The Seven Deadly Sins at the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.What a treat to hear Wallis Giunta sing Anna I and to watch Jennifer Nichols dance Anna II, to experience them playing two exquisite halves of a whole. Their plight was the centrepiece of last night’s concert at the TSO, in a semi-staged version of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins that documents the seven-year, seven-city trek that two ‘sisters’ undertake to make enough money to build the “little house in Louisiana” that is everything their family wants.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally envisioned as a “ballet chantée” – a “sung ballet” with a full ballet company as well as singers and a leading dancer, telling the story of two sisters (or are they?) encountering the seven deadly sins in seven American cities as they strive to raise money for their family. Last night’s semi-staged version, directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by his frequent collaborator Jennifer Nichols, did a very clever job of having the four male singers take on the roles usually performed by dancers as well as their own characters of the “family” (father, mother and two brothers). As Nichols had earlier told me (and as she explains in the program notes), her approach to the choreography was “to find a way to express that the family of Anna does not simply sit outside of her in judgment but are an extension of her own self-examination, her hopes and fears.” This, added to the usual interchangeability of Anna I and II in spite of the divided sides of her personality, led to a very interesting new take on the piece. The four male singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Stephen Hegedus and Geoffrey Sirett) proved admirable actors and performers of the choreography and staging – Geoffrey Sirett standing out in a moving pas de deux with Nichols in the “Lust” chapter.

Giunta and Nichols also blended seamlessly – Giunta moving like a dancer as well as acting powerfully, and Nichols also acting wonderfully while dancing and speaking. Looking almost identical but subtly differentiating themselves more and more throughout the piece, practical Anna I (Giunta) became more and more hardened to the “practical necessities” of the world while the ”she is an artist” Anna II (Nichols) grew more vulnerable and beaten up from fighting impossible fights. The pair’s repeated refrain (ironic for the audience) of “Nicht wahr, Anna?” (Right, Anna?) and “Ja, Anna” (Yes, Anna) still echoes in my memory, with poor Anna II more and more discouraged even while continuing to agree with her stronger and more soulless half.

The original production in Paris in 1933 was apparently received with some puzzlement, and while The Seven Deadly Sins is considered a modern classic and true to the political values seen in other Brecht/Weill collaborations, watching it tonight I was not surprised that it would have been received that way. The irony in the libretto is sometimes too subtle, sometimes too over the top,  and the sins themselves not easy to depict onstage – perhaps why this work is much more often seen in concert form rather than being fully staged. In this case, though, the semi-staged, choreographed production last night was much more satisfying than a straightforward concert singing of the material would have been.

It was also fascinating to see in this third collaboration of director and choreographer such a seamlessly smooth blending of approach and staging. Perhaps it was my high expectation of these friends and their abilities that made me want even more from the performance – perhaps a more pointed political context given the state of the world today, or another way to give the production more of a contemporary urgency, but that may be just me. Already their work together is reaching new heights and depths, and with the new video element to bookend each chapter of the story (enigmatic, Bergman-esque black-and-white video images created by Jennifer Nichols with Christopher Monetti), they are already exploring new territory. I look forward to seeing their next collaboration, as well as which other semi-staged productions the TSO will make part of future seasons.

Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday, June 14, alongside works by Balfour, Barber and Bartók. A second performance takes place on Thursday, June 15.

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.

Toronto, meet TONE.

Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who opens the first concert of TONE. Credit: Jonathan Sielaff.A new undertaking by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, TONE is a newcomer to the local summer festival scene this month. But unlike other festivals this summer, this one focuses exclusively on experimental music—programming a breadth of artists known for their adventurous approach rather than zeroing in on specific genres or styles. And unlike most other first-time projects, TONE—which features no less than eight concerts between June 14 and 29—has a scope that echoes that fearlessness.

In a recent interview with NOW, organizer Tad Michalak talks about how TONE was conceived as a way of filling a void, in a city that often omits experimental music from its summer festival offerings. “Year after year, it got disheartening to see a scene we worked year-round to build and invigorate get ignored by many major festivals,” he explains to NOW’s Carla Gillis. “TONE came about essentially out of necessity.”

If their goal was to do something about the dearth of summertime avant-garde music in Toronto, then TONE is a promising start. The festival features several sets of improvised music from both local and international artists, and aligns itself with some of the most active local venues for experimental music in the city. Acclaimed Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani opens the festival tonight (Wednesday, June 14) at the Tranzac, with other concerts taking place there in the following weeks, as well as at the Burdock, Array Space, the Jam Factory, and Ratio—which, having just announced its closure as a music venue, will present a TONE show on Saturday, June 24 as its last-ever concert.

Apart from a mandate for supporting experimental music, the TONE team—each of whom has a wealth of experience running music collectives and curating experimental music of one kind or another during the regular Toronto concert season—has been intentionally indiscriminate about genre. It means, ultimately, that among fans of the avant-garde, there really is something for everybody. Beyond opening night and the Ratio show, other standouts in the festival lineup include a three-set show co-presented with the Music Gallery on Thursday, June 15, featuring groups DKV, Icepick, and Invisible Out; an appearance by Berlin-based pianist Achim Kaufmann’s trio Grünen at Array on Monday, June 19 (in a double-bill with local group The Cluttertones); and a co-presentation with Electric Eclectics on Wednesday, June 21 at the Jam Factory, which opens with a performance by Ethiopian jazz accordion virtuoso Hailu Mergia.

Tickets range between $10 and $22 per show, with a 4-show pass available for $45 and a full festival pass available for $85—all of which are available at the door or in advance at Circus Books & Music, Rotate This, and Soundscapes.

Congrats to TONE for being bold, for making a plan for re-invigorating the summer experimental music scene, and for making it happen.

TONE, curated by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, runs from June 14 to 29 in multiple locations throughout Toronto. For details, visit

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Erin Stone, from the cast of Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Credit: Dahlia Katz Photography.Opera is no stranger to onstage ridiculousness—but it isn’t always as slyly self-aware as this.

Following its inaugural show of the same name in July 2015, Loose TEA Music Theatre is back with a new installment of opera improv series Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Inspired by the popular improv comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, Loose TEA’s production strings together improv comedy games into an opera of sorts, where professionals from the local opera community are forced to put their vocal and theatrical talents to comedic, and unexpected, use.

The show, which is organized by Loose TEA’s artistic director Alaina Viau and coached by Carly Heffernen of Second City, takes place on Friday, June 16, at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto. The cast itself is a promising cross-section of local opera singers, including Jeff Boyd, Amanda Cogan, Adanya Dunn, Gillian Grossman, Rachel Krehm, Jonathan MacArthur, Erin Stone and Lindsay Sutherland-Boal. Schmopera’s Greg Finney will host and Natasha Fransblow will accompany at the piano.

Loose TEA isn’t the only group experimenting with musical manifestations of improv comedy, either. Also in town this month from London’s West End is Showstopper!, an improvised musical comedy running at the Panasonic Theatre until June 25. The show features a troupe of musical comedians billed as ‘The Showstoppers’, who, similar to Whose Line, use audience suggestions to create an on-the-spot performance of musical theatre. While the show has toured extensively in the UK, this Mirvish-hosted run is the group’s North American debut.

Whether these shows represent a growing trend or simply coincidental offshoots into music theatre’s less serious side remains to be seen. And though it’s of course impossible to say exactly what these shows will offer, the mix of operatic and musical tropes with improv comedy is an interesting one, which pokes fun at the melodrama of music theatre while offering something more casual, spontaneous and light-spirited than your average Verdi or Wagner. A bit of a collision of worlds, perhaps, but one that makes sense—and one worth watching.

Loose TEA Music Theatre’s Whose Opera is it Anyway?! takes place at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto on Friday, June 16 at 9:30pm, and is a 19+ show. Tickets are $12; for details visit Showstopper! runs until June 25 at the Panasonic Theatre; more info at

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

John Cage in 1981, “Music is an act of aspiration,” claimed historical novelist Rose Tremain (Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata) in her Writers & Company (June 4, 2017) CBC radio interview. And aspiration was also at the top of American iconoclast composer John Cage’s list of research topics when he set to work on his CBC commission for a work, in Cage’s words, to “observe the bicentennial of the United States of America.”

The composer tells us in his pre-recorded, self-narrated Preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975), played back before each performance, that the  “first thing I thought of doing in relation to this work was to find an anthology of American aspirational thought and subject it to chance operations.” His motive was transformational: “I thought the resultant complex would help to change our present intellectual climate.” Unfortunately, no such anthology existed, he tells us.

This compellingly rich yet provocative Cage work received a rare and thought-provoking concert performance on May 28, by the Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble at the Great Hall in Toronto.

It was the keystone work of a concert which included works by American minimalist Philip Glass (Tissue # 1, 2, 7, 2002) and Canadian postmodernist Michael Oesterle (Daydream Mechanics for string quartet, 2001). The concert was the centrepiece of the evening, which also included, in other Great Hall rooms, Becoming Sensor, a multi-sensory installation by Natasha Myers, Ayelen Liberona, Allison Cameron, Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray; and The Great Arc by the New York City duo Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna. All of these Music in the Barns events were created for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research conference titled Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World, held in Toronto the last week in May.

One of Lecture on the Weather’s most significant – and perhaps challenging – features is the work’s essentially multimedia and highly collaborative nature. It is a result of the collaborative processes set up by the composer to include his own text, texts by Henry David Thoreau (from which Cage selected relevant sections, filtered through I Ching procedures), recordings of environmental sounds produced by American composer Maryanne Amacher, plus a film by Chilean visual artist Luis Frangella using Thoreau’s drawings. As for live performers, the score calls for 12 expatriate “vocalists and/or players” with independent sound systems, each “given an equalization distinguishing it from the others” – emphasizing Cage’s socio-political agenda in the piece.

As far as I could tell, those stipulations were adhered to in Music in the Barns’ recent performance. The Music in the Barns performance also included composer Jim Montgomery, who also served as performer at the work’s premiere in 1976 – a nice touch of continuity.

On one level, Lecture on the Weather is an homage to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy, words and drawings. A New England transcendentalist writer and naturalist, much of the nature sounds reflected in Thoreau’s work are represented in Cage’s piece. On the other hand, the methodology of Lecture on the Weather conforms to well-established Cagean practices of that period, such as employing I Ching divination to determine compositional choices, as well as a tip of the hat to his own back catalogue in the form of his most iconic work 4’33”: the durational range each speaker-vocalist is given is determined by multiples of 4’33”.

The work also serves as a radical personal political statement, an incisive critique of his home country’s place in the world. Cage concludes the first section of his Preface by linking the corruption of the laws of the land when it “concentrates its energy on protecting the rich from the poor” to leadership lacking in “not only aspiration but intelligence (as in the work of Buckminster Fuller) and conscience (as in the thought of Thoreau).”

Lecture on the Weather has long been recognized as the most overtly political of Cage’s oeuvre. It points fingers, raises questions. It is part polemical lecture, part experimental film, theatrical performance, part environmental sound poem. It is problematic (and problematizing) to the bone. And – as the compelling Music in the Barns performance on May 28 demonstrates – that is why it’s still as relevant today as the day it was first performed.

Lecture on the Weather was presented by Music in the Barns on Sunday, May 28 at the Great Hall in Toronto, as part of a series of works presented for the conference Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World. For those curious about the deep backstory of this work’s commission, I recommend David Jaeger’s first-person account in his October 26, 2016 WholeNote article.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

annes cropped finalSt. Anne’s Anglican Church is a beautiful, welcoming environment in which to hear a performance. Entering the church on Sunday, May 28, I was greeted with an exhibition of Indigenous artists, on the theme of reconciliation. The first piece I noticed was a striking silk dress with a subtly integrated traditional star quilt pattern created by designer and artist Sage Paul. Placed about the auditorium are other works of art, including paintings and a beautiful birch bark canoe. Beyond that, in front of the altar, the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (ECCG) was assembled to add its musical voice to the conversation.

St. Anne’s ensemble-in-residence, the Junction Trio, opened the concert – titled “Post-Industrial Gamelan!” – with a Haydn divertimento, and the St. Anne’s Choir further quieted the mood with Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and Canadian composer Rupert Lang’s Kontakion.

After the release of two new recordings recently, the ECCG returned to more familiar territory for this performance. They began their portion of the set with a staple of the group’s repertoire, Anjeun (you), by the late Indonesian composer Nano Suratno. The piece was a pop hit in Indonesia in the 90s, but is a much subtler composition than any of the pop versions would have you believe, and is also a great introduction to the degung orchestra (and the ECCG is first and foremost that).

Rengga Renggi by Burhan Sukarma (arranged by ECCG member Bill Parsons) featured a lively section of “trading fours” between hand drums and other percussion, an energetic highlight of the performance.

Another mainstay of the ECCG repertoire, Lou Harrison’s Ibu Trish, a gently contemplative piece, was well suited to the ambience of the room. Canadian film composer Paul Intson’s Rainforest rounded out the program as the least traditional-sounding piece, full of melodic and rhythmic twists and turns, and fully utilizing the timbral possibilities in the gamelan.

The ECCG’s part of the program came to a close with a loosely-structured vehicle for joint improvisation between the gamelan and the Junction Trio. No one really took any risks, but the tremolos and long tones made for a gentle landing at the end of the program. In all, a subtly diverse set of compositions played with a relaxed familiarity, giving evidence to the ECCG’s long history of working together.

I feel compelled to commend St. Anne’s for its annual series of diverse programming, and even more so for its series of events on the theme of reconciliation (the current art exhibit but one of many this year). The concert performance of the ECCG, Junction Trio and St. Anne's Choir proved a powerful example of the diversity of music on offer at this venue. And as for the art exhibit that set the tone for afternoon, I was reminded, first, of the systematic persecution of local Indigenous communities, and second, of the Louis Riel quote: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

"Post-Industrial Gamelan! took place on Sunday, May 28 at 2pm, at St. Anne's Anglican Church in Toronto.

John Carnes is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, jewellery designer and skateboarder.

Jonathan Crow. Photo by Bryson WinchesterIs Toronto Summer Music (TSM) going to be an excuse for you to hang out with friends? It was a question that came up early in this late April 2017 conversation with TSO concertmaster, New Orford String Quartet violinist and U of T associate professor Jonathan Crow, who was in our studio to speak with us mostly about his new role as the third artistic director of TSM. (WholeNote publisher David Perlman and managing editor Paul Ennis are asking the questions.)

To hear the full conversation with Jonathan Crow click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to for the entire list.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

The Toronto Bach Festival performance of the St Mark Passion. Photo by the author.Toronto has a thing for early music. Audiences in this city can’t seem to get enough of baroque-era music, including chamber, orchestra, choral and opera works. Into this community, there’s a new festival in town: the Toronto Bach Festival, running this year from May 26 to 28. Just concluding their second year, a third is already on the books for 2018. Celebrated historical oboe specialist John Abberger is the festival’s artistic director. Focusing on all things Bach, early music lovers in this city have much reason to support this venture.

The festival is based out of the Anglican Church of St. Barnabas on the Danforth – a sizeable church that provides ample room and appropriate acoustics. Three days of programming made up this year’s festival: “Cantatas & Brandenburgs,” featuring a host of local artists well-known to early music audiences including Asitha Tennekoon, Larry Beckwith, and Brett Polegato; a harpsichord recital by Christopher Bagan, known for his extensive work with Tafelmusik and the Canadian Opera Company, amongst many others; and a finale performance of the St Mark Passion. Many of the instrumentalists involved come from various Toronto-based early music groups, including the Theatre of Early Music, Tafelmusik and Opera Atelier.

The biggest work featured was the final Sunday concert, the St Mark Passion. Featuring Asitha Tennekoon in the very-hardworking role of the Evangelist, familiar faces Daniel Taylor and Agnes Zsigovics were also soloists. Joined by a small chorale of nine voices, this was an intimate performance, incredibly well-executed.

Bach’s original score for this work does not survive in full to present-day; this performance followed the reconstruction by musicologist Simon Heighes. St Mark Passion is one of those examples of a historical relic that has come to us in very different shapes and sounds over the centuries. I know that there are many opinions amongst early music lovers about stringency to source material and performance practice of this piece – yet I won’t try to be a Bach historian myself and delve into the intricacies of editorial decisions made in this particular performance. This was a beautiful delivery of music from Bach, even if it has passed through many hands in between.

The assembled musical forces were small but mighty. The orchestra was spirited and played very well for the choir, who took the lead with energy and artistry. The nine voices blended together seamlessly and should perform together regularly. Tennekoon’s Evangelist was exceptionally well-delivered and a feat of endurance, as he performed probably close to half of the sung material in the entire work. Various solos throughout the performance were equally well-executed, including Brett Polegato’s effortless but emotional “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)

Bach’s St Mark Passion is not often performed because it is considered incomplete. The piecemeal assembly of this work makes it all seem a bit mismatched, unlike the superior Mass in B Minor or the Christmas Oratorio. Roseen Giles, in the program notes, provides us with an answer why this is so. Bach frequently reused his work, written in different contexts for different reasons, assembling them into “parodies”. Almost all the choruses are church hymns, from performances during Lutheran ceremonies. There are hymns that make an appearance throughout the work in the Heighes version, including “Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), the great Lutheran anthem. But this tune was not written by Bach, but rather, Martin Luther. “Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (O Sacred head, now wounded) makes an appearance as the last part of Act I, also written centuries before Bach, but with different text. A greater historian than I will have to explain why this might be and the relevance of these disparate hymns in this work.

Regardless of the history, this type of elite-level performance is unique to the choral world of Toronto. Early music is big here and certainly has an audience. But, with early music ensembles and audiences very much a homogenous group, I can’t help but wonder who this music is meant for – and how its reach can extend further beyond those already active in the scene.

The final performance of the Toronto Bach Festival, of Bach’s St Mark Passion, took place on May 28 at the Church of St. Barnabas on the Danforth in Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to


Composer Samy Moussa.21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.

D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.

Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.

Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of  heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?

But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird's eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.

Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to


Johannes Debus.Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, speaks about his orchestra with love at a May 24 post-concert chat. “This great orchestra deserves to be onstage,” he says. The orchestra is one of the finest in the country, but is almost always in the pit of the Four Seasons Centre, barely visible to audiences. As part of 21C, the Royal Conservatory’s new music festival running May 24 to 28, the COC orchestra was onstage at Koerner Hall, fully visible and remarkable as always.

Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Conservatory, is thrilled that the COC orchestra has appeared at Koerner Hall. What began as a phone call led to this concert, which featured mostly Canadian works as well as music by Unsuk Chin – the South Korean, Berlin-based composer whose work is the focus of much of this year’s festival. The performance marked the festival’s opening night.

“I tried to put together a menu that offers many flavours,” says Debus, who selected the concert program so as to bring out different themes within new music (rather than focusing ‘newness’ alone). American composer and poet Matthew Aucoin’s work The Orphic Moment had its Canadian premiere. The unusual choice of only one player in each of the 1st and 2nd violins and one viola was an odd pairing for the robust percussion demanded by the piece. The mallets featured prominently, played with athletic effectiveness by the musicians, dashing about onstage. The overall effect of this song was unnerving and creepy – not unsurprisingly, as it is meant to invoke a journey to the underworld.

Canadian composer Samy Moussa, whose piece Kammerkonzert was also on the program, was in town to catch the concert. A resident of Berlin for the last 10 years, he told the audience in the post-concert chat that Kammerkonzert was one of the last pieces he wrote before he left Canada. He reflects that his music since then has “become softer, more lyrical.” Kammerkonzert was chosen by Debus, who described it as an obvious choice for a new music concert. The compositional techniques at play, especially the numerous slides and pitch bends, make the piece interesting and exciting to listen to. It’s also not often that one sees a bass flute in action.

Unsuk Chin will later be featured in 21C with Soundstreams in the festival-closing concert, and was represented here by her piece snagS&Snarls, based on Alice in Wonderland. Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano, provided a spirited, comical, and articulate performance. Her charismatic acting livened the work. Debus programmed Chin’s work not only because he knew she would be featured at the festival, but also because he describes her music as having “a sparkle…and a sense of humour.”

Debus chose Canadian composer Brian Current to open and close the concert. The opening was a new commission, the 2nd movement of the River of Light song cycle Current is aiming to complete in 2018. Naka is the Tłįchǫ word for the northern lights, and references Dene traditions from the Northwest Territories. Current’s inspiration has been the universal “fascination with transfiguration of light” common in most world religions. Naka opened the concert, preceded by drum thunder and the Canadian national anthem sung in Tłįchǫ by elders and members of the Tłįchǫ First Nation, who visited from the Northwest Territories. It also felt incredibly appropriate to have an Indigenous land acknowledgement read out by Mehta prior to the start of the performance.

The Elmer Iseler Singers excelled in both of Current’s works. Naka demanded their full attention and talent, requiring them to learn Tłįchǫ accurately from Elder Rosa Mantla. At times with open harmonics and swoops, the choir often evoked the northern lights themselves, providing ethereal, complex sounds at times. Positioned in the loft, physically above the orchestra, they seemed to be singing down into the world. The singers, with Lydia Adams at the helm, have consistently proven themselves the definitive choir for new and diverse music.

The closing piece was The Seven Heavenly Halls, the opening movement of the River of Light song cycle. Andrew Haji, tenor, was bright and expressive as the pilgrim journeying through the halls described in the Zohar. Special commendations go to the percussion players, who had more than enough work cut out for them. All of these songs included a fair amount of percussion work. The Seven Heavenly Halls in particular included three sets of steel pans, bells played with violin bows, sound tubes, and much more.

There is a powerful capacity for music to have difficult conversations about the relationship between newcomers, longtime Canadians and Indigenous peoples in this country. Richard Van Camp, a Tłı̨chǫ writer who served as librettist and narrator for the work, said it best: “What a perfect Canadian evening. This is how it’s done…when we listen and learn from one another.” With a little more intentionality and openness, opportunities like this can be the transformative light we so desperately need.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus, performed at the opening of the fourth annual 21C Festival at the Royal Conservatory of Music, joined by Emily D’Angelo (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Haji (tenor), Richard Van Camp (librettist and narrator), Elder Rosa Mantla, other members of the Tłįchǫ First Nation, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the 21C Ensemble, on Wednesday, May 24, 8pm at Koerner Hall in Toronto.

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The NSO, Chorus Niagara, and soloists in performance on May 21. Photo credit: Robert Nowell.Sometimes, there is nothing better I can say about a performance than thank you. For the inspired interpretation, the energetic musicianship, the blended mustering of forces, and a musical alignment that allows a performance to be exceptional – thank you to the NSO, soloists, and Chorus Niagara.

On Sunday, May 21, the combined ensembles brought a deep satisfaction to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, providing an interpretation that was lively, proficient, and moving. Mahler’s 2nd is not the type of piece that a musician shows up to and taps away at; more often than not, it requires a depth of understanding and connection in order to journey. Mahler is unique in his ability to compositionally build and carefully deemphasize. The NSO showed itself very capable of providing this connection. Bradley Thachuk, conductor of the NSO, showed great control and expression in his work.

The first movement was disciplined and contained. It is also a big movement, with portions that rival the explosive final movement. It is easy for an ensemble to lose itself in the texture of Mahler and forget that there is much more to come. Thachuk’s tempi and spirited conducting kept the NSO moving briskly without stumbling. The last movement, in my opinion, is truly one of the most moving, devastating and triumphant pieces of music ever written. The NSO did not disappoint – in fact, they elevated this music with great soul. There are several solos and features throughout the entire work – too many to mention individually. They were all well-executed, from piccolo- and flute-bird singing, to the harp at the end of the Andante, to the clarinet Scherzo; to the trombone-and-tuba funeral dirge. There was much to like about this performance.

The vocal soloists provided masterful integration throughout the texture of the work while providing the necessary energy to drive the lines above the large orchestra and choir. Allyson McHardy’s mezzo-soprano was warm and inviting. She began the fourth movement with the gentle caress of her voice. Her interpretation of the fifth-movement text “Dein ist, ja dein” was strong and certain. The duet near the end of the fifth movement combined Allyson’s mezzo with soprano Lida Szkwarek. Szkwarek was light and her voice matched perfectly with the voices of Chorus Niagara, providing a delicate highlight instead of a glaring solo. Her measured control and emotional delivery were most delightful. When combined, the two soloists provided an exhilarating rush that drove into the choir with their final minutes of rising power.

My one reservation about this performance was the crash cymbals. In the 2nd, Mahler uses these to great effect at the start and end of his biggest moments. There are few sounds that evoke waves of crushing sound quite like crash cymbals. The standard cymbals in this performance could have easily been doubled for greater effect, allowing that extra bit of sonic disturbance to drive those quintessentially Mahleresque moments of devastating catastrophe.

Chorus Niagara was articulate and balanced. The choir provided a powerful accompaniment to the large orchestra, never feeling buried or missing. Their German was on point and very audible. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is a wonderful venue that allowed the choir to excel. Bob Cooper, conductor of Chorus Niagara, is well-known and well-versed in choral music, and his preparation was very evident. Mahler’s 2nd is notoriously absent of vocal music until the mezzo-soprano solo in movement 4, and even in the choral movement, no. 5, there is no singing until about almost half way through – but the final ten minutes of the work are transcendent because of the choral writing. Chorus Niagara managed to start singing after all this time with great blend and intonation, providing an inviting sound. Not only adding to the thickness of the orchestrations and density of the sound, Mahler’s choral lines, sung aptly by Chorus Niagara, provided the music at this moment with a visceral human quality.

At the end of this work, with its driving force of choral and orchestral power, I could not help but feel changed by the experience. The NSO is a gem to enjoy and continue to watch. As they head to their 70th anniversary season, I’ll be sure to trek out to FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre again soon. I think you should too.

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra presented Arise!, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection,” with Alyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano), Lida Szkwarek (soprano), Chorus Niagara and guest choristers (with conductor Robert Cooper), on Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

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