The French Horn (called simply Horn by its players) has been called a Divine Instrument.  That is because although Man blows into it God alone knows what will come out.

Audience members  at St Paul’s Anglican Church on February 12, 2010 for the 4th Annual « Majesty of the Horn » concert who were in the « God only knows » camp would probably have been disappointed.

Read more: A Review of International Horn Day 2010

Now that’s more like it.

For the first time in the Royal Conservatory’s ‘Aspects of Oscar’ series that has illuminated the wondrous acoustics of sparkling venue Koerner Hall the concert lived up to its billing.

The spirit of the great Oscar Peterson seemed clearly channeled on Jan. 29 in the third series presentation under the title ‘Oscar’s Trios”. Mind you, the trio on stage frequently became a quartet but surely no one in the Hall complained about shifting semantics.

Read more: Aspects of Oscar Blog 3

The nominees for the 40th anniversary of the JUNO Awards were announced this morning in Toronto and, to their credit, CARAS did a fine job of spreading the focus across a range of musical genres and cultures at the presentation. Although we all know the big draws will be the pop acts like Justin Bieber and Drake--who is hosting the awards show on March 27 and snagged six nominations--the jazz, classical and world music categories were also given their due.

Read more: JUNO Nominations

Time is one of life’s greatest luxuries – and in timeless New York City, it flies by faster than the speed of lights! I initially planned to write a daily blog about my mid-December trip to NYC, but upon arriving I realized that I didn't want to waste a minute on the computer, so I saved the write-up for when I got home. Here I am, back in the big smoke – which now seems smaller and considerably less smoky!  In a mere five days I experienced glimpses of Harlem, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Soho and Greenwich Village. The purpose of my trip was to meet legendary vocalist Annie Ross and check out some jazz open mics along the way. Here are some of the highlights of my trip:


Peterson was not noted primarily for his solo playing, and thus titling the second in the five-part Aspects of Oscar series at Koerner Hall ‘Oscar Solo’ was somewhat misleading.

There’s no doubt veteran pianist McCoy Tyner was familiar with OP or that Cuban newcomer Alfredo Rodriguez (making his Canadian debut) knew his playing – as both affirmed during an intermission chat at the Dec. 11 concert – but the idea of paying tribute to our jazz legend’s solo legacy was not sustainable as a concept.

Read more: Oscar Peterson Blog 2

pretzelking_micheal_schade_001In this charming photo (Geneva, Christmas 1967)  Michael Schade may look like he is wearing his Idomeneo crown , or preparing for a gig with the baker's guild in Die Meistersinger, but in fact he was all dressed up and ready to go out into the night as a Sternsinger.

The charming Epiphany custom of the "Star Singers", inspired by the travels of the Three Kings, is still very much alive in Bavaria and Austria. From New Year through January 6, children, dressed as the kings, and a child holding up a large star, go from door to door, singing  about how they are really excited that Jesus was born. They bless the house and its inhabitants for the new year, and for this they receive money or sweets. Formerly the collected donations went to unemployed craftsmen and veterans, today they go to charities of the church or the Third World.

Read more: "What Child is THIS?"

p11An intimidating soloist, a superb technician, a vivid improviser, an impressive accompanist, a formidable group leader, a master of swing, melody and harmony, the leading pianist of his generation – and without doubt the most important figure in Canada’s jazz history. Who else but Oscar Peterson?

Millions of words have been etched about the life of the Montreal-born, Mississauga-based star who died three years ago at 82, but the latest testament to his greatness is a series of five live concerts that began October 30 at splendid Koerner Hall. Conceived by Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s executive director of performing arts, and with input from Oscar’s widow Kelly, the series is titled Aspects Of Oscar.

Read more: Aspects of Oscar Blog 1

Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal

Conducted by Véronique Lacroix

The Music Gallery, St. George the Martyr Church, 197 John Street, Toronto

Sunday, November 14, 2010


•           Simon Martin (Canada 1981) Musique d'art pour orchestre de chambre

•           Christopher Mayo (Canada 1980) Binding the Quiet

•           Cassandra Miller (Canada 1976) Concerto for Violin and Blindfolded Ensemble (a set of extravagant competitions)

•           Gordon Williamson (Canada 1974) anticipation, emancipated

Toronto audiences are unaccustomed to judge composers at music concerts. Sitting in front of a mic on the Music Gallery “stage,” our MC invited the audience to do just that. “Please vote for your favourite composer tonight. Whether your vote is cast for the composer’s hairstyle or musical aesthetic is up to you. Submit your ballot at the end of the show. And let’s all stop the gravy train!” So began his tongue-in-cheek introduction to the ECM+ concert presented by New Music Concerts at The Music Gallery.

While the introductory tone was playful, the Audience Choice Award ballot turned out to be genuine. Also very real was the top notch playing of ECM+ energetically conducted by Véronique Lacroix, a group which evidently takes its challenging programme of band-new Canadian concert music quite seriously. ECM+ took its programme called “Génération 2010” on the road across Canada. The seven-city concert tour presented (at its Toronto stop) works by four Canadian composers, all under the age of 35: Simon Martin, Christopher Mayo, Cassandra Miller, and Gordon Williamson.

Young for established composers they may be, but these artists already possess successful international composition careers. They also each already have a self-possessed, individual aesthetic sense and musical identity. All four have had European as well as Canadian commissions, and three currently live and work overseas. Despite the emerging individual voices on display, taken as a whole, these fresh compositions (all completed this year) gave the impression of a consistency of aesthetic goal. Among the key characteristics shared by the works is their questioning of aspects of standard concert music as practiced in the first decade of the 21st century.

The evening began with Gordon Williamson’s delicate-sounding work anticipation, emancipated. Employing extended instrumental techniques to generate abstract musical textures that appeared to avoid consonant intervallic confluences, Williamson sought to focus our attention on the experience of music as a “steady state” field. The title suggests a musical experience which the audience can enjoy a brief respite from the need to control, to predict. Hearing the complex mesh of sounds performed by the skilled ECM+ ensemble bore out that prediction – audience members could comfortably ride their personal sonic wave.

Christopher Mayo’s Binding the Quiet initially seemed to evoke natural soundscapes such as shifting wind-like sounds, with few pitch references. The rustle of crumpled paper emerged time and time again throughout the piece sounding subtly through the thickening instrumental textures. A constantly varied melody eventually emerged from the sonic mesh, gained rhythmic distinction, and then faded. The surprisingly rich sounds of crumpled paper (used before, most memorably in an early Tan Dun work) echoed in my mind.

Musique d’art pour orchestre de chambre, Simon Martin’s somewhat overly self-consciously titled work, seemed to take the opposite tack of Mayo’s focus on the exploration of non-pitched ensemble textures. Martin went directly to the jugular of one pitch and passed it about the group, culminating in an aggressive virtuoso effect-rich electric guitar solo by Montreal’s Tim Brady.

Perhaps the most unusual and work on the programme was Cassandra Miller’s Concerto for violin and blindfolded ensemble (a set of extravagant competitions), a work jam-packed with layers of possible meanings. On one level it explored the complex ways emotion engages with virtuosity and with concert conventions. The notation system used for her concerto was verbal (apparently, since there was no score or parts to be seen on stage). Miller required the musicians, including the violin soloist, to wear blindfolds to ensure they were not getting visual cues from each other. Eliminating the sense of sight from the work seemed not to be a mere gimmick, however, but an integral aspect of the philosophical underpinning of the work’s performance. Judging from the fluid music-making the score engendered, this blind strategy appeared to enhance musical collaboration between the performers, a process the composer calls “co-operative listening.”

What are the “extravagant competitions” in the title? In each of the six sections a key emotion is highlighted and expressed through purely musical means. The performers then compete with each other to play in the most emotive manner possible. The six colourful and unexpected competitions are

•           Loneliness

•           Smoking – Stillness (time standing still while smoking a cigarette)

•           Lamentation

•           Boastfulness

•           Violin solo (this is a story rather than a competition)

•           Prayerfulness

Overall, I found this to be a collegial concerto. The violin, while acting as leader (there was no conductor in the performance), provided gentle direction, allowing the other musicians ample room for self-expression, proposing a co-operative alternative to the usual competitive role of the concerto soloist. The soloist was however given a few places to shine, and violinist Véronique Mathieu rose to the challenge with a few brief but satisfying passages of bravura fiddling.

Who won the Audience Choice Award for its favourite composer? All I know is that I submitted my anonymous ballot. The winner will be announced at the end of the tour and presented with a cash prize plus a commission from Jeunesses Musicales of Canada.

On November 10, urbanvessel gave the world premiere of Voice-Box, the latest opera by Juliet Palmer. If the name of the company or composer rings a bell it’s because both created Stitch in 2008, an a-cappella opera for three women and three sewing machines. How often is a new Canadian opera brought back for a second run by popular demand? In Toronto, except for Nic Gotham’s Nigredo Hotel (1992), the answer is “Not often.” Yet, that kind fate is likely to befall Voice-Box. The work is so physical, so energetic and so clever in conception and execution that it should have wide appeal.

Like Stitch, Voice-Box is structured as variations on a theme and uses as its primary source of music the found sounds of the activity depicted. Stitch used three sewing machines from different periods to show how the machine was both liberating and enslaving for women. The sounds of the machines provided the only accompaniment. Voice-Box takes the subject of women's boxing (a sport not sanctioned until 1991). Its 75 minutes are organized as six rounds of a fight with comedian and boxer Savoy Howe progressing through each round to a new opponent. The first is a hilarious battle between Howe and pumpkin on a stool with only the rhythmic thuds of the punches and grunts of exertion as background. In the second bout, Vilma Vitols – whose real-life involvement in both opera and boxing inspired the show – is the opponent. Here the slow-motion fight with fierce hisses signaling each punch gradually speeds up to real time.

While Palmer is amazingly adept at finding the music in everyday sounds, Voice-Box, unlike Stitch, also includes formal composition. The entrance of each fighter is heralded by a pre-recorded, portentous Soviet-style march played on a synthesizer. One of the bouts is styled as a sensuous tango between Howe and Christine Duncan that Palmer herself accompanied on a melodica. Julia Aplin’s choreography humorously reveals the homoerotic side of battle. The work also includes ballet, most notably in a ferocious solo for Aplin who bursts blood capsules against herself in a depiction of the sport’s undeniable pain and violence all to Palmer’s frightening score written in the style of Swedish “death metal.”

In one of the interludes between bouts, Vitols, with a painted black-eye is given a forceful aria to the words “I’m not a victim. My ugly face can stop a punch.” This sums up the intent of the work in celebrating women’s power both vocally and physically. We assume a black eye means male versus female aggression. Voice-Box shows that women feel aggression too, and that sport serves as an outlet for it. The work concludes with Duncan throat-singing an ominous, wordless chant that evolves, when she is joined by four other singers arms outstretched, into the word “Durga.” Durga, as some may know, is the ten-armed, demon-slaying embodiment of Shakti or feminine energy in Hinduism. In the context of the opera this is the apotheosis of the woman-as-fighter. Palmer, Aplin and librettist Anna Chatterton thus strip away the carnivalesque atmosphere that has characterized the piece to reveal a truth about female power underrepresented in the West. It may be an eye-blackening experience for the cast but Voice-Box is an eye-opening piece of highly enjoyable music theatre for the audience.

Voice-Box runs in the Brigantine Room of York Quay Centre at Harbourfront to November 14 as part of World Stage 2010:11. For tickets or more information, phone 416-973-4000 or visit

Christopher Hoile

pianist_jiayan_sunAs we all know, Toronto’s classical music scene has a lot going for it. But one thing that’s never been established here is an ongoing international piano competition.

Back in 1985, the Bach International Piano Competition was launched with great fanfare. Unfortunately, it proved to be a one-off event. However, its first-prize winner, Angela Hewitt, achieved a distinguished international career – thereby endowing the ephemeral event with a 100 percent success rate, in terms of selecting laureates who go places.

In the first week of November, Toronto’s Chinese Cultural Centre attempted to fill this gap in the city’s musical life by launching the CCC Toronto International Piano Competition. A total of $28,000 cash was offered, a distinguished jury was convened, and competitors from ten countries (including Canada) were accepted into the competition.

I attended the last round, on November 8, at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall. This was the only round in which the competitors – narrowed down to field of three finalists – performed concertos. For this purpose, an orchestra of freelancers, under the baton of the conductor Kerry Statton, was assembled and given 24 hours notice to prepare a programme.

The soloists were Vakhtang Kodanashvili (born in the Republic of Georgia), who chose Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1; Kirill Zvegintsov (from Ukraine), who performed Ravel’s Concerto in G; and Jiayan Sun (from China), who played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2. Never, in my experience, has a competition winner been easier to pick from the field of contestants.

Kodanashvili and Zvegintsov played with strength and agility (respectively). But Sun – by far the youngest finalist, at 20 years of age – left the others in the dust. His performance wasn’t just good, it was masterful, with an intensity and sureness of direction that left this listener hanging on every note. I expect it took the jury about one minute to agree on awarding first prize to him. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we hear more from this young man, who is currently studying in New York.

And what of the event itself? Has Toronto finally found its way into the international piano competition circuit? Perhaps. The organizers hope to continue, with an international competition every other year, but it remains to be seen if they can make it happen. If they do, I hope the competition finds more pianists of Sun’s stature: until he started to play, I wouldn’t have said that the event had attracted any serious contenders for a major career. Organizers might also think about incorporating performance opportunities into their prize structure. The cash is nice, but engagements are what young musicians need most.

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