Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.Rory McLeod. Credit: Bo Huang.The audience finds the experience invigorating. Violist Rory McLeod, co-director of Pocket Concerts, finds that when people experience music in the intense environment and intimacy of a private home they feel a deeper connection not only to the music but also to the musicians and fellow audience members.

Sunday afternoon, February 26, found me in a downtown condo along with 30 others packed cozily into a sun-soaked living room in the shadow of St. James Cathedral. What better place to hear Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording,” the Soviet-born violinist and arranger wrote. “For two months I probably had the time of my life, musically speaking, being in the constant company of Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould.” And if there is one piece of classical music that has served as a signpost for Canadians in the last six decades, it is the Goldberg Variations.

TSO violinist Carol Fujino along with violist McLeod and cellist Bryan Holt (freelance musicians fresh from a Götterdämmerung gig as part of the COC Orchestra the night before) have been working on the Bach since last November; Sunday’s concert marked their third public performance of it.

Emily Rho. Credit: Bo Huang.

McLeod’s domestic partner and Pocket Concerts’ co-director pianist Emily Rho introduced the trio with a refreshing informality. She pointed out that our convivial host, who had welcomed us so warmly to his home, was also an amateur cellist who studied with Holt. McLeod said a few words about Sitkovetsky and the music, paying particular attention to an explanation of the nine canons (and one quodlibet) that were a feature of every third variation. Then Rho led us in a brief breathing exercise to focus our attention, asking us to open our eyes the moment we heard the first notes of the famous Aria that begins and ends the Variations.

The intensity of those first notes was palpable as sound filled the physical space, the playing lively, the bright acoustic amplifying the energy. The trio arrangement, replete with ingenuity, seemed to make the music more transparent. The different timbres of the three instruments helped reveal the depth of character inherent in the music and brought clarity to the polyphonic lines, illuminating intricacies that only the best keyboard players are capable of unearthing.

The informality of the setting allowed McLeod to point out the first two canons just before they were to be played and to comment on how fortunate we all were that the ringing of the cathedral bells began during a brief pause between variations. And after the trio needed to start Variation 13 over again, McLeod simply said, “it’s okay, we’re among friends.”

Pocket Concerts’ format is able to break down the perceived barriers between musicians and their audience; the post-concert reception is an important part of that process. It’s an opportunity for the audience and the musicians to get to know each other, talk about the music or other things. McLeod told me that what he finds most gratifying about his Pocket Concerts experience is bringing music to people unfamiliar with classical music. McLeod and Rho met nine years ago in Sonata Class at the Glenn Gould School. They’re both alumni of Toronto Summer Music (she twice, he thrice). Sunday’s concert was the 48th Pocket Concert (of which 18 have been private) since the first one in August of 2013. The next, on March 25 and back by popular demand, features violinist Csaba Koczó with Rho on piano, performing Beethoven’s immortal Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 "Kreutzer" and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108.

Take advantage of the chance to experience music like you’ve never done before.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

There are nine microphones and six monitors on the stage, that’s it. It’s Spartan with all of the wires neatly wound, lined up and bound. The nine men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo come onto the stage like a football team to cheers, applause and with an energy that leads straight into song. There is so much energy on stage the audience can’t help but get involved. It’s too bad the best you can get out of the usual stodgy Toronto audience is a polite clap. Ladysmith Black Mambazo presented a fine performance. Audiences in Kingston, London and St Catherines still have an opportunity to see them in action in the coming days. The group’s Toronto engagement at Koerner Hall was sold out.

Founder Joseph Shabalala isn’t with the group on this particular tour, but four of his sons are. Two members of the group are singled out for long service, the Mazibuko brothers. Albert has sung with the group since 1969, Abednego since 1974. The group pays tribute to them for “paving the way.” Their stories in between songs help warm the audience to their music.

The consonance and warmth of the sound was incredibly pleasing. The lead singer stays in tonality as the group plays with the melody, but the warmth of the sound comes from the eight other voices who share in tonic, mediant, dominant and octave. The modes of these relative intervals make the sound distinctively consonant. The effect with all-male voices contributes even more to this solidity in the sound. It makes for a sound like a warm sunset at the end of a vacation day, or the first sip of a fresh dark roast coffee after a huge meal.

Most of the songs of the evening are from the group’s newest CD, the Grammy nominee Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers. Nelson Mandela described Ladysmith Black Mambazo as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.” They paid tribute to the great man, well-loved in Toronto as well, with their song Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a remarkably bare piece with these lovely, well-measured swoops into the starts of lines. There are few words and they repeat a powerful message: “Let us work, and work together. Long way. Long walk to freedom.”

The songs are quite Spartan, repeat lines over and over (“Tough times never last, strong people do”), but they never lose energy and intensity. The ensemble is remarkable in their ability to infuse their songs with story, power it with energy, and steer it with well-rehearsed control. Everything, from inhalations to sound production, is clear and precise. There are many sounds that Toronto audiences don’t hear often like clicks, and throaty hums. Even ornamentations like swoops and dynamics are all neatly lined up, organic and fresh.

And then there’s the choreography. This isn’t tight, ballet-corps dancing, it’s rehearsed but feels fresh and spontaneous. I’m sure some of it truly is spontaneous, and the singers know each other and the dance vocabulary so well they can just pick up and go when someone leads. Their high energy finale gives shape to the music and makes repetition feel different. The repetition gives the dance a place to spring forth. They all dance, they all sing, and they all have a great time.

This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a fully amplified concert at Koerner Hall. The space is capable of carrying voices and these aren’t amateur singers so I was surprised to find them so heavily audio engineered. From my seat in the first balcony, the amplified sound was less than ideal for what Koerner is known for.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 14. They perform February 15 at the Grand Theatre, Kingston; February 16, at the London Music Hall, London; and February 17 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

Toronto Mass Choir BannerToronto Mass Choir - Photo Credit Mike HwangHumility is a beautiful Christian tradition. It’s also an important one in choral music. Gospel music provides an unparallelled media for the connection of soloists, ensemble and audience. It is a balance of humility and important parts that come into equilibrium to make exciting, transformative, and healing music. Toronto has a robust gospel community and it is coalescing for one of the signature gospel music events of the year – Power Up!

Karen Burke is the director of the Juno award-winning Toronto Mass Choir, lead choral teacher for Power Up, and professor of music at York University. In a previous column last spring I featured Karen and the Toronto Mass Choir. She’s all set for this year, “excited and hopeful” (her middle name).

The Toronto Mass Choir leads the workshop at York University, the gospel hub of post-secondary music programming in the GTA (largely due to Burke’s dedication). Now in its 13th year, Power Up brings together 24 top musicians in the city in a variety of workshops. These include, “Conducting: The Art of Gesture” with Karen Burke; “Gospel Keys – Boot Camp” with Corey Butler; “Steelpan: the FUN-damentals” with Josette Leader; and “Vocal Troubleshooting: Targeting vocal issues and working to resolve them” with Dr. Melissa Davis, just to name a few.

Participants join a massed choir that performs on the final day. Younger participants can join in the Youth Choir. Burke helms the choirs which was over 200 singers in size last year. The Toronto Mass Choir doesn’t deny its religious messaging, it’s the core of their work – “To create and perform Gospel music that will draw all people into the awesome presence of God.” Humility also means placing oneself in faith before something greater and more eternal than even we can comprehend.

A choir of soloists does not make for a good ensemble. A choir of humble singers joining together makes a good ensemble. To be a lead singer is not to sing over all the other voices, but to be uplifted by the group to do something different. It is acknowledging that each part is equally as important as yours. The melding of ensemble and soloist is so prevalent in gospel music. It is empowering and supportive for both the soloist and ensemble in a way that helps support and enhance their work. Gospel manages to find a unique balance of the soloist and ensemble.

Gospel music is accessible, unlike many classical choral genres. There are melodies of hope and majesty wrapped in messages of the bible and Christian teachings. Gospel music repeats frequently in text and melody, it includes contemporary instrumentation, it is commonplace on the radio, it blurs genres and disciplines, and it is always high ntensity and exciting. Gospel music is also not just about the performers, its high energy is meant to involve audiences, to inspire faith in others, and to have them holler, sing, chant, scream and make sounds of joy in reaction.

Moreover, gospel music has always been an act of resistance and of forging relationships. “Gospel music is all about making music in community,” says Burke. “If we ever needed unique and dynamic ways to be intentional about ‘making community,’ you can’t find a better medium than gospel music. Think about it. Spirituals, which are the root of today’s contemporary gospel music/choirs, were the survival tool created by slaves who found themselves in a strange land thrown together with people from various tribes.” The relevance in a city as diverse as ours, with its own history of slavery, is especially powerful. She continues: “They shared no common language and individually felt disenfranchised, anonymous and frustrated (to say the least). They worked long hours in a hostile environment and even though they were with people everyday, they felt alone. This is also a general description of what many people, even in our enlightened society, experience everyday.”

There are four other things Karen Burke wants us to know about gospel music in Toronto.

  1. Gospel music has a long heritage not just in the U.S. but in Canada and like our neighbours to the south, the influence of gospel music is heard every day in the music we enjoy on the radio.
  2. Gospel music is very popular around the world including hot spots such as Korea (Heritage Gospel Choir) and Poland (Gospel Joy) and various other countries.
  3. The gospel music community is alive and well in Toronto and, like jazz music, holds within it many award-winning recording artists, a loyal fan base and an active concert scene.
  4. Gospel music is fun to learn and sing together and the fastest way that she know to make a room full of people into a family!

Burke says, “Ask anyone who has ever had the experience of singing in a gospel choir how they feel at the end of the day.  It is a transformative experience.”

The 13th annual Power Up Gospel Music Workshop at York University runs February 23 to 25 with a finale concert on February 26 at Global Kingdom Ministries, Scarborough. 

 Toronto Consort artistic director David Fallis, Marilyn George and Shirley Hay CREDIT Courtesy of Toronto Consort

It’s not often that you learn important aspects about your country’s history while attending a concert.  That was my experience on February 4 when I attended “Kanatha Canada: First Encounters,” the Toronto  Consort’s most recent program. The evening was divided into two halves – the first part a series of short pieces chosen to elucidate the occasion of the “Great Peace” of Montreal in 1701, and the second half a remount of composer John Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia, a work originally premiered in the summer of 2015 that tells a story of early encounters between First Nations people and the European explorers of today’s Ontario. 

The Great Peace of Montreal was a significant event that is instructive to understanding the full scope of the relationship between First Nations in Canada and the European explorers and settlers.  Often we hear only of the destructive European influences on First Nations’ culture, and so it was heartwarming to hear the opening words of the evening spoken by Georges Sioui, a Huron-Wendat historian, activist and songwriter who welcomed the audience and spoke of the principles of love, sharing and mutual respect. 

In the summer of 1701 representatives from 40 First Nations of North America met with the government of New France in Montreal to sign a peace treaty designed to end the wars and atrocities created by a combination of the existing grievances amongst the various tribes and the conflicts caused by the introduction of the French fur trade. The story was told musically by creating a choral documentary in five parts and was a collaboration between First Nations performers Marilyn George, Shirley Hay and Jeremy Dutcher and the Toronto Consort.  Using a series of songs and instrumental pieces from both Indigenous and French sources, the large arc of this significant historical event unfolded.

Jeremy Dutcher. Photo Courtesy of Toronto Consort

A unique highlight was Dutcher’s performance in which he mixed recordings of songs from his Wolastoq ancestors with his live performance on the piano and voice.  These recordings were originally made on wax cylinders found in the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau.  Dutcher digitized the recordings and played them from his laptop perched on the piano.  As the songs progressed, Dutcher added harmonies on the piano to accompany the melody and then eventually sang the song, accompanying himself with extended piano chordal harmonies. Each of his songs was also accompanied by projected images of scenes from the Wolastoq culture. A significant event during the peace process was the death of the Wendat leader Kondiaronk. One of the songs chosen to lament this event was a beautiful heartrending piece found in the music collections of the Ursuline convent in Quebec performed by Toronto Consort’s soprano Katherine Hill.  The overall affect of this weave of vocal and instrumental pieces of both Indigenous and French traditions was a sense of dialogue and exchange between these two cultures, a quality that was certainly present in the early years of the 18th century that led these two people to a great moment of peace. 

The performance of Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia in the second half provided a look at another historical moment of meeting, this time between Champlain and the Wendat people. However, this meeting of cultures did not end well.  Performed by the Toronto Chamber Choir, the Toronto Consort and Indigenous performers Marilyn George and Shirley Hay, this choral documentary in six parts begins with a sonic reference to snowshoeing, which is designed to give an aural impression of life before European contact.  Switching to a choral contrapuntal style in the second part, the composer used words and phrases from Champlain’s travel journals in which the words “Canada” and “La Nouvelle France” appear. The third part is organized around references to canoeing, combining French phrases chanted by the chorus and the proclamation of Wendat words by individual voices. 

The next two parts were full of emotion and drama.  Beckwith recreates the Feast of Souls, an elaborate and emotionally intense tradition of reburying ancestral remains through chanting, dancing and other ceremonial acts.  This feast made a huge impact on both Champlain and Jesuit missionary Brébeuf.  Given that the music created a tapestry of sorrow and an “abyss of despair”, I’m not so sure that these two Frenchmen understood the intention behind the ritual.  My sense is that this ceremony was a way of honouring ancestors, and that this combined with indigenous music and dance would repel these two Christian men. This cultural demonization and rejection paved the way for the next section of Beckwith’s work, which was a recounting of the disastrous results of the contact between the Wendat and French people. The texts reference Wendat prophecies of the demise of their honoured traditions and include a lament for how the Black Robes, the Jesuit priests, were changing names and proclaiming that the land now belonged to them.  On the advice of Georges Sioui, Beckwith didn’t end his work there, but rather focused on references to contemporary efforts to create reconciliation between settler and aboriginal cultures in the sixth and final part of the work. 

The overall impact of the entire evening was very much a fulfillment of the opening words of Sioui who called for peaceful dialogue and a sharing of ways, which was, in the end, the original motivation and driving spirit of the First Nations people when European contact was first made. By combining these two choral documentaries on the same program, each telling quite a different story, one can see current efforts of creating healing and reconciliation as building upon what began in Montreal in 1701. Cultural moments such as this concert play a significant and important role in this larger mandate of restoration between the peoples of different cultures as well as with the land itself. 

Adrianne PieczonkaImagine you got to know a house by groping in the dark, its curtains always drawn, no light switch, its shapes many and varied learned and remembered for night navigation only.

Then imagine somebody opening the curtains and letting a blast of sun in. It’s a very different house. We see, rather than infer, what it looks like. We experience more fully.

Such was the effect of hearing soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sing Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise February 12 in the Mazzoleni Masters Series with Rachel Andrist at the piano. Rendered in a powerful soprano voice with an unfailingly brilliant top and a magnificent Technicolor middle, the Winter Journey is a different trajectory indeed from what we’ve grown accustomed to in the company of baritones and tenors.

The opening Gute Nacht unfolded at a good pace: everything was clearer under the soprano light, the plodding rhythm of a walk through the snow, the wayward energy of the words. But then the key changed from minor to major before the final stanza. In regular rendition, it’s the moment of an infusion -- a brightening -- of sadness while the text begins to address the lost beloved directly. (“I don’t want to disturb your dreaming / It would be a shame to wake you” etc.) Here, it was so close and visible it felt as if a raw nerve were grazed. So this is how it’s going to be with a soprano, then? Good to know.

And so it continued. The second stanza in Der Lindenbaum, usually a moment of calm beauty, tugged at the tear reservoirs in Pieczonka’s rendition. Never was the fairly mundane “So manches liebe Wort” – the many words of love carved on a linden bark – floated and held to such effect. A bit later, the branches too rustled with unexpected intensity in “Und seine Zweige rauschten” verse and so did the entire stanza.

Rückblick, in tempo and mood a fairly manic evocation of the times of early acquaintance and of spring, suddenly breaks down at “Und ach, zwei Mädchenaugen glühten,” a cry of unbearable joy, or memory of joy that still overwhelms. In the following, sombre song, Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) the last two verses which translate as “Every river finds its way to the ocean / and every sorrow to its grave” in Pieczonka’s hands become a mini scena. “Jeder Strom” starts very low and shoots up across the stave seeking its final destination up on high, followed by “auch sein Grab,” through the long, feline portamenti that make this inexorable direction of life almost bearable.

Der Wegweiser is delivered mostly softly, being an introspective moment where the poet, finding herself at the crossroads, wonders where to go. The törichtes in “Welch ein törichtes Verlangen” (“What is the foolish compulsion that drives me into desolation”) is a case of the famous Pieczonka high piano, the word here vibrating with a hidden sob.

When the light is on, details are clearer, and there were a number of times when I wondered if ornaments were added in certain places. Some of that is the effect of all the notes being made visible. In other cases, it is the honouring of the trills as they should be honoured: Frühlingstraum, (Dream of Spring), has trill suggestion written in on specific words like “Wonne” and “Seligkeit” (joy and delight, appropriately), and they were heard. In Der greise Kopf I thought I heard some masterful trilling in the last stanza on the “Kopf” and particularly “Greise” and went to the score after the concert; of course the markings are there.

Contrasts within the songs are also heightened with a soprano, and Wasserflut (Flood) could easily be an aria, clouds of anger flaring and subsiding across the bleak inner landscape. Der Leierman brought this atypical Winterreise to an equally atypical ending: the final stanza was whispered to the old man, almost flirtingly, certainly femininely and equally fearlessly, the question “Shall I go with you, will you play to my songs” given as the ultimate offering.

Rachel Andrist at the piano was a perfect partner in this macabre dance, playing as the score demands, sometimes against, sometimes alongside the voice. Her introductions and interludes offered as much in the way of text as the vocal parts themselves.

Let’s hope for a repeat of this sold-out concert, either in Toronto or on tour. More people deserve to hear it.

adam driver_credit_may cybulski-banner.jpgAdam Driver – CREDIT – Mary Cybulski

Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s clever and captivating neo-minimalist film, chronicles seven days in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver (named Paterson), his happy marriage and daily routine. In this city of the poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson (Adam Driver, bringing subtle levels of sensitivity to the role) is also a poet. So is Jarmusch in his own refreshingly natural and observant way. Paterson is two hours of serenity, a musique concrète of city sounds and overheard conversation, the music of daily life. The spare, ambient score is by Sqürl (Jarmusch and Carter Logan).

Adam Driver – CREDIT – Mary Cybulski

Sqürl’s tentative electronic murmurs are first heard under the film’s opening credits before morphing into warm synth electronica to accompany Paterson’s written words (we see them onscreen as he writes): “We have plenty of matches in our house.” What begins as a reference to a preceding scene where we saw Paterson examining a box of matches at home continues at lunch on a park bench overlooking the city’s Passaic River and Great Falls. After his Monday bus driving is done, he presents the completed Love Poem to his wife; it stands as a tangible memento of the day. That poem and the others Paterson composes were written for the film by American poet Ron Padgett. 

Photo and Cutlne: Golshifteh Farahani_CREDIT_Mary Cybulski

Paterson’s wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is joyfully obsessed with various projects: baking cupcakes, learning guitar (with the goal of being a country music star) and black and white colours. She wears various black and white patterns, does black and white interior decor in their house and of course, ices her cupcakes in black and white. The couple’s willful English bulldog Marvin is another component of Paterson’s daily routine. Each night after dinner the two walk to the neighbourhood bar where Paterson  has a social drink or two while Marvin waits outside.

For these scenes, Jarmusch uses pre-existing music, often barely noticeable, to augment a character. Persian singers Ahdieh and Pouran underscore Laura, for example; and Tammy Wynette accompanies her dream of being a country music star, while that theme is extended with a pair of pedal steel guitar excerpts by Jerry Brightman and Gary Carter. The nightly bar episodes are announced with such mood setters as Reuben Wilson’s 1960s organ tune Blue Mode, Lester Young’s still cool 1940s Blue Lester and Willie West’s sincere, soulful I’m Still a Man (Lord Have Mercy).

Jarmusch is fond of doubles, like Paterson the man and Paterson the city; twins are noticeable as bus passengers or in passing; Paterson tells Laura about Petrarch who wrote sonnets to another Laura. Jarmusch uses poets and Paterson personalities as signposts: Williams’ epic Paterson; references to Allen Ginsberg, Dante Alighieri, the boxer Hurricane Carter, Sam Moore, the original Sam of soulsters Sam and Dave, comedian Lou Costello, founding father Alexander Hamilton, even a deadpan reference (by Moonrise Kingdom’s Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as aspiring anarchists) to the Paterson immigrant who returned to Italy in 1898 to assassinate King Umberto I.

Paterson has a chance encounter with Method Man (a.k.a. Cliff Smith) rapping in a laundromat about the 19th-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. He stumbles on a young girl (Sterling Jerins) who reads him a poem, Water Fall, she has written under the influence of Emily Dickinson. Later, Paterson's writing, briefly and accidentally curtailed, is revived by a conversation with a Japanese tourist (Masatoshi Nagase). Nagase, who was fixated on Elvis in Jarmusch's 1989 Mystery Train, plays a writer caught up in Williams’ Paterson, which he carries in a Japanese translation.

A poetic film with touches of Zen.

Paterson begins its theatrical run February 10 at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas and VIP.

Sciarrino Jaeger blog Banner Feb 2017Composer Salvatore SciarrinoNew Music Concerts' (NMC) A Portrait of Salvatore Sciarrino, a concert jointly presented with the University of Toronto at Walter Hall the evening of Sunday, February 5, was the final event of the U of T New Music Festival this year. During the pre-concert introduction, NMC artistic director/flutist Robert Aitken described his long-held enthusiasm for Sciarrino's music. He said the opportunity to finally work with the Italian composer appeared when U of T composition professor and festival coordinator Norbert Palej and several of his Faculty of Music colleagues revealed their mutual interest in the distinctive music of Sciarrino, who was then invited to Toronto as U of T’s Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition.

In his introduction, Aitken referred to Sciarrino as a “philosopher of music,” in reference not only to the questions raised in Sciarrino's music, but also to the many sage statements about the practice and perception of music he had heard Sciarrino make during the festival. Sciarrino stated that he has tried to invent a sonic vocabulary and create a new musical language in each piece. In response to Aitken's observation that it took great concentration and effort to constantly play the long pianissimos often found in his music, emerging from silence and then fading back to silence, Sciarrino agreed, noting that “at times the silences are noisier than the noises I ask the musicians to produce.”

Sciarrino's 1981 composition Introduction all'oscuro (Introduction to the Obscure), for a mixed ensemble of twelve instruments, uses sounds that imitate heartbeats and breathing – especially with the bassoon, clarinet and oboe – to create feelings of waiting and expectation. The question, naturally, becomes: waiting for what? The answer, however, remains obscure, and perhaps it's simply in the act of listening.

Sciarrino has composed several works for the Italian flute phenom Matteo Cesari, including his 2015 Trovare un equilibrio, è necessario?, for flute and string quartet. “My titles,” he wrote, “have often included a question mark. It tells of the behaviour and discipline at the heart of artistic language, where concision and subtraction are the secret principle and goal. Art demands effort, and it bores only those who are unable to conquer it.” The behaviour and discipline of the fine ensemble of flutist Robert Aitken, violinists Stephen Sitarski and Aysel Taghi-Zada, violist Douglas Perry and cellist Amahl Arulanandam revealed a delicate weave of fragile and mysterious sonorities, which seemed to have found the perfect balance.Sciarrino Jaeger blog Banner Feb 2017

Accordionist Branko Džinović has had Sciarrino's Vagabonde Blu (1998) for solo accordion in his repertoire for some time, but he told me that, since working directly with the composer for this concert, his interpretation has become considerably refined. He said that Sciarrino encouraged him to develop an elastic sense of phrase, where contrasting ideas stretch away from one another, but without breaking the musical line. Astrophysicists refer to certain bright blue stars that wander aimlessly in intergalactic space as “Blue Vagabonds”. “Beautiful and unstable,” Sciarrino notes, while borrowing the term to title his composition.

The final work may have embodied Sciarrino's artistic philosophy the most clearly: his 2005 composition, Archeologia del telefono, a concertante for 13 instruments. In his notes he wrote that “the artist interprets history; he reads the complexity of the world.” He said that every new work “should try to change society. When it is new, it burns, it is inherently problematic.” In his concertante, Archeology of the Telephone, Sciarrino admits he is trying to play with the listeners' attention span, creating hints of ideas that might be the leading motives, and then hiding them behind static moments. He wants us to become active listeners, and to feel rewarded for venturing through the music, along with the musicians.

This was both a provocative and stimulating concert, and the performances were meticulously prepared and executed. It was also a fitting conclusion to a week-long festival that succeeded in giving Toronto listeners a thorough chance to discover one of the most advanced musical minds of new classical composition. From the Karen Kieser Prize concert on opening night, through Sciarrino's opera The Killing Flower and the many other talks and concerts, to this musical portrait of Sciarrino, the 2017 edition of the U of T New Music Festival might have been the most compelling yet. Let's hope for more of the same next season!

The 2017 edition of the University of Toronto New Music Festival, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino as composer-in-residence, ran this year from January 29-February 5.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Sciarrino Banner2The Canadian premiere of Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino's (b. 1947) opera The Killing Flower (Luci mie traditrici) was presented on February 1, at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building of the University of Toronto. Sciarrino has been the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition at the U of T Faculty of Music during the 2017 edition of the U of T New Music Festival. It had been originally billed as an “on book” (not acted, with the singers reading their parts) performance, by producer Wallace Halladay. But in fact, even with minimally added elements of stagecraft devised by stage director/designer Amanda Smith, such as discrete projections, simple props and appropriate stage direction, the performance had the feeling of a production, rather than a reading.

The story of the opera, as told by Sciarrino (who wrote both libretto and score), is based on the life of the unusual Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1619) – a composer Sciarrino has admired since youth, who was also Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza in southern Italy. The tragic story of the opera focuses not on the Prince's creative genius, but rather on his role in the murders of his wife and her lover. It's told in two acts, divided into a prologue, eight scenes, three instrumental intermezzi and two brief movements titled Darkness I and Darkness II. The two main characters are the Duke and the Duchess, initially an apparently happy couple. They are joined by the Guest, who precipitates an affair with the Duchess, and the Duke's servant, whose report of the affair leads to the murders.

In his artistic statement, Sciarrino stated that this opera “was meant to be a statement on the reform of theatre.” He said, “The use of voices, the invention and maturation of the vocal style, allow us to delve into the realm of theatre, rather than simply putting vocalists on stage and having them sing. Its strength lies in the expression of song, in the creation of a vocal style – a newly invented style.”

True to this philosophy, the entire drama appeared to be contained in and conveyed through the vocal lines. For example, the Duke is given a stiff, commanding vocal style, while the Duchess's style is pliable, sensitive and fluid. The Guest sings in a languid, probing and seductive style, while the servant has a jerky, abrupt style, making him seem nervous and insecure. The cast was superb in conveying this “drama of styles.” Baritone Geoffrey Sirett was commanding as the Duke; soprano Shannon Mercer was a sweet and sensitive Duchess, vulnerable and ready to please; countertenor Scott Belluz (the guest) was seductive and not to be resisted; and tenor Keith Klassen played a supremely neurotic servant. A recording of soprano Nathalie Paulin conveyed the prologue, sung in an elegant, fluid yet slightly mournful style that floated over the beginning of the piece.

It was easy to track the course of the drama, thanks to the composer's carefully crafted melodic characterizations. The commanding Duke, the compliant Duchess and obedient servant were all crystal clear in their roles. In the erotic scene with the Guest and the Duchess, the intertwining melodies wrapped themselves up in all manner of contortions, just as bodies might have. Sciarrino's orchestration was just as notable, supporting the action with the most remarkably vivid noises to come from a chamber orchestra. For example, brass instruments provided plenty of wind sounds when needed, the thunder sheets were wonderfully ominous, played softly, but with sufficient gravitas, and the flutes followed the singers with ample amplifications of their heightened emotional states as the drama unfolded. Conductor Chad Heltzel, a DMA candidate at U of T with Uri Mayer, balanced the ensemble nicely and sustained the many moods of the piece. At several times, the effect of high, chirping violins combined with deep, grunting trombones was positively creepy!

An added feature of the evening was a pre-performance discussion with the composer, Salvatore Sciarrino, the producer, Wallace Halladay, and U of T New Music Festival coordinator, Norbert Palej, coordinated by musicologist Catherine Moore. Among various revelations, we heard of Sciarrino's fascination with the music of Gesualdo, and also of Halladay's determination to produce The Killing Flower. Five U of T Theatre for Early Music madrigalists, sopranos Julia Morson and Maeve Palmer, countertenor Ryan McDonald, tenor Cory Knight and bass Andrew Adridge sang two Gesualdo madrigals, Mercè, grido piangendo and Asciugate I begli occhi, and established the flavour of music in Venosa during the Renaissance. It was a memorable evening!

The University of Toronto New Music Festival runs from January 29-February 5. For details, visit

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Photo c/o Haus Musik.Leave it to Tafelmusik to make a phrase like ‘futuristic baroque’ actually make sense.

On Thursday, February 2 at Longboat Hall (in the Great Hall), Tafelmusik presented the latest instalment of Haus Musik, its series dedicated to combining electronic and baroque music in alternate venues around the city. The premise is to turn the early music that Tafelmusik plays into the type of party it always was in its time: these shows are standing-room only, dispensing with the traditional ‘stage-and-seats’ configuration in favour of having the musicians (for the most part) on the ground with the audience; there are always opening or closing sets from a local electronic artist; and there’s always a bar.

Thursday was my second time at Haus Musik; it was the series’ third show overall. This concert featured four members of Tafelmusik (Julia Wedman and Cristina Zacharias, violins; Christina Mahler, violoncello; Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord) playing French and English music from before 1750, alongside modular electronic musician ACOTE and dancer/choreographer Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, who played the part of an alien girl named Leeka with an affinity, strangely, for spoons. The visioning and staging for the show came as always from Amanda Smith, of FAWN Chamber Creative.

After an hour-long opening set by ACOTE, violinist Julia Wedman made the official introduction. Notably – and thankfully – absent were the typically-classical instructions to turn off cell phones and applaud during the proper times (“no flash photography please: it blinds us and then we play wrong notes” was all she said, understandably, on that front). After that, the music was more-or-less continuous, with a set list cleverly placed at the bar for those early music fans who wanted to know the titles and specifics of the works.

Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen's character Leeka, dancing alongside the musicians. Photo credit: Wei Ning Shen.It was unapologetically a meeting of worlds. Tafelmusik’s baroque set, along with occasional electronic interludes by ACOTE, was performed in dialogue with Leeka’s dancing, which had a theatricality and musicality of its own. Both Leeka’s choreography and ACOTE’s music seemed baroque-inspired, but only in the loosest of ways – with Leeka incorporating motions into her contemporary choreography that felt somehow related to baroque dance, and ACOTE (according to Wedman) using samples from recordings of early music in his work. The drama of Leeka’s own story, who apart from occasional body percussion was silent throughout, was particularly striking; at times she included (tentative) audience participation, and at one point poured salt on the ground to draw a giant spoon (a move that, at least for those of the generation that grew up watching Neil Buchanan’s Art Attack, felt strangely nostalgic). It was all vague enough to not reduce the music to a mere accompanimental role, but clear enough for the audience to follow along.

With an economy of means, the Haus Musik team managed to put on a show that felt well-considered, cool, and distinctly classical, without any of the clichés that normally go along with classical concerts. I didn’t feel stressed about getting there on time; I didn’t feel weird standing at the bar, talking with friends, or pulling out my phone. Above all, it felt like a good party, something it can be easy to forget that classical music can be.

Between the late-night feel of Longboat Hall, the staging of the show, and the music performed, baroque music felt shiny and new last night, reflected in a fresh and fearless light.

Haus Musik will continue intermittently this year alongside Tafelmusik’s mainstage series at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre. The next Haus Musik show is scheduled for April; for details and updates, stay posted on their website ( and here at

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


The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir displayed the most unusual strength and control, in a commanding performance February 2 at St. Paul’s Basilica under conductor Kaspars Putniņš. As part of the Soundstreams mainstage series, this marks the fifth time the choir has made an appearance in Toronto. Soundstreams continues to provide top-tier musical experiences and a grand stage for new Canadian works.

The choice of St. Paul’s Basilica was a clever one. For churches in the city, it is one of the most beautiful. In the Roman Catholic canon, only the Pope may bestow the name of ‘basilica’ upon a church. This is done in recognition of an exceptional diocese, beautiful aesthetics, and historical significance. St. Paul’s is resonant and its ceiling cradles sound effortlessly. The choir was magnificent in this queen of Toronto churches.

The choir provided an interesting mix of works by 20th-century Russian Romantics, with Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (from 1915) and Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns (written in 1984 but very much in the same style). Naturally, the last chunk of the concert was devoted to the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The other two key performances at the concert were both world premieres of commissioned works. The first was Three Prayers from the Holy Rosary, written by Riho Esko Maimets, a young Canadian-Estonian composer. Prior to the performance, Maimets explained that he did much searching for the text he wanted to use for this piece. “I spent a lot of time going through classical Estonian poetry...Lawrence [Cherney, Soundstreams artistic director] took me to his synagogue…[and] I spoke with priests from the Russian Orthodox Cathedral,” he said. He eventually settled on the prayers associated with the Holy Rosary of the Roman Catholic tradition.

Maimets’ piece begins so incredibly slow. Only an extremely high calibre choir can deliver an opening with long crescendos and decrescendos set over very few words. The swells demanded over such extended periods of time require a strong, controlled command of one’s voice, and an even more masterful ability to do so with and within an ensemble. The choir proved itself incredibly capable with this feat of endurance.

The second premiere was only a snippet, the last movement of Omar Daniel’s Sõduri Ema. Daniel was certain he wanted to write the piece in Estonian. “[It is] a rare and beautiful language,” he said, continuing that he knew that this concert “had a theme of faith.” To this theme, he added the discovery of Marie Under, “a very famous poet” in Estonia. He chose this particular poem because it speaks of “faith and sacrifice, of something greater than oneself” in the story of a mother seeing her son off to war. The work includes a solo bass and soprano, and is quite bare, stripped and exposed. The piece ultimately leaves me feeling unsettled and gently disturbed. We will have to wait to see a performance of it in full.  

There are many things that this choir does exceptionally well, even beyond their strong execution of compositions. It is truly their dynamic control – an even, measured, manually driven, muscle-infused control of the sound – that stands out the most. At their quietest, their loudest and everything in between, the balance and blend is exceptional. Moreover, their voices match vibrato and overtones in an enviable way. And the added treat is the dark vowels of their vocal production. Locally trained musicians do not have that natural darkness and shape to their sound. The brassy shortness of the Toronto accent is literally 6600km away from the warm darkness of the Estonians. This comes through especially warmly with Arvo Pärt’s Dopo La Vittoria, written in Italian.

This year marks a rather special occasion for both Canada and Estonia. Canadians are celebrating 150 years since Confederation in 1867, while Estonians are beginning the first of three years of celebration for the 100th year since they declared independence. The occasion was met at Thursday’s concert with the anthems of both countries, a church-filled Happy Birthday, and two cakes, one for each country.

Soundstreams presented the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at 8pm on Thursday, February 2, 2017, at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto.

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

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