banner cropEvan Buliung and Hannah Levinson in Fun Home. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.Tuesday April 17: a wonderful night of superb theatre with high expectations met by a brilliantly crafted musical, as the Musical Stage Company's excellent production of Fun Home opened under the umbrella of Mirvish productions at the CAA Theatre.

The Broadway production of Fun Home won numerous Tony Awards in 2015 and also marked a number of firsts, including having the first female team to win the Tony for best score, and being the first musical to centre on the story of a young lesbian. With book and lyrics by playwright Lisa Kron and score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change), Fun Home captures the mind and heart right from the start, pulling us into a deeply personal but also universal story of family and figuring out one's true identity. Filled with an often surprising yet delighting combination of comedy and tragedy, unexpected vulnerability and goofiness, the story is told through a blend of dialogue and song that rings incredibly true, the songs themselves seeming to emerge necessarily from moments of heightened emotion in the text. The cast are all strong: the main character, Alison, is portrayed at three different times in her life, and the three Alisons, naturally enough, stand out from the rest in their almost uncanny ability to be the same character at different ages. This is the central structural concept of Fun Home – that the heroine of the story is played not by one but by three performers, letting us connect with her at three different ages, and not just one at a time, but often with two or even all three together.

(L-R) Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson and Lauran Condlln, as the three Alisons in Fun Home. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.The musical begins in the present time with Alison Bechdel, 43-year-old cartoonist, sitting down at her desk to draw, but finding that she is “stuck” – turning to journals and memories of the past in order to figure out how to go forward into the future. The biggest or most central part of that journey is trying to figure out how much she and her father are alike. As she starts to draw and remember at the same time we hear her say:

“Caption: My dad and I were totally alike.”

Then she starts a new drawing:

“Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike.”

And this catapults her back to her childhood, as the oldest of three children in a house lovingly restored by her rather obsessive father who also runs the family Funeral Home – which all the family refer to as the “Fun Home,” hence the title of the show.

The first thing we see is the young Alison demanding her father help her to play “Airplane” – a wonderful image of togetherness and freedom, an image picked up again at the end of the show in a very satisfying way. Like all families, theirs isn't perfect, and we experience with Alison her early yearnings not to dress in frilly dresses and her father trying to keep her true to the model of the perfect little girl much as he himself has hidden the fact that he is gay behind the facade of a proper father and family man. What works wonderfully is that the adult Alison, our narrator and bridge into the past, is actually there in the living room with Small Alison, experiencing her memories again as if in the flesh, sometimes on the sidelines but sometimes walking through remembering.

We also meet Alison as she goes to college, where she first discovers she is a lesbian and eventually tells her family. Sara Farb is remarkable as this “Middle Alison”: powerfully present, but extraordinarily vulnerable and real. Her big song, Changing my Major, soars through the theatre like an anthem, funny and powerful at the same time in its capturing of discovery and joy.

Hannah Levinson as Small Alison is a wonderfully confident performer with a clear strong singing and speaking voice, and is immediately believable as Alison in embryo. Her anthem Ring of Keys was beautifully heartfelt. Laura Condlin as Alison at 43 – in her first musical – is a strong attractive centre, keeping us engaged and invested throughout in her investigations into the past.

The surrounding cast all have their moments to shine and all are strong in director Robert McQueen's subtly realized production. It is a musical, yes, and traditional in that it has scenes of dialogue with songs interspersed, but it is also the story of a real, quirky family, dealing with difficult emotions and issues. That this family feels so real whether speaking or singing is a tribute to the company as a whole, as well as to the creators of the piece.

One song that stood out for its goofy reality – highlighted by Stephanie Graham's brilliantly real choreography – was Come to the Fun Home, the “commercial” that the young Bechdel siblings have made up for the family funeral home and perform for themselves, complete with coffin. Liam MacDonald as little brother John is an energetically spontaneous presence here and in all his scenes.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's best-selling and acclaimed autobiographical graphic memoir, Fun Home is a chamber musical that explores big and difficult issues but is also a joyous affirmation of life.

The Musical Stage Company production of Fun Home, presented by Mirvish, runs until May 20, 2018, at the CAA Theatre, Toronto.

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.

The JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, in performance at JAZZ LIVES on April 11. Photo credit: Bill Beard, c/o JAZZ.FM91.On April 11, JAZZ.FM91 presented “JAZZ LIVES: A Century of Nat ‘King’ Cole” at Koerner Hall. JAZZ LIVES, for the uninitiated, is the moniker given to JAZZ.FM91’s “premier fundraising concert,” and the theme for this year’s iteration – which was the event’s 14th annual occurrence – was, as the title suggests, a celebration of the great pianist/vocalist Nat King Cole, born (nearly) a hundred years ago in 1919. Although past JAZZ LIVES concerts have featured notable international guest stars such as Gregory Porter, Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny, the performers on April 11 were mostly local musicians, and provided an illuminating cross-section of artists who have found a place in the extended JAZZ.FM91 family. While the tribute format gave the evening a clear conceptual framework and enabled a variety-show structure, it was, ultimately, the individual artistic choices of the participating musicians that made the evening memorable and reaffirmed the central position that JAZZ.FM91 holds in the Toronto jazz scene.

The evening started with pianist Robi Botos, who played a beautiful solo rendition of “When I Fall In Love” before embarking upon a bouncy, medium-up, 7/8 version of “L-O-V-E” with drummer Mark Kelso and bassist Marc Rogers, which was capped off by brief quote of “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” Placing Botos’ performance at the beginning of the program was an intelligent choice: it effectively set the tone for the rest of the night, illustrating that, although the event was a celebration of Cole, it was also a celebration of the unique abilities of the performers in attendance.

Following Botos, Drew Jurecka and Mary Margaret O’Hara each performed (individually) with the house band, made up of Kelso, Rogers, guitarist Eric St-Laurent and pianist Lou Pomanti, after which Bill McBirnie took the stage for a version of Poinciana, eschewing the slower ballad version recorded by Cole in 1961 for the iconic Vernel Fournier groove from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 “At The Pershing: But Not For Me” album. After a cool, understated version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” from singer Danny B, Jackie Richardson took the stage to perform “Nature Boy” with Bill McBirnie and the house band. Richardson has a powerful, dynamic voice, with excellent control throughout her considerable range. She performed two additional songs – “Steal Away” and “Every Time I Feel The Spirit” – and was able to effectively ramp up the excitement during her time on stage, providing one of the night’s clear highlights, and resulting in a standing ovation from the audience as she closed the first half of the event.

Of particular note in the second half of the concert was the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, led by musical director Jules Estrin, which performed “Orange Colored Sky” with Jurecka and “The Late Late Show” with Ori Dagan. The Youth Big Band, in its tenth year of operation, is a free educational program for qualifying middle- and high-school students, providing the opportunity to play in the big band and to participate in a variety of workshops and performances with top music educators and guest artists. The group displayed maturity far beyond its years, particularly in the rhythm section, which generated exciting, propulsive time, and in the saxophone section, led by lead alto saxophonist Jacob Chung, who took an impressive solo on “The Late Late Show.”

Other second-set performers included The Heavyweights Brass Band, who began the set by playing in the audience and gradually making their way to the stage, vocalists Alex Pangman, Lori Cullen, and surprise guest Marc Jordan, who, after remarking on the value that JAZZ.FM91 brings to the community, sang a compelling, stripped-down version of “The Nearness of You.” Pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo also performed, playing a sweet, rhythmically strong version of “Let’s Fall In Love” that blended some of Cole’s more traditional stylings with a few modern touches. The evening culminated in a return of most of the performers to the stage for a version of “Route 66,” led by Richardson, with enthusiastic audience participation.  

JAZZ.FM91 presented “JAZZ LIVES: A Century of Nat ‘King’ Cole” on April 11, at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

boccherini cropLuigi Boccherini, in a portrait by Italian painter Pompeo Batoni.There are a large number of composers who are more renowned for their connections to great historical musical figures than for their own creative products. History seems to be particularly unkind to those from the Baroque and Classical eras: J.S. Bach’s sons are all contextualized as such; Leopold Mozart is known for being Wolfgang's father; Johann Georg Albrechtsberger was Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher; and Michael Haydn was Franz Joseph’s brother. It is interesting to note that, while it is easy to think of these ‘other’ composers as appendices – occasional additions to canonic concert programs intended to pique audience interest – much music by Haydn and Albrechtsberger was performed throughout the 19th century, particularly at St. Florian’s monastery in Linz, where Anton Bruckner was organist.

Luigi Boccherini, however, is an exception, for while his music underwent the same lost-and-rediscovered fate as many of his contemporaries, Boccherini developed his compositional technique apart from the major European musical centres, spending most of his career in Italy and Spain. Much of Boccherini’s music follows the model of Joseph Haydn and was neglected after his death, the dismissive sobriquet ‘Haydn's wife’ introduced in the 19th century to illustrate Boccherini’s similarity to the great Austrian composer (who similarly spent his career apart from the European musical hubs). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Boccherini’s works were rediscovered and performed ‘for the first time,’ many of them by the appropriately-named Boccherini Quintet.

Boccherini was a gifted virtuoso on the cello and wrote a great number of works for string ensemble and the cello as a solo instrument, presumably to be performed by the composer himself. On April 7 at Victoria College Chapel in Toronto, Scaramella presented “Boccherini and Friends,” a concert of string quintets by Boccherini along with works by Albrechtsberger, Michael Haydn, and Leopold Mozart – lighter fare intended to separate the weightier and thoroughly-developed Boccherini pieces. While both the Albrechtsberger and Mozart works were indeed charming and light, Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in E-flat opened with a notably beautiful adagio con 6 variazioni, a theme-and-variations of notable ingenuity and depth. (Piccolo Concerto Wien has a fine recording of this on the Accent label, recommended for your exploration.)

The three string quintets by Boccherini were surprising, firstly because of their instrumentation. The typical ‘Boccherini quintet’ is for enhanced string quartet: two violins, viola, and two cellos (one virtuoso part played by Boccherini, the other, a simpler bass line, played by a lesser cellist). These three quintets, taken from the Op. 39 collection, were written for two violins, viola, cello and double bass, resulting in a much wider range of sound and greater depth to the bass line, taking the range of a typical string quartet and extending it downwards.

Each of Boccherini’s quintets are very much of the Classical era: a fast, sonata-form opening movement followed by a slower, less structured middle movement, and a rousing rondo-form finale – formal structures identical to those utilized by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. The Scaramella performers’ decision to include all repeats was a wise one; although it made each piece doubly long, the repetition of material enabled first-time listeners to hear, retain and comprehend the development of thematic material as it returned in various iterations.

The Scaramella quintet was in fine form throughout the evening, providing nuance and interest though their interpretations, borrowing from their knowledge of both Baroque- and Classical-era repertoire. Born in 1743, Boccherini composed in a primarily galant style, building on the works of era-bridging composers such as C.P.E. Bach. Such jubilant, major-key music can sound farcical and superficial if not approached from a musical perspective, and while there was plenty of playfulness and joy in their playing, the quintet never came across as trite or banal.

To many in the audience, this concert was a first introduction to Boccherini’s music, a fine essay in the artistry of this largely-unknown composer. The history of music is full of these forgotten figures, and with scholars and performers discovering new and interesting works every year, we look forward to more illuminating and explorative presentations from fine groups such as Scaramella.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins at a previous Tafelmusik concert. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.Finding a suitable environment for J.S. Bach’s B-Minor Mass is no small challenge. Although ideally suited for the concert hall due to its duration, complexity and the personnel required in performance, it feels slightly unnatural to hear this monumental essay on the Latin rite displayed in such sterile conditions, far removed from its native liturgical context.

Perhaps this ‘problem’ is not a problem at all, merely the cognitive dissonance produced by our universal understanding of Bach as a devoutly religious person and his music as an expression of those religious beliefs. As a recent example, a March 30 article by Michael Marissen in The New York Times was titled “Bach Was Far More Religious Than You Might Think” and considers Bach to be “a religious conservative at odds with the progressivist currents of his day, and ours,” supporting this spiritual biography with Bach’s own marginal comments from his three-volume Calov Study Bible.

According to Bach himself, “the aim or final goal of all music shall be nothing but the honour of God and the recreation of the Soul.” However, the B-Minor Mass was not performed in its entirety until 1859, more than a century after Bach’s death, and has been a concerted work ever since. How, then, do we bridge this gap between Bach’s loftily sacred aspirations for the B Minor Mass and the inherently worldly atmosphere of the concert hall?

At its recent April 6 concert, Tafelmusik’s approach to the B Minor Mass was one of detail – and the expression achieved through that detail was little less than divine. With Ivars Taurins at the helm, every note had direction and every phrase had shape, and these microscopic musical elements translated into a macroscopic whole which realized Bach’s detailed score in an unparalleled way. From the first notes of the Kyrie to the final Dona nobis pacem, nothing seemed out of place or beyond the performers’ control, so that those in attendance were able to listen beyond the minutiae and hear the work in its entirety, like a painting in which each brushstroke combines with others to create a larger cumulative work.

Taurins’ use of the soloists in the opening movement to create a terraced dynamic effect was very successful, as was the decision to have the solo quintet sing the Et incarnatus est. These changes in timbre and texture not only provided sonic variety but also allowed us to hear these fine singers more frequently, each of whom were superb individually and in the ensemble.

As in every Tafelmusik performance, tuning and temperament were exact and lent an additional degree of fidelity to the performance. Nothing is more luminous than chords played in pure intonation and we were treated to countless numbers of these throughout the evening, whether in the densely chromatic minor-key Crucifixus and Confiteor movements or the joyously major-key Sanctus and Osanna. The choir’s use of German Latin added extra potency to the text, with elements of Classical Latin replaced by the slightly more percussive and pointed German, lending the interpretation a strong rhythmic vitality.

As the final chord of the Dona nobis pacem faded away, the outburst of applause seemed inadequate and improper, a worldly attempt at expressing appreciation for the incomparable profundity and beauty of the previous hours. Although a standing ovation was indeed deserved, it took this audience member more than a few minutes to regain his composure, and I remember neither leaving Jeanne Lamon Hall nor the return trip home – I was captivated and moved in a way that no other concert has managed to do in a very long time.

If there really are angels singing perpetually in the afterlife, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them singing the B-Minor Mass over and over again. It is a tremendous work of art – complex yet inspiring, superficially appealing yet deeply spiritual – and we should consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have such magnificent interpreters in our midst.

Tafelmusik presented Bach's B-Minor Mass (conducted by Ivars Taurins, with soloists Dorothee Mields, Laura Pudwell, Charles Daniels and Tyler Duncan) April 5-8 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre (and April 10 at George Weston Recital Hall), Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Back to top