eccg - june 15  2014  3500x1908 Where to start with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan? Perhaps it’d be best to mention that I was there at the group’s genesis, invited by its composer/founder Jon Siddall. Over three decades later I’m still a proud member of its roster of musicians with 30 concerts seasons, international tours, over 200 new works and ten albums under its collective belt. While my bias here is clear, my tenure with ECCG as musician, composer, arranger and past artistic director also ought to qualify me to speak about its past and present projects with passion.

The ECCG has the distinction of being Canada’s first group playing music on an Indonesian gamelan (orchestra). Recently it has been digging into its first decade of commissions of foundational Canadian and American music for gamelan, some not heard this century.

ECCG artistic director Blair Mackay makes a case for these early works. “There are a handful of works from the 1983-1993 era that formed the basis of the ECCG sound as well as our overall approach to playing the actual instruments.” The eight-member group presents these foundational compositions in two intimate June concerts at the Arraymusic Studio, 155 Walnut Ave., Toronto. The first was staged on June 15 and the second will happen on June 22 at 8pm.

Read more: Canadian Music for Gamelan Turns 30: Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan Explores the Music of...

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Reuben Atlas’ The Brothers Hypnotic follows eight of Phil Cohran’s 23 offspring as they forge a career for the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble through fierce independence and musical smarts, moving from street performances to playing with Prince and Mos Def. But the film is also a tribute to the musical training their father gave them: “Long tones were the first things we ever learned. It’s the essence. One note. It’s meditation and it connects you to the universe. And because anything that’s worth anything lasts long.” The elder Cohran played trumpet with Sun Ra among others, but was at least as well known for his work with Chicago’s African-American community and his Afro arts centre. Just as important as their musical education was the self love and sense of identity he taught them, which enabled them to inspire and bring joy and happiness to people. The results are contagious and well worth seeking out at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, June 6 to 12.

Music-centric films were less evident in the 2014 Hot Docs than last year’s bountiful crop, yet there were a handful of notable movies that kept feet tapping and sent the mind reeling.

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Allan Hicks’ fearlessly intimate Keep On Keepin’ On focuses on the relationship between nonagenarian jazz trumpeter Clark Terry (b. 1920) and blind pianist Justin Kauflin who is in his early 20s. Terry joined the Count Basie band in his late 20s, describing it as prep school for the university of Ellingtonia and stayed with Ellington for a decade before becoming the first black musician hired by NBC (he was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, for example). He’s best known as a teacher, however, with his famous system of doodle-tonguing and thousands of students (Strikingly, Quincy Jones at 13 was his first.) spreading his philosophy of music far and wide.

Read more: Hot Docs 2014

On the road again, David Perlman talks with the TSO Artistic Director Peter Oundjian.

To hear the full conversation with Daniel Taylor 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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The Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) invariably includes movies in which music is the major force and this year’s 22nd edition (May 1 to 11) is no exception. From a thorough examination of Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red hot mamas,” to more conventional bios of Marvin Hamlisch and Lionel Bart, from a brief but focused look at Barbra Streisand’s roots in Brooklyn to a fascinating examination of the legendary jazz writer and tireless First Amendment advocate, Nat Hentoff, and a restored copy of the 1938 Yiddish-language film, Mamele, the TJFF has again unearthed evidence of the unmistakable ties between Jews and music.

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Read more: Toronto Jewish Film Festival

 

In March the Opera Division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its move to the Edward Johnson Building.  From March 20 to 23 the Opera Division will present Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring (1947), which was the first opera to be presented in the building’s MacMillan Theatre back on March 4,1964.  

This event provides an excellent occasion to look back on the past 50 years of the Opera Division.  Michael Patrick Albano has a fine perspective to offer since he came to Toronto in 1974 to study with Herman Geiger-Torel, who had been the Opera Division’s stage director since 1946 and was still the artistic director of  the Canadian Opera Company he had co-founded in 1950.  Albano is currently a senior lecturer and the resident stage director at the Opera Division, having directed over 40 operas for it including the Canadian premieres of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue, Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Kulesha’s The Last Duel.

The Edward Johnson Building was built because the Faculty of Music’s old premises could no longer accommodate the expansion of music programs in the 1950s.  In a recent interview, Albano explained the importance of the MacMillan Theatre to the opera division: “It is essentially a fully equipped opera house.  It has its present design because Geiger-Torel was associated with both the school and the COC.  At the time the COC had nowhere to rehearse, so Geiger-Torel urged the construction of such a large stage to give the COC somewhere to rehearse.  It is due to the foresight of Geiger-Torel and the other founders of opera in Toronto that the school has such a unique space.  Its stage is comparable in size to that of the current Sony Centre with a pit for up to 60 musicians, but it has an intimate auditorium with only 815 seats.”  This is ideal for students, as Albano notes, because: “With developing voices it’s great that they’re in a space where they don’t feel that have to over produce.  In the current economic climate the MacMillan Theatre simply could not be built today.”     

The MacMillan Theatre and the opera programming at the opera division are the two chief areas of study at the Division.  Albano has asked former students, as he did recently with John Fanning, what that they found most beneficial at the Opera Division and all of them agree that it is “being able to sing a full-length role in costume in a real theatre with an orchestra in the pit.”  He adds: “Just giving them the experience of singing in a real opera house, which is rare in North American opera schools, is something you don’t want forced upon you when you first have a professional job.”

Changes have occurred over the past 50 years.  The Opera Division introduced the use of surtitles in its 1999 production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, and, as Albano says, “has never looked back.”  Audience members have said they like surtitles even with English-language productions, and this will be the case with Albert Herring.  A partial effect of surtitles has been the gradual move away from the double and triple bills that the opera division used to perform to a concentration on full-length works. “The attraction for the students is doing a full-length role from beginning to end,” Albano says. The attraction for the Opera Division is the chance to present works on the edge of standard repertory like Chabrier’s L’Étoile or Britten’s Paul Bunyan that both complement the offerings of the COC and are ideal vehicles for developing voices.

 

As Albano notes, the Opera Division does its programming from the opposite point of view from a company like the COC.  “Unlike a professional opera company where they decide on the repertory and then engage the singers they want, we have to look at the roster of singers in our two-year program and decide what will work best for them.” 

Another change, begun in 1987, was the institution of programs for operatic répétiteurs and for student stage directors.  For Albano, this reflects the changing times since when he arrived and said he wanted to direct opera, no one knew what to do with him.  Now he is encouraged that the Division has so many applications for the stage direction program they can’t accept them all.  To him this is just a sign of how excited younger people are in opera as an art form.  Maria Lamont, the first graduate of the stage direction program, now has a career working for De Vlaamse Opera and is Robert Carsen’s choice for staging remounts of his work.  

In 1997 a student collective formed that was interested in writing operas.  Now opera writing has become a course.  Unique among other North American opera schools, the students at the Opera Division are able to see their work through from composition to a full staging.  The student-written Rob Ford the Opera was such a runaway success in 2012 that it proved there was a hunger among audiences for new opera in Toronto and a hunger for young singers to perform it.

The Opera Division has always offered acting classes for singers but over the years, as Albano notes: “They have become more codified and structured to give modern performers what they need to know.  The classes involve both practical instruction such as stage fighting and movement to role interpretation and the awareness of opera as theatre.  Gone is the era of ‘park and bark.’  Instruction has evolved with what the public now demands.”   

In summarizing what has changed, Albano says: “The huge difference to me in the evolution of the program is an effort at versatility, versatility, versatility.”  This means the introduction of works outside the 19th-century core repertoire to include the baroque as well as brand new operas.  This means training singers to be more versatile as performers.  This means offering the possibility of connecting with opera not just as a performer but as a composer and a stage director.  And this means exposing students to as many outside influences as possible through guest directors like Joel Ivany, who will direct Albert Herring, or guest conductors like Les Dala, who will conduct it.  As Albano says, “Versatility is important because the more versatile you are the more likely you are to be employed.”  All in all, Albano concludes, “I am very optimistic about the future.  The art form itself is in a healthy place.”

Albert Herring plays March 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30pm and March 23 at 2:30pm at the MacMillan Theatre.  For tickets call 416-408-0208 or visit performance.rcmusic.ca.

David Perlman talks again with composer, conductor and artistic director Stephanie Martin.

To hear the full conversation with Stephanie Martin 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.

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

It's a rare pleasure to hear Jean-Philippe Rameau played in North America, even though most music played today owes the man a heavier debt than is typically acknowledged. Rameau was a contemporary of J. S. Bach who began his career as a harpsichord virtuoso, composing three books of solo keyboard music, and his compositions for solo harpsichord rank as some of the most difficult and the most rewarding music composed for the instrument. Mid-career, Rameau became a music theorist and, along with Bach, an advocate of equal temperament. Rameau is probably most remembered today for his discovery that tonal music is made up of chord changes rather than intervals between notes, a tenet of music that still remains with us and is a guiding principle of classical, jazz and rock.

It's somewhat curious then, that after considerable success in two separate fields of music, he turned to writing opera at the age of 50, and stranger still that he would continue to do so after his first opera courted controversy and a fairly frosty critical reception.

The reasons some of the French public hated Rameau's operas hardly matter now. His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie was performed over 130 times during the composer's lifetime, proving once again that there is really no point in listening to critics. But it was certainly a pleasure to hear Voicebox's Opera in Concert series reviving Hippolyte for Toronto audiences Sunday afternoon at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, in a staged production with the help of Toronto's Aradia Ensemble. Despite the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday, Voicebox managed to draw an audience of over a hundred listeners. Clearly there are a few people in Toronto who either appreciate Rameau's status as the father of modern music or are aware that opera is less tedious, and involves less standing around waiting for something to happen, than professional football.

French opera is hard to do well, and Rameau is not kind to players. Aradia and Voicebox did a fine job of interpreting a difficult composer. Besides having a great band backing them up, Voicebox had a stellar lineup of soloists and a truly phenomenal choir to do justice to an under-appreciated composer. When this company puts on a fully orchestrated production, beautiful music happens. One wish though: the soloists had more than enough volume to dominate the orchestra. Could the band have been bigger? Or at the very least, louder?

Please click on photos for larger images.

In A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins’ engaging and wide-ranging cine-essay, the writer/director gathers clips from 53 diverse films to take the audience on a treasure trove of images and ideas.

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Cousins is best-known for the mammoth The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour, 15-episode compendium that was recently shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). In his latest rumination, an easy-to-digest 106-minute chamber piece, he begins by considering the view from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the painting he made of it.

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“Art shows us again and again that if we look closely, openly at a small thing, we can see lots in it,” Cousins points out in his lilting, Belfast narrator’s voice. The “small thing” he looks at next is a scene of his niece and nephew playing together in a room in a house in the North of England. Out of their interaction he discerns several characteristics, like shyness (“wariness”), anger (“strop”), social class and showing off (theatricality).

Each observation sends his mind roving, through a myriad of cinematic images stored over years of moviegoing and note-taking, so that by the end of this fascinating journey we’ve glimpsed parts of 53 films.

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It’s a very musical construct, the way the content is assembled, diverse scenes made into a whole, in no small part sewn together by the sound of the filmmaker’s own melodic voiceover. And helped immeasurably by choice excerpts from the “Première communion de la Vierge” from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus performed by pianist Hakon Austbo. The filmic excerpts, of course, are served up with their own distinctive, if not memorable soundtracks.

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Cousins’ supple transitions take us from a wary child in Chen Kaige’s Chinese masterpiece, Yellow Earth, through the cautious expressions early in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to the open shyness of Children in the Wind (Japan, 1937) to Jane Campion’s anxious protagonist in An Angel at My Table, to what Cousins calls “the glint of shyness” in Ghatashraddah (India, 1977), to an early, beautifully-lit Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961) and four more equally distinctive examples before we’re back in the room in England. Then it’s off to examine lives “railroaded by social class.”

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And more. Memorable in sum.

A Story of Children and Film is currently onscreen at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

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