There’s an improv class I take from time to time (that’s comedy improv, not musical improv, by the way) that’s good for lots of things.

Sometimes it’s good for when I am wracked with guilt and beating myself up for having messed up something really important, and need something entirely unimportant to beat myself up over instead – Beethoven called it Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice and you should give it a listen sometime.

Sometimes it’s good as affirmation when I know I can do no wrong because in improv there are no mistakes other than believing there are such things as mistakes.

Sometimes it’s good as a way of affirming that there’s one evening in the deadline-driven world I occupy when I can, if I wish, make a stand and say “sorry I can’t save the world tonight, or go visit your aunt, or come to your concert, or write my editor’s opener that the printer is waiting for. Because. I. Have. A. Class. To. Go. To. (It didn’t work tonight, but what the heck.)

Sometimes it’s only good for some laughs during, and a couple of beers after.

But once in a while – perhaps in a very long while – it is good for life-changing revelations, such as the following.

It happens while you are shuffling your feet waiting to make an entrance (because it’s your turn), neither able to empty your mind and trust the moment, not even able to latch onto some carefully prepared nugget, so you can fake spontaneity even though you know you will feel like a fraud on the other side, because at least there would be another side.

It was, in short, the dark 6.45pm Monday evening of the soul. The moment you realize you have nothing. Nothing funny to say. No heart to wander out and mime making a cup of coffee in some imaginary room waiting for one of your fellow improvisers to rescue you. No funny walk that won’t make the pain in your back unbearably worse. Not even ice-cold terror. Trust me, it’s worse than forgetting your lines, because there’s isn’t even anything you know you’ve forgotten.. There’s just nothing. Nada. Nichts. Lutho. Semmi.

So what do you do in that situation?

[This is what’s called the big reveal, folks!]

What you do is you walk out and you say in no particular tone of voice, to no-one in particular “I got nothing.”

And just stand there.

Trust me.

Shout-Out No. 1:
Bowerbird Collective sent in a listing, very late, for a benefit concert, at Heliconian Hall on Sunday February 1 at 3pm. The title is self-explanatory: A Concert Raising Funds for the Bushfires in Australia, and the artists’ website,, suggests an intrinsic relationship between their musical interests and the cause the concert will benefit. So check it out.

Shout-Out No. 2:
Summer personal enrichment starts in February, if you have the wit to plan ahead!
Accuracy in advertising requires me to say this particular announcement is a case of me advising you to do as I say, not as I do, because all I ever do in the summer is kick myself for not having thought about registering for stuff earlier when I had the chance. So do yourself a favour and check out pages 40 and 41 for a taste of what could be in store. All the programs here have early deadlines. There will be more in March. Make this the year you did.

Shout-Out No. 3:
Family Day in Ontario in 2020 is Monday February 17.
What better way to celebrate the four-day weekend (starting at 7pm on Valentine’s Day, Friday February 14) than with opera’s single most dysfunctional family! Opera By Request’s complete Ring Cycle starts on the Friday at College Street United Church, at Bathurst St. with Rheingold (a 7pm start). And it ends Monday, as it should, with Götterdämmerung. Start time on Monday is 2pm, so you should be exiting at twilight right on cue. It’s an astonishing undertaking for Bill Shookhoff’s intrepid outfit and guaranteed to be a version of the Cycle you will likely never see again. A story to tell your grandchildren, if you ever want to have any after this! Accompaniment is “piano and selected orchestral instruments” and that in itself should be something to behold.

Two cautionary notes: first, if you go to Rheingold on the Friday, Valentine’s Day, do not, I repeat not try to impress anyone by stealing the ring. Bad things will happen, trust me; and second, if you are still around at the end of Monday’s show, you might want to know that the nearest firehall is at College and Bellevue, just two blocks east.

Lots to read ahead! And lots, musically, as always, to see and hear.

And that’s something.

Very few topics stir the emotions of copy editors and proofreaders quite as much as the place and placement of the comma in written English. At The WholeNote we don’t quite come to blows about it, but only because we’re either too busy wrestling the next magazine into the dipping tank or, after the fact, too damned tired to fight. The formula: the number of correct opinions on whether or not to use any clearly optional comma is equal to the number of copy editors and proofreaders who examine the instance, plus one: the “plus one” being that the editor-in-chief, moi, is free to change his mind and does, resorting to quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson (A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds) or Oscar Wilde (Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative) whenever pressed, by a crew member close to counselling mutiny, to explain why what was perfectly OK two pages ago suddenly isn’t.

As to the definition of a “clearly optional comma,” and when it should be placed inside or outside quotation marks, these are questions which, if I am ever going to get to the point of all this, will have to be left for another day.

The point? That if I, dancing with my angels during the bright midday of my editorial soul, pause to examine my own fascination with the comma, what it all boils down to is whether in any specific context its use either helps or hinders the reader’s ability to hear the voice of the writer, including when and where they pause, or not, either to catch breath or to caress some particular phrase.

It’s analogous, perhaps, to the choices a conductor must make in terms of when to use a baton or set it aside, when to hold the orchestra tightly by the hand in order to help it across a busy street, or when letting it run free is the greater gift. Or perhaps it’s like the difference between the sound of a choir where the singers are grouped by voice type, rank and file, and the sound of an opera chorus where little heterogeneous knots of singers deploy all over the stage in the service of the story being told. Or like the difference between the sound of a “Hallelujah” chorus, or Frosty the Snowman for that matter, emanating from a sing-along audience, compared to the same things being sung by the choir on the stage.

For me it’s all about voices: about the way our writers make room wherever possible for the words of the people they are writing about; and about the extent to which their own individual voices shine through in what they write: whether, like me, they are vicarious observers of the scene or, as many are, passionate practitioners of the things they write about. Nothing gives me greater pleasure at moments like this, giving the pages about to go to press one final read, than hearing in my mind their individual voices, blending into a great collective musical murmuring from the heart, rising from these pages.

This struggle and friendship is very satisfying to watch, as well as fun. I got that first library job in Phoenix. “The reason I really love the stars, is because we cannot hurt them.” This time it’s a special project for her, one in which she’s invested her creativity on many levels. (It’s also been a special project for me.) Given my carol obsession, I guess I should be sympathetic to these arguments – but I’m not sympathetic to them at all. “Everything: concision, precision, savagery, nobility, discomfort, freedom, knowledge, sweetness... These words are more relevant to this music than to any other.” During the customary playing of The Last Post from the rear of the chapel, I was stunned to hear a real bugle, not a trumpet, being played, in full uniform, by the bugler from The Queen’s Own Rifles Band, flawlessly and with beautiful tone. Speaking about children and sing-along Messiahs reminds me, in a topsy-turvy roundabout way, of a column I recently wrote … One rarely hears such candour expressed by an up-and-coming performer. Messing with Winterreise is a growing and delightful industry within classical music performance. That the work had the incipient power to make me care enough to be pissed off about its deficiencies is a big deal though. Our neighbourhoods begin to look like those in cheesy TV movies, though perhaps without the requisite miracles. Listen to how the songs you know are transformed, revivified, re-presented in ways that break the cynical purgatorial cycle of streaming-platform playlists, emerging, finally, alive again.

Finally, here’s jazz columnist Steve Wallace on the act of giving inherent in jazz: The exchange is circular, as there is an unspoken pact between jazz players and their audience which goes something like this: give us your attention, your ears, and we musicians will give you our very best – or at least try to – and make some music, out of thin air.

To all our contributors who month in and month out throw your voices into the thin air, and to all our readers who give us your ears, thank you for your gifts.

One of the things that the following random clutch of upcoming event listings have in common is that each of them was picked up as noteworthy by one or another of our writers this month. In chronological order: Loose Tea Music Theatre’s “Singing Softly” evening of Anne Frank Diary-based opera (Nov 2) was picked up by yours truly (still subbing for globe-trotting Christopher Hoile) in On Opera; soprano Maureen Batt’s “Crossing Borders: Traversía Latinoamericana” (Nov 5), featuring Batt and tenor Fabián Arciniegas in an evening of contemporary Canadian and Colombian repertoire, is the main subject of Lydia Perović’s regular Art of Song column; Hedgehog Concerts’ Pamelia Stickney recital of theremin sonatas by Alexander Rapoport (Nov 16) is the subject of a somewhat-off-the-usual-beaten-track feature by regular “We Are All Music’s Children” writer MJ Buell; Confluence’sEvening with Marion Newman” (Nov 26 and 27) is our cover story; and Syrinx Concerts’ season-opening Schumann/Haydn/Mendelssohn piano trio recital (Dec 1) is the coda to Paul Ennis’ Classical and Beyond column. 

The other interesting thing these five wide-ranging presentations have in common is that they all take place in the same venue; for each of these five presenters – along with at least half a dozen others – Heliconian Hall (out of the more than 1,800 venues in The WholeNote listings database) was just the spot, this month, for a particular labour of artistic love.

The venue database: One of the many advantages of managing our concert listings through a database, as we have been doing for the past nine or ten years, is the resulting accretion of searchable data on the musical life of our region, just waiting to be mined by musicologists and consultants on this and that (so drop me a line if you’re interested). At a more practical level, it has resulted in a dramatic reduction of wear and tear on the wrists and fingers of our listings team (Santa Tecla be praised), not having to retype the names and addresses of concert venues every time, or re-search the postal codes that are an indispensable geocoding tool. 

As for the “more than 1,800” venues in our database that I just cited, the actual number, as of 3pm Oct 27 2019, was 2,133 places that have been used at least once, in our catchment area, for a public concert of one kind or another, over the years since we started the database. 

My 1,800 lowball estimate is because some of them are phantoms at this point  – crushed under the heel of condos, drowned in the tide of out-of-control land costs and taxes, or left high and dry by dwindling religious congregations in the host of faith-arts hybrid centres that are a crucial component of the performing arts infrastructure. Or they have simply changed names as they go, in the endless naming-rights quest for private sector sponsorships (from O’Keefe to Hummingbird to Sony to Meridian, for example). But it’s still a fine long list, reflective of how the human hunger to congregate counterbalances digital life’s invitations to physical isolation. 

Heliconian HallHeliconian Hall: Back in January 2011 (around the same time our data-driven listings system was kicking in),  we launched an occasional series of articles in this magazine, called Just the Spot, in which we invited community musicians whose work we feature in the magazine to write about some venue that was particularly resonant (literally or figuratively) for them.  

In March 2011, recorder and period flute virtuoso Alison Melville, co-founder of Baroque Music Beside the Grange contributed the following: “Part of rural Toronto when it was built in 1875, the Heliconian Hall is located near the south end of Hazelton Avenue, situated amongst galleries, upscale offices and private homes in what’s now known as Yorkville. It’s the home of the Heliconian Club, an organization founded in 1909 for professional women in the arts and one of the oldest associations of its kind in Canada.” (At the time, BMBG was in search of an occasional venue, after losing predictable access to their previous regular spot at the Church of St. George the Martyr, once the Music Gallery amped up its multifaceted activities there.) 

“For me, the Heliconian is a delightful and unpretentious little oasis in a surrounding sea of consumer excess, and an intimate concert hall which I have known since I was a kid,” she continued. “I played my first ‘non-compulsory’ solo recital there, blissfully free from the pressure of university grading, and have made music there many more times since  … But perhaps what makes the Heliconian most appealing to musicians is its stellar acoustic and its intimate feel. With every seat occupied there’s room for 120, and the stage rises just a foot above the main floor, so there’s little chance of establishing that ‘us versus them’ feeling that many performance venues still seem to evoke. It’s a great place for chamber music, and it’s easy to get to, ... available for anyone to rent, at a very reasonable rate.” 

They all sound like resonant reasons to me. How many other Heliconian Halls are out there, I wonder?

Back in 1999, the feeling of collective millennial fervour and/or impending doom, as the thousand-year clock ticked toward midnight, is something that any of our readers old enough to remember Y2K will be able to relate to. And literature and everyday discourse are rife with examples of phrases like “100th birthday” and “turn of the century” being used in ways which take for granted that the reader or listener will understand, without any need for any further explanation, why the odometer clicking from 99 to 100 always has special significance.

I am, however, starting to think that any time the calendar threatens to click over from nine to ten, people are suddenly galvanized into getting something important done “before it’s too late.” How else do we explain the rash of earth-shakingly important events in years, like this one, when the moving finger of fate is pointing to a nine? And this in turn leads to subsequent rashes of anniversary celebrations, every ten years after that. Like this year’s 50th anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969; or the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; or … drum roll please! ... the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the WholeNote Blue Pages directory!

That last example is of course entirely flippant; the other two are not, although I must confess that while I listened in 1969, with half the world, over a crackling transistor radio, to Neil Armstrong flub his big line, and forgave him, I couldn’t care less at this point what Buzz Aldrin thinks about Armstrong, 50 years later. More than anything else I find it depressing that, 50 years later, the same old loony theories about the moon landing being a hoax still refuse to go away.

As for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, I still think that one is worth celebrating (as, I notice, Orchestra Toronto will do in their upcoming October 27 concert).

There’s another 30th anniversary concert in our listings this month also worth celebrating, and since it hasn’t been picked up by any of our writers, I am going to do a shout-out for it here, for three reasons.

Titled “Freedom Reborn,” it takes place at 5pm on Sunday, October 27 at St. Andrew’s Church at King and Simcoe, across the road from Roy Thomson Hall. As the organizers explain, the freedom it celebrates is “the 30th anniversary of the return of democracy and freedom to Central Europe” – namely the rollback of Soviet political domination, throughout 1989, in Hungary, Poland, and what was then Czechoslovakia. I won’t pretend to have either a deep historical

understanding of the ebb and flow of that year, or the visceral memory of what it meant for citizens of the countries in question, many of whom experienced it from places like Canada where they had taken refuge, or sought firm ground on which to take a stand.

I do remember, though, the phrase “The Velvet Revolution” to describe the astonishing, largely nonviolent series of events in Czechoslovakia between the middle of November and the last days of December 1989, culminating in the swearing in of Vaclav Havel – an artist for crying out loud! – as president on December 29, just before the clock ticked over. I also understand a little bit better now than I did then, the extent to which, in the absence of the momentum building through all the other Warsaw Pact countries over the course of that year, that astonishing outcome would have been entirely impossible.

One of the things I like most about this particular concert is that it is a joint venture among the Consulates General of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in Toronto along with the Embassy of the Slovak Republic in Canada – the four member nations in the so-named Visegrad Group of Central European countries. Cooperation to make happy noise is almost invariably a good thing.

The second thing I like about it is that the artists involved reflect all the countries concerned: Alicja Wysocka, soprano; John Holland, baritone; Jan Vaculik, baritone; Sophia Szokolay, violin; Daniel Wnukowski, piano; Imre Olah, organ; Novi Singers Toronto; the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Scola Cantorum; the Dvořák Piano Quartet; and Toronto Sinfonietta, under Matthew Jaskiewicz, music director.

And the third thing I like is that the repertoire chosen (again representative of the four countries involved) is for the most part beautiful – joyful and familiar, stirring and celebratory, so that the people attending (and it’s free, so expect a crowd!) have a good chance of coming away without the kind of ambivalence that dogs us all every day, in the fishbowl of awareness of the negative consequences of our own actions and inactions, intended or not.

Moments of hard-won escapism. Maybe that’s the message. Let’s hope the organizers don’t feel like they have to wait another ten years to wade in our town’s musical waters. Our Blue Pages directory is full of examples of people working collectively on an ongoing basis for art’s sake. In the mean times we live in, beauty needs all the help it can get.

The Ludwig of the title above is not a reference to Wittgenstein or van Beethoven. (Nor is it a reference to Ludwig Van Toronto, the online blog, once called Musical Toronto, that is an indispensable and entertaining part of the fabric of media and social media support for classical music in this town.)

When our listings editor John Sharpe came over to my desk a few days ago to say LUDWIG had reached the 40,000 mark, he was referring to the fact that he had just approved for publication the 40,000th entry to be processed in the listings database, code name LUDWIG, that has been, for nine years, the engine room of one of the key services that the The WholeNote provides for the music community in these parts. That’s not to say 40,000 is some kind of magic number in terms of the total number of listings we’ve published, in print and online, in our 24 seasons of documenting live music in our town – something around double that would probably be closer to the mark. But it ain’t nothin’ neither.

The acronym, by the way, stands for “Listings Utility Database (for) WholeNote Information Gathering” and we even, for a little while ran cute ads in the magazine (featuring grumpy pictures of Beethoven, of course) informing readers that if they wanted to access music by a specific genre or geographic zone they were interested in, or by keyword for that matter, they could go online and ASK LUDWIG. You can still do those things, of course, but on the website, if that’s what you’re trying to do, it now simply says JUST ASK.

“So what is that momentous 40,000th listing for?” I hear the regular followers of this Opener both asking. Well, it just happens to be a performance at 1pm on Sunday October 6, at Mazzoleni Concert Hall in the Royal Conservatory,titled “There’s a Lady on Stage”; hosted by pianist/vocalist David Ramsden accompanying not one but three accomplished “ladies” – namely vocalists Lori Yates, Tabby Johnson and Theresa Tova, with free tickets available starting Monday September 30. (The original Quiet Please! There’s a Lady on Stage, some may remember, was a project Ramsden launched in the 80s at the Cameron House (where the title of the show definitely made sense) with some of Canada’s most talented female vocalists.)

“Why are you telling us this?” my loyal readers both ask. No good reason except that it feels good to me that this milestone listing happens to be for a grassroots, free concert, in one of our more intimate halls, reflecting a commitment on behalf of that particular presenter to program creatively, and on our part, faithfully to record what’s actually happening in a live music scene where the work of people for whom music is serious fun is a more important criterion for inclusion in what we list than the “seriousness” by whatever criteria we define it, of the music itself.

Robert Harris, in his Rearview Mirror column in this issue, on page 76, is perhaps talking about something similar when he muses, hopefully, on a world of classical music “augmented by new consciousnesses, expanded to include elements of styles that already have their audiences, thereby liberating classical music from its depleting dependence on repertoire that, every year, departs further and further from the concerns of the modern world…”

May the next 40,000 listings in this magazine continue to evolve to reflect that change!

So another season (our 25th!) is off and running, so here’s wishing us all luck, and it’s great to have you back. And speaking of running, I should mention that Brian Chang our regular choral columnist and passionate advocate for community arts is doing some running of a different kind, as a parliamentary candidate for the federal riding of Toronto Centre. (Thank you Menaka Swaminathan for stepping into the breach in his absence.)

The question of support for funding for the arts is always a topic around election time at all levels of government, but too often as a kind of siloed separate thing, with support for culture and support for community concerns running the risk of becoming polarized opposites, and candidates or party score points for their support of one by pooh-poohing concerns for the other.

More to the point this time round, in my opinion, might be to support individuals running for office who recognize that most arts workers in our society are no less marginalized than many other workers – dealing with the same issues, especially in our cities – housing insecurity; a healthcare system with too many rotten planks in areas of greatest vulnerability. (Read Lydia Perović’s “Mysterious Barricades and Systemic Barriers” on page 40 in this issue for more on this.) Many of us are becoming increasingly unable to afford to participate as consumers in the industries, cultural and otherwise, that by our labours we help to build and maintain, or to dwell within the towns and cities where we ply our trades.

Maybe this time round, we should keep score of how many times our candidates (of all political stripes) talk about “the middle class”, and take away a point every time they do, for automatically assuming that that includes you and me. In each and every riding may the best mensch win.

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