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

The Disciple. Courtesy of TIFFIn this year like no other, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has adapted to the pandemic’s parameters by making most red carpet events virtual and scaling back on how films will be presented. 

TIFF’s 45th edition – running from September 10 to 20 – offers both digital and in-person screenings, using TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre at reduced capacity to conform to measures provided by the City of Toronto and Public Health Ontario, ensuring that there will be a modicum of lineups. As well as drive-ins at CityView and Ontario Place, there will be an open air cinema at Ontario Place. A sophisticated, secure digital platform, called Bell Digital Cinema, will house most of the 50-plus films selected for TIFF 2020 enabling Festival-goers to watch Festival films at home on their television screens.

Given The WholeNote’s early deadline, TIFF’s schedule and program notes were unavailable, so the current guide is based on a film’s subject matter, a filmmaker’s track record and gleanings from across the Internet.

Read more: 9th Annual TIFF Tips

HTbanner2In this year like no other, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has adapted to the pandemic’s parameters by making most red carpet events virtual and scaling back on how they will be presenting films. TIFF’s 45th edition – running from September 10 to 20, 2020 – will offer both digital and in-person screenings, using TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre at reduced capacity to conform to measures provided by the City of Toronto and Public Health Ontario, ensuring that there will be a modicum of lineups. As well as drive-ins at CityView and Ontario Place, there will be an open air cinema at Ontario Place. A sophisticated, secure digital platform, called Bell Digital Cinema, will house most of the 50-plus films selected for TIFF 2020, enabling Festival-goers to watch Festival films at home on their television and computer screens.

Given The WholeNote’s early deadline, and with TIFF’s schedule and program notes still a work-in-progress, our annual guide is based on a film’s subject matter, a filmmaker’s track record and gleanings from across the Internet. What follows is a small taste for HalfTones readers of our ninth annual TIFF Tips. Be sure to check out the full story in the September edition of the magazine.

Read more: PREVIEW: 9th Annual TIFF TIPS – for a TIFF like no other

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.

Violinist James Ehnes. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.After Toronto Summer Music cancelled its Beethoven Unleashed festival on April 9, TSM’s friends and supporters worked with artistic director Jonathan Crow and his team to mount a stripped-down version of its 15th anniversary season online, between July 16 and August 1. Anyone wishing to partake of its heavy-on-chamber-music menu need only go to torontosummermusic.com for the schedule. All events are free.

Canada’s pre-eminent violinist, James Ehnes, opened the festival on July 16 with his longtime collaborator Andrew Armstrong in a program of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos.1 and 5. In an effort to be “as live as we can do it,” as Crow told me in a phone interview for The WholeNote’s July/August issue, the concert was recorded live, in advance of its broadcast date, at the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Ehnes introduced the program from his BC home, calling the first sonata big and bold and optimistic, typical of the composer’s early works. It’s “full of great virtuosity and wonderful lyricism,” he said.

The performance more than measured up. Right from the beginning, Ehnes’ playing was authoritative, sensitive (especially in dialogue with Armstrong) and exuberant, tossing off melodic shards with aplomb. The cheerful middle movement opened with a simple Haydnesque classical tune, the theme for a set of variations judiciously balancing angularity and lyricism. Superb phrasing was the hallmark of the joyful, unfettered Rondo. The Sonata No.5, Op.24 “Spring” radiated a feeling of the newness of spring (despite the fact that Beethoven did not supply the nickname). The expressive Adagio linked melodic turns and fragments with broad strokes; the light and airy Scherzo was brief and companionable, the compact Rondo beckoning, welcoming. The formidable encore, the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.6, Op.30, oozed grace and gentle strength, a lovely way to conclude an auspicious start for the reborn TSM.

Both the TSM Academy for Emerging Artists and the Community Academy for Adult Amateur Musicians were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, but given how performance is an integral part of the Academy experience, the online TSM is devoting three recitals to past and present fellows. The first, recorded live in the sanctuary of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Thunder Bay, featured violinist Gregory Lewis (2019 and 2020 fellow) and Bethany Hargreaves (2020 fellow). It was broadcast at noon on Friday, July 17. As the musicians explained before the concert, Hargreaves, based in Cleveland, was visiting Lewis in Thunder Bay when the pandemic hit North America and her stay stretched out to four months. Their recital consisted of two duos and two solos in repertoire of varying familiarity.

Mozart’s sparkling String Duo No.1 K423 opened the concert with its sunny first movement energetically conveyed, the musicians well attuned to each other. The Adagio didn’t quite scale Mozart’s heights, however, while gentility and restraint coursed through the Rondeau. Hargreaves showed good tonal contrast in the well-executed Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio Op.55 “Hommage à Paganini” for solo viola. “I’ve had a lot of fun working on that piece,” she said. It showed. Lewis’ exacting playing on Ysayë’s solo violin Sonata No.4 Op.27, No.4 (which was inspired by Bach and dedicated to Kreisler), built a nice arc in the Sarabande; the Finale, featuring links to a Kreisler prelude, was confident and assured. The recital ended with Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, orchestral film and ballet music arranged by Levon Antomyan. From the sedate Gavotte to the simple Elegy, from the charming Waltz to the proletarian Polka, this was salon music perfectly suited to the midday hour. In an (un)intentional nod to the Community Academy for Adult Amateur Musicians, the piano part was played by Gregory’s mother, Pamela Lewis.

Saturday evening’s concert in the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston began with Philip Chiu’s traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.27 No.2 “Moonlight”. Chiu focused on the tranquility of the famous first movement; his meticulous attentiveness in the second and third was a preview of his collaborative gifts displayed when he was joined by the splendid Rémi Pelletier in Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.147. It was the composer’s last work, completed just weeks before his death in 1975. From the opening Andante’s first notes it was clear that Chiu is a superb chamber music partner, matching the contrasting mood and dynamics of Pelletier in a compelling opening movement, suffused with anguish and punctuated by melancholy. After a lively, biting, sarcastic Allegretto came the moving Adagio (in the memory of Beethoven) with its direct quotes from the Moonlight Sonata, both broken chords and bare melody.

This programming is a prime example of what TSM does so well. Putting these two pieces together is a stroke of genius, however obvious it might seem – Beethoven’s justifiably popular sonata illuminates Shostakovich’s monumental mastery. And introduces the TSM audience to a major work that is seldom heard in concert.

Toronto Summer Music continues through August 1. Check the schedule at torontosummermusic.com.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

L-R: Teiya Kasahara, Marion Newman, Asitha Tennekoon and Aria Umezawa.When opera artists Aria Umezawa and Teiya Kasahara decided to use the name ‘Amplified Opera’ for a new Toronto-based opera company and concert series, they knew it would sound like a misnomer.

“A colleague of mine came up with the name ‘Amplified Opera’ because he thought it would be deliberately provocative to opera audiences to say ‘amplified’,” Umezawa explains over video call in May 2020. “That, and this idea of amplifying voices from different perspectives in the industry.”

The opera world is one that holds on fiercely to its traditions, and a feature of the art form is that operatic singing is typically—and famously—acoustic. But when Umezawa and Kasahara officially launched Amplified Opera in Toronto in October 2019 (with a totally acoustic series of concerts), their paradoxical name, and the irreverence it suggests towards what many view as a defining characteristic of opera, was a key part of their mandate. They wanted to create a company that placed equity-seeking artists with diverse lives and experiences at the centre of public, operatic discourse—something where many traditional opera houses have repeatedly fallen short.

Opera has repeatedly been reported as an industry where racist and colonialist caricatures abound onstage; where in many opera houses the legitimacy of blackface in costumes is still considered a contemporary debate; and where, in one prominent example, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin marked their first performance of an opera by a woman in 113 years.

The issue is not just one of representation and misrepresentation, but of the deeper, structural problems to which these stories point. In a recent interview with Michael Zarathus-Cook at Toronto-based online publication Ludwig Van Toronto, baritone Andrew Adridge talks about how representation in opera doesn’t work without structural change: that seeing the occasional Black artist in a lead operatic role does little for solving systemic issues within the industry, and does little for BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) aspiring artists beyond proving that they need to be exceptional to be welcomed into what many see as an overwhelmingly conservative and Eurocentric tradition.

Where many big opera houses have failed—weighed down by an aversion to risk-taking, a commitment to a flawed canon, a structural system that funnels the most privileged students and young artists into the most powerful positions, or a combination of the three—smaller companies like Amplified Opera have found their strength. In their ability to be flexible in challenging the operatic status quo, Amplified Opera, and other grassroots groups like it, have championed the idea that values-driven innovation in opera is possible and necessary—and that within the art form, there are newer, more relevant stories to be discovered.

Concept to realization

Umezawa and Kasahara explain that the idea for building an opera collective began in 2017 while Umezawa was visiting Canada from San Francisco, where she had been working as an Adler Fellow in stage direction at the San Francisco Opera.

“It was June, and I was expressing to her how frustrating it felt for me still within the opera industry, struggling with my gender and how I should present myself—even in an audition,” says Kasahara. “If I should wear the heels, or stuff my bra, or have the long hair, or have the short hair—all of this stuff. And Aria was explaining: ‘Well, not being yourself hasn’t gotten you anywhere—so why not be fully yourself and see what happens?’ It was like a huge lightbulb for me at that time.”

“We had also been talking about different ways to help artists find their agency,” they add. “So this idea of wanting to create an initiative to help artists and stimulate a conversation around the industry, around music, around art—it was kind of born that summer.”

When Umezawa returned from the United States after her fellowship, she and Kasahara decided to formalize their ideas as a Toronto-based opera company. For Umezawa, it was a chance to show the industry at large that there was a way to create operatic programming in which artistic merit and values-based organizing weren’t seen as separate initiatives.

“While I was [in San Francisco], there seemed to be industry-wide conversations starting around equity, diversity and inclusion, but often the way they were framed was that there were our ‘equity/diversity/inclusion concerns’—and then there were our ‘mainstage concerns,’” Umezawa says. “Many reasons were cited for why it was difficult to do an equity-focused mainstage show: ‘lack of talent at the right level’, ‘donor interests’, that it’s easier to do it in new opera but not easy to do it from the canon. I felt like there was a misunderstanding about what an opportunity including diverse voices in opera was.”

“When we are talking about how to make opera relevant—it’s to empower the artists performing opera to tell stories that resonate with them, and to actually invite conversation and critique and dialogue,” she adds. “I figured: this new company could actually be the proving ground for what can happen when you empower artists to tell stories on their own terms.”

Umezawa and Kasahara’s inaugural project, a three-concert series in October 2019 titled AMPLIFY, attempted to put their ideas into practice. Their first concert, The Way I See It (directed by Umezawa), featured mezzo-soprano/author Laurie Rubin and pianist Elizabeth Upchurch, who used their experiences as blind and visually impaired (respectively) individuals navigating the opera industry as a creative and curatorial starting point. The second event, The Queen in Me (directed by Andrea Donaldson and accompanied by Trevor Chartrand), was a one-person show that reinterpreted the story of the Queen of the Night to explore queerness and expressions of gender, starring Kasahara in the soprano role. The third concert—What’s Known to Me is Endless (directed by Michael Mohammed)—explored experiences of Black identity in Canada and the United States, featuring African-American baritone Kenneth Overton in collaboration with Canadian pianist Richard Coburn.

Teiya Kasahara (R) performing The Queen in Me in October 2019 at Amplified Opera’s inaugural concert series. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.Umezawa describes a moment in their first AMPLIFY concert when Rubin sang “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. “Beforehand, she told a story about her first and only guide dog and how that guide dog taught her what it meant to trust,” says Umezawa. “Then she revealed that the dog had passed away recently and dedicated the song to the guide dogs of the world, singing ‘you'll never walk alone.’ It was really touching—and not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that song. I thought that was a great example of how we could reframe and reread some of these canonical works.”

Flexible futures

In April 2020, Umezawa and Kasahara announced the addition of opera artists Marion Newman and Asitha Tennekoon as co-founders to the Amplified Opera team. Both artists have years of operatic experience on local and international stages, and both bring fresh perspective to the one-year-old company.

Though they are new additions to the team, Newman and Tennekoon are joining as co-founders, with the idea that the four artists will share organizational roles and responsibilities in a fluid and non-hierarchical manner.

“When [Kasahara and I] started the company, we started out calling ourselves co-artistic directors and co-founders,’ says Umezawa. “And then we had a talk about the social structures that exist in opera that we would like to challenge. For me personally, the hierarchies that we’ve put into place in opera is something that I don’t believe is necessarily serving us anymore. So Teiya and I removed every title but co-founder, and when we brought Marion and Asitha in, we decided that if we’re all going to be doing all of the work, we’re all co-founders at this point.”

“I think it speaks to the transparency that we are trying to foster within this little company,” adds Kasahara. “Being small, and being new right now, and being nimble, we can be adaptable and flexible, especially to the situation we all find ourselves in.”

During a time when most arts organizations have had no choice but to streamline their activities due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, news of their expansion came as a welcome surprise. For the team, these steps forward as a young company, and the time they have in quarantine to dedicate to this project, represent a source of positivity amid cancelled concert work.

“This is a really great time for us to get to know each other and how we work, and to actually have enough time to decide on our best practices,” says Newman. “That’s pretty special, because what we all had planned meant that we would all have been very busy, had all of that stuff gone ahead. So I'm keeping that in my heart as a good thing.”

“I love that we’re taking care of how we work with each other—the kind of culture we want to create for ourselves and thereby impact the industry as a whole,” adds Tennekoon. “Trying to hone in on the focal points that are the most impactful, so that we're not just figuring it out as we plan a specific event. I think that's important, because I don't think that what we want to say has been effectively brought forward and presented as one collective front for the industry [before].”

In the coming months, the team plans to launch Amplify Beta, a retrospective project that will include documentation from AMPLIFY, as well as personal stories submitted by AMPLIFY concertgoers last fall (which will be interpreted on digital media and through a visual art piece by local artist Aquil Virani).

They’ve also just announced an upcoming digital collaboration with Tapestry Opera, another independent company in Toronto focused on showcasing new works and perspectives in opera. Titled ‘Holding Space’, it will take the form of a three-part series of private digital discussions with BIPOC opera artists in Canada. Taking place on June 30, July 5 and July 8, the conversations will be moderated via Zoom, and will serve as open forums for artists to share their experiences. (There is also an option to submit discussion proposals anonymously on Amplified Opera’s website. Details and registration info can be found here.)

During our conversation in May, Newman expressed a similar sentiment around the need to give BIPOC creators opportunities for artistic agency within the opera creation process. Reflecting on musical projects in Canada on themes of Indigenous reconciliation that she’s been a part of as a First Nations mezzo-soprano, Newman recalled how efforts by some established organizations have lacked some of the deep and slow thought required to ensure that invited Indigenous artists were able to make informed artistic choices.

“One of the things I have felt quite deeply is frustration, when I see people who these stories are about or who are [asked to] create these stories—say, an [Indigenous] librettist who’s never written an opera before—and because they don't understand the art form, the things they are asking for might not actually reflect opera,” Newman says. “We need to be spending this time figuring out a way of working with community so that [artists] feel they are being heard—and their questions about how opera amplifies a story are being satisfied—before they actually have to produce a piece that goes onstage, or make recommendations about a director or designer who may or may not be the best person for that piece.”

“Create really good teams that understand from the root what those stories are, and give them the power to actually say [what they think],” she adds. “I have seen that being attempted, but not quite met yet with companies that are more established and used to doing things a certain way.”

--

What’s striking about the work of Amplified Opera is how absolutely unapologetic they are in their commitment to addressing issues in their field—and to doing it loudly, with an artist-first philosophy. Umezawa mentioned the hope that their company would serve as an example for what operatic programming that centres artist agency could look like; so far, it’s a plan that’s working.

“We went for it,’ says Kasahara. “We put something up, and the reaction from not only the public but also from our colleagues was that we didn't realise that we needed something like this. And we want more opportunities to talk: to engage with art, and with our personhood as well.”

Amplified Opera co-presents ‘Holding Space’ with Tapestry Opera as a series of private Zoom discussions on June 30, July 5 and July 8, 2020. For more information, visit https://www.amplifiedopera.com/.

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