Against the Grain Theatre is dedicated to experimentation. One of their experiments consists of an attempt to break down the traditional barrier between song recital and music drama. A clear example was their combination two years ago of Kurtág's Kafka Fragmente and Janácek's Diary of One Who Disappeared. Although the Kurtág is a performance piece, the Janácek would normally be done as a recital. Yet having the Diary staged and acted out (by the wonderful Colin Ainsworth and Lauren Segal) added a great deal to the musical experience.

In their most recent production, "Death & Desire," the directors, Joel Ivany and Topher Mokrzewski, have been careful not to simply repeat the earlier experiment. Whereas the Kurtág and the Janácek had been performed as two discrete halves of the evening, the works in their latest offering, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen's Harawi, were intertwined. That certainly set up an interesting relationship between the two works, though I was unconvinced by the way the protagonist in the Messiaen became Schubert's Fair Maid of the Mill (as we used to refer to her; this production preferred The Miller's Lovely Daughter). On the other hand, the manner in which the mezzo-soprano became the voice of the brook in the penultimate song of the Schubert cycle was magical.

There was an interesting suggestion in the program that the Messiaen was composed at a time when the composer's first wife first descended into madness. The significance of that certainly came across in the song Doundou tchil, which constituted the end of the first half of the evening and in which the French text disintegrated into something completely incomprehensible.

The performers were Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in Harawi and Stephen Hegedus as the wanderer in Die schöne Müllerin. Szabó was superb throughout. I thought that, in the first half of the evening, Hegedus was better in the lyrical songs than in the more assertive parts, but in the second half he was very fine throughout. The works were interestingly staged by Ivany; and Mokrzewski played the piano with the excellence which we have come to expect from him.

Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny) and Nina Hoss (Nelly)

Christian Petzold's Phoenix (currently at TIFF Bell Lightbox), a haunting tale of obsessive love set in Berlin just as WWII has ended, is a kind of inverted Vertigo with subtle twists of character that undulate to a score based on Kurt Weill's Speak Low (“Love is pure gold and time a thief”). Nelly (Nina Hoss, masterful), a concentration camp survivor, her face badly disfigured by gunshot wounds, has been rescued by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. She's anxious to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a piano player she sang with before she was apprehended in the fall of 1944. Despite strong indications that Johnny's character resembles his namesake in Weill's Surabaya Johnny, Nelly seeks him out after reconstructive surgery on her face. He's working in a bar called Phoenix, convinced his wife is dead, when she discovers him. To underscore his nature even more, two cabaret performers sing Holger Hiller's Johnny du Lump (Johnny You Scoundrel). Johnny's struck by the resemblance Nelly (she calls herself Esther, after her sister who did not survive the war) bears to his wife and concocts a scheme whereby she will pretend to be his wife in order for him to collect her inheritance in return for a lump sum payment.

Read more: Phoenix; Lambert & Stamp

Music was pivotal and the primary focus of eight films in this year's Hot Docs, the 22nd edition of that essential Toronto institution.

The Concertgebouw

In her captivating documentary celebrating the Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element. Despite its title, the movie concentrates on three of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist and bassoonist and concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg.  Each of her subjects talks about what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentine taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing a youth orchestra provides self worth and the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play and now leads that orchestra; to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play Symphony No. 8, we see his tears. Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And with the orchestra she gets inside by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's First and Second, among others.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Hot Docs 2015

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Stéphane Tétreault and the  Orchestre Métropolitain at Koerner Hall. Photo by Lisa SakulenskyA highly charged, fully packed Koerner Hall audience greeted the appearance of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain for their Toronto debut April 24. In a brief introduction to the concert's first half, Nézet-Séguin spoke of his 15-year relationship with the orchestra and the “French colour” they would bring to the evening of English music he had programmed.

Elgar's Enigma Variations had an intensity that revealed the architectural solidity of the piece. Wonderfully balanced full chords proceeded via a series of crescendos. There was sentiment without sentimentality (swells were swell) and a jocularity that foreshadowed the Edwardian Age about to dawn. (The work was composed just at the end of the 19th century.) With each variation dedicated to a friend or loved one (the first lovingly portrays the composer's wife), Elgar's creation is filled with tenderness and nostalgia. Its pastoral qualities (for King and Countryside you might say) were epitomized by a wind choir supported by strings. The famous Variation IX, “Nimrod” was dedicated to the memory of Paul Desmarais, a great supporter of the orchestra. The slow build begun by the flute and oboe duet buttressed by low strings reached great and stately heights before suddenly disappearing into the air, like fluttering insects in the wind.

Read more: Concert Review: Orchestre Métropolitain at Koerner Hall

Evgeny Kissin at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo by Malcolm CookEvgeny Kissin held an appreciative audience in his thrall May 1.  Roy Thomson Hall was filled from top to bottom including the choir loft and dozens of stage seats for the Russian-born pianist's first solo recital in Toronto in 15 years. Three rows of seats on either side of the stage marked the outer edge of an  umbrella of light that illuminated Kissin as he put his inimitable stamp on Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, Prokofiev's Sonata No.4, three nocturnes and six mazurkas of Chopin as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.15 Rákóczi March.” The Prokofiev, which ended the concert's first half, elicited a spontaneous standing ovation. The final notes of the Liszt at program's conclusion generated even more response, four standing ovations, three of which resulted in encores, culminating in Prokofiev's March from the Love for Three Oranges. It was an adoration complete with whoops, cheers and even a spate of unified rhythmic clapping.

Read more: Concert Review: Evgeny Kissin at Roy Thomson Hall

April 14, 2015 was a special day for me. I got to hear two of my greatest personal heroes together on the same stage doing what they do best: creating music.

In 1978 Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea embarked on a tour which culminated in a recording of live piano duo performances that has become a classic, perhaps even a touchstone, to which all jazz piano duos are compared. Nearly 40 years later they’ve reunited.

Luckily I had the opportunity to witness them live at a sold-out show in Massey Hall.

Read more: Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock at Massey Hall

Scene from Force Majeure

Force Majeure’s recent Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film gave Swedish director Ruben Östlund a well-deserved higher profile and a touring program of his four feature films and two shorts. TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting this retrospective from April 9 to 14 with one showing of each.

Anyone familiar with Östlund’s surgically precise and unfailingly perceptive detailing of the breakdown of family dynamics in Force Majeure (showing April 14), a caustic moral tale worthy of Eric Rohmer, may be interested in the evolution of its director’s art.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Ruben Ostlund Retrospective

In the enchanting fable Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, an alienated 29-year-old Japanese Office Lady (a kind of corporate executive assistant) becomes obsessed with finding an attaché case filled with money that she believes is buried near Fargo, North Dakota. Her information has come from a VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo which she believes is based on real events. (She found the tape while treasure hunting in a cave near the ocean.) On her company’s credit card she flies to Minneapolis in the middle of winter to pursue her dream. Ignoring the sage advice of helpful strangers she meets along the way, she eventually finds herself face to face with her Fargo reverie.

Director David Zellner’s direction, Sean Porter’s artful einematography and Rinko Kikuchi’s characterization are equally rigorous. Kikuchi, nominated for an Oscar in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, combines a naive charm with quiet determination as she pursues her particular version of the American dream.

Rinko Kikuchi

Read more: Music and the Movies: Kumiko The Treasure Hunter; Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

The 22nd incarnation of the Canadian international documentary festival known as Hot Docs runs from April 23 through May 3 at various locations in Toronto. If you look carefully in Section E: The ETCeteras, beginning elsewhere on this page, you will find an entry for it in the Screenings section. Here are details on many of Hot Docs’ 17 music-centric films.

Around the World in 50 Concerts: Definitely one to look forward to. Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann’s keen eye followed the Concertgebouw Orchestra from Buenos Aires to Soweto to St. Petersburg as the acclaimed orchestra celebrated its 125th anniversary by playing 50 concerts in six continents. The Hollywood Reporter’s Neil Young enthused about the mutually beneficial relationship between the musicians and their audiences that forms the film’s core. April 24, 23, May 1, 3

Music Lessons: Hot Docs head honcho Brett Hendrie writes that filmmaker Michael Mabbot uses this 20-minute film to take us behind the scenes at Sistema Toronto “to see firsthand how [José Antonio Abreu’s] program is helping to build both community and a new generation of talent.” The world premiere screening will be followed by a live performance by the Sistema Toronto Yorkwoods Orchestra and a special in-conversation session at the Isabel Bader Theatre April 28 at 6:30 pm.


They Will Have to Kill Us First(above): Award-winning American-born, UK-based filmmaker Johanna Schwartz tells the tale of Malian musicians who were forced to flee or go into hiding after Jihadists took control of the North of their country a few years ago and instituted extreme sharia law. They cannot imagine life without music, so they continue to play despite the risk. It’s the documentary counterpart to Abderrahmane Sissako’s memorable 2015 Oscar-nominated Timbuktu. April 26, 28, 30

What Happened, Miss Simone?: Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World) weaves together rare archival footage and interviews with Nina Simone’s closest confidantes and collaborators to paint a picture of an extraordinary musical talent who had a lot of personal and political issues. Using previously unreleased audio recordings, Garbus enables Simone to tell her story in her own words. It’s a story I can’t wait to experience.April 29, May 1, 2, 3


Lowdown Tracks: According to programmer Alex Rogalski, filmmaker Shelley Saywell and singer and activist Lorraine Segato of The Parachute Club, inspired by depression-era recordings of early American folk songs, set out to document a new catalogue of songs and stories from five of Toronto’s modern troubadours, unknown buskers whose songs fill subway platforms and street corners and whose personal histories vary as much as their voices. A soundtrack evolves from the island ferry docks and freeway underpasses, rooming houses and rooftops, showing us that music is the common language in this empowering celebration of survival. April 25, 27, May 2

Sweet Micky for President: Justin Lowe wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “When it comes to getting out the vote, music can make all the difference in an electoral campaign. In the 2010 Haitian presidential election, it was professional musicians who made the difference, however. Former Fugee’s rapper Pras Michel endorsed musician and candidate Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly, actively backing him throughout his eventful campaign. Filmmaker Ben Patterson captures the candidate and his supporters in close-up for his dynamic debut feature.” Winner of both the Audience and Jury Prizes for Best Documentary at the Slamdance Film Festival. April 29, May 3

DocX Virtual Reality Showcase – Four short films employing revolutionary technology: Take a breathtaking voyage through the Northwest Passage in Polar Sea 360°; transport yourself to the stunning landscapes of Mongolia and into the lives of nomadic yak herders in Herders. Measha Brueggergosman takes users with her on a personal voyage through Canada and Cameroon as she performs a selection of spirituals in Songs of Freedom. Strangers With Patrick Watson, an intimate and understated virtual reality project, invites users to go behind the scenes with the Montreal singer-songwriter as he works on his music at home in his studio loft. The 20-minute exhibit is free to view at the Isabel Bader Theatre from April 24 to May 1, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm.

There are many more for the intrepid doc explorer to seek out. As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM examines the brief life of million-dollar DJ, Adam Goldstein. Breaking a Monster looks at the price three tween boys from Brooklyn pay to satisfy the demands of the music industry. Adam Lough’s Hot Sugar’s Cold World follows beats generation superstar Nick Koenig (Hot Sugar) as he creates one-of-a-kind music made entirely out of sounds from the world around him even as his high-profile girlfriend dumps him. Judging by its Sundance critical raves, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a fascinating portrait of the grunge icon. Finally there is no excuse to miss Mavis! a doc that chronicles the six-decade musical odyssey of the legendary gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples complete with her own memories of a life inextricably linked to civil rights.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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