Luanda Jones (R) and Chaveco (L), performing in Sounds of Davenport. Photo credit: Claire Harvie.Musical couple Maryem and Ernie Tollar have been performing music in Toronto for about 35 years.

Born in Egypt, Maryem works with Arabic lyrics and melodic inspirations to inform her work. Ernie, who plays saxophone, bansuri and ney, has contributed to the Toronto music scene and performed in jazz and folk festivals around the world. Together, they’ve made a life of music. Although the work is not always stable, the two have been able to subsist over the years in downtown Toronto, supplemented by Maryem’s public school teacher salary.

That was, until the pandemic hit, and everything changed for the live music industry in the city. While many at home were learning new instruments back in March 2020 in an effort to pass the time, the Tollars put down their instruments for the first time in three decades.

Read more: Reigniting a musical neighbourhood: Aline Homzy’s “Sounds of Davenport”

Stephen Hough. Photo credit: Grant HiroshimaIn Stephen Hough’s wonderful 2019 book Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, the polymath pianist, writer, composer, religious scholar and music educator recalls an experience when he was confronted by the music of a pianist he did not recognize, performing the music of a composer he did not know. It turns out, when he inquired, that it was him at the keyboard, performing the music of Benjamin Britten, something that he had done countless times previously during his long and storied career. While this anecdote fits easily alongside the many other thoughtful and humorous stories that are peppered throughout the insightful book, it also highlights the issue of context and how what we hear—and how we hear it—changes depending on the environment.

Over the last 18 months, the environment of “live” music has most certainly changed. From cheek-by-jowl seating in crowded concerts, to iPhone-captured solo performances recorded in kitchens and living rooms around the world and “Frankensteined” together as a “performance”, to Zoom broadcasts from empty concert halls, to, recently and thankfully, cautious re-openings at limited capacity with masked patrons seated six feet apart, is there really anyone left who fails to see how, as Hough articulated in our recent email exchange, “experiencing great music in the company of our friends and even strangers amplifies it in an extraordinary and irreplaceable way?”

Read more: Stephen Hough reflects on music and more

Trevor Copp.For many of us, Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux was one of the first pieces of classical music we were able to recognise as children. Though written in 1886, when Saint-Saëns should have been working on his “Organ” Symphony, the piece received its public debut decades later in 1922, a year after the composer’s death. (Saint-Saëns, concerned for his reputation, only permitted the comic piece to be performed privately in his own lifetime, apart from the solemn “Le cygne” cello solo.) Despite the composer’s misgivings, the piece has become one of his most well-known works, and it continues to inspire artists in all mediums nearly a century after its premiere.

From Mikhail Fokine’s “The Dying Swan” solo for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova to Christopher Wheeldon’s The Carnival of the Animals for the New York City Ballet, Saint-Saëns’ zoological suite lends itself particularly well to movement. This fact did not go unnoticed by the Marcel Marceau School-trained mime artist Trevor Copp, who has recently developed a full-length performance in which he embodies every creature in Le carnaval. Before the pandemic, the Burlington-based Copp shared the stage with several live orchestras, including at The Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, as well as with actors such as R.H. Thompson, who read aloud humorous verses by Ogden Nash (written 1949 and often recited during performances of the work) between movements.

Keenly aware that mime is considered a “declining art form,” Copp’s latest performance is part of a long-term goal to introduce mime to a wider audience. “The trouble that I have with a lot of mime that I see now, is that it gets very sunk in novelty,” he explains. “There are whole mime pieces where it’s just about, ‘Look, I can make a wall,’ and artistically, that’s all it has to say.” Frustrated with seeing performances that rely on tricks, Copp founded Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009 to develop more expressive, complex mime productions. Over the last decade the company has premiered a series of highly physical shows that draw from source material as varied as Shakespeare’s plays, a Hermann Hesse novella, and Bulfinch’s Mythology. “I’m interested in mime as telling sophisticated, artistically viable conversations... I’m trying to figure out mime for the twenty-first century.”

When the Saint-Saens piece was suggested to him by classical music agent Robert Missen, Copp realized he had found the perfect challenge. “No matter what I do, I will always be a biped,” he says. “I will never walk on all fours, I will never weigh a thousand pounds. But the question is, can I find the quality, the image of the animal that is the essence of the animal, and can I reproduce that?”

Read more: Trevor Copp brings mime and orchestral music together—and into the 21st century

Tanya Charles Iveniuk. Photo credit: Danica Oliva.How much energy does it take to build a career as a classical violinist in Canada? And then how much more does it take if you are a Black woman. This struggle sits at the core of my conversation with Toronto-based violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk – and what enthralls me is the career that she has created for herself within this genre.

Born in Hamilton with roots in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Iveniuk is an established performer and avid educator. She has a Bachelor of Music in Performance from the University of Toronto, an Artist Diploma in Orchestral Performance from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and is an alumna of (and now, a mentor with) the Hamilton-based National Academy Orchestra. Currently, Iveniuk works as a violinist with several ensembles across the Toronto area, including the Toronto Mozart Players, Sinfonia Toronto, and the Odin Quartet. She also plays in Toronto-based mariachi ensemble Viva Mexico Mariachi, and has performed alongside David Usher, Shad, K-Os, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Stevie Wonder. As an educator, Iveniuk works frequently as an adjudicator, and teaches at the University of Toronto and at the Regent Park School of Music.

We last spoke in 2020, when I interviewed several Black classical musicians for The Conversation. All of the musicians revealed how they negotiated their way through the predominantly white spaces, the many gaps in information on how to move through the pipeline, and regular hostilities experienced within the field, into professional classical musicianship. 

Since then, Iveniuk has been at work on several new projects: a new album with the Odin Quartet, a concert appearance with Montreal’s Ensemble Obiora, and multiple teaching and consulting projects throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Dedicated to her practice as a classical music performer and educator, she engages with a broad spectrum of communities – bringing with her a vision of classical music as an offering that should be available for all.

Read more: Violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk’s classical practice – inventive and equity-focused

(L-R) Understory co-founders Nicole Rampersaud (photo credit: Steve Louie), Germaine Liu (photo credit: Mark Zurawinski), and Parmela Attariwala (photo credit: Sue Howard).There is an intriguing beauty that lies in the parts and processes of trees that we don’t see. We observe a tree’s life story from looking at it aboveground, but what’s beneath – the understory – often goes unseen.

Musicians Germaine Liu (based in Toronto), Nicole Rampersaud (based in Fredericton), and Parmela Attariwala (based in Vancouver) are committed to building—and telling the understory of—a new, nationwide artistic network. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and in partnership with Toronto’s MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), Understory is a new online improvised music series that features artists from across Canada.

In an interview with the co-founders, they explained that they were very deliberate in their choice of artists for their inaugural 2021/22 season. “We’re trying to expand what improvisation is, and who can occupy that space,” they say. “The kind of person that we’ve invited is open and respectful of their colleagues.” For the Understory series, above all else, they value “artistic agency so long as it’s respectful.”

Unlike live group improvisation, Understory features recorded layers of improvisation. “It is not traditional improvised music – nor is it intended to be a replacement for real-time, ‘playing (dancing, singing, rhyming, painting) together in one space’ improvisation,” they say. Each online concert features two sets, each by a different trio of artists. Each trio performs three improvisations, so that each artist has the chance to record the first layer of a track, overtop of which their collaborators contribute additional layers of sound and/or visuals. The artists are given three weeks to co-create their works; in the fourth week, Evan Shaw works his video editing magic, and audio engineers Mark Zurawinski and John D.S. Adams polish the sound.

Read more: Understory: exploring the roots of artistic interdependence
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