Esme Allen-Creighton (left; photo by Christopher Descano) and Anyssa Neumann (right, photo by Corey Hayes)It was a simple invitation on the surface but highly unusual and intriguing at the same time:

Violist Esme Allen-Creighton and pianist Anyssa Neumann invite you to an evening of music and poetry featuring works by Robert Schumann, Dmitri Shostakovich and Paul Hindemith. Poetry will reflect on each musical selection, applying a natural lens to ask “If this song were a forest, what would it be like?” Tickets are $10. All proceeds will go to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The concert will take place in the Heliconian Hall (under their generous sponsorship) on April 25, three days after Earth Day. A series of emails with Allen-Creighton illuminated the commitment behind the unique endeavour and shed light on the duo’s unique views:

“Both Anyssa and I have focused much of our careers on the intersection between music and other art forms.  I’ve produced concerts combining music with poetry, theatre scripts, oral history recordings and original narrative. Anyssa, for her part, has taken a scholarly interest in music and film, and has presented this fall at TIFF on Ingmar Bergman’s use of classical music in film.”  

When the UN’s IPCC report on climate change was released last year, Allen-Creighton says, they began envisioning a collaboration “that would integrate music and poetry to illuminate the perils facing our planet.” Forest Bathing was born as a result.

Allen-Creighton has written poems to introduce each of the seven movements they will perform. The poems, she explains, illustrate the dramatic content of the music which follows: each poem is conceived as a different “forest” – framing the emotional content of the music that follows.

Three movements of Schumann’s Marchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) form the Romantic Forest, a forest of memory, of longing. “It verges on the unreal dreamscape. In the second piece [Schumann’s third movement], stormy, wild sections reflect the turbulence of nature and how it might react to pressure. The final movement explores the fragility of nature.”

The accompanying poem reads:

The forest shivers as I whistle through
Her lonesome chambers
Last grasp sticks harder
Sap and bark grit strong
Woodpecker heart
Throbbing faster

Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, his final composition, inspires the Urban Forest, a dystopian possible future. “Here [Moderato] nature has been ravaged by industry and war. Ghosts and refugees roam bleak landscapes. The centre [Allegretto] satirizes the political system that allowed this catastrophe. A final piece [Adagio] forms a lament.”

Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, written in 1919, is, as Allen-Creighton describes it, “the Forest of Possibility, on the brink. It contrasts our most uplifting experiences in nature with grotesque deterioration. Emotionally it cycles through hope and fear, ultimately landing on resolve and generosity.” (The Hindemith is played with no break between its movements so there will only be one poem to introduce it.)

Raised in Sacramento and based in London UK, American pianist Anyssa Neumann has been praised for the “clarity, charm, and equipoise” of her performances, which span solo and collaborative repertoire from the Baroque to the 21st century. She has released two recordings, with a third scheduled for release in spring 2019. Her solo debut album of works by Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen and Prokofiev was featured on David Dubal’s radio program The Piano Matters.

Praised for her “unbridled lyricism, robust sound and free-flowing legato” violist Esme Allen-Creighton is passionately committed to reaching audiences through interdisciplinary productions. During her four years in Philadelphia with the Serafin Quartet she wrote numerous dramatic scripts interwoven with classical repertoire for series in non-traditional venues such as cafés, bars and comedy clubs. She has published and presented on how to engage audiences through these non-traditional means. Her doctoral thesis for the Université de Montréal explored the idea of interactive, non-traditional concert programming for string quartets.

How did the fledgling duo meet?

“Anyssa and I were introduced in 2014 by my partner at the time who had studied musicology with Anyssa at Oxford. We had both been accepted to the Prussia Cove music festival and thought it might be fun to perform together, however ended up attending at different times.  We struck up a musical/philosophical pen-pal relationship though, admiring each other’s musical work, but also each other’s writing. I used some of Anyssa’s research in my history classes while teaching at the University of Delaware. Anyssa was especially moved by my writing on Schumann in a Schmopera article about giving up a precious instrument on loan to me through a quartet position. Most importantly, we connected through shared political beliefs, advocacy and protest around women’s rights, the environment, poverty and education. We both believe music and art play a vital role in these discussions. We’ve been in touch ever since, but not until this past fall did we manage to organize a concert together. This will be our first duo performance.”

And a world premiere to boot!

Esme Allen-Creighton (viola) and Anyssa Neumann (piano) perform Forest Bathing on April 25 at 7:30pm in Heliconian Hall. All proceeds to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Community-orchestrasEvery year for almost two decades, the surest sign of spring at The WholeNote has been the steady stream of canaries, with early birds starting to arrive at our office just before March break, to latecomers, just under the wire, straggling in just before our mid-April deadline for the May issue. (Somewhere between 140 and 150 of them by the time it’s done.)

These “canaries,” as faithful WholeNote readers know, are not the avian kind, but rather the individual short profiles (120 words or so) submitted by Ontario choirs for inclusion in our annual Canary Pages – the name we give to our annual directory of Ontario choirs.

The directory, now in its 18th year, always appears in print in our May magazine and remains online as a resource, year round, on our website. It’s an extraordinarily eclectic read, because any choir active in our region can join, amateur or professional or a mix of both, auditioned or not, geared to the social or spiritual pleasures of regular meeting to sing, or to the focused pursuit of excellence in public performance. Its main purpose is to talk about the opportunities for singing that exist in our region, at all ages and levels of skill.

For me this directory affirms the way music making contributes to a sense of community and how it affirms the human need (stronger than all the digital isolationism society tempts us with), to come together for the purpose of participating in the making and sharing of live music.

Every spring, without fail, the canaries flock to The WholeNote, and every spring, without fail, as the canaries arrive, someone on our team (usually me) says “One of these years we should try to do the same thing for orchestras, because orchestras fulfil the same role as choirs do.”

And every spring, because by then it’s too late to get organized to do it properly, we say “Yes we should, so maybe next year.”

This year, at that moment, I decide instead to reach out to Katherine Carleton, executive director of Orchestras Canada. The last time we talked must have been even longer ago than I thought, because at that time their offices were on College Street, just west of Bathurst, ten minutes’ walk from The WholeNote office. This time, by contrast, we find ourselves chatting by phone, two area codes apart: Orchestras Canada, she tells me, relocated its headquarters to Peterborough in 2014!

“Was the 2014 move from downtown Toronto to Peterborough a case of Orchestras Canada following you there, or you following it?” I ask. “It followed me,” she says. “One of those cases of family members reaching a time of life where they needed one of us closer to home.”

Katherine Carleton. Photo by Esther VincentCarleton, who has been executive director of Orchestras Canada since 2005, grew up in Peterborough, and made her way to Orchestras Canada via, among other things, a stint as a granting officer in the music section of the Ontario Arts Council in the early 1990s, “a time when there was adequate funding and a strong feeling that the health of orchestras was vital to healthy cultural life. Large or small, they were all of interest to us,” she says.

“So, has the change in location from College and Bathurst to Peterborough also changed your perception of the role of the organization?” I ask. “I mean, is it possible for a national arts service organization to thrive outside of the 18 blocks of downtown Toronto that we all know the world pivots around?” (Her laugh, in response, has at least a couple of my co-workers turning their heads, wondering what I could have said, on the topic of arts service organizations, funny enough to elicit that response.)

“No, and for a couple of reasons,” she says. “First is that the organization, and this includes my predecessors, as well as in my time here, has always thought nationally, which means being equally available to all our members. OC has 130 member orchestras, none in the territories, but member orchestras in every Canadian province. These days we should be able to operate from anywhere where there’s high-speed internet. Is my life as a concertgoer more challenging now, from a mindset of ‘gosh it’s easy to get to Roy Thomson Hall or Jeanne Lamon, or Koerner because it’s on my way home’? Sure. But in terms of OC as an organization, no. As I said, the focus has always been on orchestras nationally, reinforced by a board of directors that is recruited from across the country. Especially for all the conversations we’re engaging in these days, everything we do is carefully curated so we have representation from orchestras of all sizes and types, and from all parts of the country.”

Of Orchestras Canada’s current 130 members, 65 are in Ontario, with 39 of those being outside of the GTA. And of those 39, two, the Peterborough Symphony and the Kawartha Youth Orchestra, are right in Carleton’s back yard. “Does being up close and personal with their particular challenges as smal-town orchestras put a different slant on things?” I ask.

“No, and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “But before I do, I need to out myself, as a performing member of the Peterborough Symphony (clarinet and bass clarinet). ‘When asked to serve, I do so.’ That kind of thing. And I also teach a number of the members of both the Kawartha Youth Orchestra and their Junior Youth Orchestra, privately. So my sense of them is definitely up close and personal. But as for how being here impacts on my slant on things, it really truly doesn’t. As I mentioned, my insights and attitudes go right back to my Arts Council days, at a time when there was a strong feeling that orchestras were vital to community health right across the province, whether small budget or major institutions. And Orchestras Canada has always cared and understood the same thing. These are things I have pursued right through my own life, so it’s hard to separate where the organization stands from where I do in regard to them – whether the organization is responding to me as executive director or where it’s simply that in taking this job I found exactly the right work for me. The Venn diagram in this case is truly a circle.”

“I did some digging into your website before calling you,” I say, “and a couple of things really jumped out at me. One was the information on the site the upcoming OC conference in Ottawa, June 12 to 14, which I’d like to come back to, because the title of the conference dovetails with my main reason for getting in touch. The other is the changes I noticed to the way the member orchestra directory on the OC site is organized.”

The directory in question has gone through some really interesting changes since I last looked at it as carefully as I did while preparing for this interview. It’s deceptively simple: a five-column spreadsheet: name of member; province; membership type; annual revenues; and, last, a column headed simply “Go to Website.”

“I remember, back in the day, that the column called ‘annual revenues’ used to be something way more complex” I say. “As I recall, you used to classify orchestras by type – regional, community, large, middle-sized, small – things like that. And I remember trying to persuade you that you should partner with us on a directory something like the ones we do, where the members submit short profiles about who they are and what they do.”

“Yes” she says, “I remember that, and thinking long and hard about it. But we went a different direction, putting the onus on members to keep their own information up to date on their websites.” As for the change from describing orchestras as ‘community’ or ‘regional’ to grouping them by annual revenues, she explains, the beginning of that shift goes back to project funding they got from the Ontario Arts Council. (“I’m not going to even try to put a year on it,” she says.) The money was given, in the terminology of the day, to study “the situation, interests and needs of smaller budget orchestras” in Ontario. “We started out, perhaps naively in retrospect, calling them community orchestras, and put together a research plan that involved travelling around to five or six parts of the province – and having regional meetings with folks from these orchestras.”

It was an extraordinarily rich series of conversations, she says: What became abundantly clear was that there were more differences among orchestras with “small budgets” (revenues from $0 to $600,000 a year), than there were among orchestras with “large budgets” (revenues from $650,000 to $33 million). “There was every shade of music making in that $0 to $600,000 range” she says, “from orchestras where only the conductor gets an honorarium through to fully professional ensembles with very short seasons, but all fitting within that so-called ‘small budget’ space we had preemptively defined as ‘community orchestras.’”

Orchestras Canada (home page)It became clear, from this exercise, that trying to define the concept of a “community orchestra” based on budget ran the risk of making the designation so amorphous as not to be useful, or else trying to refine it further, to those groups with very little professional participation, with the danger that “community orchestra” would become almost a pejorative term – “taken as symptomatic of volunteer bumbling rather than ‘we are darned proud of being called that’.”

The new way of designating orchestras in the directory, purely by annual revenue, removes a layer of artistic value judgment from the equation.

Viewed in this light, the Orchestras Canada member directory in its current form becomes a much more nuanced resource, amenable to searching and sorting in all kinds of ways; and with orchestras rising to the challenge of keeping their own websites up to date, (something that, from my perusal of the 65 Ontario orchestras in the directory, the vast majority are managing to do) it makes for fascinating reading.

Removal of “community orchestra” as a loaded label from the Orchestras Canada member directory is an improvement there, but the word community itself remains fundamental to what Orchestras Canada is about, as one digs through the resources and information on the website. The word may have ceased to be useful in describing what orchestras are, but that creates, if anything, an even greater responsibility for OC and the constituency it serves to dig even more deeply into what the term “community” is useful for in talking about the always uncertain future of our orchestras. And that’s where the upcoming June 12 to 14 Orchestras Canada conference at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, titled Designing the 21st Century Orchestra: Embedding Canadian Orchestras in Canadian Communities, promises to be rather useful.

The notion of “embedding orchestras in communities” is catchy, but not if it becomes a lazy catch-all. It is ultimately only useful as a starting point for minutely specific exploration of what the two-way chemistry that needs to exist between communities and their orchestras actually consists of. Carleton thrives on this kind of detailed delving, fascinated by what it can uncover.

“I’ll give you an example,” she says. “One of the fascinating conversations we have been involved with lately – quite amazing to me actually – led to becoming aware, among smaller groups with volunteer musicians, of the competition among these orchestras for the finest volunteer musicians. The clear sense from these players is that if the orchestra is not giving them the opportunity to play the repertoire that they want to in a setting that is congenial for their artistic goals and standards, musicians will go orchestra shopping; so when orchestras like that are asking the question What is our definition of the community we serve? the musicians themselves are going to be very high on that list, because if the entire trombone section walks, and we can’t attract trombones, then what do we do?”

“So what are some of the other good questions, like that one, then?” I ask.

“The question of where excellence fits in,” she says, “that’s a good one. Poor old Beethoven, you know. He often comes in for a bit of a beating in conversations like this. A bit ironic, really. We’ll be sitting around a table and someone will sometimes say, ‘Is our purpose to play Beethoven better every time that the group has the honour of engaging with that music?’ And sometimes it may simply be fine to say YES. That is our job, that is our role, that is our goal as an organization. But maybe there are times where it needs to be a ‘Yes, ... and’ as the improvisers say. Or maybe a ‘Yes … until’ as in ‘’Yes, until it becomes so highly prioritized, in some cases, that volunteer musicians are no longer welcome.’”

“And more?” I ask.

“Perhaps most important, because orchestras are complex contraptions, with lots of people with strong opinions, who are the people involved in these conversations about which way forward? What are the differing perspectives that are coming to the table? The musicians, highly trained and with very specific skills: how are they involved? Board and staff. Volunteers? Is there a living conversation at the place?”

A pause … and then, “This is not dull work,” she says.

David Perlman can be reached at

From left to right: Dominic Teresi, bassoon (seated); Elisa Citterio, violin (seated); Thomas Georgi, violin (standing, dark tie); Allen Whear, cello (seated); Marco Cera, oboe (standing); John Abberger, oboe (seated); Julia Wedman, violin (seated); Patricia Ahearn, violin (seated); Cristina Zacharias, violin (standing); Brandon Chui, viola (standing, blue tie); Geneviève Gilardeau, violin (seated); Patrick Jordan, viola (standing, yellow tie); Chris Verrette, violin (seated); Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord (seated). Photo by Cylla von TiedemannIt’s not always a good idea, sitting down for only your second chat with someone, to start off by reminding them of exactly what they told you the first time round, especially if, as in this case, 18 hectic months have elapsed between conversations. But this time it worked out just fine.

“In May 2017, the last time we talked,” I reminded Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik’s music director, “you told me that you were hoping for life here to be, perhaps more busy, but less crazy, than before, and I’d like to come back to that. But you also said something very interesting about repertoire, and this is where I’d like to start. You said ‘We can’t live and die by one hundred years of [Baroque] repertoire. We are strings, two oboes, bassoon and continuo, so there are limits to the core repertoire available, and so it’s important for an orchestra like Tafelmusik to touch different periods, to educate the ear. Period playing can lead to illuminating performances of a much wider range of music – Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi. Period playing can strip away the denseness of the 19th-century sound. You get to listen for different things.”

In May 2017, we had squeezed in a hastily arranged interview in The WholeNote office three months before she officially took the Tafelmusik reins for a first season that was already significantly cut and dried in terms of repertoire. This time we were poring over the details of a 2019/20 season, about to be announced, that will, for better or for worse, be seen as well and truly hers.

“When I took on this role” she said, “I left La Scala Theatre where I had been playing for many, many years, all kinds of repertoire; at at the same time, I was playing a lot of Baroque music with other ensembles. So my whole life has been divided between different repertoire, and in my personal experience I can say absolutely that each piece of the picture connects to another one. I can’t say that playing Brahms and Wagner made coming back to Baroque music easier or more difficult. But I have to say I am curious to see how it would be, in the other direction, if musicians in conservatories were trained from early music forward, instead of the other way around.”

Her own training, she freely admits, was not the way she would like things to be. “Like most musicians,” she says, “I did things in reverse. I was trained to play caprices from the 18th and 19th century, and concertos of the 19th and 20th century, before going back in time to Mozart and eventually Bach. So it was a lot of jumping around and more focused on technical issues than on musical essentials.” It was only when she started Baroque violin, she says, that she started to connect things musically, because of the way Baroque violin practice was inextricably connected to imitation of the human voice – “to pronunciation, to consonants and vowels, to syntax. Musicians playing violins, cornettos, had to try to imitate the voice, so this changes fundamentally the way one approaches technique.”

Going back to these roots, as far back as madrigals, she says, began to influence her modern playing in profound ways, day after day and step by step. It wasn’t a magic formula or shortcut though. Finding her way back to classical and Romantic repertoire took a lot of study all over again. But the changes in her playing were fundamental. “Out of it all,” she says, “what I trusted, what I still trust, is that a Baroque orchestra has a sort of mission; it is unlike modern orchestras approaching Baroque repertoire, where the results might sound nice, but there is still something missing, because they simply don’t have the right instruments. Some things are fundamental to Baroque music that can only be achieved with gut strings and with historical wind instruments based on the voice.”

And just because there’s an argument to be made that a modern orchestra can’t travel back in time, it doesn’t mean that the reverse argument applies. After all, modern orchestras used gut strings right up to the time when, grisly fact, world wars saw the end to a reliable supply of gut strings, with the commodity commandeered for sutures.

“So, Wagner was writing for orchestras using gut strings,” she says. “And at La Scala we played operas at historically accurate pitch … I feel that if Tafelmusik does not take what we do to the limit, the edge of where we can go, not as a novelty, but consistently, with a process to arrive there, it would be a pity. I think we can really give something new for this music. We are not the first, I am not saying that. But we are one of the few. I have played with orchestras around the world and I can say that Tafelmusik can do great and huge work on this kind of music. But step by step.”

Just as finding her way back to classical and Romantic repertoire took a lot of study all over again for Citterio, the coming season’s excursion into the 19th century is not going to be a picnic for the orchestra. “It will be work,” she says, “and we will workshop for it. But Tafelmusik musicians are well informed, so that is a big start. We will concentrate only on the repertoire we are going to play in the coming season, but it is still a lot. For example, the way to shift among positions on the violin alters over the years. In Vivaldi a shift should leave a note as cleanly as possible. In the Romantic repertoire I am trying to connect the voice with a portamento going up and down; also rubato is quite different in the different periods; and the strokes are different; and we have many different kinds of accents that we have to know how to read, because earlier an accent had a different meaning. So this workshop will be really to understand how to work on these technical issues together. And also how to deal with these busy scores, because Tchaikovsky and Brahms wrote a lot on their scores! If you look at a Castello or Fontana score, then at Brahms, the world has changed totally, from nothing to everything.”

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

Citterio is describing methodically what she calls “small steps” the ensemble will be taking to prepare for the “mission” ahead but, from an audience point of view, 2019/20, styled “Old Meets New” in their brochure, looks like more of a giant leap. Old Meets New head on is more like it, starting from the very first concert of the season in which Tafelmusik tackles a string symphony by the teenaged Felix Mendelssohn, as well as the Scherzo from his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, arranged by Citterio’s composer brother, Carlo Citterio, en route to tackling the music of Tchaikovsky (his Serenade for string orchestra) for the very first time.   

Andrew Balfour. Photo credit Camerata-Nova

The program will also feature a world premiere by Canadian composer Andrew Balfour, as the brochure says, “in keeping with our season theme of the new informing the old, and the old informing the new.”

It’s a lot to unpack, starting with the notion of Tafelmusik commissioning no fewer than six new works over the course of a single season, four of them by Canadian composers. (In addition to Balfour, the season will also include premieres from James Rolfe, Guido Morini, Cecilia Livingston, Grégoire Jeay, and Vittorio Ghielmi.

Cecilia Livingston. Photo credit Self-Limited-Photography“It’s just a first example of trying to start the process of realizing my vision of what this orchestra can be,” Citterio says. “I want to support new composers, including strongly believing in including new commissions. We must remember that this ‘new thing’ is actually very old, because one thing about Baroque music is that, for the players and for the audience, it was almost all newly composed – all music was like a premiere. So how else do we get the same feeling today as players? Or as audiences? There are many composers who can write for our instruments with a style that is really compatible, or sometimes with some new influences. I played a lot of great music when I was in Italy, just written for our instruments, sometimes in Baroque style, sometimes in a later style, and the audience just loved it. There’s nothing wrong with someone who wants to write for gut strings because they love the sound! Or for harpsichord. I mean, piano is a wonderful instrument, but we still have the harpsichord as a living instrument, or the viola da gamba ... I played one time this concerto grosso written by an Italian composer, a premiere, and it was written for harpsichord, two violins, viola, gamba and two recorders, and it was amazing; there was an obvious influence from Corelli’s Concerto grosso, but there were other subtle nuances from Romantic or later repertoire. The harpsichord, gamba and recorders all had solos, and the mix was stunning and the audience loved it, because it was written for the voices of the instruments. That was 15 years ago and at that time I thought we must give space to composers.”

So they are trying to choose composers who already have a sense of Tafelmusik’s instruments, or really want to find out. And the process of outreach into the wider music for sources to assist them in finding composers has been a valuable exercise it its own right – Soundstreams, for example, led them to Cecilia Livingston. “Best of all, I am really looking forward it, because it will be a surprise for me too, as a player,” Citterio says. “And that is very Baroque.”

As important as the fact of there being new commissions, will be the contexts in which they will be presented. In the season’s ninth program, for example, Quebec flutist Grégoire Jeay’s new work will be designed to lead directly into Citterio’s own arrangement for orchestra (“I am still working on it!” she says) of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

“But you talked earlier about the power of period playing to cut through the complexity of someone like Tchaikovsky,” I say. So isn’t setting the Goldberg for orchestra the opposite of that – taking something pure and muddying it? I remember, last time we talked you called that kind of thick sound minestrone Wagneriana, and we decided the best English translation was ‘Wagnerian pea soup’?”

She laughs. “Yes I remember. But this is not the same thing. The rearrangement of music from many instruments to few and few to many is a very old idea, and common in Baroque. Bach, for example, arranged violin sonatas for lute and for harpsichord. Or another example, in our fifth program, for example, we are going to hear opera music arranged for eight winds. And all these arrangements, the Bach and the Harmonie, were done at the time, so the idea of the Goldberg orchestral arrangement is not so novel. On our tour out west, an all-Bach program, we included a couple of arrangements of variations and I have in the past already recorded a version of the Goldberg for string quartet and harpsichord. More than that, I would say with Bach the music is beyond the specific instruments. It is just so pure in its harmony and counterpoint.”

That fifth program Citterio is referring to, by the way, is titled “Gone with the Winds,” calling to life a popular form of ensemble in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s day. Hits from the latest operas were arranged for groups of wind musicians called Harmonie who performed in the homes of the rich, and in spas, pubs and pleasure gardens for the public, “the juke box of the 18th century.” Commissioned composer Cecilia Livingston, whose current major project is a full-length opera with TorQ Percussion Quartet and Toronto’s Opera 5 should fit right in!

But Will They Follow?

Baroque arrangement of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky and the interpolation of commissioned new works are about as far forward as Tafel will travel in time. In the 2019/20 season anyway. But the “Old Meets New” season moniker gets a vigorous workout in a host of other ways.

Suba and Trichy Sankaran. Photo by Greg LockeThere is yet another themed program, titled The Indigo Project, from the endlessly inventive and curious mind of Alison Mackay, this time in collaboration with father/daughter duo of Suba and Trichy Sankaran, tracing the significance of the introduction into 17th-century Europe of indigofera tinctoria, the indigo dye that provided both the royal blue of the Bourbon courts and the colour of the cotton fabric worn by the common folk, known as denim. Ancient history with profound contemporary implications.

Other programs dig into the centuries before Baroque in the same way the Mendelssohn/Tchaikovsky program pushes past it. Or introduce us to a composer (Antonio Lotti) whose direct influence on composers like Bach and Handel was evidently as profound as history’s silence where Lotti is concerned … the list goes on.

Engaging as it all promises to be, the jury is out on whether Tafelmusik’s audience will follow where the orchestra under Citterio clearly wants to go. And it’s clear that Tchaikovsky is not the end of the road. Citterio herself agrees that only time will tell. But she knows what she thinks about it: “I truly hope audiences will be happily surprised by it all. I think I am getting to know them better. I understand it will take time. And that some come to Tafelmusik only to hear Baroque music, I know it is only one story, but I like it: It was after we did Mozart’s Symphony No.40, which everyone does, and everyone knows. It’s everywhere. And where probably every audience member expects to hear it a certain way. So we tried to clear the score, to give it a transparency, taking advantage of our instruments, dynamic, articulation, pronunciation even (in German, of course). And one member of the audience who goes to the TSO all the time and likes that kind of style more for this kind of classical and Romantic repertoire came to me and said ‘today I discovered a new Mozart, and I don’t want to stop. I could hear each instrument and detail.’ I was so happy to have feedback like that.”

“So right at the beginning you said you were hoping for ‘busier perhaps, but less crazy,” I say, to bring it full circle. “Crazy busy!” she replies, with a smile. Not crazy the way Italy was, where there are great talents but not, shall we say, well organized as a team. Yes I am busier than I should be, I have a baby but everything is organized, and well organized, so busier is definitely easier.”

David Perlman can be reached at

Norma Beecroft taking a break while working on the tape part for Two Went to Sleep (1967) in the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS). Photo © John ReevesCanadian composer Norma Beecroft (b. 1934) recently released her book, Conversations with Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music, containing an insightful and revealing collection of interviews that explore the history of electronic music around the world. The book, originally published as an e-book, contains transcriptions of her interviews with many of the principal innovators who shaped electronic music from its earliest days. Beecroft, of course, is herself one of the pioneers of electronic music.

Her creative life closely mirrors the appearance and development of what was, in the mid-20th century, the newest musical medium. Given that she was also a prolific broadcaster and a maker of radio documentaries about contemporary composers of her day, it should be no surprise that she decided, in 1977, to embark on this landmark series of interviews with her fellow electronic music pioneers.

The list of the composers included in Beecroft’s book is comprehensive, reading like a who’s who of early electronic music. Among the 23 interviews, prominent names such as Luciano Berio, John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis jump out of the group. Max Matthews, the so-called “father of computer music” is there. And there are important Canadian innovators as well, such as Bill Buxton, Gustav Ciamaga, James Montgomery and Barry Truax. Each interview is framed with a carefully drawn profile of her subject, intricately and accurately placing each into historical context.

The 400-plus-page book also contains an extensive preface, in which Beecroft introduces the overall subject of the relationship between music and technology, which is broadly relevant to her topic. She also details highlights of her own career, creating historical markers in the process, that show her creative work in parallel with her interview subjects. She describes herself as, “the second of five offspring of a father who was an inventor, Julian Beecroft (1907–2007) and one of his main interests was acoustics and sound, which he began investigating when he was very young.” She touches on her early composition lessons with John Weinzweig (1913–2006), interspersed with her other career activities, including her work with CBC Television in the 1950s, a time when TV was the newest of the broadcast media. It was also a period of her life when she travelled extensively, to both the United States and to Europe, meeting numerous composers, conductors and performers in the process. These acquaintances helped her in the development of the many phases of her career: composer, broadcaster and arts administrator (this latter role as co-director – with Robert Aitken –  of Toronto’s New Music Concerts, from 1971 to 1989). And a great many of these colleagues found their way into her collection of interviews.

Beecroft writes: “It was inevitable that I would join those questioning the present and future value of this new technology to music, this fascinating interaction between the fields of science and the humanities. And so, in 1977, I began my investigations into exploring music’s relationship to technology through the voices of some of the world’s foremost creative musical minds.” She concludes her preface with the notion: “It is generally agreed that the field of electronic music began in Paris, France, in the studios of the French Radio, then experiments in this new domain were being conducted at Columbia University in New York, and at the West German Radio in Cologne. Accordingly, I have ordered my collection of interviews in the same manner, beginning in France, and then moving to the United States and Germany, then followed with important work by Luciano Berio (1925–2003) and Bruno Maderna (1920–1973) at the Italian Radio in Milan, and concluding this volume with the interviews in Canada.” At the same time, she notes: “All these activities were mushrooming around the same period of time, in the years immediately following World War II, so the order is essentially inconsequential.”

Beecroft working on the tape part for Two Went to Sleep. Photo © John ReevesBeecroft began organizing her enterprise in 1977, in a series of letters to her intended subjects in Europe. She told me she was confident in positive responses from the composers since she was known to them, and that they trusted her knowledge of the subject. She was by this time acknowledged not only as a composer, but as a highly skilled broadcaster, and she had easy access to all her subjects. She told me that Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001), for example, said: “One thing I like about you is your determination.” Her travels took her first to Cologne, Berlin, Köthen, then Paris, London, and Utrecht. Additional interviews were scheduled in the United States, and back home in her Toronto studio, when possible.

The results of all these interviews were highly rewarding, and revealed great amounts of both historical and personal details. Beecroft’s subjects opened up to her highly focused line of questioning, delving into the recent past, to a time when they were all drawn to the artistic and technical challenges of this new musical medium. In the very first interview, for example, with Pierre Schaeffer (1910–1995), inventor of the concept of musique concrète using recorded sounds, and who founded Le Club d’Essai in 1942 and the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1958 in Paris, it’s immediately clear that Schaeffer’s focus is primarily on research and engineering. He refers to clashes in methodology with Pierre Boulez (1925–2016), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) and Iannis Xenakis, and confesses: “I hate dodecaphonic music, and I often say that the Austrians shot music with 12 bullets, they killed it for a long time.” This was a somewhat surprising revelation for me, but is typical of the sort of candid views Beecroft’s colleagues were willing to share with her.

In the Stockhausen interview, by contrast, we find the other side of the argument. “In Paris I became involved in the musique concrète that was at that time just beginning to develop. Boulez made me listen to a very few, very short studies, and immediately I was interested in trying myself to synthesize sound, and to get away from the treatment of recorded sound.” Stockhausen went on to mention his collaboration with Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts, who had suggested a technique of combining pure sine waves to synthesize timbres: “I have to say that the friendship with this Belgian composer, and the exchange of letters with him, was a very important reason why I made these first experiments, because we were both thinking that it would be a marvellous thing if we could synthesize timbres. The general idea of timbre composition was in the air from texts of Schoenberg.”

Goeyvaerts recalled in his interview: “I never thought that pure sine waves could be heard. And suddenly I found that they existed with an electronic generator, so I wrote to Stockhausen and said, now we can go ahead.” He added: “When Stockhausen made the Study No. 1 and when I made my piece in 1953, I must say we considered at last we could come to a pure structure.” It was also in this year that the term “electronic music” was coined by Dr. Herbert Eimert (1897–1972) at the studio of the Cologne Radio.

Historical turning points such as these appear often throughout Beecroft’s Conversations with Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music. But as important as such details are, the personal notes of the composers are possibly the more interesting aspect. An example is in the interview with American composer Otto Luening (1900–1996), who studied with composer and virtuoso pianist, Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), and was friends with composer Edgard Varèse (1883–1965). Luening said, of Busoni: “The essence of music, the inner core of music was to him still a mystery and he was like Schopenhauer in that, who I believe said somewhere if we knew the mystery and relationships of music, we would know the mystery and relationships of the whole universe.” And of Varèse, Luening said: “We immediately hit it off. Not only did I have great affection for him, and liked him very much personally, but we had this Busoni tie.” He mentioned the various stylistic groups of American composers current and pointed out: “Varèse and I were on this other line, we were really free wheelers, you know, and while we had a very strong aesthetic, it was not organized, there was no movement or anything, and we never wanted one. We used to talk together and so gradually we fell into a group of friends, that were very interesting and all kind of iconoclasts.”

These personal snapshots were entirely a part of Beecroft’s focus and plan for her project. In a letter to Stockhausen after the first edits were finished, she told him: “The publication is not intended to be a scholarly document on technical matters but an insight into the internal world of the composer and sociological forces that helped shape the person.” She projected to him that, “I am sure this modest document will help fill a void when it comes to musical matters in the latter half of this century.” The book is available through the Canadian Music Centre, 20 St. Joseph Street, Toronto, and can also be ordered online. The details can be found here:

Bruce MatherNorma Beecroft continues to compose. Montreal composer-pianist Bruce Mather invited her to create a work for his Carrillo piano, an instrument with 96 notes to the octave, which is to say, it’s tuned in 16ths of tones. Beecroft’s new composition will have its world premiere on March 11 at 7:30 at the Salle de concert of the Conservatoire de musique de Montreal, 4750 avenue Henri-Julien. It’s a work for solo Carrillo piano with digital soundtracks. Beecroft wrote: “Written for my friend and colleague Bruce Mather, this piece posed challenges that I could not resist. Having worked in analogue studios for most of my career, I determined to try my hand at composing using digital software only. The Carrillo piano was another challenge, as the entire piano keyboard consists of only one octave of sound. Training my ears to hear the microtones was a new problem, as was a system of notation for the performer. Herewith – my modest attempt at combining the two elements!” She explains further that the work’s design, “finds its analogy in nature, with the opening and closing of a flower. The one octave is divided in half and opens up slowly to create ever-widening intervals. And the flower slowly ends its fragile existence in a retrograde movement.”

Harry SomersAlso in Montreal in March, a special dramatic concert presentation titled “Between Composers: Correspondence of Norma Beecroft and Harry Somers, 1955–1960” will take place at the Tanna Schulich Hall of McGill University on March 22 at 7:30pm. Composer and McGill music professor Brian Cherney conceived the presentation, and he describes the idea:

“From 1955 until early in 1960, Norma Beecroft and Harry Somers were involved in a romantic relationship. In the fall of 1959, Norma went to Rome to study composition with Goffredo Petrassi. While there, she also studied flute with Severino Gazzelloni, the renowned flutist for whom many composers such as Berio wrote important new works for flute. During the last months of 1959 and early 1960, Somers and Beecroft exchanged nearly 200 letters, providing considerable information about their evolving relationship, what music they were writing, various compositional concerns, and the people they were meeting (in Toronto and in Rome). As well, Norma Beecroft’s letters describe her struggle to gain the confidence to study composition but also to finally reject a permanent ‘domestic’ relationship with Harry Somers, in other words, to devote herself entirely to composition. Thus the letters give us a fairly detailed portrait of that period in Canadian composition (of concert music): their compositional concerns, problems of financial support, thoughts about the state of the arts in Canada, and so on.

“In the concert being presented at McGill University on March 22, I have chosen significant excerpts from these letters and these will be read by two people, interspersed with music by each of the composers, chiefly, the String Quartet No.3 (1959) by Somers, dedicated to Norma Beecroft, and the film Saguenay, for which Somers wrote the music in early 1960 (and described in detail in the letters) and the Amplified String Quartet with Tape by Beecroft, written in the 1990s.”

Norma Beecroft will take part in both these Montreal events.

Returning briefly to the topic of the history of electronic music, I’m happy to announce that on March 8, a 1977 vintage recording by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE) will be released on the Artoffact record label. The CEE is a performing ensemble that I helped to establish in the early 1970s, and which continues to function even now, nearly 50 years later. This vintage re-release is a remastered version of the debut album by the CEE, originally released on an LP on the Music Gallery Editions label. By coincidence, the music contained on the album was all composed and performed at roughly the same period of time as Beecroft was travelling the world recording her interviews. The CEE’s founding quartet of David Grimes, the late Larry Lake, David Jaeger (aka me) and James Montgomery are the performers, together with a guest appearance by the late pianist Karen Kieser. The album is available as both a CD and in digital formats on Bandcamp:

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

Alex Pauk Headshot 2 Bo Huang bannerAlex Pauk. Photo by Bo HuangThere’s a great Alex Pauk story that filmmaker Don McKellar once told me, about the final stages in the production of  McKellar’s 1998 feature film Last Night, for which Pauk and composer Alexina Louie, partners in life and in art, composed the score. (I can’t swear to when McKellar told me the story, except that, evidently, it must have been sometime after 1998.) Whenever it was, it’s had time to ripen with age and retelling, so I will trust all parties concerned to forgive the parts I am no longer getting quite right.

Alex Pauk with Murray Schafer and Robert Aitken. Photo by Malcolm CookThe way I remember it, Pauk and Louie contacted McKellar to say that the score was complete and ready for him to hear, and that an appointment “three sharp” was set for the given date and the appointed place. “Three sharp” was however not necessarily a musical term McKellar was familiar with, back in the day, so when he strolled up, Pauk was already pacing. “You’re late!” was the greeting, in a tone more stressed than McKellar thought the situation warranted.

McKellar wandered in, expecting to find himself with headphones on, listening to a tape or piano reduction or something … “and than they open the door to the room, and there’s a whole symphony orchestra there, waiting to do their thing. It felt for a moment as if I must have died and gone to Hollywood.”

As implausible as that moment in time must have felt, on a larger scale the fact that Esprit, the orchestra in question, is still alive and ticking after 35 years, is almost as implausible; and a story worth telling in its own right.

First New WaveEsprit at 35

In the middle of this significant anniversary year for Canada’s only full-sized orchestra completely devoted to performing and promoting new orchestral works, we could have chosen to approach this story in a few different ways:

There’s the way this season’s four mainstage Koerner Hall concerts (there’s still one to come, on March 24) reflect the philosophy (and formula) that has given the orchestra its remarkable consistency and astonishing staying power. “My programming is something I always take great care with and pride in,” Pauk says. “Making the programs so that they flow, so that it’s not all one thing. I mean if you did all hard-edged European music all the time, it wouldn’t go over well, so there’s an ebb and flow in a concert, variety …”

Or there was the orchestra’s decisive move from the cramped confines of the Jane Mallett Theatre (the stage used to look like an overloaded life raft for some of the larger works they performed there) to Koerner Hall (twice the capacity) in the very first year Koerner opened. “We’re both celebrating our tenth anniversaries there!” Alex Pauk says with a grin. “You could overpower the Jane Mallett fairly easily” I observe. “Your Xenakis certainly did, when was that, in 2006? I think that was actually the start of the renovations there … your knocking every bit of loose plaster off the walls with the sound.” He laughs. “We certainly did. But you know, we, the tenants had a lot of ideas for those renovations, for the hall itself. And what did we get?
A renovated lobby.”

Or there’s the whole subject of what it takes to keep implausible enterprises afloat (a topic on which we agree to indulge in no more than a few seconds of mutual commiseration and admiration, and then move on).

New Wave Reprise

Of all the possible angles to take on the story, sitting in Esprit’s modest offices on Spadina Ave, with Pauk tapping his fingers on the table for emphasis as he talks, Esprit’s April 5 “New Wave Reprise,” a one-off event at Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre, cuts right to the heart of what makes Esprit, and its founding conductor, tick, so we start right there.

Alison Yunfei JiangThe Orchestra’s own description of the event is fairly straightforward. It will start at 7pm with a keynote address by John Rea, and will feature world premieres by emerging Canadian composers (Eugene Astapov, Quinn Jacobs, Bekah Simms, Christina Volpini and Alison Yun-Fei Jiang). Eugene Astapov and Alison Yun-Fei Jiang (for one work) will also be the evening’s guest conductors.

“What’s the size of the ensemble for the event,” I ask. “It’s a much smaller group,” Pauk replies. “Smaller winds, smaller strings, two percussion, harp, piano. So it’s all the orchestral sounds. What’s interesting is that these same composers, by and large, worked with us last year, for a slightly smaller group of instruments, and will, hopefully work with us again next year, at which time an even larger instrument group will be in play. It’s not to treat them as unable to deal with the orchestra. It’s to create a progression and maintain the relationship. It’s something we have done from the beginning with all the generations of composers we have worked with.”

He pauses, rummages for and reads from a piece of paper, a mission statement of some kind. This kind of sums it up,” he says. “‘The intent, from the beginning of Esprit, has always been to identify, engage, nurture, expose, promote and sustain relationships with creative people.’ That’s been it, basically, from the start of  Esprit as a professional organization, of the orchestra, of the kind of outreach we’ve done. But, except perhaps with our musicians, nowhere more importantly than in our relationship to composers and composing. And you do that by repeatedly commissioning composers’ work, and then reprising those commissioned works over the years. I mean if you trace the record over the years – John Rea, Chris Paul Harman, José Evangelista, Denis Gougeon, so many others. You seldom see their names just once. And we reach out constantly to new voices, and then bring them along, which is what this is about.”

John ReaAstonishing as it may seem, Pauk can lay claim to five distinct generations of composers with whom Esprit has maintained this kind of relationship. “Harry Freedman and Harry Somers, along with Murray Schafer, were the senior generation. I was always influenced by those senior composers because they had strong, clear, independent and remarkable voices, and so that’s what I’ve always looked for when I’ve programmed or commissioned.

Then there is my own generation. Alexina [Louie], and John Rea are examples. And then there’s the emerging generation represented by this event. And the next generation of high schoolers that this group of emerging composers will help bring along. Each benefitting from and contributing to the others in a kind of ongoing evolution.”

“So why New Wave Reprise as a title?” I ask (and then almost wish I hadn’t, because the New Wave Festival, launched in 2002 has gone through all kinds of twists and turns over the years). Watching me start to glaze at what begat what and when, Pauk suggests instead that I reach out to Eugene Astapov, who is an alumnus of several of Esprit’s outreach programs, and features as one of the composers (and the main guest conductor) in the April 5 event.

Esprit’s Ontario Resonance mentors’ finale concert, November 2017, at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre. (L to R) Soprano Rebecca Gray; composers Chris Thornborrow, Christina Volpini, & Bekah Simms; Esprit Orchestra conductor Alex Pauk; composer Adam Scime; composer and conductor Eugene Astapov. The mentors pictured worked with students from 6 schools across the GTA on student compositions. The mentors were each commissioned to write a piece of their own, which were premiered that evening. Photo by Kevin LloydAstapov’s own journey with Esprit started over a decade ago when he participated, as a Grade 11 student, in composition workshops the orchestra hosted at Earl Haig Secondary School (site of Claude Watson School of the Arts), and is a case study in the kind of relationship building Pauk was talking about earlier. “I was fascinated to the extent that I decided to pursue it as a career, thanks to the support of a longtime Esprit friend and collaborator Alan Torok – director of the music program at Earl Haig at the time,” Astapov says.

A year later he began studying at the Eastman School of Music, but stayed in touch with Torok who subsequently re-introduced him to Pauk. As it happened, Esprit was engaged in preparations to host their annual New Wave Festival and commissioned Astapov for it. “It turned out to be a 12-minute work for piano and orchestra, only my second orchestral commission after the Vancouver Symphony. Thinking back now, even though the piece may not have been my strongest, I now realize how it fit like a puzzle with the subsequent works I composed and how the early experience with Esprit helped my understanding of the inner workings of a symphony orchestra.”

After graduate studies at Juilliard, Astapov returned to Toronto for further studies at the doctoral level at the very point in time that Pauk and Esprit were reviving their collaboration with Earl Haig – what was eventually to become the educational outreach program known as Creative Sparks. “In 2015 I joined the community outreach team and was invited to return to Earl Haig as the composition instructor helping students compose new pieces for small orchestra, to be played by Esprit in concert at the end of the school year! As part of this project and example to the students at Earl Haig, Alex extended a commission to me to be performed at the Creative Sparks final concert.”

Once again it was a pivotal commission, due to its use of a pre-recorded element – something he had not done before. “The piece was successful and was picked up by the Vancouver Symphony who performed it the following season,” he says.

It’s a continuing relationship at this point with ongoing opportunities for experimentation: music incorporating electronics; a Creative Sparks commission to compose a work for soprano and string orchestra; the opportunity to conduct that work; conducting unleashing a new passion. “It helped me open and alter my compositional mind and ears in ways that I had never realized was possible: deeper understanding of time signatures and tempi, orchestration techniques that help performers learn music quicker … The list goes on.”

April 5 sees the latest installment in the Astapov/Esprit story. And it’s highly likely it won’t be the last. Which is something that wave after wave of other composers, senior, established, and emerging, can attest to.

John Rea, keynote speaker at the event, was the first composer Esprit ever commissioned. His working title for the address, Pauk informs me, is “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea - Composers talking to Composers.”

“In other words, making waves” says Pauk. And he should know.

David Perlman can be reached at

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