A performance of Jumblies’ Talking Treaties. Photo credit: Jumblies Theatre.The fact of Indigenous performers taking over such a site of British colonial culture as Toronto’s Fort York has a wonderful power to it. Last summer (2017), Red Sky Performance debuted their magical exploration of the Anishinaabe “seven fires” legends, Miigis, on the Fort York grounds, and the triple juxtaposition of nature, the colonial military buildings, and the 21st-century urban skyline gave the piece an extra resonance that pulsed through the audience.

Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle, the latest version of which played at Fort York from October 4 to 7, is a community-oriented theatrical project that uses the Fort York setting as a launching pad for a relaxed exploration of the so-called “Toronto Purchase” and related treaties, largely from the point of view of the first people to live in this area. In Jumblies' hands, the project is an engine for community engagement in our history – from the urban neighbourhood members who take part alongside the organizing professional artists, to the core company of young Indigenous performers who take on most of the roles, to the larger community represented by the audience who come to experience the spectacle. For this is not so much a “show” as an event; a mostly light-hearted way to engage with ideas and historical facts that should be much better known about the founding treaties of our city and country.

While not a musical, music does play a part in the bookending of the event, with songs sung by a volunteer community choir anchored by one professional singer and several musicians, and with the live music (backed up with recorded elements) that carries the audience from spot to spot around the Fort as the spectacle unfolds. As this project continues to grow, it would be nice to see the role of music being expanded or made a bigger, bolder element of the whole.

The young Indigenous performers who took on most of the roles, though all of varying levels of experience, were clearly engaged in their passion and enthusiasm for the project. Jill Carter and Jesse Wabegijig, in the roles of Mohawk powerhouse Molly Brant and her spouse Governor William Johnson, were the strongest actors, though not appearing substantially until about halfway through, when they gave us the most satisfying chunk of history in an extended scene  of Johnson and Brant’s preparations for the great gathering of 24 First Nations for the signing of the Treaty of Niagara in 1764.

Part of the fun of the event was being tossed between snippets of historical events and Indigenous reaction to those events, all of it with an irreverent symbolic simplicity – the “purchase price” for Toronto including brass kettles, mirrors, lace hats, and bottles of rum being tossed into a pile, for example, or later, the trade price in number of beavers for various settler products seen tangibly as large stuffed beavers merrily tossed onto the Fort York green.

Was this really a play or musical? No, but it was, as promised by Jumblies, a spectacle – and a fun way to literally walk through some of our local and national history. Rather than a professional “show”, this was a lighthearted community event that performed an important role in bringing history to life in our current consciousness, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle was presented from October 4 to 7 at Fort York, Toronto.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.More than 40 years after her death, documentarian Tom Volf has given us Maria Callas as we’ve seldom seen her. Maria by Callas is a singular act of super fandom, a riveting experience that contains no talking heads, no academic analysis and no eyewitness accounts of the soprano by other musicians or participants in the operatic world she dominated as La Divina. Anchored by an extensive interview between Callas and the celebrated British broadcaster David Frost from 1970, Volf allows the singer to tell her story in her own words. And when those words are in the form of letters or an unpublished autobiography, they are spoken by American soprano Joyce DiDonato. The result is an intimate portrait of a legendary artist, an unabashed piece of adulation on Volf’s part that nonetheless adds to our understanding of the construct and consequences of greatness.

David Frost and Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.Volf’s materials include exceptional archival footage from rare interviews, as well as footage long considered lost. We witness personal moments captured on Super 8 aboard Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’ yacht; Callas hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco; we’re even privy to film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli’s home movies of Callas’ last Florida vacation just months before her death.

There are other recently discovered Super 8 films, secretly shot by fans, of her Farewell Tour and other concerts and performances, including Norma from 1965. We get a rare glimpse of her father and her together from a rediscovered BBC snippet. In an NBC nugget, she talks about her film ambitions with her friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in his film Medea.

Rare audio recordings from a host of concerts and operas buttress Callas’ testimony. Unpublished letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini show the depth of her love in the early days of their relationship. Letters to her singing teacher Elvira de Hidalgo reveal the extent of her sacrifice and ambition in pursuit of an operatic career. She reveals the fateful meeting with Onassis on a beach in 1957; her feelings for him still burning strongly in 1968; the shocking surprise of his marriage to Jackie Kennedy; and the way she took him back after he admitted his “mistake.” As she put it: “My affair with Onassis was a failure but my friendship with him is a great success.”

Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.The biographical details are often revelatory. She discloses how her mother pushed her into becoming a singer and how meeting de Hidalgo in Greece changed her life. Not only did she learn the art of bel canto but her teacher became the mother figure she had been missing in her formative years. Moving to Italy in the late 1940s after a return to her birthplace of New York went nowhere, her career took off. Her friend and mentor, film director Luchino Visconti suggested she lose weight, which changed her life artistically with La Scala and personally with her marriage. Visconti also taught her to move less onstage – advice which allowed her to engage more fully with the characters she portrayed. She made her debut with the Met in 1956 – we see her interviewed between acts of Lucia di Lammermoor – and sang a memorable Tosca.

She gives her side of the story of her cancellations and missed performances. She calls the first – January 2, 1958 in Rome – “the saddest evening of my career,” when her voice, hanging by a thread from bronchitis, forced her to cancel after 40 minutes. Her credo: “I have to feel what I do; I do things instinctively. No two performances of mine are the same.” And her mantra: “The public made me.”

So many close-ups, so much expressiveness; so much passion, so much emotion. Ultimately it’s Callas the musician, Callas the performer, who is so affecting.

The film Maria by Callas opens October 26 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Sistema 138 bannerPhoto by Stuart LoweLate September, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti came to town for a two-performance engagement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2). No stranger to the world’s concert stages, on the Friday afternoon between the two performances, Benedetti proved herself equally at home in front of an audience that many professional musicians would find infinitely more daunting—60 to 70 of the children currently enrolled in Sistema Toronto’s flagship after-school program at Parkdale Junior Public School.

It was a three-part encounter, starting with Benedetti meeting and playing for all the children in the program. In my experience occasions such as these are most nerve-wracking for the teachers in attendance, torn between the demands of impressing “the guests” with the children’s level of  discipline and decorum, and at the same time wanting to celebrate the exuberance and sense of confident ownership the children in the program feel. So prior to Benedetti showing up there was the usual herding and shushing as the children filed in, by class: “straight lines” and “remember we have guests” and “indoor voices, please.”

All such anxieties were dispelled when, accompanied by Aaron McFarlane, the TSO’s newly appointed director of education and community engagement, Benedetti arrived, her 1717 Gariel Strad dangling casually from her hand. She straightaway asked the children what the special signal was at their school when silence was needed (a fluttering downward hand movement, she was shown; “like a fountain,” she was told.)

She asked what different instruments they all played, and told them she was going to play a “theme and variations” for them, by Bach, and that the piece was almost exactly as old has her violin was. She asked if they knew what a theme was, and built on every answer given. She told them they would be practising listening, not because it was polite but because learning to listen, even more than practising the notes, is the most important thing a musician must do. She told them she would play the theme and then she would say “variation” each time she played a variation. And then she played.

No one had to be shushed.

Afterwards, she said “When I started, your listening was very good. But by the time I finished it was wonderful. So thank you all very very much.” Then she took questions, and they were all good questions. My own favourites were “How come you were lifting off your feet?” and (more an observation than a question) “You didn’t smile when you were playing. You are supposed to smile.” Her response to the latter: a question of her own. “Were there any smiley bits in the music? Because if there weren’t wouldn’t it be strange for me to be smiling?”

Photo by Stuart LoweSecond stop in the event was the school library where the Sistema senior orchestra was assembled to rehearse the piece for the third and final stop (which was to be a short concert by the senior orchestra in the school gym, for family and the more junior members of the program). Her capacity for instant rapport, genuine engagement with the orchestra, and the ability to zero in on a single teachable thing (in this case encouraging “big sound,” and then evoking it), were all on display.  

In the gymnasium concert that followed, she started out by taking her place in the back row of the violin section. After the piece had been played through, she followed up on the library lesson, this time expanding the notion of “big sound” – collective dynamic bravery – by coaxing and coaching the orchestra, and its conductor, to also play more quietly than they would have thought practical under the circumstances.

How opportunity knocks

Looking back on the event after it was over, I found myself reflecting on how effortless the whole thing had seemed (and by extension, how much work probably went into creating the illusion of effortlessness).

Part of the explanation is that Benedetti was on familiar ground. She has had a longtime and ongoing role in the Big Noise Orchestras movement, “Big Noise” being the way the Scottish Sistema movement has branded itself. Altogether there are more than 2,500 children and young people engaging regularly with the four established Sistema Scotland centres, and in addition to the Big Noise orchestras attended by children up to 11 hours each week, they run Baby Noise and Adult Noise programs which enable the Sistema Scotland family to reach as many as possible in the communities where they are based. Benedetti is not only on the Big Noise board of directors but also the movement’s “Musical Big Sister,” visiting schools and conducting musical clinics throughout the U.K. since 2005.

Photo by Stuart LoweI asked Aaron McFarlane (who coincidentally comes to his education/outreach role at the TSO from a key role with Sistema New Brunswick in Saint John) if their common Sistema roots had helped bring about this particular piece of matchmaking.

“Nicola Benedetti had asked if it would be possible for her to do some outreach as part of her visit to Toronto, and we were happy to oblige,” he says. “The wheels were set in motion well before I joined the TSO in July, but considering my affinity for El Sistema inspired programs, I was thrilled!”  

McFarlane’s TSO responsibilities include overseeing everything the orchestra does that is educational or that involves outreach or engagement. “Currently, our main programs are our School Concerts, our open rehearsals (Mornings with the TSO), our Young People’s Concerts, and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Beyond the tremendous musicians that make up the TSO, we also have the good fortune to welcome incredible musicians each season from every corner of the globe. We recognize that we are a part of a community, and feel a sense of responsibility to support those who are encouraging the development of young musicians whenever we can.”

Not all musicians, resident or visiting, have the same aptitude or appetite for engagement that Benedetti does – but it was a bright start to the year. “We need to go out of our way to engage with communities that might not otherwise have access to the TSO,” MacFarlane says. “This workshop was a small event in the context of a large organization like the TSO, but it may have made a huge impact on some of the children who got to interact with Nicola Benedetti.”

Raploch Estate is a run-down district in Stirling, Scotland, and is the site of Sistema Scotland’s first Big Noise Orchestra, established in 2008.

“The children I have taught in Raploch really are hugely talented,” Benedetti says, “and I don’t say that lightly. These children have enormous potential. It is phenomenal to walk round the estate and see all these children carrying instrument cases and talking about their orchestra. It is very moving for someone like me. I have always dreamed of our communities experiencing the infectious joy of playing music together. The teachers and the community recognise how these children are shining, and being nurtured every day by the musical environment they now live in.”

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

bannerSlowPitchSoundListening to the music of Toronto turntablist Cheldon Paterson, the first thing that comes to mind is a sense of space.

Not space as something “out there” and abstract, but space as something tangible – the sounds of actual places, soundscapes and environments, with suggestions of how we as people might fit within them. Paterson – who performs as SlowPitchSound – characterizes his approach as “sci-fi turntablism”: integrating scratching with heavily altered samples and field recordings to produce something ambient, but with an experimental edge. It’s a recognizable sonic magic trick: using layers of sounds to transport listeners to another place.

And it’s a focus that is clearer than ever in his latest work. On October 26 to 28 at Toronto’s Array Space, Paterson will present Alternate Forest – a new, hour-long performance that combines turntablism, dance, and projected visuals to guide listeners through an imaginary mythical forestscape. Collaborating with dancer Lybido and video designer Aaron Dawson, Paterson plans to provide audiences with an immersive, multidisciplinary experience – one that offers new ways of thinking about nature and sound.

Alternate Forest was developed as Paterson’s award project from his Honourable Mention win in the 2018 CMC Toronto Emerging Composer Award competition. As far as his work on environmental issues goes, it’s his biggest production to date. “I'm not a very outspoken person, but I'm concerned with the state of things,” says Paterson in our recent email exchange. “And [I] find it more comfortable to speak the best way I know how, through my music.”

Along with the incorporation of video and visual elements and his work with Lybido – Paterson’s longtime collaborator – Paterson hopes to use Alternate Forest to not only represent something realistically ‘forest-like’, but also create something more imaginative. “I tried to represent as much natural aspects of a forest as possible, but also created sounds that are inspired by nature, making what I imagine to be a magical forest,” he says. “I spent a lot of time out in the woods gathering sounds, pictures and notes so that I could replicate the feeling for the audience. The results are pretty amazing.”

Alternate Forest rehearsalGiven the context of Paterson’s project, this sound collection process, the archival quality of it, is a meaningful act. During a time when environmental issues are increasingly connected with a sense of global crisis, Alternate Forest exists at the border between creation and loss – and feels uniquely positioned to navigate between the two.

Alternate Forest was born out of a sense of urgency that I've been feeling,” Paterson says. “The Earth loses 18.7 million acres of forests per year, which is equal to 27 soccer fields every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). With this project I just wanted to do my part in helping them out. It's hard for most people to see what's really happening around them when they live in the city bubble, so I wanted to bring the forest to them.”

In that sense, Paterson is both creator and guide: one who at the same time brings listeners to a new place, and brings that place to them. And in Alternate Forest he aims to put this positionality to good use – taking the spaces out there in the world, bringing them close, and revealing an often overlooked magic.

SlowPitchSound presents Alternate Forest, produced by Exquisite Beat Theatre and Arraymusic, in three performances from October 26 to 28 at Array Space, Toronto.

bannefreyr2Cellist Elinor Frey. Photo credit: Elizabeth Delage. The Canadian Music Centre has served as a curator, presenter and preserver of Canadian musical culture for over 50 years. With a library containing thousands of works by hundreds of composers and an online streaming service with over 14,000 unique recordings, the CMC ensures that older material remains available to performers and audiences and that new works live beyond their premieres.

Besides being an archive for print and recorded music, the Ontario CMC office also presents their own concert series each year, held in their event space on St. Joseph St., Toronto. Curated in 2018/19 by Nick Storring in association with Riparian Acoustics, these concerts take place once a month and feature Canadian performers and composers, presented within the larger context of contemporary music. On Wednesday, October 3, the CMC presented cellist Elinor Frey in a concert of new music for the Baroque cello, each piece on the program commissioned for or by Frey herself. As a frequent performer on both the Baroque and modern cello, Frey brings a wide range of experience and expertise to her interpretations, whether the strings are made of gut or metal.

It is unfortunate that, within much of classical music, the idea of ‘new music’ is still heavily linked with the 20th-century avant-garde, often carrying connotations of being unappealing or intimidating for the inexperienced listener. Contrary to such misconceptions, Frey’s program was varied and exploratory without sounding overly noisy or abstract; in fact, each piece was a recognizable extrapolation of fundamental musical elements. Led by thoughtful and insightful program notes (each composer wrote a paragraph explaining the origin and concept of their work), we could see and hear that some pieces incorporated elements of minimalism, basing an entire movement on a small idea or theme, while others explored the Baroque cello’s warm tone and natural resonance, using both purely-tuned and microtonal intervals to create unique harmonic effects.

The pieces on the program often featured juxtapositions of harmonic and melodic fragments. Indeed, this focus on tunefulness and harmonic sonorities was reflected in the composers’ notes, with remarks such as “...a melody in search of its harmony” (Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar), “a continuo for some absent, slow melody” (Isaiah Ceccarelli’s With concord of sweet sounds), or “bell-like incantations of chords” (Ken Ueno’s Chimera) serving to illustrate each composer’s approach to reordering melody, harmony and rhythm. David Jaeger’s Constable’s Clouds, inspired by 19th-century painter John Constable’s strikingly modern cloud studies, was perhaps the most thrilling work of the evening, using rapid, virtuoso melodic passages and both bowed and pizzicato chords to reflect Constable’s kinetic paintings through sound.

Frey was also required to use extended playing techniques throughout the program, such as col legno tratto: bowing with the wood of the bow, producing a sound that is pitched but very soft, with an overlay of white noise. Both Scott Godin’s Guided by Voices and Lisa Streich’s Minerva, perhaps the most experimental work on the program, utilized a variety of such techniques; Minerva also had Frey softly singing at times, which highlighted certain notes within the harmonic series. Two works required the cello to be retuned (known as scordatura) in varied and, in the case of Ken Ueno’s Chimera, almost impossible ways. Frey described this particular retuning as something that, given the laws of physics and the tension of the string, should not be sustainable; it added an element of risk to the program, knowing that the tightly-wound gut could break at any moment.

Frey’s recital demonstrated that contemporary composers are using music’s essential components in original ways, reorganizing melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements to create works that are both appealing and new. Whether exploiting the Baroque cello’s natural resonance, using scordatura to alter its acoustic properties, or simply allowing the performer’s virtuosity to shine through, this concert displayed a wide variety of approaches to a historical instrument that many consider suitable only for old music.

Frey proved that the Baroque cello can do so much more than we often require of it. In doing so, she also demonstrated that today’s composers are writing superb musical material, capable of confronting – and surpassing – our expectations.

The Canadian Music Centre presented “Elinor Frey – New Music for Baroque Cello” on Wednesday, October 3, at the CMC Ontario Region space on St. Joseph St., Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Donna Garner, Peter Deiwick, Bruce Dow & Rielle Braid. Photo by Dahlia Katz. The Johnson sisters from Stratford, Ontario, Britta and Anika, are building an enviable reputation as creators of new music theatre – both individually and as a team.

Britta is probably best known for Life After, her musical that opened Canadian Stage's 2017/18 season a year ago after an auspicious beginning at the Toronto Fringe Festival the previous year. (Anika was both the dramaturg on that show and a member of the cast.) Anika is most likely best known for her work with frequent collaborator Barbara Johnston at Edge of the Sky Productions, most recently One Small Step, a new musical in part about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield that debuted at the 2018 Toronto Fringe. Together, Britta and Anika previously created Brantwood, their first immersive musical and first collaboration with Mitchell Cushman and Outside the March Theatre Company, in 2015.

This year the sisters have teamed up to create a new immersive musical together: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, running until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall. Book, music and lyrics are by both sisters, Mitchell Cushman directs and Barbara Johnston is both assistant director and choreographer, with Elizabeth Baird as music director. Outside the March is co-producing with The Musical Stage Company, who have chosen Britta as their inaugural composer for the Crescendo Series, committing to developing three of her new musicals over a three-year period (of which Dr. Silver is the second, following Life After.)

Intrigued about both the production concept and the process of the sisterly collaboration, I asked Britta and Anika to tell me a bit more about both and what an audience might expect to experience coming to see their new show.

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

The WholeNote: What or who inspired the story and concept of Dr Silver: A Celebration of Life?

Britta and Anika Johnson: In 2015, Outside the March put out an open call for new large-scale immersive theatre projects. We are both musical theatre writers, and so immediately started brainstorming ways in which a musical could be immersive – and more specifically, immersive in a way where both the music and the immersive element felt effortless and essential to the storytelling.

That’s how we arrived at a funeral. In a funeral, the guests function in much the same way that an audience does – so their role in the immersive experience is already built in. We often sing at funerals, so again, it provided an inherent justification for the show to be musicalized. But we wanted to raise the stakes even higher. So we made it the funeral for a cult leader.

Our fictional cult worships music as divine, which provided a way for us to use music as the primary carrier of the narrative. It’s also proved useful on a deeper level. Cults are obviously super fascinating, but in our research we always found a moment of disconnect when it came to examining their various belief systems. We’d listen to an interview with someone from a cult, and relate to them completely on a human level – that is, until they started talking about beaming up to the spaceship in order to reach the next level of existence (or whatever). But music is the most universally evocative thing we know. Everyone has had an experience of feeling healed or transported by music. So by placing music at the centre of the Silver worship, we hope that audiences will be able to enter our fictional world, feel the same emotional stakes that our characters do, and hopefully find a human connection to what it might be like to be part of an organization like this.

WN: This is billed as an immersive musical; can you tell me more about what that means?

BJ/AJ: As soon as the audience enters the space, they are guests at Dr. Silver’s funeral. We don’t waste a lot of time with exposition. The assumption is that the guests at this funeral know why they are there and know the ritual that is about to take place and their role within it. The audience is invited to discover the world by being immersed and implicated in it, sometimes even singing along.

There is also a psychedelic element to the show. Without giving too much away, the audience begins their journey by joining the cast in drinking a toast ‘to the master conductor’. From there, the style of music and storytelling evolves as the show goes on to help the audience feel like they are joining our characters on a kind of drug trip, and we try to continuously change the rules of what you can expect from the piece as we journey deeper into the cult mentality.

WN: You have collaborated before with director MItchell Cushman and his company Outside the March on the Dora award-winning Brantwood. Did Dr. Silver grow out of that initial collaboration?

BJ/AJ: Our initial proposal was anonymous, but once Outside the March selected Dr. Silver for development, our past collaboration certainly helped us to hit the ground running. This show is quite experimental and does not live on the page alone – its development has depended on a constant collaboration with our team. As such, having a pre-existing shorthand and a deep level of trust with Mitchell has been vital. Constructing a new show is a massive act of faith, and our long history of working with Mitchell and Barb [Johnston] (our choreographer/assistant director, and also a frequent writing collaborator on other projects) was what made the process possible.

WN: You have a longstanding partnership working together on shows. Did that start when you were young?

BJ/AJ: We definitely grew up making up silly songs and putting on little shows together at home – but we only began working together officially about four years ago, when we collaborated with Mitchell on Brantwood. We had been writing a lot separately and then one day decided to see what would happen if we worked together. We were amazed with the result and have just kept writing together ever since. We kind of have the ability to get inside one another’s minds and we are not afraid of disagreeing – we’re sisters, so we’ve been disagreeing our whole lives. Above all else, we just trust each other completely.

WN: The high school-aged Edge of the Sky Young Company, from Wexford Collegiate, is joining you on Dr. Silver. Can you tell us more about deciding to make them part of this project?

BJ/AJ: Wexford, under the leadership of Ann Merriam, has a truly special arts program. It’s a public high school in Scarborough whose student population comes from a super diverse set of backgrounds. Their faculty has a real focus on helping students perform authentically, as themselves, whatever that might mean – without any of the artifice or assumptions that often come along with a clichéd idea of what a musical theatre performer should be.

When we were first conceiving this show, we immediately envisioned working with a youth choir, since choral music (and youth groups!) are so deeply embedded in religious and spiritual traditions. I knew that the students from Wexford would be well-suited to the pop/classical hybrid style that we were writing in, and that they would be uniquely capable of channeling the specific energy that the show requires. So the collaboration kinda seemed like a no-brainer.

WN: Can you tell me about the choice of the historic Heliconian Hall in Yorkville for the production?

BJ/AJ: We wanted a location that felt sacred and important while maintaining a sense of intimacy. We were drawn to Heliconian Hall because of its incredible acoustics and rich history of experimental music performances. We also love how it feels like a church without being one, which felt like a perfect backdrop to construct our fictional musical religion. It’s such a cool building that hides in plain site – it’s right downtown, but no one knows about it. Plus, for over a century, it’s been a club for women in the arts. In every way, it felt aligned with both the logistical and artistic needs of our show.

WN: Did the Luminato Festival “in-progress” performances in June 2018 lead to changes in the script/music/staging?

BJ/AJ: Absolutely. We kept writing this script right up until we opened. A new work is never done and a piece this experimental requires constant trial and error. We’ve had the benefit of sharing the piece with audiences a few times during its development, which has been harrowing and super-vulnerable for us as creators, but ultimately hugely beneficial to the work. Now that the show is open, and audiences are seeing it every night, we’re learning even more things about it, and frankly already have the next draft prepped in our heads.

WN: How would you sum up in a few words what an audience member will experience coming to this show?

BJ/AJ: An experimental electro-pop opera that starts as one thing and ends up as another. An epic story about a cult that’s actually an intimate story about a family. A show that may not be perfect yet, but is courageously fighting to find a new language for musical storytelling, and in doing so is inviting its characters, its audiences, and (frankly) its creators to risk venturing away from certainty and into the unknown!

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life runs until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.“Dance Brain is a highly innovative performance work in which brainwaves are converted into music in real time, which is then danced to. It interfaces neuroscience and performance practice, and takes advantage of the state-of-the-art technology in the LIVELab at McMaster University, Hamilton.”

That description, from the Facebook page for an event at McMaster on September 20 this year, certainly piqued my attention – yet I had a feeling for what may be brewing at the LIVELab. As an undergrad studying electronic and many other music genres at York University in the very early to mid-1970s, I witnessed and also participated in pioneering brainwave music experiments and performances under the direction of noted composers, musicians and sonic explorers David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum was the first to use a synthesizer to sonify his alpha brainwaves, along with other biological signals such as heartbeat and breath, in his composition In Tune (1967). Five years later, Rosenboom’s Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones incorporated the brainwaves of four “biofeedback musicians” into a unified musical work. While both Americans, they were teaching then at what was considered Toronto’s “other” university, making York for a time in the ’70s a centre of brain wave music.

Last week I spoke with Monahan, the 2013 Governor General’s Awards winner for Visual and Media Arts and the composer/sound artist behind the project, about the ambitious-sounding Dance Brain concept.

“McMaster neuroscience professor Steve Brown received a research grant to explore the intersections of music, dance and neuroscience,” said Monahan. “He was joined by Dan Bosnyak, neuroscience professor and the technical director of LIVELab, an advanced acoustic space and PA system at McMaster University, Hamilton. After a lengthy search for suitable artistic collaborators, he found dancer Bill Coleman and me last January.”

The process began with Brown and Bosnyak sending Monahan samples of recordings of alpha and delta brainwaves in the 8 to 16 Hz range (sub-audio for many of us) that they had produced at the lab. Monahan then transposed those samples up a few octaves using the software program Reaper, so they could be audible.

“Upon arriving at the LIVELab to begin work [in June], however, Prof. Brown pointed out to me that straight transposition resulted in a very compressed audio spectrum, which distorted the signal,” Monahan said. “Rather than additive transposition, as happens in music notation (when say transposing up an octave), in consultation with the scientists we tried a multiplication process which results in a full sound spectrum. Invoking my composer’s prerogative, I then made the decision to choose to use both processes (additive and multiplicative), resulting in the possibility of more and richer musical variation.”

This led to the development of several discrete compositions, each of which uses a different technological strategy. These pieces will be heard in Dance Brain’s premiere performance on September 20.

“The first work uses frequency analysis of transposed live brainwave audio brainwave audio which triggers midi notes,” says Monahan. “I then developed a patch in Max [a visual programming language for music and multimedia] to perform notes on a Yamaha Disklavier [a midi-controlled keyboard] combined with sampled sounds of an orchestral harp.

“The second piece uses brainwaves generated live by the dancer while performing, as do all the works on the program,” he adds. “These signals are hooked up to a motor which plays a snare drum, as well as to another motor which plays a long wire attached to another snare drum acting as an acoustic resonator.”

The third work uses aspects of Dollhouse, a work that Coleman and Monahan have already been performing for a few years. “It uses multi-channel spatialized dispersion and reverberation controlled by brainwaves generated in real time by the dancer,” says Monahan. “During the course of Bill’s performance he strips down to reveal the source of some of the acoustic sounds the audience hears: a number of plastic cups attached to his clothing. There’s certainly an element of slapstick humour in this part of the performance.”

What are the roots of this kind of performative-scientific exploration? Monahan immediately replied: “To me, this work shows a direct influence of Alvin Lucier’s pioneering Music for Solo Performer (1965).” Many consider the piece to be the first musical work to use brainwaves to directly generate the resultant sound.

“I bought a copy of David Rosenboom’s book Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments (1975) at the Music Gallery around 1980-81,” continued Monahan. “That text was a point of departure for me when starting Dance Brain.”

Are there future plans for Dance Brain? “In the scientific experimental tradition, we’re aiming to learn something from this development and performance process,” noted Monahan.

He has found working with the McMaster scientists in this project a productive challenge. “For one thing, it appeared surprising to one of our scientific collaborators when I referred to my individual Dance Brain works as ‘compositions.’ It seems to me that it can be a challenge to establish a protocol between composers, choreographers and scientists. In any case, we work together well and there are many promising aspects to the work that we've developed.”

It’s the kind of negotiation artists have to conduct when taking a major creative risk, particularly one which involves working with other disciplines. I invite you to join me for the premiere of Dance Brain on September 20 and explore this fascinating inner-outer sound-body landscape for yourself.

The premiere performance of Dance Brain takes place on September 20 at 8pm, at McMaster University, Hamilton. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/events/1087454958072962/.

Monahan and Coleman perform their work Dollhouse on September 22 at 8pm, at 201 Geary Ave., Toronto. Details at https://www.facebook.com/events/1867792106667915/?active_tab=about.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Nicolas NamoradzeCALGARY – My previous Honens competition report closed with the jurors’ choice of three finalists to compete for the title of Laureate. The winner receives a first prize of $100,000 CAD plus a three-year Artist Development Program that includes recitals in prestigious international venues, professional management, and a recording on the Hyperion label. In it, I lamented the elimination of Austrian pianist, Philipp Scheucher, 25, from the final round. His artistry and musical insight reminded me of a young Lars Vogt or Piotr Anderszewski, both of whom I heard at the 1990 Leeds (UK) International Piano Competition.

But now we have a 2018 Honens Laureate: Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, 26, won the title at the triennial competition on Friday night (or early Saturday morning, depending how you count it). Namoradze saved his very finest playing for the last, when the stakes seemed highest in terms of making an impact on the seven-member jury (Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han, Annette Josef, André Laplante, Asadour Santourian and Minsoo Sohn) – and the audience which filled Jack Singer Concert Hall.

To be sure, the Jury Guidelines stipulate the final concerto performance counts as only 15% of the final result. The official mathematicians who tabulate the scoring weight the jurors’ votes according to this designation: 30% from the solo and 30% from the collaborative rounds in the Semifinals; 15% from the chamber music and 15% from the concerto round in the Finals, and 10% from an interview seen by the Jury before the results are tabulated. (Honens might want to rethink those proportions, and also make room for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto in the Finals; concertos by these two composers were proscribed this year.)

These numbers notwithstanding, Namoradze delivered when the psychological stakes were highest: the final concerto round. Partnered by the Calgary Philharmonic and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, his rendition of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (one of the longest and most demanding in the repertoire) was etched in long lines and executed with an apparent ease that in the moment erased thoughts of the work’s reputation as a beast to be tamed.

Not so for Namoradze, who looked and sounded as comfortable playing this work as he had been with three of his own virtuosic Etudes in the Semifinals.

The two other finalists – Han Chen, 26 (Taiwan) and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, 21 (US) each received Raeburn Prizes of $10,000 CAD (named for the late Andrew Raeburn, first artistic director of the Honens – a position now held by pianist Jon Kimura Parker). Sanchez-Werner also won the Audience Award of $5,000 CAD.

Namoradze is far from a novice in the concert world, having appeared as a soloist in Europe and the US. Performances in Hungary, Georgia, Spain and the US have been broadcast; his own compositions have been commissioned and played at US festivals; and he will perform a series of recitals with violinist Rolf Schulte, a highly-respected interpreter of contemporary music.

In addition, Namoradze has composed and produced soundtracks for feature films, including one made in association with the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. He studied in Budapest, Vienna and Florence, then moved to New York to earn a Master’s degree at Juilliard. He now pursues a Doctorate at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, studying piano with Emanuel Ax and Yoheved Kaplinsky, and composition with John Corigliano. Namoradze himself serves on the faculty of Queens College, CUNY.

And what of Philipp Scheucher? At 12 noon last Friday, roughly 12 hours before the Laureate was announced, he played another superb solo recital, for an audience that nearly filled the lobby of Jack Singer Concert Hall. On a Steinway baby grand, he presented a different program than the one he had given in the Semifinal round six days before.  This time we heard Beethoven’s little-known Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77, and the famed “Appassionata” Sonata; then Liszt’s late, quasi-impressionistic Nuages Gris, and the Transcendental Etude No. 4, “Mazeppa”. It was wonderful – all of it.

Philipp Scheucher. Remember the name, along with that of Nicolas Namoradze.

Archived video recordings of all Semifinals and Finals performances at this year’s Honens International Piano Competition can be viewed at www.honens.com/livestream.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Han Chen (Taiwan / age 26), Nicolas Namoradze (Georgia / age 26), and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (United States / age 21), will vie for the title of Honens Prize Laureate.CALGARY—This sun-splashed city, with dry air and moderate temperatures, has been opening its arms to the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition. We now enter the home stretch, with the winner (“Laureate”) to be declared late Friday night. In the meantime, the ten semifinalists from nine countries have been narrowed to a field of three finalists by a seven-member jury.

The standard of piano-playing has been extremely high throughout.

I attended every round of the semifinals: 10 in all, beginning August 30. Competitors were obliged to play 65-minute solo recitals, plus 65-minute collaborative recitals with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow.

The competition is engaging a devoted audience that listens intently in the Jack Singer Concert Hall, quietly exchanging views in the lobby at intermissions. Is there something about Calgary and virtuoso piano-playing? After all, this city’s Mount Royal College is where the young Yuja Wang, keyboard phenomenon from China, first studied in North America.

Meanwhile, related events of the Honens Festival, including a series of masterclasses, have attracted young people to educational events and to piano recitals across town. The finals on Friday evening will enlist the Azahar Ensemble, a woodwind quintet.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, this year’s “Mentor in Residence,” played a substantial recital of Brahms and Chopin Tuesday evening. Ohlsson is now working with the competitors, sharing musical and professional wisdom. His playing remains masterly, allying technical brilliance with mature expansiveness.

Of course, competitions by nature invite disagreement with the decisions made, and this edition of the Honens has been no exception.

The announcement of the three finalists late on Labour Day didn’t include the name of the competitor who struck me as the most eloquent, musicianly and promising: Philipp Scheucher, 25, from Austria. Given the nature of these events, I assumed he might not emerge as the ultimate winner of the $100,000 CAD first prize, plus an Artist Development Program whose details have yet to be revealed. But I was quite sure he would at least advance to the finals. In Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, Scheucher negotiated the sprawling rhetoric with virtuosity, poetry, individuality and abandon. The final section – from the fugato to the concluding bass note – was delivered via an unassailable musical impulse.

Before that, his haunting account of Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes” from Miroirs, and some stylish Mozart, to me spelled “finalist.” In the collaborative round, a stimulating program of Beethoven, Schoenberg, Webern and Schubert reinforced the impression.

But it was not to be.

The three finalists?

Han Chen (Taiwan), 26, delivered a staggeringly brilliant account of Liszt’s Reminiscences of Don Juan. He confirmed his sterling credentials as an exponent of contemporary music by juxtaposing the Liszt Don Juan Fantasy with four concert paraphrases by Thomas Adès (b. 1971) on his opera Powder Her Face. Despite some over-the-top arm and hand gestures and a rendition of Schubert’s late C-minor Sonata, D. 958 that could have shown more in terms of structural articulation and lyrical impulse, Chen’s playing was sensational.

The collaborative round showcased Chen’s wonderful performance of a Britten suite with Crow.  They also essayed the early Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963) by John Corigliano, a piece that, for me, even expert advocacy couldn’t quite “sell.” Still, the collaborative performances entailed very limited rehearsal time, underlining the quality of what was achieved.

Of the other two finalists, Nicolas Namoradze, 26, from Georgia, offered three of his own études, displaying a keen grasp of the instrument’s capabilities and plenty of imagination. As a composer and film soundtrack producer as well as pianist, his intellect and gifts are in no doubt.  But I found his solo Bach (E-minor Partita) and stage presence uncomfortably tentative, and his collaborative round was less assured than the solo.

The youngest (at 21) finalist, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (U.S.), boldly tackled Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111. This followed his brilliant performances of five Liszt Transcendental Etudes, and a contemporary piece. Few pianists manage to scale the heights of Opus 111 at such a tender age, and Sanchez-Werner was no exception, indulging in some odd distensions of tempo and caressing and emoting over individual notes, which weakened the structure. The ineffable Finale also needed conceptual tightening. Was it worth the risk of taking this piece in its current state of readiness to such a high-stakes competition? The jury clearly thought it was.

The Honens’ choice of a “Laureate” will be an updated self-definition of how it sees itself on the world stage, since the eventual winner will carry the competition’s reputation internationally.

The performances are all archived at www.honens.com/livestream. Stay tuned…my next report will come after the jury announces its verdict late Friday.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Honens' 2018 Mentor in Residence, Garrick Ohlsson. Photo credit: Dario Acosta.This month in Calgary, one of the most prominent international piano contests enters its last laps...and you won’t need to be onsite to take it all in.

Beginning Thursday, August 30, the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition – a triennial event – will livestream the Semifinal and Final rounds [see schedule below]. The winner will receive a First Prize of $100,000 CAD and an “Artist Development Program” valued at half a million dollars, including a recording on the Hyperion label. Other elements of the program have yet to be confirmed.

During the Semifinals, the competition will showcase ten pianists, ages 21 to 29, from nine countries. The hopefuls hail from Austria, Belgium, Georgia, Hong Kong, Italy, Romania, South Africa, and the U.S., plus two from Taiwan.

The ten selected to perform were culled from dozens of contenders who recorded auditions last March in Berlin or New York. A preliminary jury selected those who would advance to the Semifinal round in Calgary. Beginning August 30, a second jury – Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han and Minsoo Sohn – will decide which three candidates make it to the Final round.

The Honens jurors won’t rely exclusively on solo playing in their decision-making. Each semifinalist must also perform a 65-minute collaborative recital with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster. The quality of ensemble playing will be a factor in determining who advances to the Final round on September 6 and 7. The 2018 Honens Prize Laureate will be announced on Friday, September 7.

The three finalists will perform concertos with the Calgary Philharmonic, conducted by Karina Canellakis. Canellakis, a 37-year-old American, is the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Amsterdam, and herself the winner of the 2016 Solti Conducting Award. The three pianists who make it to the Finals will also perform chamber music with a woodwind quintet, and submit to interviews with arts journalists to show their “…willingness and ability to communicate effectively with audiences of today.”

Honens prides itself on an educational component, including masterclasses with jury members. Significantly, this year’s “Mentor in Residence” will be Garrick Ohlsson, the towering American pianist whose omnivorous repertoire and blazing virtuosity have been drawing audiences for decades. A veteran of the competition circuit himself, Ohlsson first won the Busoni International (Italy) and the Montreal International competitions, before taking First Prize in the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

His thoughts – musical, pianistic, and career/professional – will prove valuable to the Honens competitors this year. As well as offering coaching sessions to each semifinalist who does not go on to the Finals, Ohlsson will share his insights with the three finalists after hearing each of them perform with the Calgary Philharmonic. Ohlsson will also present a solo recital of Brahms and Chopin works on September 4 in the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

The Honens International Piano Competition & Festival, founded in 1992, is named for the late Esther Honens, a Calgary philanthropist who in 1991 donated $5 million to endow a major piano competition in her hometown. The event also boasts an array of corporate presenting partners. The artistic director this year is Jon Kimura Parker.

The schedule of livestreams from the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition (log on to www.honens.com) is as follows:

Livestreams of the Semifinals will air at 2:30 pm and 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, August 30
Friday, August 31
Saturday, September 1
Sunday, September 2
Monday, September 3 (Labour Day)

Livestreams of the Finals will air at 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, September 6
Friday, September 7

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

The WholeNote Podcasts

ArtworkWelcome to the Conversations <at> The WholeNote podcast page. Below you will find our podcast episodes for your listening pleasure.

To listen, you have a few options:

  • You can listen via this website you can scroll down and find the episode you'd like and click play there.
  • Or you can download and save the podcasts on your phone, tablet or computer - and then you can listen to it anytime (even without an internet connection) by downloading from the episode articles below.
  • Or you can subscribe to this podcast on your favourite podcast service including iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, BluBrry, PocketCasts and more. Just open your podcast app and search for Conversations at The WholeNote and hit 'subscribe'. 

If you are unable to find us on the podcast app that you use, please let us know and we'll do our best to try and make it available to you.

Scroll down to select individual episodes to enjoy.

Back to top