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

Please click on photos for larger images.

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

Please click on photos for larger images.

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

nic gotham 2The title of John Terauds’ July 28, 2013 blog reads, “Composer and jazz musician Nic Gotham left eclectic legacy in Canada and Latvia.” Those stark words all too briefly sum up the career of Nicholas Ivor Gotham, cut painfully short at 10:12pm July 25, 2013 in Toronto.

The previous night Gallery 345, on Sorauren Avenue in Toronto, hosted an unusual, celebratory concert of Gotham’s music. Some 200 friends and fans jammed into the long gallery space, attracted by Nic’s selected compositions which were played by a large ensemble of his Toronto colleagues. Among the works performed were excerpts from Oh, Pilot (2000), a chamber opera for four singers with thelibretto and direction by Baņuta Rubess. The heartfelt tribute evening wrapped up with a 2009 video of the cheeky James in Peril  “from the soundtrack to an imaginary Bond film” with Gotham rendering a passionate-yet-cool post-bop-inflected sax solo with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.

Read more: Nic Gotham (1959-2013): Jazz Saxophonist, Composer of Most Performed Canadian Opera - Obituary and...

magnum trio cfa articleOn Canada Day weekend, flutists from all over the world flocked to Oakville, Ontario, for the Canadian Flute Association’s first ever Canadian Flute Convention. Hosted at the beautiful lakeside Appleby College, the three-day convention welcomed over 300 flute-playing participants for three days of recitals, masterclasses, lectures, workshops and of course, flute shopping.

I made the trek down to Oakville with high hopes, and was not disappointed. Planning an inaugural event of this scale is certainly no small feat, and yet this weekend was an effective first step in the right direction for not only flutists but for all music and musicians in Canada. Among the hundreds of attendees, I saw new friendships formed and old colleagues and classmates reunited – including some reunions of my own. What’s more, Samantha Chang and the CFA’s stellar programming made the most difficult part of the convention just having to choose between three or four interest-piquing events sometimes occurring simultaneously. And needless to say, I listened to a lot of great flute music.

Read more: Taking the Plunge – The First Canadian Flute Convention

Please click on photos for larger images.

Lou Reed’s iconic 60s anthem Walk on the Wild Side encapsulated the sound of the decade with the line “And the coloured girls go Doo do doo do doo do do doo.” Right off the top of Twenty Feet from Stardom (currently at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema) filmmaker Morgan Neville’s exuberant homage to the unheralded backup singers who were an integral part of the music of an era, Darlene Love, Janice Pendarvis and Merry Clayton have a joyful reunion where they spontaneously go “Doo do doo do doo do do doo.”

Neville’s instructive documentary then proceeds to illuminate the joys of music making when the people you need to make happy are the people you’re working for. Focusing on the signature voices of (mostly) women who helped make other people stars, the film is a breezy 90-minute jukebox that puts its subjects in a historical context, incorporates major talking heads (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder) and throws in some academic analysis from Dr. Todd Boyd who talks about “the transformative sound coming out of the backup singers.”


Springsteen is more direct: “It [Phil Spector’s He’s a Rebel] was the sound of youth. You started to pick up that voice [Darlene Love at 18] and you started to have an allegiance to that voice.” Spector made Love the voice of The Crystals who lip-synched to their hits. Love and her girl group, The Blossoms, were the wallpaper of early 60s pop but she walked away from Spector in the 70s, no longer able to bear being exploited by him.

Forced to work as a cleaning woman, she found herself cleaning a house in Beverly Hills when her 1963 hit, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), came on the radio. She realilzed that she needed to sing (and move to New York City), beginning a rebirth, a solo career and 25 appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman.

But the iconic Love is the exception.

“We come in and sing the hooks,” says noted backup singer and current associate professor of voice at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Janice Pendarvis. “To blend and mesh with the other voices is awesome,” she adds.

“All the harmonies ping,” says jazz singer Jo Lawry, who currently backs up Sting.


“Some people will do anything to be famous, and then other people will just sing,” says Lisa Fischer, the revelation of the film. “I love melodies,” she adds, after scatting effortlessly. In Hounds of Winter, Sting described her as having an “extraordinary ghostly voice.” Trumpeter Chris Botti (with whom she has been performing jazz the last few years) calls her “a freak of nature” noting that Sting turned her “powerhouse voice” loose. She’s been on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989. (Her description of her audition for Mick Jagger was cut from the finished film -- when she started to sing, Jagger got up from his desk and walked over and began moving with her.)

Fischer explains her stunningly beautiful, lullaby-like version of Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night this way: “You just let yourself go. You never hit your head, you just land.”

She learned a lot about breath from Luther Vandross (who started as a backup singer himself). “Can you give it to me with more air,” he once asked of her.

Springsteen remembers being invited by David Bowie to Philadelphia in 1973 when Vandross was one of the backup singers in Bowie’s Young Americans band: “They bring a world with them,” Springsteen said.

The enthusiastic Waters Family seems happy with its backup role. According to Springsteen they secularized the gospel sound. You may not know them but you’ve heard them singing on the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland/Disney World, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the theme from Growing Pains and even producing bird sounds for the movie Avatar.


Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker, among other Brits, wanted to sound black and needed backups to do so. Mick Jagger describes Merry Clayton’s work on Gimme Shelter this way: “She sings the lyrics right along with me with a lot of personality.” And when she sang “rape, murder, just a shot away,” Clayton had the good musical sense to go up another octave.

(Clayton willed herself to be a Raelette and then one day Ray Charles was waiting for the right note from her in his choir. Not getting it he punched it out repeatedly on the piano in front of 5,000 people.)

Why do they not make it as up front stars? Lou Adler simply says of Clayton: “Stardom eludes her.” Stevie Wonder is more articulate, talking about the importance of the material you choose and how you work with producers. Sting points out that “It’s not a level playing field, it’s circumstance, luck, destiny – I don’t know what it is.”


But if it takes ego, self-promotion and an understanding of the business to break out, why not satisfy your love of singing and serve another master?

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