Last month, Wired published a story about a company called Groupmuse, calling it “Uber, but for millennials who want orchestras in their living rooms.” The company, which is based in the states, helps ordinary people organize low-cost house concerts using a roster of for-hire musicians. The concert presenters host the show at no cost to them, their guests pay a small fee to come to their house, and the musicians get the profits.

That company might be a young one, fashioned in a world of startups, apps, and made-to-order online services, but the concept—hosting live music in your living room—is as classical as it gets. That's where chamber music (as the name implies) is designed to be performed—and from the salons of Classical Europe’s wealthy elite to the infamous Schubertiads and similar series, the classical music house party is a centuries-old staple.

And in Ontario today, in an age where the traditional concert hall is starting to lose some its hegemony in the classical scene, the trend is again on the rise. I think immediately of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, run by Jean and Jan Narveson out of their living room, which presents around 70 professional chamber music shows each year; I also think of Pocket Concerts, which uses a Groupmuse-like model and presents public and private classical house parties out of host homes across Toronto. And next week, from November 20-27, there’s Toronto’s third annual Festival of House Culture—a headlong dive into what at-home concertizing can do.

Here’s how it works: the festival calendar online provides a summary of events, as well as details about each of their dozens of host houses. Naturally, what each event offers is highly specific to the homeowners: some shows are PWYC concerts, while others are free art exhibitions, workshops or social events; some houses welcome all ages while others prefer an adult audience; some shows are BYOB, with one homeowner even offering to cut the ticket price in half for anyone who arrives with a potluck item. With each, you can expect to get a sense of who the hosts are as people, and to connect with the musicians and other audience members in an openly social atmosphere.

Notable classical concerts at the festival include hillbilly swing duo HOTCHA! on November 24 at 6:30pm; Distant Skies, a sci-fi story reading with flute, violin and cello accompaniment on November 26 at 4pm; and, also on November 26 (at 8pm), a performance by Toronto-based flute quintet Charm of Finches.

It's an age-old formula in a new context, and it seems to be working. And whether the growing presence of concerts like these should be attributed to a modern musical revolution, or simply to a “return to roots” approach to chamber music, it promises something special—a type of concertizing that brings the people involved, and the spaces they create together, into a new kind of spotlight.

Toronto’s Festival of House Culture runs from November 20-27, at various homes throughout the city. For details and to see the festival calendar, visit www.housecultureto.blogspot.ca.

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

Miriam Khalil in Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Ayre_CREDIT Darryl BlockI’ve just completed a four-day foray into the music city we live in and the diversity of what I heard reflected the diversity of Toronto itself. It began with the opening session of the International Artist Managers’ Association (IAMA) annual conference on the morning of November 10 with a nugget-filled conversation between TSO conductor Peter Oundjian and Damascus-born, clarinetist/composer/Silk Road Ensemble-member Kinan Azmeh. From witty banter -- Azmeh talking about his early failure to learn the violin not working out because he was left-handed (“But I’m left-handed,” said Oundjian. “Some people are smarter than others,” Azmeh retorted.) -- to an illuminating and focused exploration of Azmeh’s musical life, the two musicians created a template for an ideal interview, with Oundjian interjecting enough of his personal experience to stimulate Azmeh’s telling of his own story.

Azmeh then picked up his clarinet, moved to the centre of the Koerner Hall stage and played two duets with the Canadian-based, Sri Lankan-born pianist/composer Dinuk Wijeratne, something they first began doing 15 years ago at Juilliard. The sweet Whose Windows Are Songs and Silences, which was commissioned from Wijeratne specifically for this IAMA conference, began with the peaceful serenity of Wijeratne’s quiet piano before expanding into new territory. Quietly celebratory, it was often improvisatory, always joyous music.

That evening it was off to the Ismaili Centre for a celebration of the music of Osvaldo Golijov; the next night to the Opera House for a Zimbabwe dance party led by the great Oliver Mtukudzi. Sunday afternoon found me back in Koerner Hall for a polished performance of four Bach violin concertos by the flawless Viktoria Mullova and the Accademia Byzantina led by harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone.

Golijov once said that constant migration has been the story of his life. Born in 1960 to Eastern European parents in Argentina, he moved to Jerusalem and then to Boston, his music inspired by “inner voices,” whether they were Yiddish, Galician, Arabic or that of his muse, Dawn Upshaw. Last Thursday was the first of three evenings of Golijov’s music presented by Against the Grain Theatre. Its centrepiece was Ayre (2004), which received an exhilarating performance by Miriam Khalil and a merry band of 11 collaborators, including Jeremy Flower, on laptop/electronics, who has been performing the work since its inception.

As Golijov himself explained in his introduction, Ayre is an 11-song cycle that contains a great deal of tension with its lyrics and music from both the Muslim and the Sephardic Jewish traditions. Its ancient texts related to how Golijov perceived the world soon after 9/11 when the piece was written.  “It seems like the conflicts and the beauty stay the same,” he said. “Only the actors change.”

The singer plays a number of roles in this multilingual concoction that depends on her convincing portraits to carry it off. There was a beautiful Andalusian lullaby sung by a mother who, in a paraphrase of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, is forced to eat her child; a princess who executes a captured Christian captain after he spurns her marriage proposal; a recitation of a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; a couple of Christian Arab songs from Good Friday; all concluding with a wordless song that soared from Khalil’s mouth like a sirocco blowing soft, warm and seductive. After earlier moments of impassioned singing, angry vocal rhythms, the intrinsic melody of Darwish’s spoken verse and Khalil’s profoundly moving duet with her own electronic self, that worldless climax was a siren song to a triumphant evening.

Earlier, members of the Glenn Gould School Ensemble performed Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk (1992), Lúa Descolorida (2002) and Tenebrae (2002) in three other locations in the Ismaili Centre. Second violinist Barry Shiffman took charge of Yiddishbbuk. The piece is based on a collection of apocryphal psalms Kafka read while living on Prague’s Street of the Alchemists. Shiffman, who premiered Yiddishbbuk as a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet in the early 1990s, mined its violent pain and beauty with his intensity and passion.

Adanya Dunn’s vibrant soprano voice joined the quartet for the dolorous Lúa Descolorida, reminiscent of Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, but with a Galician edge. In Tenebrae, soprano Ellen McAteer and clarinetist Brad Cherwin, augmented by the quartet, took us from the lush darkness of the first movement to the tonal comfort of the second, on the composer’s sojourn to the solace of Yerushalem.

Goodyear - Nov 2016.jpgStewart Goodyear returns to discuss upcoming programs, performing and more.

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Iggy and the Stooges

Gimme Danger is iconoclastic American indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s scrupulous two-pronged documentary look at the Iggy and the Stooges phenomenon. Iggy (aka Jim Osterberg) provides a detailed historical chronology, paying particular attention to the band’s musical origins and influences. From the 1950s TV show Lunch With Soupy Sales to the idiosyncratic American composer Harry Partch, from Iggy’s brief, meaningful relationship with Nico (on the rebound from Lou Reed) to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, James Brown and Maceo Parker, the film drops one memorable nugget after another. At his press conference in Cannes (where the film premiered) Iggy also mentioned his indebtedness to Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Frank Zappa and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Fascinating.

As a child, Osterberg was fascinated by Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody show. Soupy Sales would solicit his fans to write to him “in 25 words or less.” Osterberg thought that was a good length for a song and kept to it as his songwriting developed. Ann Arbor, where Osterberg grew up, was a hotbed of new music. The young Iggy worked in a record store and played with the MC5 when they were a high energy cover band. Before that he played behind the Four Tops and the Shangri-Las. At the same time Partch was “huge for me.” He would turn off all lights after smoking pot or taking LSD and soak in his music.

Jarmusch presents it straightforwardly, judiciously including pop culture touchstones from his subject’s formative years as well as key video evidence of the band’s iconic career. Osterberg’s chronicle of Iggy and the Stooges’ formation and brief meteoric rise (1967-74) is told with matter-of-fact hindsight and a survivor’s instincts. The band that Jarmusch calls the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever” in the film’s opening minutes became an inspirational template for the punk movement that followed. I Wanna Be Your Dog, indeed.

Gimme Danger opened its Toronto exclusive engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox, November 4.

DSC_0265.JPGI’ve never seen Amadeus before. This is blasphemy amongst choral singers and I’ve been lambasted many times. To be fair, it came out a few years before I was born and Mozart isn’t exactly standard repertoire for high school arts programs in Scarborough. I was excited when it was announced last year that the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir would be singing in a live screening of the film on October 28 and 29 at the Sony Centre. As a chorister, I’ve now sung Mozart many times, most often the great unfinished Requiem. And now I can say I’ve seen the film as well.

Read more: Concert Report: Tutti Contenti at Amadeus Live

Choirs in rehearsal for the Luminous Night Festival at YPBC. Credit: Exultate Chamber Singers.Toronto is a definitive choral city. With choral music of diverse shapes and sizes across the region, there is a strong appreciation for voices joined together. Every so often a great gem of a performance comes along and proves this – and the Luminous Night Festival Gala Concert was one of those.

Yorkminster Park Baptist Church is one of the busiest churches for music in the city. Several choirs call it home and two, the Orpheus and Church choir, joined together for the third edition of their Choral Encounters initiative (this year titled the Luminous Night Festival). Born out of the work of several conductors in the GTA region, the idea is to bring together academy, community, and church around a living composer. In 2013, the inaugural year, that composer was Alice Parker. In 2014 it was Morten Lauridsen. This year we had the great pleasure of experiencing Ola Gjeilo.

A Norwegian composer trained at Juilliard, Gjeilo has proven himself a world-loved composer. His accessible writing features beautiful, lush, thick sounds. His work is often set to Latin but includes English and poetry by Charles Anthony Silvestri. His compositions are evocative of ebbing and flowing, of movement like waves and water. The melodies are grand, warm and embracing, but as he says in his own words, “still intimate”.

Rarely will one ever find such an exquisite collection of choral gems – both repertoire and ensembles – in one place. The Luminous Night gala concert featured the University of Toronto Faculty of Music’s Women’s Chamber Choir, Macmillan Singers and Exultate Chamber Singers under Hilary Apfelstadt; Resonance, the youth choir of the Mississauga Festival Choir, conducted by Bob Anderson; the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Choir, conducted by William Maddox; and the Orpheus Choir, conducted by Bob Cooper.

Each ensemble showed skill and musicality that was pleasing not only because it was the work of Ola Gjeilo, but also because the diversity of voices provided a unique experience for listeners. The mature voices of the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Choir were quite a contrast to the clear, bright, present sound of Exultate Chamber Singers. Each ensemble was pleasingly different in its own way.

Specific credit goes to Resonance, particularly their sopranos. Their interpretation of Serenity  – my favourite of Gjeilo’s pieces – was exquisite. Their balanced sound and understanding of the music flowed through the church. It was truly a dream to listen to these young voices make such beautiful music.

The University of Toronto ensembles were also at the top of their game, both balanced and present. Their artistry showed depth and an exquisite balance of sound, with the lower voices supporting very controlled soprano notes. Eunseong Cho was particularly spectacular on the piano for Tundra, providing a powerful interpretation to suit the dynamic Women’s Chamber Choir.

Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass continues to be a popular and accessible choice for choirs. In this festival the massed power of the Orpheus Choir, Resonance, and the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Choir joined with the Talisker Players under Bob Cooper. The Taliskers were musical accompaniment sent from heaven, with clear articulations and rhythmic energy that the choir was mostly consistent with. The double basses were especially useful in tuning the choir through some tricky intervals and dissonances. The ensemble’s musicality – and its understanding of the flow of the music, with its undulating string accompaniment – energized the singers’ beautiful, melodious lines.

I have sung in massed choirs a few times and the one plague of having so many singers in one place is a default legato. When there is so much sound and so many people the precision can suffer. This was slightly noticeable through the The City movement of the Sunrise Mass. Still, there is something incredibly humbling about being in the presence of about 200 singers. The only other comparable experience is a congregation singing hymns during liturgy. Both experiences can be overwhelmingly beautiful.

One other great opportunity with a concert like this is to see different conductors in action. Bob Cooper’s energy comes from his elbows and shoulders, his expression generating from his upper carriage into the music. William Maddox presented his hands upwards, conducting as if in welcoming prayer. Bob Anderson conducted Resonance with palms down, stroking the sounds and energy out of his choir with detailed communication through quick movements and subdivided cues. And Hilary Apfelstadt – the only conductor to use a baton – executed her work with precision, strength and clarity. Hilary’s clarity in conducting transferred right across the three different ensembles she conducted over the evening.

One can only wish that Choral Encounters grows with each year, and that we continue to have amazing choral experiences because of their hard work.

The Luminous Night Festival Gala Concert was on Saturday, October 15 at 7:30pm, at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

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

P1000193Edwin Huizinga, violinist in conversation at The WholeNote.

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P1000057To hear the full conversation with Ivars Taurins click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

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Stephanie MartinChoral conductors discuss duelling Nov 5 Elijahs

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Mr.ShiandHisLoverMusicTheatre-banner.jpgA Toronto staple since 1991, the Summerworks festival bills itself as “the breeding ground for the mainstage shows of the future.” As always, this year’s festival has committed to putting music theatre in its programming, and this year, its musical component has certainly kept with this forward-thinking mandate. The festival’s musical offerings this year, many of them focused on the communicative power of the human singing voice, have made bold statements–not only for musical reasons, but because the tropes and trends on which they rely are well-poised to strike an uneasily familiar chord with audiences.

Mr.ShiandHisLoverMusicTheatre-400x230.jpgMr. Shi and His Lover, running August 5 to 13 at The Theatre Centre, is one such piece of music theatre. Based on the real-life story of the love affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and male Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, Mr. Shi blends musical elements from opera (both Chinese and European), pop music and Chinese folk song into a 90-minute interrogation of the couple’s relationship. Presented by an international team of artists from both Toronto and Macau Experimental Theatre, and performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, Mr. Shi is new territory for Summerworks, with largely successful results.

There is a subtlety to Mr. Shi that is not always audible at first listen. The music and plot rely heavily on clichés: characters sing platitudes about life and love, fall weeping to their knees, and comment on the nature of East and West through the lens of Madama Butterfly. It is baffling, until one realizes that all of these tropes are intentionally self-referential–and undeniably operatic. In this light, Mr. Shi transforms itself into a type of post-opera, one that exploits the orientalist spectacle so prevalent in opera while at the same time revealing its racist, gendered nature.

These layered messages are delivered movingly by Jordan Cheng as the conflicted and contemplative Mr. Shi, as well as by Derek Kwan, who plays the equally troubled Bernard. Carol Wang (percussion) and Njo Kong Kie (composer/piano) provide instrumental support as the minimalist onstage accompaniment.

ImaginaryAnthropologies-400x264.jpgIn Imaginary Anthropologies, running August 5 to 13 at Factory Theatre, Gabriel Dharmoo serves as solo vocalist and theatrical mastermind behind a series of invented vocal traditions from ‘cultures’ around the world. Presented mockumentary-style, with Dharmoo pitted against an onscreen panel of anthropology ‘experts,’ Imaginary Anthropologies is highly weird and sharply witty. Dharmoo asks that audiences not give too much away about the show–but suffice it to say that the type of ‘anthropology’ conducted throughout the performance, and the way it resonates in our postcolonial, racially hierarchical world, feels uncomfortably familiar. For the audience, who is in on the joke, it is also intensely funny.

Admittedly, both of these shows are difficult to classify, and difficult to place on the musical spectrum. Perhaps that means, though, that they are instead representative of a powerful new type of vocal theatre–one that uses the voice and the stage in ways that make audiences think. Summerworks and the teams of both shows do a great job here, of hitting important issues while all the while committing to the presentation of exceptional theatre–theatre that revels in its own contradictions, and that reveals itself as the bold vanguard of what can be made possible onstage.

Mr. Shi and His Lover plays at The Theatre Centre at 1:15pm on Saturday, August 13, while Gabriel Dharmoo’s Imaginary Anthropologies is onstage at Factory Theatre on Saturday, August 13 at 2:30pm. For details on both shows, visit www.summerworks.ca.

Sara Constant is social media editor at The WholeNote and studies musicology at the University of Amsterdam. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

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