Conversations <at> goes on the road as David Perlman talks with early music specialist and soprano Suzie LeBlanc.

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bax chung 3Walter Hall was filled October 17 for the first concert of the 116th season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. The husband-and-wife team of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung brought the enthusiastic audience to its feet with the centrepiece of their varied recital, Stravinsky’s original transcription for piano four hands of his second ballet, Petrushka. Bax spoke to the audience mentioning the work’s origins as a rehearsal piece for Diaghilev’s dancers and then added an anecdote about his own obsession with it since he was eight years old.

Bax had been studying and thinking about this version for several years when the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival suggested he and Chung team up for a two piano/four hands concert in 2004. The two weren’t yet married but had known each other since meeting at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 1997. Bax had finally found a partner for a piece of music he had literally been carrying around for almost two decades. A more elaborate version of the story can be found in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post earlier this year.

Onstage at Walter Hall, each pianist sat on the edge of a piano bench turned 180 degrees and placed side by side. Chung, sitting closer to the audience, played the primo part, while Bax manned the pedals and reached in between Chung’s hands on several occasions. Even turning the pages of this cravenly complicated score was a feat of legerdemain.

Without the colours of the orchestra in play, the rhythm comes much more to the fore in this version. Chung’s prodigious accuracy was uncanny. And the two players’ cohesion in maintaining their togetherness in the face of enormous technical challenges was remarkable as they conveyed Stravinsky’s ingenious emphasis on the beat in his transcription. Whether capturing the full orchestra feeling in Scene IV (“The Shrovetide Fair [Towards Evening]”), the captivating depiction of dancing puppets or the otherworldly ending, Bax & Chung’s performance was brilliant --even as Chung played right on top of Bax’s fingers or Bax reached far into the upper register over Chung’s hands.

bax chung 1After intermission, each pianist revealed a solo side before reuniting for their arrangement of a group of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Bax delivered clear-eyed melodic lines in Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 and his own arrangement of the composer’s Vocalise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 34, No. 14, perhaps most familiar as a violin encore. No chickens were harmed in these non-schmaltzy performances.

Chung then took to the piano in two Scriabin preludes and two etudes by Ligeti. She brought out the lines of Op. 16, No.1 in B impressively and made the dreamy evanescence of Op. 11, No. 21 in B-flat memorable. The Ligeti pieces, Nos. 11 and 10 from Book II, were conveyed with great clarity, the pianist skillfully singling out the melodic line above the African-based rhythms of No. 10, which, curiously enough, resembled those of Petrushka.

The Piazzolla tangos – on the basic score of which, as Chung put it in her introduction, the duo improvises -- found Bax playing the primo part with Chung doing the pedalling. The melody carried the first, “Lo Que Vendra,” while the couple’s understated romanticism literally and figuratively – Chung looks knowingly at Bax before he moves into a slow elaboration of the tune -- shone through in “Milonga del Angel.” One of the composer’s major works, “Libertango," brought the printed program to a satisfying conclusion. Here the arrangement was more complex and the duo’s interplay more back and forth and intricate, though no less intimate. The encore, Piazzolla’s Tango No. 2, proved to be a bittersweet farewell to two new musical friends.

On November 19, Signum Classics will release Bax & Chung’s new CD with music by Stravinsky, Brahms and Piazzolla.

It is not everyday that you have the opportunity to sit and listen for five and one half hours to one slowing unfolding piece of music.  But that’s exactly what was happening at the Music Gallery in Toronto on October 14 as part of their X Avant VIII New Music festival.  The piece is called String Quartet #2, quite a nondescript title for something so epic, written by American composer Morton Feldman in 1983.

Undertaking this discipline of mind and body was the FLUX quartet from New York, who perform this ritual about once a year.  And what I heard via the grapevine after the show was that the players noted how attentive the Toronto’s audience was, with much less moving around than in other performances they’ve given. 

Read more: A Slow-Motion Rave - The FLUX quartet performs Morton Feldman’s String Quartet #2

The opening concert of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music festival began with a huge explosion of energy Friday, October 11. The high-octane sounds coming from the Gordon Grdina Trio set the stage for the Montreal-based Quartetski and their retake of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  As I mentioned in my October WholeNote column, this work caused a riot when it premiered 100 years ago in Paris.  As I was sitting listening to the brilliance of this reworking of the original, I couldn’t help but wonder how those audiences of 1913 would respond.  I imagined Stravinsky himself with a huge wide grin dazzled by the eclectic palette of sounds, many of which would have been unheard of in his day. As for the audiences?  Perhaps so shocked and stunned they wouldn't be able to move, let alone begin a riot.   

quartetskiblogBut back to the music and its brilliance.  For starters, there was the instrumentation:  viola da gamba, violin, drums and eclectic percussion, various sound/noise objects, electric guitar with effect pedals, bass clarinet and soprano sax. But it was the seamless movement between scored sections and improvisation that captured my attention. The referencing of the original music was unmistakable -- the familiar melodies and the driving rhythms.  But with the addition of improvisation, the individual virtuosic skills of each player shone; they approached their instruments as full-on sound generators including saxophone multiphonics, the bowing of the tailpiece of the gamba and a scratchy LP recording.  One of my favourites was a DIY noise machine made by putting a stick in a styrofoam ball and placing it on a moving potter’s wheel, with the styrofoam ball acting as the sound resonator. You can see this white ball on the left in the photo. 

After the concert, I asked the group’s founder and viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel about how this piece came together.  He told me that after listening to various orchestral versions, he studied  the two-piano reduction created by Stravinsky. He proceeded from there to make an arrangement based on each player’s skills and unique talents.  One of his fascinating ideas was to use various lines from the orchestral score that would not normally be heard so distinctively -- such as the tuba and flute parts.  His creation was then brought to the group and honed into its final form through a collective process of improvisation and revisions. 

To give you a taste of the imaginative melding of score and improvisation, here's a clip of the opening four minutes, thanks to  Joe at Mechanical Forest Sound. It begins almost imperceptively with static-like sounds before we hear the familiar haunting opening melody. Then hold onto your hat as the sonic roller coaster kicks in.

To read more about Quartetski and listen to other audio clips go to

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In a historic concert at Roy Thomson Hall on October 6, Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s first three ballet scores. It is unlikely these three masterpieces of early 20th century music had ever been heard before in Toronto on the same program. According to the Carnegie Hall notes for a similar concert in New York several days later, Stravinsky himself conducted all three there in 1940 but used a suite version of The Firebird rather than the complete work that Gergiev programmed. By performing all three scores as they were first heard in 1910 (The Firebird), 1911 (Petrushka) and 1913 (The Rite of Spring) and in chronological order, Gergiev gave us the rare gift of the rakish composer’s progress from the height of romanticism to the birth of modernism.

valery gergiev foto stina gullander sr

Gergiev conducted without a baton but each of the fingers on his right hand, seemingly independent, directed the tempo and entrances, while his fluttering left hand occasionally rose to sweep his thinning hair back into place. The result was faultless, precise tuttis contrasted with transparency when appropriate, whether in woodwind interplay or solo strings. (In a New York Times Magazine profile from 2009, the principal clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra [Gergiev’s other musical child], revealed that it is the conductor’s expressive face, from the eyes to the mouth, that is the real source of his power).

The Firebird is a rich, colouristic playground of narrative that demands impeccable playing from every corner of the orchestra. From the early solo viola to the violin that announces the first trumpet solo, followed by the muted French horn’s entrance and the full horn section’s dialogue with the strings, to the oboe-clarinet-bassoon tune that leads into the strings’ mournful lament, the first half of the piece was a shining example of the conductor’s controlled reading of the score.

And so it continued, with the strings’ extraordinary precision from tremulousness to sudden stops, abrupt mood swings and consistent ensemble runs, in the face of the brass’ yattering exclamations and the soulful bassoon and beautiful final French horn solo, the string playing was never overblown or sentimental. Gergiev built the climax slowly; it was steady and heady until the tempo picked up and the brass triumphed leading to an immediate standing ovation.

 gergiev and orchestra of the mariinsky theatre 1

After the first of two intermissions, Petrushka began with an impetuous rush before moving into the bucolic hemisphere of the country fair and the iconic dance-like flute solo that seemed to announce Stravinsky’s move from the 19th to the 20th century even as the cornucopia of folk rhythms and melodies confirmed it. A bonus of the 1911 version of the piece was the extensive use of the piano, both solo and in dialogue with the flute in particular. Apart from a brief trumpet solo that lacked the control that was so evident throughout this momentous concert -- which began at 2:15pm and finished at 5:05 -- the orchestra shone in the composer’s generous solo writing.

And as the snare drum motif led into a sumptuous conflation of tune and tutti followed by a de facto oboe and string quintet that moved into unbridled lyricism, Gergiev made sure to emphasize the bass notes in advance of the pure joy that ends in the proverbial whimper, always allowing the interior voices to be heard.

The Rite of Spring, arguably the most rhythmic orchestral music since Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, followed the second intermission. Here the wonderful transparency of the orchestra brought out the cacaphony of the score, the sinuous viola solo (from a violist who, charmingly, couldn’t stop smiling whenever he soloed) and the languor transformed into rancour. Two exquisite moments of silence held by Gergiev’s outstretched right hand caught an audience so attentive that not one cough was heard. The clarity of the whole orchestra was remarkable as Gergiev made the pagans dance.

Toronto was fortunate to be one of only four cities (Chicago, New York and Washington were the others) to hear the Stravinsky program on the orchestra’s two-week tour of North America. During the tour, Gergiev also conducted two operas at the Met, Shostakovitch’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. After a concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Montreal on October 4, Gergiev conducted a matinee of Onegin in New York on October 5, before the concert at Roy Thomson Hall the following afternoon. Whew.


Sound and art installation World Without Sun by Christine Davis, from Nuit Blanche 2012.Now in its eighth year, Toronto's adaptation of the all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche is right around the corner. From 6:51pm tomorrow (Saturday, October 5) until sunrise the city will be invaded by contemporary art projects – visual art, multimedia works, film, and of course, sound and music installations. It's Toronto in an alternate reality – slightly weird, quite impressive and buzzing with artistic enthusiasm. In other words, a must-see.

In the plethora of curated and independent projects on the streets tomorrow, music and sound art can get lost in the commotion. Here are a few promising-looking projects for the music-loving night owl this weekend.

A Touch of Light – Canadian Music Centre. For this year's “white night” the Canadian Music Centre has organized 12 hours of live piano performances by some of the best in local and Canadian talent – accompanied by a brilliant light installation of over 100 incandescent light bulbs that process the music visually. It's all night at 20 St. Joseph Street – check out more info here.

Film and music are pairing up this year as well, with film and live music duos presented by both TIFF and art collective Negative Industries. TIFF’s Strange Science/City Symphonies pays tribute to the age of silent cinema at the Bell Lightbox, with a series of silent films with live piano accompaniment (details here).                                                                                          

Negative Industries, stationed at Church of the Redeemer at 162 Bloor St. W., presents a “science musical documentary” that synchronizes multiple screens of video with music, sound and live performance (here).

Music Box – John Dickson. Part of the curated PARADE exhibition along University Ave., Music Box is a kinetic sound sculpture – a mechanical float that creates a cacophony of musical noise. Using actual instruments and powered by a central motor, this installation is being described as reminiscent of a surreal, noisemaking cuckoo clock. Seems worth checking out – details about the project here

New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) and Artscape Wychwood Barns are also participating in the fun this year, with a project by Lawton Hall at 601 Christie St.  Entitled This Place is No Place, it’ll be a night-long installation of found images and mechanical sounds, fashioned into a multisensory, imaginary landscape. Plan to be there at 9pm, 11pm or 1am – at these times, you’ll find improvisatory performances using the installation as a musical instrument. For new music fans, it’ll definitely be worth checking out.

Finally, less in the music-realm but simply too much fun to omit are My Virtual Dream and Echo Chasm, interactive multimedia installations that intend to immerse participants in sound and the creative process. Baycrest Health Sciences and U of T’s Faculty of Medicine are setting up shop outside U of T’s Pharmacy Building with “The Virtual Brain” – a computer designed to catalogue and diagnose brain activity that has been hijacked for one night to create an audiovisual virtual dream experience. By sending brain signals wirelessly through headsets, participants get the chance to co-create a collective dreamscape of music and colour.  All the info here. With Echo Chasm, a project set up at the Royal Bank Plaza on Bay Street, participants can interact with echoes of themselves through video and sound installation.  Watch and listen to your previous self – details here.

Those are just a few picks of sound art to watch (and listen!) for this Saturday night. has details about all of the myriad projects underway tomorrow – so if you have a hankering for some contemporary art and music (or just have trouble falling asleep), take to the streets of the city and explore – perhaps we’ll see you there!

You can view a video of this entire conversation, or listen to a podcast of it by clicking here.

david perlman and austin clarksonAt some point in my recent conversation with musicologist Austin Clarkson he used the phrase “leapfrogging series of interactions” to describe the relationships among four composers, Anton Webern, Stefan Wolpe, Morton Feldman and John Cage.

“Stefan meets Anton and Morty meets John” is the title of an October 6 concert and accompanying seminar, both curated by Clarkson, to launch the 43rd season of New Music Concerts with whom Clarkson has had a relationship spanning more than two and a half decades. While the four composers in question never all met, the intersections of their lives and work make for an interesting daisy chain of musical thought and circumstance.

Clarkson explains: “Cage had met Morton Feldman at a concert in Carnegie Hall conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic playing the Webern Symphony Op.21. They both left the concert at the same time and Morty went up to John and said, ‘Wasn’t that beautiful.’ Because he [Feldman] had already seen John Cage at a meeting at one of the musicales at the Wolpe apartment uptown, and had not spoken to him. But this time he spoke to him.”

The date of this concert was January 26, 1950, and it was, by several accounts, a memorable occasion. Music writer Alex Ross, for one, in his book The Rest Is Noise asserts that the two left the concert early, equally disgusted at the reaction of the New York Phil audience to the Webern piece.

“Sounds as if it was in that mandatory ‘before the intermission’ slot for new music” I posit to Clarkson, and he briefly nods assent to the notion before carrying on with his story:

Read more: Composer Leap Frog with Austin Clarkson

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Two historical dramas, both inspired by true events, are appearing in Toronto theatres beginning August 16 and 23.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler (which opens first) follows the Civil Rights movement from the late 1950s tand the turbulent 60s right up to Obama’s election, all through the vantage point of a black White House butler, Cecil Gaines. Gaines’ character is based on Eugene Allen who served eight Presidents from Truman through Reagan (although the film has him beginning his service in 1957 to coincide with the first blast of the federal government’s interventionist role in Little Rock, Arkansas against the segregationist Governor Orville Faubus).


These history lessons never get old, from lunch counter sit-ins to the Bloody Sunday of the Selma march, the Freedom Bus incident with the Ku Klux Klan through the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rise of the Black Panthers, even as they are all too often subsumed by melodrama. That the film’s narrative is never completely thrown off its dynamic trajectory is chiefly due to Forest Whitaker’s nuanced, dignified performance in the title role (Oprah Winfrey is awards season bait as his wife). And to be sure, having one of his sons (played by David Oyelowo) become a participant in the struggles of the 1960s adds a special perspective to balance the cloak of invisibility that Gaines must wear in order to do his job.


The all-star cameo Presidential cast includes Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ (memorable sitting on the toilet while conducting a meeting with his advisors), John Cusack (laughable as Vice-President Richard Nixon, but curiously believable as President Nixon) and Alan Rickman (seemingly constipated) as a duplicitous Ronald Reagan.

The period soundtrack is at its best when it turns to R & B hits like Faye Adams singing “Hurts Me To My Heart” (1954) or Shorty Long doing “Function At The Junction.” Dinah Washington’s take on “I’ll Close My Eyes” (1956) enlivens the transition between Kennedy and Johnson; Gladys Knight brings great depth to Lenny Kravitz’s “You and I Ain’t Nothin’ No More.”

But the classical excerpts, like Gerald Robbins and the Moscow Philharmonic with Kenneth Klein conducting Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor are too nondescript to make a significant impact, beautiful as the music may be intrinsically. Mozart’s C Major Sonata, K. 545 and his Rondo No 2 for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373 are a solid upgrade on run-of-the-mill movie music but act only as a way to class up the production. Bach’s Praeludium from his Partita No. 1 stands out (undoubtedly because the pianist is Maria Joäo Pires), as does Walter Klien’s all-too-brief moment with Mozart’s Piano Variations on ‘Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.’


The Grandmaster conflates Wong Kar Wai’s best known film, the über romantic In the Mood for Love with his earlier martial arts homage to Sergio Leone, Ashes of Time. Warm strings and marching drums set up a kung fu match in the rain in Foshan 1936, a brassy orchestral combat between Gong Yutian the grandmaster of northern China and Ip Man (Wong favourite Tony Leung Chui Wai), from a well-to-do southern family. A piano solo introduces us to the Gold Pavilion brothel (which was a social club for martial artists) and to Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Lots of facial close-ups serve the iconographic landscape well. Operatic music in the vein of Lakmé follows the breaking of the cake dance, a marvellously well-choreographed battle of wits between Gong and Ip, which Gong wins.

The Japanese invasion is conveyed through the shattering of a Gong family portrait, like going straight to winter from spring. Meanwhile, Ip likewise refuses to collaborate and loses two daughters, moves to Hong Kong in 1950 to support what was left of his family bringing his Wing Chun style of kung fu A-game. (The film is filled with ritual and customs like Ip Man’s stylized acceptance of a cigarette from the “Tai Chi Master.”) The orchestral introduction to “Casta Diva” for a crucial knife fight shows the different use of classical music in the two films. Here it enhances, in The Butler it just fills space. We never hear the voice in the Bellini; Wong Kar Wai knows how to build and savour the romantic moment.


Hyper romantic diffused images and the warmth of a cello set the scene for Ip’s second meeting with Gong Er, in Hong Kong where she is a doctor, having renounced martial arts but paying physically for her old injuries as a martial artist.

“How boring life would be without regrets,” she says. feeding Wong’s remorseful bent, as the soundtrack resonates with the action on the screen; in The Butler the use of classical music feels slapped on.

Wong uses excerpts from several Chinese operas, Deborah’s theme by Ennio Morricone from Once Upon a Time in America, Stafano Lentini’s Stabat Mater for soprano and orchestra and original music by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi to enhance the rich imagery of his film. Meanwhile, the spirit of Wing Chun kept Ip Man going through the 1950s; his most famous pupil was Bruce Lee (an electrifying few seconds of a young boy smiling knowingly precisely capture his precocious talent).

David Perlman talks with Austin Clarkson.

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

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

labequeIn a concert August 1 in Koerner Hall that lasted four hours including two intermissions, pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque were joined by four younger musicians in a wide-ranging exploration of minimalism, arguably the most influential musical trend of the last 50 years.

Trying to place minimalism into a context that could resonate with some audience members, Toronto Summer Music Festival director Douglas McNabney said that it began in the art world as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism while in music it took the form of structurally simple, tonal and rhythmically regular pieces, in contrast to the serialism that had alienated much of the classical audience by the middle of the last century.

Read more: Toronto Summer Music Festival: The Minimalist Dream House Project

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