Speaking as an editor, sometimes it’s coming up with a title for a story that’s the biggest problem. Interestingly, it’s sometimes even more of a problem when the story is a good one, because there’s all the extra pressure of doing justice to a great piece of writing. Or feeling guilty about reducing something nuanced to a clever phrase.

Speaking as a writer, sometimes coming up with a clever title for a story (especially before it’s written, when the pressure of deadlines is mounting) is just what the doctor ordered in order to get the drought-stricken creative juices flowing again. And here I know, from bitter experience, what I’m talking about.

And then there’s that other situation, like today, when having lulled myself into the false sense of security of having a great title, I realize that it’s gone, already used for something else in this issue of the magazine. And right on the cover, which went to press yesterday, so I can’t even pull rank and change the title of the other story instead.

Seeking Synergies

That’s what I wanted to call this Opener. The phrase must have snuck into my writer’s mind while I was editing Andrew Timar’s feature story in this issue on this year’s FAMA (Festival of Arabian Music and Art). In that story it is used to discuss the process whereby the Canadian Arabic Orchestra is going about building awareness of the festival’s cultural scope in the musical community at large.

But, as a phrase, it could apply equally well to the issue’s cover story. Or to librettist Daniel MacIvor’s account (in Chris Hoile’s On Opera column) of figuring out a working relationship with Rufus Wainwright, composer of the COC-commissioned Hadrian, soon to be unveiled.

It’s all a bit like talking to people discovering The WholeNote for the first time, after walking by it for years, or even decades. “Now that I’ve noticed it,” they say “I see it everywhere.” Same with the “Synergies” thing.

Look for it as a thread in the conversation (in Lydia Perović’s Art of Song column) when mezzo Simone McIntosh describes the circuitous route she took en route to getting a first opportunity to perform Messiaen’s “black pearl” Harawi song cycle. Or in Wende Bartley’s In with the New column this month, first in the description of how the Music Gallery’s David Dacks invited Bear Witness from A Tribe Called Red to curate this year’s X Avant festival and then, beyond that, in the energy that Bear Witness applied to the curatorial process itself.

Seek and you shall find synergy-seeking everywhere! Composer Linda Bouchard’s pilgrimage to Bennington, Vermont to study with the formidable Henry Brant; Soundstreams’ invitation to the Shanghai New Music Week; Nurhan Arman’s description of acquiring and adapting repertoire to the string orchestra format Sinfonia Toronto has made uniquely their own over nearly two decades on the local musical front; TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow’s response to the announcement of the hiring of Gustavo Gimeno as the TSO’s new music director (in Classical and Beyond)… the list goes on.

Much like the word “tragic,” so tragically debased in its usage that it has entirely lost its particularity, “synergy,” loosely used, is not worth much. In the sense of an interaction producing a combined effect greater than the sum of the effects that could be separately achieved by the interacting agents, it’s a useful idea. And it’s a great thing to read about, or to witness, or to be part of when it happens.

It can happen in music-making at any time.

Enjoy the issue. It’s a real labour of love at this time of year, given the extra work of pulling together the performer and presenter profiles in the Blue Pages at the centre of this magazine without compromising on our coverage of all the other stuff. And speaking of the Blue Pages, I highly recommend giving it at least a fast read, cover to cover. You will stumble across old musical friends. You’ll for sure have things catch your eye that you never knew about. And besides, what is more satisfying than reading something where the combined effect – the sense of community you’ll get – is greater than the sum of its constituent parts?

There’s got to be a word for that.


It’s fascinating to watch the extremes of tone and temper that can be conveyed by social media, where sober second thought has about as much of a place as kombucha does while watching the Maple Leafs at Toby’s on St. Patrick’s Day.

On Facebook, for example, one gets the occasional reasoned utterance. Yesterday, for instance, there was this one, shared with me (and 50 others) by an individual who has provided the quiet administrative continuity to a mid-sized chamber orchestra in town for the past 22 years:

39992233 2148767548670563 8235779525871403008 nParticipation in musical activities helps EVERY other part of children’s development, and also promotes habits that enable a more civil society. Funding after-school music programs saves tax dollars that would otherwise have to be spent later, in health care, mental health care, the justice system and other social services. De-funding such programs is a HUGE mistake. Write to your MPP and object!

Unless, like me you are a shrinking violet who still reads CAPS as SHOUTING, the post might just pass you by, especially if the south-of-the border twitterings of Agent Orange have become as obsessively compulsive a daily focus of attention for you as they have for me.

Fortunately, Facebook allows for pictures as well. So one also gets to post louder, blunter versions of the same idea, like this one.

Taken together the two versions of the same message got me thinking, in a way that neither on its own would have. As follows:

Here at The WholeNote, we started following the fortunes of Sistema Toronto, almost from its inception, right after El Sistema’s Venezuelan founder José Antonio Abreu was awarded the eighth Glenn Gould Prize in 2008. El Sistema, as I learned then, thanks to the consciousness-raising power of prizes and awards, is a publicly financed, voluntary sector, music-education program, founded in Venezuela in 1975 and providing “free classical music education that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children.” (Over 700,000 of them, by 2015, in Venezuela alone). After school. Four hours a day. Four days a week.

Impressed as I was at the time, I confess to having been cynical about the likelihood of transplanting it from a country with a government that has the power to simply set up a program like that at the stroke of a pen. Here, you don’t get to build things that way. Only, apparently, the power (also at the stroke of a pen) to tear them down.

Visits to Toronto Sistema over the years, seeing children willingly and joyfully, commit to an after-school regime of work and play not much less rigorous than the Venezuelan model, made me change my mind about its viability. Yes, Margaret. I will definitely write to my MPP and object.

But first I have one more thought to offer. I think we make a mistake to argue a case for the redemptive powers of things like Toronto Sistema if we tie our outrage only to the fact that it is a music program that is under attack here. Or to the fact that it is specifically targeted to so-called “at risk” neighbourhoods.

The way our society is structured, the four hours of the day between the time most children get out of school and the time most home-based supervision or mentoring kicks in is when all of our children are most at risk. Make no mistake, their appetite for learning, their hunger to belong will not be any the less during those hours when deprived of such opportunities as these to exercise joyously and cooperatively the social muscles that enable a civil society. If we do not put instruments of peace in their hands, what will they take up instead? And from whom?

And who will be most at risk then, crying into our beer-for-a-buck about how “kids got no respect for the law today”?


For the 10 or 12 remaining people on the face of the planet who haven’t yet heard the news, this past May 16 The WholeNote received the Toronto Arts Foundation biennial Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition for our “role in promoting current music, emerging artists, and for being vital to the entire music community.”

We were one of three finalists in our category. Musicworks magazine and Mitchell Marcus of the Musical Stage Company (formerly known as Acting Up) were the others.

Our category was one of five. The Arts for Youth Award went to RISE Edutainment – a youth-led grassroots performance arts and storytelling movement “in recognition of its role in creating a healthy and inspiring space for youth, and for challenging systemic barriers through innovative partnerships.”

The Celebration of Cultural Life Award went to Ruth Howard – founding artistic director of Jumblies Theatre “in recognition of the impact, sustainability and legacy of her community-engaged arts practice.”

The Emerging Artist Award went to Jivesh Parasram – multidisciplinary artist, researcher and facilitator “in recognition of his ability to create excellent work that is honest, diverse and collaborative.

And the Toronto Arts and Business Award was shared this year by Active Green + Ross – Complete Tire and Auto Centre “in recognition of its first-time contribution to the arts through its sponsorship of the HopeWorks Connection, covering transportation costs for performers and offering discounted and VIP services,” and to RBC “in recognition of its sustained contributions to the arts through its Emerging Artist Program, making RBC a vital contributor to the arts ecosystem.”

The awards were announced and presented at the 13th Annual Mayor’s Arts Lunch (this year held at the King Edward Hotel) and actually attended by Mayor John Tory (not something one could count on with his predecessor!), along with a broad cross section of arts and business leaders, elected politicians and a hearteningly strong representation from the arts community itself.

All finalists were instructed to prepare acceptance speeches around two minutes in length (300 words maximum), and I am pleased to say that, as befits my inky stained status in life, I complied to within a dozen words of the letter of the instruction.

I’m equally pleased to say that the majority of the other recipients blithely ignored the stated limitations, leading to some of the event’s most heartfelt, inspirational, moving, hope-filled and, yes, constructively political moments.

(I also found myself wishing I had a chance to see what the other finalists wrote down. I would wager there was no set of words among them that would have been less inspiring than the ones we heard.)

In my two minutes and 15 seconds and 314 words, this is what I said:

I want to acknowledge, by name, Allan Pulker, co-founder of The WholeNote (or Pulse as it was originally known) 23 years ago. His unshakeable belief in the richness and variety of Toronto’s grass-roots music scene is the reason The WholeNote exists. I also want to thank Sharna Searle who nominated us for this award. It took her three years to persuade us, mind you. We are more comfortable telling stories than being in them.

I can’t name everyone else – our eight-member core team; 30 to 40 writers every issue; a five-member listings team who come up with 400 to 500 live performance listings each month; the 20 to 25-person distribution team regularly carrying 30,000 free copies per issue to 800+ locations where a deeply loyal readership snatches them up.  

To the finalists and other artists in this room, flag-bearers for countless others for whom the arts are necessary to feel fully alive, thank you for being passionate contributors to all our city’s villages – street by street, block by block. Thank you for giving us something to write about. And to the Toronto Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Foundation, the knowledge that you share our belief in a grass-roots music city makes this award very special.

Make no mistake, though: the grassroots music city is at risk. Housing/land cost is displacing artists, along with the rest of the working poor, from our overheated downtown; small-scale live performance venues are disappearing one by one. Outside the downtown, the nurturing of block-by-block cultural life across our metropolis is a mighty challenge – painfully slow because it is a process of planting not paving.

It’s astonishing, thinking back, that the breakthrough technology that helped launch this magazine was … the fax machine! Now we must all adjust, almost daily, to the ongoing challenge of dizzying change with all its dangers and opportunities. What a story it promises to be.”

Two weeks on, there’s not much I would want to add to those words, except this: the bit about a “deeply loyal readership” means you. Without your use of what we harvest, there would be no point to our labours.

May your summer be filled with the music you find in these pages! And may much of it be live! We’ll see you on the other side.


The 12th Glenn Gould Prize Jury: (from left) François Girard (Canada), Ute Lemper (Germany), Beverley McLachlin (Canada), Foday Musa Suso (Gambia/ United States), jury chairman Viggo Mortensen (United States/Denmark), Naeemeh Naeemael (Iran), Sondra Radvanovsky (Canada/United States), Howard Shore (Canada), Ye Xiaogang (China). KENNETH CHOU PHOTOGRAPHYMy visitor to the WholeNote office, this icy April Tuesday afternoon, James Norcop, braved unseasonably slippery sidewalks and roads to get here, lured by the prospect of getting to talk about a topic dear to his heart – the upcoming Concours musical international de Montréal, which takes place this year from May 27 to June 7. This is the seventh edition of the Concours dedicated to voice, which rotates with violin and piano every three years. But it is the first, largely thanks to Norcop, that will give art song, his lifelong passion, its rightful place in the sun.

Norcop is, however, a good listener, very adept at drawing people out, so only a few minutes into our chat, the conversation has drifted away from the Concours, and instead of me asking the questions I am holding forth on the topic of the previous Friday’s Glenn Gould Prize announcement, trying to recount for him the particulars of the story that award-winning composer and chairman of the China Musicians’ Association professor Ye Xiaogang had told Friday’s noonday audience after the announcement of the winner – or 12th Laureate as the Glenn Gould Foundation terms it – of the Prize.

He was one of an accomplished panel of nine jurors who had spent the previous day narrowing a book of “more than 30 and fewer than 100 nominees” (as the chair of the jury Viggo Mortensen had described it) to just one: Jessye Norman, one of the great singers of her generation.

Each of the eight other jurors had spoken in turn after Mortensen announced the winner, I explained to Norcop, and there had been something in what each of them said that had disarmed the cynic in me, lifting the occasion beyond any previous such announcements I had attended. As one of the jurors, renowned singer Ute Lemper, put it in her comments: “It was not easy. Down to three people, I do feel that at the end we did not decide purely with the intellect, but decided with the heart and at that moment I thought this is a wonderful moment of life where you suddenly get overwhelmed with something stronger than just the intellect. With a perfect balance of heart and intellect and knowledge and spirit all having come together.”

Ye told a story about the way Gould himself had come into his artistic consciousness. It was one of those roadside stories – hearing something on the car radio already in progress, recognizing it as the Goldberg Variations but needing to pull over to the side of the road to listen right through and to discover who? “It was Gould. The 1955 Goldberg,” Ye said. “1955, I thought. The year of my birth! In that moment I said to myself I can do great things.”

A pause ... Then “Can I tell you my Glenn Gould story?” Norcop says.

“I was at music school at USC, and on staff was a great figure, a lady by the name of Alice Ehlers. She was a refugee of course, came from Germany – she had played harpsichord for Furtwängler, in Passions, and so on, so she had credentials. ‘Madame Ehlers’ … she was extraordinary. She gave this Baroque interpretation class we all attended. And she was never late. This one day we were all there. Two pm came. Then 2:05, 2:10 and no Madame Ehlers; 2:15 and we were all getting ready to leave and there she was. Walking on air. ‘Ach, I have heard a miracle. There is a Canadian, his name is Glenn Gould. He plays the Goldberg Variations. I don’t agree with everything but he is magnificent!’ Glenn Gould’s Goldberg – the only thing that ever made Madame Ehlers late for class. And this was in 1955, right in the moment after the record’s release.”

As for the first time Norcop remembers hearing Jessye Norman sing, the memory of that moment is also vivid, even though the date and place are not. “Was it 15 years ago? 20? 25? Hers has been an extraordinary career. It was also one of those car radio stories. You know, when you turn on the radio in the middle of something playing, so instead of being pre-warned, you have to make up your own mind about what you are hearing. And for me it was simply ‘My God!’ She was in the middle of Wagner’s Wesedonck Lieder. She sounded like a young Kirsten Flagstad back then.”

James NorcopHeading North

Within ten years of that memorable day in Madame Ehlers’ Baroque interpretation class at USC, baritone Norcop’s career was about to take an 18-year “temporary back seat” to that of Norcop the arts administrator – a career that would take him from manager of the Vancouver Opera to the Ontario Arts Council, where he met Charlotte Holmes, his future wife. In more than a decade and a half at the OAC he served, among other positions, as music officer and eventually as head of the touring program for all the arts.

Through it all, vocal music, and in particular art song, remained (and remains) a throughline and consuming passion. The Jim and Charlotte Norcop Prize in Song and Gwendolyn Williams Koldofsky Prize in Accompanying, at the U of T Faculty of Music, are testament to that. So too has been Norcop’s role, from the first year of Douglas McNabney’s tenure as artistic director of Toronto Summer Music, eight years ago, in enabling the TSM art song academy to rise from the ashes of TSM’s short-lived opera program. The hard rocks of financial unsustainability were the primary reason for the opera program’s meteoric rise and fall. “Besides which,” Norcop says, “there are other places in the world to go for opera studies in the summer.”

But for art song, not so much, although for Norcop as a genre it is at the pinnacle of the classical vocal arts, albeit widely viewed these days as a poor relation of its “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” aria-driven operatic counterpart. “It requires all the powers of passion, interpretation and artistry that opera does, distilled into intense moments. And all without benefit of script.”

For years he hoped and tried to establish, with collaborative pianist Liz Upchurch, a vocal arts competition in Toronto; she wanted to dedicate it to her mentor, repetiteur and vocal coach extraordinaire Martin Isepp. But “Toronto is a very tough place to fundraise for musical causes,” he says, wryly.

Which brings us, finally, to the main reason for his braving the ice to be here: the Concours in Montreal.

Aria vs. Song

“Canada only has four musical competitions of international stature,” Norcop says. “There’s Banff for string quartets, Honens for piano, Montreal for organ, and then there’s this, the Concours.”

And even the Concours, with its triennial emphasis on voice, was missing the mark, as Norcop saw it, based on his first visit there, for the 2015 vocal round. “The category was just voice, with everything lumped in, so naturally opera ruled the day, with maybe a little bit of oratorio thrown in.”

To cut what should be a longer story short, he leapt in, making the case to Concours executive and artistic director Christiane LeBlanc that it should be feasible to create parallel streams within the triennial vocal round, so that in the vocal year there would be a competition for aria and one for song, running parallel.

She got it right away,” Norcop says (with perhaps no implied criticism of years of futile trying to do the same thing in Ontario).

The speed with which it has all come together (three years is nothing in administrative time) is remarkable, reflective of the alactrity and passion with which Norcop threw himself into the task of raising the roughly $250,000 needed to get the initiative off the ground, and to put into place a prize structure matching dollar for dollar the $130,000 offered overall in the aria category (which has a 16-year head start on its upstart twin).

And Norcop is putting his own money where his mouth is, in the category that best reflects a lifetime of insight into the realities of pursuing an artistic life in art song. It’s the James Norcop Career Development Award, a no-strings-attached $50,000 to the winner.

“The song business is not like the opera side,” he says. “It’s a life of one-night stands, or putting yourself out there. The publisher of the Montreal Star gave Maureen Forrester an award that was the equivalent of that much when she was setting out, and she used it to go to Europe. She never looked back and she never forgot.”

True to his principled understanding of the nature of the art of song, he takes great satisfaction from the fact that the collaborative pianists accompanying the singers will, if under 35 years of age, be automatically entered into a parallel competition, for the John Newmark Best Collaborative Pianist Award. “We need to name our awards for our great artists,” he says. “Competitors are coming from around the world. It’s a chance to tell them the story of who our great ones were.”

And a way to support the ones to come.

“You can follow the whole thing via live-streaming,” he says. “It’s a great audience to be part of. They are faithful, following it all the way. But nothing beats being there. Oh, what fun it’s going to be.”


For once, I had this Opener figured out days in advance, thanks to a snippet of news that came my way relating to Estonian Music Week, which kicks off May 24 and will offer concerts and workshops in a bunch of different musical genres and eight different Toronto venues, from Lee’s Palace to Koerner Hall, all timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Estonia’s independence. But that’s May’s news. The detail that caught my eye right now, and much more in keeping with this month’s topic, was an initiative to the tune of around two million Canadian dollars, titled “An Instrument for Every Child,” designed to put a musical instrument in the hands of every Estonian child who wants to play one, with no limitations in terms of musical styles.

But just a couple of hours before going to press with this issue of TheWholeNote, word came through to us from the Glenn Gould Foundation, of the death of Venezuelan visionary educator, Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, a transformative program of intensive free music education and orchestral training, starting in early childhood. “Abreu was a visionary figure, who recognized the power of music to transform the lives of children suffering the ravages of poverty and the host of social ills that goes with it” reads the statement posted on the Glenn Gould Foundation website. “From that realization, and by sheer force of will, he built the movement that came to be known as El Sistema, beginning with a mere 11 young people in 1975, but ultimately [spreading] to more than 25 countries worldwide, adapting and accommodating itself to the social and economic context of each.”

I’d already been planning, cleverly, to link this new Estonian initiative to the topic of Abreu, El Sistema and the GGF because April is, as it happens, announcement time for the Glenn Gould Prize for the arts. This year’s distinguished jury is heading to town shortly (unless of course they already live here) and, on April 13 at 12:30pm in the galleria at Koerner Hall the jury will announce this year’s prize winner, following which, as surely as pigeons have wings, feathers will ruffle and/or fly in all directions. After dust and dander settle, the public, and the jury, can take in an astounding 8pm Koerner concert by a likely future winner of this and/or many other prizes, 13-year old British composer, pianist, violinist and improviser Alma Deutscher.

A bit of history: The Glenn Gould Prize started out in 1987 as a strictly musical one, awarded every three years; R. Murray Schafer was its first recipient; then Yehudi Menuhin in 1990, Oscar Peterson in 1993, and Toru Takemitsu, Yo-Yo Ma, Pierre Boulez and André Previn, in 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 respectively. Abreu was the 2008 honoree, followed by Leonard Cohen in 2011, Robert Lepage in 2013 and Philip Glass in 2015.

Somewhere along the way, I think either just before or just after the award to Leonard Cohen, it was announced that henceforth the prize would be known as the Glenn Gould Prize for the arts, rather than strictly for music. And around the same time as the change to “Prize for the Arts” was announced, it was also announced that the Prize would be awarded every two years instead of every three.

One more little piece of history: since 1993, the year Oscar Peterson won, there has been a second award, called the City of Toronto Protégé Prize, awarded to some person, or in one case organization, of the Laureate’s own choosing, generally announced at the prize-giving ceremony sometime during the year after the announcement of the main award. Abreu selected Gustavo Dudamel as protégé in his year. Yo-Yo Ma selected a true protégé, future fellow Silk Road Project core company member, pipa player Wu Man for his. She remains to this point the only woman among the 20 honorees to date.

Growing up: Of all the laureates so far, Abreu was for me the one that best reflected what prizes like this should really be for, and the direction that I hope this year’s jury will take in their deliberations. I understand why for the first couple of decades of its existence a prize like this is as much intent on building its own pedigree via the credentials of its chosen laureates as the other way round. The Prize had to prove its importance by choosing widely know laureates, who then, usually, return the favour by the graciousness and alacrity with which they acknowledge the importance of the award.

But how much better when the Prize is bestowed on someone of towering importance to art and life whom we don’t already know. Abreu was one such person for me; I will always be grateful that the Prize brought his life-changing work to my attention. Going further, it is highly unlikely that El Sistema would have found fertile soil in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada were it not for the prominence given the movement here in 2008.

The April 13 announcement will take the Prize to a whole new level if it brings into the limelight a person (of any gender) who stands to benefit more from having their work brought into focus by the Prize, than the Prize merely basking in the laureate’s reflected glory. Now that would truly be a feather in the Glenn Gould Foundation cap.

As for the matter of the gender of the laureates, it’s an issue that gets thornier with every passing cycle. Each time a man is chosen, the cumulative imbalance becomes more improbable. Just as problematic, though, in my view, will be the backlash as and when this changes – the huffing and puffing of small-hearted people who will immediately assume that this award, unlike the other 19, was gender-based. So, to the jury, good luck. To those who are waiting to question the jury’s integrity, look into your own hearts. To José Antonio Abreu, you will not be forgotten.


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