It’s a nice problem to have when renowned international musicians are clamouring to play in your concert venue – and according to Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s Executive Director of Performing Arts, no less than Yo-Yo Ma was one of the clamourers. As announced today, Ma will be opening Koerner’s second season on October 14 accompanied by Katherine Scott.
There’s a new jazz room in town, and it's a very welcome addition to what has become a meagre choice of jazz venues, given Toronto's size and sophistication. When I say “new” I hasten to add that there have been jazz concerts going on at The Old Mill Inn for some time now via the Home Smith Bar. As well, Jazz.FM91 has been running its Sound of Jazz concert series there for the last couple of years. But the Old Mill has also recently added regular jazz concerts in their main dining room via the Thursday Night Jazz Club.
I was there this past Thursday for one of my favourite singers, Karrin Allyson. Allyson and her trio appeared as part of the "TDJ Presents" series, which will see international artists playing once a month, courtesy of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival. The first set starts at 7:30, making it possible for morning people to actually get out and see some live music, have a drink or a meal, and still make it home before their coach turns into a pumpkin. And seeing a singer of Allyson’s calibre in an intimate setting like the Old Mill was a total treat.
Her appealing sandpaper-on-velvet voice sounded as good in person as it does on any of her 12 albums as she made her way through a range of styles like blues, swing and bossa nova. Always technically spot-on yet maintaining a relaxed, assured manner, she made that Brazilian tongue- and larynx-twister “O Pato” seem like a day at the beach. “Footprints,” the gorgeous Wayne Shorter cover from her 2006 album of the same name, was a case study in ballad singing.
The next in the "TDJ Presents" series is New York piano master Bill Mays, with Terry Clarke and Neil Swainson, on April 22. The Thursday Night Jazz Club will include regular big band nights, which is also a welcome addition, since there are so few clubs that can comfortably handle bands of that size. The next one is the Bob DeAngelis Champagne Big Band on March 25.
While I’m on the topic of jazz venues, I want to mention Koerner Hall’s phenomenal programming. Since it opened in the fall of ’09, Koerner has showcased an outstanding line-up of local and international acts from a range of musical genres. So I was delighted to note that this year it will be a part of the TD Canada Trust Jazz Festival, hosting such greats as David Sanborn, Roy Hargrove and Dave Brubeck. The opening night act is Nikki Yanofsky, who is fresh off her massive success at the Vancouver Olympics. (She was the voice we all heard on that earworm of an anthem, “I Believe.”) Yanofsky will be a fun way to start the festival off and to potentially introduce a new audience to the acoustical delights of Koerner Hall.
To mark four decades of Canada-China diplomatic relations, the China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra (CBTO) was invited to make their Canadian debut at the Roy Thomson Hall.
Let me explain. Sunday, Colin Eatock my editor said “What’s the title of your piece for this month?” (The table of contents had to go to the printer early, you see.) So I told him.
And now here I am, two days later, hoist with my own petard, wondering what the hell I was thinking of.
Maybe I was planning to write about the fact that up until the year of my birth, 1952, the Olympics offered medals for much more than sport. Canadian composer John Weinzweig, in fact, won a silver medal for composing at the 1948 London Games. I kid you not. But Martin Knelman at the Toronto Star scooped me on the Weinzweig story, almost two weeks ago. (He makes a habit of this sort of thing. Just ask the folks at the COC.)
It would have been a good story too. I would have started by musing on the irony that artists got booted from the Olympics in ‘52 because, the IOC said, the good ones were all professional, and therefore in violation of the Games’ principles of amateurism. And I would have finished by muttering darkly at how in Vancouver 2010 we couldn’t think of anyone better to light the torch symbolizing all that is good in amateur sport than an individual whose own career epitomizes the extent to which in North America professional, mercenary sport reigns supreme.
Or maybe I was thinking that I could find something interesting to say about the relationship between music and sport. And there probably is something worth exploring in that. “Compare and contrast the relationship of music and the Olympics to the relationships between a) music and supermarket shopping, b) music and winning lottery tickets, c) music and cellphones, d) music and academy award acceptance speeches … .”
Maybe I was just going to say something about wishing for the good old days of the CBC. Or wonder out loud why a song called “Both Sides Now” has three verses. Or why anyone would come up with an arrangement of “O Canada” for an occasion like this that would prevent the crowd from singing along.
Maybe I was intending to write about Measha Brueggergosman’s stirring rendition of the Olympic anthem. But I must confess that I swooned so deeply when k.d. lang began singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that I did not resurface until the flags were flying, so I’d be lying if I said I was really there for that moment.
Or maybe I thought there was something profound to be said about the role of music in figure skating. After all, figure skating is dancing on ice, right? And dancers … . Well, never mind.
I have my athletic trophy somewhere (unless my mother finally threw it away). It was the cup I won in grade one in the Northcliff Primary School sports day. First prize for … fanfare if you please … the under six musical chairs race. You know how it works, right? Twenty people traipse in a circle round nineteen chairs till the music stops. Then everyone races for a seat. The person left standing gets eliminated, another chair gets taken away, and so it continues until it’s just me and Philip Rogoff left, circling the one remaining chair. Waiting for the moment when the music stops, so we can go for gold.
And now? I’m sitting round waiting for the “going for gold” to stop, so I can get back to the music.
Guess I’ve got an an even worse than usual case of the Toronto end-of-February-tell-me-please-what-is-my-destiny blues.
And only music can cure that.
I heard pianist Angela Hewitt on Friday night, when she gave a recital at Roy Thomson Hall: Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. As the programme notes explained, this repertoire was chosen for a specific reason. These works were among the pieces she played on the same stage 25 years ago – in her successful effort to win first prize in the 1985 Toronto International Bach Competition.
Just how would the theatrical dance company Red Sky present the music of a spectacular integrated dance theatre work, by itself? I was curious to hear for myself at The Music Gallery on January 20.
With the passing of Mary Gardiner on January 30, Canadian music has lost a true leader. Mary’s extraordinary range of activities touched many lives and influenced many organizations.
Mary was an eloquent and persuasive advocate for Canadian music. She had a gentle manner, but she was fierce in her determination to get things done. Her tireless work with the Association of Canadian Women Composers, the Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects, and the Canadian Music Centre left an indelible mark. To honour her achievements, the CMC and the Canadian League of Composers gave her their Friends of Canadian Music Award in 2003, and the Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects established a scholarship in her name.
As a composer, pianist, conductor and teacher, Mary accomplished far more than she would ever admit to. Her own compositions have been recorded, broadcast, and performed around the world.
Mary led by example. Her kindness, generosity, elegance, marvelous sense of humour, unusual sensitivity, and reassuring confidence went far to help her accomplish so much. People listened to her.
A selection from recordings of Mary’s compositions can be heard on the Canadian Music Centre’s website: http://www.musiccentre.ca
We offer our deepest sympathies to her family.
Here's an artist, and a demo disc, worth talking about!
The intimate clarity Michelle Willis' Shining Bits and Pieces, an EP demo of original songs, captures and reveals every expressive nuance of the singer/pianists' silky voice. Twisting and turning, these songs explore the lyrics’ journey, creating musical textures that enwrap the listener. Shining does exactly that, glistening with freshness and energy.
The funky Quincy Jones-like groove of “Psychology” gives us a taste of Willis’ blues-R&B chops. She's able to make perfect sense of the quirky almost-anti-melodic semitone dissonance of “Rain,” and brings a wonderful spontaneity to “Weightless” and “Love Song.” Like other songs on this recording, “Open Hands” constantly entices and surprises with shifts of time, style, and texture. Backed by Heather Crawford (guitar), Charles James (bass), Shawn Rompre (drums), Kristjan Bergey (tenor sax) and vocalists Marla Walters, Janee Olivia and Andre Reid, Willis has a seemingly endless resource of vocal colours – breathy whisper, feline purr, bluesy growl, soulful wail – all used so naturally.
We’ll definitely be hearing more about this extremely talented singer-songwriter. In fact, you can hear her at the Rex this month, on February 9, 16, and 23, at 6:30 pm.
On January 20, TrypTych gave the world premiere of Frankenstein by Andrew Ager, composer-in-residence at Toronto’s St. James Cathedral. TrypTych has previously presented individual scenes from the opera, but on the 20th and 22nd (when I attended) we were supposedly seeing the completed work. I hope this is not true. The 70-minute minute piece has so much potential and Ager’s music so evocative that it really should be at least half again as long.
William Whitla’s five-scene libretto adheres closely to Mary Shelly’s original novel and thankfully dispenses with all of Hollywood accretions of schlock that have so distorted the tale. The opera, like the novel, is not a horror story but a philosophical meditation on the relation of creator and creation. Again and again there were moments when I wished the librettists would pause the action and allow characters to reflect more fully on their situation. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster both flee the laboratory after the Monster’s animation, but we really need to know more how each feels about that experience. The Monster peers in at the family he has secretly been helping. This would be a perfect time to have him reflect on the peace he sees inside and the alienation he feels outside. The use of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a parallel text in the De Lacey family scene could be much more extended.
There are dramaturgical problems. Frankenstein and the Monster should not really have their central encounter while a boy’s body lies ignores on the ground. The deaths of Frankenstein’s wife and brother really don’t need to be shown in the final scene since they tend to pitch the tone into melodrama, which it had till then avoided.
Despite this, the opera is gripping from start to finish. I wanted more because what there was, was so enjoyable. The librettists have boiled the story down to its bare essentials which are even more timely now when mankind really can artificially create life. Ager himself played the score on a grand piano, where it sounded like a gorgeous post-impressionist tone poem, lush yet propulsive, where constantly shifting tonalities reflected the morally ambiguous world of the story.
Of the cast of eight, Stephen King was the clear standout with a bass-baritone voice of great beauty and power, whose fine singing and acting painted the Monster in the most sympathetic light. As Victor Frankenstein, tenor Lenard Whiting had some difficulty with the highest lying notes, but successfully replaced the caricature of the “mad scientist” with a more psychological portrait of obsession. Baritone Michael York used his well rounded tone to characterize and differentiate the anger of Victor’s father from the serenity of Old Mr. De Lacey. Michael Taylor and Melanie Conly beautifully sang a duet celebrating the married bliss of Felix and Agatha De Lacey. Eleven-year-old Charles Waddell clearly showed abundant talent as Victor’s nephew. Though Graham Robinson and Dawn Bailey were given little to do as Victor’s best friend and his fiancée, they did it well.
Director and designer Edward Franko worked wonders in staging such a work on a microscopic budget. The performance was enthusiastically received – but I still feel an expanded version would have a greater chance of attracting the interest of other companies.
An important voice in jazz was stilled when John Norris died on January 31.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1934 he emigrated to Canada in the mid-50s, first to Montreal where he operated the Montreal Traditional Jazz Society from 1956 to 1957 before moving to Toronto where soon became involved with the Traditional Jazz Club of Toronto. In 1958 Coda magazine was established with co-founder, Bill Smith, followed ten years later by Sackville Records. Both became recognized as models of integrity and honesty.
He was an authority on jazz and a respected critic, writer, broadcaster and promoter who never once compromised his opinions and values. As well as writing regularly for Coda, he contributed over the years to many of the other leading music publications – Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, Downbeat and International Musician – wrote a jazz history series for radio and for more than twenty years taught a jazz history course at the University of Toronto.
An unassuming man, but unshakable in his conviction, not gregarious but comfortable among his friends, he had the respect and admiration of all the musicians who recorded for the Sackville label: artists ranging in styles from Willie "The Lion" Smith to Anthony Braxton. The label, from its humble beginnings, established itself as perhaps the world's leading independent record company.
Jazz has lost a great friend, and a true supporter of the music and the artists who perform it.
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