Bernard Turgeon (centre) as Louis Riel, in the 1967 premiere of Louis Riel.The opera Louis Riel is maybe one of the most unabashedly ‘Canadian’-branded works to ever hit our classical music scene. But it also sheds light on a systemic, nationwide problem: just how little many Canadians know about our own national history. With Louis Riel coming to the COC next month, there’s an opportunity to change that.

Written in 1967 and revisited this year by the COC, Harry Somers’ Louis Riel draws on so many parts of national(ist) history—especially in light of the sesquicentennial—that it’s only natural for side projects about the meaning behind the work to pop up in the city. The opera’s huge cast of Confederation-era characters and conflicts can make it a difficult one to understand—and like any modern nation, Canada’s history gets complicated and messy pretty quickly, if you look at it closely enough. For many music educators in Toronto, Louis Riel serves as an apt moment for concert-goers to take that complex, closer look.

Réa Beaumont: One of those educators is Dr. Réa Beaumont, a pianist, researcher and writer specializing in Canadian music. Beaumont is teaching a course at the Royal Conservatory later this month as part of its Music Appreciation series, titled “Canadian Composers: Harry Somers' Louis Riel”. It’s the second time this course has run at the RCM, but with the opera starting its run at the COC in just over a month, the timing now is perfect.

“The course will be an in-depth look at the music, characters, and historical events that inspired the opera, and it will feature special guests who were involved in the original 1967 production,” says Beaumont. “The course also includes a free ticket to the Canadian Opera Company’s dress rehearsal, which is a terrific opportunity to see how things work 'behind the scenes.’“

Beaumont adds that the course will also delve deeper into the study of Somers himself, and his place in the history of Canadian music. “A lot of people know the Louis Riel opera and not that much about Harry Somers,” she says. “He was a prolific composer, he studied with John Weinzweig, he was an Order of Canada recipient—and he was a core member of that group of composers that was writing in the 1950s: Pentland, Weinzweig, Coulthard, Archer. They were a force to be reckoned with in Canadian music.

“That generation of mid-twentieth century composers, they really had such a battle to move forward and take music into the twentieth century in Canada. They formed the Canadian Music Centre, and the Canadian League of Composers...Really, they’re the founders of Canadian music as we know it today.”

Ultimately, Beaumont hopes that audiences will be able to listen to this opera in 2017 and take away an interest in Canadian history, and an understanding of how the national tensions Riel and Sir John A. MacDonald faced in the nineteenth century are still at play today.

“I hope also that people are inspired to do their own research into the history and keep an open mind,” she says. “It would a tremendous achievement if people could see the opera and learn about this—for their takeaway to be that Canada has a history that we should all know about and keep discussing, so that we can move forward.”

The course “Canadian Composers: Harry Somers' Louis Riel” runs Thursday nights at the RCM from March 23 to April 13. Beaumont will also be giving a free introductory lecture about the opera on March 20 at 7pm, at the Toronto Reference Library. For details on both of these programs, visit https://learning.rcmusic.ca/music-appreciation and http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/, respectively.

Riel Opera Talk: Another similar initiative is a new podcast out of the University of Toronto, called Riel Opera Talk. Hosted by U of T musicology grad students Sarah Koval and Taryn Jackson, the podcast is a weekly series exploring different facets of the opera, with industry experts, musicians and scholars. Hosted on Soundcloud and via U of T’s Institute for Canadian Music (www.uoftmusicicm.ca), the show rides the rising popularity of podcasts to take an in-depth look at some of Louis Riel’s more complicated aspects, in an online, serial format.

“I have been interested in this opera for a long time, and when I found out that U of T was funding student initiatives for research around Canada's 150 celebrations, I jumped at the chance to learn more about this opera,” says Jackson, whose work at U of T includes teaching a tutorial for a course on the music of North America. “I proposed the podcast as a project, and now here we are.” Koval, whose own research focuses in part on opera, immediately got on board.

So far, they’ve done three episodes (with the most recent released this morning on Wednesday, March 15), covering conversations with Métis scholar Adam Gaudry, as well as members of the cast and crew of the original Louis Riel production from 1967. Next up in their series will be an exploration of Louis Riel’s position within Canadian music history, as well as a discussion around the COC’s take on what Koval and Jackson are calling “Canada’s nationalizing opera”.

“This is one of the few operas on a Canadian historical topic that has received many performances,” Jackson and Koval explain. “We call it ‘nationalizing’ because it contributes to the nationalist agenda of Canadian historical milestones, such as the centennial celebrations of 1967 and the upcoming sesquicentennial celebrations this year—[though] the opera itself neither strikes us as nationalizing or nationalist because it is quite complex and dark, definitely not celebratory. This is one of the things that makes its use in these national events so interesting.”

The podcast, like Beaumont’s course, contributes to an emerging body of local scholarship around Louis Riel—one that promises that when audiences do see the opera next month, they’ll be listening closely.

“We hope [our listeners] get even more excited to see the opera than they already are, and that they embrace the changes to the production that are underway,” say Jackson and Koval. “We hope people listen to our podcast as a way of understanding the challenges this opera posed in 1967 and continues to pose today. Finally, we think this podcast provides a great behind-the-scenes adventure into the making of an opera, especially a work that is not part of the operatic canon.”

The podcast Riel Opera Talk is available online on Soundcloud, via Twitter at @RielOperaTalk, and at www.uoftmusicicm.ca, with new episodes released weekly. For details on the COC production of Louis Riel, visit www.coc.ca.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

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NOW’s panel talk on Monday. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.The Silver Dollar Room on Spadina, set to close this May.The atrium at 192 Spadina is filled to capacity. There are 200 of us, and we’re about to hear a panel talk hosted by NOW Magazine called “Vanishing Venues”, on the slew of recent music venue closures in Toronto. Following their cover story of the same name earlier this month, NOW organized the talk on Monday, March 13, as a community discussion on the future of Toronto’s music venues—and for an event like this, I’ve never seen a space so full.

Maybe so many people turned up because it’s a topic that hits home. Since the beginning of 2017 alone, seven music venues in Toronto (Hugh’s Room, Soybomb, the Hoxton, the Central, the Silver Dollar, Holy Oak and Harlem) have announced their closure—and this week’s announcement from the Hard Rock Cafe now brings that total up to eight. As the NOW article states, it’s a trend that is quickly being labelled as a crisis.

“It is a crisis, absolutely,” said Spencer Sutherland, in Carla Gillis’ original NOW article. Sutherland is owner of Nocturne, chairman of the Queen St. West BIA and member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council, and a member of Monday’s panel. “In London, UK, they declared it a crisis when they found out that 35 venues had closed over a period of eight years. We’re a city one-fifth the size and we’ve had three times that many close.”

The panel on Monday night, hosted by NOW assistant entertainment editor Kevin Ritchie at the Centre for Social Innovation on Spadina, included Sutherland alongside TiKA Simone (musician and founder of #BAREGYAL party series and The Known Unknown), Shaun Bowring (owner of the Garrison, the Baby G and Transmit Presents), Anthony Greenberg (a senior planner at SvN Architects + Planners), and Erin Benjamin, executive director of Music Canada Live.

NOW’s panel talk on Monday. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.Clear from the beginning was a sense of frustration with the city decision-makers, and an awareness of a disconnect between how we like to think of Toronto, and how we have actually managed its growth. Whatever happened to the hype at city hall about making Toronto a ‘Music City’? And what does it mean when all of a city’s music-makers can no longer afford to live and work there? As one panelist said, “music has been one of our greatest cultural exports to the world, and it has been for a long time—and yet we treat it like disposable tissue.”

Some of the stories brought up in the conversation were shocking. According to Sutherland on Monday, there is no licensing class for live music venues in Toronto, with all clubs and concert venues registered under restaurant licenses; noise bylaws put live music in the same category as public noise like loud construction and leaf blowers; and city hall has no official registry of where in the city live music is taking place. It all sets up an infrastructure where it’s easy to delegitimize venue owners and musicians as rightful members of the city economy—and it means that, when conflicts between music venues and other neighbourhood bodies arise, the musicians legally have no legs to stand on.

In other cases, the stories—at least for some—were not so surprising. In conversation, TiKA focused the discussion on the accessibility of the city’s music spaces and decision-making bodies, and the lack of access granted to underprivileged groups—among them women, young people, people from lower-income neighbourhoods, and people of colour. “We’re supposed to be a cultural hub,” she said, “but a lot of the people who are in these spaces are old, tired, unwilling, and afraid of diversity. I’m not surprised by what's happening.”

TiKA pointed out specifics: a lack of education in low-income neighbourhoods on how to access government assistance; an acceptance by the city of gentrification processes that push entire communities out of the downtown core; and a lack of knowledge among the city’s decision-making officials about the current moment in music, and the state of things on the ground floor.

“Toronto is supposed to be known for cultural diversity,” she added. “It should look like that.”

The conversation kept coming back to these questions of access—and indeed, access seems to lie at the root of this problem. How can artists and concertgoers reach city hall, and advocate for what they do in ways that don’t fall on deaf ears? How can music venues access government protection from the types of urban growth that make it difficult to sustain cultural spaces? How can music professionals make the industry a welcoming one for communities that are regularly marginalized and disregarded? And how to do all of that within a system that makes it all so difficult?

As Erin Benjamin said on Monday, “When we [people who are passionate about music in Toronto] really start to dig into the numbers and really tell our story, I think we’ll see things start to change.”

TiKA put it even more succinctly: “We can’t keep doing this dance.”

They’re right. It’s getting harder and harder to afford living in this city as an arts worker, as a young person, or as a member of a marginalized community. It’s also tiring to be told to mobilize and speak up, when many have already been doing that—and when in the face of big business and slow city hall progress, those things don’t seem to be working. As one audience member said on Monday, “it’s about privileged and underprivileged people”—and overwhelmingly, musicians and the people whose work supports them seem to fall on the latter end of that spectrum.

But while the situation may seem dire, Monday night did offer one glimmer of optimism: that people in Toronto, and many different kinds of people at that, are talking about this and getting frustrated. They’re tackling difficult subjects, and trying to find new ways to do this challenging work.

A city like Toronto needs physical meeting-places and cultural workspaces to thrive, and to continue being the type of city where people actually want to live. So perhaps the struggle is not so much about “keeping our venues from disappearing”, but rather, how to make Toronto into the kind of city where many different types of artists—and many different kinds of people, not just the residentially-minded and the rich—feel welcome. Frustrating conversations like this one are just one of the ways to start.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

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For the first time in the history of Centrediscs, the small but significant record label operated by the Canadian Music Centre (CMC), two of its recent recordings have current JUNO nominations in two different categories. Dark Star Requiem by composer Andrew Staniland and poet Jill Battson is nominated in both the Best Classical Recording, Vocal or Choral and in the Best Classical Composition categories. Christos Hatzis’ full-length ballet, Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, is nominated in both the Best Classical Composition and Best Classical Recording, Large Ensemble or Soloist(s) with Large Ensemble Accompaniment. This is a significant milestone for Centrediscs, a label created in 1983 by then CMC Executive Director John Miller. “The idea of Centrediscs was originally proposed by my predecessor, John Peter Lee Roberts,” Miller told me, “but it fell to me to make it work.”

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Miller certainly found ingenious ways to nurture the new recording label. He formed a working group, of which I was a member, to advise on the mechanics and technical aspects of running a label. Harold Redekopp was Head of CBC Radio Music at the time and he and Miller agreed that the Radio Music Department would, up to a practical limit, provide production and technical personnel to make the recordings. And, in return for doing so, CBC music programs would have the right of first broadcast. This arrangement provided Two New Hours, the national network new music program I had created in 1978, additional new productions of recent performances of Canadian music to blend with the concert recordings that were the core of our broadcasts. In those first few years of Centrediscs we recorded soloists and ensembles who specialized in contemporary repertoire, like the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, clarinetist James Campbell, the Purcell String Quartet, violist Rivka Golani and Anton Kubalek. We made LPs of these artists playing the works of CMC Associate Composers, and soon added the first records devoted entirely to the music of a single Canadian composer. These included titles such as Vivier, music of Claude Vivier; RA, with excerpts of Murray Schafer’s night-long ritual; Louis Riel, the opera by Harry Somers, recorded at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC; and Chalumeau, chamber music of Harry Freedman. Many of these were later reissued on CD, and those original LPs are, in fact, now highly valued collectibles.

In 1986, Centrediscs released its first recording on CD, Impact, a production of performances by percussionist Beverley Johnston. In fact, Impact was manufactured in three media: CD, LP and audio cassette. The composers represented on it were Serge Arcuri, Gary Kulesha, Alexina Louie and Jean Piché, and the disc attracted rave reviews. In the Centrediscs catalogue, Impact is described as: “A tour de force of percussion and electroacoustic music, the disc has often been used by stereo component stores to demo new hi-fi lines, because of the high audiophile quality of the recording.” The performances were included more than a few times in Two New Hours programming and, on occasion, Jean Piché’s Steal the Thunder, the lead track in the album, served as the program’s opening theme. In 1989 the CMC decided to submit one of the tracks from Impact to the JUNOs in the recently created category of Best Classical Composition. It earned a nomination but didn’t win the JUNO. – Alexina Louie’s Songs of Paradise on CBC Records did. It was a remarkable statement as to how far the Centrediscs label had come in just a few years.

The JUNO category, Best Classical Composition, introduced in 1987, came about when representatives of classical labels, who formed a separate classical committee within the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), convinced CARAS that the category was needed to more completely represent the spectrum of music in Canada. Deborah MacCallum, hired by Harold Redekopp as manager of CBC Records in 1985, and Norman Miller of CBS Records Canada were the primary voices pushing for the creation of this new category. MacCallum told me that Daisy Falle, president of CARAS, wanted assurance that the category was sustainable. MacCallum needed only to point out the collaboration between Two New Hours and Centrediscs as evidence that the production of contemporary Canadian repertoire had increased and that this had strengthened the storehouse of recordings in this category. Interestingly enough, the very first JUNO for Classical Composition, awarded in 1987, went to the late Malcolm Forsyth, for his orchestral work, Atayoskewin, on CBC Records.

Centrediscs recordings continued to garner nominations in the new classical composition category, year after year. It wasn’t until 1991 that the CMC’s label would actually win a JUNO when Schafer Five, the Orford String Quartet performing five string quartets by Murray Schafer won not one, but two JUNOS: Best Canadian Classical Composition for Schafer’s String Quartet No. 5, and also Best Canadian Chamber Music recording for the set of five Schafer quartets. It was a rewarding way to finally break into the winners’ circle! And in fact, in this case, the recording was independently produced by the CMC, as the collaborative arrangement with CBC Radio Music had by then expired. Nonetheless, it was the same team, but working outside the CBC, of David “Stretch” Quinney and me who delivered the finished master to the CMC.

Another of my independent productions for Centrediscs won the Best Classical Composition JUNO in 2011, and this time it was another Schafer work, his Duo for Violin and Piano, in a recording with Duo Concertante, the husband and wife team of Nancy Dahn, violin, and Timothy Steeves, piano. The recording was produced at Glenn Gould Studio with engineer Dennis Patterson. In fact it was Schafer’s fourth JUNO in the Best Classical Composition category and his fifth overall. Schafer has won the most JUNOS to date in the classical composition category.

Centrediscs’ most recent JUNO came in 2012, when Patterson and I recorded the St. Lawrence String Quartet during their 20th anniversary tour. To celebrate the anniversary, the St. Lawrence commissioned five Canadian composers from different regions of Canada to create five new quartets which constituted their 2012 touring program. The live recording, made at the University of Toronto for broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s Sunday afternoon network classical music program, In Concert, was leased by Centrediscs from the CBC and mastered for CD release. Of the five newly commissioned string quartets, it was Nova Scotia composer Derek Charke’s Sepia Fragments that won the Best Classical Composition JUNO.

2206- Feat - CBC 2 and 3.jpgIn a curious coincidence harkening back to 1987, when CBC’s Deborah MacCallum and CBS’ Norman Miller championed the addition of the Best Classical Composition category, another classical category was also added that year: that of Best Classical Recording, Vocal or Choral. These two additions 30 years ago made it possible for Dark Star Requiem, by composer Andrew Staniland and poet Jill Battson to earn nominations in both those categories in 2017. Commissioned by the Luminato Festival and Tapestry New Opera, it premiered at the Luminato festival in 2010 at Koerner Hall, Toronto. Recording Engineer Steve Sweeney and I recorded Dark Star Requiem for broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s The Signal. The CMC subsequently leased the master from CBC Radio Archives for release on Centrediscs.

Composer Staniland explains the piece as follows: “Jill and I had the very best of circumstances to develop this work: take four incredible singers (Neema Bickersteth, Krisztina Szabó, Peter McGillivray, Marcus Nance), Canada’s foremost chamber ensemble, The Gryphon Trio, the legendary Elmer Iseler Singers, and percussionists Ryan Scott and Mark Duggan. Add a lengthy and meticulous development process spearheaded by Tapestry New Opera, and a premiere that would open Luminato, a world-class international festival. Such a constellation of circumstances is quite special. I am thrilled to be able to share this remarkable live recording through this release on Centrediscs.

Dark Star Requiem is in every way my most ambitious artistic endeavour to date. It is at once intended to be challenging and joyous, complex and beautiful. A sequence of 19 poems charting a short history of HIV/AIDS unfolds over the course of 14 movements. The poems vary stylistically from linked haikus, to ghazals, to praise poems and back to free verse. The musical movements are unified through a haunting melody and driving rhythm derived from the numbers attributed to HIV-1 and HIV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses: 00.061.1.06.009. and 00.061.1.06.010. In musical terms these numbers are interpreted in both melody and rhythm.

“It is difficult, from an artistic point of view, to approach a subject as multifaceted as AIDS with its myriad attendant themes including disinformation, illness, death, infection, sexual and social taboos, colonialism, fear and guilt – and still maintain a message of hope. My and Jill’s hope is that after listening to Dark Star Requiem you will leave inspired to contribute to the fight against AIDS in your own way. AIDS, despite outliving its own media fatigue, has killed over 25 million people. Forty million people worldwide live with the disease today.”

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

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2206-Feat-Inspirational 1.jpgMarc-André Hamelin sometimes thinks that music should have its own semantics. “Deep down I would like the public to be affected by music and respond to music as they would respond to something which has a narrative structure and a message to deliver,” he told me in a February 10, 2017 phone conversation. “And I’ve always said that a performer should be able to express almost any adjective in the dictionary through their playing. Even though it’s kind of a fantasy, it’s a nice goal, a good aspiration.”

We were chatting in advance of Hamelin’s appearance March 23 in a recital presented by Music Toronto. The occasion was a follow-up to my profile of the master pianist that appeared in the December 2015 WholeNote. Hamelin was his usual affable, thoughtful and convivial self. We spoke about his ambitious all-sonata program for the concert – a late Haydn, the first two sonatas by the little-known Russian pianist-composer Samuel Feinberg, Beethoven’s Appassionata, Scriabin’s White Mass and Chopin’s Second which is built around a funeral march.

Hamelin was describing his connection to the Chopin sonata on the program, which he had recorded for Hyperion in 2008, prompting my question about how his relationship with that particular work has evolved over the years. “You know, it’s something that I’ve known literally all my life,” he said. “We’ve talked about this before I’m sure. Because of my dad, listening to these things all the time, recordings were playing all around the house. I think he probably played it a little bit himself although it’s a very difficult piece. It’s been in my ear since I was a boy so I came to it already sort of knowing it. I didn’t have to explore the score to find out about it. I already knew it. Although when I started to play it of course, there were many things that the score revealed to me that had not been apparent to me when I heard the piece through recordings.”

Indeed the importance of his father to Hamelin’s musical aesthetic and his reputation, right from the start, as an ambassador for late 19th and early-20th-century pianist-composers, many of whom had been formerly unfamiliar to a wider audience, was a key component of my earlier article.

“But as far as the evolution [of his relationship to the Chopin sonata], my God, what to tell you, I don’t know. I’ve always considered it one of the towering masterpieces of the repertoire, one which curiously enough I think is open to a variety of views, a variety of different interpretations, a variety of ways of expressing it. But it’s always appeared to me, perhaps even more now, as one of the darkest and most disturbing statements ever written for the piano.”

I asked for an elaboration.

“Well, you know Schumann’s quote saying that Chopin put four of his maddest children under one umbrella and published this sonata. The four movements are – if you consider the [third movement] Funeral March the heart of it – you could perhaps consider the first two movements as sort of working towards the funeral march and the fourth being sort of an illustration, an afterthought or a consequence of it, as much of a dark mood as the third movement but also expressed completely differently with different means.

“It’s very hard to talk about because it’s something that I’ve known for so long that it’s hard to take some steps back,” he said, laughing.

When he plays it, he said, it’s like he’s reciting a poem. A case in point in terms of his aspirational fantasy: “a narrative structure and a message to deliver.”

Our conversation soon turned the topic of the importance of the score in his pianistic approach. (“The score is still my ideal,” he had told me back in the fall of 2015.) This time, we were discussing Samuel Feinberg as pianist. (“Give a listen to his Well-Tempered Clavier,” he said. “It’s the best that’s ever been produced. It was reissued on CD at least three times and I’m sure you can hear all of it on YouTube if you look hard enough.”) I then commented on Feinberg’s playing of the Appassionata, and then asked what Hamelin’s approach was. He paused before saying with a slight sigh that he plays it and he’s probed it but that his main thrust has been to discount and ignore all outside influences including performing tradition and recordings.

“My arbiter, my one guiding spirit is always and will always remain, the score,” Hamelin said. “Because, especially when I tackle repertoire that everyone knows, I want a fresh perspective. And being a composer yourself gets you to appreciate a lot more the letter itself and what the composer directly tries to communicate. And that kind of thing, the act of communication of your intentions as a composer is a very arduous process and you never know if you’re going to be understood or not. And of course you have to worry about your intentions being disregarded as often happens, because sometimes performers think they know better,” he laughed generously. “I’ve been guilty of that a few times myself. But composing really teaches you respect of the score and that’s where I go to first and foremost.”

When I pointed out that sometimes it takes years or generations for composers to be understood he mentioned Feinberg as an example of someone who will never be a household name or really enter the standard repertoire but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t hear him. In fact, Hamelin has a long-term project to remedy the shortage of recordings of Feinberg’s work. “Right now I’m concentrating on the first six sonatas which are a fascinating corpus,” he said. “I’ve already played the first two quite a number of times. And people have actually responded to them with great delight. Which I’m happy to hear.”

Hamelin is playing those sonatas in Toronto in March. I asked when he first discovered the composer’s music. “Oh, I’ve had his scores since the 80s,” he said. “When you’re interested in out-of-the-way repertoire as I’ve always been, his name inevitably comes up. The problem was at the time, indeed for the entire 20th century, scores had been impossible to get in the West, so we just didn’t know what the music looked like. The only two things that were published in the West as far as I’m aware were his Sixth Sonata and a set of preludes. And that was because Universal Edition in Vienna put them out. And I think they’re still available. But he wrote 12 sonatas and a host of other pieces – three piano concerti, a violin sonata and some songs.

“Now it’s almost all available through IMSLP so it’s not a problem,” he said. “But what is also a stumbling block perhaps for anybody who’s taken the trouble to look at the music, is his style itself which is really very complex and very, very chromatic. In a way, in a certain sense, it could be said that he takes his point of departure from Scriabin, but aside from a couple of early works – and the two sonatas that you’ll be hearing me playing fall into that category – you do hear some Scriabin influence. But after that, trust me, he sounds like no one else but Feinberg, because he really developed his own aesthetic.”

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Bringing the conversation back to the Appassionata I pointed out how remarkable it is that Beethoven wrote the Eroica Symphony, the Triple Concerto and the Appassionata all in the same year (1805). And then spent the next two years writing the Razumovsky Quartets and the Fourth Piano Concerto.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Hamelin said. “The creativity. The inspiration just kept coming.”

The 55-year-old Hamelin’s March 23 Jane Mallett concert is his 12th solo recital for Music Toronto going back to 1986, a time when “I was still in my infancy as a musician and of course we’re always evolving. Of course I could only give what I had. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again [he laughed heartily].” He remembers that first recital very clearly. His father was still alive then [He died in November of 1995.] and made the trip from Montreal to hear him. “I think I gave Balakirev’s Islamey as an encore or it might have been part of the program. I’m not sure. Back then I was a different pianist and I played very different things,” he said, laughing again. “It was very possibly one of the first of my concerts in Toronto, if not the actual first.”

I asked about his association with Music Toronto. “Their heart’s in the right place,” he said. “They’ve been wonderfully faithful to me and I’ve never taken this lightly. My God, we’d be silly not to go back to places that welcome us always with open arms. And where audiences seem to trust you and accept you and welcome you as a regular. It’s such a wonderful thing and it’s the best thing for us musicians really.” He finds the Music Toronto audience to be “music lovers through and through.”

I wondered if he has noticed a change in audiences over the years but he said “No, not really.” He continued: “I think the enthusiasm is always there, it’s just that different audiences have different ways of expressing it. I have an interesting story of a piano festival I played in once in Italy, in the town of Brescia. Which is a pretty important piano festival there. Brescia and Bergamo, they’re pretty close together. I played my first half and the applause was generally lukewarm. I go offstage at the end of the first half and the applause was just enough to get me backstage. And then I wasn’t able to come out again to bow so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve blown it somehow. So I sort of played the second half with my tail between my legs, at least psychologically. I was really perplexed and disappointed of course [when the response after the second half was the same], but talking to the people afterwards I found out that contrary to my expectations they really, really enjoyed the recital. They just had a way of expressing it which was anything but overt. Since then I’ve learned to give audiences the benefit of the doubt because of that.”

Hamelin’s Toronto concert opens with the two-movement Haydn Sonata in C Major Hob. XVI:48. He told me that the first movement is in a slow tempo and is one of the many examples Haydn produced of a set of double variations, where two themes are presented and varied alternatively. “Then we have a very jolly, typically roguish kind of rondo for the second movement. Full of wonderful humour.”

After intermission he’ll be playing Scriabin’s Seventh Sonata “White Mass,” a piece he recorded for Hyperion in 1995. He told me that his thinking on the piece – the one Scriabin sonata he plays the most – hasn’t changed since that recording was made. “Perhaps I’m able to express it [his thoughts on the piece] a little bit better because of my ongoing relationship with the instrument but otherwise I’d be very hard put to pinpoint exactly what it is I do differently,” he said. “I do have a recording of my very first performance of it which is back in 1983. It would be interesting to listen to that. I haven’t for quite a while.”

Does he listen to his older recordings very often? “Sometimes. I don’t make a habit of it. Every so often I’m curious. It’s hard to get me to listen to anything that I’ve done but once I’m in – I mean, it’s like me in a pool – it’s hard to go to the pool but once I’m in it’s hard to get me out.”

Characteristically, when I asked whether his approach to the piece takes Scriabin’s voluminous writings into consideration or is it mainly confined to the score, he said: “I think he expresses enough in the music itself that he gives you almost more than you can do at a piano given that some of the expressive indications are so outlandish. You don’t have to read, for example the Poem of Ecstasy or know about what he did later about the Ethereum…. The score again should be more than enough of an inspiration.”

Several days before we spoke, Hamelin performed the world premiere of his Piano Quintet with the Pacifica Quartet in California on February 2. Where did he find the time to compose given his busy schedule?

“Well the piano quintet was a long time in the making. First of all, I had written, back in 2002, a Passacaglia for Piano Quintet that was a commission for the Scotia Festival of Music and it was performed at that time. About a year and a half ago I got this commission from California to expand the work into a full [three-movement] piano quintet using this passacaglia. So it got started in 2002. Meantime back in 2005 I wrote an exposition to the first movement. And all of the rest, the rest of the first movement and the third movement were more recent. So I had plenty of time [laughs]. But also, at the same time that I finished this quintet I was also fulfilling a commission to write the compulsory piece for the next Van Cliburn Competition.”

As well as writing that piece, Hamelin will serve on the Cliburn jury. He added that the competition will be live streamed so people won’t have to travel to Fort Worth. “And get this! This time everybody is playing the piece, not just the semi-finalists or whatnot. So the public and jury and worldwide audiences alike will have ample opportunity to get sick of it.”

“Well, that’s really something to look forward to,” I said.

“To get sick of it?” he laughed.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s like jumping in the pool as you say.”

“At least the piece isn’t too long,” he said. “They asked me for four to six minutes and it ended up being about five. So it’s sort of a quick and painless injection.”

“How many times will we hear that piece of yours?” I asked.

“At least 30,” he answered. “That’s why I’m saying ‘sick of it.’”

A few days after we spoke, Hamelin set off for Lyon where the program is the same as that in Kingston, Cleveland, Toronto and eventually home to Boston, May 5. He was particularly looking forward, he told me, to his concert February 20 and 21 in Munich with the Medtner Second Piano Concerto – along with the Rachmaninoff Third, his next Hyperion release. It was to be his first time with the Bavarian State Orchestra though not his first time with conductor Kirill Petrenko. “I’ve worked with [him] once already at the Chicago Festival and that was very, very nice,” he said. “And he’s of course heading to the Berlin Philharmonic. That’s a very nice connection. Although I have played with the Philharmonic once back in 2011.” Then the BPO had asked him to play the Szymanowski Fourth Symphony “Symphonie Concertante” which was written for Arthur Rubinstein, and unknown to Hamelin at the time.

After Toronto, his grand tour continues with 13 duo-piano concerts he and Leif Ove Andsnes are playing in Europe and the USA. Plans include a recording for Hyperion of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos and The Rite of Spring. But Hamelin’s next recording to be released (in August) is Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus which he performed in Mazzoleni Hall at the 21C Festival in 2014.

His relationship with Andsnes goes back to 2008 when Hamelin was invited to Andsnes’ chamber music festival in Risør, Norway. “We played The Rite of Spring and in many other places, 10 or 12 times total, including at the Berlin Philharmonic in the smaller hall, because he had a residency there.”

As we finished our conversation I asked him about his fondness for record collecting. “Most of it’s in storage,” he said with a hearty laugh. Even so, I asked if he had been adding to it. “Oh sure, I’m always buying things. But one needs less and less and less with advancing age. I still collect for the pleasure of it though. I’m always on the lookout for the rare things.”

You can hear Marc-André Hamelin – that rarest of performers – in his Music Toronto recital on March 23 at the St. Lawrence Centre, or in the same program, four days earlier, on March 19, at The Isabel Bader Centre in Kingston, Ontario.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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2206-Feat- Bravura 1.jpgEminent pianist, writer and pedagogue William Aide is the curator of “Piano Bravura: The New Generation,” a piano series beginning March 9 at the historic Church of the Holy Trinity.

“Last February,” Aide told me via email, “our music director Ian Grundy, Reverend Sherman Hesselgrave and I were on the hunt for a new piano for Holy Trinity, and we had already auditioned several Steinway and Baldwin instruments. All three of us play, but it was up to me to test the resources of prospective instruments with concert repertoire.” Steinway Piano Gallery’s Alex Thomson led them to a private home in Oakville where Aide tested the piano for its tonal range, colours, beauty of sound, pedalling response, and even its rapid repeating-note action, with Mozart, Chopin’s Études and D-flat Nocturne, Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso and a Debussy prelude. “We all three fell in love with it and through a generous anonymous donation were able to acquire it,” he said. “On April 7, 2016, flutist Robert Aitken and I offered the first concert featuring the piano as an accompanying and solo instrument.”

From there it seemed obvious to Aide that a series of piano recitals would display the new instrument’s fine qualities. Aide’s decades of teaching and adjudicating had kept him in touch with “younger pianistic talent” and Piano Bravura was born. He chose the initial three pianists because “I know them and their playing at close quarters.” Aide also told me that he was pleased with the repertoire the three selected for the series. “[Their] choices cover a wide range of styles and feature some unusual items.”  

2206-Feat- Bravura 2.jpgAngela Park: “As adjudicator, I first heard Angela Park play the Schumann concerto in a London festival when she was 14. ‘This is the real thing,’ I thought. We worked together for nine years and I was so gratified to help prepare her masters’ graduating recital in 2003, the year of my retirement from U of T’s Faculty of Music. Angela is a much sought-after chamber music player, as the pianist in Ensemble Made in Canada and duo partner of such artists as cellist Rachel Mercer and violinist Jonathan Crow. Her solo playing is outstandingly expressive and her concerto performances second to none. She occasionally still plays for me and we are good friends.”

Park’s recital March 9 begins with Mozart’s irresistible Sonata K333 before moving to the impressionistic Images: Book II of Debussy and Liszt’s revolutionary Années de Pèlerinage Book I: Suisse. Aide had no part in choosing the content of the recitals but he told me that he did coach Angela in the Debussy Images II set years ago.

2206-Feat- Bravura 3.jpgTony Yike Yang: As a juror, Aide heard Tony Yike Yang in the last National Chopin Competition which was held in Mississauga several years ago. “I remember fondly that he liked my Chopin Berceuse, an item in a recital the jury members offered during that event,” Aide told me. “We sent Tony to the International Chopin Competition in which his laureate playing was so compelling.” Yang was 16 in 2015 when he became the youngest prizewinner (he finished fifth) in the history of the competition. “I have recently reheard his Chopin E Minor Concerto and B-flat Minor Sonata from that competition on YouTube and was astounded once again by his inspired, world-class playing. By the way, in his emails he confers an honourary doctorate upon me.”

Aide asked Yang, now 18, to include that Chopin sonata in his April 2 recital. Mussorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition was Yang’s own choice.

2206-Feat- Bravura 4.jpgSheng Cai: “In 2003, I was musical advisor to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition,” Aide said. “That year the jury chose Sheng Cai to play the Chopin E Minor Concerto. At the reception after his incredibly poetic performance we fell into a lively pianists’ dialogue and we have continued these conversations ever since. Sheng comes over to our house several times a year and brings with him his most recent CD concerto performances. I must be some kind of mentor. At any rate we enjoy swapping CDs and discussing the challenges of forging a career as a concert artist. His exuberance is contagious.”

Cai’s program comprises two Scarlatti sonatas, Mozart’s Sonata K332, Chopin’s addictive Barcarolle and two pieces “one doesn’t often hear,” according to Aide: Schumann’s Humoresque Op.20 and Villa Lobos’ Rodepoema, written for Arthur Rubinstein.  

As for other ideas in the works for additional musical events in the church:

“There was a time, especially under the aegis of CBC producer, Srul Irving Glick, when Holy Trinity was a favoured venue for national broadcasts. Its luminous acoustic and, of course, the new piano suggest future chamber music and voice series as well as a continuation of these superb piano recitals. I know a number of musicians of the next generation who will easily fill the bill. We will keep you posted.”

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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