Ellington once put it, “There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.” What a concept.

“There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.” – Duke Ellington

High calibre concerts: To return to the importance of performance values in jazz education, a closing word about some I’ve attended a lot in recent weeks: the end-of -year jazz recitals by third-year, fourth-year and master’s students at U of T. These are held in Upper Jazz at 90 Wellesley during April and early May. I’ve been present at some as an adjudicator grading the performances, but just as often I attend just to hear the music, especially if the leader is a student of mine. According to how far along the student is, there is an increased emphasis on composing/arranging as well as instrumental (or vocal) performance, so these concerts often involve either original music you’re not going to hear elsewhere, or arrangements of familiar material which are often fresh and highly imaginative. Between last year and this year I’ve been to about 30 of these, with more to come, and the music has never been less than good, and most often well beyond that. There are some fairly advanced players involved and the leaders put a lot of thought and preparation into forming their bands and offering a cohesive and broad-ranging program of music; and it shows. Many of the concerts I’ve heard have been inspired, compelling, sometimes technically brilliant and always emotionally rewarding. Along with parents, fellow students and teachers, I’m beginning to notice members of the jazz listening public turning up regularly as part of the attentive audiences at these concerts, which is very heartening. These fine young players are often at their best in this pressure-packed crucible and are beginning to make names for themselves, which bodes well for the future.

Having been at jazz for a long time now, I’ve witnessed the huge shrinkage in the jazz scene as I once knew it, not to mention of the music business in general, and it’s been hard not to get too downcast about it. In fact, for a long time I have been discouraged about it, mourning the loss of the “good old days.” But hearing the musical conviction and imagination displayed in these recitals has me convinced that there are good new days ahead, as Pollyanna-ish as that may sound. These young players have me almost in danger of feeling optimistic, in spite of myself.


MAY 8 AND 9, 9:30PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. The Kirk MacDonald Quartet. One of Canada’s most accomplished jazz musicians, backed by a stellar trio of Brian Dickinson, Neil Swainson and Barry Romberg.

MAY 9, 7:30PM: The Homesmith Bar, 9 Old Mill Rd. The Worst Pop Band Ever. Chris Gale (tenor), Matt Newton (piano), Drew Birston (bass), Tim Shia (Drums). A lively quartet made up of some of Toronto’s best players.

MAY 18 AND 25, 7PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. Triple Bari Ensemble. As advertised, three baritone saxophonists – Alec Trent, Alex Manoukas and Conrad Gluch – backed by a rhythm section. Manoukas, in particular, is a brilliant player.

MAY 24, 7:30PM: The Homesmith Bar, 9 Old Mill Rd. The Warren Commission. Drummer Ted Warren leads a marvellous band with Mike Malone (trumpet). Ted Quinlan (guitar), Pat Collins (bass), and special guest Melissa Stylianou, now based in NYC.

MAY 27, 8:30PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. John MacLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra. Toronto’s premier big band in their natural habitat, always worth hearing.

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

Suba Sankaran (left) and Dylan BellIn March, Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell led a choral workshop as part of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Singsation Saturday program. In the church basement of Calvin Presbyterian Church, the duo led about 100 people in exploring their voices. No sheet music, no instruments. Nothing but the power of the a cappella, human voice.

Sankaran and Bell are partners in music and life and perform under the name FreePlay Duo. Together, they have spearheaded and led the annual Sing! Toronto Vocal Arts Festival for nine years. We exchanged questions and answers by email. “Our musical goals are to excite, to inspire, to teach, to entertain, and most importantly, to demonstrate that the human voice has infinite possibilities,” they wrote.

“The human voice is an amazing instrument,” they continued. “And group singing is such an amazing feeling of community. You might ask yourself, why do you need to sing? The answer is very simple: people have always needed to sing together. It’s part of who we are as human beings, it’s a natural impulse, and it shows us that we can work together in large numbers, in harmony.”

Sankaran and Bell have curated a festival that demands participation and offers experience, providing a host of opportunities to sing, listen or both. For those who want to get into the thick of things, “the Mass Choir event is a unique opportunity created by SING! to reach out to the community, give them a voice, an opportunity to work with a professional singer, performer and educator, and the chance to strut their stuff on stage,” they say. Kurt Sampson who is leading the mass choir performance is known for his work in Cadence, a Toronto-based a cappella quartet. Sampson is the anchoring bass in that ensemble and his athletic vocal percussion is part of their signature sound. Participants who choose to perform in the mass choir event will have much to look forward to.

“Once you register, you will be given the music (ahead of time), and then on Sunday, May 26 – the day of the event – you will be guided by Kurt… He will conduct workshops, get in-depth with the mass choir songs, provide micro-clinics with some of the local ensembles who opt to also have a performance spot that evening, and then all will culminate in a concert that features some participating vocal ensembles, the mass choir singers, as well as a performance by Cadence. You do not have to be part of a choir to enjoy this experience. If you are a singer who wants to find a choir in the moment, this is your chance!”

This type of opportunity to participate is a hallmark of the Sing! experience. In an interview last year with The WholeNote, Sankaran shared her love of being able to travel and network with a cappella singers around the world, a vibrant community all over the world focused on the human voice. But a Toronto staycation has much to offer too. “There are a few generations of people who have come up as singers,” Sankaran says. “We really are an a cappella family. One example is Debbie Fleming – founder of award-winning group, Hampton Avenue, who has been singing in the business and has been an advocate for a cappella for several decades.” Fleming will be the recipient of the Slaight Music SING! Toronto Legacy Award this year.

“As well, many collegiate a cappella groups have been formed over the past few decades and have paved a path. Wibi A Cappella from York University (where both Dylan and I cut our teeth as conductors, arrangers and composers) is an example of the longest running, independent collegiate a cappella groups in Canada.” Wibi, who will perform as part of Art Battle during the festival, celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2018!

Sankaran and Bell hope people are challenged by the breadth [of musical experiences] being presented. There is a huge range of international performing artists: Mzansi from South Africa presenting their Nelson Mandela tribute, Vocal Sampling from Cuba, The Swingles from the UK, and Jo Wallfisch (UK/US). “With this in mind, we hope to open not just voices, and ears, but minds and hearts as well. We tend to aim high with this festival, and so we hope to maintain our standards by bringing the best of the best that a cappella has to offer from around the world, and especially continue to feature our local treasures.”

Freeplay, featuring Sankaran and Bell, are themselves one such local treasure. They will perform as opening act for Vocal Sampling. “They are an amazing a cappella sextet from Cuba,” Sankaran and Bell write, “emulating the sounds of a hot Cuban orchestra, without an instrument in sight. They have been our heroes for such a long time and we’re so honoured to share the stage with them, for both workshops and a concert on Sunday, June 2 at Lula Lounge.”

Bell and Sankaran hope also to delve more deeply into multi-disciplinary shows, like this festival’s Songs and Stories of Migration, that bring different art forms together but also provoke thought and really in-depth chances for complex conversations carried through the medium of musical storytelling in a wide range of forms and styles. Toronto’s own Pressgang Mutiny, who sing sea shanties are one such group. Shanties are often associated with a fantastical history of what life at sea was like in the days of pirates. But for sailors and passengers throughout history, boats of cargo and people have been meeting places for cultures, stories, commerce, and also war. These nautical meeting places have a history and Pressgang Mutiny breathe life into these shanties, minus the swashbuckling.

A cappella vocal music also opens doors into diverse cultures. You’ll hear the sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean instantly when Turkwaz takes the stage. This quartet of women explores the sounds and myriad stories of Greece, Turkey, the Balkans and more, the evocative power of their voices in a diverse set of styles folding the listener into the pages of beloved story after story. After all, “singing is storytelling through song, and there are so many compelling stories to tell!”

Last year, Sing! was part of the massive Fringe Festival in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. “We’ve been building inroads with our affiliate festivals, like Sing! Montreal, Sing! Texas, and Sing! Edinburgh,” share Sankaran and Bell, “We hope to continue to spread the word and joy of Sing! Around the globe.” 

Some highlights of Sing! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival, May 24 to June 2

MAY 24, 8:30PM: Sing! Mandela Celebration with Mzansi. A musical celebration of Nelson Mandela with a cross-cutting extravaganza of sounds and styles. Young People’s Theatre, Toronto.

MAY 26, 7:30PM: The Mass Choir comes together under Kurt Sampson of Cadence. Come for the concert or join in the choir itself earlier in the day. This will be a signature festival event. Young People’s Theatre, Toronto.

MAY 28, 8:30PM: Sing! Songs & Stories of Migration featuring a host of artists and histories. Ariel Balevi with Persian folklore; Pressgang Mutiny with sea shanties; Turkwaz with Arabic, Greek and Turkish heritage; Sage Tyrtle blending stories and fairy tales; Joanna Wallfisch with looped storytelling; and Dan Yashinsky and his extraordinary tales of travels. A new feature on the docket for Sing! and bound to excite your heart and ears. Hugh’s Room Live, Toronto.

JUN 1, 8PM: SoundCrowd: Dance Party! Why should dance parties only be reserved for instruments? Scott Pietrangelo leads this a cappella powerhouse of a choir with 70 voices strong. The Opera House, Toronto.

Vocal Sampling performs at Lula Lounge June 2JUN 2, 7:30PM: Sing! Cuban Fantasies with Vocal Sampling and Freeplay. Steamy music highly likely, tropical heat not guaranteed. Lula Lounge, Toronto.

Jewish Music Week, MAY 26 TO June 2

Another musical arts festival runs over the last week of May. Jewish Music Week presents the ninth year of guests, local and international, featuring a host of fantastic music influenced, created and/or performed by Jewish artists, with significant highlights for aficionados of vocal and choral music.

MAY 29, 12PM: The Yonge Guns Quartet host a midday concert at Princess Margaret. Part of the hospital’s “Music in the Atrium” program, these award-winning four men have been singing barbershop together since high school. Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Atrium, Seventh Floor, Toronto.

MAY 29, 7:30PM: Three Famed Cantors, One Voice. American cantors from three of New York City’s Jewish congregations make their Canadian debut. Featuring a host of styles and sacred works, these three tenors combine their voices under music director Robbie Grunwald. Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto.

JUN 1, 10:15PM: Community Melaveh Malka. Marking Shabbat with an evening performance; three choirs will perform. Featuring Shir Harmony, the Toronto Jewish Male Choir and the Toronto Jewish Chorus. Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto.

JUN 2, 3:30PM: The Sawuti African Children’s Choir performs as part of their Canada tour, ongoing since January. These seven children and five adults from East Africa are sponsored by the Evangelical Christian organization, Seven Wells Ministries and the Jewish cross-religious organization, Return Ministries. St Andrew’s Church, (Simcoe and King), Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to

Spring is a season of renewal. As the last of the dirty snow melts away, grass greens around us, tree buds begin to plump and birds return to song, we’re reminded that the season is connected to some of humanity’s deepest values and hopes.

That optimism is reflected in major cyclical religious holidays celebrated round the world – Holi, Nowruz, Passover and Easter – each of which possesses an extensive song list. While these spring-launch festivals will have taken place by the time you read this, there still remains the balance of the season to explore in music the many sacred and profane rites of spring associated with the vernal equinox. Please use this column as your guide to some of its rich abundance in our Greater Toronto Area communities.

In this issue I’ll be exploring ethnic pluralism, aka cultural diversity as performed in music, in three stories. First is a preview of the second season of Labyrinth Ontario, modal music’s Toronto outpost, then a segue to the Toronto leg of the Canadian tour of a choir from the Republic of Georgia, finally arriving, in my Quick Picks, at the smorgasbord of musical offerings this season.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario

Speaking of renewal, Labyrinth Music Workshop Ontario, an organization “dedicated to promoting the study and enjoyment of global traditions of modal music,” is launching its second season of workshops, capped by a concert.

In its inaugural season, the full range of spirit of an extended modal family was reflected in Labyrinth’s remarkably ambitious lineup featuring nine week-long workshops, twelve concerts, plus two panel discussions. Eleven masters of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Kurdish and Afghani music traditions gave lessons and performed. Historically these musical cultures have interacted variously in and between their homelands, but last year’s Toronto concerts reflected an intensified interaction perhaps only possible on the ground here today.

Ethnomusicologist Rob Simms, a Labyrinth Ontario board member, provided an overview on the site’s blog. “Labyrinth’s inaugural season offered attendees an immense wealth of practical insights into the technique and craft of modal music, inspiring performances, and valuable lore and wisdom regarding the larger context of contemporary modal cultures, straight from the source of some of the most important representative artists.

“While there was much great music making going on, I was particularly struck by the reminder that true mastery goes beyond playing to knowing what really matters on a deeper cultural, aesthetic, and ultimately spiritual level with this music—and being it, living it. … Toronto’s Danforth and Chester neighbourhood is quite likely the modal musical centre of the planet for the month of May!”

Ross DalyRoss Daly, a musician of international influence and founder in 1982 of the original Labyrinth centre in Crete – after which Labyrinth Ontario is modelled–- was on hand for the duration of last year’s events. An eloquent spokesman for contemporary modal music, Daly offered thought-provoking perspectives at the panel discussions on many aspects of his long, inspiring career. He spoke to the relationship of individuals to tradition, building a repertoire, the balance of study and intuitive creativity, aesthetic preferences, the dynamics of audiences, the effect of recordings on learning and performing, and on the role of “cultural outsiders.” These are all issues very pertinent to Canadian musicians in this scene too.

Labyrinth Ontario June 2019 Workshops

Daly again plays a central role in this year’s Labyrinth activities. June 3 to 7 he will blend lecture, demonstration, performance and hands-on composition in his workshop, drawing on his decades of study of modal traditions. A modal heads-up: while the workshop is suitable for performers and composers of all levels and backgrounds, an “instrument capable of playing quarter-tones” is recommended. All workshops will be held at Eastminster United Church, 310 Danforth Ave., Toronto

Kelly ThomaRunning concurrently, Cretan lyra virtuosa Kelly Thoma leads a workshop on her instrument covering technique and repertoire, serving as an introduction to Cretan music and to her compositional and performance practice. Award-winning Bulgarian diva Tzvetanka Varimezova brings her decades of experience as a choir director and solo vocalist to cover vocal techniques and several styles of Bulgarian song in her class.

The following week on June 10 to 14, Araz Salek (tar) and Hamidreza Khalatbari (kamanche) jointly offer an Introduction to Iranian Music covering the fundamentals of Iranian modal music, while tombak virtuoso Pedram Khavarzamini teaches Percussion Cycles drawing on his deep intercultural study of cyclic rhythmic patterns in his workshop.

Labyrinth Ontario’s concert

Saturday June 8, Labyrinth Ontario presents Modal Music Summit at Eastminster United Church, the concert tying together various threads explored by workshop leaders, including Ross Daly, the group This Tale of Ours (Daley, Thoma, Salek and Khavarzamini), plus vocalist Varimezova.

Araz SalekI spoke recently with Labyrinth’s artistic director, Araz Salek, about the organization’s first year. One of the healthiest aspects of the inaugural concerts was the mixed audiences, he told me. “They were not just drawn from the music’s community of origin, but also attended by Torontonians eager for something new. That’s in the core missions of Labyrinth: to encourage audiences to experience and then enjoy musics beyond what they listen to day to day. We believe audiences can develop a taste and ear for modal music traditions. We can learn to appreciate musics other than those we’ve grown up with.”

Why is that important? “Because that experience ultimately enriches our lives. Many of us look forward to exploring cuisines we didn’t grow up with, eventually developing a taste for diverse food and drink: why not music?”

Salek cautions against easy solutions, however. “Musicians from modal traditions often aim to make their music palatable to a broad international audience. All too often this results in reducing its essential characteristics to the lowest common denominator that the music shares with Western models. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do at Labyrinth. We encourage musicians, their students and our audiences to reach for what’s essential in each musical tradition, and to develop it. Getting rid of microtones, modality and shoehorning melodies and performance practices into a Western framework, compromises the cultural voice of the individual culture represented.”

Cultural bridges are crucial, Salek reminds us, “but it takes good will, time and considerable effort to build a sturdy and elegant bridge that accommodates both sides without compromise.” This insight is useful for musicians to keep in mind when embarking on transcultural musical collaborations.

Didgori EnsembleDidgori Ensemble in Canada

Didgori Ensemble is an award-winning six-voice choir from the Republic of Georgia performing the country’s unique polyphonic choral repertoire. Since 2004, the have toured Russia, UK, France, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Israel. Late in May into mid-June their Canadian tour promises to be a huge moment for Georgian music in Canada, an opportunity that happens perhaps once in a lifetime. How uncommon is this? The only time a choir from Georgia toured Canada previously was in the 1970s.

Co-sponsored by a consortium of Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebecois producers, Didgori’s tour kicks off with a concert and workshop at the Edmonton International Choral Festival. The Winnipeg Singers then present them in Manitoba before they travel to Toronto, followed by dates in Kingston and Quebec.

Declared by UNESCO in 2001 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the millennial-old Georgian polyphonic singing tradition, with its close harmonies and un-tempered scales, is a visceral experience. It features three-part singing in a variety of regionally based styles, ranging from melismatic lyrical singing and drones, to relaxed urban songs, to exploding “crunchy” counterpoint, reflecting the old, diverse and complex Georgian social and physical landscape.

The Didgori singers are acknowledged masters of a variety of Georgian musical styles. They are dedicated to the traditions of their ancestors through the mastery and popularization of Georgian polyphonic folk songs and liturgical chants. Didgori’s very name honours the 1121 battle that helped reunite Georgia and usher in a period of growth in arts and culture.

Didgori Ensemble in Toronto: concert and workshops

Friday June 7, three Toronto arts organizations – MusiCamp, Clay & Paper Theatre and Folk Camp Canada – present Didgori Ensemble at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

On June 8, Didgori gives a public Georgian choral workshop from 5 to7pm at the St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Ave. Then on Sunday, June 9, MusiCamp holds a five-hour Georgian choral workshop with Didgori at the MusiCamp Studio, 11 Cobourg Ave. from 11am to 4pm. Limited to 12 participants, this intensive mentoring experience with six experts of traditional Georgian choral repertoire is the closest Torontonians can get to this music short of a very, very long plane ride to Tbilisi. For more information about registration check MusiCamp’s website.

Monday June 10, Didgori drives east for a 12:15pm concert at St. George’s Cathedral, 270 King St. E, Kingston, Ontario, before travelling to dates in Québec. 


MAY 1, 5:30PM: the Canadian Opera Company presents Stomp the Floor with the sibling-fuelled Métis Fiddler Quartet at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, as part of its noon hour World Music Series. The concert is free, but note that a “no late seating” is strictly observed.

MAY 2, 7PM: North York Central Library/University of Toronto Faculty of Music offer Toronto audiences the rarely heard Music of Rajasthan with vocalist Abhishek Iyer, harmonium player Sushant Anatharam and Tanmay Sharma on tabla, at the North York Central Library. The event is free but registration is required.

MAY 2, 8PM: the popular sitarist Anoushka Shankar and party perform at Koerner Hall, Telus Centre in a concert produced by the Royal Conservatory of Music

MAY 3 AND 4, 8PM; MAY 5, 3PM: Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company stages its latest show Impulso at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre. The production features works by choreographers Esmeralda Enrique and José Maldonado. Guitarists Caroline Planté and Benjamin Barrile, vocalists Manuel Soto and Marcos Marin, are joined by percussionist Derek Gray to provide the energizing dance music.

MAY 4, 7PM: Singing Together 2019 presents A Celebration of Cultural Diversity, a “multicultural choral concert with seven choirs from different ethnic backgrounds,” at St. Paschal Baylon Church, Thornhill. Groups include the Chinese Canadian Choir of Toronto (Cantonese); Coro San Marco (Italian); Joyful Singers (Korean); Nayiri Armenian Choir of Toronto (Armenian); Noor Children’s Choir (Armenian); Toronto Taiwanese Choir (Mandarin), plus the guest Filipino Choral Group.

MAY 4, 6:30PM: the Mississauga Festival Choir, joined by guest world music ensemble Autorickshaw, offers songs from South Africa, South Asia and Canada’s far north in a concert titled Building Bridges at the Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

MAY 5, 1PM: the Royal Conservatory of Music presents the illustrious Toronto vocal quartet Turkwaz at the Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Royal Conservatory. Maryem Hassan Tollar draws on her Arabic language heritage, Jayne Brown and Sophia Grigoriadis bring their experience with Greek music and Brenna MacCrimmon adds her expertise in Turkish song repertoire to the mix.

MAY 12, 3PM: Echo Women’s Choir performs a Mother’s Day Concert: Thanks to Life, A Celebration of Songs from the Americas at the Church of the Holy Trinity. The repertoire includes Calixto Alvarez’s Cuban Suite and Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (arr. B. Whitla). Guest singer-songwriter Amanda Martinez joins veteran Echo conductors Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser.

MAY 17, 8PM: Small World Music Society presents Anindo Chatterjee & Guests, a North-meets-South-Indian percussion summit at the Small World Music Centre, Artscape Youngplace. Tabla master Pandit Anindo Chatterjee headlines, joined by Gowrishanker Balachandran (mrdangam), Ramana Indrakumar (ghatam), Shirshendu Mukherjee (vocalist), Hardeep Chana (harmonium), and local tabla maestro Ravi Naimpally.

MAY 26, 3PM: the Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Mykola Hobdych sings a program titled Sounds of Ukraine at the Koerner Hall, Telus Centre.

MAY 26, 7PM: Jewish Music Week in Toronto presents Nomadica: Music of the Gypsies, Arabs and Jews featuring David Buchbinder on trumpet and vocalist Roula Said at Lula Lounge.

MAY 28, 12PM: the Canadian Opera Company presents Celebrate Japan! in its World Music Series. Nagata Sachu, directed by Kiyoshi Nagata, will makes the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre ring with festive percussion-centric sounds.

JUN 2, 7:30PM: Sing! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival continues with Cuban Fantasies with Vocal Sampling and Freeplay at Lula Lounge.

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

In my previous column I mentioned some anniversaries on the horizon. One of these will be a May 5 celebration by the Waterloo Concert Band of the 100th anniversary of the arrival in town of “Professor” Thiele, as he was known, by performing his newly discovered Festival Overture. This will be at Knox Presbyterian Church, 50 Erb St. W., Waterloo. Since mentioning the event last issue, I have been overwhelmed by information about Thiele from a variety of sources. From one friend I received a copy of a 130-page university thesis on Thiele’s life, work and contributions to Waterloo; and writer Pauline Finch, who plays piccolo and flute with the Waterloo Concert Band and others, provided far more information on Thiele than I could ever have discovered on my own.

Charles Frederick Thiele’s newly discovered Festival Overture. Photo by Pauline FinchCharles Frederick Thiele did not study or teach at any prestigious music school. He was largely self-taught and earned his renown through natural talent and experience. The title “Professor” (always in quotation marks) was an informal mark of respect often given to popular concert and show-band conductors during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It did not have any real academic connotations, but might well, in his case, equate to an honorary doctorate today.

Thiele was a self-employed freelancer like many in his day – holding multiple positions, often several at one time. As celebrated as he became in Canadian music during first half of the 20th century, he wasn’t a hometown boy either. When he arrived in Waterloo 100 years ago on April 1, 1919, hired to direct the Waterloo Musical Society Band, he was nearly 35, having been born in the Lower East Side neighbourhood of New York City to impoverished German immigrant parents. Despite their only son’s early aptitude for music, they were too destitute to provide him with lessons. However, the boy in question was also gifted with disciplined ambition, hints of a true leader’s charisma, and a shrewd instinct for business opportunities – qualities that served him well in his parallel careers as composer, entertainer, impresario and industrialist.

Well before the turn of the 20th century, and still in his teens, Thiele made his first money as a street photographer. With his earnings he was able to acquire a cornet. By 19, he’d married his 17-year-old girlfriend Louise (an accomplished singer, actress and instrumentalist in her own right). By his early 20s, he was finally able to afford regular cornet lessons and quickly made up for lost time, soon progressing to the rank of a steadily employed freelance musician, learning on the job, playing with numerous professional bands in parades, political rallies, lodges, social clubs, sports events, festivals, circuses, silent films, and just about any occasion where paid live music was required.

After answering the band’s advertisement in early in 1919, he travelled to Waterloo (which had only 5,000 people at the time) to meet his potential employers in person. He landed the job at a salary of $1,200 a year, roughly equivalent to $15,706 in 2019, supplementing this part-time income by teaching and freelancing, and wasting no time imprinting his legendary creative energy on his new hometown. As early as 1921, he’d founded the Waterloo Music Company as a sheet music mail-order business in a spare room of his house. The business began as a profitable service to silent movie houses throughout Canada; by the time “talkies” put an end to demand, less than a decade later, Thiele already had Plan B figured out – providing educational music for schools.

Thiele was actually the Waterloo band’s ninth bandmaster, but because he served in the post for 32 years, even some locals assumed he had founded the band. When radio came along just before the Depression, Thiele managed to have the Waterloo Musical Society Band chosen to play the first live band concert in Canadian broadcast history.

Worthy of further investigation, I also learned that Thiele was instrumental in the introduction of the Ontario “Band Tax Law” in 1937 which enabled many smaller Ontario town bands to survive during and after the Great Depression. I had never heard of such a law before, but, continuing to dig, discovered that somewhat earlier, in 1921, the State of Iowa had enacted the Iowa Band Law, municipalities in the state to fund town bands. In fact, in 1923, composer Karl King wrote a fine march titled (there are at least two versions of it on YouTube) to commemorate the law’s passage.

Michele Jacot and Roy Greaves with “Oscar” at their last concert when the theme was “A Night at the Oscars.” Photo by Paul BryanWychwood

The other previously mentioned May anniversary (May 26) belongs to the Wychwood Clarinet Choir. The choir’s musical director Michele Jacot responded to my inquiry about the concert with this: “Yes, it will be our tenth! A special show complete with cake and bubbly afterward. We are going to raise a glass to the first ten (if I may toot our own horn for a moment, very successful) seasons. The team is amazing. All I do is wave my arms around until the music stops and then turn around and bow.”

The selections for this show are a “best of” from those first ten seasons, featuring works by their “composers’ collective” and core group of talented arrangers. They have tried to include something by all of the members in that talent hub. Included will be Fen Watkin’s Anne of Green Gables Medley; Selections from Canteloube’s Chants d'Auvergne (arr. Moore); and a stellar arrangement of Gershwin’s An American in Paris by Roy Greaves.

As a prelude to the concert, on May 4, St. John’s Music, Toronto invites interested parties to take part in a Wychwood Clarinet Choir performance and reading session between 10am and 12 noon. Anyone interested should contact Ben McGillis at 416-785-5000.


Many bands tend to suffer from a lack of advanced planning, but not the Newmarket Citizen’s Band who have already initiated the planning process for their 150th anniversary in 2022. The band’s executive has started the process of identifying several projects intended to commemorate this very important milestone in their history, and to illustrate to the broader community, the band’s contributions to the cultural and social life of the residents of Newmarket and the surrounding area over the years. But circle May 1 2022 on your busy calendars for the launch at the Newmarket Old Town Hall of an exhibit of the band’s history!

Orangeville Community Band

It was very pleasing recently to receive an email message from Bernie Lynch of the Orangeville Community Band, who tells me the column has given him much pleasure for several years and goes on to say: “As a member of a band which is in its 12th year, I am asking for the opportunity to inform readers about our next concert on May 11, at 7pm, titled “A Celebration of Crooners, Canaries and Chorales,” including and other Irish selections,, selections from and more. It all happens at Orangeville District Secondary School, 22 Faulkner St.(back entrance), Orangeville.”

North York

On Saturday, May 11 at 7:30, the North York Concert Band’s Spring Bouquet, 2019 Gala Concert sounds entertaining! It will take place at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC; and under the direction of John Liddle, the band will present a variety of hits, some classic concert band repertoire and two special features. The first of these, , is a technical trombone solo, mixing the raw ragtime feel of the 20s with a laid-back rhythm of an early blues. Principal trombonist, Martin Hubel, will be there, we are informed, with “a trombone and a toilet plunger.” The other special feature is a new band commission by William R. Wilcox, titled inspired, they tell us, by the famous march. (In golf, a bogey is, of course, “one over par.”)


It is a bit too early to report on the plans for this year of the Uxbridge Community Concert Band. This a summertime band which usually begins rehearsals in May. Since last December, Conductor Steffan Brunette has been dealing with a serious health crisis. Now on the mend, he and his committee are making plans which will include two standby assistant conductors to step in if needed. There are about 60 people on the band list, so they should be up and running soon, so stay tuned.

Other Recent Events

Before closing I feel compelled to report on three very different musical events which I had the pleasure of attending a week before I began this column. While none had anything to do with concert bands or their music, they all left lasting musical impressions.

The first event, in Uxbridge, was one of the most unusual concerts in my memory. It was officially titled “Chiaroscuro,” meaning “from light to dark into light.” The featured work was by Greek-born Canadian composer Christos Hatzis, a professor of composition at the University of Toronto. It was a work for choir, percussion, electronic audio effects and bass clarinet. The featured guest performer, on bass clarinet, was Jeff Reilly, senior CBC Radio producer of music production for the Atlantic Region, who has an international reputation as an innovative master of the bass clarinet.

The second event was a violin recital by Duncan McDougall. I first heard him perform as a child old-time fiddler at a summer event in a park in Uxbridge. This time it was a “Violin Recital” with selections from such as Mozart’s , Saint-Saëns’ , Mendelssohn’s and other works by Bach and Paganini. This Grade 11 high school student performed the entire program from memory with amazing stage presence. Now serving as co-concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, Duncan will be attending Morningside Music Bridge at the New England Conservatory this coming summer. He’s one to keep an eye on.

The third event was a performance at Roy Thomson Hall of Gustav Mahler’s by the TSO, Amadeus Choir and The Elmer Iseler Singers. Going from a solo recital one evening to this massive work two days later was quite an experience. How often does one see no fewer than eight French horns in one orchestra? To top it all off, Juanjo Mena, who was supposed to conduct the three performances of this work, was suddenly taken ill. Matthew Halls stepped in at the last minute and made it look as though he had prepared for weeks. His athletic conducting style made him one of the stars. 


MAY 3, 7:30PM: Scarborough Concert Band. Spring Concert. Keith Bohlender, conductor. Wilmar Heights Centre, 963 Pharmacy Ave., Scarborough.

MAY 5, 11AM: Mississauga Big Band Jazz Ensemble. MBBJE Live big band recording with guest vocalists Whitney Ross-Barris, Sam Broverman, Glenn Chipkar, Suzanne McKenney, Denise Leslie. Port Credit Legion, 35 Front St. N., Port Credit.

MAY 5, 3PM: The Weston Silver Band will have their “Afternoon at the Proms” with. Canadian and British repertoire. Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St.W.

MAY 24, 8PM: Etobicoke Community Concert Band presents “On the Road Again,” with guest: Calvin Morais. Etobicoke Collegiate Auditorium, 86 Montgomery Rd., Etobicoke.

MAY 25, 7:30PM: Silverthorn Symphonic Winds present “Masters of Music.” Cable: Scottish Rhapsody; Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite; Hazo: Arabesque. Wilmar Heights Centre, 963 Pharmacy Ave., Scarborough.

MAY 26, 1:30PM: Music at Metropolitan with the Metropolitan Silver Band . Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St. E.

MAY 26, 2PM: The Mississauga Big Band Jazz Ensemble. “Jazz at the Legion.” Port Credit Legion, 35 Front St. N., Port Credit.

JUN 1, 7:30PM: The Barrie Concert Band presents “150 Years – Let’s Celebrate!” featuring Mark Tetrault on tuba; Peter Volsey, music director; and former conductors of the Barrie Concert Band. Collier Street United Church, 112 Collier St., Barrie.

JUN 2, 3:30PM: The North Toronto Community Band. will have their “Spring Rhythms” with marches, classics, show tunes, big band and more. Danny Wilks, conductor; Phil Coonce, violin; Sharon Smith, vocalist. Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East Building, York University, 4700 Keele St.

JUN 2, 7PM: Strings Attached Orchestra. will have their “Family & Friends Annual Year End Concert.” Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. W.

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

It has been a long, wet, cold road that we, weary citizens of Southern Ontario, have trod since the end of December. As of the publication of this issue of The WholeNote, it will have been about six weeks since the official start of spring; as of the actual writing of this column, in mid-to-late April, we have yet to experience any consistent period of the kind of spring weather that could conceivably inspire hope, cheerfulness, or meteorological trust. (As I look out the window at the world into which I will eventually have to journey, I’m treated to a vision of Toronto at its gloomy worst, with bright umbrellas on rain-soaked sidewalks providing the only glimpse of colour.) But before we allow ourselves to give in to despair in this season of perpetual discomfort, and without resorting to flowery clichés about how all of this rain will be worthwhile, we should perhaps consider the various ways in which things are, in fact, getting better in May. The first: May will be the first month since August in which the sun will be setting after 8pm for the majority of the month, making the decision between going out to see a show and staying in to watch yet more Netflix easier. The second: May marks something of a beginning to the run-up to the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, which will be starting on June 21, and which will be covered in a variety of ways, as in previous years, by The WholeNote, both in print and online. The third: there will be a lot of great music happening.

The North: (from left) Mike Murley, David Braid, Anders Mogensen, Johnny ÅmanThe multi-night engagement, once a norm for clubs, is something of a rarity today. It is a tradition carried on by a few notable clubs, such as Manhattan’s venerable Blue Note, which, this May, will present funk saxophone legend Maceo Parker for no fewer than 12 performances over the course of six days. When we see a multi-night engagement in Toronto, however, it’s typically for a two-night run, which tends to happen regularly at The Rex, Jazz Bistro, and a few other venues. It is noteworthy, then, that Jazz Bistro will be hosting The North, a collaborative, international quartet made up of Toronto-based musicians Mike Murley (saxophone) and David Braid (piano), Sweden’s Johnny Åman (bass) and Denmark’s Anders Mogensen (drums), for three evenings near the end of May. Winning a 2018 JUNO Award for their self-titled album, the theme that binds this collective together is a shared cultural experience of living in “the north,” whether in Canada or Scandinavia. Most WholeNote readers will likely be familiar with Braid and Murley, both of whom are mature, technically accomplished players who tend to favour communication and big-picture group improvisation over individual instrumental athleticism, an outlook which seems to be shared by Åman and Mogensen. The North appears in Toronto as part of touring efforts that have led them throughout Europe, to Australia and to China; check them out at Jazz Bistro on May 23, 24 and 25.

Teri Parker at the Halifax Jazz Festival, 2017Another multi-night engagement will be taking place at the end of May at The Rex, on May 30 and 31, as Teri Parker’s Free Spirits ensemble takes the stage in tribute to pianists Mary Lou Williams and Geri Allen. For those unfamiliar with these two seminal figures in the history of jazz piano, some context. Williams (1910-1981) was a textbook musical prodigy, learning how to play piano at age three and performing at parties to earn money for her family by age six. At the age of 19, after playing with Duke Ellington’s band, she was composing and arranging for her own group, one of the few women to do so at the time as an instrumentalist. A lifelong educator, she played with and mentored many leading bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Williams was a major influence on Allen (1957-2017), who led the Mary Lou Williams Collective, in addition to her own groups, which regularly featured musicians such as Wallace Roney, Ron Carter, and Terri Lyne Carrington. In addition to Parker, the Free Spirits band consists of trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, alto saxophonist Allison Au, bassist Lauren Falls, and drummer Sarah Thawer, who will be playing Williams and Allen compositions that span almost 100 years of jazz.

Mother’s Day: An important reminder for all readers: Mother’s Day is May 12. If you are reading this closer to the beginning of May, there is still ample time to organize a card, make some plans, and pick out some sort of gift. Unless your mother is particularly fond of flowers, chocolate and the like, try your best to avoid these trite avatars of affection; instead, consider giving her something that she might actually like, such as quality time with you. While my own mother has described spending long periods of time with me as “something of a chore,” she still enjoys my company in small doses, particularly when I put in the effort to actually make plans with her that she might enjoy. (How was I to remember, when I dragged her along to watch the climbing documentary Free Solo, that she was afraid of heights, and would spend the following hour and a half in the movie theatre with her hands over her eyes, cursing at me?) In any case, the proposition at which I’m driving is that you, dear reader, consider taking the mother figure in your life to one of the fine shows happening on Mother’s Day weekend. Amongst the many possibilities, there are a few bona fide Mother’s Day performances happening, including (but not limited to) a Mother’s Day brunch at Lula Lounge, a Mother’s Day Jazz Brunch at Hugh’s Room, featuring a number of excellent singers, including Joanna Majoko, Mingjia Chen and Jocelyn Barth, and a Mother’s Day-themed evening performance by Fern Lindzon at Jazz Bistro, all happening on Sunday May 12. In any case, whatever you decide to do, just don’t take your mother to a movie that gives her motion sickness, especially not after taking her out to a two-hour tasting-menu meal. She will thank you. 


MAY 4, 2:30PM: Pat LaBarbera Quartet, The Pilot. Internationally renowned saxophonist LaBarbera leads his quartet at The Pilot’s second-floor Stealth Lounge.

MAY 12, 7PM: Mother’s Day with the Fern Lindzon Trio, Jazz Bistro. Pianist/vocalist Lindzon hosts a special Mother’s Day-themed evening at Jazz Bistro.

MAY 23 TO MAY 25, 9PM: The North, Jazz Bistro. The cross-border collective The North performs for three consecutive nights as part of their international tour, with David Braid, Mike Murley, Johnny Åman and Anders Mogensen.

MAY 30 AND 31, 9:30PM: Teri Parker’s Free Spirits, The Rex. Parker leads a new quintet for two nights at The Rex in tribute to pianists Geri Allen and Mary Lou Williams.

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

Raven Chacon bannerRaven ChaconBack in November 2018, I wrote about a conversation I had with David Schotzko, Arraymusic’s new artistic director. One of the things he told me about at the time was his plan to continue Arraymusic’s community-based focus through co-productions as well as the presenting of mini-festivals that highlight the music of specific composers. On the weekend of April 12 to 14, one such co-produced mini-festival will come to fruition, bringing together Arraymusic, the Music Gallery and Native Women in the Arts to present the music of Raven Chacon.

I had a chance to speak with Chacon about the music we’ll be hearing during the festival as well as acquaint myself with some of his other artistic projects and his thinking about music and composition. What I discovered was an intriguing body of work that was coming from a unique perspective: one that not so much pushed against established new music norms, but rather one that originated from a different place, a different mind.

Before we began our conversation, Chacon handed me a large-sized postcard with an image from Canyon de Chelly on the front, with recording grooves, playable on a turntable, imprinted upon the cardboard paper. It was a field recording he had made in 1999 from the Canyon de Chelly, located in the state of Arizona, east of the Grand Canyon – a visually stunning place close to the Navajo Nation home where he grew up. Later in our conversation he spoke about this recording: “It was made in a quiet place at a quiet time of day. In the studio, I turned the volume up to the max. It’s not about the pristine anthropological capturing or listening to this place. It’s about letting this place scream. Speak and scream,” he said.

Even though we were sitting in a Toronto café for our conversation, I felt the presence of this other space as we spoke about his chamber music compositions, noise-based pieces, score notations, installations, films and his various collaborations.

The mini-festival begins on April 12 with a concert of Chacon’s chamber music performed by the Array Ensemble. One piece on the program will be his solo cello work Quiver, commissioned by Michelle Kesler in 2018 and one of a three-part series of pieces connected to hunting. This hunting series began with his piece Taa’go Deza [Three Points], three songs for singing cellist commissioned by Dawn Avery in 2007. During that piece, the performer sounds like an animal being chased while having to sing and play simultaneously. Invisible Arc for solo cello, written in 2017, is inspired by a traditional Navajo hunting song and reflects the process of waiting for the animal as a prayer for the life of the animal about to be killed.) Quiver, Chacon explains, is about conflicting actions, much like what happens when one tries to rub one’s stomach in a circular motion while patting the head. During the hunt, the conflict comes in the trading of one life for another, the need to hunt and kill an animal so one can survive. One instance of this occurs musically when the cellist is asked to perform circular bowing in one direction while drumming with their fingers on the bow.

Other works on Friday night’s concert include Lats’ aadah, for solo violin (2004), a word which means the number 11 in Navajo; Naakishchiin Ana’i, for flute and marimba (2004) which includes a lot of silence during the piece; and a newly commissioned work titled (Bury Me) Where The Lightning [Will] Never Find Me for violin, cello, clarinet and percussion. In this piece, he is experimenting with zigzag forms within melodies, rhythmic patterns, timbral shapes and tempo accelerations; it is a continuation of a previous work, Atsiniltlishiye, from 2003.

The Saturday concert will feature four works that are part of Chacon’s ongoing project For Zitkála-Šá. Each piece in this series is written for a specific performer, and during the festival, we will hear the pieces he created for Cheryl L’Hirondelle, a Toronto-based singer of Cree descent; Suzanne Kite, a Lakota composer and performer currently based in Montreal; Laura Ortman, a White Mountain Apache violinist and improvisor from New York City, and Carmina Escobar, a Mestiza experimental vocalist and composer living in Los Angeles. Chacon originally wanted to write a large symphonic-like work about Zitkála-Šá whom he discovered while researching to find out who might have been the first recognized native composer. Zitkála-Šá was a Dakota woman who was an activist and writer of fiction and non-fiction, including political op-eds and essays, Chacon told me. She was also a composer and violinist, co-composing The Sun Dance Opera in 1913 with William F. Hanson. It is hard to know precisely what her contributions were to the creative process, Chacon says, but he speculates that she played or sang melodies that Hanson transcribed. “The more I researched her life, the more I realized she was a polarizing and controversial figure, even today, with how she had to navigate herself as a Native woman in the early 20th century. I abandoned the idea of writing about her and instead decided to write a series of solo pieces using graphic scores for 13 contemporary Indigenous women composers.” Besides the four pieces we will hear on the April 13 concert, pieces for two other local composer/performers – Barbara Croall and Ange Loft – are part of the ongoing project, as well as plans for a lecture series and a book. During the second half of Saturday’s concert, Chacon will perform with the trio c_RL (Allison Cameron, Nicole Rampersaud and Germaine Liu), whom I also wrote about back in November.

Sunday’s concert will begin with an opening set by Anishinaabe-Irish (Nipissing First Nation) saxophonist Olivia Shortt, followed by Chacon performing an electronic noise set. The main instrument he will use is a pair of hyper-directional speakers that will beam sound on audience members. The sounds being played back are field recordings he made at Standing Rock during the Dakota Access [oil] Pipeline protests.

Chacon’s ideas about music and composition are intriguing and inspiring. “I’m always trying to think of what I’m defining as music. For me it shifts. Sometimes there is a clear difference between music and sound art. Music is something that doesn’t ever need to be explained or spoken about, it’s already doing that. It doesn’t need to be justified. The more I think about music, the less I’m confident that it requires sound.” That seems contradictory, so I asked him to elaborate, and he spoke about time, positions in time and about how the events that arise in time are more important than the actual sound. He painted a picture of how a performance could be likened to the situation of he and I sitting in the café, engaging in actions along a timeline.

Clockwise from top left: Carmina Escobar’s score of For Zitkála-Šá, Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s score of For Zitkála-Šá, Laura Ortman’s score of For Zitkála-Šá, Suzanne Kile’s score of For Zitkála-Šá“We are syncing up,” he said, “because we are consciously connecting, or placing ourselves in the context of this space together. I think what’s interesting is how the events that you do and the events that I do might align or not align. Within such a situation, artifacts will arise – artifacts such as sound or moving image, a meditation or prayer or some other experience we don’t know how to define. When I say artifacts I mean the leftovers of the real-time experience which might not be the main guts of the thing.” Most of the chamber works we will hear in the first concert on Friday night are pieces coming from this point of view, works “that are primarily written for the people who are playing them and nobody else. The audience just happens to be there,” he said. With the solo works, there is a feedback loop built into the piece. “In Quiver, for example, this happens a lot, with the performer interacting silently with the audience. Dynamics are written on the rests to show how the performer might interact, to indicate the intensity of the way they manage that feedback loop.”

In the course of our conversation, we also spoke about a work composed for the Kronos Quartet as part of their Fifty for the Future project (something Toronto audiences were introduced to in 2016 when Kronos performed during the 21C Festival). In Chacon’s Kronos piece, The Journey of the Horizontal People (2016), he worked with the idea of a future creation story, “an alternate universe creation story” with people dispersing from a place to find other people like them in order to survive. “This could be related to the need to create diversity in philosophy, world view, or genetics,” he explained. “The music is written in such a way that the players will get lost, even the virtuosic players of Kronos. For example, at one point, the first violinist is asked to speed up, the cellist to slow down, the second violinist to stay at the original tempo, and the viola to speed up immensely.” Another aspect of the piece, he says, is that it stipulates that a woman must be in the quartet, as she is the one called upon to realign the other performers when they get lost. “And if no woman is in the quartet?” I asked. “Two options are possible: the eldest person in the quartet takes on that role, but more preferable would be for the man who most identifies as a woman. If more than one woman is in the quartet, the oldest one is chosen.” In this way, the matriarchal worldview found in many native traditions becomes an integral aspect of the piece, but as Chacon adds, “This should reflect everyone’s worldview.”

Another significant aspect of Chacon’s creative work has been his involvement in Postcommodity, a collective of Native American artists that began in 2007 and with whom he worked from 2009 to 2018. Much of Postcommodity’s work is installation-based with sound being one of the main mediums used. One of Chacon’s favourite pieces with the collective, he says, is the four-act opera The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking, from 2017, a site-specific work using LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices) to project hyper-directional sound upon the ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Greece. Each day, the installation performed music from Greece and the Southwestern United States, with a libretto both spoken and sung that told stories of long-walk migrations. Another collaboration is a performance art film created with Postcommodity member Cristóbal Martínez that tells the story of two characters searching for the mythological cities of gold which the conquistadors believed were in New Mexico. The piece has been showing this past winter at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston as part of an exhibition titled Soundings that explores the question of how a score can be a call, and tool, for decolonization.

Postcommodity’s From SmokeCurrently, Chacon is feeling the pull back to composing chamber music, finishing pieces already started or developing ideas he has been working on for a while. One major project due to be performed this November is Sweet Land, an opera with American composer Du Yun. They will be working with Yuval Sharon, the artistic director of The Industry, a company dedicated to new and experimental opera located in Los Angeles. The opera is an alternate history of the United States focusing on encounters such as ships arriving on a shore, railroads cutting through the country, and feasts or welcomings that turned out one way or the other. The opera will be telling of these encounters and contacts between Indigenous people and others coming to visit.

Overall, the weekend of April 12 to 14 provides an excellent opportunity to hear a body of work that combines many refreshing ideas and creative strategies from someone relatively new to local audiences. I for one look forward to having a unique experience of engagement with the musical imaginings of Raven Chacon.

Raven Chacon: Mini-Festival takes place at 918 Bathurst Street, Friday to Sunday April 12 to 14.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

In with the new Quick Picks

APR 5, 7PM: Esprit Orchestra presents “New Wave Reprise” with world premieres by five emerging composers. The evening includes a keynote address by Montreal composer John Rea.

APR 6, 8PM: Spectrum Music presents “Jests in Time!” with compositions inspired by the Jester archetype and a pre-concert monologue by an emerging Toronto comedian. New pieces by Spectrum composers Chelsea McBride, Mason Victoria, Jackson Welchner, Graham Campbell, Tiffany Hanus and Noah Franche-Nolan will be presented by performers Simone Baron, accordion, the Odin String Quartet and Alex Pollard, dancer.

APR 28, 3PM: The Music Gallery presents “Sounding Difference,” another in their Deep Listening experiences with Anne Bourne performing the text scores of Pauline Oliveros. Free.

APR 28, 8PM: New Music Concerts. Their “Luminaries” concert remembers the music of two friends of NMC over the years: Gilles Tremblay and Pierre Boulez. The evening includes the performance of Tremblay’s work Envoi for solo piano and ensemble, and Boulez’s iconic masterpiece Le Marteau sans maître poems by René Char for voice and six instruments.

MAY 3, 8PM: The Music Gallery. In this final Emergents concert of the season, the experimental music theatre group Din of Shadows will present their newest project Material Mythology with a team of performers, composers, dancers and visual artists. The piece speculates about the hidden meanings and mythologies behind everyday actions, objects and spaces.

Back to top