The year 2017 was one in which women broke barriers in speaking up against abuse, particularly within the powerful corridors of the entertainment industry, political institutions and the media. Time magazine honoured this historical breakthrough by naming their Person of the Year for these women who dared to speak up, calling them “The Silence Breakers.”

Yoko Ono Revisited

In the autumn of 1961, Yoko Ono created her Voice Piece for Soprano, a conceptual score with instructions to “Scream
1. against the wind; 2. against the wall; 3. against the sky.” In the late 50s, Ono was part of a constellation of creative people connected to composer John Cage, and began experimenting with what she called “instruction works,” meaning “paintings to be constructed in your head.” Her Voice Piece for Soprano was one of these works, and was published a few years later in 1964 as part of her book Grapefruit. She speaks of this work as giving her an opportunity to express her rebelliousness as a woman and the need to scream against certain situations in life. She also saw it as an act of resistance, stating in a 2015 interview connected to a performance of her Voice Piece, that if women don’t express their emotions, they can become ill.

This coming February 23, in a co-presentation between the Music Gallery and the Gardiner Museum, Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano will be explored by three local artists who have been invited to respond to Ono’s instructions for screaming. These performers include Lillian Allen, a pioneering voice of dub poetry in Canada; the Element Choir, an improvising choir directed by Christine Duncan; and Mamalia, the former lead singer of the JUNO-nominated contemporary jazz troupe Sekoya. The concert, titled “Voice Pieces,” is being held as a companion event for the Gardiner Museum’s exhibition Yoko Ono: THE RIVERBED, running from February 23 to June 3.

Ono’s resistance piece remains as timely now as when first created, since the need for women to speak out with force against how they have been treated within patriarchal institutions has reached a tipping point. However, I’m certain that Ms. Ono would not concur with the descriptive phrase used in the Music Gallery’s press release, describing this voice as the “out of control female voice pushed to its supposed limits,” nor with using the word “hysterical” to describe the type of voice that engages in therapeutic screaming. It’s time to reframe how we think of the female voice, long held in contempt, mistrust and suspicion from the days of early Christianity up to the present.

Lillian Allen

I approached Allen to speak about her work as a leader in spoken word and dub poetry, her understanding of the voice, and of her plans for the Voice Pieces concert at the Gardiner Museum. Back in 1988, I had interviewed Allen for Musicworks magazine, and so I began with asking her how she would describe the evolution of her career over these past 30 years. She described her work as “helping to innovate, motivate and originate the form of spoken word which has become so important in the worlds of hip-hop and rap.

“I went out into the culture, combining words, music and experimentation and this influence can be traced in the work of many people, including Canadian rappers Saukrates and Drake. This hidden influence has given me great satisfaction. As Leonard Cohen says in his song: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ I helped to make a crack in a few things. I could have gone the pop commercial route myself, but I stayed with my own work of writing, performing and touring, and also went into teaching at OCAD, which gives me an opportunity to be out there and to give back. I’m still involved in initiating and supporting groups, individuals, and the whole movement of putting voices out in the world.”

Lillian Allen. Photo by Karen Lee.Allen continues to be both excited and challenged by her work. In 2012 she released her album Anxiety, created through a process of working in her living room with various audio devices to create layerings and sonic manipulations of her voice. She explored pre-language sounds and misconfigurations of the voice while also staying close to language in order to bring out a narrative message. She did it for the love of exploration, and not with any preconceived ideas of whether it would become a product or if it would sell. “I was just grooving with it, listening to it, having a conversation with it, and being there with the totality of it.” Her approach was to simply “work and experiment, and out of that I could then pull something.”

On Voice

We then turned to speaking about the voice and I asked her to comment on the voice itself and her relationship to her own voice. “Voice is the thing that gives you motion, gives you vibrational motion. It is vocalized emotion that makes you larger than whatever moment you are in, both in sound and in what you have to say. There is a time to be still, and the inner voice is there. But the voice itself is so full of life, it’s almost a symbol for life and growth. It is that channel inside the unknown, it gets into things we don’t know we know, or that we know but forget. It’s like a path in a forest that you either cut or make. In your psyche, the voice makes that path for you, and you can journey with it, see things and go into imaginary places. It’s the power of YOU, its part of your heartbeat, it’s the power of your lungs, your muscles, it’s not just your fingers on a keyboard. You connect with it, it’s floating in and out of you.

“The physical resonance of the voice is something I love. The resonating voice is almost like beings existing, as if you are creating beings and they are existing in each note, in each sound. You can feel that vibration in the room, in your body. It’s a beautiful thing, and is the reason I love performing and being out there. It creates real magic. Everybody connects to sound. They might not connect to a phrase or image in the English language, but they’ll connect to sound. That was so evident when I did a tour in the UK and France with my CD Anxiety. People connected to the sound – it needed no interpretation.”

She then spoke about the fears people have around the voice. “I do find that people are scared of sound, scared of hearing their voices, scared of messing with language. They need permission. I find adults to be more like this. They feel confronted because they wonder – what does this new territory mean, where will it take me? But once they get into it, once they’re in the water and the waves are there, they can’t help but smile and be happy.”

We spoke about Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano, the scream, and so-called uncontrolled sound. “This is an artist construction, highly crafted, highly controlled. There’s a sophisticated thought process in even arriving at that concept, it’s a breakthrough. Then to shape it, to rehearse it at different levels – in your mind, on a mic, in a room – you want to know what the impact is, you want your artistic vision to land in a certain way. Women have always gone outside the strictures of language and the hierarchy of various language forms to express themselves. Maybe that’s where the original scream comes from. Do not control, do not get us to conform to your realities and your knowledge that shapes that reality. We know that more exists and that the emotive parts of our existence are essential and important to our lives. We know it’s important to create and communicate something more meaningful and textured that people can connect to.”

Allen is still reflecting on the nature of her contribution to the Voice Pieces concert but plans to include some pieces from her Anxiety album. She will also likely bring in either students or young people from the community to join her, something she now does regularly when performing. She also envisions layering and texturing the sounds, pushing the sound and the conversation into different aspects. “Right now as I prepare, I’m listening and working with my concept, bringing in materials from my own experience as well as researching history.” I may place the students in the space to echo or reverb what I’m producing, and the performance could also include creating a sound improvisation with the audience.”

I expect that this event will be another important moment in the reclamation of the female voice. All three invited artists will add their own unique perspective on the power of vocal expression, and in particular, “the scream.”

Not So New Creations

John Adams

Other upcoming events include the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival, running this year from March 3 to 10. In a departure from previous years, there will be no featured guest composer or curator. Instead the programming will feature three concerts of TSO music director Peter Oundjian’s personal favourites as a way of celebrating his 14th and final season as music director, which has included the successful New Creations Festival. We will hear works by Vivian Fung, Larry Alan Smith, Daníel Bjarnason (March 3); Wolfgang Rihm, James MacMillan and the festival composer competition winner (March 7); and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gary Kulesha and John Adams (March 10).

Last year’s festival curated by indie musician Owen Pallett highlighted a diverse array of composers and performers, attempting to address issues of race and gender inclusion. Alas, I note that it appears this initiative was not continued in this year’s offerings.

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

I look forward each February to focus my column’s lens on Black History Month as celebrated in music. Last year I mentioned that the City of Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to proclaim BHM in 1979, recognizing “the past and present contributions that African Canadians make to the life of Toronto….”

It was only as recently as 2016 however, that Ontario passed legislation to formally recognize February as BHM on a continual annual basis. Its history is ever evolving. Therefore I recently asked Andrew Craig, the Toronto-based vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, broadcaster and musical director of high-profile tributes to Quincy Jones and Oscar Peterson, for his views of its relevance today.

“Black History Month, in my estimation, continues to grow in importance and significance. In recent years, our many screens have become flooded with increasingly negative images of people of African descent in compromised or disempowered circumstances. The media is quick to latch on to stories depicting people of colour in well-worn stereotypical roles. What gets far less airtime are stories, both past and present, of the incredible contributions African descendants have made to the development of our contemporary society and culture.

“Despite the fact that these accounts of heroic and exemplary Blacks are so often relegated to the margins of the history books, a fresh retelling of their struggles and triumphs provides inspiration to all, regardless of one’s background or colour,” Craig concluded.

Andrew CraigPortraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy

Craig puts his ideas into action on February 23 at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Culchahworks Arts Collective, of which he is the founder and artistic director, presents a hybrid live action/videotaped evening titled “Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy.”

This theatrical event, conceived, written and directed by Craig, paints a portrait of three important Black Canadians and the historical milestones they set. Portrayed by actors, the characters collectively observe that despite their considerable accomplishments the struggles they fought for continue to this day. Nevertheless a core theme of optimism permeates Trilogy, the show envisioning a “brighter future for all of us,” as Craig puts it.

The first landmark covered is the 225th anniversary of the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1793. Craig notes that the Black slave woman Chloe Cooley was the catalyst for the introduction of this legislation, the first to limit and ultimately abolish slavery in the British Empire.

As well, this year is the 195th birthday of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), the first Black woman publisher in North America, notable also as the first woman publisher in Canada. In addition, she was a pioneer in the desegregation of schools, worked for women’s suffrage and graduated as a lawyer at the age of 60! The third milestone being celebrated is the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the NHL colour barrier by Boston Bruins hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree, known as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”

To aid in telling these inspiring stories Craig has programmed music drawn from a mix of sources. It ranges in time and genre from a cappella choral music evoking field hollers and Negro spirituals, up to instrumental music in the style of the post-WWII era. Much of the score will be by Craig himself.

The evening will be videoed live with the public invited to be part of the studio audience. Join me in commemorating these compelling Black Canadian figures and witness the making of Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities, an essential story in our complex national narrative.

Africa Without Borders

Much earlier in the month, on February 3, Alliance Française de Toronto and Batuki Music Society mark BHM with a concert, “Africa Without Borders,” at the Alliance Française’s Toronto venue. The Okavango African Orchestra, winner of the 2017 JUNO Award for Best World Music Album of the Year, is featured. OAO recorded their album in front of a jammed house at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio during BHM.

The eight accomplished African-born musicians in OAO now live in Toronto and Montreal. They include Daniel Nebiat (krar, vocals) from Eritrea, Donne Roberts (guitar, vocals) from Madagascar and Tichaona Maredza (marimba, nyunga-nyunga, hosho, vocals) from Zimbabwe. In addition Kooshin (kaban, vocals) is from Somalia, while Sadio Sissokho (kora, tama, djembe, vocals) came from Senegal, Nicolas Simbananiye (vocals) is from Burundi, while Kofi Ackah (percussion, vocals) and Ebenezer Agyekum (bass) both hail from Ghana. The group’s Batuki Music Society artist page neatly sums up the numbers: “Okavango African Orchestra: 12 instruments, 10 languages, 7 countries … one special concert.”

“The orchestra takes its name from the Okavango Delta, a basin in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where many different animal species come together to feed and find water. Similarly, the Okavango African Orchestra brings together the traditional music and instruments of several major African cultures that historically have had little or no interaction. The musicians of Okavango have created a common meeting place for these disparate cultures, and a new musical language that harmonizes their different tuning systems, rhythms and timbres. The multicultural spirit of modern-day Canada bridges ancient African solitudes.”

The group draws on music genres like Somali jazz, Tigrinya folk music, Malagasy ballads and salegy, hybrid sounds of Shona folk and popular music of Zimbabwe, West Africa griot music and Ghanaian highlife, all vital elements in the successful musical recipe cooked up by OAO.

OAO’s Facebook event page closes with the group’s aspirational message: to continue its collective “journey to an Africa without borders … before the borders were created.”

Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Kaia Kater

On February 24, the Aga Khan Museum partners with Batuki Music Society to present its BHM-themed concert,” Kaia Kater and Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble,” at the Museum. In an exploration of “Black/African diasporic cultural expression in all its many forms,” this concert draws on traditional and contemporary instruments, genres and performance styles. The music ranges from “Nubia to Harlem via Appalachia, New Orleans and Mississauga.”

Ruth Mathiang. Photo by Cari Flammia.The double bill brings together Waleed Kush Jazz Ensemble with guest singer Ruth Mathiang, and banjo player, singer-songwriter Kaia Kater, to explore musical expressions of the African-Canadian experience.

Of African-Caribbean descent, the Quebec born Kaia Kater grew up between two worlds. In her Toronto home she experienced her family’s ties to Canadian folk music firsthand; in West Virginia on the other hand, she immersed herself in the deeply rooted musical traditions of Appalachia. Her debut album Sorrow Bound (2015) referenced this divide. Kater’s second album, Nine Pin (2016), delves even further into the realities faced by people of colour in North America. Her restrained but idiomatically spot-on banjo finger picking provides an elegant support for her expressive voice.

The Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble combines African rhythms and melodies, melding them with jazz harmonies and song forms. Led by the Sudan-born Toronto multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist Abdulhamid, band members include local musicians Aaron Ferrera, John Ebata and Cory Sitek. The group writes that “just as Toronto is a harmonious mix of culture and people … [so] the inspiration for our music … is the harmonious mixing of rhythm and harmony.” Poet and singer-songwriter Ruth Mathiang, also born in Sudan but commencing her musical career in Kenya, is the group’s guest vocalist.

Angélique Kidjo

We wind up our non-definitive look at BHM (for many more concerts please check The WholeNote’s listings) with Angélique Kidjo’s concert at Koerner Hall on March 3.

Angélique KidjoThree-time Grammy Award winner, dancer, songwriter, author and social activist, Angélique Kidjo is among the top tier of international singers today, a creative force with some 15 album credits. I was immediately struck by her powerful voice and commanding stage presence when I saw her perform live at Toronto’s Harbourfront at the beginning of her very active touring career. Time magazine has since acclaimed her “Africa’s premier diva.”

As well as performing her original songs Kidjo’s music ranges across ethnicities, boundaries and genres, cross-pollinating the West African music of her native Benin with R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, French Caribbean zouk, Congolese rumba and Latin music. She does it all with “irresistible energy and joie de vivre.” (Los Angeles Times)

Though for many years unconvinced of the value of European classical music, Kidjo has however maintained a lifelong curiosity and transcultural ambition. It’s a trait she says she learned from her father. 2014 marked the beginning of her work with European symphony orchestras with the release of her Grammy Award-winning album Eve. It included Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg among many other top collaborators. The same year she collaborated on a song cycle based on Yoruba poems with American composer Philip Glass. The result was Ifé, Three Yorùbá Songs, scored for orchestra and Kidjo’s eloquently impassioned vocals. For its 2015 American premiere performance with the San Francisco Symphony, Philip Glass wrote in the program notes, “Angélique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before.”

Her latest album, Sings (2015), continues her journey with the orchestra in a collection of nine songs arranged by Gast Waltzing and performed with his Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. The stylistically ambitious recording combines the formal, reserved qualities of European classical music with the freedom of jazz and the emotional intensity and rhythmic verve of African and Brazilian rhythms. It won her another Grammy.

Kidjo’s Koerner Hall appearance however will be with a considerably more streamlined touring band including guitarist Dominic James, bassist Ben Zwerin, drummer Yayo Serka and percussionist Magatte Sow.

Thanks for reading my BHM picks. Now get out and enjoy some live music!

QUICK PICKS

Feb 1: Aga Khan Museum/Instituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto.” Musical Inventions by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr Draw.” Angeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition but influenced by avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

Feb 9: Alliance Française de Toronto. “Exoria: Songs of Exile.” Montréal Greek music-centered Ensemble Rebetika examines the 20th-century Greek experience of exile through songs.

Feb 10: Music Gallery/Native Women in the Arts. “Mother Tongue” features Joanne Shenandoah, Salia Joseph, Kwiigay Iiwaans and Nelson Tagoona. The event is the first of its kind, a showcase for musicians working to revitalise their Indigenous mother tongues. 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education.

Feb 16: Aga Khan Museum.” Four Skies, Four Seasons: Under the Indian Sky.” The East-West-bridging Montreal collective, Constantinople, welcomes the renowned Indian flautist Shashank Subramanyam in a “tribute to Indian music.”

Feb 17: Lula Lounge presents “Salsa Saturday: Conjunto Lacalu, plus DJ Santiago Valasquez.” Rooted in the Cuban sonora genre, this group adds a dynamic three-trumpet horn section to a rhythm section featuring Afro-Cuban hand percussion, piano, bass and tres. Dance lessons with Dreyser Garcia are available.

Feb 17: Canadian Music Centre. “Momentary.” New works for solo kamanche (4-string Persian spike-fiddle) by Shahriyar Jamshidi composer, singer and creative Kurdish kamanche improviser.

Feb 17: Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre/Nagata Shachu. “Yukiai.” Nagata Shachu (Kiyoshi Nagata, artistic director) is joined by Chieko Kojima, a founding member and principal dancer of the best-known of all taiko groups, Kodo, in an evening of dance, drums and song at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Feb 22: Living Arts Centre presents the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in Hammerson Hall, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Feb 24: Royal Conservatory of Music presents the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.

Feb 24: Toronto Centre for the Arts. “Idan Raichel: Piano Songs.” Israeli singer-songwriter and musician Raichel, best known for his fusion of electronics, Hebrew texts and Arab and Ethiopian music returns to his first love, the piano.

Feb 24: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra marks the Chinese Year of the Dog with a celebratory concert. Wen Zhao, pipa; Adrian Anantawan, violin; Xiaoqiu Lin, erhu; Mark Rowswell (“Dashan”), host; Carolyn Kuan, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall.

Feb 27: St. Michael’s Concerts presents the Vesuvius Ensemble performing music from southern Italy circa 1600 – traditional folk music about the Sorrowful Mother and other works – featuring Francesco Pellegrino, tenor, chitarra battente; Marco Cera, mandolin, ciaramella; Lucas Harris, lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar. St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. clip_image001.png

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com

How does it happen that a young conductor from Birmingham, UK makes his Canadian debut leading the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in a pair of concerts? How is it that a young Taiwanese-American violinist makes his Toronto debut at Mooredale Concerts? And what accounts for a young German-French cellist making his Toronto debut at Koerner Hall? The coincidence of three emerging young professionals all arriving in our area over the next few weeks sparked the above questions (and several more). Their answers in a series of emails mid-January were as diverse as their backgrounds but all shared the common thread of personal connections.

Alpesh Chauhan, the 27-year-old conductor from Birmingham, told me that his management are on very good terms with the management of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and keep in touch sharing information on their clients. The invitation to guest conduct on February 9 and 10 developed out of interest on the orchestra’s part; a grateful Chauhan attributes it to strong trust between the parties.

Twenty-seven-year-old Paul Huang’s route to his February 18 Toronto recital travelled directly through pianist Wonny Song, Mooredale’s artistic director, who is also artistic director of Quebec’s Orford Music Festival. Huang, the recipient of the prestigious 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2017 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists, told me, “Both Wonny and I have won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions at some point in our careers and Wonny first heard me during a trip to New York and we were introduced through a patron of YCA.” That meeting led to Song booking Huang for his Canadian debut last summer at Orford. “He must have liked what he heard and here I am, making my first visit to Toronto!”

Versatile soloist and chamber musician, 35-year-old Nicolas Altstaedt, was chosen by Gidon Kremer to succeed him as artistic director of the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival; and he was selected by Adam Fisher to follow him as artistic director of the Haydn Philharmonic. Altstaedt spoke to RCM executive director Mervon Mehta, who books their concerts at Koerner Hall, in March of 2016 when the cellist visited Toronto with his friend and sometime chamber music partner, violinist Vilde Frang, who was giving a recital at Koerner Hall at the time. Altstaedt expressed his desire to play there and the confluence of this season’s cello series and Mehta’s familiarity with pianist Fazil Say (Altstaedt’s collaborator) sealed the deal for the March 2 recital.

Alpesh Chauhan. Photo by Patrick Allen.Alpesh Chauhan: Chauhan first discovered classical music at school, when a cello teacher performed in his school assembly in Birmingham. He was instantly hooked, and went home later that day with a cello under his arm, much to the surprise of his parents who were born in East Africa (father in Tanzania and mother in Kenya) of Indian descent (Gujarati). He became increasingly passionate about classical music throughout school and later studied cello at the Royal Northern College of Music, while at the same time conducting friends in concerts he arranged for charity. “That was my first real conducting experience and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “I quickly grew an obsession with the people at the front, and the sound they created from the podium.

“Following several years of training, studying and being mentored by great conductors like Andris Nelsons and Edward Gardner, I have now conducted two concerts at the BBC Proms, a production of Turandot at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, the BAFTA-winning children’s film Ten Pieces II with the BBC Philharmonic and a main season concert at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra. I also became principal conductor of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini last year.”

Asked specifically which conductors inspire him, Chauhan continued: “I love the gestural genius of such conductors as Carlos Kleiber and Gennady Rozhdestvensky,” he said. “One learns so much about the interaction between conductors and the sounds they wish to inspire (and the success thereof) from both of these conductors. I am very inspired by Sir Simon Rattle too as well as other visiting conductors that I assisted as guests at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [where he held the position of assistant conductor] including Edward Gardner, Walter Weller and Vassily Sinaisky. A huge inspiration for me was Andris Nelsons who I was assistant to at the CBSO in his period as music director. Some of what I learned from him includes trust and respect of the orchestral musicians, freedom in performance and concert and strength of musical ideas and interpretation.”

Paul Huang. Photo by Marco Borggreve.Paul Huang: “I was mesmerized by the sound of the violin when I was a kid,” Huang told me. “It was the singing quality and the sound that is so close to the human voice that drew me to the instrument. As a child, I was terribly shy and was not good with words, so playing the violin was a way to express myself without using words!”

I asked who his musical idols were in his formative years and he told me it was a hard question to answer. “But I will say that there are several violinists (mainly the ones from the past) that I would constantly listen to (and still do), people like Kreisler, Oistrakh, Milstein, Hassid and the young Menuhin. Outside of the violin world, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland are some of the singers that I constantly listen to and find myself feeling so inspired every time I listen to their voices.”

As to what violinists inspire him, he said those violinists who have a strong viewpoint and a voice that is convincing and unique. “I find that most of the violinists from the past generation all have a sound that is so distinctive from each other. They are all inspiring to listen to.”

Nicolas AltstaedtNicolas Altstaedt: When I asked Alstaedt what drew him to the cello he told me that his father played the piano a bit as well as the cello. His older brother started playing piano so when he was six he picked up the cello. “Once I started playing, I didn’t think of doing anything else in my life.”

He never “idolized“ interpreters he told me, “though I have certainly been influenced by artists I admired such as Gidon Kremer or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I have always found deep fascination in the process of composing and creating an artwork. There is a danger in our society in idolizing performers rather than recognizing and understanding the achievements of true creators.”

As to whom he considers to be his musical mentors, he pointed to violinist and chamber musician Eberhard Feltz as the most influential figure in his life for almost ten years. “I met him through the Quatuor Ébène, who have been working with him for a long time. They regularly came to Berlin, staying at my place while i was attending classes for sometimes up to eight hours a day. I started to study with him in 2009 and still see him on a regular basis. He keeps surprising me every time and each encounter leaves food for thought for several weeks.”

Next, I asked each musician to comment on the repertoire they will be performing.

AC: We have a great program for my KWS debut. A flashy overture by Magnus Lindberg, Aventures, which quotes many popular classical music works including Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and even Berlioz’s grand fantasy-themed Symphonie Fantastique which we perform in the second half of the concert. In between we’re joined by pianist André Laplante for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. I have a long relationship with the Berlioz as I conducted rehearsals as an assistant in Birmingham, went on to assist it a couple of times in my time at the CBSO and then conducted it in Scotland in 2016 in a program that also included Debussy’s La Mer!

PH: In general for my recital programs, I want to give audiences a variety of musical styles and a sound world palette which the violin is able to convey. For this program with my duo partner Helen Huang, we will be bringing the Dvořák Sonatina, a piece which Dvořák wrote while in America but very much had nostalgia towards his roots, with several joyful Czech dances throughout the movements. The Prokofiev F-Minor Sonata is perhaps one of the darkest sonatas ever written (like a Russian epic novel). It was written during WWII, a sonata that almost in a way documents history through the notes. In the second half we have prepared two miniature pieces (Sarasate and Kreisler) to lighten up the mood from the dark first half and make a transition to the finale of the program, which will be the colourful and brilliant Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata, a piece that is very dear to my heart.

NA: The repertoire for Altstaedt’s recital consists mostly of the works on his recent Warner Classics CD with his Koerner recital partner, Fazil Say. “I met Fazil seven years ago and commissioned a sonata while I was on the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. We started to play recitals and the following program evolved. I have a strong passion for the music at the beginning of the 20th century; Janácek and Debussy are two very different exemplary masterpieces of that period. Shostakovich has been the most influential composer in my childhood and his sonata is very similar to Fazil’s in term of architecture.”

I concluded my virtual symposium by asking each musician the question: What do you find most rewarding and most challenging in your professional life?

AC: I think one of the most important elements of my professional life is the musical and emotional reward I enjoy when playing and conducting live music. The most challenging, however, is the travel and unsettled lifestyle, which can be very tiring. I also find constantly changing repertoire to be a challenge! For example, the week before I conduct the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, I will be in Italy conducting Shostakovich 11. I’ll then travel straight to KWS for Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, followed by the Netherlands to conduct Tchaikovsky 4 and then back to Italy for Shostakovich 10!

PH: Very often when I get together with musicians we ask each other is all the stress, travelling, hours of practising, the nerves of getting on stage night after night, is this really worth it? But the answer at the end is always yes. Because when I see people coming up to me after concerts telling me how much they enjoyed the evening or sometimes how it made their lives more meaningful or even made some positive impact in their lives, for me, that’s what makes everything worth it. I believe music is the most wonderful and powerful way of bridging different roots, different cultures, different languages, different religions and different backgrounds. In the world of music, we are all on this wonderful musical platform where we are all the same and can share something in common and can understand and respect each other on a much deeper level.

NA: It is very rewarding to spend your life communicating with people in the most diverse and powerful language. I am very aware and grateful for that every day. I am currently working on The Seasons by Haydn and it has been a revelation. The same goes for pieces I have already performed like the concertos by Dutilleux and Dvořák and the complete Bach Suite Cycle, that I am playing the following week. To be in touch and discover artworks that widen your awareness on a daily basis is the most wonderful thing to grow in life.

George Li

Last month I did a Q&A with pianist George Li whose Toronto debut recital in Koerner Hall on February 4 has been postponed with no new date announced as of press time. The Q&A prompted a comment by New England Conservatory visual assets manager Andrew Hurlbut who pointed out that Li’s musical education owed a great debt to the NEC and to his studies with Wha Ryung Byun as part of the NEC/Harvard dual degree program. “It seems to me that long through line in his training is at least somewhat responsible for his current well-deserved success,” he wrote in an email. We appreciate and welcome the comments of readers far and wide.

QUICK PICKS

Feb 5: The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society is taking full advantage of charismatic clarinetist Dionysis Grammenos’ stint as assistant conductor for the COC’s production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. K-WCMS is connecting him with the popular piano quartet, Ensemble Made in Canada, for a performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet Op.115, another exquisite work from the composer’s last creative output. The performance will be repeated Feb 7 in Toronto as part of the COC’s free noontime concert series.

Feb 11: Anyone who was fortunate enough to experience the electricity of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at David Jalbert’s and Wonny Song’s duo piano Mooredale Concerts recital January 14 need not be reminded of Jalbert’s next appearance in our area. For his K-WCMS solo concert, the Ottawa-based virtuoso will burnish his reputation as one of Canada’s finest pianists with three Prokofiev sonatas – Nos. 2, 3 and 5 – on the same program.

Feb 15: TSO principal violist Teng Li brings her warmth and sensitivity to a program of transcriptions by the celebrated 20th-century violist William Primrose in a free noontime recital at U of T Faculty of Music’s Walter Hall. Lydia Wong is the collaborative pianist.

Feb 16: Leon Fleisher, who turns 90 later this year, conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Sibelius Symphony No.1 in Koerner Hall. He will give masterclasses in Mazzoleni Hall Feb 11 and 17. Masterclasses with Fleisher are inspirational and memorable, strewn with anecdotes. It’s no surprise, considering his close connection to Beethoven through his teacher, Artur Schnabel, a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny. A few years ago, Fleisher said he once had “the pleasure of performing with three guys named Jascha, Grisha and Bill [Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Primrose]. And it really was a pleasure.”

Feb 22: Music Toronto presents the Apollon Musagète Quartet in a program of Haydn, Arensky and Grieg. The dynamic young Polish quartet made a memorable debut in the Jane Mallett Theatre in November 2015 and their return is eagerly anticipated.

Feb 25 and 26: Canzona Chamber Players give us another chance to hear Brahms’ great clarinet quintet (along with with Hindemith’s) with Canzona co-founder Jonathan Krehm joining Csaba Koczo, Jessica Tong (violins), Robin Howe (cello) and Pocket Concerts’ Rory McLeod (viola).

Mar 1: Lang Lang, recovering from tendinitis in his left arm, will share the keyboard with 15-year-old Maxim Lando (a Lang Lang International Music Foundation Scholar) in a piano four hands arrangement of Gershwin’s exuberant Rhapsody in Blue. Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO. 

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Reading a survey of “The History of Classical Music” is an experience similar to reading the Toronto Transit Commission subway map. Broken down into its basic elements, our subterranean transit system is a series of independent and direct lines with clear paths and destinations that intersect at a relatively small number of major junctions. These junctions are occasionally chaotic (think Bloor Station at 8:30am, with an obligatory delay or two) and often confusing, with the uninitiated and unfamiliar wondering just how to get from that yellow line to that green line without being trampled by a stampeding horde of commuters.

Our conventional understanding of the history of classical music is, much like our system of underground transport, often considered in linear terms – take the Yonge line to Bloor, Bloor line to Bathurst – directional, but reading more like the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren… or, Buxtehude begat J.S. Bach; and J.S. Bach begat C.P.E. Bach; and C.P.E. Bach begat Mozart... These linear streams of music history intersect, like our Bloor and Yonge lines, relatively rarely (once every 150 years or so) often landmarked by a creative supernova: the masterworks of J.S. Bach; the creation and subsequent development of sonata form by Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the operas of Wagner; the invention of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony. These are the junctions which, we are told, changed the course of history and introduced the world to the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern eras, respectively.

Nothing, however, is as simple as it seems. Once we reach the surface and take a bird’s-eye view of these systems, we find that they are infinitely more complex and intertwined than we initially thought. Anyone who has been redirected out of Toronto’s subways (Line One is closed from Lawrence to Bloor this weekend) and forced to take shuttle buses, streetcars, or any other form of surface transportation, immediately realizes, in addition to the linear and direct lines which run underneath the city, there is an entire network of surface routing which connects our city in much more complex, thorough and occasionally hard-to-navigate ways. This is what real-life music history looks like, the apparently direct connections and creative supernovae actually consisting of myriad local and international interactions, increasing in fascinating complexity until our historical concept of “begotten-ness” is replaced by the understanding that everything is connected in one way or another

Once these connections are drawn and acknowledged, we see that it is no longer possible to parcel the history of classical music into comfortable categorizations. National musical schools, for example – Lully the Frenchman, Purcell the Englishman, Monteverdi the Italian, Bach the German – are no longer satisfactory criteria, for we often see that the country of one’s birth is significantly different from the country (or countries) responsible for one’s artistic development and inspiration. With a little bit of insight, broad categorizations, scholastically practical and academically satisfying though they are, are replaced by fascinating tales of professional musicians who worked, travelled, learned and borrowed from other countries and cultures, preserved and passed down through both musical and historical artifacts, such as Bach’s transcriptions of works by Vivaldi or the documented success of composers such as Zelenka and Heinichen, Bohemian composers who thrived within the courts of Dresden.

It is from this perspective that music, particularly the music of the Baroque, comes to life, the world of 17th-century Europe drawing from within itself to produce works of unbelievable creativity and breadth while simultaneously echoing a sentiment written by the Sherman brothers for Walt Disney 250 years later: “It’s a small world after all!”

Continental Contacts

This February is a wonderful month for fans of Baroque music – with the passing of December’s overwhelming musical offerings, the start of a new year gives ensembles time to rehearse, prepare and produce new and exciting programs. There’s something for everyone this month, but remember: whether you prefer your music with a touch of French grace, Italian joviality, German complexity, or English propriety, it’s all connected!

Rezonance: Last year Toronto’s newly-formed Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presented a fascinating concert which put the spotlight on partimenti, the study of improvisation in the Baroque era, drawing parallels between modern jazz and 17th-century classical music. The group is back on stage February 3 with “Versailles Confidential,” a multidisciplinary presentation featuring actress Ariana Marquis as the Marquise de Sévigné. With music by some of the French Baroque’s most esteemed composers including Rebel, D’Anglebert, Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Lully, official court composer of Louis XIV, this performance should be a delightful exploration of life in Baroque France.

Melos: For those further east in Ontario, Melos Choir and Period Instruments ensemble performs in Kingston on February 9. Their concert, “A Venetian Carnevale,” puts the spotlight on period vocal and instrumental music, theatre and dance from the time of Carnevale celebrations of Baroque Europe. Featured composers include Gabrieli, Lassus and Telemann, a musical kaleidoscope coloured by some fascinating bits of history. The Gabrielis were a dominant musical force in Venice and bridged the transition period between Renaissance and Baroque eras. Giovanni Gabrieli studied with Orlando di Lasso (Lassus) in Munich and subsequently taught the German composers Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz, who brought Gabrieli’s works to Germany and ultimately influenced the music of later composers such as Bach and Telemann. An innovator of the highest calibre, Gabrieli is attributed with being the first to use specified dynamics (forte, piano, etc.) in his compositions, as well as introducing the concept of instrumentation!

Thomas Hobbs. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.Alexander’s Feast: George Frederic Handel is another composer whose influence on later generations of composers cannot be understated, his oratorios and operas crafting a path for the development of an entire genre of dramatic expression. Handel was an international artist himself, German by birth but writing enormously successful works in English such as Messiah, and Italian operas including Giulio Caesare. This month (February 22 to 25), Tafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus unite to perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music with soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe, tenor Thomas Hobbs and baritone Alexander Dobson. In addition to his concert appearances, Hobbs will host a masterclass on February 24 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, where he will work with advanced students and professional musicians on Baroque vocal repertoire as part of Tafelmusik’s Guest Artist Masterclass Series. Masterclasses are fine opportunities for the public to see how much care, attention and preparation it takes to put together even the smallest amount of musical material at a professional level, a rarely seen peek behind the curtain.

St. Matthew: The works of Johann Sebastian Bach are, perhaps, the pinnacle of an individual’s internal musical synthesis, the product of an encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles coupled with a tremendous intellect and prodigious propensity for high-quality compositional output. One of Bach’s most immense, profound, and legendary masterpieces is his St. Matthew Passion, which will be performed by Chorus Niagara and the Talisker Players on March 3 in St. Catharines. If we look beyond the staggering creativity displayed within this work, it is, furthermore, incredible to think that Bach wrote such a staggering piece to be played within the context of a church service, surrounded by all the additional elements of Lutheran liturgical ritual (including a proper Protestant sermon)!

QUICK PICKS: Choir and Organ Music from Canada and Beyond

While on the topic of church music, there are two concerts taking place this month that focus on music written by legendary church musicians, one highlighting works by Healey Willan, the “Dean of Canadian Composers,” the other the inimitable organ music of J.S. Bach:

Matthew Larkin in recital on the Casavant organ in St. Matthias Anglican Church, Ottawa. Photo by Judith van Berkom.On February 16 at 8pm, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene hosts “Willan 50,” a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Willan’s death. With the combined forces of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and organists Matthew Larkin, Simon Walker and Andrew Adair, this is bound to be a heartfelt, musical and moving tribute to one of Canada’s most renowned and influential compositional characters who considered himself “English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption.”

Two days later, on February 18 at 4:30pm, fans of Bach’s organ music will be treated to an appearance by British organist David Briggs at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville. Briggs, former artist-in-residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a renowned performer and improviser, will play Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G BWV541, Pièce d’orgue BWV572, Passacaglia BWV582 and more, as well as an improvisation. If you missed the chance to hear Briggs in concert as part of the “Splendours of Notre Dame” concert at St. James Cathedral last month, take advantage of this opportunity; he is a delightfully skillful player!

As always, I encourage you to explore the full range of listings in this issue of The WholeNote – in addition to these few highlights, there are a great many fine concerts and events taking place in our city this month! Your feedback is always welcome, either in person or, if you prefer to spend the month of February in solitary hibernation, emerging only when the trees are budding, send me a note at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

You don’t often find yourself discussing the concepts of evil and ethical conduct ten minutes into the phone conversation with somebody you’ve never met before, but that’s exactly what happened during my phone interview with the playwright and hip-hop artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. I rang her at the agreed time to ask about her latest project, the libretto for the opera Forbidden, and while phone interviews usually take time gearing up, she was immediately deeply engaging and generous. A Tapestry Opera production that runs February 8 to 11, Forbidden is created out of scenes of interdiction, loosely held together by the character of a girl who is visited by Lucifer. As a hip-hop emcee, St. Bernard brings the song into the mix, and how!

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in the Theatre Passe Muraille production of The Sound of the Beast, 2017. Photo by Matthew Cooper.How did Forbidden come together?

Director Michael Mori and composer Afarin Mansouri started the project, and Michael invited me in and we just hit it off. It was a very collaborative process. We generated about 40 story ideas – the piece now has a number of vignettes that are stitched together – and we started out by asking what is forbidden and what interests us about the forbidden. We went with stories that both of us found most intriguing. And then talked them out. Afarin was able to describe to me scenes that she actually experienced that absolutely captivated my imagination. And I would take that back to the text and mix it with my own experience and then go back to her.

I won’t ask you what the libretto is “about,” as that’s always the hardest question, but still – what is the libretto going to be like?

We looked at questions around the management of women’s bodies, around religious restrictions, around political oppression. In the stories that we’ve chosen, the thread was rules and restrictions imposed by authority figures. I’m really interested in the conflict between the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. I come from a Catholic upbringing and I’d get into these arguments as a child when I was trying to understand: Why don’t we bring that homeless person to our home, mom? Well that’s not what you do, was her reply. OK, but here in the Bible… Yeah, but that’s not realistic, she’d say. What does realistic have to do with it, you told me this is absolute truth!

And as an adult I am exactly that unreasonable. If you have something that someone needs, you give it to them. I don’t understand why churches lock their doors and are gilded in gold when they can feed people instead.

So when you accept what you’ve been taught from a moral authority, and that moral authority seems to be inconsistent with what they’ve imposed on you, you have to question the teaching, you question the teacher and you have to re-orient your understanding of how the world works. That’s the territory that we’re living in. Why are things forbidden, who has the authority to forbid things, and what moral ground are they standing on – and am I following them as a matter of choice or is this somehow imposed on me? And that kind of thread runs through all of the stories in the opera.

Do all religions share a fear of the female body and the will to control it?

There are people who are drawn to leadership in those faiths who misuse the intentions of the spiritual teachings in that way. There are very few faiths with female spiritual leadership. In most faiths of which I have any experience, formal religious training happens from a male authority in a formal institution, while personal individual spiritual training happens in a home from a maternal authority. We found that to be an interesting dichotomy; institutional leadership in any faith tends to be male, but then the ongoing management of that faith tradition tends to be female-led. We are being taught to self-manage and to impose on each other rules that are not our rules; you are handed the rules and then handed a stick to keep other women in line with.

Should women not abandon all existing religious traditions, then? Why try to reform and salvage something that proscribes you?

I am very interested in Christian faiths that have women ministers. I attended a wedding once that had a woman minister officiating and I was really confused. And I have from then till now retained great disappointment in myself for how confused I was by that. Women who are fighting for leadership within the church are kind of doing it alone – women of the faith are not supporting them because we are taught not to question the religious authority. I have mixed feelings about it because as a child I thought being a nun was the greatest thing one could achieve. I really wanted that, until actually one day – I went to an all-girl Catholic school – one day a nun who was teaching there punched a student in the face. And that day I understand that being a nun would not make me a better person. That I would still be the person that I am. And that I can be the person that I am in my own clothes. And still do what I consider to be God’s work.

This is a roundabout way to say: when we think about salvaging, I think about how people who are oppressed by patriarchal structure have a desire to be absorbed into that patriarchal structure just because of the absence of alternatives – and the inability to imagine alternatives. Myself included. When I say, for example, that we should abolish prisons, that’s just obvious to me, and when people ask me then what should we do with people who break the law, all I can say is I don’t know because we haven’t been permitted the space to imagine things being any different. Maybe the institution can be salvaged, but what would it look like if we rethink the institution?

Are you in favour of the Catholic church finally allowing women to be ordained and priests to get married?

Wouldn’t that be awesome? I mean, I grew up with deacons who are married and have children and if I had a question for somebody I’d go to a deacon before a priest because I understand that they know what life is – that they’re not living in a way that’s separate and above me and at a distance from all the experiences I’m struggling with.

I guess I hope for those things, but at the same time the church has become such a political organ, and I don’t mean now with this new Pope, or with the evolution of what Islam is right now… Catholicism, and Islam, and Buddhism, it’s all becoming quite perverted in a political way and my understanding of what Christianity is is not a political Christianity. It’s so unreasonably and childishly absolute and whole. I care for everybody. I value all light. It’s hard to do, yes. That’s why it’s a goal; your spiritual life is not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be, in my opinion, all about serenity. The way that the Buddhists teach that all life is a struggle, and that the struggle has a reason – yeah. Yeah. There will be poor people – give them stuff. It’s that easy to me. Yet it’s not easy. It’s simple, but nothing simplistic about it. I think that all the faiths have a valuable core. Religion is like driving or work or anything in the world – what’s wrong with it is people. And people will always be flawed, so this will always be a problem. But at the core most faiths have really valuable guidance for us. And this is not to say that if you’re atheist or agnostic, you don’t have a moral code – you do, it’s just based in something else. We all look to find things that make us our best selves.

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (left) and Afarin MansouriLucifer too features in the Forbidden. How does that play out?

In our story, Lucifer is both the catalyst to enlightenment, and an object of pity. The central interaction is between Lucifer and a child and there’s some negotiation there. Lucifer says something I believe to be true, which is: you can’t just blindly follow this authority, you have to question things. What we’ll be seeing is a child – in my understanding, everyone’s spiritual positioning is childlike – who’s torn between the intellectual understanding that rules have to be followed, and the visceral alignment with what Lucifer is saying, You know that that guy is not always right, so why follow? Look at the world; is the world what they’ve told you?

Probably the longest conversations that I’ve had were on the nature of Lucifer. Both Afarin and I spent a lot of time looking at our respective traditions. In both cases, Lucifer has always wanted nothing but to be close to God, and my concept of how not to be allowed to be close to God is what is done to Lucifer…. I feel like western pop culture has inflated the importance and the power of Lucifer. Because it’s “juicy.” The idea that the devil wants all the souls, and evil for evil’s sake. I don’t believe in evil for evil’s sake; I believe that every villain is trying to achieve an objective, and we don’t always agree that that objective is worthy. I think that Lucifer is on this eternal punishment, and who would not be spiteful, who would not be bitter and angry in such circumstance? Who would not hurt so much that they would want to hurt everyone that they can reach?

How can I not have some compassion for that? We’re bunch of saps, I tell ya. We are a couple of soft-hearted saps, Afarin and I. But we really worked from aspects of Lucifer that are consistent between our faiths. And sort of negotiated a shared story about Lucifer. I honestly think that the devil from the movies is for people who haven’t read the Bible. If you really read the story and really look into the fallen angel concept, it’s the saddest story every told.

I don’t know if you’ve read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello? The title character, who’s an atheist, says something that struck a chord with me, also an atheist: evil, as a concept, survives even for the atheists. We’ve all seen it – if not in person, then in the news of war crimes, concentration camps... You don’t need an elaborate religious system; the concept remains useful, unfortunately.

Yes. There is such a thing as certain things being wrong. And if there was no God, those things would still be wrong.

But let’s return to the libretto. And the music. The opera will have Persian, Western classical and hip-hop music. Hip-hop is there thanks to you?

Yes, hip-hop is my primary artistic form. And because it’s TAP:EX, we want to experiment with form, we want to see what happens when the aesthetics collide. It’s not only a matter of rapping on opera, which is not a brand new thing, but it’s also a matter of engaging hip-hop aesthetics. We’re going to be doing something that’s probably uncomfortable for the singers - coming into rehearsals and going, like, “Switch it up!” Equally, we’ll be doing some things that are uncomfortable for the rapper. In the kind of hip-hop that I practise, you do not speak what you didn’t yourself write. And in this performance, that’s not the case. I’ll be writing rap for another emcee. In Tapestry Lib Labs, we worked on how opera is structured, and how different roles interact, and how it comes together. And then I went back home to hip-hop, and did a show where if I didn’t feel like saying a thing, I wouldn’t say that thing and would say something else instead. Now we’re trying to work in this way, with a certain amount of prepared material. And then every day – we unsettle it. Which to me is at the heart of what we’re doing: we’re unsettling both practices. And then, if possible, unsettling your entire spirit.

TAP EX: Forbidden runs February 8 to 11 at the Tapestry Opera Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District, featuring Neema Bickersteth, soprano; Shirin Eskandani, mezzo; Alexander Hajek, baritone; Saye Sky, Farsi rapper/spoken-word artist; and Michael Shannon, conductor.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Christopher Hoile, our regular opera columnist, will return to his usual spot here in March, so I will leave it to him in his upcoming column, next issue, to walk you through the fine points of the Canadian Opera Company’s just-announced 2018/2019 season.

Instead, as an enthusiastic but inexpert guest columnist, I thought it might be fun to start out by addressing myself not to the column’s usual readers, but to those of you who, either as guests to our city, or new readers of this magazine, or opera newbies might benefit from some friendly advice on how to traverse the potentially tricky terrain (both geographic and semantic) of opera in our fair town. The rest of you, who know your way around both these things, can skip ahead a few paragraphs, for what’s actually on the menu.

Rule One (Geography): Be careful what you ask for – especially if you are in a cab. You might be lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a cab driver who actually knows his way around town, in which case responding to “Where to?” with a nonchalant“The Opera House, please” could result in finding yourself 3.7km due east of your intended destination, in an old Queen St. E. venue (that is actually called The Opera House!) in a throng of 1,200 or so mostly bobbing and weaving concertgoers, listening to Avatar, The Brains & Hellzapoppin’, with Gilda and Rigoletto nowhere in sight.

The actual opera house here is called the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (named after Vivaldi’s favourite hotel chain), and the city’s premier opera company, with typical Toronto understatement, is called the Canadian Opera Company. The COC shares the FSCPA, for performing purposes with Toronto’s premier ballet company, the equally modestly named National Ballet of Canada, otherwise known as NBoC, or “the Ballet.”

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Photo by Sam JavanouhRule Two (Semantics): Having established that “The Opera House” is not the opera house, let’s move on to an equally crucial distinction, this time semantics. It is this: in Toronto, expressing an interest in "the opera" does not mean the same thing as expressing an interest in "opera." The former is generally assumed by listeners to mean performances by the the city’s premier opera company in the city’s premier opera house. The latter can mean a far more nuanced range of things.

 So listen very carefully when someone tells you about their relationship to this particular art form! The distinction between “I went to the opera” and “I went to an opera” is as important as the difference between a residential address on the 200s block of Chaplin Crescent or on the 300s block, the latter being where, after that winding avenue of stately homes crosses Eglinton Avenue, it peters out in a little thicket of mostly post-World War II midrise apartment buildings.

(I also suspect, with only the slightest tinge of arts worker bitterness, that more residents of the 200 block of Chaplin Crescent would be likely to have tickets to the opera than their trans-Eglintonian 300-block counterparts.)

All that being said, within their respective genres the COC and NBoC are, without doubt, the definite article, towering like forest giants above the Torontonian cultural undergrowth, and well-worth a visit.

So, now that we’ve established what the opera means in this town, and how to get there, let’s take a little ramble instead through the city’s operatic undergrowth, where the fascinating biodiversity of the town’s actual operatic culture can be observed and measured.

Welcome to the Undergrowth: It must first be said that “forest giant” and “undergrowth” are highly unscientific terms. For one thing, calling everything other than the two or three tallest trees in town the undergrowth is a vast oversimplification. Passionate devotees of Opera Atelier are almost as likely to say “the opera” as to say “an opera” when asked where they have been. And there are other companies out there (Tapestry and Against the Grain) which at this point have the capacity to flip between mainstream finesse and indie panache almost at will. There are also theatre companies that have tall tree status within their own non-operatic realm that occasionally turn their attention to the art form (Canadian Stage Company is perhaps the most notable among these, and we'll have much more to say about them in a future issue.)

That being said, there’s a pleasantly rich tangle of operatic activity in town. Some of it, to be sure, focuses on rendering, on a smaller, more community-friendly scale, the repertoire most usually performed at “the opera” (Toronto City Opera, Opera York and Opera by Request come most readily to mind.)

And there is a uniquely Torontonian gem of a company around, called VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert, featuring top-flight performers in very lightly staged concert renditions, occasionally of new works but more often of rarities from the grand operatic tradition too risky or problematic, for one reason or another, for the forest giants to stage.

And then there is the mysterious thing called “Indie Opera.”

Indie Opera: At any given moment in time, Toronto seems to have 10 or 12 indie opera companies, on the go. Not always the same 10 or 12, mind you. Birth, decay and death are as necessary to a fertile operatic climate as they are to a good operatic plot. And even within the 10-or-12-company official membership of Indie Opera Toronto, it doesn’t do to generalize as to individual companies’ stated purposes.

Loose Tea Music Theatre, for example, is currently investing significant time and passion in a third-Sunday-of-every-month residency at Bad Dog Comedy Theatre on Bloor near Ossington (their next show is February 18), with a madcap improvised show called “Whose Opera Is It Anyway?” Under the inspired co-direction of Loose Tea artistic director Alaina Viau and comedy improv heavyweight Carly Heffernan, Loose Tea’s core ensemble has been steeping themselves in the standard games and structures that are the meat and potatoes of comedy improv. It’s a win-win-win. The show is a delight for fans of opera and of improv alike. And the ensemble itself is learning the conspicuous bravery of actually listening affirmatively to each other and responding truthfully in the moment – attributes that will stand them in good stead as they re-engage down the line with projects with the social and artistic heft of their 2016 Carmen.

Meanwhile, Essential Opera, another indie stalwart, is working towards an April 22 concert performance with Orchestra Toronto of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an exercise in cross-genre audience building and in carrying forward the key message inherent in the company name -- namely that the essence of opera is something different than its trappings and machinery.

What these two companies, and everything in between, have in common is that at some point in their gestation some individual or individuals said “If we are going to ever get to do operatically what we are interested in, we are going to have to do it ourselves.”

As already mentioned, you can get a rough idea of the players in the indie opera undergrowth by visiting indieoperatoronto.ca. But again, a cautionary note: like its member companies are, or were, Indie Opera Toronto has sprouted from do-it-yourself, volunteer-driven roots. So the information on the website is best viewed as a snapshot of the scene, compiled at a particular moment rather than chapter and verse. It nevertheless offers a way to delve deeper into projects and plans of the companies listed there, but it sometimes takes the site a while to catch up with the scene.

The Electric Bond Opera Ensemble

Soprano Sara Schabas' newly created Electric Bond Opera Ensemble is definitely the new kid on the indie opera block, but Schabas herself is not, having grown up in the world of “the opera.” So she comes to this project with a deeply rooted, organic passion for the storytelling power of the medium. Her grandfather, Ezra Schabas, among other musical achievements, was head of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music performance and opera department from 1968 to 1978, where Sara Schabas herself went on to complete an undergraduate degree in vocal performance. “Dad was a french horn player before he became a lawyer,” she explains, “and both my parents and all my grandparents had a huge love for opera. Starting at age four, they’d put on a VHS of La Boheme, Act 1 for me. I’d listen to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera every week. I was that weird kid who loved opera from a very young age. So it’s always been a very natural thing for me.”

Sara SchabasThe ensemble's name, she tells me, is a quote from Thomas Huxley, the agnostic 19th-century British biologist, nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” “We aim to present classical and operatic works that tell untold stories, reminding audiences and performers of what Huxley called the ‘electric bond of being’ by which all people are united.”

The company’s first show dives headlong into the company's stated aims – a fully staged, Canadian premiere performance, on February 10 and 11, of “ two one-act operas of survival,” Another Sunrise​ and ​Farewell, Auschwitz, by U.S. composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer – partners in operatic crime for Moby-Dick (2010) and the more recent It's a Wonderful Life which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2016.

The Toronto Another Sunrise​ and ​Farewell, Auschwitz will take place in Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Herman Hall on Bathurst Street and will represent, at several different levels, a journey of return for Schabas. We chatted briefly in The WholeNote offices.

WholeNote: So how did you discover Heggie?

Schabas: After undergrad at U of T, I went to Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University for a master's, and from there into an internship with Dayton Opera Company. I was one of their artists-in-residence and Jake Heggie actually came and did a short residency with us – so we put on a concert of his works that he narrated and coached us on. And then we also did Dead Man Walking [Heggie’s first big hit, in 2000, with librettist Terrence McNally]. Getting to know him and hearing the personal stories behind each of his works really drew me in, as well as the visceral reaction we got from audiences in all those performances. So when I heard he had this Holocaust one-act/two-act opera I thought it would be a really interesting experience for me not only to perform more of his works but to explore my heritage through an art form that doesn’t often explore Jewish stories.”

So which was the chicken and which was the egg? You wanted to do this particular opera so you decided to do it yourself? Or you wanted to do your own thing, and this was a perfect fit?

Well, moving back from the States after my student visa expired it took a bit to re-establish myself within the community. So, like many other singers, I started producing my own concerts, and I did a lot of refugee fundraising recitals – three of them when I moved back – as well as some other volunteer work. I knew I wanted to produce my own work with this specific social-justice-oriented angle. This piece was already there as a side passion project, and it fit perfectly.

Right now I’m guessing you are in the DIY thick of things …

Exactly right. When you’re in do-it-yourself mode you’re doing your own press releases, you’re pulling together the partners and in the middle of all of it you’re learning the music and all the rest of it.

So who is the actual artistic team you've assembled? The ones who are going to force you to take off your producer’s hat when you’re on the stage? Who had you already worked with?

SS: Yeah – well Michael Shannon, our music director, I worked with earlier this year at Tapestry Opera for Bandits in the Valley. I played Henri, which was both a piano-playing and a singing character. So Michael Shannon and I got quite close because he had to help me a lot with the piano, which is not something I’ve studied extensively, and he was just such a vibrant strong leader in that experience and in the other performances that I’ve seen him in that I thought he would be a perfect person to take the helm on this project. And Aaron Willis I’ve actually never worked with before ...

Aaron is …?

He’s the director – I’ve worked with his wife, Julie Tepperman, who was the librettist for Bandits in the Valley so we did a lot of talking about our shared Jewish heritage and I initially actually reached out to her to see if she’d be interested in directing. She she said she wasn't, but her husband would be. He has never directed an opera by himself before – he assisted with Julie last year at Canadian Stage – but he’s a very interesting director: he’s done a lot of immersive theatre, some of which also has a Jewish angle. He has this one famous play called The Yehud which is a comedy about two Orthodox Jews and what happens right after they get married – there’s the yehud room. The opportunity for me taking on this really meaty acting role to work with someone – he also has a background as an actor – with a strong theatrical background was a priority. So some old, some new ...

You say it's a meaty role? Does that tie in with the “untold stories” goal you talked about?

Krystyna Zywulska is a very interesting story because she’s someone who actually hid her Jewish identity: when she was in the Warsaw ghetto she created this new identity, and when she was imprisoned at Auschwitz it wasn’t as a Jew it was as a political prisoner; her story is one of reconciling with the terrible thing she did to her fellow Jews, and then finding out if her past can exist with her present …

So how to embrace the dichotomy ...

Absolutely. So hers is a very conflicted Holocaust story and a very rich one.

And the partnership with Beth Tzedec and with the Azrieli Foundation. How does all that happen?

Well – since moving back I’ve been doing a lot of singing in synagogues, so I’ve been a member of the choir at Beth Tzedec and they’re very interested in presenting survivors’ testimonies in different ways so basically I pitched the opera to them and they were interested. Azrieli also happened to be interested ...

How did you know about Azrieli?

That was a bit of an aha moment: I was at the Canadian Children's Opera Company's Brundibár last year, for which I know they also received help from the Azrieli foundation. So then I started looking them up ...

So, getting back to the show itself, what’s the breakdown of instruments?

It’s piano, clarinet, violin, cello and bass.

Sounds like almost a klezmer feel to it.

Yeah, the clarinet voice definitely has that feel. It has this certain chant-like melody that occurs throughout the piece and I was just remarking to Michael Shannon on how Jewish it sounds at times.

So how did you find the other singers?

Again, recommendations – I sang with Sean Watson in the Beth Shalom choir and Georgia Burashko I’ve just heard wonderful things about and she was very interested.

Any other projects already in the works? Do you dare wait to get the next thing going?

Yeah ... there are some ideas floating out there ... my friend Jacques Arsenault who’s a tenor and accordion player – also from Bandits in the Valley – and a couple of other friends and I are working on a potential Satie program for next year but we’re still finding the social justice, untold-story lens for that. He was a bit of an outcast in his lifetime – Satie – and he also has a lot of interesting dichotomies in his life between his cabaret works and his more formal works so we’re looking to put together a program about that. That’s the main thing right now. But it’s true – once you do one you have to start thinking about the next

Even while you're still doing the one ...otherwise you're stuck in the middle ...

Yeah – and then you miss out.

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

The winter music theatre season is off to a great start with Tarragon Theatre’s exhilarating experimental rock-‘n’-roll-scored Hamlet showcasing some of the city’s most versatile theatre and music performers led by a sympathetic and passionate Noah Reid as Hamlet. The score itself, under the guiding hand of music director Thomas Ryder Payne – is this a first? – is composed and arranged by the ensemble, and played by them, in varying combinations, in between acting their Shakespeare roles.

On the more traditional musical theatre side, Podium Concert Productions gave us a chance to see a concert staging of Maury Yeston’s Nine (the Tony Award-winning musical based on Fellini’s famous autobiographical film 8 1/2) starring Stratford veteran, triple threat Juan Chioran, at Trinity St Paul’s Centre. I have to say, this is not one of my favourite musicals as I find the book and some of the songs weak, but it can be a great showcase for a talented cast and that was the case here. Surrounding Chioran in the central role of Guido Contini, world-famous film director, were some of the country’s best female musical theatre performers in the other leading roles. Tracy Michailidis, who was so strong in Britta Johnson’s Life After last fall, again brought her exquisite subtlety of emotion to the important underpinning role of Contini’s wife Luisa. Against this strong centre those in the more eccentric or extravagant roles could let rip, notably Kira Guloien as Guido’s mistress Carla, stunning in a slinky green dress, singing and acting seductively just over-the-top enough to satisfy; Rebecca Poff as Liliane La Feur, very demanding, deliciously dramatic and very French as Guido’s film producer; and Alexis Gordon, in contrast to the last two, projecting a yearning sweetness and reluctant strength as Guido’s muse Claudia Nardi. The only real drawback to the evening was the very uneven sound, with quieter lyrics sometimes hard to hear from the balcony over the volume of the orchestra onstage. Perhaps another venue with a different or more elaborate sound system would be better for projects like this as opposed to TSP’s, which is designed for its usual – less wired – tenants Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort.

At the Mirvish theatres, alongside large-scale traditional and rock musicals, a growing importance and presence of musical scoring for otherwise straight theatre productions could be seen. This year already, two in particular stood out for me.

North by Northwest (adapted by Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips) used much of Bernard Herrmann’s original film score in the soundscape created by composer Ian MacDonald as an essential tool to pull the audience into the – admittedly rather odd and rather tongue-in-cheek – experience of seeing this famous Hitchock thriller recreated live onstage before our eyes.

In Marianne Elliott’s deservedly award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel) the potentially overwhelming technological ingenuity of the set and effects was balanced by a constantly present sympathetic musical score by Adrian Sutton to project the very simple heartfelt and very human story at the centre.

Looking ahead, coming up in the current Mirvish season is a musical I am dying to see as, like many others in the city, I couldn’t get a ticket during its first run back in the fall of 2016 since it sold out much too quickly, though I have since listened to the songs and loved them.

Come From Away, famously based on the true story of the tiny community of Gander, Newfoundland, that took in the stranded passengers of 38 planes forced to land there on the day of 9/11, was a runaway hit in 2016 at the Royal Alex and has since triumphed on Broadway to the tune of seven Tony nominations (winning Best Direction of a Musical for director Christopher Ashley) and many other Best Musical awards. This month it returns to the Royal Alex with a new all-Canadian cast while the original production continues in an open-ended run on Broadway.

Eliza Jane Scott in Come From Away - Canadian cast 2018. Photo by Matthew Murphy.Unlike The Drowsy Chaperone, another Canadian hit that triumphed on Broadway in 2006, Come From Away did not start at the Fringe but from a suggestion by Michael Rubinoff of Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Program to husband and wife co-creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein in 2010. That suggestion did follow, however, the great success at the Toronto Fringe in 2009 of their first musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding and likely was inspired by that musical’s folk-music inspired score and staging style that included talking directly to the audience; two characteristics also of Come From Away.

With lucky timing and a Canada Council grant, Hein and Sankoff were able to go to Gander in September 2011 when not only the residents would be there to be interviewed, but also many, if not all, the “come from aways” – the passengers who had been unexpected guests on that day in 2001 – were visiting to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their meeting.

The show grew from the stories Sankoff and Hein heard and the people they met. It then began a five-year development process with workshops and performances at Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project followed by further development south of the border that led to its 2015 debut as a full-fledged production directed by Christopher Ashley at La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Pre-Broadway runs followed in Washington and here in Toronto before the Broadway opening on March 12, 2017. All along the journey Come From Away garnered praise and followers and awards including many Best Musical nods, and even a Twitter shout-out from Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Now a North American touring company is being put together, the original cast album (recorded in Toronto) has been nominated for a Grammy and a feature film is being made, written by the show’s creators.

As I write this column the new Canadian company of Come From Away is in Winnipeg performing a sold-out run at the Manitoba Theatre Centre until February 3 before returning to Toronto to prepare for the run here.

Leading up to the second first-night at the Royal Alex on February 13, I wanted to touch base with Irene Sankoff and David Hein to ask a few questions about this new stage of their incredible journey.

WN: How does it feel to be coming home after the huge success you have had with the show on Broadway, particularly when the show had it’s first beginnings here at Sheridan College and then the sold-out run at the Royal Alex last year?

IS: It’s practically unbelievable. When we started at Sheridan – and even at the Royal Alex – there’s no way we could have had any idea how far this would go. We originally hoped it might play in Canadian high schools because it had historical content and many characters, and now to have it playing in two countries every night, it’s beyond our wildest dreams – but it is such a testament to the power of the story that we’re telling. That’s what we fell in love with in the first place and it’s thrilling to see so many others feel the same way.

DH: As a kid who grew up on Canadian folk music, there’s something really exciting about seeing this story and these traditional instruments brought back and celebrated by a Canadian cast – especially in the town where we were first started. It means the world to share it with the community that supported us while we were obsessed with telling this story and following every opportunity that came our way.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Photo by Sankoff and Hein.WN: I understand you have an all-Canadian cast for this remount, which is exciting. Did you find that you looked for different qualities – or did you discover different casting possibilities in the process this time around?

DH: Many of these performers we’ve either worked with before or have admired their work – some were new to us. It’s such a joy watching them create and invent it again. Chris Ashley, our director, really let the cast work through it organically.

IS: When we first cast the show, we all agreed that we weren’t looking for dopplegangers of the real people – and when we cast it in Canada again, we weren’t looking for copies of the Broadway cast. What’s so exciting, within this intricately detailed and blocked-out show, is how much interpretation each actor can bring. That, and apparently their Newfoundland accents are a little better.

WN: Is there anything else new or different in the show compared to the original production that we can expect? I understand that there is at least one new song.

IS: There is! As we were leaving the Royal Alex, we recorded the cast album in the last week. (I think it’s the only Grammy-nominated Original Broadway Cast Album recorded in Canada.) Chris had been asking us for another song for one of the characters since La Jolla Playhouse two years earlier, but we didn’t feel like we had a real way in to that character until a couple weeks prior to recording when we spent an afternoon with her and her family. Suddenly this new song appeared, about a mother being far away from her son. It was recorded for the album before it was ever put in front of an audience, which was risky.

DH: And yet now – we can’t imagine the show without it! It feels like we’ve made a million tiny changes, right up to opening night – but in so many ways it’s the same true stories which made us laugh and cry and cheer out, in Newfoundland – and it’s so wonderful to return to celebrate everything that’s happened on this crazy journey.

Performances of Come From Away begin at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on February 13.

QUICK PICKS

Feb 1 to 11: Richard Rose’s exhilarating rock-‘n’-roll-scored Hamlet continues at Tarragon Theatre.

Feb 1 to 4: St Anne’s Music and Dramatic Society presents the wonderful and too rarely seen Gilbert & Sulivan Ruddigore.

Feb 4 to 25: Coal Mine Theatre presents Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, not a musical but a recreation in concert of the well-known and beloved Fleetwood Mac album by a chosen group of Toronto musicians.

Feb 9 to 22: Soulpepper continues its hybrid concert/storytelling series with a spotlight on the Roaring 20s with Prohibition, the Concert, created by Richard Ouzounian, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross.

Feb 15: Opera Atelier recreates the concert they performed in the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles last May. Transforming the concert into a moving dance/music theatre hybrid event is the inclusion and integration of the lyrical and moving new contemporary dance piece choreographed and danced by Tyler Gledhill to an evocative solo violin score composed and played by Edwin Huizinga. One Night Only.

Feb 22-24: Canadian Stage continues its showcase of original and groundbreaking music makers with Musica Nuda featuring vocalist Petra Magoni and double-bassist Ferruccio Spinetti. Not a musical but apparently dramatic and deconstructing performance.

Feb 26: “How to Succeed in Musical Theatre Business Without Really Trying,” hosted by the The Musical Stage Company. This one-day event will be held at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto and is free of charge for Canadian musical theatre writers.

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

There are some big and unique choral experiences this month. There’s a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Healey Willan’s death, the combined forces of choirs from the University of Toronto and York University, a rare performance premiere for Tafelmusik and a new interpretation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion! We’ll return in March with all you need to know about the best of Easter choral music offerings. Stay warm and singing in the meantime.

Willan - 50 years on

Andrew Adair, music director of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, convenes artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Willan’s death. Of choral composers in Canada, Willan was a pinnacle. With hundreds of choral works, operas, symphonies and organ works amongst many others, Willan’s main contribution to Canadian music was through sacred music, much of it created at and for the choir at St Mary Magdalene, where he was music director and organist.

“Willan left a lasting impact on the Church of St. Mary Magdalene through his shaping of the liturgy and music,” shares Adair. “His work at St. Mary Magdalene’s created a very special environment, one which has allowed the music to flourish and survive against all odds.” A lot of Willan’s choral music is a cappella. Adair shares that this is because of the layout of St Mary Magdalene where the choir loft is in the west gallery and the organ on the other side of the building. For a music director who was also the organist, this meant Willan was unable to play and conduct at the same time. This lasting effect means that even today, the choir at St. Mary Magdalene still mostly sings a cappella. Adair looks forward to bringing forward Willan’s accompanied works at this concert.

Adair is joined by organists Simon Walker and Matthew Larkin, each performing one of Willan’s great organ works: the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E-flat Minor; Prelude and Fugue in C Minor; and the Passacaglia and Fugue in E Minor. Matthew Larkin’s choir of Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church will join the Choir of St Mary Magdalene. February 16 at 8pm; Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

The Mozart Requiem: The Music of Unity

With the rich history, detail, and artistry available to students in Toronto, I’m excited to see inter-university programming. I’m particularly interested in the joint events between Lisette Canton and Daniel Taylor and the combination of ensembles from York University and the University of Toronto, a model for future collaborations.

Lisette CantonCanton’s ensembles, the York University Chamber Choir and Ottawa Bach Choir, are joining forces with Daniel Taylor’s musicians at the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum and the Theatre of Early Music. Along with an orchestra made up of Tafelmusik performers and soloists, the combined forces will perform two performances of Mozart’s Requiem.

“Dan Taylor and I have a similar philosophy on music,” Canton shares, “that it carries a universal message of hope, transcending all religions and cultures, and unites us all. And it is this philosophy that has prompted us to collaborate on various musical productions for the past two decades.” Through their longstanding connection, Canton and Taylor brought their ensembles together in 2014, performing the music of the Coronation of King George II in 1727 (the coronation that established Handel’s Zadok the Priest as a standard at every coronation since.)

 “Collaborations of this nature are so important – for the students, professionals and for the community – in that they unite us in a common musical goal and become bigger than the sum of the individual parts. And when the music is as powerful as the Mozart Requiem, these become life-changing experiences,” says Canton. Choristers and instrumentalists alike have long known the unique power of the Mozart Requiem. While incomplete, the experience of performing the work can be incredibly significant. “Mozart’s beloved Requiem is one of those works in the choral canon that continues to inspire every generation,” Canton says. “Its widespread ability to reach to the depths of human emotions on this most universal theme makes it a timeless work of dramatic and spiritual intensity that moves us to greater depths of understanding.” Many choirs perform this work in full or portions of it frequently. For many musicians, it has become musical vernacular.

York University Chamber Choir“Once the students graduate – especially in a city as large as Toronto – they will continue to work together in common settings, ensembles, and as soloists,” Canton says. The nature of music requires collaborations, sometimes wonderful and transcendent, other times a bit messy – but necessary to the task of musical creation. She continues: “Our job as mentors/conductors is to initiate these contacts and guide up-and-coming performers in meaningful concert experiences, as well as to help them find potential opportunities and career directions. Beginning these connections during their university experience only ignites their passion for the art of music and helps them to forge significant friendships and professional connections.”

The Mozart Requiem: conducted by Dr. Lisette Canton: March 3, 7:30pm. Church of the Redeemer, Toronto; conducted by Daniel Taylor: March 4, 7:30pm. 7:30pm. St Basil’s Church, Toronto.

A Rare Premiere Performance by Tafelmusik

Tafelmusik has a Handel premiere: Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music. This old set of music by Handel was set to words by Newburgh Hamilton based on an earlier text from John Dryden. Ivars Taurins leads the orchestra and Chamber Choir in a performance of this work celebrating Alexander the Great’s conquest of the great Persian city of Persepolis. Charlotte Nediger tells us that the original performance was done to coincide with the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. “The aim of St. Cecilia odes is to celebrate music,” says Nediger in the program notes, “and it is evident here in the range of orchestrations in the airs and choruses, and by the inclusion of two concertos – one for harp, representing Timotheus’ lyre, and one for organ, representing “the divine Cecilia.” With soprano Amanda Forsythe, tenor Thomas Hobbs, baritone Alexander Dobson, harpist Julia Seager-Scott and organist Charlotte Nediger. The work includes the well-known Concerto for Organ in G Minor and the Concerto for Harp in B-flat Major. February 22 to 24, 8pm; February 25, 3:30pm. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Evoking the Passion – Bach Reinterpreted

Chorus Niagara, under Robert Cooper, takes on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Everything about this performance sounds intriguing. Not only is the Passion a large work, with two orchestras, six soloists, children’s and adult choir, Cooper is leading a semi-staged production. “More and more, choral performances are wanting and needing some extra musical design to guide you through the experiences,” shares Cooper, who has a theatre background himself. Cooper has worked with Joel Ivany on other stagings of works normally done in straight performance. The staging will be set by Torontonian Aria Umezawa, who is currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera in direction and is the artistic director of Opera 5. It will be interesting to see how Umezawa’s contributions reflect her mentorship by Peter Sellars; Sellars famously staged a Berlin Philharmoniker performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 2010.

Robert Cooper conducts Chorus Niagara and the Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir with the Talisker Players; James McClean as the Evangelist; Michal Robert-Broder as Christus; Maeve Palmer, soprano; Lillian Brooks, mezzo-soprano; Zach Finkelstein; and Stephen Hegedus, bass. March 3, 7:30pm. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

QUICK PICKS

Feb 10, 7:30pm. The Grand Philharmonic Choir presents Gloria, a presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s challenging Chichester Psalms, Poulenc’s Gloria, and Timothy Corlis’s Psalm 150. St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Kitchener.

Feb 11, 2:30pm. Georgian Music is hosting Dr Hilary Apfelstadt and the Exultate Chamber Singers. Apfelstadt, a champion of Canadian choral music, has programmed works by Canadians Healey Willan, Eleanor Daley, Ruth Watson Henderson and Stephen Chatman. The Choir will also perform Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs. Grace United Church, Barrie.

Feb 16 and 17. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra presents “Sing-Along Musicals,” a fun family concert. With classic selections from The King and I, Oklahoma!, the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins just to name a few, the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir will provide the vocals. Bring the family and have a fun time singing along at the Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Feb 25, 4pm. The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “Rainbows and Icicles.” With special guests, the Claude Watson School of the Arts Boy’s Choir, the various TCC choirs will perform beloved songs from films and musicals like Mary Poppins, the Muppets and the Aristocrats. North Toronto Collegiate, Toronto.

Mar 3, 7:00pm. The Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir presents “Phantom Unmasked.” The 1925 Phantom of the Opera was made as a silent film. Andrew Downing, a Canadian composer, has set it to music for orchestra and choir. Quite a few choirs have performed this work as it proves popular with audiences. The Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir performs and is collecting non-perishable food donations. RBC Theatre, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Mar 6 and 7, 7:30pm. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “MacMillan and Pärt.” Two years ago Soundstreams hosted Scottish composer James MacMillan in Toronto as part of its mainstage. Macmillan himself took the helm in a presentation of his masterpiece Seven Last Words from the Cross. Noel Edison, artistic director of the choir brings this work to life with a smaller contingent of singers. The choir in full performs Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. Pärt’s unique meditative music will wash over interested audiences. Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto. clip_image001.png

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com

Since the last issue of The WholeNote went to press, the jazz world suffered the deaths of three major and long-term contributors: producer George Avakian, innovative singer Jon Hendricks – both on November 22 – and on December 21, trombonist Roswell Rudd. Momentous losses indeed, but at least these blows were softened by the realization that each of them lived long, productive lives – Avakian was 98, Hendricks, 96, and Rudd, 83.

I had a mild heart attack on the morning of November 23 and the subsequent fallout took me out of my routines and away from the jazz grapevine, so I completely missed the passing of Avakian and Hendricks and it was some time before I heard the news. And Rudd’s death came amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations, so I was late hearing about that too. Given all this and the significant contributions each made to jazz, I feel it’s only right to use this space to pay tribute to them.

George AvakianAvakian became an obsessive jazz fan listening to the radio as a teenager and while attending Yale University began to amass a huge record collection and to write a relentless series of letters to the Decca and ARC record labels, urging them to reissue the back catalogues of bankrupt imprints such as Brunswick and Okeh. In 1940 Jack Kapp of Decca responded to these letters and hired the young Avakian to produce his first record, Chicago Jazz, featuring Eddie Condon and musicians in his circle. Consisting of six 78s issued in a set with Avakian’s copiously detailed liner notes, this was considered the first jazz album long before the emergence of the LP. It was a success in every way and set the tone for future Avakian projects while also raising the bar for jazz releases in general.

George Avakian - photo by Ian CliffordThe rest, as they say, is history – jazz history. CBS acquired ARC in 1940 and decided to form a subsidiary called Columbia Records. Eventually they asked Avakian to supervise a reissue series and the young man leapt at the chance to comb through the company’s vaults. Using the format he established at Decca, he created box sets devoted to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, among others. In the process he discovered many unreleased sides, including some priceless Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which he included in the reissues.

After war service he returned to Columbia, responsible for popular music at large, but always with an eye toward strengthening and promoting the label’s jazz roster. During this time Columbia perfected the LP format and Avakian was immediately alive to the possibilities of exploiting this new technology for both marketing and artistic purposes. He brought Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis to the label just as each was set to become a star, while continuing to produce albums by Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey, Tony Bennett, Buck Clayton (he co-produced the trumpeter’s legendary Jam Session LPs with John Hammond), Eddie Condon, J.J. Johnson and many others including classical and folk performers.

He also became a pioneer in live jazz recording, issuing many performances from the Newport Jazz Festival and other venues. He supervised the first issue of Benny Goodman’s historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and also Duke Ellington’s legendary 1956 Newport performance, which did so much to revive Ellington’s career. His tenure at Columbia was studded with too many masterpieces to mention, but highlights would include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats; Erroll Garner’s Concert By the Sea; such Miles Davis classics as ’Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead; many by Brubeck such as Jazz Goes To College and Jazz Red Hot And Cool, as well as the aforementioned classics.

He elected to leave Columbia in 1958, but was hardly done. He created the record label at Warner Brothers and soon after moved on to RCA where he produced Sonny Rollins’ celebrated comeback album The Bridge, as well as his notable encounter with Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Meets Hawk. While there he also produced a superb series of Paul Desmond records with Jim Hall, which did a lot to cement Desmond’s identity apart from Brubeck.

Avakian also branched out into artist management at this point, overseeing the phenomenal mid-60s success of the Charles Lloyd Quartet at a time when many jazz artists were feeling the pinch of rock ‘n’ roll. This brought Avakian into contact with Keith Jarrett and he shepherded the pianist through the early part of his career as both his manager and record producer, helping to launch one of the most influential and successful careers jazz has witnessed in the last half century. There’s much more, but enough. Suffice it to say that it’s impossible to overstate the positive impact that George Avakian had on jazz, or to imagine it without him.

Jon HendricksEddie Jefferson and King Pleasure are generally credited with inventing modern, bebop vocalese – the practice of putting lyrics to an instrumental jazz solo and singing it, a kind of scat with words. But Jon Hendricks took the idea and ran with it, making it more popular while broadening its horizons and raising its vocal and literary (i.e. lyric writing) standards. And with the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1957, for which he is best known, he translated it into a vocal group art. L, H & R remade the idea of the vocal group – they weren’t The Modernaires or The Four Freshmen or The Four Lads – they were funnier, rawer and swung more. They were hip, baby.

Jon Hendricks on his 90th birthdayDave Lamberts and Annie Ross were both formidable vocal talents and ideal partners, but Hendricks was the driving force behind the group both organizationally and musically, doing most of the arranging and the lion’s share of the ingenious lyric writing. His skill at this was unsurpassed, earning him the title “The Poet Laureate of Jazz” as well as the “James Joyce of Jive”. He had an uncanny gift for shaping and infusing words which made sense into the jagged and acrobatic rhythms of jazz solos. His pithy lyrics always had something to do with the original soloist involved or with the title of the given tune; they told a story and were always delivered with swing and feeling. Hendricks went on to do much more after the eventual breakup of L, H & R and his witty performances, ever alive with both tradition and inventiveness, always fostered the idea that jazz could be both fun and high art.

Roswell RuddMuch of his career took place outside the jazz mainstream and was interrupted by several hiatuses, so Roswell Rudd may be less known than these other two except to hard-core jazz fans. A New Englander, Rudd began his career in the mid-50s playing trombone in a Dixieland band at Yale University called The Eli Chosen Six. The group recorded two albums, including one for Columbia, which show Rudd entirely at home in the gutbucket trombone tradition of men like Kid Ory and Jimmy Archey.

Roswell RuddBut like Steve Lacy, a frequent collaborator who also started his career in traditional jazz, Roswell was equally interested in the expressive abstraction of free jazz and spent his career in that astringent field. He performed around New York and on records with Lacy (sometimes offering highly personal takes on the music of Thelonious Monk), lifelong friend Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, John Tchicai, the New York Art Quartet, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and his own groups. His playing – always interesting, human and very alive – was both intelligent and emotional. He could definitely blast but had the kind of projecting sound that could be heard at the back of a room even while playing quietly. His musical oeuvre combined both adventurous and traditional elements and offered the paradox that jazz, even in its earliest forms, was always iconoclastic, always subversive.

I had the unexpected pleasure of getting to know Roswell Rudd in 2007, so his death is more personal for me. I took part in a week-long recording project led by Toronto percussionist Geordie MacDonald which yielded a suite over two CDs called Time, After Time, a collaboration of 18 Canadian musicians with Rudd aboard as a ringer/featured guest. He was a joy to be around both musically and personally, a mensch who radiated integrity and unpretentiousness. I remember his humour and energy and him entertaining us on breaks by sitting down at the studio’s (intentionally) beat-up old upright and playing some highly personal stride, boogie-woogie and Monk.

Here’s the kind of guy he was: he took down the names and addresses of every musician on the session and some weeks later each of us received in the mail a beautiful folio of Herbie Nichols compositions, signed with a nice note from Roswell. He was a long-standing expert on Nichols and had assembled and published the book himself. It was a gesture of extraordinary generosity and the book remains one of my most prized possessions.

“Jazz is dead” predictions have continuously been trotted out through the years but I have to ask: how is jazz going to die when it’s had the devoted and passionate commitment of brilliant men like these, among so many others? 

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

With this first issue for the year, we are, in a way, wondering in what fresh directions 2018 might take the Bandstand beat. For over a year we have been hearing about and reporting on the many sesquicentennial events in the community band world. For almost all of the bands that we heard from, their repertoire seemed to focus on works which had some connection to that 150th anniversary for the country. To top that off, there was the usual festive season offerings ranging from medieval carols to Frosty the Snow Man and Rudolph. Now that these are all in the past, what are we going to be offered now? There were hopes that we would hear from the banding community all about their plans for the coming year. Alas: no news! Perhaps all of the bands are taking a rest after a busy season. Usually, prior to each issue, we receive a good number of notices from bands about upcoming events. So far, we have received little information.

In the meanwhile, how about we take the time to look past winter altogether, into the topic of park concerts and parades, their origins and evolution?

Welcome to the Bandshell

CNE Bandshell in the late 1950sSince arriving in the Toronto area after WWII I have witnessed quite an evolution in the band world. During the war the Canadian National Exhibition did not operate because most of the buildings were used as barracks. In 1948, for the reopening of the CNE, the main Bandshell was updated with the finest theatre-quality sound system, and the first of a series of feature bands was booked to appear. The feature band that year was the Band of His Majesty’s Royal Marines, Plymouth Division under the direction of Major F. Vivian Dunn. I had the privilege of discussing the format of each concert with Major Dunn and operating the sound system for all concerts. In that and ensuing years band concerts were the prime form of entertainment at the CNE. There were two concerts per day by the feature band and two per day by local bands on the Bandshell. There were also at least two concerts each day on the North Bandstand. That practice continued for some years. Similarly, Toronto Parks and Recreation sponsored regular band concerts during the summer months at Kew Gardens, High Park on Sundays and in Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto on weekday evenings. They seemed to be at their height during Centennial Year in 1967. These did not all end suddenly, but within the next 20 years they had all disappeared. Will the end of Canada’s sesquicentennial year see a change in direction?

A Major Anniversary

As mentioned, we have not yet received any indication of significant band plans for the coming year from any band. However, on the bright side, we did receive some wonderful information on the activities of the Concert Band of Cobourg during the past year. Not only did they stage a variety of events for Canada’s 150th anniversary, but they channelled the bulk of their resources into the celebration of the band’s 175th anniversary.

The Cobourg Concert Band has a long and varied history, and has had quite a range of names over the 175-year period since the first town band appeared in Cobourg in 1842. During the late 1960s the band went through a period of gradual decline. By 1970 it was in a rather sad state. That was when Roly White appeared on the scene as director of music. Before immigrating to Canada, Roly had served for 12 years in bands of the Royal Marines under the same conductor whom I mentioned above, now bearing the title Colonel Sir Vivian Dunn. With his previous Royal Marine connections, Roly managed to have the Cobourg band officially designated as “The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Association, Ontario.” With that new designation, the band was outfitted with almost identical uniforms to those of the Royal Marines. Over the years, the band progressed in other ways to the point where they have their own building with fine space for rehearsal, storage and socializing. After many years at the helm, Roly turned the baton over to longtime band member Paul Storms 17 years ago.

As a part of the band’s anniversary celebration, longtime band member, Robert Irvine, authored an extensive history of the band called Journal of a Band. Mr. Irvine spent over ten years researching and documenting each of the entries that went into the Journal. This detailed history of over 700 pages, looks back to band activities since 1842. That made 2017 the 175th year that a community band has been part of the daily life experience in Cobourg. With this documentation, band members believe that theirs is the oldest community band in Canada. However, they may get some challenges on that. The Newmarket Citizens Band has some documented information indicating that their band was also active during that time period.

According the Cobourg band president, Brian Clarkson, “Irvine’s book is full of rich detail concerning the band and the members of the band, all set in the context of key world events that transpired over the last 175 years. Many pictures help bring into view what life must have been like, how important music has always been in Cobourg, and how some families had members spanning several generations – right up to and including the present day. From our early roots as offshoots of the local fire brigades, through independent membership, and all the way to our current affiliation with the Royal Marines Association - Ontario, you can see the band evolve and grow in importance both locally and internationally.” He tells me: “It is a great read for any musician, historian, or lover of small town Ontario.” The book sells for $35 plus any shipping charges that may apply and can be ordered from the same website as the CDs: cbcrmab@cogeco.net.

While on the subject of the Band’s new CD, I would like to add a few comments about it that are not in my review of the CD elsewhere in this issue. One comment would be on the talent in the band. There are several members with music degrees, including at least two Masters degrees, from the University of Toronto and the prestigious Berklee College of Music. How often are you liable to find such composing and arranging talent in a small town band? Another comment concerns the cover design. As part of the CD project, the band sponsored a contest at all of the local high schools for a piece of art work for the cover. The winners, Sarah McLoughlin and Annie Sawyer, produced a vibrant design depicting the band performing under the Canadian flag.

Before leaving the subject, I would like to share a story from a conversation I had with Roly White some years before he joined the Concert Band of Cobourg. He told me about an incident, at some point while he was serving as assistant under Sir Vivian Dunn. He was chastised for conducting with his left hand and told to change over to using his right hand as this was the norm. After some time away from the band to study conducting with Sir John Barbirolli, he returned to the band. Once again he was conducting with his left hand. When queried by Dunn about reverting to his left hand, Roly simply stated “Sir John conducts left-handed.” That ended the discussion and Roly was still conducting left-handed in Cobourg when he retired.

Changes coming

We have just learned of two significant changes in local bands. The Whitby Brass Band, which will celebrate 155 years this year, is looking for a new conductor. The band rehearses on Thursday evenings, and like other bands, has performances at various times throughout the year. Preference will be given to someone with previous brass band conducting experience. Applications will be accepted until March 2. Information is available at whitbybrassband.com.

The other change is the possible return of the Uxbridge Community Concert Band. After 25 seasons, conductor Steffan Brunette took a year off last year to pursue some other interests. He is now back in town, and with the assistance of other interested musicians, hopes to have something to report on possible future directions for another season of summer music.

Sam Caruana

As is so often the case in relationships in the world of music, I can’t recall where or when I first met Sam Caruana. All I know is that I played alongside Sam in many groups over many years. Having chatted with Sam just a few weeks before, I was shocked to learn of his passing on December 16, 2017. Sam served in the King’s Own Royal Malta Regiment during WWII, then moved to England after the war for a job in music. While touring with the Benny Daniels Dance Band in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sam met Kay and they married in 1952.

Sam CaruanaAfter a musical career in Britain, Sam moved to Toronto in 1974, initially staying with his sister in the Junction (Little Malta) neighbourhood of Toronto. He was joined by Kay and son Paul shortly thereafter. Sam is survived by his wife Kay, sons Benny and Paul and their families. Sam will certainly be missed by his many musical friends, including those in the Metropolitan Silver Band, The Encore Symphonic Concert Band and the Malta Club Band. He played in all of them until very recently.

In a recent email his daughter-in-law Joanna told me that she had “forgotten to say that in addition to the Benny Daniels band in Britain, Sam also played with the BBC and for a circus band, where his paper-bag lunch got stolen daily, until he discovered that an elephant was stealing it from under his chair on the raised stage! In Toronto he played for too many bands to mention, including a Schwaben Oompah band, and more recently, the Toronto Mambo Project.”

Coming Events

Feb 1 at 12pm the Encore Symphonic Concert Band presents “In Concert.” Big band swing, jazz, film scores and marches. Wilmar Heights Centre, 963 Pharmacy Ave., Scarborough.

Feb 25 starting at 10am, this year’s York University Community Band Festival will begin. The four bands participating will be the Newmarket Citizens Band, the Aurora Community Band, the Thornhill Community Band and the Richmond Hill Concert Band. In the morning each band will rehearse their selections in separate rooms. After lunch, each band will have 15 minutes to perform their own numbers and then the massed band will perform the finale for the afternoon.

Feb 25 at 3pm, the Guelph Concert Band presents “Broadway Showstoppers,” selections from Frozen, Hamilton, Wicked, 42nd Street, Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and others; Patrick Stiles, vocals/piano; Bridget Walsh, violin; guests: Kelly Holiff and Jeigh Madjus, vocals. River Run Centre, 35 Woolwich St., Guelph. 519-763-3000.

Mar 4 at 3pm, the Weston Silver Band will present “Kaleidoscope,” including Blue Rondo a la Turk (Brubeck), Impressions (Kevin Lau), Pink Panther (Mancini), The Red Novae (Graham), David of the White Rock, and the march, The Thin Red Line, at Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St. W.

Mar 4 at 3:30pm, the Wychwood Clarinet Choir presents “Midwinter Sweets” featuring Five Bagatelles Op.23 by Gerald Finzi; Minuet from “A Downland Suite” by John Ireland; Georgia on my Mind by Hoagy Carmichael, Steve Macdonald tenor saxophone soloist; Rikudim, “Four Israeli Folk Dances” by Jan Van der Roost; Baby Elephant Walk by Henry Mancini. Artistic director and clarinet soloist Michele Jacot. Church of St. Michael and All Angels, 611 St. Clair Ave, W; wychwoodclarinetchoir.com.

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

This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics programme.

Bernard Labadie conducts the TSO in Mozart's Symphony No. 39. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Entering the hall for the first night of the Mozart@262 Festival, I was struck by the sparseness of the stage. In contrast to the visual fullness of Handel’s Messiah just a few short weeks ago, with its rows of choir singers stacked onstage and the balcony behind the stage bursting with audience members, only 12 chairs, one stool, and a tufted leather piano bench for conductor Bernard Labadie – all black in a pleasing contrast to the pine-coloured stage – formed a perfect backdrop on January 10 for the rich tapestry of winds comprising Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opens Serenade No. 10 – known as Mozart’s “Gran Partita” – with a series of four, sustained notes in rhythmic unison, before splitting into layered, ascending tones. The two clarinets quickly emerge into the foreground of the music, setting the tone for a recurring motif in which they provide an articulate, agile phrase and the ensemble responds with a fuller variation. This back-and-forth provides a perfect vehicle to appreciate the basset horn, an instrument that reaches lower than the clarinet and adds a richer sound to sparser moments of the work. The piece feels particularly grounded for a wind ensemble, even as short, cheerful phrasing bubbles up through quickly ascending notes.

Both Serenade No. 10 and Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major – the second work of the evening – were composed in the 1780s, during the latter part of Mozart’s career when he was effectively a freelance artist. The harmonie, a musical genre written for wind ensembles to be performed during dinner, became hugely popular during this time. Mozart took full advantage of this commercial opportunity to pen four serenades, including this intriguing, yet unobtrusive, Serenade No. 10.

Given that the harmonie originated in the dining room of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, Serenade No. 10 perpetually conjures the image of a dinner party. The shifts between movements are exactly as one would desire for a varied, yet refined, party soundscape. The adagio of the third movement, with the clarinets gliding gently over a pulsing pattern in the horns, eventually gives way to the fourth movement’s stronger melodies, executed in forceful unison. The mood lightens significantly for the fifth movement – at one point we are left with only quick, isolated pairs of notes in the clarinets – after which the tone takes a lower, darker turn; however, the soft, round gestures of conductor Bernard Labadie bring the ensemble quickly back to delicate, trill-laden phrases that highlight the agility of the orchestra’s performers.

As preparations are made for Symphony No. 39, the stage fills dramatically. Unchanged is the presence of a bench for Labadie, from which he conducts for the entire evening. While conducting seated may appear unusual, it is the new normal for Labadie following a diagnosis of stage four lymphoma in 2014 and subsequent treatments. He noted to the Montreal Gazette in 2016 that the rehabilitation process entailed “relearning my body, how I use my body to make music.” His upbeat and lively, though physically-economic, style provides a firm through-line to this evening’s program.

The slow opening of Symphony No. 39 is grand – perhaps even “on the pompous side,” as Don Anderson suggests in the program notes. This is the first in the final trio of Mozart’s symphonies, composed during the summer of 1788, which some scholars believe were written to be performed together as a single work. Although there is no known evidence of such a performance, simply the thought that Mozart created what are often considered his greatest symphonies over the span of a few months is undoubtedly a feat grand enough to warrant a fair bit of pompousness.

Throughout the symphony, the entire orchestra unites for strong allegros that begin in unison. There is an overwhelming sense of movement in the first forte note the musicians play together, and I frequently find myself lost in their synchronized, physical enactments of musical force. Body weights shift in unison. Limbs sway with grandeur. And Labadie demonstrates a tendency to lift one or both feet and literally step into that first bold note as his torso leans forward. This visual fullness, contrasting greatly with the performance of the serenade, mirrors the wider range of sound and clever dynamism of Symphony No. 39.

Continuity between the program choices is provided by the strong role of the clarinets, which take of the place of the usual oboes in the symphony orchestra. In the third movement of the symphony, there is a call-and-response feeling that mirrors the role of the clarinets within the structure of the serenade. In this movement of the symphony, extremely quick phrases in the winds are mimicked by the full orchestra; the pattern repeats itself, this time with a lead-in from the violins, before the entire orchestra responds with a bold, definitive response to the questions posed by its individual sections.

Presented under the overarching title “Majestic Mozart,” Serenade No. 10 and Symphony No. 39 are perfect introductions to a composer who tailored his brilliance to fit the conservative tastes of Vienna, while nonetheless inserting subtly subversive elements into his work. These tensions shine through early on in the symphony, with a short series of dissonant notes, and in the hands of the TSO, its conclusion leaves the audience with an abrupt final note that seems to hang in the air, suggesting that there is more to be said ­– appropriate for a composer who died so shortly after composing this work with masterpieces left to be written. A fate whose drama is certainly not lost on Labadie in the miraculous “second act” of his own life and musical career.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Majestic Mozart” on January 10 and January 13, 2018 as part of the Mozart@262 festival at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Kallee Lins is an arts administrator, writer and researcher who has spent her life studying dance and theatre both in studios and in graduate university departments. She frequently contributes to The Dance Current.

Back to top