HOGTOWN's Laura Larson (Louise "Lulu Hearts"), Karen Slater (Maddy Foster) and Emma Wiechers (Anastasia). Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz.(HOGTOWN's Laura Larson (Louise "Lulu Hearts"), Karen Slater (Maddy Foster) and Emma Wiechers (Anastasia). Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz.)

Last Friday was the 21st of July, 2017, but for a couple of hours it was also a summer night in 1926 in prohibition-era Hogtown – aka Toronto the young and gritty. About 18 months ago I had made the exact same time travel trip, walking through the doors of Toronto’s historic Campbell House to see the very first dress rehearsal of Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath’s HOGTOWN: The Immersive Experience, a new site-specific show designed to fit into the many rooms of Campbell House on one hand and, on the other, to bring to life as many aspects of life in 1926 Toronto as possible. It was fun but still at an early stage of figuring out how many characters to include and how to combine and interweave all the storylines. Last summer the show was developed further and revived, and now, this summer, a new version has just opened, streamlined and focused and with some great musical additions.

No more than sixty people can attend at once, and the night I was there, there were about forty of us. After a casual pre-show in the courtyard where various characters interacted with the audience, we were gathered into the house and split into three groups to experience the three foundation scenes of the main storylines. On the main floor in the dining room, we met the two rival mayoral candidates, ambitious social reformer Sam McBride and incumbent Thomas Foster; McBride’s wife; various Toronto movers and shakers; and the kingpin of the night, suave and conniving union boss Bob Delacourt. Partway downstairs was the gambling den, and a bit further down the speakeasy, home to hostess Carl-Mays, the White Hot Jazz Band, and dancers who captivated with a gloriously 1920s song-and-dance number. Up at the top of the house was the meeting for the women’s Temperance League, a fiercely led group of women fighting to maintain prohibition and make sure that the prohibition candidate is elected, and in between were bedrooms, parlours, staircases and hallways, where the action used every available space.

It was great fun being immersed in the Toronto of the twenties, with prohibition and illicit drinking raging, gangsters and politicians rubbing elbows, politicians' wives and daughters up to various shenanigans, a mild-mannered reporter – our MC for the start of the evening and in love with the daughter of one mayoral candidate – tracking down a story, the innocent and not so innocent famous ( including baseball star Tommy Burt) and unknown (including two young flappers skipping out on other responsibilities to join the speakeasy as dancers for the night), with everything tuned up to a high stakes pitch on the eve of the election.

The first incarnation of the show was very much a theatre piece that included music only in the speakeasy location. Now, music has percolated up and through the house: original compositions by music directors Douglas Price and Paul Humphrey added to period standards to flesh out characters and relationships and give new impetus to various plot points. When I spoke to director and co-writer Sam Rosenthal after the performance, he said that in the first year audiences had really responded to the musical scenes and he wanted to build on that to see how it might strengthen the experience as a whole.

Sam Rosenthal (HOGTOWN's co-creator/director) and Jorge Molina (Gil Shwartz). Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.(Sam Rosenthal (HOGTOWN's co-creator/director) and Jorge Molina (Gil Shwartz). Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.)

Since for the first three scenes of this show, you’re on your own to decide where to go and what to watch, I didn’t get to see all the songs – sadly missing a gangster number in the gambling den – but I did see some wonderful new pieces: a Gene Kelly-esque duet about family expectations for baseball player Tommy Burt (Eric McDace) and aspiring reporter Ronny McBride (Saphho Hansen Smythe), a fun solo by flapper Lulu (Laura Larson) about how to navigate society, the fabulous “Temperance Tantrum” led by powerhouse head of the temperance league Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale) with stylized character breakout solos for her outwardly demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and for wild radical board member Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), and Eleanor’s period-flavoured “Got A Lot’ song in the speakeasy where she dares to bet on a horse race. The numbers were all fun, well sung, and brilliantly choreographed by Nicola Pantin. Not all the new numbers were true to the style of the 1920s, and sometimes felt composed in a later (1940s) or more contemporary musical theatre mode. Somehow this still worked, as the period was so strongly evoked at the beginning of the show, and by various numbers throughout, including “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” a knockout solo by Arinea Hermans as Toni Swift.

The last new character number I saw was the moving final song, sung by speakeasy hostess Carli-Mays Johnson after she has been told she has been traded to a Chicago crime boss as part of a big Bob Delacourt deal. Michelle Piller was both hard nailed and heart breaking,   evoking a magnetic combination of Bebe Neuwirth and Patti Lupone, a rich ending to that character trail. At that point we were all gathered up to the ballroom for the finish of the evening and a wrap of the story, capped by a full company number sung in the courtyard.

For a lover of musical theatre this new version of Hogtown is a delight. I wonder, though, if more traditional theatre lovers would feel the same way. Some of the grit and darkness of the earlier version is subsumed by the innocence of the musical numbers, so the creators/producers have an interesting dilemma on their hands; they are in a very interesting place of having experimented with going in a musical direction and needing to decide whether, in future editions, it will be more a play with music or more of a full-blown musical. ‘Finished’ or not, however, Hogtown is a great way to spend a couple of hours and a fun window to Toronto’s past. I know that I would like to go again to follow some of the other storylines and see some of the numbers I missed this time around.

HOGTOWN: The Immersive Experience plays at Campbell House until August 20. For more information and to buy tickets you can visit www.thehogtownexperience.com or http://www.campbellhousemuseum.ca

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.

Soloists (from left) James Ehnes, Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow with the TSM Festival Orchestra. Photo credit: James Ireland.In the WholeNote podcast that editor/publisher David Perlman and I did earlier this year, Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Summer Music Festival’s artistic director, called James Ehnes “the greatest violinist Canada has ever produced.” Last week, Ehnes’ four-day sojourn with the Toronto Summer Music Festival provided ample opportunity for local audiences to experience his playing for themselves – and served as a shimmering showcase for a peerless Canadian performer.

The first of Ehnes’ appearances, a chamber music masterclass that he hosted on July 16 for fellows from the TSM Academy Chamber Music Institute, began with Fire, the first movement of Kelly-Marie Murphy’s wildly intense, rollicking piano trio, Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly. Ehnes praised the Academy musicians for their enthusiasm, musicianship and commitment to a piece of music that he was hearing for the first time. “For something written so freely, it’s very precise in how to create that freedom,” he observed. “The more you’ll play it, the more you’ll be aware of the details.”

It was his own attention to detail that marked his solo recital the next evening at Koerner Hall. Opening with Bach’s Partita No.1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 and closing with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, Ehnes’ playing featured a smooth, singing tone and exquisite, relaxed openness. He scaled the heights of the second partita’s famous Chaconne in a moving performance that touched the power and the glory of the music, from its complex passagework and mesmerizing broken chords to moments of delicate beauty. In between was an astonishing performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.3 in D Minor, Op.27 “Ballade.” Ehnes brought a soulful power and seemingly effortless technique to this complex and lyrical six-minute piece built around a three-note motif.

The morning of July 19, Ehnes played the Ysaÿe for an enthusiastic audience of children, many of them budding violinists, in the first-ever TSM Festival Kids Concert. The hour-long event was a sneak preview of the Bach Celebration concerto program that evening, with Ehnes, fellow violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, harpsichordist Christopher Bagan and the TSM Festival Orchestra playing the first movement of the three-violin concerto and Ehnes and Crow the third movement of the Concerto for Two VIolins in D Minor, BWV 1043. Mooredale Concerts Music & Truffles engaging host Joanna Kellam kept the proceedings moving without talking down to her audience as she questioned each of the soloists. Ehnes, for example, after explaining that “all violinists are sort of obsessed with Bach,” compared his solo recital to taking a free throw in basketball, and playing a concerto to passing to the ball to a teammate. After Ehnes and Crow played the Allegro from the concerto, Kellam had them play it Lento (lugubrious), Presto (spectacular, but inappropriate) and Vivo (animated and hammed up) to illustrate the difference between the tempo markings.

James Ehnes with TSM Festival Orchestra cellist Jaesung Lim. Photo credit: James Ireland.Later in the day at TSM’s special “Bach Celebration” concert at the Church of the Redeemer, Ehnes and Crow were once again well-matched, as they exhibited impressive togetherness and all-round excellence. The evening opened with Ehnes performing Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. His singing tone and the ease and strength of his playing again stood out in the profound loveliness of the Andante and the playful, sunny Allegro Assai. His commanding technical prowess was evident in the jubilant Allegro of the Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1952R.

The concert came to a thrilling conclusion, when Ehnes joined Crow and Wan in a performance of Bach’s Concerto for Three VIolins in D Major, BWV 1064R. The concerto’s third movement proved to be another life-affirming shout of joy, leading to the coup de grace: the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.3, with Ehnes, Crow and Wan taking the violin parts. It was a fitting end to Ehnes’ TSM Festival activities, and an experience that all who were there will remember for a long time.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened on July 13, and runs until August 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.


RashaanAngela Hewitt. Photo credit: Bernd Eberle.This summer, Campbellford’s Westben Arts Festival once more beckons audiences to their corner of the great Canadian outdoors. From July 21 to 23, their “piano weekend” holds special appeal for piano lovers—if the names Angela Hewitt, Jan Lisiecki or Rashaan Allwood don’t ring a bell, this is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the current generation of Canadian pianists who continue to carve their niche.

A veteran pianist who has performed on various continents, Angela Hewitt is looking forward to playing at Westben on July 23. If the sold-out performance is any indication, the audience is also anticipating the date. “I haven’t done a summer tour in Canada for many years, so it’s nice to be doing one again,” Hewitt shared with The WholeNote earlier this month. “Summer festivals like this [at Westben] are very popular and rightly so. Hearing music in a setting other than the standard concert halls is always a special treat when it’s organised well. People appreciate the intimacy and the excitement of it all.”

Jan Lisiecki. Photo c/o CBC Music/Deutsche Grammophon.Fellow pianist Jan Lisiecki will perform at Westben the day before Hewitt, on July 22. His program includes works by Schubert, Schumann and Chopin—pieces with ample grandeur to fill a large concert hall—but he has no qualms about the shift to outdoor performance. “Performing in nature reflects entirely what Canada is about,” Lisiecki explained to The WholeNote. “It is not only an urbanized country—most of our land is pure beauty. To be a part of that and to create beauty in music is simply a great joy.”

Playing outdoors brings a veritable breath of fresh air to the listening experience. “Many unexpected things may happen,” continues Lisiecki. “Being close to nature means that you also enjoy the sounds and responses from birds, or simply the wind rustling through the leaves. It is a completely different way of engaging with classical music.” Mother Nature also works its magic on the artist: “I think it creates a better bond between the performer and the audience, and it feels more at ease—less strict, more flexible.”

Rashaan Allwood.Rounding out the piano lineup, Rashaan Allwood will make a two-part appearance in an innovative program that plays directly to Westben’s natural surroundings. In an evening concert on July 21, Allwood will present two major birdcall-themed anthologies by Olivier Messiaen. The following morning, audiences will be invited for a stroll in Westben’s backyard among birds and other wildlife, with musical commentary by Allwood.

Messiaen is known for evoking birdcalls in his compositions, and Allwood believes the composer strove to capture the raw, unembellished sounds found in nature. “Rather than trying to impose my own musical standards of beauty on the birds, I just hear them as what it is: crazy, sometimes manic, but sometimes sweet,” Allwood says. “You hear the chaos and the polyphony of nature—eight birds singing at once, leaves rustling in the wind.”

His affinity for the music of Messiaen was an acquired taste. “I was confused at first! But I knew that I loved Messiaen, so I thought there must be something here!” he adds. It turns out the key to understanding his music lies outside the practice room: “A big thing for me was learning that to make good music, you have to experience things; otherwise, you have nothing to draw on. So then I got really interested in ‘what else can I learn from outside, instead of trying to get better by just sitting and practising for a long time?’”

Compared with Messiaen’s untouched treatment of the sounds of birds, Allwood finds that other composers like Liszt, Ravel, or even Beethoven repackaged their impressions of nature. “When Liszt hears birds, water, or other natural elements, I feel he wants something very light, beautiful, pretty. He takes those words, and tonicises them to music.”

Despite his reputation for sometimes writing difficult-to-approach music, in an era where processed products seem to be losing their appeal, Messiaen could be food for the soul. What is the key to accessing his soundworld?

"Listen not in the same way we listen to music, but the way we listen to nature,” says Allwood. “Take it all in and let it wash over you, like a soundscape.

“I think we’re often worried about new things, because we don’t know if we’re going to like it,” he continues. “When you give people something they can contextualize, the audience gets just as excited [as they would with more mainstream music]. I think it’s actually quite possible to engage them in an hour of Messiaen, despite the non-believers.”

Here in our own backyard, there is still fresh ground to be charted for classical music—and events like these are a compelling step in that direction.

Westben’s summer festival series runs until August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit www.westben.ca. Stay posted at www.thewholenote.com for more updates from this year’s Westben festival.  

Jennifer Liu is a recent graduate in piano performance, and has written on classical music for La Scena Musicale, The WholeNote Magazine, and Musical Toronto.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet at the 2017 TSM opening concert. Photo credit: James Ireland.Toronto Summer Music (TSM) began its second decade with an electrifying performance at Koerner Hall by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on July 13. It was the first time in its storied history that the quartet had performed in that fine acoustic space and they made the most of it, seemingly expanding their audience to many who had never heard them at their usual venue, the Jane Mallett Theatre. The appreciative whoops that accompanied the standing ovation that followed R. Murray Schafer's String Quartet No.3 just before intermission and the fervid applause that greeted the conclusion of Beethoven's String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131 were an appropriate response to the SLSQ's passionate music-making.

First violinist Geoff Nuttall refrained from introducing the evening's opening work – Haydn's String Quartet No.25 in C Major, Op.20, No.2 – in favour of saluting Schafer (who was in the house) as the great living composer he is. Nuttall encouraged the audience to sing along while leading the SLSQ in Happy Birthday in honour of Schafer's 84th birthday, which falls on July 18. The quartet is currently in the midst of recording the set of six Op.20 Haydn quartets for a free online release later this year. Their affection and familiarity with the opening work was evident from the clarity they brought to the humorous development of the first movement (almost cartoonish at times) in the context of an otherwise serious statement made by the wisp of a main theme. The sombre Adagio of the Capriccio was built on a strong foundation and featured a striking tuneful solo by Nuttall. The Minuet had a fine lightness and a fleeting hint of modernity while the concluding fugue was enlivened by the SLSQ's superb ensemble playing.

The SLSQ playing the second movement of R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3. Photo credit: James Ireland.The Schafer began with an impassioned cello solo, with cellist Christopher Costanza alone on stage. Soon he was joined by the offstage viola echo of Lesley Robertson. Nuttall appeared left rear followed by second violinist Owen Dalby on the right. The musical disconnection was finally resolved when Dalby was reunited with his fellow quartet members who had by then retaken their customary positions in readiness for the vocalisms that defined the Allegro energico second movement, sounds that wouldn't be out of place in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. The third movement, hinting of Bartók, with butterfly trills and meditative chants, ended with Nuttall’s sublime mystical solo violin exiting stage right.

Beethoven's Op.131‘s simple four-note opening phrase was soon transformed capriciously by overlapping tunes which are generously melodic. Fragments of lyricism constantly evolved, building on a series of temporal plinths as the breathtaking midpoint of the fourth movement was announced with understated ecstasy. From there the piece took a frenetic turn, before the brief warm respite of the sixth movement gave way to the finale, where, consumed by its own rhythmic force, it showcased its beauty unabashedly.

Nuttall announced the encore: “1771. Haydn Op.20, No.1. Affettuoso e sostenuto.” This glorious (and gloriously played) slow movement written during the first year of Beethoven's life brought the evening to a satisfying, and cyclic, conclusion.

The SLSQ's program harkened back to their 1992 win in the Banff International String Quartet Competition. In an inspired pairing, TSM will present the 2016 winners of the competition, the Rolston String Quartet, in their Toronto debut, on July 24 at Walter Hall. I look forward to hearing the music that brought them their victory.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened on July 13, and runs until August 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Part 2 of a 2-part series, where WholeNote writer Karen Ages attends Ottawa’s Music & Beyond – and gains new perspective on a familiar city.

The Diefenbunker entry tunnel. Photo by the author.July 8: It's Saturday late afternoon and I'm meeting a friend to drive out to the Diefenbunker in Carp, about a half-hour west of Ottawa. We arrive early for an event, hosted by Ottawa’s Music & Beyond festival, titled “Beyond the Bomb: Music of the Cold War.” There's a community brass band assembled on the helicopter landing pad nearby, providing a nice diversion while we await admittance.

It's my first time here and I'm not sure what to expect. A nondescript, shack-like structure juts out from the side of a grassy hill, making it anyone's guess what lies beyond. When we finally enter, I'm amazed by the extent and complexity of the whole thing. I'd heard of the Diefenbunker, and imagined it might consist of a couple of rooms below ground, providing food and shelter for the Prime Minister and his family in the event of nuclear war. I had no idea that it was in fact designed to house the federal government and certain military personnel in case of such an attack. Built between 1959-1961, the Diefenbunker is a multi-level complex of many rooms complete with everything needed to communicate with the outside world (it was in use for over 30 years, then decommissioned and cleared of its contents in the mid-90s – so the furnishings of today's museum had to be re-acquired).

We enter through a long tunnel and are greeted by the sounds of Victor Herbiet's saxophone. Beyond are various rooms, where musicians give mini-concerts as audience members wander in and out of their midst. Theremin virtuoso Thorwald Jørgensen and pianist Valerie Dueck occupy one room, playing Rachmaninoff's Vocalise when I enter. Percussionist Zac Pulak and his xylophone are set up in the Federal Warning Centre, a room complete with rows of old rotary phones labeled “civil defence” or “nuclear defence.” Guitarist Roddy Ellias plays works by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, in the War Cabinet Room. A room simply called Requiem serves as a memorial to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; here harpist Caroline Léonardelli and flutist Pascale Margely play traditional Japanese music. Bassoonist Ben Glossop occupies the CBC Emergency Broadcasting Studio playing excerpts of Shostakovich with the aid of a reverb machine. Pianist Christopher Kornienko is taking requests in the Morgue (not sure exactly what this room's intended use was, but that's what it's called), and has the audience spellbound by his rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. And way underground (I'm now donning my sweater) in the cavernous Bank of Canada Vault which was built to shelter our gold reserves, cellist and festival artistic director Julian Armour, with pianist Frédéric Lacroix, play works by Robert Fleming and a Japanese folk song arranged by Gabor Finta. There's free food, drink and a jazz trio playing in the cafeteria. Obviously not all of the music is from the Cold War period, but it's a unique experience all the same. We are greeted by a full moon as we exit the bunker on this fine summer evening.

Quartetto Gelato's accordionist Alexander Sevastian.July 9: Quartetto Gelato, Canada's classical quartet whose repertoire spans opera to tango and beyond, draws a full house at St. Matthew's Anglican Church in the Glebe area of Ottawa. Founded 25 years ago by violinist and tenor Peter De Sotto, this ensemble blends virtuoso playing with its own brand of presentation and humour, and has been wowing audiences worldwide. There are too many works on the program to list, all arranged for the ensemble, highlighting the spectacular talents of each member. Four-time world champion Alexander Sevastian plays a “bayan” style accordion, and his fingers fly effortlessly across the 227 buttons. My favourite bit of the concert is a piece called Pipes, a traditional bagpipe tune arranged by the group's oboist, Colin Maier. The feat that we witness in this piece is Colin's ability to circular breathe. He plays the entire tune, which uncannily imitates the melismatic sounds of a bagpipe, in what seems to be one breath, without once taking the oboe reed out of his mouth! Everything on the program is played from memory (which is a feat in itself), and cellist Greg Gallagher, who is relatively new to the group, does a fine job too.

July 10: By contrast, on July 10, another quartet, Constantinople, gives an early evening concert in the beautiful sun-lit atrium of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, situated on Sussex Drive beside the Saudi Arabian embassy, across from the Ottawa River. The building serves as a de facto embassy for the Aga Khan. Opening remarks are delivered by Amirali Alibhai, head of performing arts at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum, whose mission is “to build bridges between cultures through the arts”. The concert, titled “Itinerant Gardens,” is described as “a poetic encounter between strings and voice, from the epics of the Mandingo Kingdom to the music of the Persian court.” The ensemble itself represents a meeting of cultures: there's a seven-stringed viola da gamba, a 21-stringed Kora (African harp) played by Ablaye Cissoko of Senegal, a four-stringed long-necked Persian setar played by Kiya Tabassian, and various gentle-sounding percussion instruments. The music in this concert is meditative, sublime, and beautiful in an understated way, all arranged by Tabassian and Cissoko, who also provide vocals.

There's time for a quick bite before I head over to First Baptist Church for the 7:30 concert. The aforementioned theremin virtuoso Thorwald Jørgensen is again joined by pianist Valerie Dueck, for a full-length program that also includes violinist Marc Djokic and percussionist Zac Pulak. The theremin has incredible range, at times sounding eerily similar to a double bass or cello, a violin or even a human voice. Jørgensen started out as a percussionist, but desiring to play an expressive instrument and inspired by the recordings of Clara Rockmore, switched to theremin. The five pieces on the first half were all written for theremin, and include Distant Shores, by Jørgensen himself; employing voice and a loop pedal that captures and repeats live sounds, the piece evokes the ebb of waves on a shoreline, complete with seagulls. Re-turning, by Daniel Mehdizadeh (who is in the audience), is an enchanting work for theremin, marimba and vibraphone. The second half of the concert features works not composed originally for theremin but that are well suited to it, such as Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte and Pièce en forme de Habanera, Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras No.5 and of course, the Rachmaninoff Vocalise. The most impressive however is Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee -  Jørgensen's remarkable hand dexterity makes this the most convincing and bee-sounding version of this piece that I've heard!

July 11: It's noon and I'm again at First Baptist for part three of the “150 Years of Music in Canada” series. Elaine Keillor is back with four piano works by composers born in the 1800s; the first is by George W. Strath, who claims to have studied with Mendelssohn, and was the first to obtain a PhD in music from U of T's Trinity College. This is followed by a work by Charles A. E. Harris of Ottawa. Next are two pieces that evoke the marching band: Cave of the Winds by R. Nathaniel Dett, who was born in Ontario but spent most of his professional life in the US and was the first African American to earn an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College; and Imperial Native March by Job Nelson, an Indigenous composer of the Nisga'a Nation. Following are works for strings alone or with piano. The only living composer on the program is present – Jan Järvlepp explains that In Memoriam was composed in the palliative care unit of a Mississauga hospital where his brother lay dying. This moving string quintet is performed by Marc Djokic and Jasper Wood, two of Canada's best violinists, violist David Marks, cellist Julian Armour and bassist Paul Mach. Another moving work, performed by Wood and pianist Frédéric Lacroix, A Child's Cry from Izieu by Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), was inspired by the transport of children from the French town of Izieu to Auschwitz (for more details see https://www.musiccentre.ca/node/26261). This is followed by lighter fare – Morawetz's arrangement of Dvořák’s Humoresque and works by Healey Willan and Sir Ernest MacMillan.

Thorwald Jørgensen plays theremin in the National Gallery. Photo by the author.In the evening, I attend the National Gallery Soirée. The National Gallery of Canada, one of our country's finest art galleries, becomes a literal playground for musicians of all sorts – as the audience wanders the gallery, we encounter not only the artwork on the walls but music that is contemporary or thematically related to it. A flutist is costumed identically to the one in a painting in front of which he performs. A harpist (one of three this evening) plays French music near paintings by Monet and others. Jørgensen and his theremin are stationed in a room of 20th-century art. There are also Baroque dancers, Inuit throat singers, two choirs, an Indigenous singer/drummer...and so on. The highlight for me is hearing the glorious Capital Chamber Choir perform in a large room with a high ceiling – the sound is truly astonishing. In the Great Hall, a jazz trio performs as festivalgoers sip wine.

July 12: It's my last day in Ottawa before heading back to Toronto and part of me feels I should attend to other business rather than hear more concerts, but I'm overcome by a sense of FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something), so hop on my bike and head downtown. Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal is at Church of St. Barnabas. This early music vocal ensemble consists of three women, two men and a lute player. They present a concert titled “Of Love, Drinking and Revelry”, madrigals and chansons of the Renaissance. Part One consists of love songs by Monteverdi, Banchieri and Luis de Narvaez. Part Two features drinking songs – there's one attributed to Henry VIII, another by Banchieri in which the singers imitate various animals, with cuckooing, meowing and barking – as well as songs by Lassus and Pierre Attaingnant. Part Three features contemplative songs by Arcadelt, Gibbons, Hassler and Dowland. Part Four is titled “Folies” and features a work by Gesualdo and Part Five presents songs of hope by Dowland and Sermisy. I am struck by the smooth velvety blend of the voices, the impeccable intonation and expressiveness of this wonderful ensemble. The church acoustics are a perfect fit too.

The Bennewitz Quartet. Photo credit: Kamil Ghais.Lunch, then I head over to Dominion Chalmers to hear the Bennewitz Quartet, a string quartet from the Czech Republic. “Lost in the Holocaust” is the first of three concerts they'll be giving at the festival and it's their first time ever performing in Canada – and hopefully not their last! My earlier sense of FOMS was warranted – these guys are magnificent players, both individually and as an ensemble. The program features works by three composers, all born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who perished in Nazi death camps: Viktor Ullmann's String Quartet No.3 Op 46; Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet, described by the second violinist  as a Dadaist work; and the String Quartet No.2 Op 7 by Pavel Haas, a complex programmatic work with descriptive movement titles. The quartet is joined by percussionist Zac Pulak in the final movement. All of the works have profound beauty and are masterfully crafted. It's sad to think of what these composers might have achieved later – Ullmann and Haas were in their mid-forties when they died, Schulhoff in his fifties. The Bennewitz formed in 1998 and consist of Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violins, Jiří Pinkas, viola, and Štěpán Doležal, cello.

For what will be my last concert of the festival, I head back to Church of St. Barnabas in the evening to hear a harpsichord recital by Mélisande McNabney. There's a small but very enthusiastic audience for this concert of 17th- and early-18th-century French repertoire, mostly inspired by other instruments and transcribed for harpsichord by the composers or McNabney herself. I'm blown away by not only the technical mastery of her playing, but by the remarkable expressivity with which she realizes the works – the harpsichord is limited in that there's no sustain pedal and no variation in volume, but this doesn't matter in the hands of this very accomplished and sensitive musician. The program consists of works by D'Anglebert, Rameau and Forqueray. After the concert, McNabney gives an informal “show and tell” of the instrument for the curious.

The festival continues until July 17, including a recital by mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta on July 14 and a not-to-miss performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on July 16 . For more information on what's coming up, and other concerts I've missed, visit www.musicandbeyond.ca

Born in Ottawa, Karen Ages is an oboist and music writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at karen@thewholenote.com.


Part 1 of a 2-part series, where WholeNote writer Karen Ages attends Ottawa’s Music & Beyond – and gains new perspective on a familiar city.

Violinist Sarah Chang.July 4: It's a half hour before the opening gala concert of the 8th annual Music and Beyond festival (July 4-17), and there's a substantial line-up outside Dominion Chalmers United Church. It's a beautiful summer's evening and I'm excited to be back in Ottawa, my hometown. Growing up here, I wasn't exposed to the cultural offerings of the city until early adulthood, and discovering first the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, then attending M&B last year for the first time, have been eye-openers to the cultural richness of the city. However, I never feel I've quite “arrived” in Ottawa in summer without a bike ride along the Rideau Canal, and it's partly for this reason that I decide earlier in the day to pick up my Festival Pass at the festival office itself, rather than at the concert venue.

My route from the Carlington area where I grew up cuts through the Experimental Farm; to my right lie vast green fields sprouting corn rows and where cows sometimes graze. To my left, beyond further sprawling fields, looms the Civic Hospital, where I was born. It's an uphill climb past the Agricultural and Food Museum to the traffic circle, past the Arboretum, then an easy downhill coast to Dow's Lake. It's mid-day: canoeists, kayakers, pedal-boaters and rafters are in abundance on the water; Canada geese loll on the grassy shore past the boardwalk, unperturbed by the steady stream of cyclists, joggers and other pedestrians on the nearby bike path. Soon the lake disappears behind me, giving way to the canal that in winter is the world's longest skating rink. Nearing downtown, I leave the bike path, passing the old drill hall from where the Band of the Ceremonial Guard launches its daily march to Parliament Hill for the changing of the guard ceremony, then head up Elgin St. past the newly renovated National Arts Centre. The War Memorial is to my left and the magnificent Chateau Laurier hotel lies ahead. I'm soon at the William St. office of Music & Beyond, situated in the heart of the historic Byward Market.

Tonight's concert features American violin sensation Sarah Chang, who debuted with the New York Philharmonic at age 8. A fanfare for seven natural trumpets delivered by red-coated and bearskin head-dressed members of the Canadian military (Ceremonial Guard?) is followed by opening remarks from the Festival board chair, the MPP for Ottawa-Vanier, Mayor Jim Watson, and the ambassador of Korea (given Chang's heritage, the embassy is a co-sponsor of the event and provides tasty treats for the post-concert reception). The repertoire is standard fare, spanning baroque through early 20th-century, but the playing is anything but ordinary – words like breathtaking, dazzling and exquisite come to mind, and pianist Julio Elizalde (who reads the entire concert off an iPad) does justice to Chang's virtuosity. The surprisingly Romantic-sounding theme-and-variationed Chaconne by Tomaso Vitali (1663-1745) is followed by Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op.108. After intermission and a gown change from flowing floor-length blue to deep rose with sparkles, the familiar and oh-so-sensitively played opening bars of Franck's Sonata in A Major FWV 8 begin the second half, the last movement of which I'm pretty sure was used as theme music for a CBC radio show, back in the good old days of CBC music. Ravel's Tzigane, with its solo violin introduction and Slavic themes reminiscent of Brahms' Hungarian Dances for orchestra, concludes with a pyrotechnic display of passion. Following a standing ovation, Bach's sublime Air on the G String serves as an encore.

Southminster United Church. Photo by the author.July 5: It's day two of the festival and I'll be hearing a couple of string quartets. Biking to the 2pm concert, I start on my usual route, this time crossing over the Bank St. bridge to the canal's east side where the festival faithful are clustered on the coveted random shady patches outside Southminster United Church. When the doors open, the audience streams in, filling the Gothic-style church in anticipation of the first of four concerts this festival by the Auryn Quartet. From Germany, they've played together for over three decades, and it shows. This concert features two substantial works: first, Beethoven's stirring String Quartet in C-sharp Minor Op.131, on which Schubert is said to have remarked “After this, what is left for us to write?” Around 40 minutes in length, it is played from  beginning to end without breaks between movements. Schubert's Quartet in G Major D.887 follows intermission. The audience sits enraptured throughout both works, with only the tiniest sneeze during the whole concert.

The Kronos Quartet.In the evening, I'm back at a packed Dominion Chalmers to hear the legendary San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. With a focus on contemporary music, Kronos are the rock stars of the string quartet world. Some of the works on this program employ live electronics or amplification, and all of them were either written or arranged for the quartet. Dadra in Raga Bhairavi by N. Rajam employs an electronic drone, over which Indian classical florid lines are sometimes accompanied by Sunny Yang's expert hand percussion on the body of her cello, in imitation of the tabla. Canadian Nicole Lizée has written five works for Kronos; her piece Another Living Soul begins with two of the members spinning tone-generating plastic tubes. There's humming and foot stomping while playing, and at one point, the instruments are bowed by noise-making tubes that remind me of children's toys. Tanya Tagaq's Sivunittinni evokes the deep guttural sounds of Inuit throat singing, and the sometimes orchestral-sounding Baba O'Riley by Pete Townshend gives second violinist John Sherba a chance to shine at the end. The quartet’s rendition of Gershwin's Summertime is likely the most languid and sexy version of this piece that I've heard.

In an encore composed by pipa player Wu Man, Silk and Bamboo from Four Chinese Paintings, violist Hank Dutt plays a variety of percussion instruments. A second encore, Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday, closes the program, which has been MC’d throughout by first violinist David Harrington. He has explained that the quartet is in the midst of a commissioning project called 50 for the Future, whereby 25 male and 25 female composers will write works for them that will be handed down to future generations of quartet players, all available via download from their website. For more about Kronos, visit www.kronosquartet.org.

Dominion Chalmers Church. Photo by the author.July 6: It's day three and I'm at the first of five concerts titled “150 Years of Music in Canada.” There's a sparse crowd at Dominion Chalmers this noon hour – perhaps everyone else is over at Ottawa U's Tabaret Hall to hear the Whitehorse Chamber Choir, on at the same time. The concert opens with three works featuring soprano Cassidy Van Bavel – she's the 16-year-old daughter of composer Kelly-Marie Murphy and explains that in place of a programmed piece written for her by her mother that is no longer suited to her still developing voice, she'll be substituting a traditional Newfoundland song, She's Like the Swallow. Cassidy is accompanied by harpist Caroline Léonardelli on this and two other works. Pianist Elaine Keillor, who incidentally was the first woman to earn a PhD in Musicology from the University of Toronto, performs three works by Canadian composers born in the 1800s: Gustave Smith's Air Savoyard (composed in Ottawa), Calixa Lavallée's Mouvement à la Pavane (the last piano piece he wrote) and Chant de Voyageur by Susie F. Harrison. Pianist Lori Piitz performs more recent works: Rodney Sharman's dreamy and languid Gratitude; the Adagio from Jacques Hétu's viola concerto, where she's joined by Nicolò Eugelmi; and Denis Gougeon's Piano-Soleil from Six thèmes solaires, at times a technical tour de force. The program ends with the premiere of Kelly-Marie Murphy's Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, a rousing piece for solo percussion expertly played by Zac Pulak.

There's time for a quick snack and coffee before heading over to First Baptist Church for “400 Years of Opera.” Hosted by Pierre Vachon, his commentary at the beginning and between each piece provides an illuminating view into the history of opera, from its beginnings in 16th-century Italy through to the present day. This is a rather lengthy concert; but the singers are all wonderful and it's worth the long sit! Soprano Myriam Leblanc, mezzo Marjorie Maltais, tenor Danny Leclerc and baritone Max Van Wyck are featured in works by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Offenbach, Wagner, Gershwin and Bernstein. Pianist Maxime Dubé-Malenfant is their very able accompanist.

July 7: Day four – I've decided to attend only one event today: “Piano Legends” is an extraordinary blend of technology and the traditional Steinway piano. There's been a sudden venue change, and I'm able to grab a ride with complete strangers to the already-overflowing Dominion Chalmers social hall. Hosted by Troy Scharf of Steinway & Sons, this is an event unlike anything I've experienced. The piano for this event uses Steinway's Spirio technology: live video recordings of great pianists, from which the audio has been digitally reconfigured then fed into the piano, mimicking the exact touch of each pianist and performance; the keys are depressed as if a ghost is at the piano – it's like having Glenn Gould or Vladimir Horowitz right there! We're shown original videos of great pianists performing, but the sound comes from the piano in the room itself. There's Arthur Rubinstein playing a Chopin Polonaise in 1953, Rachmaninoff playing his own Prelude in C-sharp Minor Op.3 No.2 (this is the only work on the program with no video), Van Cliburn playing Chopin's Ballade No.3 Op.47 in 1959, and George Gershwin playing I Got Rhythm in 1931 to name a few. In addition, there are three Spirio pianos in the world that will record right from a live performance – we are treated to Yuja Wang playing Schumann's “The Smuggler”, and piano duo Anderson & Roe playing Mambo from West Side Story – here's the video from that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8v-TIX87P0

Coming up: I'll be at the Diefenbunker for “Beyond the Bomb: Music of the Cold War,” and will most likely catch Quartetto Gelato too – look for another post about these concerts and more. There's far more at this festival than I can possibly attend or write about, so to see what I've missed please visit www.musicandbeyond.ca.

Born in Ottawa, Karen Ages is an oboist and music writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at karen@thewholenote.com.



Seeking Refuge.I always enjoy the anarchy of possibility at the Toronto Fringe Festival, where all the shows are chosen by lottery (though some in smaller categories such as “international” or “national” as opposed to the majority which are Toronto-based). With five days left in the festival, which runs until Saturday, July 16, there’s still lots to see – especially for those with an interest in musical theatre.

Musicals have always been part of the theatrical appetizers on offer, and sometimes those musicals have gone beyond the fringe to further productions elsewhere – even to the heady heights of Broadway as in the case of the gloriously funny Drowsy Chaperone, which I remember seeing at the George Ignatieff Theatre back when it first appeared at the Fringe in 1999. This September, another new musical takes its first steps beyond the fringe where it was acclaimed last year: Life After by rising Toronto lyricist and composer Britta Johnson, which (in an expanded and reworked form) will start off the 2017/18 CanStage season in a co-production with the Musical Stage Company directed by Robert McQueen (who directed the Fringe version) with music direction by Reza Jacobs.

Perhaps one of this year’s shows will catch the imagination of its audiences and follow a similar path to bigger productions. There are certainly a lot of possibilities: there are over 160 shows at this year’s Toronto Fringe and, as usual, they range widely from heavy hitters trying out new material to newcomers writing their first show, with almost every stage in-between. Twenty-three of these are listed as musicals (including four – half! – of the FringeKids list), 11 as dance pieces and several more are plays that include music as an integral element.

The most anarchic of all would seem to be The Confidential Musical Theatre Project (p. 40 in the Fringe Program), where the details of the performance are kept confidential until the moment the show begins. Even the performers won’t know until an hour before, when they meet for the first time for a quick rehearsal. This should be promising, going by the success over the past year in Toronto of The Confidential Opera Project (also produced by Marion Abbott) as well as the reported success of the musical theatre version elsewhere.

As for themes, this year the one that jumps out is strong women (or girls) standing up to a harsh and confusing world. Given the state of the real world these days, this is not a surprising trend, but it IS nice to see a preponderance of girls as the heroes. This is the theme at the heart of Everything There is to Know (p.44), one of my top picks and also the most full of heavy hitters: book and music are written by the acclaimed Aaron Jensen and the creative team are all top drawer award-winners who have worked across the country, including director Lesley Ballantyne, choreographer Susan Cuthbert, artistic adviser Jim Warren, and producer David Warrick. The story centers on 11-year-old Sophie, who, as the world crumbles around her at home and on a global scale, finds a way to deal with everything coming at her by using her imagination.

On a more serious note, Seeking Refuge (p. 45) by Rick Jones (the Paul O’Sullivan prizewinner for the best new musical theatre script submitted to the Fringe) takes up the international theme as it follows two sisters who are left homeless and without family in the midst of an unnamed civil war. The sisters have only their mother’s jewelry left to barter for passage to freedom – and only enough to save one of them.

Olive Copperbottom.On the more comedic side are Stephanie Herrera’s solo show Am I Pretty Now: a musical romp through plastic surgery (p.40), billed as the “first ever” musical written on this theme, with the star also writing the script and music; and the two hander Bad Date (p.34), written and composed by Erin Aubrey, which promises to be a “racy, outrageous and daring take on a date gone wrong.” Another from the top of my list is New Zealand comedy star Penny Ashton’s one-woman Dickensian musical Olive Copperbottom (p.41): “Our story begins as the death of her beloved mother leaves Olive in the care of Mrs Sourtart at the Whackthechild Home for Wayward Waifs and Strays”...you get the idea. This is a follow-up to Ashton’s very successful Jane Austen solo musical Promises and Promiscuity, which toured Canada and internationally last year.

Often at the Fringe, the kids’ shows can be just as enjoyable for adults – a happy thing for parents, but also for creators wanting to deal with fables, parables, strongly set themes in simpler, bolder packages. Blink’s Garden (p.28), already seen in Winnipeg and Edmonton, focuses on a brave girl in a barren garden ruled by a selfish king; Fables from Far Away Lands (p. 64) also features a brave girl at the centre who, through traditional fables and original songs connected to bullying, female empowerment and working together, arrives at a fantastical land where anything is possible; Jay and Shilo’s Sibling Revelry (p. 29) (note, that’s “revelry” not “rivalry”), described as “Narnia meets The Phantom of the Opera,” is about a brother-and-sister team who help a fairy to find her courage, featuring a strong professional musical theatre cast including Jennifer Walls; and Death Meets Harlequin (p.28), by children’s author Nina Kaye, promises commedia dell’arte staging as well as guest “opener” circus company Deflying Feets. In between the adult and kids’ shows, teens also take the stage in a big way as the inaugural Teen Fringe ensemble (after an intense performance boot camp) forms part of the 50-strong cast of True North Mixtape (p. 46), which also features the award-winning high school show choir the Wexford Gleeks. The show itself, created by the company under the guidance of Edge of Sky Theatre, is also a banner show for our Canada 150 celebration year as it takes a tapestry of Canadian music hits “remixed, repurposed, and reimagined to tackle issues of home, identity, love and inclusivity.” Directed by Ann Merriam (Blood Ties: The Musical, Summerland), True North Mixtape features a diverse group of artists of all different ages, faiths, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds exploring what it means to be a Canadian in the year 2017.

Dance and more experimental music and movement works also have a strong presence at this year’s festival. There are a few strictly dance pieces, but there are several that look to be stretching beyond a simple definition of ‘dance’ to break more experimental ground. Hexen (p.83 ), by a young company of recent Randolph grads, uses song, movement, dance and text to tell the story of an ancient coven of witches reappearing on the earth to warn the humans of a darkness beginning to seep into their lives. With The Old Wolf and the Sacred Trout (p. 32), award-winning playwright Donald Molnar experiments with storytelling through movement instead of words. Universal Horrors (p. 46) by award-winning Victoria indie dance company Broken Rhythm reinvents great classic horror films, including Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein, through dance, music, and multimedia elements.

Three more dance-based pieces focus on the female empowerment theme. The “F” Word (p.42), written and directed by Samantha Schleese and Melissa Hart of new Toronto-based SaMel Tanz, uses contemporary, Latin, and hip hop dance to explore the struggles of facing feminism in “a powerful, invigorating and comedic performance from a diverse group of women who aren’t afraid to say it like it is.” Picaza (p.45 ), an intriguingly ambitious multidisciplinary piece performed by 12 Toronto artists from different cultural and professional backgrounds combines contemporary and flamenco dance, physical theatre and original text and music to produce a fully original tale of the coming of age of a young woman. The dancers perform to a range of traditional and experimental music, with original text written in Spanish and English. Lipstique (p.44 ) in contrast sounds like a popular explosion of street dance theatre, performed by Mix Mix Dance Collective, that asks us to question the “future of the feminine.” Co-founded by Gemini and Dora award-nominated dancer and choreographer Emily Law and dancer Ashley Perez, Mix Mix is described as outrageous, fierce and thoughtful in their investigation of diversity in movement, music and art practice.

The Diddlin Bibbles Live in Concert.There isn’t enough space to talk about every show but there are two more on my “must-see” list that I want to mention. Rough Magic (p.45), a melange of theatre, movement and music, explores the story of characters Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest before the events of the play, most excitingly using aerial choreography for Ariel. Theatre Arcturus (Lindsay Bellaire and Phillip Psutka) won five-star reviews for their first show Weird at the 2016 Fringe: “This is aerial theatre, where the boundaries of physicality and truthful storytelling are pushed, and sometimes the world turns upside-down.” The Diddlin Bibbles Live in Concert (p. 54) on the other hand, features a singer-songwriter duo, who have traveled all the way from Widdlywack, Wisconsin to “spread their gospel of light, love and lust through their toe-tappin', knee-slappin' tunes.” Written by performers Matt Shaw and Lesley Robertson with director Dana Puddicombe, this sounds like a silly but very entertaining mash-up of musical sketch comedy and mockumentary à la Christopher Guest. Lesley Robertson is one of the funniest performers on the current scene, having made a huge hit in the part of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing at Hart House this past fall.

Even with this short list of shows you can see there is a wide variety to choose from. No one can really choose for anyone else, and the real joy often comes from finding the unexpected hit or a show that connects when all you were trying to do was fill a gap in your schedule.

Happy Fringing!

Toronto’s 2017 Fringe Festival runs until July 16. More details, including a PDF version of the festival program, can be found at www.fringetoronto.com.

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.


Members of the Silk Road Ensemble at the Aga Khan Museum on June 29, 2017.In my September 2015 WholeNote article on the Silk Road Ensemble, I explored the historic idea of the trade routes “collectively referred to as the Silk Road, an interconnected web of maritime and overland pathways, [which] have for centuries served as sites for cultural, economic, educational, religious – and purely musical – exchanges.” Such ‘silk roads’ encouraged the exchange and development of ever-evolving cultural hybridities, which in turn have shaped the complexion of today’s transnational musical world. Revisiting that notion at the close of the 20th century, the Grammy award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma proposed Silkroad as the name of his new non-profit organisation. Inspired by his global curiosity and eagerness to forge musical connections across cultures, disciplines and generations, that project has since grown several branches.

The first of its projects has proved to be the very successful performing and recording group Silk Road Ensemble (SRE). Under the artistic direction of Ma, the group seeks to “connect the world through the arts,” presenting musical performances and educational programs, and fostering radical cultural collaboration around the world. Its mission? To represent “a global array of cultures…creating new forms of cultural exchange.”

No strangers to north Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum – especially since the museum’s intercultural mandate neatly dovetails with SRE’s – eight of the ensemble’s members returned to the space last month for a multi-day residency (though without Yo-Yo Ma himself). Embracing the spirit of inclusion, their stay included a community workshop/jam on June 27 with close to two dozen Toronto world musicians. SRE wrapped up its residency with a well-attended public concert on June 29, in the museum’s domed 340-seat auditorium. The show was divided into two distinct sections, both of which featured Kayhan Kalhor, the group’s renowned Grammy award-nominated kamancheh (Persian bowed lute) soloist and composer.

 Kayhan Kalhor (left) and Sandeep Das.The first half was titled Jugalbani, the common North Indian classical music term for duet, in which tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das joined Kalhor in a long, seamless improvisation. Kalhor was at his intense best, exploring elements of Persian classical music yet fluidly incorporating Kurdish folk melodies, a fusion he is known for. I was impressed by his extensive use of not only advanced bowing but also plucking, tapping and syncopated strumming techniques on the kamancheh, extending its expressive capabilities toward those regularly employed by Hindustani instrumentalists. Joining his playing effortlessly with Das’s, it became clear during the course of the performance how their duo was “like a meeting of two lost cousins,” as Das reflected in an earlier interview. Their duet in turn evoked sombre, peaceful, competitive, playful and joyous moods.

For the second half of the concert, a stripped-down SRE was represented by a string quartet, string bass and percussionist, in addition to kamancheh soloist Kalhor. The first of two extended compositions was American composer Colin Jacobsen's Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged. Inspired by both Azeri mugham melodies and the 14th-century Italian laude genre, it received a vigorous rendering here, led by more brilliant playing from Kalhor.

Kalhor wrote his own composition, Silent City, to commemorate the destruction of the village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan by Iraqi armed forces in 1988. The composer noted, “I chose to base the piece on an altered A-minor scale, using Kurdish themes to remember the Kurdish people.” Beginning as an improvised lament, the work ends in a triumphant Kurdish dance in 7/8, framed in a satisfying complex harmonic setting.

The SRE workshop and final concert suitably complemented AKM’s current exhibition: Syrian Symphony: New Compositions in Sight and Sound, which runs until August 13 and for which SRE is an associate and creative partner.

I visited Syrian Symphony in anticipation of the SRE concert. In it, leading Syrian artists and musicians collectively explore themes of conflict, the struggle to protect the region’s cultural heritage, displacement and the determination to rebuild via large-scale painting, media arts and recorded music.

As well as experiencing emotionally moving images and music, visitors are further invited to interact with the exhibit. They can add selfies to those taken by newly arrived Syrians in Canada, and can place “icon discs” onto frames mounted on the gallery wall. These simple yet effective actions allow visitors to form personal connections to the current Syrian situation, and to the people caught up in its tragedy.

Members of the Silk Road Ensemble performed in concert at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, on Thursday, June 29 at 8pm. For more information about the Aga Khan Museum’s programming and current exhibition, visit www.agakhanmuseum.org.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.


Coming back to Canada last month after two and a half weeks in Versailles, Paris, and London gave me rather severe culture shock for a while, but there were shows I knew I wanted to see before they closed in order to catch up with the Toronto music theatre scene – particularly because all three took a new look at classics for the stage.

Onegin by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs, June 4

Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis in Onegin. Photo credit: Matt Barnes.Onegin began life as an epic poem by radical Russian writer Alexander Pushkin that, first published in serial form between 1825 and 1832, became a hit with the reading public. It also foreshadowed Pushkin’s own death, with the famous duel between the title character and his best friend Vladimir Lensky. In 1870, Tchaikovsky was asked to turn Onegin into an opera, which also became a huge success (and is still a reliable hit today). Tchaikovsky was also affected personally by the story: apparently not wanting to make the same mistake as Onegin, he divorced his wife and then married a young student who had written him a passionate love letter – another of the anchoring events of the original. So, from the beginning, Pushkin’s tale had a profound effect on all those who came in contact with it.

At the start of the musical, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre last month, all this history is mashed up into the opening numbers, performed by the cast as if they are a group of strolling players in a cafe inviting us, the audience, in to drink and take part in a rollicking romantic Russian tale – with audience participation. One character even tells us: “yes, it’s that kind of show.”

The first named character we meet is Lensky, a young poet who introduces us to the rest of the characters – finishing with his best friend Evgeny Onegin. It felt unusual to have Lensky so front-and-centre, yet Josh Epstein is so strong in the role that he rules the stage, bringing great energy to the scene. Onegin himself is described as a rake and a loner and yet very attractive; award-winning performer Daren A. Herbert inhabits the role with insouciant style, seemingly channeling Will Smith with a dash of Rex Harrington. The tongue-in-cheek travelling montage is hilarious and sets him up perfectly as the hero to be caught – and to be wary of.

When female lead Tatyana, played by Hailey Gillis, meets him, she falls in love immediately – and Gillis is so transparent in her emotions that she takes us with her every step of the way. In all versions of the story Tatyana’s ‘letter writing scene’, where she decides that in spite of all common sense she is going to write to Onegin to tell him that she loves him, is central. In the musical it becomes the heart of the story, in the form of Tatyana’s brilliantly performed, six-minute song “Let me die.” Gladstone and Hille’s stated goal of creating a song that “could be sung by a teenager today” was met completely, Tatyana even picking up and playing a guitar part way through, as any modern teenager in the throes of first love might do.

The tragedy begins with Onegin turning down Tatyana, telling her that “marriage is not for him, although if it were, she would be the one he would choose.” It gets worse when, out of pique, he flirts with her sister Olga, the fiancée of his best friend Lensky, leading in turn to Lensky challenging Onegin to a fatal duel.

Up to this point I was completely captivated by the story and performance and expected to have my heart thoroughly broken in the second half. Somehow, however, the final quarter of the show, where Onegin meets Tatyana again, did not have the effect on me that I expected. Looking back I think it may have been a result of the direction of the title character – or perhaps, missing material. In the ballet version of the story, Onegin has powerful melancholic solos that make achingly clear his sorrow and emptiness after Lensky’s death. While the musical gives Onegin moments to express this, there wasn’t ever a full song where we were given a personal connection with his pain.

What does almost work is the reprise and turnabout of “Let me die,” now sung by Onegin as he writes to Tatyana helplessly declaring his love for her while she, now married to another man, agonizingly turns him down. Gillis does a lovely job of showing us a Tatyana who has matured into an elegant woman with beauty and poise, who almost gives way to her reawakened love for Onegin – but again, there was something missing in the balance of the scene so that it felt more her story than his and not an equal tragedy.

Those caveats aside, this is a wonderfully energetic, young indie-rock version of Onegin that deserves a longer life. I left feeling a bit unsatisfied but still impressed and affected strongly enough by the show as a whole to buy the cast album on my way out. It will be interesting to see how this Onegin fares as it goes out in the world to other theatres, beginning with this production’s next stop at the 900-seat theatre of the National Arts Centre. It needs some tweaking in my opinion, but with that it should have a long life as the latest theatrical version of a beloved tragic story.

Porgy and Bess In Concert at Soulpepper, June 2

Troy Adams, Neema Bickersteth, Thom Allison, Jackie Richardson, Walter Borden and Alana Bridgewater, in Porgy and Bess In Concert. Photo credit: Daniel Malavasi.Also on my “must-see” list was Porgy and Bess in Concert, presented by Soulpepper for a very short run in the Baille Theatre. This was a very different case of a classic revisited: not a new version of a classic, but rather a new showcase for parts of it.

Again a tragic tale of love found and then lost, the glory of Porgy and Bess is the Gershwin score. Who has not heard some version of the lullaby “Summertime,” the biggest break-out hit song? Other songs are equally ensconced in the musical theatre canon: “I Loves You, Porgy”, “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”, “There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and more.

From the beginning, Porgy and Bess  has proven to be – as director  Mumbi Tindyebwa writes in his program notes – “a lightning rod for conversations around race and representation in the arts, questions that are very much alive in our artistic community today.” Gershwin famously insisted on having a fully African-American cast for his 1935 Broadway premiere, refusing to allow any company to perform it in “blackface”. There has also been some discomfort with the story itself being seen as a stereotypical depiction of African-American life. Both issues were addressed in the format of this production. Although advertised as Porgy and Bess in Concert, it was actually at once both less and more than that. It was not the full musical presented in concert format, but rather a selection of the main numbers along with other songs popular at the time of the show’s writing. Narrated by Walter Borden (from a script written by Richard Ouzounian), the framework provided interesting information on the original inspiration for the material, as well as its development from folk songs, to the novel and play by Dubose Heyward, to the musical/opera by George and Ira Gershwin.

Performing the songs in a tight jazz/blues quartet were some of Toronto’s top jazz, blues and gospel performers: Troy Adams, Thom Allison, Neema Bickersteth, Alana Bridgewater, and Jackie Richardson. While the singers were all strong, I wish they had not relied so heavily on microphones instead of letting their voices soar in the great ballads and duets of what is essentially, and was originally meant to be, an opera.

It was an informative and enjoyable evening, though not exactly what I had been expecting. Perhaps the title should have been something more along the lines of “Exploring Porgy and Bess in Concert.” There is a growing appetite across North America, if not also further afield, for concerts that incorporate a scripted framework with some staging and visual elements. One need only look at the success of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series, which explores the inspiration behind various symphonic works, or closer to home, Alison Mackay’s scripted shows created for Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. The “in concert format” is also an inexpensive way to keep older and more obscure musicals in the public eye and happily, Soulpepper has promised more concerts in this style in upcoming seasons.

A Streetcar Named Desire, John Neumeier. National Ballet of Canada, June 19 at the Four Seasons Centre

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo credit: Karolina Kuras.Of the three “classics revisited” last month, this was the most recent classic, though a revisiting from the 1980s, and also – to me – the least successful of the three. Iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire is a revered classic of the American Theatre, and though less universal than the other two, equally a tragic tale of love and lives lost,  known so well from its great impact and success on both stage and film. Who doesn’t know the famous quote of Marlon Brando agonizingly yelling “Stella!”?

There have been a number of ballet versions of the play, but this seems to be the only one that is not a straightforward retelling and instead a comment upon, or reaction to, the original material, as choreographer John Neumeier has said himself in interviews. His primary departure from the original play is to create an entirely new first act, where Blanche, from a bare iron bed in a sanitarium, revisits her past. In a sequence that feels much too long and vague we are shown the beginning of the tragic downturn of her life on the discovery that her husband is in love with another man, followed by his suicide and the decline and fall of her family. It’s an interesting idea but not totally successful, and not helped by the presence of three men in and on and around the bed with Blanche, clearly not part of the wedding or family scene but not clearly belonging anywhere else except, perhaps, in her mind, which ultimately is what we are supposed to realize. Accompanying this act are sparse recorded solo piano pieces by Prokofiev,   simple and enigmatic.

In the second act of the ballet, Neumeier returns to the well-known plot of the play, with Blanche visiting her sister Stella, now married to Stanley Kowalski, in New Orleans. The music choice here was completely apt, switching from the more romantic Prokofiev to the jarring and jazzy music of Alfred Schnittke, which the choreographer has said he found perfect for his purposes. Here we see Blanche trying to orient herself to the very different, rougher, modern, working-class style of life that she finds there.

Less dreamy than the first act, the action is faster but still lingers a bit too long in various parts: the boxing scene with Stanley and Mitch for example, and particularly the uncomfortably long and explicit yet stylized rape sequence. These scenes also felt dated for me, and would probably be choreographed quite differently today, even if by the same choreographer. The most effective scene I found was the heartbreaking pas de deux sequence between Blanche and Mitch that begins with a shy presentation of roses, grows to an increasingly romantic sharing of possibility, and then degenerates – after the interruption by Stanley “telling” Mitch of Blanche’s past – into Mitch leaving Blanche broken and in despair. Piotr Stanczyk was in good form as a strident and masculine Stanley, Svetlana Lunkina was delicate and fragile as Blanche, but the standout performance for me was Donald Thom as Mitch, elevating this secondary part into a new revelation of character and story – a striking example of how, in all three of these shows, a classic narrative can be reimagined and redefined with each new production and performance.

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.


Sean Catheroy (left) and Teresa Tucci, in SOLT’s 2016 production of the opera A Tale of Two Cities.Summertime in Ontario is notorious for being the operatic off-season—but these days that’s far from the truth. While it may be true that the region’s largest opera houses more-or-less adhere to a conventional September-to-May season, an increasing number of local opera companies are making adventurous summertime programming a part of what they do. And in the last few years, those companies have really come into their own.

Summer Opera Lyric Theatre is one example. While it’s been around as a summer opera workshop for emerging artists since the 1980s, it has increasingly been turning its focus towards creating productions that feel fresh and relevant for local audiences. This season, SOLT’s roster of emerging opera singers will present three productions, between July 29 and August 6: Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and a Canadian double-bill—John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus, paired with Michael Rose’s new one-act opera, Northern Lights Dream.

Part of what makes this year special is that all four operas—including the Bizet and the Mozart—will be sung in English. Also of note is Rose’s Northern Lights Dream, which, in addition to drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will explore queer themes.

“The Rose work—a one act piece—is a world premiere, [and] deals with the coming out of a mature gay man and the effect it has on his wife,” says Henry Ingram, who is on faculty at SOLT. He adds that coming-out stories that examine the experience of spouses are rarely told in the arts, especially in opera—but that operas that centre queer narratives have recently been gaining visibility. “Brokeback Mountain, Les Feluettes, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met and Rufus Wainwright’s commission for the COC on the Roman Emperor Hadrian are several examples that come immediately to mind,” he says. It all reflects how SOLT plans to use the summer—a time when it can be tempting for arts presenters to retreat to conservative, ‘back-to-basics’ programming—to experiment, and to create programming that reflects the language, concerns and interests of contemporary local audiences.

Of course, when it comes to the summertime reinvention of contemporary opera, one indie opera company is king. After a summer in eastern Canada last year to premiere the Alexander Graham Bell opera The Bells of Baddeck, Bicycle Opera is back, with one of its biggest projects to date. Starting July 15, the company will embark on a three-week bicycle tour with the premiere of Sweat, an a cappella, one-act opera by composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton—an ambitious departure from the company’s usual practice of touring collections of very short single-scene operas and opera excerpts. Featuring four soloists (Stephanie Tritchew, Catherine Daniel, Larissa Koniuk and Keith Lam) as well as a five-member chorus, Sweat explores the ethical issues behind the global garment industry. The company’s tour begins in Hamilton and includes stops throughout southern Ontario, closing in Toronto from August 3 to 6.

With both these productions, it seems as though this is the year that the companies have hit their stride—creating ambitious, large-scale works that feel relevant and refreshing, in the way that all summer music should be.

For a full overview of local opera this summer, see Christopher Hoile’s June opera column, which serves as a helpful reference for productions taking place across the region from now until the fall.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

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