Violinist James Ehnes. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.After Toronto Summer Music cancelled its Beethoven Unleashed festival on April 9, TSM’s friends and supporters worked with artistic director Jonathan Crow and his team to mount a stripped-down version of its 15th anniversary season online, between July 16 and August 1. Anyone wishing to partake of its heavy-on-chamber-music menu need only go to torontosummermusic.com for the schedule. All events are free.

Canada’s pre-eminent violinist, James Ehnes, opened the festival on July 16 with his longtime collaborator Andrew Armstrong in a program of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos.1 and 5. In an effort to be “as live as we can do it,” as Crow told me in a phone interview for The WholeNote’s July/August issue, the concert was recorded live, in advance of its broadcast date, at the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Ehnes introduced the program from his BC home, calling the first sonata big and bold and optimistic, typical of the composer’s early works. It’s “full of great virtuosity and wonderful lyricism,” he said.

The performance more than measured up. Right from the beginning, Ehnes’ playing was authoritative, sensitive (especially in dialogue with Armstrong) and exuberant, tossing off melodic shards with aplomb. The cheerful middle movement opened with a simple Haydnesque classical tune, the theme for a set of variations judiciously balancing angularity and lyricism. Superb phrasing was the hallmark of the joyful, unfettered Rondo. The Sonata No.5, Op.24 “Spring” radiated a feeling of the newness of spring (despite the fact that Beethoven did not supply the nickname). The expressive Adagio linked melodic turns and fragments with broad strokes; the light and airy Scherzo was brief and companionable, the compact Rondo beckoning, welcoming. The formidable encore, the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.6, Op.30, oozed grace and gentle strength, a lovely way to conclude an auspicious start for the reborn TSM.

Both the TSM Academy for Emerging Artists and the Community Academy for Adult Amateur Musicians were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, but given how performance is an integral part of the Academy experience, the online TSM is devoting three recitals to past and present fellows. The first, recorded live in the sanctuary of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Thunder Bay, featured violinist Gregory Lewis (2019 and 2020 fellow) and Bethany Hargreaves (2020 fellow). It was broadcast at noon on Friday, July 17. As the musicians explained before the concert, Hargreaves, based in Cleveland, was visiting Lewis in Thunder Bay when the pandemic hit North America and her stay stretched out to four months. Their recital consisted of two duos and two solos in repertoire of varying familiarity.

Mozart’s sparkling String Duo No.1 K423 opened the concert with its sunny first movement energetically conveyed, the musicians well attuned to each other. The Adagio didn’t quite scale Mozart’s heights, however, while gentility and restraint coursed through the Rondeau. Hargreaves showed good tonal contrast in the well-executed Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio Op.55 “Hommage à Paganini” for solo viola. “I’ve had a lot of fun working on that piece,” she said. It showed. Lewis’ exacting playing on Ysayë’s solo violin Sonata No.4 Op.27, No.4 (which was inspired by Bach and dedicated to Kreisler), built a nice arc in the Sarabande; the Finale, featuring links to a Kreisler prelude, was confident and assured. The recital ended with Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, orchestral film and ballet music arranged by Levon Antomyan. From the sedate Gavotte to the simple Elegy, from the charming Waltz to the proletarian Polka, this was salon music perfectly suited to the midday hour. In an (un)intentional nod to the Community Academy for Adult Amateur Musicians, the piano part was played by Gregory’s mother, Pamela Lewis.

Saturday evening’s concert in the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston began with Philip Chiu’s traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.27 No.2 “Moonlight”. Chiu focused on the tranquility of the famous first movement; his meticulous attentiveness in the second and third was a preview of his collaborative gifts displayed when he was joined by the splendid Rémi Pelletier in Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.147. It was the composer’s last work, completed just weeks before his death in 1975. From the opening Andante’s first notes it was clear that Chiu is a superb chamber music partner, matching the contrasting mood and dynamics of Pelletier in a compelling opening movement, suffused with anguish and punctuated by melancholy. After a lively, biting, sarcastic Allegretto came the moving Adagio (in the memory of Beethoven) with its direct quotes from the Moonlight Sonata, both broken chords and bare melody.

This programming is a prime example of what TSM does so well. Putting these two pieces together is a stroke of genius, however obvious it might seem – Beethoven’s justifiably popular sonata illuminates Shostakovich’s monumental mastery. And introduces the TSM audience to a major work that is seldom heard in concert.

Toronto Summer Music continues through August 1. Check the schedule at torontosummermusic.com.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

KimNocebannerA drawing of the March 28, 2020 Tuning Meditation session by Kim Noce. Image c/o Music on the Rebound.Contrast these two scenarios: the time is spring 1979, and I have gathered with several others at the Music Gallery’s original location on St. Patrick Street to hear a concert of music by Pauline Oliveros – or at least that’s what I was expecting. Instead, rather than sitting and listening to Oliveros perform solo, those who attended were invited as a group to create a performance of one of her Sonic Meditations entitled Tuning Meditation. Laying on the floor with our heads together, we listened intently for a tone inside us that wanted to be heard, and then sang it on the exhale of one breath. Next, we listened to the sounds around us and on the next exhalation, we repeated, or tuned ourselves to, a tone we could hear coming from someone else in the room. The Tuning Meditation unfolded in its own timing, with everyone alternating between these two ways of listening – first to ourselves internally and then externally in the space of the room, always sounding one tone on each exhalation. 

Now jump ahead 41 years to April 2020, when I along with almost everyone else in the world am facing a pandemic that requires many of us to self-isolate. I come to my computer with my earbuds in and click on a Zoom link for a video call that I’ve registered for, called “The World Wide Tuning Meditation.”

I am ushered into the waiting area of an online space where a recording of the previous week’s performance of the World Wide Tuning Meditation can be heard. Slides with different quotes from Oliveros’s writings can be seen, such as this one: “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action. Call it listening out loud.” After opening remarks from two of the event organizers, Raquel Klein and Claire Chase, Ione, the spouse of the late Oliveros, appears on the screen and goes through the instructions for Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation – a process we are all about to participate in online.

After an inaugural online session on March 28, 2020, the World Wide Tuning Meditation – a video call version of Oliveros’s piece – ran weekly until April 25, 2020, with a cumulative total of over 4,600 participants coming from 30+ countries and all seven continents. I joined in a number of these meetings over the course of the month. 

Having participated in this Tuning Meditation myself innumerable times over the years, this online version had some unique qualities because of the medium. Visually – just as drawings that document the project illustrate – everyone appeared in squares. One could scroll through the various pages of the Zoom video call to see who was present, and of course the chat window was abuzz with comments and people saying hello. One week I had the unusual experience of having a close musician friend appear on my screen repeatedly and it felt like I was sounding directly with her, regardless of whether what I was hearing was actually her or not.

A screenshot of a World Wide Tuning Meditation session. Photo credit: Raquel Acevedo Klein. Photo c/o Music on the Rebound.The challenges of listening to a large digital field of hundreds of people via their computers were definitely unique. The sonic field contained various digital artifacts, and the airy background sounds picked up by all of our computers were interwoven with all of the vocal tones we produced. Listening for a sound to make that would be a new offering to this already-busy collective field required deep internal focus – and finding a sound to tune with was fleeting, as the technology made its own decisions as to what would be audible on my end. I would hear a tone, decide to tune with that sound, and then it would be cut off. However, this experience also created the sensation that my action of repetition enabled one person’s sound to have a more extended presence than perhaps it would have if we had been in a physical room together.

During one meeting on April 11, a simultaneous broadcast on YouTube was set up, which fed the live sound directly into a special cistern reverberation app that extended the collective sound into a beautiful resonant series of tones. The same reverb effect has been added to all of the recordings of the project, thanks to co-organizer Ross Karre. 

The idea to create such an experience originated with Raquel Klein, founder and producer of Music on the Rebound, an online festival designed to bring people together through musical exchanges and help performers affected by the COVID-19 crisis. To get the World Wide Tuning Meditation plan on its feet, Klein reached out to Claire Chase, flutist and member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who in turn connected with Ione to make everything happen. Other members of ICE have also been active in the project, hosting Zoom calls and sorting out other logistics. As co-organizer Bridgid Bergin stated in an email exchange with me: “These events have provided a space for healing during such an overwhelming and difficult time. For 30 minutes we have the chance to listen and resonate with our bodies, and connect with people from all around the world – technical glitches and all!”

During Claire Chase’s opening remarks for the final Tuning Meditation on April 25, she reminded us that for Pauline Oliveros, “hearing the spaces in which we listen are as important as the sounds we make. Oliveros once dreamed about the ability to sound and perceive the far reaches of the universe, much as whales sound and perceive the vastness of the oceans.” Added to that was Ione’s statement that “it was a vision of Pauline’s to have a tuning experience that moved around the world.” In a sense, that time has arrived – and although these weekly gatherings have ended for now, the organizers promise that more is yet to come. 

The World Wide Tuning Meditation (presented by Music on the Rebound in collaboration with Ione, Bridgid Bergin, Larry Blumenfeld, Claire Chase, Boo Froebel, Ross Karre, Erica Zielinksi, and the International Contemporary Ensemble) ran weekly from March 28, 2020 to April 25, 2020 via Zoom. More information about the project can be found here. A recording of the April 25 session is available on YouTube here.

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

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and pianist Christopher Foley. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Editor’s note: Since the concert covered here, where a reduced team of Tapestry artists and production staff put together a livestream performance, more stringent physical distancing precautions have been recommended by community and government groups. We currently do not recommend in-person gatherings of any size with anyone outside of your household. (updated 26/03/2020).

As many performing arts organisations around the world have had to make the difficult decisions to cancel their activities amidst the escalation of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Tapestry Opera cancelled both its emerging artists showcase, Songbook X, and its three-day emerging artist masterclass, New Opera 101. However, what could have been a sad footnote in the company’s year-end debrief, will instead possibly become a road map to navigate the challenging times ahead for artistic organisations. Tapestry Opera’s artistic and general director, Michael Hidetoshi Mori, was able to transform Songbook X into Tapestry’s first livestreamed concert.

On Saturday, March 21 at 8pm EST, over 200 listeners joined Tapestry on Youtube for a free virtual recital with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and collaborative pianist Christopher Foley. With a reduced production team inside the Tapestry studios, and with only one week of preparation time, the company treated its virtual audience to a night of carefully curated music, mostly Canadian, that ranged from art songs, oratorio and opera arias, “opera briefs” compositions, and solo piano works (for a complete list of works, click here).

That the recital itself was an absolute success is no surprise; Szabó and Foley are consummate professionals who are both meticulous on details and generous on emotions. More pressing for me were the technical considerations related to the presentation of a virtual recital: Will there be a program with notes I can follow? What will the sound quality be like? Will the performers be able to engage with a virtual audience? How will I emotionally connect with the performance? Was there a mock recital to test all this out? Tuning in to the livestream recital answered most of those questions.

Each selection was briefly introduced by Michael Mori. To my delight, the Tapestry online moderator space was used as a tool to inform the audience and invite further research: the moderator not only uploaded links and repertoire information, but also answered repertoire questions from the virtual audience. As for the sound, although there was a momentary glitch, it was quickly rectified. The performers, perhaps not aware of the technical difficulty, or simply well trained in ‘the show must go on’ maxim, continued until they were interrupted and asked to start over.

Though I had initially envisioned a possible emotional challenge for performers and audience to connect, this did not occur. What did transpire, however, was an element typically not considered in live performances: the very obvious fact that the audience is not in the room. And by focusing my initial concerns on the individual audience member’s experience, I had missed a most vital component of the recital: the collective virtual audience. When the concert began and the sound did not work, the live chat section became overactive with a rapid succession of comments such as “no audio,” “no sound,” and “please start again” (the Tapestry Opera moderator was appropriately reassuring, although one wonders if there was not a certain amount of nervousness in the studio).

Pianist Christopher Foley. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.For the audience to have such an impactful and immediate voice in the middle of a concert is unprecedented. On the one hand, and this was the case here, users were active, eager, complimentary, and engaged with one another (composers Dean Burry and John Estacio said hello). This particular situation is a positive one within a fairly tight-knit community. But what happens when that is not the case? And while the information shared by the moderator is valuable, is the constant flow too distracting? Does it take away from the performance? When audience members ‘converse’ during the performance or share their activities (dancing while listening, joking about unwrapping a candy, eating or drinking wine), does this compromise the quality of our experience? Are there new social boundaries or etiquettes that have to be developed to ensure the success of future livestreaming concerts?

At the end of the recital, Szabó and Foley, probably unaware of the enormous amount of praise they were receiving, emotionally addressed the audience to thank them. When Christopher Foley spoke of the uncertain times artists are facing, he suggested that companies throughout the world will most likely have to adapt and find new music models in order to survive. With the Songbook X Livestream, Tapestry has potentially tapped into one such model of digital musicking. As we rethink our current frameworks for musical performances and engage in collective experiences that are meant to bring communities together, it is nice to know that in one click, however isolated we may feel, we can momentarily be uplifted by truly inspiring performances.

Tapestry Opera presented a livestream recital edition of Songbook X on Saturday, March 21 at 8pm EST. The video is viewable here. To donate to Tapestry Opera, visit their website here.

Sophie Bisson is a PhD candidate in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.

The company of Hamilton - National Tour. Photo credit: Joan Marcus, c/o Mirvish.

"I'm just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot."

On February 12, I finally had the chance to see the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's famously hip hop biography of America's lesser-known founding father, and first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It has been a long five-year wait for Hamilton fans in Toronto since the show debuted at New York's Public Theater in February 2015 to immense popular and critical acclaim, moving to Broadway just months later and almost sweeping the Tony Awards, as well as being awarded that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show has continued to be showered with accolades, nearly unanimous raves, and a Grammy Award for the already six-time platinum-selling original cast album – which many fans have learned by heart, but hasn’t been seen in Toronto until now.

How does a touring production making the show's Canadian debut live up to that sort of reputation?

My fingers were crossed as I took my seat, my expectations so high that I didn't think they could be met. By intermission, however, I was a full convert, dazzled by the immediacy and urgency of the storytelling, the layered detailed brilliance of the libretto, the perfectly matching music – a heady mix of hip hop and R&B ballads with bits of Brit pop and traditional Broadway mixed in – and the superb staging of Thomas Kail melded with the idiosyncratic choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler.

The opening is almost subversive in its subtlety. There is no overture, just a lone figure entering the stage to quietly ask, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore/and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a/forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence/impoverished in squalor/grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” It almost slipped by without everyone being aware that something magical was beginning. Meanwhile, the golden, space-filling, multi-level set began to fill with figures in 18th-century dress, and we were swept into the thrilling, intoxicating ride of Alexander Hamilton's unlikely rise from his obscure birth on a Caribbean island to a life in New York, urgently wanting to make his mark, to play a leading role in the American Revolution and the creation of the new nation.

"I'm just like my country/I'm young scrappy and hungry/and I'm not throwing away my shot!"

Joseph Morales (who led the Chicago company) is a magnetic Hamilton with a clear, strong voice and a vibrant sympathetic presence, making us feel every emotion on his journey. Equally strong and a great foil as Hamilton's friend and later enemy Aaron Burr, is Jared Dixon. Part of the brilliance of the book is this pairing of opposites. Hamilton is fiercely passionate, his emotions on his sleeve, while Burr, much more opaque about his own motives, cautions him to “talk less, smile more,” to “wait and see” rather than jumping into revolution or innovation.

Part of the thrill of the show's storytelling is also that all these “dead white men” (and women) are played by Black, Latin, and Asian performers, even – and there has been some questioning of this – slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson. This isn't “blind casting” but, as Miranda has expressed it, this is “the story of America then told by Americans now.” The lone white actor (other than some members of the ensemble) is Neil Haskell, who has a lovely time portraying England's King George III, the one character who is mostly seen alone onstage, and who sings in a vaudevillian Brit Pop style, with clever tongue-in-cheek lyrics highlighting a disbelief in his “revolting” colonial subjects' actions.

This casting strategy works, along with the music and verbal style, to make the urgency of the story feel as if it were happening today. Ironically, of course, Hamilton debuted when Barack Obama was president of the United States, and it did feel as if that country was entering an optimistic new era, whereas now not only the US but other places around the world are facing new forces of oppression, and there are new – or should I say old? – battles to be fought.

Perhaps this change in our social context is partly why the second half of the show felt less inspiring. The headiness of the success of the revolution gives way to the building of the new nation. It isn't as easy to keep the urgency and energy high onstage as politics and factionalism get in the way of accomplishment, though the Cabinet debates – played as rap battles – are fun, and the dueling scenes pulse with tension.

Part of the issue with this particular production is that Warren Egypt Franklin as Thomas Jefferson, while full of energy, is rather over-the-top in his portrayal of the brilliant but eccentric statesman, and his diction is so unclear that it is hard to follow and become engaged with the details of the political situation. The personal side of Hamilton's story also bogs down a bit here, as Stephanie Jae Park as his wife Eliza is not a terribly nuanced actor, though Darilyn Castillo as his fatal love interest Maria Reynolds is very effective, and Ta'rea Campbell as Eliza's sister Angelica (Hamilton's “intellectual soulmate”) makes a welcome brief return after her strong presence in Act One.

It feels a bit as though Miranda is trying to cram too much into too short a time, and it would be nice if there was a more rousing, inspiring finish, to send us out still as full of hope in the future as at intermission. A flawed second act notwithstanding, this is a “must-see” production for its passion, ambition, and innovation. It plays in Toronto until May 17.

The Canadian premiere of Hamilton runs until May 17, 2020, at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto.

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

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