The 32nd TD Toronto Jazz Festival will run June 22 to July 1, with 23 ticketed shows in various venues and approximately 150 free concerts. For the second straight year, the festival will be centred around Bloor-Yorkville, with seven core venues: outdoor stages on Cumberland St. and Hazelton Ave., The Pilot Tavern, Heliconian Hall, the Church of the Redeemer, the Isabel Bader Theatre and the Village of Yorkville Park. This year’s festival also has some new initiatives, including four ticketed concerts at Trinity-St. Paul’s; an opening night celebration co-produced with the Royal Ontario Museum called “Jazz Club,in which the ROM will be transformed into a giant nightclub featuring jazz, swing and dancing throughout the evening; and a partnership with CBC Music and the JUNOs rotating between two Yorkville stages and highlighting Canadian musicians who were either nominated for, or won, JUNO awards this past year. The showcase will feature eight bands on June 30, including David Braid/Mike Murley, the Okavango African Orchestra, Hilario Durán, Shirantha Beddage, Autorickshaw, Beny Esguerra and New Tradition, and more.

With the festival fast approaching, I sat down for a conversation with Josh Grossman, now in his ninth year as artistic director, about this year’s festival and its continuing evolution.

Josh Grossman - Photo by Marie ByersWN: Walk us through the move away from Nathan Phillips Square into Yorkville, which began last year. What has this change brought to the festival?

JG: There were programming-flexibility and other issues involved in having the big tent in Nathan Phillips Square as the festival’s central venue. These involved noise by-law requirements which limited us to three shows a day – one at noon, one in the late afternoon and one in the evening – and we wanted to be able to present more. Also, the tent held 1,200 people and the pressure of filling it for ten straight days proved to be a challenge. The sound was often less than ideal and so was the atmosphere – we lacked the budget to decorate the square to give it more of a festival feel as it had during the Pan-Am Games. The move to Bloor-Yorkville allows us to present smaller shows, but more of them, and in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues that provide more flexibility and variety. Also, with its pre-existing history, Yorkville provides a village-within-a-city feel that makes a jazz festival feel like more of a festival, which is hugely important. It has a built-in community and neighbourhood vibe and offers many other advantages. It’s in the centre of the city, easily accessible by public transit and, with seven venues, it offers a flexibility of programming. It’s also close to some of the hard-ticketed venues such as the Danforth Music Hall, Koerner Hall, the ROM and Trinity-St. Paul’s, so there’s a sense of concentration. We want people to be able to catch a variety of shows each day by simply walking or taking a short subway ride. Because Yorkville is relatively small, many of the venues, even the outdoor ones, offer an intimacy which suits the music being presented. Heliconian Hall for example, where we’ll be presenting ten free concerts, holds just 100 people, has wonderful sound, a good grand piano and a great stage. The Church of the Redeemer is similar and both these venues have a history within the city, which it’s nice to take advantage of.

What has response from the Yorkville community been like?

Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the Bloor-Yorkville BIA have been very supportive, which has allowed us to increase the Yorkville footprint of the festival this year. It’s helped that CEO Howard Kerber, who formerly ran TIFF in the community for several years, has been involved. There are still noise by-law issues – no more than 85 decibels and nothing past 11pm – but most shows will wind up by ten. And the local businesses certainly appreciate the influx of 5,000 people into the neighbourhood.

Apart from affordability, availability and avoiding repetition from year to year, what drives your selection of acts for the festival?

We focus on the audience in Toronto, being aware of who’s popular in the city, and of the increasing cross-cultural aspect of the community with an eye toward promoting this. With the ticketed big-name shows we look for variety; we want the acts to be exciting and vibrant as well as financially viable. It’s certainly not a matter of me as artistic director just indulging my own tastes; there have been many times I’ve wanted to bring in an artist I love but have been shot down by the board. It’s surprising, but there are a number of artists with huge international jazz reps who simply don’t sell well in Toronto. The free concerts are easier because there’s no box office pressure and the possibilities are almost endless.

There’s a perception that the festival has grown smaller in the last couple of years – is this true?

Not entirely. There have been slightly fewer big-name, hard-ticketed events the past couple of years, but the total number of presentations has held steady at 170 to 180. Part of the perception that we’re smaller is we no longer involve, under the festival umbrella, many clubs which present jazz part time. This is largely because they didn’t allow us input into their booking of artists. The exceptions this year are the Home Smith Bar, The Rex (which does its own booking but we wanted to maintain a partnership with because it presents so much jazz year-round) and The Pilot Tavern, an obvious choice given its location and long history.

I’ve often thought that with jazz festivals, smaller can be better.

Yes, we’re finding that can be true – that musical quality and variety matter more than size.

You’re likely sick of this question – as am I – but what do you say to the inevitable criticism that there are acts in the festival that aren’t really jazz?

So when we bring in someone like Willie Nelson, or Alison Krause this year … I’m not going to argue that they’re jazz artists, but they serve a certain purpose in attracting large audiences, which helps the bottom line, which in turn helps us afford other artists. But whether they’re jazz or not, nobody can argue that they’re not great musical artists. And there’s a hope that their fans, who may not have been exposed to jazz before, may catch some other shows and say “Hey, I like this, why haven’t I heard this before?” Also, it’s not really fair, because those critics often seize on one or two artists out of the 170 being presented, most of which in some form are legitimately jazz. The music has evolved and cross-pollinated so much that it now comprises many elements of world music, R&B, soul, blues, funk and so on, so who can say anymore in absolute terms what jazz is, or isn’t? Particularly in the summer, jazz becomes a bigger, more inclusive tent. Besides, some of these more popular artists can surprise you – for example, a few years ago the Steve Martin booking was roundly criticized, but in my opinion his performance offered more improvisational content than a lot of the so-called “straight jazz” ones did that year.

How long does putting together each festival take?

With all the logistical challenges and coordination of booking, organizing and planning, it’s pretty much a year-long process. The team generally allows itself some time off to bask in the afterglow of the current festival, then it’s on to organizing the next one.

What would you like to say about this year’s festival?

I’m pretty excited about it, the expanded presence in Yorkville and some of the new venues, artists and initiatives being offered, such as blues legend Bettye Lavette heading up a Blues Revue for the first time in the festival and the first-ever Toronto appearance by The Bad Plus featuring their new pianist, Orrin Evans; the Industry Exchange, a new series being held in the Stealth Lounge of The Pilot, aimed at promoting emerging local talent from diverse musical backgrounds. The Yorkville venues have given us the flexibility to present a lot of Canadian talent, both established and lesser-known. I feel we’re offering a program with a lot of range, featuring some legends such as Herbie Hancock as well as some newer artists, in some of the city’s most attractive venues.

Bettye LavetteAll told, you’ve done seven or eight of these, so what do you consider a successful jazz festival to be – how does that look?

Well, attendance and the bottom line are important of course and it helps if the weather cooperates. But mostly, it’s the vibe of the festival, the feeling of its interaction with the city itself, positive feedback from audiences, seeing familiar faces and some new ones at the shows. Having artists express an interest in returning is always nice and often happens because this is such a vibrant city with so much musical talent. And it’s a good sign when I see a lot of local musicians in the audience.

Full disclosure! Aside from playing two Yorkville concerts with Reg Schwager’s Songbook and the Barry Elmes Quintet, I plan on being one of the local musicians in the audience Josh Grossman spoke about. I like the eclecticism and look of this year’s lineup, some of the new initiatives and the overall scope and size of the festival. Above all, I feel its setting allows for some musical intimacy and the potential to be what a jazz festival should be at the end of the day – festive. I wish everybody an enjoyable time at this year’s festival and a happy summer of listening.

To see more detail about this year’s lineup and schedule, visit torontojazz.com

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

In the dog days of Toronto’s musical summer, while the halls are lying dormant and musicians gigging on the Ontario festival circuit, two weeks of intense art song training will take place at the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM). Out of 90 applicants this year, eight singers and four pianists chosen by video auditions will work on all aspects of art song with international mentors, Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake, and the head of Collaborative Piano at U of T and Canadian Art Song Project co-artistic director Steven Philcox. Tuition fees are covered by scholarships, which in turn are underwritten by TSM donors. Each week of work will be crowned with a group recital, in a program that will emerge organically from the training repertoire tackled.

Christoph Pregardien - Marco BorggreveThere will also be the opportunity for the Art of Song Institute singers and pianists to join forces with the fellows of the Chamber Music Institute, the other arm of the Toronto Summer Music Academy. A lucky precedent was set last year, explains Steven Philcox when I phone him on an early morning in May; song students enjoyed working with string players and TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow so much that a repeat was in order. This year, two pieces that call for inter-Institute collaboration will be in the final concert: a Menotti number and Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle for soprano, piano and string quartet.

Each of the international mentors is here for one week, though their time will overlap enough to allow for a Prégardien-Drake recital on July 17. Their young mentees will be required to prepare eight songs for each week of the program, 16 songs total. “There will be daily sessions with Christoph, Julius and myself, and a lot of focused diction and language study,” says Philcox. “Michael Albano, resident stage director at the U of T Opera, will give a full session on recitation of poetry, away from the music – getting back to the words – and this is both for singers and pianists. They’re all required to prepare a piece of poetry from memory.”

Steven PhilcoxWhat songs exactly the singers end up working on during those two weeks of close collaboration with Drake, Prégardien and Philcox depends in part on their own interests. The repertoire is discussed early on in the selection process. “We audition everybody through the Young Artist Program tracker, and singers can upload their videos and submit their repertoire online. That way we can audition internationally.” The TSM artistic panel then looks at the applications and makes the selection.

Both the Festival and its Academy are loosely programmed around a theme each year, and this time it’s Reflections of Wartime. “At least some of the songs that the singers bring will be required to fit the festival theme. I ask the singers for 16 to 20 songs and out of those I am able to assemble the rep,” says Philcox. The final list of songs will also depend on who the mentors are and what their area of specialization is. “Christoph Prégardien’s wish was to focus on German lieder and we’ll have quite a bit of Schubert and Schumann – and a lot of students really wanted to work on Schubert with him.” There are two tenors, two sopranos and four mezzos, and in the self-generated repertoire there wasn’t much overlap. “Even within the same voice type,” he adds. “One mezzo happens to be closer to alto and she’s looking at some of the Mahler Kindertotenlieder and Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.”

Here is the class of 2018: pianists Frances Armstrong, Leona Cheung, Pierre-André Doucet and Jinhee Park, sopranos Maeve Palmer and Karen Schriesheim, tenors Joey Jang and Asitha Tennekoon, and mezzos Lyndsay Promane, Danielle Vaillancourt, Renee Fajardo and Florence Bourget. A couple of the local names will be familiar to Torontonians – Promane and Palmer certainly, as well as tenor Asitha Tennekoon, who has just wrapped up in the first run of the newly composed The Overcoat at Canadian Stage here and in Vancouver.

The young tenor moved to Toronto only four years ago, but since then we’ve seen him in roles in just about all the core companies of the indie scene: Tapestry, Against the Grain Theatre, MY Opera, Opera Five and Bicycle Opera Project. I caught up with him over Skype while he was travelling through BC to ask him about his interest in the art of song and the kind of detailed work that the TSM Academy offers.

“My first TSM Academy was two years ago, actually,” he says. “This year when I found out who the mentors are going to be, I decided to apply again. I’ve listened to Prégardien for a long time, and know his work. Whenever I have to work on Bach cantatas and passions, I look for his versions. As a tenor, I think I might end up doing a lot of rep that he’s done.”

Tennekoon’s rep this year will be British songs and a lot of Schubert lieder. “I’ve done Schumann, I’ve done Wolf, but somehow never taken the time to study Schubert.” And since working on Schubert’s larger song cycles would be somewhat impractical in the context of a two-week summer school, he ended up choosing a few songs from Schwanengesang. “I love those pieces; they speak to me,” he says.

“Lieder in general. There’s something about the way those songs delve into human psyche that really engages me. How the poet and the character in the song put something across, deal with something in a matter of just a couple of minutes – and often so powerfully. That really makes me want to work on it and figure out why and how this happens.”

Part of it, he says, is that there are no operatic visuals, no plot development and no colleagues onstage to help build the character and help you make your case. “There’s an immediate spotlight – you dive straight in. I love that challenge. You can’t move around, there’s nowhere to go.”

One particular song from Schwanengesang in particular drew him in: Der Doppelgänger. “When I first heard it, it surprised me that it was Schubert. The way the harmonies worked, it all felt like Mahler – that sense of pathos and death to it.”

Asitha TennekoonAfter the Academy and in addition to Schubert, Tennekoon will continue to explore Britten’s vocal opus. “I love the way [Britten] writes for the voice,” he says. “I’ve already done a bunch of Britten songs and would like to continue singing Britten as much as possible.” Schumann too, and the French rep eventually. Contemporary music almost goes without saying. “Doing new music is the most enjoyable thing about my time in Toronto so far. Working with Tapestry, you kind of get thrown into it and I absolutely love it. Taking part in something out there that’s never been heard before, getting to talk to the composer and librettist and ask them questions and suggest your own ideas – it’s one of the most exciting parts of this business.”

But first , back to Bach. Tennekoon returns to Stratford Summer Music for the Coffee Cantata later in the summer, and there are a few solos in the Matthew and John Passions in the near future. And in the spring of 2019, a house debut at the Opéra de Montréal in what’s been billed as a jazz opera with boxing, Champion.

The joint reGENERATION recitals by the Art Song and Chamber Music fellows take place on July 14 and 21, 1pm and 4pm on each day in Walter Hall, Toronto; tickets are available at TSM’s website.

June Pick

Tapestry Opera is partnering with Pride Toronto for a three-day festival of naughtiness titled “Tap This” on June 7, 8 and 9. Soprano Teiya Kasahara will subvert operatic tropes about female characters in her haute butch style. Joel Klein (as his drag alter Maria Toilette), Kristina Lemieux (as Vadge) and Gutter Opera Collective will present “Cocktales”: salacious and tender first-person retellings of early sexual experiences. There’s more: the complete program and tickets can be found on Tapestry’s website. 

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

Opera performances in Southern Ontario in the summer are becoming more numerous every year. This year, a few young companies are taking opera to some municipalities that once had opera companies and to others that never had them. This is all to the good in broadening the audience for opera as well as broadening notions of what opera is, as the offerings mix standards and rarities with brand-new works.

June

Nota Bene: June 2018 begins with a rarity. The Nota Bene Baroque Players of Waterloo team up with Capella Intima of Toronto and the Gallery Players of Niagara to present Folly in Love (Gli equivoci nel sembiante) from 1679, the first opera written by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). The first performance takes place in Kitchener on June 1, the second in Hamilton on June 2 and the third in St. Catharines on June 3.

The opera concerns two nymphs, Lisetta and Clori, who are both in love with the same shepherd Eurillo. When a new shepherd Armindo arrives, the nymphs change their affections to him. After much confusion, the four sort themselves into two happy couples. Sheila Dietrich and Jennifer Enns sing the two nymphs, Bud Roach is Eurillo and David Roth is Armindo. Roach also conducts the six-member ensemble of period instruments. The opera is presented in concert in Italian with English surtitles.

Vera Causa: Also outside Toronto, the young opera company Vera Causa Opera is presenting an unusual double bill of new Canadian operas by women composers. The first is an opera in Croatian and English, Padajuća Zvijezda (The Fallen Star) by Julijana Hajdinjak, and the second is The Covenant by Dylann Miller. The first opera is inspired by a short story by the composer’s sister Danijela about two lovers in a celestial kingdom where love has been outlawed and is punished by banishment to Earth. It features Allison Walmsley as Luna, Melina Garcia Zambrano as Aurelia, Gabriel Sanchez Ortega as Solaris, Katerina Utochkina as Astra and Philip Klaassen as Stello. Rachel Kalap is the stage director and Dylan Langan conducts a five-member ensemble plus chorus. 

The second opera concerns witches, lesbians and priests and is about “empowering women to embrace their true selves from the perspective of a teenage girl in a small town.” In it Allison Walmsley sings Cate, Chad Quigley is Father Andrew, Kimberley Rose-Pefhany is Keira, Autumn Wascher is Delaney, Stephanie O’Leary is Lilith and Sam Rowlandson-O’Hara is Cate’s Mother. Rebecca Gray is the stage director and Isaac Page conducts a small instrumental ensemble and chorus. The operas will be performed on June 22 in Waterloo and on June 23 in Cambridge. As both the Nota Bene and the Vera Causa opera productions show, opera companies whose goal is to serve their local communities are springing up outside of Toronto.

By Request: In Toronto, Opera by Request has two presentations in June. The first on June 2 is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The second on June 9 is Donizetti’s daunting Anna Bolena. In the Mozart, Lawrence Cotton sings the title role, Evan Korbut is Leporello, Laura Schatz is Donna Elvira, Carrie Gray is Donna Anna and Risa de Rege is Zerlina. Kate Carver is the pianist and music director. In the Donizetti, Antonina Ermolenko sings the title role, John Holland is Enrico VIII, Monica Zerbe is Giovanna Seymour and Paul Williamson is Lord Percy. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Opera 5: On June 13, 15 and 17, Toronto’s Opera 5, which up to now has focused on presenting rarities such as its Dame Ethel Smyth double bill last year, makes its first foray into a full-length opera from the standard repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Johnathon Kirby sings the title role, Kevin Myers is the Count Almaviva, Stephanie Tritchew is his beloved Rosina, Jeremy Ludwig is her jealous guardian Don Bartolo and Giles Tomkins is her music teacher Don Basilio.

Rachel KrehmAs Opera 5 general director Rachel Krehm says, “The show will be set in the spring of 1914 in Spain just before the Last Great Summer (in which Spain declared its neutrality in World War I, a decision that would later seriously divide the country). A big feature of the set will be golden gates which symbolize Rosina’s entrapment – the outside world just out of reach. The comedy will come at you from every angle: the colours onstage, the physicality – but always inspired by the comedic genius from the score.” The opera will be fully staged and directed by Jessica Derventzis, with Evan Mitchell conducting an 11-piece ensemble.

Two from Luminato: The Luminato Festival has two opera-related offerings. From June 16 to 19 it presents Tables Turned, a remount of one of Tapestry Opera’s experimental Tap:Ex series from 2015. Soprano Carla Huhtanen and percussionist Ben Reimer join forces with Montreal composer, turntable artist and electronics specialist Nicole Lizée for a performance blending live and pre-recorded music with projections from classic films. Luminato’s other opera-like work is the production-in-progress Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook. The story follows the life of composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), who escaped Nazi Germany for the US in only to be rejected for his adherence to Communism in 1948 and forced to return to Europe, finally settling in the new East Germany. The opera, conceived and directed by Tim Albery, constructs a song cycle of Eisler’s many lieder to tell the story. Baritone Russell Braun is the soloist and Serouj Kradjian is the pianist. The sole performance is on June 23, but Soundstreams has scheduled the work for a full production in June 2019.

Russell Braun - photo by Johannes IfkovitsLlandovery Castle: Finishing June in Toronto is an opera workshop of The Llandovery Castle by Stephanie Martin on June 26 and 27 in association with Bicycle Opera. The title refers to the name of a Canadian hospital ship that was torpedoed on June 27, 1918, by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Fourteen Canadian nurses from all across Canada were among the casualties. Paul Ciufo’s libretto focuses on the lives of Minnie “Kate” Gallaher, Rena “Bird” McLean and Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser. The characters also include Sergeant Arthur “Art” Knight and Major Tom Lyon (two of the 24 men who survived the sinking) and German U-boat commander Helmut Patzig. The opera is directed by Tom Diamond and Kimberley-Ann Bartczak conducts a chamber orchestra. The June 27 performance will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

July

S.O.L.T Going Strong: Straddling July and August is the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in Toronto, founded in 1986. The training program culminates in staged concert performances of three operas. This year the operas are Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884) on July 27, 29, August 1 and 4; George Frideric Handel’s Semele (1743) on July 28, August 1, 3 and 4; and a version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1789), renamed Fior and Dora after the heroines Fiordiligi and Dorabella, on July 28, 31, August 2 and 5.

Brott: This year the Brott Music Festival will again present a fully staged opera as part of its schedule from June 21 to August 16. This summer’s opera will be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented for one night only in English on July 19 at the FirstOntario Concert Hall. Anne-Marie MacIntosh sings Pamina, Zachary Rioux is Tamino, Holly Flack is the Queen of the Night, Max van Wyck is Papageno and Simon Chalifoux is Sarastro. Patrick Hansen directs the steampunk-designed production and Boris Brott conducts the Brott Festival Orchestra. 

Julie NesrallahMusic Niagara: Meanwhile, Music Niagara has two mainstream operas on offer. On July 9 it presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Niagara-on-the-Lake, starring Alexander Dobson in the title role supported by young Canadian talent. On July 21 it is presenting a version of Bizet’s most popular opera styled as Carmen on Tap, starring CBC Radio host Julie Nesrallah in the title role with tenor Richard Troxell as Don José. The twist with this production is that the opera is abridged and is set in the cellar of Old Winery Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The production promises to give audiences a more intimate view of the classic work.

Coffee Time: Shifting to another successful music festival, Stratford Summer Music will be presenting a staged version of a secular J.S. Bach cantata not in a restaurant but in the Revel Caffe in downtown Stratford. The work is, of course, Bach’s so-called Coffee Cantata of 1733, in which a father tries to prevent his daughter from becoming addicted to her favourite pick-me-up. Simon Chalifoux, Elizabeth Polese and Asitha Tennekoon are the three singers and Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment for the three performances on July 27, 28 and 29.

Then, in early August, SSM presents a brand new response to The Coffee Cantata in the form of The Cappuccino Cantata, by the suspiciously pseudonymous “J.S. Bawk.” Set in Stratford in 2018, Gordon, who manages a coffee bar, is smitten with his barista, Stephanie, but she has a crush on the “boy with the MacBook” who comes in every day. Katy Clark, Adam Harris and Zachary Rioux are the singers and again Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment. Performances are on August 10, 11 and 12, also at the Revel Caffe.

Also in August

Highlands Opera: In Haliburton, the Highlands Opera Studio is presenting three operas. On August 16 and 17 it presents an unusual double bill of two 20th-century Canadian comic operas by Tibor Polgar (1907-93). Polgar was born in Budapest and was a pianist and conductor with the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1925 to 1950. He fled Hungary after the Russian invasion, first to Germany and then to Canada, where he became a citizen in 1969. He was an instructor at the University of Toronto Opera Division from 1966 to 1975.

First on the double bill is The Glove, Polgar’s most performed opera, commissioned by the CBC in 1973. The libretto is based on the 1797 ballad by Friedrich Schiller about a princess who asks a knight to enter an arena of lions to fetch her fallen glove. Andy Erasmus sings the Ringmaster, Grace Canfield the Princess and Matthew Dalen the Knight. Second on the bill is The Troublemaker from 1968, based on a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. Matthew Dalen sings Abu Hussein, Andy Erasmus is Sherkan, Maria Lacey is Tamatil, Emma Bergin is Nushmet and Joseph Trumbo is The Cadi. On August 24 through 27 the Highlands Opera Studio presents Puccini’s La Bohème with two casts, one on August 24 and 26 and the other on August 25 and 27.

Opera Muskoka: The second summer opera company in cottage country is Opera Muskoka, now in its ninth year. On August 21 it presents a concert performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Italian with English surtitles at the Rene M. Caisse Theatre in Bracebridge. Soprano Sharon Tikiryan is the producer and will sing the role of the calculating maid Despina.

All of this operatic activity all over the province is certainly enough to occupy any Southern Ontarian opera-goer until the fall.

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

In May, two shows stood out for me for different reasons. Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage’s intimate upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre was an unusual theatrical concert with a whimsical heart and setting, combining often-sublime chamber music (by composer Njo Kong Kie) with simple props, a dancer, short films and onscreen poetic introductions to the various compositions. The beautiful playing by violinist Hong Iat U and cellist Nicholas Yee (supported by the composer on the piano) stood out as enigmatic conversations between their instruments, in much the same way that author Patrick O’Brian describes the often improvisatory, lyrical, shipboard violin and cello duets played by his famous characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A more traditional musical theatre outing was the TSO’s concert presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide This was a wonderful opportunity to hear and see the exquisite Tracy Dahl as Cunegonde, with her crystal clear tone, perfect technique, and delightful acting and star mezzo Judith Forst in great comedic form as the lively Old Lady.

Looking ahead to June, there is no shortage of music theatre on offer but the most striking cluster of offerings is concentrated under the umbrella of the Luminato Festival. I took the opportunity to meet artistic director Josephine Ridge to ask her about her approach and goals for the festival as she nears the beginning of her second season in Toronto.

Josephine Ridge 4 Photo by Katherine HollandWN: Looking at the upcoming Luminato program, what really struck me was how much music there is, but also, and this seems new this year, how politically and socially engaged the whole festival is. Is that because of the current atmosphere we are living in?

JR: It’s actually deeper than that; it’s about the way I view the role of a festival within its home city – that a festival needs to be relevant to the inhabitants of its city and therefore we need to engage with the ideas that are in the public realm of discussion. We need to think about what are the issues, the concerns and the enthusiasms and in other words really what’s in the ether, because if we’re not a festival that is distinctly about Toronto and of Toronto then it means that we are not contributing and adding to the cultural landscape in the way that I believe we should as a festival.

It’s something that I was very proud to have been able to do when I was at the Melbourne Festival.

And it takes time to explore and get to know a new city.

That’s part of the excitement of course, and I think, as in all things, with fresh eyes one has a different perspective, perhaps, as well – and that certainly for me adds to the interest in terms of the conversations that I have.

You have talked before about wanting to have conversations with as many of the arts organizations as possible in the city.

Yes, this is the other side of the engagement and connection that we were just talking about. This is really about understanding what Toronto artists and companies are doing now, and how can we add to that and perhaps together achieve something which each can’t on their own.

There is already growing excitement about that approach from some of the artists I’ve spoken to – at Tapestry Opera for example.

In fact, Tapestry is a good case in point. I quickly came to understand the work that Michael Mori and his company are doing, so the conversation with Michael about this year was around work that they have produced in the past that is really deserving of a wider audience and being revisited and seen in an international festival context. We very quickly got to Nicole Lizée’s multimedia piece Tables Turned. It’s one of the important components of a platform we have created this year called Illuminated Works, which is all about fulfilling one of Luminato’s founding briefs – which was to throw a spotlight on the creativity of Toronto and take Toronto arts to the world. We are bringing a large group of international and Canadian presenters and producers to come and look at a whole range of work, with a view to it being picked up and given national and international touring opportunities. We can’t work with everybody every year but we can make a start and really make sure that over time we engage as widely as we can.

Will you be continuing with these conversations, looking for companies you haven’t yet met, and new artists emerging onto the scene?

Definitely. One of the important roles we have is not only to present work that is complete but also to recognize the proper support that is required for the creative development process of new work, and so in the program this year we have four works that are works in progress.

We’re giving those artists an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience so they can feel how it sits with that audience and feed that learning into the way they then take the work forward for future development.

This will be exciting for audiences, too, to be in on the development process on the ground floor.

Yes, and I think the works we have chosen are far-ranging: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, Hell’s Fury, The Ward Cabaret, and Balaklava Blues.

Dr. Silver a Celebration of Life - Photo by Neil SilcoxAnd they’re all music theatre – as we define it at The WholeNote – where music is an integral element in telling a theatrical story. This year the mix is very interesting and even more experimental than last year. Do you see music theatre as always being an essential part of the Luminato recipe, particularly as it crosses borders and genres?

Well, I’m particularly interested in artists and their work where they are not working in art-form silos; and distinctions between the definitions of particular art forms now are so blurry. Also, music to me is really central so it’s not surprising that so many works that we are looking at are cross-genre. I also think that the ability that music has to speak to audiences who perhaps might not think of themselves as being a “theatre audience” or a “dance audience,” for example, is exciting.

How did you choose the music theatre pieces this season? Did you start with one that was a cornerstone, the Irish Swan Lake, for example, or did you begin with the underlying themes and ideas you wanted to engage with this season and go from there?

I think it’s partly that I am always drawn to music and so there is no one answer to that. I have a long relationship with Teaċ Daṁsa, Michael Dolan’s company (Swan Lake), and have seen a lot of Michael’s work over the years as a director and choreographer. He is, I think, a unique and important voice, and Toronto audiences and the artists working in Toronto should see the works that he is creating

The excerpts that I have seen online look wildly theatrical.

It’s a completely original reading of such a well-known work, and all the elements of the Swan Lake story are there, but of course it is completely transformed into this really poor community in Ireland. There are no kings and queens and princes here, and the music is original Irish music (with folk references) played live onstage. Somehow even with all of that transformation, the classic story is there, which to me is just magical.

And the Canadian pieces – how did you choose those, Dr. Silver for example?

In the case of Dr. Silver, A Celebration of Life I was invited by Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, very soon after I arrived in Canada (the middle of 2016), to go to a day of workshops they were holding, and this was one of those works in a very raw form. I met and talked with Mitchell and then also with Mitchell Marcus of The Musical Stage Company, as it was absolutely evident to me that Britta and Anika Johnson are a real creative force. I was interested in not just the direction of that work but of whatever else they were doing, and wanted to signal that I would be interested in finding a way for Luminato to be part of that story to support those artists. Although Dr. Silver has its official presentation in September as a finished work, I asked if it would be useful for them to have an opportunity on the way through to put it in front of an audience, so that’s how that conversation went.

Hells Fury: The Hollywood Songbook [Tim Albery’s concept based on the life and songs of composer Hanns Eisler], on the other hand, came to us as an idea from Lawrence Cherney at Soundstreams. He said “We want to create this work and need a partner.” So, there are many ways in which these projects can come to life. You have to be in the room, seeing work, having the conversation for these outcomes to even occur.

And if artists are interested in having a conversation with you how should they approach you?

I try to go to see artists working at all scales and at all types of work, so people do tend to find me in foyers, but I can also be easily be contacted at Luminato.

The Ward Cabaret you mentioned is also a work in progress – can you tell me a bit more about it?

I think it’s a really important piece because it comes from the recent book The Ward from Coach House Books that deals with the importance of the Ward [an area bounded roughly by Queen and College, Yonge and University] and the cultural diversity of its original inhabitants as being the real basis of Toronto’s cultural diversity today. What David Buchbinder (the show’s originator) has done is have a musical response to that material, and I think it’s going to be really interesting and very rich.

Now that playwright Marjorie Chan and director Leah Cherniak are newly involved in the collaboration, is there any sense yet of how theatrical it is going to be?

What we have now is really a cabaret concert performance, but eventually it will be a fully staged theatrical experience. I can’t tell you when that will be but we are certainly there for the journey.

Before we finish, could you tell me a bit more about Riot, the other show you are bringing from Ireland? It sounds like a smorgasbord of different genres, including music theatre, all mixed together.

Riot is uplifting. It’s funny, energetic, has got real heart and soul, and deals with – going back to your first questions – issues and ideas. It covers quite a lot of really important territory of social politics, in particular, but does it in a way that is very entertaining and lightly done. I think you’ll find a lot of connection to Toronto audiences because of the territory it covers and because it is so entertaining.

Up Over It in 'Riot' - Photo by Conor Horgan for THISISPOPBABYAnd because of the contrast in style with everything else?

That’s why we are running it a bit longer – so it has a chance to bridge a lot of the other works that are taking place.

The whole festival is longer this year. Is there extra programming or are you spreading things out?

It’s more about pace, allowing there to be some air in between, so hopefully people can see more but also connect the various aspects of the festival. It’s also structural: with only two weekends you begin and you end; with three weekends now we have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re telling a story.

Luminato runs from June 6 to 24 at various venues around Toronto.

Follow our online blog for more previews and reviews of music theatre around Ontario this summer.

Quick Picks

June 1 to 10: Frame by Frame. A new collaboration between international theatrical innovator Robert Lepage with Canadian choreographer Guillaume Côté, celebrating and showcasing excerpts of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

June 6, 7: Soundstreams finishes its 35th season with an exciting two-part music theatre program, the world premiere of James Rolfe’s I Think We Are Angels, with a libretto based on the poems of Else Lasker-Schüler, and a new theatrical version of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion led by music director John Hess and stage director Jennifer Tarver. At Crows Theatre, 345 Carlaw, Toronto.

June 16: Tony Award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and many other shows) comes to Massey Hall for one night only with his new cabaret show Legal Immigrant, built around stories and songs of his life and loves in his adopted homeland, the USA.

June 26: A rare chance to see Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer live at the TSO, in Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

July 13 to August 12: Rosalynde (or As You Like It). Driftwood Theatre places one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies in Canada in 1918, with the songs given new musical settings to fit the period by music director and composer Tom Lillington. In parks around Ontario; see driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour for details. 

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.

Music and nature are closely intertwined, the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of our planet inspiring musicians for centuries, even millennia. The ancient philosophical concept of a Harmony of the Spheres as proposed by Pythagoras suggests that the sun, moon and planets all emit their own unique pitch frequency based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the harmony of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Although Aristotle later contested this theory, the idea of Harmonia mundi continues to be reinvented and interpreted by composers in new and exciting ways. For example, in 1996 the Dutch composer Joep Franssens premiered his massive Harmony of the Spheres for chorus, combining minimalist and spectralist approaches to create a work that captures both the profound immensity of the universe and the bright shimmer of far-off stars.

Between Pythagoras and Franssens lies a wealth of nature-inspired music, from silly and serene to severe and stormy. Birds in particular have been a source of inspiration: German Baroque pipe organs contained special stops such as the nightingale, which produced a fluttering, high-pitched whistle (the organ at Metropolitan United has a nightingale stop, a generous donation from an organ aficionado), while French Baroque musicians such as Daquin and Rameau wrote imitations of birds in works such as Le Coucou and La Poule. Perhaps the greatest ornithological composer in history is Olivier Messiaen, who faithfully transcribed bird calls noting the species and location, and wove these threads into masterful pieces of music. It is nearly impossible to find a late work of Messiaen that does not incorporate bird song as an integral and essential component.

Bach and Handel used the pastoral as a musical model, illustrating idyllic scenes of shepherds tending their sheep. Mozart wove birds into The Magic Flute through the character of Papageno, an earthy birdcatcher who, when he finds his perfect match in Papagena, rejoices with an imitation of bird-like courting sounds. Beethoven and Brahms both enjoyed long walks through the woods, put to paper in Beethoven’s case in Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral, portraying everything from bubbling brooks and bird calls to a violent thunderstorm. Mahler used his mountain retreat as his summertime escape from Vienna, hiking, walking, rowing and composing his greatest works in a nearby hut, mirroring the intensity of his temperament and the immensity of the mountains in his large-scale symphonies.

Summer continues to be a time of escape and refuge for many, whether braving traffic on Highway 400 to reach a familiar lakeside cottage hideaway or taking a road trip and exploring new and exciting places. While many use the summer months as a chance to get away and recharge, musicians sometimes seem to grow busier over July and August, as evidenced by the plethora of festivals and concert series that continue to increase in number and scale each year. A quick glance at the Green Pages in this issue of The WholeNote provides some idea of the sheer number of exciting opportunities available to hear new, old and endearingly familiar masterpieces. Regardless of where your travels take you, there is something to see and listen to. Here is a brief overview of this summer’s early music festivals and events:

June

May and June offer season-ending performances by organizations across the city, grand finales showcasing great ensembles and equally great musical works. As seasons end, others begin, and this June serves as the starting point for numerous summer programs and concerts.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute (TBSI), a world-renowned training program for advanced students, pre-professional and professional musicians in instrumental and vocal Baroque performance practice, is led by some of the world’s finest musicians in the field. This year’s TBSI runs from June 10 to 23 and features five separate performances by faculty and students at venues across Toronto’s Bloor-Annex corridor, including Jeanne Lamon Hall and Walter Hall, with the grand finale at Grace Church on-the-Hill. As a former participant in this superb training program, I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of repertoire and tutelage each participant receives, and strongly encourage lovers of early music to attend at least one of these performances. Keep the program, too – you’ll be amazed at how many names return as fully formed performers in following years!

Alison Melville, recorder player and flutist of North Wind Concerts, when she hosted CBC Radio 2’s 'This Is My Music'North Winds Do Blow! On June 16, some of Canada’s most celebrated Baroque music specialists play a cornucopia of beautiful tunes from Handel operas and oratorios. ”Handel: Airs for the Theatre” showcases tunes from Rinaldo, Acis & Galatea, Riccardo Primo, Orlando, Admeto and other Handelian hits, arranged by Toronto’s own Colin Savage after 18th-century models, as well as a few 18th-century arrangements published by Handel’s contemporary, John Walsh. Featuring Baroque woodwind wizards from across the city playing a diverse and colourful array of period instruments, this concert is an ideal celebration of summer’s arrival, and the debut performance of North Wind Concerts, an evolution of the group formerly known as Baroque Music Beside the Grange. Taking place at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, this concert is perfectly located, just down the road from Tafelmusik’s Summer Institute.

Montréal Baroque: If you are planning a trip to Montreal in June, make sure to explore the 2018 Festival Montréal Baroque’s “Hallelujah Handel,” taking place from June 21 to 24. This overview of Handel’s output from his solo sonatas to opera will be a first for Montreal, focusing on rarely heard music including the complete keyboard works, the complete sonatas for flute, recorder, violin and gamba, the complete trio sonatas, concerti for violin, organ and harp, and rarely heard oratorios and masques, performed by many of Montreal’s Baroque ensembles, established and novice, as well as invited guests. Taking inspiration from Berlioz’s description of Handel as a “tub of pork and beer,” the Montreal Festival events will include food and wine tastings. (Handel, a famously corpulent person, was a well-known epicurean famed for downing two bottles of red each evening – he eventually developed a serious case of gout!)

July

Elora and Parry Sound: If June is the month of Handel, July presents a mixed-bag assortment of much-loved early music. The Elora Festival, renowned for its varied and eclectic programming, offers performances by both guest ensembles and the resident Elora Singers and Festival Orchestra. This year’s guests include the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal in a concert of three settings of Lamentations by the prophet Jeremiah, written by the 16th-century composers Tallis, Morales and de Lassus; the renowned English ensemble The Gesualdo Six, making their Canadian debut; and two concerts by the Elora ensembles, featuring Bach’s Lutheran Masses, Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Mozart’s Mass in C.

Further north, the Festival of the Sound presents six concerts from July 25 to 27, pairing works by Bach with pieces by other canonic composers such as Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Debussy. This series (titled “Papa Bach”) explores Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on subsequent generations of musicians, as each concert features a solo cello suite followed by a work from a composer who was inspired by his music. Featuring a wide range of performers playing on modern instruments, this varied series presents an interesting contrast with the Baroque specialists featured throughout June’s festivals.

Angela Hewitt -Photo by Keith SaundersAugust

Stratford Summer Music: Although August marks the beginning of the end of summer (and back-to-school ads appear earlier and earlier each year), the music continues – notably in the Stratford Summer Music series. Angela Hewitt returns to Stratford on August 11 and 12 to present Books One and Two of Bach’s inspiring keyboard work The Well-Tempered Clavier. Through two performances, Hewitt will play the complete 48 preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. Seldom heard live in its entirety, The Well-Tempered Clavier is an astonishing masterpiece and this will be a rare and memorable opportunity to experience one of the world’s most profound works of creativity performed by one of today’s leading Bach interpreters.

Music Garden:Tucked away in Toronto’s waterfront, the Toronto Music Garden was conceived by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy in partnership with the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation department. Through its labyrinthine landscape, the garden interprets Bach’s Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007 for unaccompanied cello. Each summer the Toronto Music Garden is home to Summer Music in the Garden, presenting a tremendous range of chamber and world music. On August 19, “Sunday Afternoon at the Opera” offers scenes and arias from Mozart operas; late medieval love songs, including works by Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ciconia, are the focus of the August 23 concert “Elas mon cuer”; and on August 26, a program of chamber music and dance from the French Baroque is presented in “Confluence: Baroque Dance in the Garden.”

Navigating the Summer

As anyone who has travelled to an unfamiliar place knows well, navigating is often the trickiest part of going somewhere new. This issue of The WholeNote serves as your musical road map, helping you traverse the winding roads of summer music in all its forms without a GPS shouting “Recalculating!” With so many opportunities to hear splendid music, it is impossible to make a wrong turn and I encourage you to delve into some of these magnificent concerts and festivals.

If you have any questions or want to hear my two cents on anything early music this summer, send me a note at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com. See you in September! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

A few months ago I mentioned a trip to Ukraine by Bob Gray, a local band conductor, teacher and trumpet player. What he learned on that trip inspired him to pay another visit, with two primary goals in mind. The first was to investigate the feasibility of start-up brass bands in Ukraine during his eight-week stay in Kiev. The second was to be there for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Salvation Army’s ministry in Ukraine. In a recent email from Kiev, Bob reported on how things are going there, and unfortunately his first goal is not working out as easily as he had hoped. The idea was to investigate the feasibility of establishing new brass bands there. However, at present, there are no Salvation Army bands in Ukraine to use as models. Since there is no tradition upon which to build, there are no qualified leaders or instructors already active within the Salvation Army organization, making it difficult for some of the congregations to sustain and support the start and development of any band. Other setbacks: he has also learned that their music for worship in Salvation Army services differs greatly from the rest of the Salvation Army world. There are no brass band arrangements of the songs used there. Even for Christmas, the carols used in many places elsewhere differ from those familiar and popular in Ukrainian culture.

His second purpose for his extended trip will likely have a happier outcome. He will be there for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Salvation Army’s ministry in Ukraine. This event will take place on the weekend of June 8 to 10 in Victory Park and Hotel Bratislava. For this occasion, the Salvation Army band from Winton Corps, in Bournemouth, England will be participating. Bob has been asked to sit in with that band, as one of their cornet players is unable to make the journey to Kiev. It is the hope that the activities of this well-established band will stir some interest in resurrecting the brass band movement within the ranks of the Salvation Army in Ukraine. We wish him every success, and hope to hear of the establishment of new bands there in the near future.

Strings Attached

From messages about all-brass music thousands of miles away, we move to news about all-strings music right here in town. We have just heard from Ric Giorgi about the next concert of the Strings Attached Orchestra, their final concert for this year on June 3, again at the Isabel Bader Theatre. As usual, the program was designed to span a wide spectrum of music from such classics as Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.6 to Ashokan Farewell and the Best of ABBA.

The Plumbing Factory

Speaking of all-brass bands, we also just had a message from Henry Meredith of the Plumbing Factory Brass Band where he referred to the “devastating and relentless winter” we’ve all just been through. Rather than paraphrase what he said, here is his musical response to Mother Nature, verbatim: “Because of the ice storms only a week before our ‘spring’ concert, and the snowstorm on the night of our dress rehearsal, the PFBB has now decided to expand our concert season into the late spring and early summer. It is hoped that this will make it easier on both us and our audience, not to have to battle the weather to prepare and enjoy our brass band music. So we have decided to keep rehearsing, and to develop a brand new concert for you, to be performed on June 27.”

In typical Henry Meredith style, he outlines the program in one of his poems.

This little rhyme will explain the reason
Why we established a new summer season
It also provides a few hints about
The music which you will enjoy, without doubt.

The concert, “Summertime Musical Adventures” (June 27, 7:30pm at Byron United Church, 420 Boler Rd., London), will include such band favourites as Ringling Bros. Grand Entry, Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite, Bernstein’s Candide and The Whistler and his Dog by Arthur Pryor.

A Musical Movie

Something entirely new appeared on my radar screen recently: a Russian-Canadian film production company that is in the process of making a documentary about Benny Goodman’s historic tour of the USSR in 1962. Now, over 55 years later, this story is still alive in the minds of people who remember those concerts of the jazz orchestra of Benny Goodman, those “strange” but incredibly attractive American musicians. They remember the joy of buying scarce tickets and enjoying music, and screaming “encore” up to ten times. The whole world as we knew it was struck by the headline at the time. “The King of Swing Benny Goodman Plays Yankee Doodle Dandy on Red Square.” Certainly Russians had never seen anything like that before.

This full-length feature film, Trojan Jazz, will retell the events of the exchange of talented musicians between the US and the Soviet Union. The anticipated appeal is to jazz enthusiasts in both English- and Russian-speaking cultures. The concept of Trojan Jazz likens the Benny Goodman Orchestra to members of a Trojan horse that brought Western jazz culture into an isolated Eastern jazz culture. The impact was unpredictable. Jazz musicians of both cultures exchanged written ideas, which began a collaboration second to none.

Julian Miklis (at left)Local concert clarinetist Julian Milkis, son of former TSO concertmaster Yasha Milkis, is cast as Benny Goodman. Milkis actually studied with Goodman while attending the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. He can be seen in a variety of ensembles recreating some of Goodman’s hit songs.

To illustrate the Goodman legacy of playing big band music continuing to this day in community groups around the world, the producers wanted to show such a group in rehearsal So, all of a sudden, one evening a few weeks ago, I and my bandmates found ourselves being bombarded by bright studio lighting and surrounded by at least a half-dozen cameras. The Toronto-based rehearsal band Swing Machine, of which I have been a member for many years, was chosen and filmed to exemplify this ongoing tradition. There we were many years later, still enjoying the performance of big band music. We haven’t heard anything of when or where this movie might be seen, but I am told a visit to https://firstjazztourinussr.com will provide more in-depth information as the project develops.

Mikhail Sherman

A few weeks ago, at a regular rehearsal of the Swing Machine Big Band, I looked across at the saxophone section. The usually very reliable baritone saxophone player, Mikhail Sherman, was missing. We later learned that he had decided to have a nap before leaving for the rehearsal, but never woke up.

Born in the USSR, Mikhail grew up with a love of music in a country famed for great classical musicians. After serving time in the army and playing in a military band, he went on to become the principal clarinet and saxophone player for the famed Moscow State Circus, City of Lviv, for seven years.

In 1979 he left and came to Toronto to pursue more opportunities. He started his life here as a refugee with nothing. He washed dishes and became a cook at the Windfields Restaurant. His love for music led him in another direction. It was here that he met Frank Fermosi and Rocco Nufrio, the owners of the then-successful Saxophone Shop. They quickly spotted Mikhail’s love for music. He, in turn, showed a keen ability to learn the trade of repairing instruments. They offered him a job and training, in which he quickly excelled!

In 1986, when the Sax Shop closed, Mikhail decided to would open his own shop in North Toronto. Still with little in his pocket, he started Mikhail Sherman Music Service, which was to become one of the most successful woodwind repair shops in Canada, servicing the educational system and many top professional musicians. Mikhail passed away peacefully and suddenly in his sleep on April 26, 2018. Many of the great musicians and music educators in the GTA will miss his quick response and expertise. A true rags-to-riches story.

Uxbridge Community Concert Band

After a year’s absence from the local band scene and some questions about the band’s rebirth, the Uxbridge Community Concert Band, with Steffan Brunette at the helm, has now had its first rehearsal. Steffan took a year off to study composition and to do some travelling. Rather than assume all of the many duties required to operate a band successfully, Steffan now has an executive team to help with the many details, but it is, once again, a superbly organized band. After their first rehearsal it became evident that a few more trumpets would be welcome. The band is a summertime-only group that rehearses in Uxbridge on Wednesday evenings. For information, email uccb@powergate.ca.

Toronto Summer Music Festival

On Sunday, July 29 at 2pm, the 2018 Toronto Summer Music Festival will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI with a concert titled “Reflections on Wartime” at The Bentway. This will include a full afternoon of events with a feature performance by theCanadian National Brass Project.” For those not familiar with it, The Canadian National Brass Project brings together many of the best brass players from professional symphony orchestras throughout North America, and each summer this all-star ensemble, led by conductor James Sommerville, joins forces and performs across the country. The program will include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Concertgoers can also take in the sights and sounds of the Fort York Guard, enjoy a demonstration of artillery firepower, and hear military music by the Fort York Drums. There will also be a “Musical Petting Zoo” for children to test out a variety of musical instruments. For those not familiar with it, The Bentway, 250 Fort York Boulevard adjacent to Old Fort York, is being described as Toronto’s most exciting new outdoor concert venue.

A few days later, on Thursday, August 2 at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall, TSM will present “A Big Band Celebration,” which will focus on music of World War II. During the darkest days of the war the big band music of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and others was a major source of entertainment for life on the home front. As the presenters suggest, these familiar tunes became a metaphor for the way of life soldiers were fighting to preserve. This promises to be a stimulating evening of the best of the big band era as interpreted by music director Gordon Foote and featuring JUNO Award-winning jazz singer Ranee Lee.

Ranee LeeComing Events

By the time this issue is available in print, some of the events mentioned below will have taken place, but for the record and for online users, they are included here. Now that summer is close at hand, Resa Kochberg’s three musical groups have announced their current concert plans:

On Sunday, May 27 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Pieces Concert Band will perform at the Flato Markham Theatre, 171 Town Centre Blvd., Markham.

On Sunday, June 3 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Pieces Strings Ensemble will be at St. Basil College School, 20 Starview Ln., North York.

On Monday, June 4 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Band will present another concert at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto.

On Monday, June 11 at 8pm, Resa’s Singers Ensemble will perform at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, 100 Elder St., North York.

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

Keeping apace of new music events in the city is like a never-ending discovery of new ideas, initiatives and opportunities to expand one’s horizons on both the local and international scenes. The Royal Conservatory’s annual 21C Music Festival, running from May 23 to 27, provides an opportunity to experience all this within a five-day span, with eight concerts and 37 premieres. The Kronos Quartet, along with composer and multi-instrumental performer Jherek Bischoff, will open the festival, followed by concerts featuring a number of different international and national pianists, including Anthony de Mare with his special project Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano, Sri Lankan-Canadian composer and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne performing with Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, and the French sibling pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque.

As is customary for 21C, one of their concerts is a co-presentation with an established Toronto new music presenter – in this case, New Music Concerts, who will bring a Claude Vivier-inspired program to Mazzoleni Hall on May 27. This year, however, a second co-presentation also caught my eye: Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis with Maarja Nuut & HH, presented on May 26 in collaboration with Estonian Music Week, running concurrently in the city from May 24 to 29.

The Estonian Music Week co-presentation is one of two concerts at 21C that combine music by contemporary composers with music of the past – thus creating a blurring of time, as it were. Vox Clamantis will offer both Gregorian chant music alongside contemporary works by primarily Estonian composers – while in another 21C show on May 25, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the A Far Cry chamber orchestra will combine two works by J.S. Bach and two by Philip Glass.

Vox ClamantisVox Clamantis

I had an opportunity to speak with Jaan-Eik Tulve, the conductor of Vox Clamantis, about the ensemble, the connections between Gregorian chant and contemporary music, and the legendary singing tradition in Estonia. Vox Clamantis was formed 20 years ago by Tulve as a way to continue singing the Gregorian chant he had studied in Paris in the 1990s. However, it quickly expanded into an ensemble that embraced the music of contemporary Estonian composers, who were keen to write music for them. One of the key reasons for this desire to compose for Vox Clamantis, Tulve told me, “was because they found that our musicality, phrasing and voices are different from classical singers. Even though Gregorian chant is the basis for classical music, the differences are that it is unmetered and monophonic music, so you must pay close attention to phrasing and listening to each other.”

Jaan Eik Tulve. Photo by Bartos BabinskliOne of the composers the ensemble has a very close working relationship with is the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Back in 1980, Pärt was forced to leave Estonia, which was part of the USSR at the time, in order to have his creative freedom. He lived in Berlin for 30 years, only returning to Estonia in the late 1990s after the country regained its independence. A strong relationship between Pärt and Vox Clamantis was quickly established, strengthened by the fact that Pärt had studied Gregorian chant when he was young. “We found a lot of similarities in our musical expressions and understandings of music, and little by little we sang more and more music that he wrote for us. He also often comes to us with new compositions while he is working on them so he can hear what they sound like,” Tulve said. The program at the 21C Festival will include five pieces by Pärt, all of which are on The Deer’s Cry CD, an album fully dedicated to performances of Pärt’s music by Vox Clamantis. As well, one of the repertoire programs that the ensemble regularly performs is comprised of a mixture of Pärt’s music with Gregorian music, a program designed by both Tulve and Pärt.

Other contemporary composers whose works will be on Vox Clamantis’ 21C program include the music of Helena Tulve, Jaan-Eik’s wife, who also studied Gregorian chant along with contemporary composition. “It’s a very short but concentrated monophonic piece which is quite different from most of her other instrumental compositions,” Tulve said. It will be paired with Ave Maria by Tõnis Kaumann, who is also a singer in the ensemble. And finally, a work by American composer David Lang will round out the concert, demonstrating Lang’s ability to write in a wide range of styles. When I asked Tulve about the connection between the ensemble and Lang’s musical language, he remarked that Lang’s music “was perfect for our ensemble as it is quite close to our musicality. It’s minimalist music, and we find minimalism in Pärt’s music, Gregorian chant and Lang’s music. Minimalism is the one common point.”

I concluded my conversation with Tulve by asking him to speak about the relationship between singing and the Estonian national identity. In what’s known as the Estonian Age of Awakening, which began in the 1850s and ended in 1918 with the declaration of the Republic of Estonia, the Estonian Song Festival was established in 1869. It is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world, held every five years, bringing together around 30,000 singers to perform the same repertoire for an audience of up to 80,000. “This festival was very important during the Soviet occupation” Tulve told me, “and helped Estonians survive this period by strengthening their own national identity. To preserve this strong link between singing and the Estonian identity, every child learns to sing in choirs at school, and the singing is at a very high level throughout the country with many good amateur choirs.”

Two other Estonian performers will also take to the stage that same evening – Maarja Nuut, performing on vocals, violin and electronics, along with Hendrik Kaljujärv on electronics. For the evening finale, the choir and these two young experimental performers will come together with a work performed by Vox Clamantis with improvisations by Nuut and Kaljujärv.

Simone Dinnerstein with A Far Cry

One of the pianists the 21C Festival is programming is Brooklyn-based Simone Dinnerstein, who burst onto the international scene with her self-produced recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. Since that time, she has performed internationally, with repertoire spanning from Baroque to select 21st-century works especially composed for her. Recently, she entered into a creative collaboration with composer Philip Glass, whose Piano Concerto No. 3 for piano and strings will receive its Canadian premiere at 21C along with pieces by J.S. Bach and Glass’ Symphony No.3. The concerto was a co-commission from a consortium of 12 orchestras; it was premiered in Boston in 2017 with string orchestra A Far Cry.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie MazzuccoIn my recent phone interview with her, Dinnerstein spoke about how this came about. The idea arose in 2014 when both artists discovered that they had a mutual interest in the music of Bach. Glass was interested in writing a work for her and Dinnerstein proposed that it be a concerto for piano and string orchestra. “I thought it would be interesting if the performance of the piece was paired with a Bach concerto,” she said. “All of Bach’s keyboard concertos are for keyboard and string orchestra, and there haven’t been many pieces written for that combination since Bach’s time. Glass liked the idea and from there, along with A Far Cry, we all decided it would be interesting to create a whole program with music by Bach and Glass.” At the May 25 concert, the first half includes Glass’ Symphony No. 3 followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G Minor BWV1058, and in the second half, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor will be followed by Glass’ new Piano Concerto. And just in time for the festival, the two keyboard concertos on the program will be available on a CD titled Circles.

Glass’ concerto is written in three movements, with some parts more flowing and others quite dynamic. Dinnerstein said that in the second movement, some parts remind her of rock music in terms of sonority and rhythm. “At times the orchestra almost sounds like one of those 1970s synthesizers and it’s a really amazing sound. The third movement is definitely what I call transcendental music.”

In a an accidental but striking instance of synchronicity between 21C and Estonian Music Week, this third movement is dedicated to Arvo Pärt. “I can see why he dedicated it to Pärt,” Dinnerstein commented, “because there is a stillness to it that is present in a lot of Pärt’s music. But to me, it still sounds very much like Philip Glass. It’s a very slow-paced movement and is extremely difficult to rehearse because you need to be an active listener all the time. Everybody in the orchestra and the pianist have to be really aware of each other and of the music moment by moment, which takes a great deal of focus. I’ve now played this with a number of orchestras and one of the things that is wonderful about playing it with A Far Cry is they are an ensemble that really spends a lot of time listening to each other since they have no conductor. It’s part of their artistic personality to be able to respond to each other in a very instantaneous way, so we’ve tried different things with that movement. I might suddenly change something I’m doing and they have to respond to it without having a plan, so it’s much more improvisatory. That kind of thing is very hard to do with a larger orchestra and a conductor, but with them, it’s really possible.”

Dinnerstein went on to describe the commonalities between the music of Glass and Bach. “Both of their writing deals a lot with sequences of patterns and they have a common interest in the larger architecture of a piece. As well, they have written relatively very little regarding the interpretation of a performance. Their use of tempo, articulation and dynamic markings is quite bare, so that leaves a great deal up to the interpreter to try and delve into the music and see what the music is saying to them. I love that about those composers. As a result, when you hear different people play their music, it can sound wildly different.”

As for commonalities between Baroque and contemporary music, Dinnerstein commented: “I’ve always thought there’s a stronger connection there than between Romantic music and contemporary music. There’s a kind of abstraction to both Baroque and contemporary, and if you listen to Chopin for example, it feels very much of its time. You’re very aware of Chopin the artist. With Bach and Glass, the expression is less tied to the composers themselves – I don’t feel a sense of them as people. Rather, I feel that whoever is playing their music can bring out something quite different. The personality of the composer feels less dominant and there is a wider spectrum that lies within the music itself.”

What is striking about both these concerts I’ve highlighted here is the way contemporary music is linked with the sensibilities of both medieval Gregorian chant and Baroque music. It will definitely make for some fascinating listening – and an opportunity to experience music in all its timelessness. 

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

A protégé of legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and student of serialist composer and electronic music trailblazer Milton Babbitt, Stephen Sondheim is equally famous as a lyricist and tunesmith. Midway through the first decade of the 21st century, American pianist Anthony de Mare acted on his lifelong immersion in Sondheim’s work and commissioned a wide net of composers from multiple genres to create their own “re-imaginings” of a favourite Sondheim song for solo piano. By the time the Liaisons project was completed in 2014, 36 composers (31 men and five women; 32 of whom were American-born) had contributed and de Mare’s love affair with Sondheim’s music had borne a bountiful harvest.

Drawn from 12 shows – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) to Passion (1994) – Liaisons explores the sound world of the foremost creator of American musical theatre in the last half of the 20th century through the singular lenses of composers from Steve Reich to Gabriel Kahane. “Each of the composers is having a conversation with Mr. Sondheim,” de Mare told The New York Times, “with his material but also his influence, his musical wit and his craft.”

The lone Canadian contribution, Rodney Sharman’s Notes on “Beautiful,” written in the Valentine Studio, Leighton Arts Colony, Banff, Alberta, “is a transformation of the duet between mother and son, Beautiful, from Sunday in the Park with George, and dedicated to Anthony de Mare and the memory of my mother.” Sharman’s piece is one of 14 de Mare will be performing in Mazzoleni Hall on May 24 as part of the 21C Music Festival. A second concert, the following evening in Temerty Theatre, contains ten additional works concluding with a reprise of Reich’s Finishing the Hat.

Anthony de MareWN: How does it feel, as a lifelong fan of Stephen Sondheim’s music, to play a dozen or two of the Liaisons transcriptions in an evening?

AdM: It is always an exhilarating experience for me to perform these works, no matter how many are included on each program. And because I’m so enamoured with the entire canon of Sondheim’s work, there are just so many of his shows in addition to dozens and dozens of his songs that I love so much. He has often said that Sunday in the Park with George is the show “closest to his heart” and I would say that has [also] always been one of my favourites. And I would just add that for myself, the more I work and live with this material, the more I learn – it has become a body of work that I hold very close to my own heart and it is an honour to be able to share it with the world now.

The flexibility of the project allows me to create programs based on what each individual presenter desires coupled with my own instincts and choices. Some presenters have had me perform two to three concerts as a series covering a vast portion of the collection.

However, selecting the program content is very important to me, as is its shape. I actually consider the entire program (and its sequencing) to be its own “piece,” carefully assembled to guide the listener on a journey through these fascinating works. Each piece is very much a marriage between the composer’s individual style and Sondheim’s original material. Add to this the inclusion often of audio and video clips of the composers speaking about their relationship to Mr. Sondheim and his work, in addition to the short film of Sondheim himself speaking (extracted from the interviews that were part of the Liaisons premiere concerts at Symphony Space here in NYC). Audiences have often commented favourably on how satisfying the entire experience is for them.

What was the first Sondheim song you fell in love with? What did it mean to you?

The first Sondheim song I encountered was the iconic Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. The first recording I heard of it was Judy Collins’ classic version back when I was in high school in the 1970s. I was so enamored with the shape of the melody, the beautiful sequence of harmonies, the eloquent lyrics, and of course her gentle interpretation, which made it memorable.

What is the first Sondheim song you remember hearing? How old were you?

Along with Send in the Clowns, there was Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Shortly thereafter, I began listening over and over to the original cast recording of Company – the opening song of which became an immediate favourite, along with Another Hundred People. Again, this was around junior high and high school.

What prompted you to embark on such an ambitious project of commissioning piano re-imaginings of Sondheim songs? What was the genesis of the project?

This massive project was the culmination of a series of musical endeavours that I had created in years past. I have long been referred to as one of the leading exponents of contemporary music and my love of musical theatre has played a distinctive role in establishing myself as the “pioneer” of the speaking/singing pianist genre which I created in the late 1980s, commissioning a variety of composers to create specific theatrical works that I would perform solo at the piano. This in turn led to a large multimedia concert project I created titled “Playing with MySelf” – which involved a wide variety of contemporary works, video, projections, lighting, set design, costumes, etc. – which had a successful run here in NYC and abroad.

My love for Stephen Sondheim’s work dates back to my teenage years, having discovered such shows as A Little Night Music, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures – which led to an obsessive immersion into his work, especially each time one of his new shows appeared on the theatre scene. I had always wondered what his amazing songs would sound like transcribed as legitimate piano works, much in the same vein as what pianists like Earl Wild had accomplished with Gershwin’s songs, and what Art Tatum did for so many his contemporaries. This tradition goes back as far as Franz Liszt, but no one had ever approached Sondheim’s work like this for the piano, so I thought it was about time.

In the late 1980s, I was invited to create a transcription of one of his songs [Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George] to perform at a summer music festival and from there I decided I would like to possibly create about five or six more of these transcriptions. My performing and teaching career started to take off and got in the way of focusing on the project, so I had to shelve the idea for a while – actually a long while. Several composer friends and colleagues kept asking me throughout the 1990s (and into the new century) when I was planning to do it. Finally, in 2006, my good friend – Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec – and I sat down and he encouraged me to seriously pursue this. My idea at the time was to cast the net wide to a variety of composers from multiple genres (contemporary classical, jazz, theatre, film, opera, indie, pop, etc.) to create their own settings or “re-imaginings” of a favourite Sondheim song. With the help of a very talented and dedicated fund-raising producer named Rachel Colbert, the project was set afoot.

Stephen SondheimHow long did it take to complete the project from the time of the first commission? What was the first commission?

The first commissions were put forth in 2008/09. There were many composers commissioned all at once, but not the total amount that it ended up being. The first completed work to arrive was Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Every Day A Little Death from A Little Night Music. Following that, a few more trickled in (William Bolcom, David Rakowski, Jake Heggie) and then they started coming one after the other between 2009 and 2014.

What were your criteria for which composers you invited to participate in the project?

The project was originally going to be about 20 to 25 works, but the roster kept expanding as the composer genres expanded. Also, Steve would suggest more composers along the way who seemed perfect for the project and it gradually climbed up to 36 – “a nice round number” as the producer said – and this provided many options for presenters in addition to emphasizing the possibilities for flexible programming on my part.

I wanted to be sure from the beginning that each composer involved felt a true “connection” to Mr. Sondheim’s work and that they wrote well for the piano. Over the years, several composers continued to contact me asking to participate, but we were committed to keeping a balance within the genres.

Was it intentionally multi-generational?

Yes, definitely. We wanted to have a wide range in age, and the final roster encompassed composers ranging in age from their late 20s to their 80s.

Did you have any guidelines you asked the composers to follow?

The word re-imagining is key to this project. I presented each composer with five parameters when they started. First, they were free to choose any song they felt connected to. There was a wish list, but they didn’t need to adhere to that list per se. Second, they were asked to retain the original melodic material of the song. Third, to retain most of his original harmonies. Fourth, they were free to play with the structure, especially since they would now be creating an instrumental piece from an original song, which is where much of the re-imagining seems to have originated for many of them. And finally, I requested that they not “deconstruct the material,” although a few actually did.

Did any composer ask to transcribe a song that had already been chosen by another?

They were of course free to choose a song that had already been chosen. However, the situation occurred only a few times where they asked about a song that was already taken. Once they knew that, they each decided to choose a different one. Nearly all of them had so many favourites, it wasn’t very hard for them to choose another.

Which of the commissioned works surprised you the most?

Let me just say that each piece was a revelation and each was quite unique from all the rest. Therefore, all of them were actually wonderful surprises. There were those that chose to either add an audio track accompaniment, while others incorporated unexpected “bells ’n whistles.” In each case, the approach was usually indicative of their individual style of writing.

Sondheim is so well known for the quality of his lyrics, how did the composers deal with the absence of words in their transcriptions?

One of the core missions of the project from the start was to illustrate Sondheim’s genius as one of the great composers of the 20th/21st century.

Since Sondheim’s original musical material in each song is expanded by lyrics and narrative, the challenge for many of the composers was to capture and encapsulate the essence of the lyrics, the overall ambience/mood, the character singing it, and the core of its message through an instrumental setting of his brilliant musical material.

Some composers found this a mighty challenge – many commented that the songs were already “perfect.” Therefore, some went the route of direct transcription for piano, some more fantasia-like. Each again is unique to each composer’s individual style, active within the fabric of Sondheim’s original musical material.

Three examples: Steve Reich’s two-piano setting of Finishing the Hat – enhancing the original passionate melody with his own signature pulsing metre-shifts; David Rakowski’s ingenious setting of The Ladies Who Lunch – capturing the complete musical material combined with the pathos, sadness, humour and bitterness of the character who sings this song. Andy Akiho’s prepared piano setting of Into the Woods, where he animates the piano by orchestrating each character’s voice and personality using prepared piano techniques (dimes, poster tacks, credit cards) and exotic timbres in lieu of the text.

There are actually numerous more examples, too many to cite, especially since each piece accomplishes something unique in terms of the individual direction each composer chose to take.

What, if any, was Stephen Sondheim’s involvement with the project?

Steve was quite intrigued by the idea of the project from the start and also very humbled by the fact that so many of these “A-list” composers (as he referred to them) were so interested in setting his melodies at the piano. He has been extremely generous throughout the entire ten-year trajectory of this project, offering suggestions, commissioners, constructive ideas and a strong foundation of support. We would check in with him periodically to give him updates and he always provided a very enthusiastic “go ahead.” He seems to have a very deep respect for all of the compositions in the collection.

How eager would you be to participate in a project that examined the evolution of the musical elements of Sondheim’s songs the way Sondheim himself examined his lyrics with Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat?

Oh I would be very eager. Over the past several years, I often present workshops and classes for students and the public illustrating the connections of each re-imagined piece to its original song both from a musical standpoint as well as from a dramatic one. This has oftentimes also included exploring the composers’ process in creating and re-imagining the works – their challenges and their breakthroughs.

Anthony de Mare performs selections from Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim as part of the 21C Music Festival in Mazzoleni Hall May 24 and Temerty Theatre on May 25.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The creation of new Canadian operas continues apace. April saw the premieres of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring by James Rolfe to a libretto by Morris Panych and the premiere of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies to his own libretto. May will see the premieres of two more new operas that form a stark contrast in terms of subject matter, performers and intended audience. The first off the mark is Hockey Noir, the Opera by Quebecois composer André Ristic. The second is The Monkiest King by Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho. While at the COC The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, featuring two operas by Igor Stravinsky, continues to May 19, and Anna Bolena by Donizetti continues to May 26, the arrival of these brand-new operas demonstrates how varied and vibrant the opera scene in Toronto has become.

Hockey Noir the Opera - illustration by Kimberlyn Porter

Hockey Noir

Hockey Noir, the Opera premieres on May 10 with a second performance on May 11. Subtitled “A bilingual chamber opera in 3 periods,” Hockey Noir is the first full-scale opera to be presented by Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music. It is co-produced by Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (ECM) and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. As the title suggests, the opera is an homage to film noir, as well as a portrayal of the perennial Montreal-Toronto rivalry in hockey (which is why the libretto is in both French and English).

The setting is a fictional 1950s Canada during the playoff final between the Montreal Quabs and the Toronto Pine Needles.The action is narrated in voice-over by a Detective Loiseau, who describes the details of his investigation and the goings-on behind the scenes of the playoff series. He observes the backroom schemes of a colourful cast of characters consisting of mobsters, drag queens, hockey stars and femme fatales, whose paths all become entangled.

The plot involves Romanov, the city’s mob boss, who also has the hockey community in his grip, and Madame Lasalle, an irresistible seductress and Romanov’s girlfriend, who is under his thumb but who secretly hopes to take his place. Their problem is Bigowsky, a young hotshot player for the Quabs. Bigowsky is in love with Lasalle and deep in debt to Romanov, who is forcing him to lose the series so that Romanov will win his wager on the Pine Needles. To escape Romanov’s clutches, Bigowsky disappears, disguises himself as a female groupie for the Quabs and prowls around the stands encouraging and coaching his friend and teammate, winger Guy Lafeuille, a hockey veteran who wants to end his career on a high note by winning the cup.

The opera came about after Continuum commissioned 3 Environments by André Ristic in September 2015. At that time, artistic director Ryan Scott discussed the idea of a larger collaboration with Ristic and proposed a remount of the ECM production of Ristic’s first opera with librettist Cecil Castellucci, the highly successful comic book opera, Les Aventures de Madame Merveille (2010). By then, however, Ristic and Castellucci were already at work on the idea of Hockey Noir.

Veronique Lacroix. Photo by Pierre Etienne-Bergeron

To mount the opera, the four singers, conductor Véronique Lacroix and six ECM musicians (string quartet, percussion and synthesizer) will be onstage. They interact with projections designed by Serge Maheu based on illustrations by Kimberlyn Porter, moving from frozen to animated states, leaping from the giant screen onto the “skating rink” onstage.

Romanov will be sung by baritone Pierre-Étienne Bergeron, Madame Lasalle by mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau, Bigowsky by soprano Pascale Beaudin and Lafeuille by tenor Michiel Schrey. All four are familiar with Ristic’s musical style of caricature and his mix of acoustic and electronic instruments because they all appeared in Ristic and Castellucci’s previous opera. Marie-Josée Chartier is the choreographer and stage director.

CCOC’s Monkiest King

In complete contrast to Hockey Noir, which is aimed at adults familiar with the various tropes of 1950s film noir, is the other new opera of the month: The Monkiest King, the main opera production of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera, commissioned by CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, is by composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan, who won the 2013 Dora Award for Outstanding New Opera for their Toronto Masque Theatre commission of The Lessons of Da Ji. After school previews on May 25, the opera will have public performances on May 26 and 27.

The story is based on the Song Dynasty mythological figure of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. From these beginnings, the Monkey King as a mythological character grew to include Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu influences, spreading outside of China throughout East and Southeast Asia. He has appeared in many forms and adaptations, perhaps most prominently the classic 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The novel is best known in English under the title Monkey, in the 1942 abridged translation of Arthur Waley. The figure remains prevalent in the modern day, with appearances in Hong Kong action movies and video games. A proud trickster character reminiscent of Raven in First Nations lore or the god Loki in Norse mythology, Sun Wukong rebels against heaven, but ultimately learns humility.

The novel consists of 100 chapters and, in its latest, complete translation by W.J.F. Jenner, is 2346 pages long. In her librettist’s statement, Marjorie Chan writes that she and Ho realized that for an opera intended to be only one hour long, they would have to focus on only the first seven chapters of the novel. She says, “I wanted to steer away from a strict adaptation. I highlighted different parts of the story, changed a few details about characters for more impact, while remaining truthful to the novel’s message. So, instead of the Monkey King, we have the Monkiest King! Part of the joy for me on this project was creating a work for 50 or so diverse performers, from the very young to those out of their teenage years!”

In Chan’s version the story is told within a frame in which a child hides near a stuffed monkey in the Chinese exhibit in a museum and falls asleep. The action is thus the child’s dream. The action begins with the birth of the Monkey King and continues through the displeasure his boasting causes the Jade Emperor, who pursues and imprisons him. He manages to escape and under the guidance of the goddess of mercy, Kwanyin, begins to give up his foolish ways to do good.  

Alice Ping Yee HoIn her composer’s statement, Alice Ho writes, “The opera is written especially to showcase the talents of Canadian Children’s Opera Company: their soloists and six choruses of different ages. The young singers are featured in an abundance of roles, including a number of animal characters, soldiers of heaven, villagers, as well as the forceful Jade Emperor and the benevolent Kwanyin. The combination of Chinese and Western instruments (Western and Chinese woodwinds, erhu, pipa, guzheng, harp, percussion and string quartet) instigates an exotic sound world that depicts both the past and present, life or dream.”

The opera also explores the dramatic and expressive use of languages, Ho explains. “Though primarily sung in English, there are Mandarin songs that were composed to reflect the poetic side and spiritual philosophy of ancient Chinese culture. The occasional injection of Mandarin words and Cantonese slang also highlights the authenticity of Chinese folk culture. As a Canadian-Chinese composer, I hope this new opera will inspire and educate child performers with the magic of music and drama in a different cultural context. Taking a fresh look at Chinese folk mythology, The Monkiest King will bring new energy to a ‘cross-cultural’ children’s opera, bringing something exuberant and challenging to a diversified music community. It is a dream project for me to bring this mischievous good-natured character to life in a contemporary children’s opera setting.”

Unlike many previous CCOC operas, The Monkiest King will feature no adult singers. The only adult performer will be Yi Xi, a dancer from Toronto’s Little Pear Garden Dance Company (LPGDC). Stage direction will be by Nina Lee Aquino, choreography by LPGDC artistic director Emily Cheung and music direction by Teri Dunn. The production promises fun and challenges to all! 

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

Most songs are not created for the purpose of fighting injustice. There is, however, a definite period in the history of the English-language song when the political potential of songwriting craft became obvious: the 1960s and 1970s in the US, with roots reaching back to the 1930s and the odd branch extending into the 1980s. It’s this period, which we now call the golden age of protest song, that Art of Time Ensemble’s artistic director Andrew Burashko homes in on for the three-day festival “All We Are Saying” at Harbourfront Theatre. The festival runs May 10 to 12 with “The Songs Program” performed on May 10 and 12 and “The Classical and Folk Program” on May 11.

Andrew BurashkoWhere was the cutoff point for the protest song, I ask Burashko when we meet to talk about the festival. (It seems to me that few popular songs come out of political grievance these days.) They continue to be made, he replies, but generationally and aesthetically, he feels closest to the songs from this period, when the political songwriting was at its most creative. “Much of the first song program in our festival comes from the African-American experience. Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye. Billie Holiday in the extraordinary Strange Fruit.

“Then there’s Stevie Wonder’s Village Ghetto Land, which he opens with a string orchestra and gives it a surprisingly light, almost ironic tune, while the lyrics talk about extreme poverty and ghettoization,” Burashko says. How do you explain that discrepancy? Perhaps as a distancing of sorts, avoidance of sentimentality? “It’s hard to tell, but it’s fascinating, and Stevie Wonder did it in some other songs too.” For this occasion, Burashko asked a few Canadian composers to create original arrangements for the songs. “We had to find the fine line between too complex and ‘classical’ arrangements, and remaining true to the spirit of the song. There’s such a thing as being too clever as an arranger.”

Music in songs like these is there to amplify the words, not distract. And the lyrics have a core meaning that should be honoured. “In all fairness, some of the legendary singer-songwriters like Dylan and Cohen haven’t been particularly great musicians. They have been great poets, though. Words are what matters.”

As they do, I suggest, in hip-hop today, though only some of the hip-hop is political or concerned with injustice. And in pop and electronic music there are even fewer instances of songs concerned with broader societal issues. At the risk of sounding like an old person complaining about “the kids today,” I ask him, are today’s songs across popular genres largely apolitical and indifferent? Burashko demurs: young people surely have their own causes in pop song, it’s just that perhaps we aren’t following them very closely. An interesting coincidence, he says: just before this interview somebody sent him a piece by Theodore Adorno in which the German sociologist of music was being typically sceptical about the freeing potential of pop music. In Adorno’s view, the so-called popular song is opium for the people, crafted by corporations and selling the illusion of happiness and the illusion of political engagement. “And what we usually find in Top 40 is not far from that description,” says Burashko, unlike the best protest songs which have had mobilizing effects, have voiced the previously unsaid, and served as a form of collective memory.

The largely American program of the song night won’t be entirely devoid of Canadian creators. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier, Bruce Cockburn’s ’Red Brother Red Sister and Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi are also on the program. One wonders what a heavily Canadian program of political song would have looked like; it would certainly have more Quebec and other Canadian Francophonie in it, possibly the reggae remix of Michèle Lalonde reading Speak White (which exists on YouTube). On this occasion, it’s the performers who will bring in the Canadian component: singers Shakura S’Aida and Jackie Richardson, guitarist and vocalist Colin James, and instrumentalists Rob Piltch, Lina Allemano, Rob Carli and John Johnson, with Burashko at the piano. Among those Canadian composers who have be asked to rearrange the protest song classics are Andrew Staniland, Jonathan Goldsmith (who composed the music for Sarah Polley’s excellent Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell and who is an Art of Time Ensemble founding member) and Kevin Fox, composer, cellist and frequent Steven Page collaborator.

Jackie Richardson and the Art of Time EnsembleThe second program of the “Festival of Protest Music” is a classical- and folk-flavoured night on May 11. It will feature the Rolston String Quartet in George Crumb’s Vietnam War-era Black Angels for electric string quartet, and Burashko himself at the piano in a selection of variations from Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated. A set of roots and folk songs will be performed by Skydiggers’ Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson. Jay Gorney/”Yip” Harbur song of life on a skid row, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, made famous by Bing Crosby, will be heard, as will Dylan’s Masters of War, which borrows its melody from a late-medieval English folk ballad. Pete Seeger was an important link in the survival of the Black civil rights anthem Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and it’s his version that will be honoured on May 11.

Before saying goodbye to Burashko, I ask him who his all-time favourite songwriters are. He lists Lennon and McCartney, Tom Waits, George Gershwin, Paul Simon. “The last Leonard Cohen album I thought was exceptional,” he says. He also loves P.J. Harvey. Radiohead is still good – and will be touring Canada this July. And he really liked the 2010 album that John Legend released with The Roots, carried on the wave of activism well past Obama’s election.

But The Roots and John Legend compiled an album of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, not the Bush-era and Obama-era original content, I thought on my way back home. Not even Obama, the most youth-mobilizing US president in recent memory, managed to inspire much original political content in song. So far Trump’s presidency hasn’t ignited much either, Eminem’s anti-Trump song being one prominent exception. Or have I missed it, while trying to avoid being completely engulfed by American culture? Beyoncé’s performances and video art are certainly more political than her song lyrics, and her brand of feminism does mean a lot to a lot of young women. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. has only two or three songs that struck me as being of the politically conscious hip-hop kind.

Björk, Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu are extraordinary artists, yet remain mostly non-political in song. Janelle Monaé’s recent single ‘Pynk’ and its accompanying video directed by Emma Westenberg is rightly adored far and wide but it won’t turn anyone into an activist. Kate Tempest’s songs are political – see her album Let Them Eat Chaos – but Brits are on the other continent and do things differently: it’s American and Canadian song that strikes me as privately focused.

Ani DiFranco, Kathleen Hanna and Amanda Palmer are still around, though working for smaller, not planetary audiences, and not very much in the media. Was punk the last crowd of musicians who were overtly political in their work? (Grunge wasn’t exactly political, despite a political lyric here and there.) To echo Marvin Gaye, what has been going on, reader? When were you last stirred and made to pay attention to a problem in the world by a song? Or does the issue lie with the media and the Internet: pop artists who are multinational corporations hog everybody’s attention broadband?

Let me know your thoughts through the email below. Meanwhile, the protest song festival on May 10 to 12 is for taking stock, and maybe even inspiration.

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

The month of May is one of fully ripened choral fruit. At the end of the season for many choirs, these are the signature concerts for many ensembles and in some cases, farewells. I’ve provided some in-depth interviews and insights into a handful of concerts. Check out the Choral Canary Pages and learn about choirs in your area – and check out the listings for a more extensive list of concerts this month.

The Tallis Choir Celebrates 40 years: Rise Up my Love!

The Tallis Choir concludes their 40th anniversary season. Artistic director Peter Mahon spoke to The WholeNote about what to expect: “As we wrap up our 40th anniversary season, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and we offer a belated salute to our nation at the tail end of the 150th anniversary of Confederation with music by Canadian composers including Stephanie Martin, Eleanor Daley and Matthew Larkin” (all of whom reside in Toronto, as Mahon points out).

Mahon has a unique connection directly to Willan, whom he describes as “Canada’s best loved composer of church music.” There are few Canadian composers who have had the reach that Willan achieved. “Both my mother and father sang at St. Mary Magdalene,” shares Mahon, “from the time of their arrival in Canada in 1948, until Dr. Willan’s death in 1968 and for many years afterwards.” Willan served as music director at St. Mary Magdalene for almost 50 years. Mahon also remembers being a young chorister who was able to sing with his family in tribute at Willan’s passing: “I was 13 when Dr. Willan died and was privileged to sing at his Requiem Mass, sitting right behind my father in the Ritual Choir.”

“Most church singers in English Canada can name at least one piece by Healey,” says Mahon. “A good majority of them would also say that they can probably sing Rise Up My Love from memory. Such is the universal appeal of Willan’s music. For the most part, he wrote miniature gems, designed for the liturgy of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, but choirs across the country and beyond sing them regularly… Speaking personally, I grew up listening to Willan’s music at St. Mary Magdalene, so it is in my blood.” Willan’s music anchors this all-Canadian presentation of music for Tallis’ 40th anniversary.

May 12, 7:30pm. The Tallis Choir presents “Milestones.” St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

Schola Magdalena: Votes for Women!

Still on the subject of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Stephanie Martin, the ever-thoughtful composer and conductor-extraordinaire, has noted the upcoming centenary of 100 years since the first Canadian women were permitted to vote for the federal government. Martin and the six-member Schola Magdalena will be singing an all-female-composer concert to mark the event. “A small departure from our usual fare, like Hildegard of Bingen and Brigitte of Sweden,” Martin says, “the concert will also include some modern Toronto music from female composers,” including Martin’s own Missa Lumen, and from soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin. The feature of the evening will be Martin’s Te Deum, which she describes as a song whose “text conjures up so many visual images of martyrs, angels, joy and judgment.”

Schola Magdalena. Photo by Iain LoweAlthough 1918 marked the first time that certain Canadian women were permitted to vote, it wouldn’t be until 1960 that all women in Canada were included in the right to suffrage. (Women of colour, Indigenous women and anyone with mental or physical disabilities were excluded until that time.) Women’s voting rights ties into another event that Martin is exploring. Her upcoming opera Llandovery Castle tells the story of “nurses who served in WWI on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. [They] were able to vote earlier than other women because they were officers. They could vote federally in 1914.”

While we have much to appreciate in universal suffrage in our contemporary Canada, we would do well to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Stephanie Martin brings history into focus with her thoughtful approach to composition and music.

May 23, 8:15pm. Schola Magdalena presents Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women in Canada. Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble: La Rosa de los Vientos

For many newcomers to Canada, with family, children, partners, and friends far away, love can feel distant – strong, but distant, explains Jacinto Salcedo, coordinator of the Cantemos Latin Ensemble speaking to The WholeNote about the words he wrote in the poem: La Rosa de los Vientos (The Wind Rose). “This is a recurrent theme for immigrants. Often, families are split, but you still love them, care for them, and want the best for them,” he shares. “It is nostalgic and touching.” For the tenth anniversary of the ensemble, the poem has been set to music by César Alejandro Carrillo, a very well-known Venezuelan choral composer and conductor. Carillo is especially known for his work with the Orfeón Universitario of the Central University of Venezuela.

With 12 singers taken from the ranks of the Upper Canada Choristers (UCC), Cantemos endeavours to bring the sounds of Latin American heritage to Toronto audiences. “Ten years ago, the UCC wanted to feature one or two [Latin American] songs in a concert,” Salcedo shares. “It became a natural evolution to continue exploring the richness of the music. We’ve done Latin music that is sacred, secular, dance, Christmas, and modern pieces that aren’t as well known. It’s become a need to keep doing this. We’re always curious and interested in knowing more of our culture and sharing it with people.”

Cantemos Latin Ensemble. Photo by Daniel CharltonThe Upper Canada Choristers, under Laurie Evan Fraser, have a big offering with their “Magic of Music” concert. In addition to Cantemos, guest baritone Bradley Christensen and the Junior and Chamber Choirs of Allenby Public School will join the performance. Christensen will perform Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs along with the choir. En masse, the choirs will perform Rutter’s The Music’s Always There With You.

“UCC is about sharing music with the community,” says Salcedo. “We come from all kinds of different professions and interests in life, but [singing] is the common ground that we love and nurture.” Next year, the choir goes on tour to Japan with Canadian and Latin repertoire. “We want to keep exploring new rhythms, new songs. We are now at the point where we can be more well known. I think the level of quality and musicianship we’re getting will help us in the next ten years.”

May 11, 8pm. The Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble present “The Magic of Music.” Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Celebrating the Human Voice: SING! The A Cappella Festival

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival co-artistic directors Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell present a packed schedule this year, with ten days that explore the magic of a cappella music. Sankaran chatted with The WholeNote: “It’s cool again to be singing in Glee clubs, in barbershop ... Through Pentatonix or Pitch Perfect, or Glee, it’s cool to be singing.”

FreePlay Duo: Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell. Photo by Edward HanleyThere’s an astounding lineup. Part of the festival I’m flagging: artists FreePlay Duo (which is Sankaran and Bell); hugely popular all-male Rockapella; Retrocity, a local 80s group; an all-female concert featuring the Penthelia Singers and Girl Pow-R with others; and Resound, a totally unbelievable gospel trio who will drop your jaw and melt your heart.

For new attendees, Sankaran has some tips. “Take in one of the weekend shows,” she says. “It will give you a chance to experience a workshop or two, go to the outdoor free stage, drink in some of the a cappella artists, and then go to an evening show.” In one concert, three groups are celebrating their 20th anniversaries: Retrocity, the Toronto Northern Lights and Cadence. It’s a great introduction to the “spectrum” of a cappella as Sankaran describes it, including barbershop, jazz and contemporary.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival offers big weekend concerts, a free outdoor stage, and intimate performances in small venues like the Jason George Pub and the Little Trinity Church. There’s a huge breadth of performers representing diverse musical styles and that is a direct reflection of the energy and connections that Sankaran and Bell bring to the table. Local sacred traditions are reflected with “SING! Crossroads,” which features the Ruach Singers and Six 13, both Jewish a cappella worship groups. “SING! Celebrates Gospel” brings in the Christian tradition rooted in Black music of North America. And the multidisciplinary aspect of the festival is reflected with “Art Battle”!

Central to all of this is people making music with nothing but their voices. “The power of the human voice, the fact that it can empower a person, whatever age, whatever ability – that to me is the most important thing. It truly is a universal language, especially when you get into a cappella,” says Sankaran. “Your voice is like your fingerprint. It’s completely unique. People can try and imitate you but they can never be you, they can never breathe like you.”

Make sure to check out ten days of empowering a cappella music.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival runs from May 23 to June 3 in a variety of venues, mostly centred around the Distillery District, Toronto. Check out www.singtoronto.com for all the offerings.

Exultate Chamber Singers: “We Sing and Connect”

Last month, I wrongly reported that Hilary Apfelstadt’s final concert with the Exultate Chamber Singers was at their April 6 concert. There is one remaining program in the season, however: “We Sing and Connect,” which takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26.

May 25 and May 26, 8pm. Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Connect.” With special guests the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Adult Choir (May 26 only). St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto. 

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

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