Denise Williams. Hair, Make Up & Photography by Amina Abena AlfredThe way Linda Litwack tells this chapter of the Denise Williams story, she and Williams (who have known each other since about 1990, when Williams joined the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir as their soprano support singer/soloist) bumped into each other at the premiere, in October 2015, of David Warrack’s ambitious oratorio Abraham at Metropolitan United Church. (Litwack was the publicist.)

“It involved Jewish, Christian and Muslim singers, instrumentalists and dancers in a celebration of the father of the three major monotheist faiths,” Litwack explains. “There we encountered Salima Dhanani, a lively, young (compared to us anyway) woman, who told us about her Ismaili Muslim youth choir, and said she wanted them to learn some Yiddish songs. That hasn’t happened yet, but we started a series of meetings that has ultimately led to our organizing this concert. As producers, in honour of the common founding father of our backgrounds, and the circumstances of our first meeting, we called ourselves Children of Abraham – even though we have always intended for this to be a secular concert, not religious.”

Antiguan-born, Canadian soprano Denise Williams is a bridge builder in all kinds of ways: a true crossover artist comfortable with opera, oratorio, lieder, 20th century art song, spirituals, musical theatre and jazz; a founding member of, and soloist with, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (most recently as Monisha in their concert performance of Treemonisha at Koerner Hall); soprano soloist in David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus with both the Pocano Choral Society in Pennsylvania and with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; trail-blazing soprano Portia White in in the world premiere of Lance Woolaver’s Portia White: First You Dream, for Nova Scotia’s Eastern Front Theatre in 2004; and an accomplished solo recitalist with venues such as Massey Hall, the St Lawrence Centre, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, and concert venues in the US and the Caribbean under her belt.

Her introduction to Jewish music via the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir sparked a strong musical connection; it also led, over time, to her witnessing and participating in not always easy dialogues between Black and Jewish cultures.

“I have an always growing interest in celebrating artistic harmony with other communities and cultures and in building bridges, which I will continue to explore,” Williams says. “Growing up in the inner city of Toronto, I have embodied the multicultural music community all my life: singing and teaching, reaching out. A large part of my motivation is simply the understanding that comes from connecting.”

Walk Together Children, one of her most popular programs, arose from that sense of motivation. It has been performed at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts and was broadcast from the Glenn Gould Studio on CBC Radio’s Music Around Us. In various iterations it has been performed at Ashkenaz (Toronto’s Jewish music festival), the Yiddishland Café, and more recently, last October, three performances in Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival, for which the repertoire included traditional African song, spirituals, Ladino, Yiddush and traditional Antiguan repertoire and more.

It would be tempting to paint the upcoming Children of Abraham production of Walk Together Children: A Cross-Cultural Concert Celebration at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, October 14 as some kind of grand culmination for the project, but by its very nature, it is a show destined to remain a work in progress, an in-the-moment snapshot of a lifelong mission.

The list of participants for this performance tells the story of where the show is at right now: slated to join Williams, at time of going to press, are  pianists Brahm Goldhamer and Nina Shapilsky, percussionists Sam Donkoh and Daniel Barnes, winds player Ben MacDonald, and a choral contingent of Ismaili singers, led by Salima Dhanani. Guests include tenor Mitch Smolkin, sitar player Anwar Khurshid (composer of music featured in the Oscar-winning film Life of Pi and Kama Sutra), tabla player Jaswinder Sraa, pianist Babak Naseri, and dancers Shakeil Rollock and Geneviève Beaulieu.  M.C. is dub poet Clifton Joseph, and First Nations singer/songwriter Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone will open the afternoon.

 And after that? Short answer: Denise Williams will continue to live a multifaceted, committed musical life. No Strings Theatre, which aids youth in developing their performing arts skills, on and off stage, and where Williams is artistic director, will be an ongoing part of the picture; her role as a private voice teacher, a mainstay for over 25 years, an M.A. in Community Music at Wilfrid Laurier University (for which this project serves as a capstone) will be part of at least the short term future.

“I also have a few interesting pending projects in Cuba,” Williams says. “Working with a youth choir/orchestra, an adult ensemble (Orpheo de Santiago), and a performance opportunity with the symphonic orchestra of Santiago de Cuba. Understanding of other cultures that are around us, in our community, that form our pluralistic identity, striving for unity through inclusion. That is what motivates me.”

More information about Walk Together Children: A Cross-Cultural Concert Celebration is available at Tickets are available at Civic Theatres Toronto box offices and at Ticketmaster.

David Perlman can be reached at

Canadian Arabic Orchestra. NOUR AHRAM PHOTOGRAPHYThe Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA) was launched last year, produced by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO) in partnership with the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal. Presenting a series of concerts, in the Toronto region and in Montreal, of both Arab and non-Arab artists, it aimed to appeal not only to Arabic audiences but also to a broad spectrum of Canadians.

In the fall of 2017 FAMA staged 60 concerts of music, stand-up comedy and theatre by international and local performers. FAMA returns this year, October 26 to November 10, with an even more enterprising expanded program, presented in 11 venues across the GTA. The lineup features music, theatre, exhibitions and film from Arab countries including Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Egypt, as well as several performances by the CAO, which remains the driving force behind the GTA undertaking.

The Mississauga-based CAO was co-founded in 2015 by the husband-and-wife team of qanun expert and orchestra president Wafa Al Zaghal, and pianist Lamees Audeh, its music director. Fuelled by their twin passion for Arabic and Western classical music, they initially began with a modest ensemble of five musicians. Their expanded orchestra today includes a string section of violins, viola, cello, bass, plus piano, clarinet, ney/nay (Arabic reed flute), oud (Arabic lute) and three percussionists. The instrumentation reflects the CAO’s goal of combining Western and Arabic classical instruments and musics.

FAMA, and the CAO role in launching it, caught my attention this time last year and I spoke with Audeh at the time. “Our repertoire is evolving, along with the makeup of the orchestra,” she noted. “Our approach puts less emphasis on [Arab] ethnicity and rather more on the [Arabic] music itself. We wish to connect expatriate Arabs with their classical Arabic musical culture … maintaining this cultural heritage in the hearts and minds of the Arab community in Canada and presenting it to future generations. But at the same time we want to engage with all non-Arab communities. Our aim is to build bridges between Canada’s diverse communities ... multicultural dialogue among the tapestry of Canadian society through music.”

The shifting demographics of the GTA is one factor impacting FAMA’s approach. On its website it notes that the “GTA, comprised of the City of Toronto, Durham, Halton, Peel and York is home to about 6.5 million people speaking approximately 200 languages. … Arabs constitute about four percent.” According to my lazy arithmetic, that’s over a quarter million GTA residents who identify as Arab, a considerable core audience base, within a much larger musically engaged and potentially interested population.

Venues this year range from public spaces and mid-sized theatres, to large concert halls. With the aim of reaching core and wider audiences where they live, work and play, they are strategically and widely dispersed: Mississauga, Oakville, North York, but also in Toronto’s cultural core: at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Jane Mallet Theatre and 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture.

The 2018 Festival opens October 26, close to the CAO’s home base, at the Living Arts Centre-Hammerson Hall, Mississauga with a concert by the multi-award-winning Lebanese singer and popular music songwriter Marwan Khoury. Khoury has had numerous highlights in his three-decade-long career: His Kil Al Asayed (2005) album made him a music star throughout the Arab world, topping charts. Last year he signed with the Al Araby TV Network to host a TV music show titled Tarab with Marwan Khoury where he performed evergreen Arabic songs with Arab guest stars. It’s a foregone conclusion that his GTA fans will make this concert a hot ticket event.

Dalal Abu Abneh

Digging for more details on the ambitious scope of the festival, I spoke on the phone with CAO chorister (and FAMA manager) Omar Najjar. “We strive for partnerships, searching for synergies with presenters and venues,” Najjar said. “The bottom line is that we want to reach all our communities where they make their homes. For example many in the Jordanian community live in the northern end of Toronto, so we are presenting Dalal Abu Amneh’s concert within easy reach at North York’s Lyric Theatre. But first we will present her at 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education.”

Singer Dalal Abu Amneh was born in Nazareth in 1983. By the age of 13 she was performing Palestinian folk songs at public events. She became well known for rendering the songs of Umm Kulthum (1904?-1975), among the greatest and most influential singers of the 20th century. More recently her song Bokra Jdeed (A New Tomorrow) made it to the shortlist in the 2006 EuromedCafe international song contest for “intercultural dialogue between the two shores of the Mediterranean.”

Amneh actively mixes tarab (classical Arabic singing) and Arabic folk music, focusing her practice on characteristic rhythms and maqamat, a system of melodic modes used in Arabic music. In addition to her career as a professional singer, Amneh is pursuing her PhD in Neuroscience at the Faculty of Medicine at Technion University, Israel.

November 1, FAMA presents Amneh in Nur Sufi at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education. Amneh takes the audiences on “a holistic spiritual journey that combines Sufi whirling with music,” set to some of the works of three outstanding mystical Sufi poets, Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Al Hallaj. Joining her is the Syrian-born American composer and cellist Kinan Abu Afach, along with violin, qanun and percussion. Rumi Canada’s Tawhida Tanya Evanson, whose Sufi whirling is a form of active meditation, will join the musicians. Cognizant of the 918 Bathurst Centre’s former life as a Buddhist temple, and infused with the scent of incense, Nur Sufi draws on the Sufi mystical tradition to set the mood for a special concert experience for the audience. A gallery of Sufi and Arabic calligraphy complements the performance.

Dalal Ya SittiThen on November 3, Amneh’s concert Ya Sitti (Oh Grandma) takes the stage at the Lyric Theatre in North York. The show is an extension of Amneh’s audio-blogging about her Palestinian heritage in order to document its current practice. Ya Sitti evokes the environment in which this heritage is kept alive. In addition, Amneh aims to restore the cultural sprawl of folk music practiced in the Great Levant and the surrounding Arabic area by choosing songs originating in Palestine, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo.

Accompanying Amneh on this pan-Arabic journey is an actual group of grandmothers – the theme of the concert. As she explains, in the past these grandmothers used to sing to themselves behind closed doors. Amneh’s project proudly brings them out on the public stage, showcasing their role as the birth mothers of song, highlighting their extraordinary contribution in the inheritance and preservation of their heritage. The grandmothers not only sing with Amneh but also share the stories and history of the songs, illuminating the lives of ordinary women.

Small Wonders

I asked FAMA manager Omar Najjar where the resident CAO Choir comes into the picture. “The choir is directed by Wafa Al Zaghal, who is also the festival’s CEO,” said Najjar. “As a member of the choir, I feel choral singing is an important aspect of Arabic music that perhaps not many in the broader Canadian community are aware of. We include both male and female singers, typically singing in unison, with interspersed solos. A good example of the involvement of choral music and the diversity in our program can be seen at our ‘Small Wonders’ concert, with the participation of the Maronite Youth Choir of St. Charbel Church in Mississauga. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church [and one of the oldest in Christianity], yet people of the Maronite faith are very much part of the greater Arabic community.”

November 5, FAMA presents Small Wonders at the Maja Prentice Theatre, Burnhamthorpe Branch Library in Mississauga. In addition to the Maronite Youth Choir, this fundraiser will showcase young talent nurtured by the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music (CACM), directed by Lamees Audeh. Children ranging in age from 6 to 16 will perform on traditional Arabic instruments such as oud, qanun and Arabic violin, as well as on classical violin, clarinet, guitar and piano. Small Wonders also features Zaytouna Dabke, a Mississauga folk dance group concerned with preserving Palestinian and Arab culture and heritage, particularly among youth.

Though admission is free, donations will be accepted towards sponsoring CACM tuition for deserving children.

The CAO itself

The resident Canadian Arabic Orchestra is featured in three festival concerts.

November 4 at the Aga Khan Museum, Syrian flamenco guitarist and composer Tarek Ghriri accompanies flamenco dancers with members of the CAO in a program titled “Flamenco Arabia.” Presented in partnership with the Aga Khan Museum’s annual Duende Flamenco Festival, Ghriri explores common ground between Spanish flamenco, traditional Andalusia and contemporary Arabic music.

November 9 at the Lyric Theatre, North York, poet and singer Hassan Tamim presents “Sounds of Iraq,” in collaboration with the CAO, taking the audience on a musical journey to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to one of the ancient cradles of poetry and music.

Charbel RouhanaThe festival’s grand finale takes place on November 10 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, in downtown Toronto. “Tribute to Sayyed Darwish” features Lebanese oud master, singer and composer Charbel Rouhana with the 20-piece Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir.

Widely considered the “father of modern popular Arabic music,” the Egyptian singer and composer Sayyed Darwish (1892-1923) believed that music was not merely for entertainment but was an expression of human aspiration which imparted meaning to life. He wrote the melody for the national anthem of Egypt, and his songs remain popular even in the 21st century. His remains rest in the “Garden of the Immortals” in Alexandria, Egypt, his hometown.

This large-scale tribute to one of the Arab world’s leading maestros, a leading light of the Arab music renaissance of the early 20th century, is a fitting way to sum up FAMA’s vision and set the stage for the future.

The Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), produced by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO), runs from October 26 to November 10. Consult for all the details.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

Shanghai Symphony Hall. c Arata Isozaki AssociatesIt was all of 40 years ago that Andrew Davis sat down at a Hero baby grand piano in a Shanghai department store, puzzling shoppers with his rendition of Henry Mancini’s Moon River. All the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had to do during that brief visit was stop to look at something and a crowd would gather to look at him.

Westerners were a curiosity in those days following the Cultural Revolution, with people still wearing Mao suits and black bicycles crowding the streets. Today’s Shanghai is a different place, a forest of gleaming skyscrapers with shops peddling Gucci, Versace and Prada and streets on which a cyclist can find himself sandwiched between a Lexus and a Mercedes.

No one who has visited China during the intervening years can fail to be impressed by the country’s rate of modernization. In the countryside the pace is understandably slower. In the cities it is sometimes breathtaking and not least in the realm of the arts. A few years ago in Beijing’s state-of-the-art performing arts centre I witnessed a production of Verdi’s Nabucco superior in quality to the one I had witnessed months earlier at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Both starred Placido Domingo. A few weeks ago I witnessed a production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman imported from Erfurt, home of one of Germany’s most modern opera houses, that looked entirely uncompromised on the stage of Shanghai’s elegant Grand Theatre.

All this is by way of saying that – Rodgers and Hammerstein notwithstanding – it is not only in Kansas City that everything is up to date. Shanghai (population 13 million) has set itself the task of becoming one of the world’s top tier international metropolises.

Its music conservatory, China’s oldest (vintage 1927), is just as clearly determined not to be left behind. Host to an annual Shanghai New Music Week, it brings to China’s largest city the sounds of today, inviting major interpreters from far afield to collaborate with native musicians in its performance.

That is where Toronto’s Soundstreams comes in. At last month’s 11th Shanghai New Music Week the conservatory’s concert halls welcomed performers from Amsterdam, Athens and Paris, in addition to Ontario’s capital city, to join their Chinese counterparts in a series of afternoon and evening concerts. Additional off-campus orchestral concerts featured the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra in Shanghai Symphony Hall, a handsomely modernist venue architecturally inspired by the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that these concerts reached a wide audience. Like those of Beijing’s comparable festival they are conservatory-sponsored projects, aimed primarily at the open ears of the young. Tickets are kept cheap; lectures and concerts are T-shirt-and-shorts informal.

In his introduction to this year’s New Music Week, artistic director Wen Deqing identified as its theme “the fusion of tradition and modernity, of the Eastern and Western, and of China and the rest of the world.” He might almost have borrowed the title of a once-famous book by Wendell Willkie, One World.

The September 14 official opening concert by the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of a new work by Ye Guohui, head of the composition department of the Shanghai Conservatory, but it also included the Chinese première of Quatre Instants by the celebrated Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Indeed, Saariaho was even the subject of a Concert Portrait, as were her French colleagues Frédéric Pattar and Gérard Pesson and her Japanese colleague Toshio Hosokawa. There was also an entire recital by the Greek pianist Ermis Theodorakis devoted to the cerebral music of the German composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf.

To Soundstreams fell the distinction of presenting a program of new music from North America, relatively little of which has been performed at this week-long event over the years – a reflection, its artistic director admits, of his background. His own advanced training as a composer took place mostly in Europe.

Soundstreams brought over an ensemble of two pianists (Midori Koga and Greg Oh) and two percussionists (Dan Morphy and Ryan Scott), together with mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig for this program, which comprised a pair of American works by John Cage and Steve Reich along with three from Canada – R. Murray Schafer’s Tantrika, Juliette Palmer’s Five (Hand in my Pocket) and Nicole Lizée’s Promises, Promises.

Mezzo soprano Andrea Ludwig and percussionist Ryan Scott of Ensemble Soundstreams performing R. Murray Schafer’s "Tantrika" in the “Music of North America” concert at the Shanghai New Music Week. Lizée accompanied the musicians to Shanghai to give a lecture on her musical ideas as well as take part in an “International Composers Masterclass Concert” for which Soundstreams provided the players. Although four of the participating composers were Chinese, the jury also heard music by a composer from Germany as well as Paulo Brito, a Brazilian-born American currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Toronto, who played his own piano music with a virtuoso flair. What all these emerging composers brought to the masterclass was an awareness of current trends as well as a professional level of craftsmanship.

Clearly, much has changed in Chinese musical culture since the Cultural Revolution, when Western music was regarded as decadent and modern Chinese music was sometimes composed by committee. Not that Soundstreams was unaware of the change, having performed five years earlier at the modern music festival in Beijing. Artistic director Lawrence Cherney has made a point of cultivating links between Canada and China and has even lectured on Canadian music at the Shanghai Conservatory

“Canadian governments have talked a lot about cultural contacts over the years,” he explained over coffee and a croissant at a shop across the street from the conservatory, “but the current government actually has an active policy. Shanghai is one of 13 cities internationally in which the government is pouring resources into enhanced contacts. Culture really is important now.”

As evidence of the change, Cherney cites recent government approval for a forthcoming Soundstreams European tour of a program of music theatre by Claude Vivier, the Quebec composer murdered in a Paris hotel room in 1983, who has become far better known abroad in death than in life.

“It is an incredible time to be telling Canadian stories abroad,” he says. “Until now we have been more successful in film, literature and maybe the visual arts. We are not trying to prove anything. We hope to give a flavour of what Canadian music has to offer. And I feel very proud that we now have a pool of musicians who can perform virtually anything. It has been made clear to me here that they want us back.”

Mere hours after consuming his croissant Cherney found himself aboard a train bound for Beijing, with Hong Kong to follow and then Tokyo, as he continued a 36-year career as Canadian music’s unofficial ambassador. “There is nothing like meeting people in person,” he smiles.

William Littler is a Toronto-based writer focusing on music.

Linda BouchardToronto concertgoers will have a rare opportunity on Saturday, October 6 at 8pm at the Betty Oliphant Theatre on Jarvis Street. Quebec-born composer Linda Bouchard isn’t often found in Toronto and performances here of major works by this significant Canadian composer are rare. New Music Concerts’ artistic director Robert Aitken decided to address this by mounting a production of her 2011 multimedia work, Murderous Little World.

Bouchard, based in San Francisco for more than 20 years, has had an international career in her multiple roles as composer, conductor, artistic director and all-around artistic instigator and visionary. The list of her awards and prizes is a long one, with recognition coming from Canada, the USA and Europe. Given her impressive credentials, it’s a bit surprising that her work is not presented here more often.

Murderous Little World was commissioned in 2004, developed over many years and finally premiered in 2011 by Bellows and Brass, a Toronto-based trio comprised of Guy Few (trumpet and piano), Joseph Petric (accordion) and Eric Vaillancourt (trombone) at a concert in the NUMUS series in Kitchener-Waterloo. Organized around poetry by the internationally recognized Canadian poet, Anne Carson, the work, in the words of the composer, “brings together gifted artists from different experiences to create a new evening-length multimedia performance that fuses music, poetry, theatre, video art and lighting.”

In her program note, Bouchard says that the poems of Carson, “conjure up a textured universe of ‘little worlds’ that span continents and ages of human existence. Carson’s phrases seem to be made up of fragments or artifacts and point to individuals’ searching for truth against waves of corruption and cruelty.” And as often happens when two creative artists intersect, the meeting of poetry and music creates a synthesis. Bouchard says: “The musical and dramatic response to each poem is unique, with each selection having an individual voice expressed through specific vocals – i.e. whispered, slow recitation, fully voiced, in a range of emotional pitches and vocal styles. At the same time, the three musicians/actors play live and move around the stage creating different dramatic interplay with the visuals.”

New Music Concerts’ October 6 performance of Murderous Little World will be the tenth time the work has been staged. I have witnessed it in an earlier performance, and found it to be a truly remarkable experience, unique and unforgettable. I cannot emphasize enough what a great opportunity this is for people to hear and see such an incomparable work.

Bouchard’s return to Toronto for this presentation reminds me that she and I both made life- and career-shaping moves back in the year 1977. This is when Bouchard decided to attend Bennington College in Vermont, USA to study with another Canadian ex-pat, the highly original, one-of-a-kind composer, Henry Brant (1913–2008). He would shape her artistic approach so deeply, his influence continues to the present. Bouchard said of her work with Brant: “Henry’s influence on me was very profound. He was a true mentor. I cannot tell how much his aesthetic rubbed on mine, but his sense of ethics, his commitment to the craft of being a composer, his professionalism was very much part of his teaching. He had a strong opinion on absolutely everything. Sometimes it was very disconcerting, because it seemed to make the world black or white, and then one day, in the composition class, out of the blue, we’d spend the entire class discussing the difficulty of knowing what is right when you write music.

Henry Brant with Chinese oboe, ca. 1974“I remember being acutely aware that I was in the presence of a very special, unique individual. He was powerful and at times very difficult; it was all worth the work though. For example, for a private lesson, you needed to show up with a score copied in ink. He wanted you to be very committed to what you showed him. Nothing just sketched out quickly and half conceived; he wanted none of this. I remember a few years after having studied with him realizing that I was just starting to understand his orchestration concept. I had kept my notes and kept reading them … It took a while for his true teaching to be absorbed I think... I had gone to Bennington College to study with him, I had heard about him and it was a complete random decision in a way. Amazing how these things happen.”

For my part, 1977 was the year that I decided to propose to CBC Radio that we should create a national network contemporary music program that would bring Canadian listeners a weekly overview of the world of contemporary music. The program that resulted from this pitch was called Two New Hours, and it ran from 1978 to 2007 on CBC Radio Two, producing original Canadian musical content, broadcasting world premieres from concerts from across Canada as well as important premieres by international composers from the major international contemporary music festivals.

By the time Bouchard completed her work at Bennington and had moved to New York, where she based her composing and conducting activities for 11 years, our Two New Hours broadcasts had gained a large listenership for such specialized programming, and a corresponding increase of support from CBC Radio. Broadcasts of concerts presented by the many new music groups around Canada formed a large part of our programming, and Toronto’s New Music Concerts was well represented. Other groups, such as Vancouver New Music, New Works Calgary, Groundswell in Winnipeg, Esprit Orchestra and Soundstreams in Toronto, the Newfoundland Sound Symposium and of course the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) and the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal (ECM) also appeared regularly, and many others, as more organizations were created. By the time I first met Bouchard, in the early 1990s, she was already a mature composer with a strong, individual artistic personality.

The music of both Henry Brant and Linda Bouchard was included in the mix of programming we presented. One notable example was in 1990, when we broadcast New Music Concerts’ performance of the Canadian premiere of Brant’s Inside Track, a so-called “spatial piano concerto,” in which the 16 players accompanying the onstage piano soloist (Ivar Mikhashoff) were positioned around the concert hall. Among those spatially deployed performers was a very young soprano, Barbara Hannigan, who was still in school at the time. Our broadcast would be her CBC network radio debut. Needless to say, Ms. Hannigan, now an international celebrity, has come a long way since then. Incidentally, in 2008 this recording was leased by an American label, Innova Recordings, and included in Volume 8 (Innova catalog # 415) of its nine-volume Henry Brant Collection.

Bouchard served as composer-in-residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) from 1992 to 1995. During this time, she arranged for the NACO to invite Brant to Ottawa for performances of several of his works. Among these was the world premiere of his Concord Symphony (1994), an orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata. The performance was recorded by CBC Ottawa and broadcast on Two New Hours.

The last time Brant visited Toronto was in 2002, when New Music Concerts gave the world premiere of a work they commissioned, Ghosts and Gargoyles, for multiple, spatially disposed flutes and drum kit. In the interview for the Two New Hours broadcast, Brant emphasized two points: the first was to stress the importance of the music of Ives, not only to his own training and formation, but to the understanding of 20th-century music as a whole. The second point was that he had always considered himself a Canadian composer, even though he and his family left Canada to live in the USA when he was just
16 years of age.

I asked Bouchard to compare her own history to Brant’s. She said, “I am a Canadian composer. I never called myself an American composer, I believe people always perceive me as a Canadian composer, my resume always says that I am a Canadian composer. I actually left as a Quebec composer in my teens but as the years passed, I started to refer to myself as ‘Canadian.’ I did live most of my life in the US, it is true, but as a Canadian composer. It is different –despite the fact that Henry considered himself a Canadian composer – probably because he was proud of his origins – he was considered an American composer.”

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Nurhan Arman conducting the Belgrade Philharmonic. CREDIT Belgrade PhilharmonicJust over 19 years ago, The WholeNote’s Allan Pulker interviewed conductor Nurhan Arman about the impending launch of chamber orchestra Sinfonia Toronto – an event that Arman described at the time as “the fulfillment of a dream.” Now, as Sinfonia Toronto’s 20th-anniversary season begins, we revisited with Arman to chat about a two-decade journey which has seen Sinfonia Toronto’s world expand from the GTA across Ontario and the globe, culminating in a historic South American tour in April 2018.

The WholeNote Vol. 05 #2, October 1999.WN: Congratulations on your 20th anniversary. It’s quite an accomplishment.

NA: Thank you, Paul. We are very proud of our accomplishments to date with Sinfonia Toronto. Our goal was to create a chamber orchestra with a specific repertoire that was missing in Toronto. Toronto had Baroque ensembles, symphony orchestras, opera and chamber music, but it was missing an ensemble that could play the string orchestra repertoire by 19th- and 20th-century composers as well as contemporary music. We achieved this goal as we have been performing this repertoire for Torontonians. Many remarkable compositions received their première performances in Toronto by Sinfonia Toronto. Just to name a few, I can mention major works by Kapralova, Vasks, Górecki, Mirzoyan, Hindson, McLean, and of course world premières of works by Canadian composers like Burge, Chan Ka Nin, Mozetich, Schmidt and many others.

And we have taken this repertoire to many schools, community centres, retirement homes. My most cherished memory of an outreach performance is from our concert at SickKids (The Hospital for Sick Children).

Every season we have performed in other Ontario cities. We have played from Sarnia to Sault Ste-Marie and from Welland to Brockville. We have proudly carried the name of our city and our beautiful repertoire abroad in tours to Germany, Spain, USA, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay.

And looking ahead?

As music director my goal for the future is to keep building the orchestra, enriching the repertoire and making the orchestra even better known in Canada and abroad.

Nineteen years ago, you told Allan [Pulker] how much you like the repertoire for string orchestra, calling it “pure music, like a string quartet except bigger and with a double bass.” I attended your concert last April in the Glenn Gould Studio, featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” with Stewart Goodyear as soloist. I can attest to the orchestra’s vigour. The piano was much more exposed in the chamber version and there was textural depth and beauty to Goodyear’s playing.

Thank you for your kind words! Yes. There is an amazing amount of shading in the format. The dynamic range is incredible. It is truly a new way for audiences to appreciate familiar works.

So, what we can look forward to in your October 20 concert at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. How will you approach Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4? Will it be performed on the trumpet?

On our season-opening concert on October 20, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4 will be performed by the incredible Sergei Nakariakov. Sergei plays this work beautifully on flügelhorn, an instrument that looks like a trumpet but is larger, with a wider bore. It works well for the horn concerti. As well, Sergei uses it for cello concerti that he plays! He also plays violin works on regular trumpet; he is amazing!

In terms of the other works on the program, the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Orchestra is delightfully witty. What will the version for strings unearth? And what can we expect from Beethoven’s iconic Kreutzer Sonata?

The Shostakovich was written for a string orchestra, so we’ll play it in its original version. For Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, I started with a string quintet version that was made early in the 19th century, possibly by Beethoven’s student, friend and secretary, Ferdinand Ries. I have added a double bass part and made certain changes to the arrangement so that it works better for a string orchestra. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is one of the greatest works of the repertoire. As is the case with all masterpieces, the magical message comes across if it is performed well, whether it is played by a quintet, octet or just two musicians. I have been working on this score since May and I am sure my colleagues in Sinfonia Toronto will give their best efforts to perform this magnificent work in this version.

Are there other of your own arrangements in this concert?

Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto is also my own arrangement.

Can you point to any other works in the upcoming season which you think will particularly benefit from the string orchestra format?

Many chamber music compositions like trios, quartets, quintets, sextets are enriched when they are arranged for a string orchestra. Great chamber works’ architecture and emotional depth make them good candidates for performance on a larger scale. The rich sonorities of a virtuoso string orchestra bring out the symphonic proportions of those compositions. And some works originally composed for larger instrumentation also sound new and wonderful when played with the great range of tones and textures that can be created by a highly skilled string orchestra.

Any particular examples?

Consider our November 16 concert which includes Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. We will play the North American premiere of a transcription by the French composer Louis Sauter. On the same concert we’ll play Bruckner’s Adagio from his String Quintet. In Rachmaninoff the transcription reduces the work to its basic elements; Rachmaninoff’s dialogue and thematic ideas are now taken into a more intimate setting. Performing this gorgeous work with an ideal collaborative pianist like Anne Louise-Turgeon will be an exciting new experience for the audience. In Bruckner’s Adagio we will stretch its dimensions. This work has already been transcribed for string orchestra several times, and has been recorded by many string orchestras.

It seems that transcription is vital for an ensemble of this type.

Transcriptions were very common practice until the mid-20th century when suddenly everyone became purists. All the major composers before then often transcribed their works for other combinations. Beethoven’s violin concerto was considered the “concerto of all concertos,” yet Beethoven himself made a version as a piano concerto! Fortunately times have changed again. I am proud of the many transcriptions that I have made and performed with Sinfonia Toronto. Many of them have also been played by other orchestras around the world, 24 orchestras in ten countries, at last count.

Almost 20 years ago you mentioned to Allan Pulker that Canadian programming was a goal. Can you give us an idea of the number of Canadian compositions Sinfonia Toronto has played over the years?

We have worked very energetically to serve and grow Canadian music. Considering the size of our season and the fact that we don’t specialize in contemporary music, our record is impressive. To date we have given 19 world premières of works by Ontario composers, as well as one by a Quebec composer, along with 11 Ontario or Toronto premières of works by Canadian composers; and we have performed 30 other works by Canadian composers, many more than once, including nine by Ontario composers and 13 by female composers.

During our international tours, we also featured Canadian composers at every performance. We played Sir Ernest MacMillan in Germany, in Spain Ontario composer Kevork Andonian, and in South America works by Chan Ka Nin, Alexander Levkovich and Marjan Mozetich.

How many works have you commissioned?

By Canadian composers: Kevork Andonian, John Burge, Scott Good, Chan Ka Nin, Christos Hatzis, Marjan Mozetich, Norbert Palej, Ronald Royer, Heather Schmidt, Petros Shoujounian and Rob Teehan. In addition, as music director with my other Canadian orchestras I have commissioned and premièred another 20 works.

I have also conducted several world premières abroad commissioned by orchestras that I guest conducted. I have premièred new works in Italy, Germany, Poland, the US and Armenia.

You were born to Armenian parents in Istanbul, where you gave your first violin recital at 13. How old were you when you started playing?

I started violin at age nine.

Please describe the musical atmosphere in your home growing up?

My mother was a concert violinist, but she gave up her solo career when I was born. When she began teaching me she resumed playing herself, but limited her performances to chamber music. My father had a good voice and was a choir member at Casa d’Italia.

Besides lessons with my mother and then other wonderful teachers, the greatest influence in my development was attending concerts by the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra and many recitals and chamber music concerts. In addition, I loved going to live theatre performances, movies and reading great literature. In a typical week I attended at least four or five events and sometimes two a day... I admit, I don’t sleep much in general!

This is one thing sorely missing in today’s music education – both students and parents are so busy with everyday life they can’t find time to attend concerts. To me this is a must, but how to implement it is the big question. Internet and social media also are time-consuming, but at least one plus for today’s music students is the convenience of being able to watch and hear great classical music with just a few clicks.

Did you have any musical idols in your youth?

Of course! Violinist David Oistrakh.

And when did your passion for conducting take root?

I began conducting as a side activity. Back in the 70s, I had an active career as concertmaster, soloist and chamber musician. In 1980, I was the concertmaster of the Florida Chamber Orchestra, based in South Florida. They sponsored the Florida Youth Symphony, an excellent orchestra, with membership from throughout the state. When their conductor departed in mid-contract, I was asked to take over. The management had seen me doing string sectionals and must have liked what they saw. After two seasons with the FYS, in 1982 I came to join my parents in Canada when they immigrated to Montreal. I thought I should look for a concertmaster position but the first opening within easy enough travel to be with them happened to be the music directorship of the North Bay Symphony. I auditioned and was offered a contract. Shortly after that I began guest conducting in Europe, and the more I conducted the more I fell in love with it.

Sinfonia Toronto rehearsing in Buenos Aires April 2018What led to the birth of Sinfonia Toronto?

In 1998 I moved to Toronto. At the time I was guest conducting five weeks or more in Europe every year and serving as music director of Symphony New Brunswick. The Chamber Players of Toronto had folded not long before, and colleagues and friends who love this repertoire formed a board to support my try at building a new group to fill the gap. We began with a six-concert subscription season in 1999-2000, and were able to move to seven the very next season. In 2002 I left Symphony New Brunswick to give all my attention to Sinfonia Toronto plus continuing guest conducting.

Have you discerned any changes in your audience over the years?

Definitely yes and happily so. When I first started doing some new compositions with Sinfonia Toronto there were a few subscribers who barely tolerated them. There were also a few presenters in other cities who were initially suspicious of unknown works and composers. It’s been truly rewarding to see how our audiences have come to trust our programming over the years. I see my role as music director not only as an orchestra builder but just as importantly in developing the audience and pushing the boundaries. Artistic organizations must lead their communities, not only produce what is safe and sells most easily.

What do you find most rewarding and most challenging in your professional life?

Performers love to experience the magical moments of complete communication and unity among themselves and with their listeners. I am always happy when we can achieve that a few times per concert.

I have conducted more than 90 orchestras around the world. It is always challenging but also very intriguing and exciting to meet a new orchestra and from the first moment of the rehearsal start developing this very special relationship.

Sinfonia Toronto’s first concert of their 20th-anniversary season takes place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on October 20 at 8pm.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Back to top