Considering Matthew Shepard premiered by Conspirare, February 2016 in Austin, Texas. Photo by JAMES GOULDENThere’s never before been a time like this for the arts community. And we’re all in disarray. I’m feeling disconnected from my musical community, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the wider connected cultural family of the Toronto live classical music world. These are people and friends I spend hours with every week, and hundreds of hours with over the course of a season. They are faces I see and smile with, they are voices I sing with and feel comforted by. But like many of us across the arts community, we’re all separated from one another and the current season for the choir and most other arts organizations is totally up in the air.

A month before you get the magazine in your hands, writers are usually hard at work combing through listings and reaching out into networks to build and develop stories about what matters to everyday people. More often than not, it isn’t an issue about finding something interesting to write about, but rather, how to focus on only a handful of things in the musical chaos and glory that the region has to offer. It is heartbreaking to look at the pages of listings with close to 100 listings, knowing that none of them are coming to fruition. This has never happened before. 

We had so much to talk about this month too. I wanted to talk about Oakham House Choir’s Elijah. I wanted to talk about Considering Matthew Shepard with Pax Christi Chorale. I wanted to talk about preparing for Easter music. I wanted to talk about choral music and how much I love ensemble singing. 

Pax Christi’s David Bowser and I had even met and the interview is sitting on my phone, recorded, the two of us delving into the powerful story of a gay man beaten and left to die because he was different. We talked about how Craig Hella Johnson was so moved by this that he decided to put it into music and develop an oratorio over many years. We talked about how significant it was for a choir to pick up music like this and be challenged musically and spiritually by it. And we talked about the power of choral music to tell powerful stories like this that leave us changed as musicians and audiences. 

“Rests and silence are how musicians make music truly magical.”

But we won’t get to hear Considering Matthew Shepard this season. And we may not hear any more concerts. In the Mendelssohn Choir, we were preparing an austere Healey Willan piece, written to commemorate service people who died in World War I, How They So Softly Rest. It hums in my head as a memory of the sounds of what would have been the signature performance that the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is known for, its annual “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space” concert, always performed on Good Friday.  

I can’t bring myself to take my sheet music out of my knapsack. Even though I have nowhere to go, it doesn’t seem right to take it and put it away.  

All our rehearsal halls and all our concert halls will be dark for the next little bit. And that’s okay. There’s an important adage in performance that goes something like this, “Anyone can make noise and hold notes, but rests and silence are how musicians make music truly magical.” Composers can write the loudest, most powerful, thick, heavily orchestrated chords, but they are often only powerful because of what precedes them or proceeds from them – a rest. And eventually, all music does come to silence. But this isn’t the end.

The spine-tingling moments of anxious waiting between the old 20th-Century Fox fanfare and the Star Wars theme. The silence after the three iconic opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. The great silence before the final two “Amens” of Handel’s Messiah. Silence is part of the great music we all love and rests mark so much of what we know in music. The world in isolation is no different. We’re on a grand pause right now. This isn’t the silence at the end of a song, it’s the dramatic silence before something wonderful. We have beautiful sounds ahead of us. We’ll see you back at rehearsal and in concerts soon enough. 

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang.

Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Brett Polegato. Photo by Shayne GrayI had heard through the musician grapevine that baritone Brett Polegato owns a remarkable library, but putting in a request to poke around someone’s house and then write about it is not the easiest of asks. This March, however, after a sudden flurry of cancellations of his Lebanese, Italian and Nova Scotian engagements due to You-Know-What, Polegato found himself spending an unusual amount of time at home and we easily scheduled a get-together. I visited the three-storey row house he shares – or shall we call it his three-storey library – in the Carlton and Church area on one of the last evenings before the city went into a complete lockdown. Like a majority of working artists, he’s been hit hard by the loss of income due to cancellations. But this evening we decide to focus on what brings joy.

We skip the ground floor, which houses the piano, the CD collection in the middle of a major clearing out, and the downstairs books to which we’ll return, and go up to the living room. There are already bookcases here, behind glass doors in cubes on each side of the sofa, and I spot Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience in one of those. But that’s just a teaser for the main event upstairs, with the first stop in what looks like a linen closet. Packed with books.

Read more: Bitten by the Book Bug: Baritone Brett Polegato

Photo by Richard AnsettSince the 2008/2009 season when his star began its rise, celebrated pianist, author and media personality James Rhodes has released seven chart-topping classical albums, written four books and appeared in and made several television programs for British broadcasting. According to his website, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin offered comfort for the “suffering that dogged his childhood and early adult life.” Classical music offered “solace” and was key to his survival.

Now in his mid-40s, Rhodes’ unfettered passion for classical music is at the core of his approach to concertizing; he communicates directly with audiences, interweaving anecdotes of composers’ lives with his own experiences as they relate to the music being performed. March 5, 2020, in Koerner Hall, the Glenn Gould Foundation is presenting Rhodes’ Canadian debut, in an all-Beethoven recital, as part of the Foundation’s “continuing commitment to celebrating excellence and exploring the indelible impact of the arts on the human condition.”

The following Q & A took place via email in early February.

Read more: “Inhaling Music for All of My Life” - James Rhodes

Gustavo Gimeno. Photo by Marco BorggreveThe Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), made a bold and exciting statement about new music in announcing its 2020/2021 season, the first under new music director Gustavo Gimeno. On their website, maestro Gimeno is quoted as saying, “I believe that orchestral music is at its most exciting when we create contrasts and diversity. We bring together our most cherished musical masterpieces alongside less familiar but equally brilliant works by contemporary composers who are evolving orchestral music for new generations.” Gimeno’s perception that Toronto’s vibrancy and diversity are qualities on which he feels he can build his tenure as TSO music director is reason for Toronto’s music creators to take heart!

Read more: Making Room for the New at Gimeno’s TSO

Sharing a laugh in the rehearsal hall – internationally renowned Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman (left) plays the virtuoso role of the Moon, a gorgeous maternal presence overseeing all, shining her light where the characters need to see, particularly Caroline, played by Jully Black (right). Photo by Dahlia Katz“Change your mind and change your life.” This is what Canada’s beloved “Queen of R&B” Jully Black said to herself when she agreed to make her musical theatre debut as Caroline, the leading role in Caroline or Change for The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre, opening this month.

At first, she told me, she had said “No” to the invitation. “I said no to myself, no to my agent, mostly out of fear and dealing with vocal challenges.” Yet, when she realized in hindsight that those challenges were coming from emotional trauma, she began a deep research process into “the connection between silence and holding things in, between emotions and your vocal chords, between spirituality, neural pathways, and cognitive reflexes,” and came to the courageous decision that taking up this invitation would be – a thought she would repeat several times in our conversation – “a great opportunity to be a living witness and example of ‘change your mind and change your life’.”

Read more: Changed by Caroline: Jully Black
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