Video still from Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, 2020.

I still remember my first Messiah: seated in the rather uncomfortable pews at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto, gazing up at the church’s ceiling instead of following along with the text in the program, and only drifting back into attentiveness for “All we like sheep have gone astray,” the lyrics of which I found most amusing at age eight. My appreciation for long-form classical music and my attention span have both, thankfully, matured since then, such that I can more properly enjoy and be challenged by a work such as Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah: a lively, free-spirited adaptation of Handel’s oratorio, performed with unbounded joy and more than a few electronics.

The Toronto-based music group Soundstreams usually produces Electric Messiah as a cabaret-style event at the Drake Underground, bringing together a vocal quartet with instrumentalists both classical and modern to rethink the melodies of Handel’s original. This year, Electric Messiah has moved online, taking the form of an hour-long music video paying homage not only to Handel’s timeless work, but also to the city of Toronto and its own artists. The YouTube premiere on Thursday, December 17 was no lagging live-streamed event: Electric Messiah is a highly-polished affair, a delight to both eye and ear, and available for multiple rewatches until the end of December 2020. 

Read more: Concert Report: Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah continues to reimagine a classic

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA. Photo credit: Roelof Kiers; photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Alex Winter’s new documentary – ZAPPA – about the iconoclastic musician and biting social satirist, Frank Zappa, has much in common with Thorsten Schütte’s absorbing, revelatory 2016 documentary, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Zappa’s widow Gail (d. 2015) and son Ahmet (who runs the extensive Frank Zappa estate through the Zappa Trust as co-Trustee) were executive producers of the 2016 film. Ahmet Zappa is also a producer of the new film, which is more about the man than the previous more music-oriented doc. A conservative libertarian who had no use for drugs, Zappa was not how he appeared to be. Nonetheless, given the extent of the Zappa archives, there is much treasure to be found here. Early in the film the man himself takes us on an archival tour – a labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling 8mm movies, audio and videotape of recording sessions, even jam sessions by the likes of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and Eric Clapton (neither of which we hear – perhaps they’re being saved for future release).

Zappa’s early home life was completely without music. His father worked at a gas chemical factory, so his toys were gas masks and his interests concentrated on chemistry – he made gunpowder at the age of six. As a young teenager he read a magazine story about how Sam Goody’s (a major record seller in the 1950s) was able to sell records by Edgard Varèse that were considered too strange for most people to buy. Zappa bought The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse and it changed his life. “I just liked it [the way percussion was playing an integrated melodic part] and couldn’t understand why other people just didn't like it,” he said. There’s an 8mm snippet of him playing Varèse on the harmonica. He had no interest in Mozart or Beethoven, “only in the man who could make music which was that strange.” Hearing Ionisation led Zappa to write orchestral music. Much later, he took to playing Varèse’s Octandre as an encore “because after hearing it, the audience wouldn’t possibly hear another number.”

He taught himself to play blues guitar in high school by listening – sometimes staying up until 3am – to the music of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Guitar Slim, Elmore James, Lowell Fulson and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (with whom he later played). In his mid-teens he was a member of a racially mixed band, The Blackouts, which at the time was considered too radical for the small California town where he lived.

Read more: Music and the Movies: ZAPPA

keiko photo 2Keiko Devaux. Photo credit: Caroline Desilets.The gala concert for the Azrieli Foundation Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) took place on Thursday, October 22, 2020 at 8pm, live-streamed on Facebook and MediciTV. The concert featured the works of this year’s winners: Keiko Devaux (Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music), Yotam Harbor (Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music) and Yitzhak Yedid (Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music).

According to their website, the Azrieli Foundation was established by David Azrieli in 1989 as a philanthropic effort based in both Canada and Israel. In 2014 they introduced their first two prizes for new Jewish concert music. In 2019, the AMP announced the creation of a new prize – the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, intended to encourage the creation of new Canadian concert music – and invited all Canadian composers to apply. Awarded every two years, 2020 marked the first opportunity for composers to win the prize: a world premiere by the Montreal-based Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, a commercial recording to be released on the Analekta label, another national or international premiere after the gala concert and $50,000 in cash. The award’s full value is quoted at $200,000.

Read more: Azrieli Commission winner, composer Keiko Devaux reflects on the debut of Arras

The Oud & the Fuzz back patio (image c/o blogTO).When I first walked into The Oud & the Fuzz, it was a profoundly sensorial experience. The aromas of incense and Armenian cooking envelop you. Black-and-white photos of weathered brick buildings in the city of Gyumri, Armenia, catch your eye. Music wafts you through the entrance to the back patio. There, silent listeners are engrossed by groove-based music, or Armenian jazz, or cross-cultural cello improvisations. Though the type of music varies from day to day, its familiar low pulse always seems to force you into movement.

Every sensory feature of the experience has been carefully selected from within a community of like-minded people. Armenian photographer Aren Voskanyan shot the images specifically for the venue. The incense was bought in Kensington Market, and the food is from Karine’s – an Armenian restaurant run by a mother and her two daughters a few blocks away. And the music that determines the space’s atmosphere is created by some of Toronto’s top musicians.

The Oud & the Fuzz is a family affair, owned by Armenian-Canadian brothers Shaunt and Raz Tchakmak. Twenty-eight-year-old Shaunt books, manages, and curates the music in the space.

Read more: The Oud & The Fuzz – community-building in challenging times

bannerOver the last few weeks, The Piano Lunaire founder Adam Sherkin has been braving the cool autumn wind in order to rehearse with fellow pianist Stephen Runge – the two musicians recently managed to find a space suitable for playing fifteen feet apart, windows open, in advance of their next show, Lunaire Live III: The Blue Moon Gala.

The Piano Lunaire, a Toronto-based music presenter founded just two years ago this month, has already gained attention for their monthly concerts of contemporary piano repertoire, held on full-mooned nights. Coinciding with the second full moon to appear this month, The Piano Lunaire’s third online concert will stream this Friday, October 30 from the studios of their performance partner, Yamaha Music Canada.

It’s the second of two local piano-collective projects unveiled this month. The other is reTHINK, the debut album of junctQín keyboard collective released on October 23 by Redshift Records. Founded in 2009 by keyboardists Joseph Ferretti, Stephanie Chua and Elaine Lau, junctQín has commissioned and premiered over forty experimental works for keyboard instruments – including toy pianos and synthesizers – over the past ten years. reTHINK features some of their signature pieces from the last decade, such as Ravel’s 1918 six-hands piano work Frontispiece, and Chess Suite, a 2011 duet for two toy pianos by Canadian composer Monica Pearce.

We caught up with members of both groups this week to discuss their founding visions and new projects this season.

Read more: This fall, two Toronto keyboard collectives are pushing forward – and embracing the new

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, the Aga Khan Museum, in collaboration with X Avant, presented the online release of music/spoken word/poetry duo Kaie Kellough and Jason Sharp's 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 the Music Gallery's 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 Aga Khan Museum and Music Gallery capture the present moment

GG prize jury 2 bannerAlanis Obomsawin“No matter how difficult times are, try to remember that everywhere in the world there are a lot of good people and somehow, in the worst times, you meet someone who will help take you away from the danger. Do not forget that, because if you only think of the bad part, you do not have much hope for the future. But I think it is the contrary. All these years, many times I was in danger and there was always someone who would appear and help me and get me out of that danger. I want to thank all the people who helped me in my lifetime when it was difficult.”

– Alanis Obomsawin

Every two years, the Glenn Gould Foundation convenes an international jury to award the Glenn Gould Prize to a living individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts. Alanis Obomsawin, prolific documentary filmmaker, singer-songwriter, visual artist, activist and member of the Abenaki Nation, was chosen as the 13th Glenn Gould Prize Laureate on October 15, by a distinguished international jury chaired by groundbreaking performance artist, musician and filmmaker, Laurie Anderson.

Announced in an emotionally compelling virtual press conference that stretched across the planet, from Chennai, India, to Hollywood, the Glenn Gould Foundation shone a light on the greatest Canadian filmmaker you may never have heard of. Alanis Obomsawin has directed more than 50 films for the National Film Board of Canada, where she has worked since 1967. Her body of work includes the landmark documentary, the internationally acclaimed Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), the first of four films she made about the 1990 Oka Crisis.

Read more: Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin: 2020 Glenn Gould Prize Laureate

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.

Ana Golja and Louis Gossett Jr. in The CubanIn the opening credits of The Cuban – a new film released in Canada in July, written by Alessandra Piccione and directed by Sergio Navarretta – the viewer is treated to a watercolour montage of Cuban imagery, accompanied by evocative, minor-key music played by a small ensemble. As the credits end and the visuals shift from vibrant animated colour to the live action of a Canadian assisted-living facility, the band drops away. Alone amidst the beige-grey gloom, the piano pensively underscores the scene: paperwork is frowningly passed back and forth; a young boy, bored with his visit, works on a jigsaw puzzle; a full bedpan, making a trip down a dimly-lit hallway, is spilled onto the hardwood. It speaks to the mood-setting power of the score that the moment doesn’t come off as a joke, nor a tragedy, but rather as a small, frustrating but typical event in a day spent caring for the elderly.

The bedpan-spiller is Mina (Ana Golja), a young university student who works at the assisted-living facility, and The Cuban examines the relationship that she develops with Luis (Louis Gossett Jr.), an elderly Cuban musician who lives at the facility and who suffers from dementia. The pianist is Hilario Durán – JUNO-award-winning, Grammy-nominated – who, in addition to performing on the soundtrack, was the film’s score composer. In light of the film’s recent release, I had the opportunity to interview Durán via email about the project’s roots, his connection to the film’s characters, and the Toronto musicians who helped him bring his musical vision for the film to life.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Q&A with The Cuban’s Hilario Durán

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