Kaie Jason 1 bannerScreenshot of UBGNLSWRE, with Kaie Kellough (L) and Jason Sharp (R).This year’s X Avant festival at the Music Gallery, now in its 15th year, was of a different sort. Stretched over three weeks, and by necessity entirely streamed online, this year’s edition was curated by Music Gallery Artistic Associates Pratishtha Kohli and Olivia Shortt. It explored the theme of Transmissions—how artistic knowledge and creative vision are passed along to the audience and from one generation to the next. On October 15 in a joint production with the Aga Khan Museum, the music/spoken word/poetry duo of Kaie Kellough and Jason Sharp presented the online release of their new work UBGNLSWRE, recorded on-site in the museum space. 

Sharp is a saxophonist, composer and electronic artist, while Kellough brings his work in the literary world as a poet and fiction writer into his collaboration with Sharp. The third voice in the collaboration was Kevin Yuen Kit Lo, who created visual projections by combining different typesettings of words and phrases from Kellough’s text with a wide assortment of images.

The text appeared as various words and phrases that were broken-up and reshaped in a vast array of different fonts, colours and sizes. In a pre-concert online interview with David Dacks, Kellough stated that these projections can be read or not read and can be seen as a way to broaden the conversation.

Read more: Concert report: With UBGNLSWRE, the Music Gallery captures the present moment

Jonathan Crow (violin) and Joseph Johnson (cello) perform for a physically-distanced audience at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Image c/o TSO.The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has mastered the now-ubiquitous virtual program, hosting Facebook Live recitals and “Watch Parties” of archived performance videos – check out #TSOatHome – while the doors of Roy Thomson Hall remain bolted shut. This September, however, the TSO announced several in-person concerts held in alternative venues, beginning with AGO Live: Hello From The Other Side, part of a series of relaxed afternoon shows hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to bring live musicians into the gallery space.

On September 25, museum-goers trickled into the AGO’s spacious Walker Court and carefully sat or stood in front of TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow and principal cellist Joseph Johnson, who kicked off the season with a program of six short duets. The surprise repertoire was eclectic and fresh, the execution highly energetic. Though this was billed as an informal concert, the players – like two champion racehorses bursting out of the gates – channelled a startling intensity that made for a swift and exciting performance.

The masked duo opened with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major (K46d), transcribed from the original piano version, exchanging lightly teasing melodies with crisp and sparkling articulation. This cheerful dialogue was sustained in the Sonata for Violin and Cello in D Major by 18th-century Italian-born cellist Boccherini (arr. Paul Bazelaire), whose excellent second movement, Vivace, played like a bristling argument between old friends. After six months of listening to tinny audio recordings, it was sheer relief to hear Crow and Johnson’s warm, generous tones fill the furthest corners of the sterile white court.

Things took a moodier turn with four selections from Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello by Reinhold Glière (1875-1956), a Soviet composer known for his Romantic sensibility. The frenzied, bee-swarmed Étude was an impressive technical feat, but the wonderful final movement, Scherzo, a complex piece in triple metre, brought a sinister edge to the form’s playful precedents with unpredictable melodic pivots. Glière builds near-cinematic suspense with a rich vocabulary of dark sounds that Crow suggested were inspired by the Russian language itself; perhaps some lockdown angst helped the players electrify this beguiling composition.

Glière was thrown into relief by a hopeful composition entitled The Current (And Those Who Ride It), a 2017 work by violinist and University of Toronto alum Alice Hong. The piece began mysteriously, a tentative violin line skating softly over the cello, which murmured beneath like a quick-flowing brook; eventually the violin grew bright and earnest, both it and the cello striving to catch the melody.

The performance culminated in the exciting Passacaglia for Violin and Cello, reworked by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) using themes from Handel’s Suite no. 7 in G Minor for harpsichord. A firework of a piece, the players exchanged fierce dotted rhythms accented by spectacular dynamics and trills. We were sent off with the much gentler Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, another work written for harpsichord whose pure, even tones formed a soothing denouement.

Though I couldn’t read their expressions, Crow and Johnson seemed to be having a blast, relishing the ability to perform after six months of living room practice. After a short break they ran through it all again, encouraging those who attended the first time to listen while exploring the European galleries nearby. What was lost in clarity was supplanted by other magical qualities – with some distance, the violin’s quickest notes began to flow together like tinkling wind chimes, and for a moment the museum became a well-stocked palace.

But trying to appreciate visual art and classical music at once is not as simple as it might seem. When listening to a piece like Glière’s Étude, already full of vivid imagery, it becomes difficult to focus on paintings with a strong narrative subject; the two works compete for attention and ultimately something is lost from both. On the other hand, music can add intrigue to a quieter painting whose meaning is less clear cut. In The Avon Gorge with Clifton and the Hotwells, for instance, a muted watercolour landscape by Francis Danby, the notes of Boccherini seemed to animate the tiny pointing figure in foreground, stirring up some tension in an otherwise sedate composition.

If this concert is anything to go by, the AGO Live series is set to be a thrilling one, and not just for its novelty. Without having to worry about ticket sales, the performers can select more daring repertoire, digging up offbeat and lesser-known duets. I would recommend any classical music lover take advantage of this perhaps rare opportunity to hear some of Canada’s best musicians up close (but not too close), while surrounded by one of the largest collections of visual art in Canada.

AGO Live: Hello From The Other Side, free with timed-entry museum admission, runs on Friday afternoons through January. See https://ago.ca/ago-live/hello-from-the-other-side for the complete schedule.

Jane Coombs is a writer based in Toronto. She recently graduated from Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute.

Asitha Tennekoon performing at a ‘Box Concert’. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Midway through his performance of “Una furtiva lagrima” from The Elixir of Love, Toronto tenor Asitha Tennekoon glanced behind him and smiled. In the trees above a makeshift stage, outside Ehatare Retirement Home in Scarborough, unseen birds sang along to Donizetti’s wistful aria, providing a welcome if off-beat accompaniment. This delightful moment was one of many throughout Tennekoon’s afternoon performance on Saturday, September 12, in an outdoor Box Concert jointly presented by Tapestry Opera and Soulpepper Theatre.

The two Toronto companies conceived the Box Concerts series as a response to COVID-19 and the cancellation of traditional performances, collaborating to bring live opera and classical favourites to communities around the Greater Toronto Area. Tennekoon and cellist Bryan Holt have each visited hospitals, retirement residences, and even some private homes, performing their repertoire from a “box” stage – a cleverly-designed flatbed trailer – all while maintaining a safe distance from their audience, some of whom don’t even have to leave the comfort of their rooms.

The Box Concerts offer easy access to live music for those in isolated communities who otherwise might not be able to travel to a traditional concert venue. There’s no price of admission, the setlist is only thirty minutes, and attendees can come and go as they like, making for a casual, relaxed experience. At Ehatare Retirement Home, residents enjoyed Tennekoon’s set of opera classics and musical favourites from chairs just outside their building’s front door. Thanks to this informal atmosphere, Tennekoon has been able to socialize with his audiences before and after shows, having conversations which wouldn’t be possible on a normal night at the opera.

Concertgoers have shared with him how particular songs remind them of lost loved ones, or simply how excited they are to be able to participate in the communal concert experience during this time of isolation. The physical intimacy of these outdoor shows means that Tennekoon is closer to his audiences than ever before. In broad daylight, he can see attendees mouthing the words to a classic showtune. Tennekoon says the most poignant reactions have come not from the Box Concerts’ intended audiences, but from passersby caught unawares – people out walking their dogs or going for a run who stop to listen. “A couple of times, those people who weren’t expecting to hear the live music stayed afterwards,” Tennekoon says. “One gentleman was in tears because he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed having live performances, until he was able to experience that.”

To my knowledge, no (visible) tears were shed at the performance I attended, but Tennekoon’s passionate delivery was certainly worthy of such a response. He opened the concert with a joyfully expressive rendition of “Il mio tesoro intanto” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, smoothly gliding through the aria’s complicated coloratura passages. During both this aria and during Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima”, I was impressed by Tennekoon’s dramatic presence and vigor, despite his being somewhat stuck behind the microphone stand – one disadvantage of the small Box Concert stage, and the necessity of creating audible acoustics in an unpredictable outdoor environment.

Asitha Tennekoon performing at a ‘Box Concert’. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Tennekoon was equally confident with the musical theatre repertoire, following his opera selections with three well-loved showtunes. The romantic “Younger than Springtime,” from South Pacific, was especially fitting in the outdoor setting, and Tennekoon’s tender interpretation made the afternoon breeze of early fall feel slightly warmer. He next performed “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables, mastering the song’s powerful dynamic shifts and finding beautiful suspension in the song’s iconic closing high note. The last selection of the afternoon was “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and although Tennekoon’s delivery was solid, it was here I most noticed the Box Concert’s absence of live accompaniment. Tennekoon performed each song with a pre-recorded piano track, but the normally impassioned “Maria” felt sparse without Bernstein’s rich orchestrations.

Even with this limitation, the Box Concert I attended was a heartening success, with residents requesting an encore, and lingering after the performance to thank Tennekoon for bringing live music to their doorstep. The concert was a joyful half-hour escape into the world of musical storytelling via the human voice, an experience I’ve deeply missed over these past months. And although the pandemic inspired this series, I believe the Box Concerts have staying power as a new style of performance beyond COVID-19. Tapestry Opera and Soulpepper have demonstrated the possibilities for live music in easily accessible, outdoor public spaces, and I hope to see them continue this innovation in future.

Box Concerts, presented by Tapestry Opera and Soulpepper Theatre, will be performed at GTA hospitals, retirement and long-term care facilities, and private homes until October 1. For more information and to inquire about booking a private performance or donating a public performance to a community, visit https://tapestryopera.com/performances/box-concerts/.

Marie Trotter is a Toronto-based writer, avid theatre-goer, and occasional director. She studied Drama and English at the University of Toronto with a focus on directing and production, and recently completed her MA in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University.

The Dover Quartet. Photo credit: Roy Cox.Toronto Summer Music’s first-ever online festival came to a rousing conclusion on August 1, with TSM artistic director and TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow leading an elite group of instrumentalists in Beethoven’s ever-popular Septet in E-flat Major Op.20. Crow stood at the top of a socially distanced circle on the stage of Kingston’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts with TSO associate principals, Eric Abramovitz (clarinet) and Darren Hicks (bassoon) clockwise to his right. TSO principal horn Neil Deland stood between Hicks and TSO principal double bassist Jeffrey Beecher, while Montreal Symphony principal cellist Brian Manker and celebrated violist Barry Shiffman completed the oval. 

Written in 1799, Beethoven’s Septet is an expression of the optimistic young Beethoven, still under the sway of Haydn and Mozart but confident enough to devise a chamber work for a previously never-heard combination of wind and string instruments. Fittingly, given the violin’s prominence in the piece, this performance marked Crow’s only musical appearance at the festival he oversees. The violin’s lyrical leadership stood out in the Adagio Cantabile second movement and its flourishes dominated the fourth. Crow navigated the conversation between the winds and strings in the charming fifth-movement Scherzo, while in the finale, his impeccable response to the horn and clarinet opening Andante picked up the pace to the Presto and the cadenza that brought the septet to its celebratory conclusion. The septet was preceded by another early Beethoven work, 7 Variations on Bei Mënnern, welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s Magic Flute WoO46, for cello and piano. Cameron Crozman brought a sense of ease and delicacy to his cello playing, evocative, spritely and joyful; Philip Chiu’s piano collaboration was exemplary.

TSM’s 20 livestream events – including two repeats – featured over 50 artists and reached over 18,000 online viewers from over 45 countries (among them Australia, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, Israel, Finland, Taiwan, India and the UK). The festival announced that they had exceeded their goal of $20,000 in donations.

There were many memorable moments among the 11 events I was able to view (some of which I touched on in my review of TSM’s opening weekend). From the stage of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on July 23, Montreal Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Andrew Wan’s exceptional performance of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D Minor for unaccompanied Violin was notable for the violinist’s superb singing style that exposed every note. He effortlessly conveyed the work’s architecture and the natural flow at the core of this masterwork.

The Dover Quartet, a TSM favourite, performed their July 25 (repeated July 26) concert from the Vail Colorado Interfaith Chapel. Their well-chosen program began with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K546, in which the Dovers showed off their terrific balance and dynamic cohesion. The forceful urgency of the Fugue was a perfect lead-in for Beethoven’s String Quartet No.8 in E Minor Op.59 “Razumovsky” – the opening two chords of the Beethoven continued the feel of the Mozart. Again the Dovers exhibited a unity of purpose from pianissimo to fortissimo, as their forward momentum built tension from declamations and short, splayed melodic phrases.

In the Molto Adagio second movement – one of Beethoven’s most beautiful adagios – the Dovers built the composer’s slivers of melody into a wholly new structure. Rhythm was the key to the Presto Finale and the players didn’t miss a beat or a note of the omnipresent tension that led to a triumphant conclusion. Outstanding.

The July 27 edition of the TSM’s Mentor Mondays series found Montreal Symphony principal cellist Brian Manker discussing the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello with the celebrated British cellist (and Manker’s onetime teacher), Colin Carr. Manker distilled their nearly seven-hour Zoom conversation, which took place over two days, into 50 lively minutes of Q & A and sinfully rich musical illustration on Carr’s 1730 Gofriller cello. Carr’s image of Bach spitting the suites out as he was walking through the city of Cöthen set the tone. “The religious attraction attached to these pieces is probably misplaced,” Carr said. “I think of them as easy listening – the art of making them sound simple is what we spend our lives doing. It’s like the most pure water you’re ever likely to drink; we cellists make it impure.”

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska (TSM Fellow, 2015) devised an impressive 75-minute program for her Fellow Friday noontime recital in the Burlington Performing Arts Centre on July 31. With Steven Philcox at the piano, she began with three Beethoven songs and three by Schubert, highlighted by Schubert’s transporting An den Mond D193. The pair were joined by Nikolovska’s former violin teacher at the Glenn Gould School, Barry Shiffman, for a pair of Brahms songs, Op.91. Shiffman’s gorgeous viola playing and the palpable longing in Nikolovska’s voice meshed beautifully in the first song “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (Longing at rest), leading into the sacred cradle song that followed. Ana Sokolović’s emotional Ma Mère for solo voice was a brilliant next step.

Nikolovska then linked the lyricism of Fernando Obradors’ classic Spanish songs to Ravel’s Spanish-tinged Vocalise, her expressiveness a constant throughout. Next came Poulenc’s contrasting Banalités with their “incredible soundscape” and a selection of English-language texts – among them Langston Hughes, James Joyce and William Shakespeare – set by the likes of Ned Rorem, John Musto, Samuel Barber and Ana Sokolović and capped by Healey Willan’s arrangement of Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss.

It was a vivid, imagistic tour de force. It would come as no surprise when less than a week later she was named to the CBC’s annual classical 30 under 30 list.

Except for the absence of the TSM’s usual reGENERATION concerts, in which Academy Fellows perform with a Mentor, the online version of TSM 2020 was a highly enjoyable reimagining of the festival as we have come to know it over its 15-year life, showcasing a variety of chamber music events, kids concerts and Zoom webinar masterclasses – this year, the contagious enthusiasm of cellist Julie Albers and the double-pronged analysis of Miró Quartet members, violinist William Fedkenheuer and violist John Largess, filled two of them. 

The Toronto Summer Music Festival ran online from July 16 to August 1, 2020.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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