Gustavo Gimeno with the TSO in A Welcome Return (November 10, 2021). Photo credit: Gerard Richardson.Audiences returned to Roy Thomson Hall on November 10 for the first time since March 2020, welcoming the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and their new music director, Gustavo Gimeno, for a musical triptych—three programs spread over seven evenings. It was Gimeno’s initial foray into repertoire selection for the TSO, his first venture into curation—which became a means for conductor and audiences alike to get reacquainted with their orchestra. 

Unusually, the opening trio of concerts began with a stage empty of musicians. Half of the orchestra members entered single file from a door on the left, the other half from a door on the right. For a brief moment they stood in place beside their chairs before noisily applauding in anticipation of Gimeno’s entrance. The audience, as if on cue, then stood and applauded in an emotional welcome which grew as the conductor made his way through the first violin section to the podium—a veritable lovefest.

The opening program was designed for the occasion. It started with Anthony Barfield’s Invictus for brass ensemble, completed in the summer of 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests intersected with COVID-19, a Lincoln Center commission that represented, in part, the resilience of the arts and the Black community. Hearing it in Roy Thomson Hall in its Canadian premiere felt like a rallying cry: “Unconquered.”

Read more: Concert Report: The Toronto Symphony - Happy Returns

Still from JazzinToronto Live. Pictured (L-R): Adrean Farrugia, piano; Heather Bambrick, voice; Ross MacIntyre, bass; Chase Sanborn, trumpet; Mark Kelso, drums. Image c/o The Royal Conservatory of Music.On July 23, I was invited to Koerner Hall to watch a hybrid in-person/livestream event presented by JazzinToronto, in collaboration with the Royal Conservatory of Music. The performance – a double-bill featuring Heather Bambrick, in quintet format, and the Jane Bunnett Maqueque Trio – was the culminating event of JazzinToronto Live: A Community Celebration, a multi-day festival that also presented shows in mainstay local venues, including the Tranzac, the Emmet Ray, and Lula Lounge.

I had not entered the RCM building since the start of pandemic lockdown measures last March. Though the conservatory has been open in a limited capacity for some students, staff, and teachers, the facilities have been closed to the general public. The inaccessibility of communal indoor spaces has been one of the enduring minor tragedies of the past 16 months; as in many of my post-pandemic fantasies, I imagined that returning to a major concert venue would be a boisterous, celebratory affair. The reality of the gradual return to normal, however, was much different. As one of 50 attendees, the experience of walking into Koerner was unreal, the cavernousness of the hall complicated by the many cameras, avatars of our virtual compatriots streaming the show at home. (At the time of the show, it had been but a week since live music was permitted to resume in Ontario; large indoor venues are still mostly closed.)

As the event started, a sense of familiarity quickly set in, dispelling, to some extent, the lingering sense of the uncanny. The house lights dimmed; the audience hushed; Ori Dagan – the evening’s emcee, and a representative of JazzinToronto – gave some background information on the festival, listed major sponsors, and appealed to the audience for donations.

Read more: Concert report: With JazzinToronto, Heather Bambrick and Jane Bunnett bring Koerner Hall to life

Soprano Ekaterina Shelehova, singing at opening night of the 2021 Collingwood Summer Music Festival. Photo credit: Tjalling Buwe HalbertsmaThe annual Collingwood Summer Music Festival has made an inspiring comeback following last year’s pandemic-induced hiatus.

Held from July 10 to 16, 2021, this year’s festival featured outdoor and drive-in events for local audiences, as well as an online component for those staying home through the pandemic. The concerts included performances by artists such as Ekaterina Shelehova, soprano, a rising star in the international opera scene. Much like her electrifying performance on Italia’s Got Talent earlier this year, which reverberated around the world with more than 28 million views, she was captivating in Popera, the festival’s opening concert featuring a selection of arias and duets, accompanied by the National Academy Orchestra of Canada under Boris Brott.

The drive-in events took place at the New Life Church (28 Tracey Ln. in Collingwood) and were simultaneously livestreamed online. “The response to our drive-in and online performances has been tremendous,” says Daniel Vnukowski, the classically-trained concert pianist who’s the founder and artistic director of the Collingwood Summer Music Festival. “We had tickets already up for sale in April.”

The festival partnered with a multi-camera film production crew to capture the intricacies of each performance in striking detail, effectively rendering a live concert hall experience to drive-in and online audience members alike. Prior to the start of each performance, Vnukowski facilitated lively Q&A discussions to engage artists and audience members alike.

Read more: Concert report: Collingwood Summer Music - a memorable hybrid take

Meher Pavri and Andrew Haji in Sāvitri. Photo credit: Dylan Toombs.Since its premiere just over 100 years ago, Gustav Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri has polarized critics. There are those who have praised the English composer for fusing South Asian culture with western music, and experimenting with polytonality (the simultaneous use of multiple keys). Then there are others who have panned the work, calling it a colourless composition filled with stereotypical characters and an unmemorable score.

I’m in the latter group.

Holst, perhaps best known for his epic orchestral suite The Planets, has plucked the equally epic fable of Sāvitri and Satyavan from the Mahābhārata and mutated it into a monotonous work, void of the humanity and strong themes of faith, love, and perseverance that make the Sanskrit poem an endearing story to this day.

Miriam Khalil’s filmed production of Sāvitri for Against the Grain (AtG), which was launched online on June 23 and runs until July 18, is a mixed bag. There are strong design choices that elevate the work, but also other moments where Khalil's best efforts to deal with the weak source material feel like overcompensation.

Read more: Concert report: Against the Grain tackles the challenges of Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri
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